Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Problem of Having a Problem

What does one do about the problem of students cheating in Korea?  Let me tell you, dear reader, as you sit before your monitor with your cup on tea in one hand and pipe in the other, squinting at this missive through your monocle, that this problem is a most heinous one indeed.  Students would as soon cheat as breathe, and the devious little suckers just can't seem to not cheat.  The appalling thing is, with the amount of effort they put into cheating, they could just do the work themselves and not have to worry about it!  The amount of effort I have to put in each semester, just to make sure that students do their own work, leaves me feeling drained, as if the class itself is not the collaborative learning environment so extolled by our pedagogical giants in the field, but a battle zone--a war in which each push is met by a strategic withdrawal or a counterattack.  There are feints and ambushes; back and forth it rages through tests, homework, and even classroom activities.

I know I am not alone in this either--I have had many conversations with a large number of you about what your students have done.  We laugh and swap stories over a cold pint in the pub.  We collaborate in offices and staff rooms and share techniques and knowledge of how to win skirmishes and even battles.  We stand, shoulders hunched in disbelieving shrugs and jaws hanging aghast and slack at the audacity and brazen nature of the lack of academic integrity that goes on before our eyes every day.  How do we bear it?

Yet this battle may have to be re-examined.  In fact, it may be a false battle--one that we, the noble, enlightened pedagogues of the West, may have taken upon ourselves in an unfair imposition of value in a context where it does not belong.  David Nunan (among others) mentions in "Second Language Teaching and Learning" that:
"[T]here has long been a debate about the appropriateness of many of the methods used by expatriate teachers and those trained in expatriate methods, some commentators claiming that Western concepts of education are being applied, inappropriately, in non-Western contexts.  Increasingly, it is being recognized that pedagogical action needs to be sensitive to the cultural and environmental context in which the teaching takes place." (4-5).
In other words, stop being racist.

Well, I can hear you now, dear reader, your eyebrows arched in true sophistic glee, querying, "My dear deluded friend, how and in what possible way can cheating ever be a good thing?"  Well stated, my dear hypothetical reader, and indeed, this is the reason it has taken me three years of teaching in this country to even begin asking the question.  The answer to that question is painfully simple.  There isn't one.  Cheating is bad.  It's wrong.  "Ah ah!" I hear you scream, my dear antagonist, "I have you backed into a corner now!  How can I be racist if it's actually wrong.  It's no longer a matter of ethnocentrism, but of morals.  What is right is right, and don't you try to relativize such simple things."  Well put, my eloquent interlocutor, but the problem is that such an answer still ethnocentric.  It demonstrates such linear, propositional Western reasoning that I can scarce think out of that cast long enough to frame a reply.  What I venture is simply that it's too narrow.

So let me expand.  If you look at a simple statement, cheating is wrong.  But look at the entire cultural context.  Why do Korean students cheat?  Are they stupid?  Absolutely not.  Are they lazy?  Profoundly not!  Their work ethic puts my own, and most of my Western compatriots, to shame, and not just any shame, but world-ending, non-existence levels of shame.  There is, dear reader, a huge amount of good in Korean culture.  It's safe.  I can leave my backpack on a park bench and it will be there when I return from the restroom.  My friends can leave their baby in the real-estate office while they go out to look at apartments.  I can walk down dark alleys in the dead of night without fear.  It's friendly.  People don't try to cheat me in the market, they're just glad I enjoy Korean food.  People are delighted to give you a hand, like the lady at the highway oasis who, when I didn't undertand that I had to order at another window, receive a ticket, and then trade that ticket for my food, took my money and went down to that window to do it for me.  Such are the benefits of a collectivist society (and while there is an interesting conversation to be had about Korean racism, that is a conversation for another day) where people are trained from a very young age to watch out for and care for each other.  This is the upside.  The downside is that cheating can be justified as a way of doing so.  Instead of just looking at the downside, let's look at both for a change, can we?

Though we can look at the downside of Western academic culture, if you like.  Students in Korea know that cheating is wrong, just like students in the West know that backstabbing, undercutting, and sabotaging your classmates is wrong.  Yet all of us, if we lean back in our chair and ponder for a mere moment, can think of examples and anecdotes from our own and our friends experiences where Western students would do such things to their peers, or should I say, opponents.  Aye, dear reader, there is the rub.  In the crush of radical individualism and achievement at any cost, humans are the detritus over which we walk on our own path to greatness.  We do not look out for them, we look out for ourselves, and in so doing, we can easily view them as less than human, for at the least, they are less important than we.  Ah, let us cast open this dark side of our own heartlands!  Have you not heard of such things as students destroying opponent's assignment leaving them insufficient time to do it again?  Of university graduate students hiding or destroying books in the library that would strengthen their opponents' position?  Of gleefully reporting another student's cheating, not from morality, but to increase their own class standing?  My dear friends, can we be so blind to our own dark side of immorality permeating our academic environment, poisoning it with hostility and adversarial thinking?  What is a little cheating as the price of having a harmonious relationship with our brethren?

And there is the crux of the matter.  Western students know that these things they do are wrong, and so do Koreans.  What is going on here is not ignorance, it is a class of values--a very intentional choice to esteem one set of priorities over another.  In Korea, the value of social connections is higher than the value of personal achievement and strict academic integrity.  So, dear reader, before you jump to a speedy knee-jerk response as to which value set is better, reflect for a moment on this final question: which set of priorities creates a culture that you would rather live and work within?