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.

Question

  • I was here at this time last year; how did I miss those electric crape myrtle blossoms?

I Coded

From my desk to yours, a pair of birdbrained Python projects.

Steve and Dave: A Python Doodle

Let Steve and Dave be two souls who occupy the same body. This means that they receive identical sensory input, represented here by the function environment. We want to study how Steve and Dave’s emotional philosophies help or hurt them in coping with their environment’s ups and downs.

English Conversation Questions Generated by AI

I am the world’s first artificially intelligent Fulbright grantee.

Others in our cohort applied to be English teaching assistants in Korea because they sought challenge, adventure, and human connection. In their applications they gushed about their interest in global cultures, their enthusiasm for language learning, and their desire to do good for others. They believed their intelligence, progressive politics, and moral certitude made them strong candidates.

But I was the perfect candidate, because I am a robot.

Simple Equations

Last week, our school took the second graders on a three-day trip to Seoul and back. We did the standard route with a few twists: Namsan Tower (fig. 1), Changdeokgung Palace (this is an “ATM machine” kind of title, by the way), a full day at the Lotte World amusement park, a play, and visits to a few science museums on the return trip.

I’m being somewhat vague for the sake of our students’ safety, since the school takes a similar trip every year. I’m always surprised by Korean notions of safety and personal privacy. Many people who wish to show off their sensitivity to cultural differences will voice simple equations like, “Americans value privacy, whereas Koreans value sharing.” To be sure, there are areas where that’s true: For example, before we could depart on our trip, we had to call a police officer and have him breathalyze both bus drivers; this is a standard safety precaution in Korea, but I can imagine many Americans taking umbrage. (As far as I can tell, only New York has considered a similar policy.)

On the other hand, Koreans in general are much more protective than Americans when it comes to sharing photographs. It’s very common, when posting photos to Korean social media, to blur out (or stick a cute animal on top of) the faces of your friends, since you don’t have their consent to post it. Even my students, after we went on a roller coaster together, asked my permission before sending my photo to their homeroom teacher. And when we ended up picnicking alongside a group of elementary schoolers at one of the museums, our school’s homeroom teachers reminded the students to angle their photos so that no kids would appear in them.

A slightly less clear-cut example occurred when it came time to search the students’ bags. We had all the students leave their bags in the hotel lobby and line up outside as the student council checked for contraband. The reasoning was that it would be an invasion of students’ privacy for teachers to do the bag searches themselves—a moot point, because if anything suspect turned up, the first question the teachers asked was, “What bag is that?” Still, letting students serve as their own auditors strikes me as a significant trade of safety for privacy.

As the foreign teacher, it felt truly special to be invited to join in this trip, since the supervisory duties are technically beyond my qualifications. But most of the places we visited had several staff on standby to welcome our group; they took care of all the wrangling, leaving us teachers to grab coffee and gossip. That made this trip a welcome chance to get to know my coteachers in a relaxed atmosphere. Many of them have taken circuitous routes into teaching, and hearing how they settled on middle-school boys as their target demographic reminded me that despite how exhausting it is to deal with shouting students, other groups present other problems. And now that most of the faculty know that I’ve applied to extend my grant for another year, I’ve sensed a greater willingness let me assist with student discipline and help me understand the layout of our school’s bureaucratic plumbing.

On the bus, I got to talk at length with my vice principal, who just started at our school this semester. A former English teacher himself, he had lots of questions I couldn’t answer about the American school system and differences in cultural attitudes toward education and work. Probably the most useful sentence I have in such cases is, “America is very regionally diverse,” which is really a euphemism for, “I honestly have no idea what it’s like in red states.” We found common ground in our love of Yuval Noah Harari, whose 21 Lessons for the 21st Century my vice principal was reading in translation. “People get so hypnotized by technology,” says my VP, “but I have some doubts. It’s important to learn to be patient.”

I told him my hobby nowadays is sitting at the park and counting frog croaks. He seemed impressed.

Initiative

I accidentally swore in front of my class yesterday. I intended to say 종이 똑같다, but I got the consonants shuffled around, and the students went wild. I was doing this thing I do where I keep a score for myself in addition to for their teams (awarding myself outrageous bonuses if, for example, no student gets a correct answer), so I went ahead and recorded a −20 in my column, which placated them.

I did something else new: Often, when a student is struggling with a problem, a smart one will try to “help” them by just translating the whole thing or telling them the answer straightaway. But yesterday, I saw one of my students taking great patience and care in assisting another, guiding him with strategic hints but never revealing the full solution—thinking, in other words, like a teacher. I used our school messaging app to write a memo to his homeroom teacher, letting her know it was cool to see his initiative, and she thanked me for noticing.

While there’s only so much I can do overnight to correct my awkward mannerisms and sheepish demeanor around the office (I am the least experienced!), written communication seems like a good way to maintain a sense of connection with the faculty and compensate for my frequent mistakes.

This level of investment.

Although I still play things rather selfishly about my office hours and study time, and although I often advise overworked friends to cultivate a sense of detachment from their work, I notice myself caring more and more about this job. Every time my patience is worn thin by a tough class and I start to acquiesce to the thought that teaching must just not be for people like me, something beautiful happens, my heart melts a little, and I get excited for the next day again.

