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19 Nov 2022

A pedagogical meditation – Recently, a student came up after class to ask me a question. This is not unusual; students will often ask me questions after class. What was unusual was the question itself. Usually the questions are about something we discussed in class or an upcoming assignment, but this student asked me how I handled a situation where I disagreed with a student, or when a student was wrong. Students rarely ask me pedagogical questions like this, so I was a bit taken aback at first. I suspect there may have been some motive other than pure curiosity, but I did not ask and instead tried to answer the question as truthfully and succinctly as I could.

“Entertaining opposing viewpoints and ideas in a civil manner creates an environment where students feel comfortable participating in class discussions without fear of being judged.”

I am fairly satisfied with the answer I gave, but it was relatively short, and it was also the first time I had ever tried to verbalize my thoughts on the matter. I’ve been mulling things over since then, and for today’s entry I wanted to give a somewhat expanded and more detailed version of my answer as a way of organizing my thoughts. After all, it never hurts to think about what we hope to do in certain situations and why.

I started by pointing out to this student that he had asked about two different situations: the first being when I disagreed with a student, and the second being when a student was wrong about something. These situations might overlap, but they are not necessarily going to be identical. Put differently: I am generally going to disagree with a student when they are objectively wrong about something, but me disagreeing with a student doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. It is true that I will often have more knowledge and experience than my students, but sometimes my students might see things in a way that I had not considered. I can still disagree with them, but there is always value in considering their viewpoints and having a discussion about why we disagree. I try to explain my position in such a way that the students find my viewpoint persuasive, but at the same time I don’t try to strong-arm them into agreeing with me. Sometimes the discussion ends with both of us still holding the same viewpoints, but hopefully also recognizing the validity of the other’s viewpoint. Entertaining opposing viewpoints and ideas in a civil manner creates an environment where students feel comfortable participating in class discussions without fear of being judged; shutting down opposing viewpoints and ideas is a sure-fire way to suck all the air out of a discussion.

Of course, it helps to start with the knowledge that I am never going to be one hundred percent right about everything—no one is. And just as no one can be sure of being one hundred percent right, so also is no one ever one hundred percent wrong. This leads me to the second part of the student’s question: What do I do when a student is wrong? I took this to mean what do I do when a student is objectively wrong. This can be the result of one of two things (and sometimes even both): insufficient or incorrect knowledge and/or faulty reasoning. That is, the student may not have the information they need to draw the correct conclusion, or they may have the information they need but draw the incorrect conclusion because something has interfered with their reasoning.

In the case of the former, if it is simply a case of the student not having sufficient knowledge, the solution is of course to provide them with the information they lack. If it is a case of incorrect knowledge, though, while the solution may still be fairly obvious (correct the mistaken knowledge), you may have to tread carefully in implementing that solution; if the student has an emotional connection to this incorrect knowledge, they will likely respond negatively to any attempt at correction. For example, a student might be drawing on a personal experience that does not represent the totality of an issue, thus not allowing them to reach the correct conclusion about the issue. In a case like this, I try to understand why the student has developed this knowledge—without embarrassing them—and then correct them in a way that still demonstrates understanding of and respect for their experiences.

The most difficult situations to deal with, though, are those where the student’s mistake lies in faulty reasoning; that is, they had all the information they needed to come to the correct conclusion, but their reasoning process broke down somewhere along the way and led them to the wrong conclusion. A big part of what makes these situations so difficult is that it can sometimes be difficult to determine with certainty that the student is objectively wrong—it may actually be a case of differing opinions. I will admit that there have been situations where I’ve initially assumed that a student’s reasoning was faulty only to discover, upon digging a little deeper, that their logic was in fact sound. In those cases I have had to reevaluate the situation and rethink my approach. But if I am pretty sure that the student has come to a faulty conclusion, I will try to lead them through what I believe is the correct reasoning.

I mentioned above that no one is ever one hundred percent wrong about anything. I think it is important to keep this in mind when a student is wrong. They may end up being objectively wrong, but if they are rational human beings there will be something in their thinking that is worth talking about and highlighting. The simplest example of this I can think of is when I introduce something to the class and then, before explaining it further, ask them to give me their impressions or to try to figure out the point of it. Students will often eventually reach the right conclusion, but it may take a few tries before they get there. So I try to take statements that don’t quite hit the mark and extract the good insights from them in such a way as to hint at the right answer. It’s a little bit like improvisation, actually. When I was in high school, I was briefly a member of the drama club, and we did improv exercises as a way of honing our acting skills. The thing about improv is that you never say “No” to something that a partner proposes, because that stops the process dead in its tracks. Instead, you say “Yes, and...” or “Yes, but....” In the same way, if a student says something off the mark, I might reply, “That’s a very interesting idea” and then propose that we elaborate on a specific aspect of their statement or take things in a slightly different direction but still use the germ of what the student said.

This may all sound like a very complicated and convoluted thought process to go through every time I disagree with a student or think they might be wrong, but the truth is that I’ve never really thought about this concretely or consciously gone through through this process. As I mentioned above, this is mainly why I decided to write today’s entry—so I could put all of this into words for the first time. But the truth is that this all comes down to one simple rule: Remember that the person you are communicating with is, in fact, a person. They have their own experiences, their own ideas, their own hopes, their own fears. Regardless of who they are, and regardless of our relationship, they deserve the basic respect that all human beings deserve; if they are going to respect me as a teacher, I should respect them as students. Sometimes I think this very important and very basic fact gets lost.

