American Literature and Korean Landscape

Posted: August 16, 2007

Leah Glasser, dean of first-year studies and lecturer in English, traveled to Seoul during the summer to teach Korean students American literature at Sookmyung Women's University (SMU).

The three-week intensive course on the role of nature in American literature met 9 am to noon daily. Glasser encouraged students to consider their own relationship to landscape in Korea, which brought about interesting comparative exchanges in class discussion. Students kept journals and brought their thoughts on the readings to class.

Given the differences in American and Korean approaches to teaching, Glasser considered how best to reframe student expectations in order to accomplish her goals in 3 weeks. "I saw my job was to turn the students into active readers and learners, to teach them about the value of interacting with professors and developing their own ideas," said Glasser, who worked with twenty-seven students of different skill levels.

"Small-group work made a difference. The best strategy was to listen well in order to help students express themselves in English with greater confidence and more freedom. Most of the students had classes in Korea where they were used to being passive recipients of information. They learned that I was interested in the development of their critical skills so that they could interpret and analyze rather than memorize a lecture," Glasser said.

Glasser expressed gratitude for the opportunity to teach abroad and learn about Korea. The McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives sponsored the trip as part of a partnership with universities abroad to promote faculty collaborations and intellectual exchange. Edwina Cruise, Professor of Russian on the Alumnae Foundation, was the first to go to Sookmyung last summer. This year a number of faculty submitted proposals and SMU chose Glasser's course.

"We focused primarily on women writers. I had only one male student in class, an exchange student from Sweden. By the end of the three weeks, it was clear he was emerging as a feminist, which was fun to see," Glasser said.

Glasser used several strategies to ensure success with her students.

"I got to know the students well enough to know what would and wouldn't work. Often lunch was a time to meet with students, and then I went off with colleagues to explore Seoul and to learn more about the culture and the country," Glasser said. "My hiking adventures in the mountains and on the city streets enhanced communication with my students. They were tickled, for example, that I liked the kimchee that was served with every meal and had gone to the local markets. It was reciprocal learning, in a very real sense."

Glasser also used visual material to supplement the texts. "When they read excerpts from Mary Austin, I showed images of the writer steeped in her own setting, in the Southern California desert. They studied Thoreau's portrait and an image of Walden as we analyzed his texts. They could compare Thoreau's British style (both his bow tie and his language) with Whitman's portrait, his open shirt and cocked hat, and the sound of his voice describing his identity in the context of an open landscape in Song of Myself. Then we could discuss what it meant to write in an 'American voice.'" The idea was to analyze both visual and written material.

At the farewell dinner, in recognition of her outstanding work, Glasser was awarded the Best Professor teaching award based on feedback students gave the administration.

"It was exciting to hear students say, 'I never thought about a text this way before.' This can happen in any class, but in Seoul, I was more conscious of doing something that was transformative for the students."

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