Invitation

Bringing the reader to the author, bringing the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and of betraying two masters: this is to practice what I like to call linguistic hospitality. (Paul Riceour, On Translation)

In walks a new customer, a foreigner, and he looks like a teacher, with a laptop bag full of papers and his hair combed unironically over. I take my time in positioning myself behind the register—straightening out condiments, scribbling on a notepad—so he’ll have time to parse the menu. I should put an English version up one of these days. It would look more inviting, no?

Caramel macchiato, he announces. Odd, the sound of our phonemes in his mouth.

“Hot?” I ask, summoning the word from somewhere.

Hot, he confirms in my language.

I tell him the price, reiterating it with four extended fingers, but he has already extended his card. It’s from a local bank. Maybe he’s been through this before. I give him two sticks of sugar, just in case.

Vengeful Spirals

Even though you’re not supposed to do so when the A/C is running, I’ve cracked open the window here at Coffee Bay because I have a secret affinity for the K-pop that drifts in from the car wash, the way it mocks the eclectic playlist of British rock that this barista has spent at least a year trimming and perfecting. Just now I discovered that a bee had found its way inside, and I knew that it the responsibility fell to me to get rid of the insect before it antagonized any other customers, so I used my paper water cup to trap it against the glass. My plan was then to gently guide it towards the opening and freedom, but as soon as I captured the bee, I felt the cup buzz with the frantic electricity of a drone bee whose stinger is fully capacitated. It’d be precarious, now, to try to let it out, so I slid a piece of paper between the cup and the glass and set the confined bee down here on my table, where it sits now. Will his hormonal rage subside if I simply let him be? Or will a bee, once aggressed, deploy its dose at all costs? I will now find out; it’s been three minutes and the cup seems quiet.

When I decanted the cup out the window, nothing fell out, and I peered reluctantly in to discovered that the bee’s wings had adhered together. It turned out there was a little water left in the cup, which the bee must have run into while rehearsing its close-range maneuvers. I had to really tap hard to get the guy to fall out, and once it did, a panic jolted its wings again into motion. I swiftly closed the window and watched it tear away in vengeful spirals.

Maybe it wasn’t even a bee. Maybe it was just a very muscular fly. I guess that can happen. I wouldn’t know unless it stung me.

In my journal this story is preceded by thoughts on the difference between character and “character,” but I always liked the unexplained parables better.

Using Data to Understand ELL Students

In August, I surveyed my students about their motivation for learning English, their opinions about our class and my teaching style, and what resources they were using to study English outside of class. By analyzing the results using some of the statistical tools I’ve taught myself this year, I came up with some effective strategies for reaching the disengaged students in my classroom.

At the moment this post goes up, I’ll be giving a presentation about that project at Fulbright Korea’s fall conference in Gyeongju. Here’s a digital version of the talk:

And here’s a detailed write-up of my survey design and results.

Budget Update

I wrote thirty snail-years ago about my budget strategy, which is to pay myself a weekly allowance that I track using a spreadsheet. I input my bank balance every two weeks, and the spreadsheet does the rest.

All I pay attention to is this graph, which shows the balance of that virtual allowance account. If I spend exactly my allowance and nothing more, it stays flat. In general, it has roughly the same number of negative and positive points, which is our goal.

I’ve made only a few changes to the system since I last wrote about it:

  1. I upped the allowance by twenty percent since I’m cooking for myself and paying my own utilities instead of living with a homestay family.
  2. Instead of updating the spreadsheet on the 9th and 24th of each month, I’m doing it every other Tuesday, which makes it easier to remember and mitigates interference from my tendency to spend more money on the weekend and less on weekdays.
  3. If I discover that I’m significantly ahead of budget on a check-in day, I go ahead and zero out my allowance account (actually, I usually make it slightly negative) to discourage myself from impulse buys. Later on, if I decide to make a major purchase, I can then discount it against those corrections. If I didn’t do this, the graph wouldn’t be very illustrative on the week-to-week level. You’d just see it go up and up and up, then tank every six months when I take a vacation.

This method of budgeting works pretty well for how little effort it requires. On the worst day, April 23, I was down ₩96,974, or about $80. not bad!

Docile

Every time I think I’m starting to get good at teaching, the students evolve new defenses against learning. Lately a troublesome crew has discovered that, if they up and run out of the classroom and flee in separate directions, I will not pursue them. Instead, I carry on with class and write a note to their homeroom teacher detailing the incident. She assigns them penalty points or makes them write me a letter of apology. Little changes.

But I have a soft spot for contrarians. A few weeks ago, I stole a lesson about ethical dilemmas from one of my college writing professors. I started by making the students debate about the trolley problem (should you divert a train so that it kills one worker instead of five?), and then have them pick sides on increasingly perverse permutations of it, such as the famous “fat man” dilemma in which the way you can save the five is by pushing a fat man off a bridge. Usually there are three or four students in every class who say yes to all—that is, they choose the most mathy, utilitarian option, even if it requires doing something intentionally cruel. These students come up to the front of class to be crowned the kings and queens of utilitarianism. After we watch a short video explaining utilitarian philosophy, I hit this devout group with the hardest dilemma of all: The transplant problem, in which a surgeon has five patients who each need a different organ transplant.

Should the surgeon kill a healthy, young traveler to save them? Since the math is the same, a true utilitarian, given no other information, should say yes, but so far I’ve only found one student who didn’t buckle under the pressure of his moral instincts. Interestingly, that student is one of the most docile kids we have. Perhaps it’s his desire to avoid conflict that draws him to the idea of an objective, universal moral calculus. But coolheaded rationalists always creep people out, and this class’s lone wolf was no exception. After the bell, a couple of baffled peers carried on arguing with the utilitarian-in-chief as he approached the smartboard, gestured at my stock images of hospital pateients, and scrawled Xs and Os over their nonplussed expressions. He won no converts.