Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Disrespect in the Classroom

"Professor, I need to speak to you face to face." So said a student this morning as he walked up to me. In Korea all university lecturers are called professor, I think it is based on the American model. For this student, who is often slack with honorifics, it was clearly serious. "I don't appreciate what you did to me yesterday," he continues.

What I did to him yesterday was, I threw water at him. What I did to him was mild in comparison to what I wanted to do to him. I wanted to slap him--very hard--against the head.

This is what unfolded yesterday: Next week is the midterm exam week, so I was discussing with the students when the exam will be. At the university I work at, there isn't a separate exam schedule set up. Instead we just use a time slot during which our regular class hours are. Now for this class the students really ought to get a two hour exam. Unfortunately this semester this class doesn't have a double period, only three single periods over three consecutive days. I recommended that we maybe have the exam in two parts, over two days: a one hour exam on the first day and another hour on the second day. At this suggestion this particular student shouted out: "That's f*cked up!" And to make sure that I and everybody else heard it, he shouted again: "That's f*cked up!" It was then that I through a dollop of water from my water bottle at him.

So when he came to me this morning saying that he did not appreciate what I did to him yesterday I felt little sympathy. "Maybe," replied I, "I should not have thrown water at you. Instead, I think, I should have chased you out of my class for using such foul language and swearing at me."

"I apologise for swearing," he then responded.

"In which case, I apologise for throwing water at you."

He knows I like him because he is an individual, with his own opinions, and doesn't try to fit into the typical Korean mould. That I appreciate individuals in such a group-oriented society probably made him think that he can express himself in any which way, but had I let such behaviour slide, him and the other students may have gotten the impression that any behaviour is acceptable. Shouting "That's f*cked up!" in a university class is definitely not behaviour I will stand for. I don't mind students disagreeing with me, as long as it is well motivated and presented in a civil manner. This particular class is all about motivating ones answers with proof and analytical thought. Clearly he has yet to learn that.

My decision to throw water at him was not an impulsive one, although it may look like it. My first impulse was to give him one against the head. I also, could have chased him out of my class. Or I could have verbally reprimanded him in front of everybody. All of these things would have seriously shamed him in front of his peers and in Korean society shame is cause for terrible humiliation. In the Orient people commit suicide because of shame. So I did something that clearly showed my displeasure and probably did shame him somewhat, but not nearly as much had I did any of the other things that came to mind. Had this not been Korea I would definitely have shouted at him to get out of my class.

During our discussion this morning he suggested that I should have called him to stay after class and discussed it with him then. That would not do at all. He acted disrespectfully to me in front of the whole class; I had to re-assume authority in that moment. Had I ignored his behaviour and only spoken to him in private afterwards, the other students may have thought that I was okay with his behaviour.

In Korean culture, based on Confucian values, the authority of ones parents, ones teacher, and the king are equal. This kid would never have behaved in the same way were I a Korean professor.

In any case, we reconciled and all, is hopefully remedied.


BoerinBallingskap said...

I can relate so much with this posting. I feel the same as you. I'm usually a very tolerant person, but don't stand someone (especially a student) swearing at me. Somehow the F-word and all it's variants have become common language in Korea. I don't know whether it's the influence of American movies etc. or what it is. But apparently Korean parents don't teach Korean kids that it is very rude to swear at somebody. Even elementary school kids use the word with abundance. But at least in my classes they know VERY well that it is not to be used. You can pat yourself on the shoulder that you only threw water at him.
Koreans are very quick to point out which words/greetings etc are considered rude in their culture, but they are sure slow to learn what is rude in other cultures, it seems.

Skryfblok said...

That student would never have used a similar Korean swear word like 씨발 in front of a Korean professor. The double standards is probably what's bothering me the most. And I think, in part, it starts in school already. The foreign teachers are not allowed the same disciplining authority than the Korean teachers, so the children learn that they have to respect the Korean teachers more and can get away with more with the foreign teachers. But I'm sure you can write multiple posts on that!