  • Concept: What am I hesitating about, if I already know I’m happy?
  • Concept: What if (as Pete Buttigieg likes to say) this is a local minimum?
  • Concept: It’s too early to tell.

Yes, I Get the Irony

Wednesday

My brilliant idea of the day is a paper airplane contest, slated for eighth period today, in which the students learn some vaguely useful vocab about cutting and folding, make a bunch of airplanes, and then compete for distance and flight time.

Why? Because I accidentally printed sixty copies of Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life.

I intended to read this work of urban geography on the recommendation of one of the Fulbright research scholars who presented at our spring conference a few weeks back. Her suspicion of the traditional critical approach—interrogation, diagnosis, contextualization; the text as adversary—sat nicely with my feelings about how things tend to analogize things,™ and in an email she suggested I check out this Lefebvre guy, so I found a PDF of his book online, hit print, and left the office for an hour to go teach.

What I’m saying is, the print wizard was still set to sixty, the number of handouts I normally make for my students.

I returned to the office to find our vice principal gesturing at the overheating printer. He’d already had to put in one fresh stack of paper. Now 800 pages were piled up in the output tray, and he wanted to know how long this darn document is, we’re running low on toner.

취소취소취소.

I can’t print again on the other side of the paper, because all 800 pages were double-sided. So, paper airplanes it is.

Friday

The most mindless of my class ideas tend to go the best. Flying paper planes in the parking lot, we drew an audience of kids from the high school next door’s PE class, the ones who’d been eliminated early in whatever sports bracket they were doing. The science teacher brought her class outside too, apparently just to have a chat in the sunshine, and it occured to me that this was the first evidence anyone other than my students and coteacher had seen of my teaching activities. Is a paper airplane class admissible?

The winner, in both the distance and flight time contests, succeeded by crumpling his paper into a very dense sphere and throwing as hard as he could.

I Made Something

I believe, as I heard a mother say on This American Life this week, in doing the things you are capable of, so I’ve created a digital essay about how we teach information. Click this thing to see it:

How do we learn what’s true?

Let me now use this space to write a bit about the essay’s motivation.

Liberalism maintains that once we collect enough data, we will arrive at the correct models. But the increasing importance of narratives—and the consequent decrease in the importance in their underlying facts—has thrown this epistemology into doubt. Much contemporary writing seeks to recover a sense of reality from the soup of competing truths that defines postmodernity. Seeking to disclaim bias and reassert the regime of factuality, writers of all ideologies have begun to speak of argument as the act of staking out territory in an information war, proving that postmodernism is here to stay. As a crude example, here I’ve concatenated a paragraph from a right-wing conspiracy site with an opening passage from a mainstream liberal essayist:

The manipulation of facts and the slow relentless war on reality is being waged on this landscape of the mind. When those who seek to control humanity can convince the world that what they say is true, we will rapidly descend into the most oppressive tyranny ever seen.

Most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair; but who said history was fair?

(Solution: The first paragraph is from InfoWars. The second is from the introduction to Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.)

Media-literate readers can tell the authors’ ideologies apart by the change in shibboleths: the right’s prophecies of battle, chaos, and Armageddon become the left’s boring sympathy for unpaid domestic labor. But both agree on one thing: that only a dark era of epistemological chaos can follow the sunset of objectivity. Whether they tell the leftist story of identity- and class-based oppression or preach brass-tacks Evangelical nationalism, modern ideologies claim veracity by positioning themselves as rocks of intellectual certainty amid a tumult of postmodern confabulation. It’s not the correct ideology that wins the most followers, but the one with highest degree of narrative fluency—the one that knows who to talk to and what tone to take.

I wanted to do something about it.

Things You Can’t Teach Yourself

Remember that moment a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, everyone was listening to podcasts?

Podcasts weren’t a new technology; there was no PR campaign. Rather, it seems like they benefited from a lucky coincidence of forces: The election of a contentious president made everyone care about the news. The release of the Apple Podcasts app put an easy subscription tool in everyone’s pocket (I don’t miss middle school, when I subscribed to all the tech podcasts via RSS feed and painstakingly downloaded a fresh batch of .mp3s each week). Serial happened. Nowadays, all you have to do is say Quip electric toothbrush in a crowded urban space to hear a concert of groans.

I bet that online courses will be the new podcasts.

My evidence? My mom is now taking online courses, and it was around the time Mom started listening to podcasts that everyone else did.