After I gave my student the bare-bones version of the above, he thanked me and went his way. He was not the only person who had heard my answer, though. Another student was nearby, and I could tell she was deliberately hanging around to hear what I had to say. After the first student left, she asked me if she could ask a question as well. She began by telling me about something that had happened in one of her other classes. As she put it, her professor “humiliated” another student in front of the class by calling him out for not understanding the reading and talking about him in a very derogatory manner, as if he weren’t sitting right there. I use quotes around “humiliated” here not as scare quotes—that is, to distance myself from the phrasing or indicate that I don’t agree with it—but to emphasize that this was the student’s expression. She was not the humiliated student, but she felt very bad for him and was very upset with the professor.

I could tell that this was partly about the student just needing to get this off her chest, but she had also said that she had a question, so when she was finished I prompted her. She shrugged. “I guess I just want to know if this is normal in Korea.” Like almost all my students this semester (and like the first student), she is a foreign student. This is not the first time I have received such a question from a foreign student. Usually these questions come not from exchange students who are only here for a semester or a year at most, but from long-term students who are doing their undergraduate degrees here. These students usually come to Korea knowing something about the culture and the society, but it is one thing to learn about Korean society and culture and another thing entirely to live in it. There aren’t many foreign professors who have lived in Korea as long as I have (although there are some), and when students take my classes they often see me as someone who might be able to provide some insight into life in Korea. As a result, I sometimes feel like an unofficial counselor for foreign students. I don’t resent the students for seeking me out in this way, of course, and I certainly want to do my best to help them, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the weight of responsibility. There’s a Korean word that perfectly fits what I feel here: budam, which literally translates to “burden.” But as is often the case, the English doesn’t have quite the same nuance—not because the word itself is insufficient, but because of the differences between Western culture and Korean culture. In my experience, this sort of “burden” is a more common aspect of social interactions in Korea than it is in the West.

As a professor, I feel this “burden” most keenly when a student asks a question like the one the second student asked me—that is, a question about something a Korean professor did. I am always very careful in situations like this. I don’t know who the student was talking about—she didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask—but he’s still a colleague, and I’ve only heard the student’s side of what happened. It was also a question that is very difficult to answer diplomatically. If I say that it is normal in Korea, then I am making a blanket condemnation of Korean culture that I genuinely don’t believe. But If I say that it isn’t normal, then I am condemning this unnamed colleague as an aberration. So I did what I usually do when faced with a difficult question: I tried to be both honest and diplomatic at the same time. This student already knows that Korean society is more hierarchical than Western society, so I don’t think I was saying anything surprising when I told her that the teacher-student relationship in Korea tends to be more formal and more unequal than in the West.

That being said, I had a wide variety of experiences with professors when I was in grad school here. I had one professor who was famous for dressing down students he felt had fallen short. But he was also a model of personal and academic integrity, and if you worked hard you could earn his respect. In a class of his that I took as a graduate student, he assigned us each a chapter in the book he was currently writing and asked us to write a criticism of that chapter for our term papers. I took him at his word and wrote a critical paper, pointing out where I disagreed with his analysis and offering my own. When my classmates found out what I had done, they were horrified. “You’re not supposed to do that! You can’t just criticize a professor like that!” I frowned. “But that’s what he asked us to do.” I remember the pity in my classmates’ eyes as they looked at me, the foolish foreign student who still didn’t fully understand Korean culture. “That’s what he said, but he didn’t really mean it.” My frown only grew deeper. I wasn’t the rube they thought I was, and I was pretty confident I had read the situation correctly. In the end I was vindicated—I got an A+ in the class, and was one of the few students to do so. (And, if you’re wondering, he did indeed thank all of us in the acknowledgments when the book came out.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I remember presenting a paper once for another professor, and when I was done he said, “I fell asleep halfway through, so I can’t really give you any meaningful feedback.” In retrospect, it’s a miracle my jaw didn’t break when it hit the desk. I couldn’t believe that he would say something like that. Later I realized that he actually fell asleep in class not infrequently (he was on the verge of retiring, but somehow he seemed even older than that), and he was just being honest. But the fact that he had absolutely zero shame about falling asleep while students were presenting papers is a pretty good indicator of how he perceived the teacher-student relationship.

I didn’t share all of this in great detail with that second student, only mentioning that I had experienced a wide variety of professors, and that although there were certainly underlying cultural assumptions at play, individual personalities and experiences were also very important. I offered that perhaps her professor was used to dealing with students in a certain way, and that he felt this was the most effective way of getting his point across. I tried to walk the fine line of listening to and respecting what the student was saying while at the same time not passing judgment on a colleague without sufficient knowledge of the situation. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I’m not going to pretend I was perfectly comfortable trying to pull it off. I left her with one final piece of advice that I thought was important: She should try to communicate her concerns directly to the professor. Students are often reluctant to do this, but I know that I would rather have a student bring a problem to me directly than stew about it and perhaps go to someone else to complain. She did say that she has been expressing herself in class, and that she thinks they now understand each other better, so that’s good.

And that’s my meditation for the day. Understanding how to effectively navigate human interactions is a long and difficult journey, and I would say that I am somewhere along the way between the first step and the last. If nothing else, today’s entry has at least helped me look back over some of the steps I’ve taken and the road I’ve traveled.

Send me your thoughts.

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