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Thursday, June 4, 2015

To fund some sheep brains... (or, how NOT to make a first impression)

I've been happily teaching two courses at the university this semester.  (I continue to wonder how I got hired after a 20-minute conversation with a department official, but students keeping showing up to class so I guess it's official.)

Perhaps my department colleagues (most of whom I've not actually met) assumed my husband would orient me to key university policies and classroom expectations, but either Nick slept through his own orientation (doubtful - he only sleeps during plays I take him to) or he didn't get trained in said policies, either.  So, my teaching has been a cluster of floundering, which really only looks good if one is, well, a flounder.  Or a hungry shark, I suppose.

Given the radio silence, imagine my surprise when (in week 7), I was invited to a meeting for adjunct faculty members.  (Well, at least my beloved TA said that's what the Korean e-mail said. And I really have to trust her, because she's far smarter than me and it's too scary to consider how much uglier my flounder dance would be if she DID decide to trick me.) So, Hee Eun signed me up for the meeting and nicely agreed to come along as my translator.  Here I must pat myself on the back for arranging my own translation services - it's like remembering to carry toilet paper here, since many Korean public toilets don't provide it.  (Not that Hee Eun is similar to toilet paper, mind you.  Focus, people. I'm asking you to praise me for thinking ahead.)  Let's move on.

At the meeting, the adjuncts were asked to share any questions or difficulties we might be having. Oh, danger cats, boys and girls.  But we have moved too quickly, so let's back up. 

At the appointed day and time, I found the meeting room (not on my first try, but arriving in a breathy, sweaty state gives such a positive first impression) and met Hee Eun outside.  A woman (a secretary??) ushered us to seats around the conference table, then changed her mind TWICE about our proper seating location before I finally picked seats for us myself and ignored further seat-related discussions.  Soon some be-suited men came to shake my hand and introduce themselves, which was a lovely gesture but I am hopeless at remembering Korean names.  Happily, they gave me their business cards, which have a Korean side and an English side for those of who dearly love cheat sheets.  And lo-behold-the-phone: both men knew who I was (oh boy) and (of course) knew Nick--in fact, one of them had just walked out of his office, he reported. With some effort, I chose to see this coincidence as charming rather than creepy.  And once again, you should praise me for being so mature.

As more people arrived and got settled (I'd apparently been specially selected for the solo game of musical chairs), I chatted with Hee Eun and Korean-American friend Charlene then leafed through the hefty Korean document I'd been given, making small squeals of delight that I could read approximately 1% of the words.  I had no idea that prayer had begun. In my defense, Koreans are kind of noisy pray-ers, so the background chatter hadn't really changed. But, happily, "amen" sounds about the same in any language, so at least I ended on time.

The two be-suited men then talked and we begin the lunch portion of our show.  The box lunch included a salad (I am getting better with chopsticks, but cabbage still enjoys whapping my face with dressing to keep me in line), kimchi (sorry, Korea, I'm still not a fan), mystery soup (seaweed, I believe, and I'm definitely not a fan), and assorted other items that looked as though they wished to be left in the box. Also served were communal plates of sweet orange slices lavishly stabbed with fancy toothpicks (that was dessert).  

The Suits and the Lunch.

After some time, when the Koreans were doing their thing and Hee Eun scrambled to keep Charlene and me informed, the Main Suit asked the adjuncts to share any difficulties or questions we might have.  Um, well, that's a rather roomy conversational opener. After an awkward silence, one brave man voiced his concerns about the difficulty of properly sharing the essentials of Korean history and correctly addressing controversies in the historical record.  That gambit was a fail.  After another awkward silence, another man asked about taxis charging unfair rates to get to campus; that got some response from the be-suited ones, but they wrote nothing down.  Hmm.  So, what's the right kind of question or difficulty to have?  I wondered "what can be done about the layers of filth covering my classroom whiteboards that prevents me from doing anything but powerpoint?" but Charlene nicely suggested that level of detail might not be appropriate for this meeting. Well, darn. So I spun my mental rolodex again, looking for another question/difficulty before my turn came around.   

And just as my turn arrived, the spinning stopped and I blurted what was shown on that mental screen: Sheep brains. Who pays for sheep brains?  

This clearly sounded better in my head than out loud over a lunch table. A certain uniformity of facial expressions around the table hinted that this kind of question was, shall we say, unexpected.  Perhaps even ... unprecedented.  After a noticeable gulp, Hee Eun faithfully translated for me and I was excluded from the brisk Korean discussion as Hee Eun informed the fascinated audience of my desire to give my Korean graduate students some hands-on dissection experience (their science education has wholly excluded the American practice of regular dead-critter-chopping). Alas, neither the graduate school nor my department had money for such lab expenses. Now, dear reader, my INTENTION was to get clarification about proper channels for funding class materials, but the specific EXAMPLE of sheep brains perhaps distracted a tiny bit from that larger point. And it quite possibly marked me as a lunatic.

In the end, no Suits took notes, the secretary-ish woman took our names, and it took me a day or so to realize that this meeting was a formality, something to be checked off someone's list of Things To Do.  I surely didn't mean to make the meeting (or myself) memorable, but I fear that I did so.  Maybe next year I'll get another chance to be an adjunct, to be invited to lunch and asked to share any questions or difficulties.  Maybe next year I'll ask about dirty whiteboards.

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