Even North Korean Students Hate Office Hours

Way back in this post, I discussed my summer reading plans. I have, surprisingly, read three books so far this summer break, including Five Days at Memorial, which was a great read, but chilling and painful at the same time. It is meticulously researched and engrossing to read, I highly recommend it. I also started Percy’s Demon Camp, but I found the narrative style and general story just not to my liking, so I just let it go. That’s the benefit of reading for fun–if it doesn’t suit me, I don’t have to keep reading it! I also picked up a recent book about the Kitty Genovese murder, which was fascinating. The book really challenges commonly held notions about the crime, the victim herself, and the cultural conversation that cropped up afterward.

But the book that is sticking with me right now is Suki Kim’s memoir, Without You, There is No Us, about her time teaching in North Korea as part of a (secret) Christian missionary team. Kim herself is not a Christian missionary, secret or otherwise, but she went undercover as one to have the opportunity to teach English speaking and writing to the “sons of North Korea’s elite,” as the book’s subtitle describes them. The book is remarkable–her prose is engaging and the narrative she tells is complex, weaving in her own personal heartache with the isolation of living in North Korea and the challenges of teaching and loving students who can never be intellectually (or politically) free.

While Kim herself does not identify as a teacher by trade, there were a few moments in the classroom that stood out to me, and reflected interesting ideas about pedagogy and student engagement. Above all else, it seems to me that college students–even those in the repressive and lonely country of North Korea–are similar the world over.

Kim mentions that it was difficult to get students to see her during office hours. After several lonely hours with no students, the teachers made office hours mandatory. Then the students began to show up! This is truly, at least for me and many of my colleagues, a constant struggle. It’s easy enough, especially in a writing intensive course, to require students to come to conference with you, but in many cases, professors actually cancel class meetings in order to facilitate such a conference schedule. The drop in, or even the appointment meeting, are rare birds in these hallways.

Since I teach at a commuter campus, it doesn’t surprise me that students feel like they have better things to do than hang around campus when they aren’t in class. But, I went to a commuter campus for undergrad, and I made great use of office hours. I tell students all the time that it is the smart student who comes to office hours. But it’s still like pulling teeth. Here and in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), apparently.

Toward the end of the book, Kim relates a somewhat angry letter a student wrote in their final assignment for the semester. She had been teaching letter writing, trying to get the students to open up somewhat and learn how to express themselves effectively in English. The student had come by her office hours during a hectic time when all of the students were stressing over an essay assignment. The essay was not a familiar to the North Korean students, so they needed extra help outside of class. When Kim glanced at the student’s work, she “told him it was ‘okay'” (262). However, when the student received his graded essay back, it had earned only 87 points.

In his letter, the student essentially says that he felt deceived and confused by Kim. Later, when she spoke to him in person, using Korean despite the rule to use only English, he told her:

“I felt disappointed by the way you handled my request for help. You said it was okay, but you didn’t really mean okay if you were going to give me a low mark. If you didn’t think my paper was okay, why did you say it was okay?” (264)

She responded that was was sorry, but that by “okay” she meant “good enough, but that did not mean it couldn’t be better, and it was his responsibility to work on it further to improve it” (264). Ultimately, this incident in the book functions as a larger metaphor for the inability of the North Korean students (and, by extension, the general populace) to think for themselves and not to merely accept the ideas of a person in authority. However, I think it’s also really instructive on its surface in terms of pedagogy.

Students will, for better or worse, take what you say seriously. In some cases, that can lead to “gotcha!” moments when students try to defy classroom rules or assignment guidelines because you didn’t specifically mention them in the syllabus, or because you misspoke in a lecture. More often, though, it simply means that students believe what you say. That is why it is critical to consider your words and class documents carefully. If the paper isn’t really “okay,” then do not ever say it is, even if there are 50 students knocking on your door, and you just want to get home and have a beer and watch Netflix. What is a brief moment to you is a very real interaction to the student, and if they are asking for your feedback, it will only come back to bite you if you do not clearly and specifically state that feedback.

There’s also the likelihood that the student wants to get away with the least amount of work possible, which is understandable, but is not typically what we are there to help them do. This is often where the “can you look over my paper to tell me if it’s good or not” question comes from. I avoid that by refusing to “look over” individual papers. Either there is a drafting process in the assignment sequence, and thus I look at everyone’s paper, or I answer specific questions about the paper (ie, is my thesis statement clear?) on an individual basis. This is mainly a function of time–in a class of 25+ students in an upper level survey, there is simply not enough time for me to “look over” every paper I assign for every student in the class. They have to rise and fall on their own, using the grading feedback I provide to improve.

The last and most insidious trap student might try to pull in this area is the old “can you tell me what grade you’d give this right now?” question. Let me be clear. NEVER ANSWER THAT. No good comes of it.

In writing intensive courses, students need to get comfortable with the revision process, and thus that there is almost always something that could be done to improve a paper prior to submission. Making sure students know that puts the responsibility on them to find those improvements and revise accordingly. If students can learn that, then they’ve learned a lot.

Reading List and Citations:

  • Cook, Kevin. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.
  • Fink, Sheri. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. New York: Crown Publishers, 2013
  • Kim, Suki. Without You, There is No Us. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014.
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