I, too, am taking online courses. Something I’ve observed is that open-access, labor-of-love sites tend to surpass paid MOOCs. Paul’s Online Math Notes, for example, is more legible and better paced than any of the other online calc courses. I’m in differential equations now, and the only reason I’ve paid to enroll in an online class is to issue myself quizzes; Paul doesn’t have any diff EQ practice problems yet. Likewise, I did a course on data analysis using Python, and its best part was the link to An Introduction to Statistical Learning, a free machine-learning textbook that doesn’t shy away from the algebra that Python packages are designed to help you shy away from. I’ve also been working on HTML and CSS (W3Schools) because I’m the web editor for Fulbright’s Infusion litmag, which is working on its first issue of the grant year. (This blog might also be due for a facelift … )

A second observation: STEMmy things like math and coding are easy to learn online, but the resources are more paltry if you want to work on the humanities or social sciences. Ironically, this might be due to humanists’ high aesthetic standards. People who know Python usually know how to write HTML, too, so they start by tossing their notes online, then beautify them in stages. On the other hand, lettered-arts nerds love the feeling of beautiful typography and layout, but they lack the skills and confidence to code it themselves, so they rely on expensive print journals and paywalled websites to host their research—and then wonder why people call the humanities out of touch.

There’s this thing called the digital humanities, which in theory is about getting academics to design websites and compile online databases. But the movement falls short by yielding to humanists’ anxieties about code. Rather than take actual web-design courses, typical grad programs encourage students to attend one-shot DH workshops, where they learn WYSIWYG tools like Scalar (sorry, alma mater) and Wix. These are great ways to get your feet wet and explore the possibilities of web design, of course, but truly lit projects in DH usually combine solid underlying research with attentive, material-aware design well beyond Squarespace’s capabilities. A favorite is the Slave Voyages Database, although I must admit I preferred its web-1.0 look to last month’s AirSpace-informed redesign.

Another mistake of the DH movement is to reduce to the web to a content-delivery system—and miss its potential as a medium unto itself: I won’t @ any individuals here, but while uploading PDFs of your journal articles to Scribd or Academia.edu is better than nothing, it probably doesn’t count as digital humanities.

Lingua Franca

I’m back from Ulsan, where I spent my days studying at this spaceship of a public library:

In cultivating a resolution to learn Korean, I notice I’ve contracted an anxiety about being that American, the one who crosses the ocean only to socialize with other foreigners. The anxiety had me shun expat restaurants, abstain from the English section of the library, and direct my gaze sternly forward when passing tourists in the street.

I was overdoing it.

In Ulsan, I discovered an Indian halal restaurant hiding around the corner from my guesthouse. Intercultural metaphors abounded: the trilingual menu introduced samosas as deep-fried mandu; on the wall hung a pointillist treatment of Korea’s iconic autumn ginkgos. I asked the server if I should order in Korean or English or what. Korean, please, he said, and we chatted a little about how business was doing.

Lingua franca: an expression in Latin, meaning French, used most often to refer to English.

I originally studied Korean so I could communicate with, you know, Koreans. But I cherish the shared dysphasia that arises when speaking Korean as a bridge language. Each knows the other’s effort, knows that the conversation can only take place because we chose to make it possible.

Shoring Up Certainty

“I am thinking about the word overbearing.

My computer’s desktop is an early-winter landscape, decaying .txt files strewn all over. As I sift through the leaves, I notice I often use this hedging device: when a particular behavior or phenomenon is upsetting me, rather than say outright that I am upset by that thing, I say that I’m ruminating on the meaning of the word that describes it.

It’s not the worst habit to have. I’d like to be the sort of reflective person who, before rushing to label someone as nosy or overbearing or whatever, thinks about the true meaning of those words and their appropriateness for the context.

But quibbling over definitions is also a way of privileging theory over practice. It lets me shore up certainty in the literal accuracy of my statements by baking uncertainty into their phrasing. You probably have met someone who talks like this: “I’m not sure if annoyed is quite the right word, but I feel a kind of … annoyance about the way he—”

Sometimes epistemological honesty comes at the cost of obnoxious phrasing.

My school’s break started at the beginning of January and will run until the end of February, with a few odd work days in the middle. By the time this post goes up, I’ll be several days into a three-week stay in Ulsan, where I’ll continue holing myself up to work on writing and calculus.

I woke up in a cold sweat recently, having dreamed I was a interviewing for some generic marketing job when the manager asked, “I see you taught English in Korea for two years—care to tell me some about the measurable outcomes of that work?”

The next morning, I signed into LinkedIn and aggressively added new connections to abate my fears of never ever being hired. (The fears have remained at bay for several days—is that a measurable outcome?) Far be it from me to fish for pity, but there’s something singularly hard to itemize about the ways I am growing, the things I am learning here. To choose a concrete example, it’s not that hard for me to identify progress in the math I’ve been studying—I can point quite easily at the problems I can solve now that I couldn’t in September. But I don’t know how to go about “measuring” these outcomes in a way that would satisfy my nightmare interviewer. Ditto with Korean, although at least there’s a formal certification test there (the TOPIK) that I’ll take in a few months.

I’m not writing out of a sense of futility here. I truly want to know: How can self-educated people demonstrate proficiency in fields where there aren’t certification exams or technical interviews? Do people who work in hiring intentionally seek these people, or is it more cost-effective simply to pursue candidates with traditional credentials? Email me your thoughts.

Indirection

So Max, in English, virgin means an unmarried woman, right? asks my coteacher.

Sure. It means she's, you know, pure.

Unmarried.

Well, I say, it's a little more specific than that.

Our office Catholic joins in: It means she's clean.

Right.

And free of sin. Well-mannered.

… Let's go with that.