Teaching Essay-Writing in Pyongyang

To match Special Report KOREA-NORTH/FOOD

Do you ever feel like essay-writing can be tough? Me, too. Now just imagine being asked to write an essay when you have never heard of the concept of making an argument, and you don’t know what the internet is. Suki Kim taught English for six months at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea, and wrote a revealing memoir about her experiences with attempting to familiarize her students with the concept of an essay:

Essay was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.

Kim continually faced challenges teaching her students–not about the finer points of grammar, but about the basic framework of engaging with an audience, making an argument, and backing it up with evidence. She found that these were all concepts that, even in their late teens-early 20s, her students had never been exposed to before. At one point she described assigning her students a short paragraph about a kimchi-making tradition and receiving nationalist polemics in which nearly half the students proclaimed that “kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it.”

Interested? Read more here.

Pericles and the Perils of Perception


Pericles’ famous funeral oration honoring fallen soldiers in The Pelopponesian War is an ode to Athens. He proclaims the glories of the state in great depth and detail, and calls on the families of the dead to remain steadfast in their patriotism. One of the Athenian virtues he praises is that of the informed democratic citizen:

The very men who take care of public affairs look after their own at the same time; and even those who are devoted to their own businesses know enough about the city’s affairs…for we believe that what spoils action is not speeches, but going into action without first being instructed through speeches.

Being properly instructed before taking action is widely agreed to be wiser than charging into situations blindly. However, in Pericles’ time as well as today, it is at least equally as important to ask who is doing the instructing, and what informed citizenship really means. The US ranked second to last out of 14 countries who took part in the Ipsos Perils of Perception Quiz, a survey gauging the public’s awareness about basic domestic socio-political issues. This widespread ignorance about the basic state of affairs in our country is terrifying in its implications, especially in light of recent tragedies like the deaths of Michael BrownTamir RiceTrayvon MartinOscar Grant, and countless other unarmed young black men.

A 1990 study reported that while African Americans made up only 12% of the population, 41% of one week’s worth of news programs featuring African Americans were about crime, and that “while African Americans were over-represented as perpetrators of crime in comparison to arrest records, whites were under-represented as perpetrators but were over-represented as victims.” When these realities of media bias and social bias continue on to their logical conclusions, we see heightened stereotyping of young black men and African Americans in general, heightened juror bias against African American defendants, and a deeply racially biased criminal justice system with terrifying and unacceptable outcomes for a significant portion of America’s people.

Pericles called on the people of Athens to be informed about public affairs under the assumption that citizens are political actors with the power to enact change. We have not only the power but the responsibility to accurately inform ourselves, challenge misconceptions, and challenge social and political systems predicated on those misconceptions.

Want to find out where you stand? Take the quiz here.

War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita


Wendy Doniger’s War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita is possibly best described as a biography of the Bhagavad Gita. She explores the book’s history and the somewhat contradictory way an epic call to battle has come to be something of a pacifist icon.

The Gita incorporates into its seven hundred verses many different sorts of insights, which people use to argue many different, often contradictory, ideas. We might divide them into two broad groups: what I would call the warrior’s Gita, about engaging in the world, and the philosopher’s Gita, about disengaging. The Gita’s theology—the god’s transfiguration of the warrior’s life—binds the two points of view in an uneasy tension that has persisted through the centuries.

Doniger traces the book’s  place within the wider landscape of Hindu literature, and chronicles how major political and philosophical thinkers from Gandhi to Modi to Walt Whitman have grappled with and reinterpreted the text over the ages. Interested? Read more here.


Notes from the November 2014 EnCore Book Club: Angela Carter


Hard-Core alums gathered on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th) to discuss Angela Carter’s award-winning novel, Nights at the Circus. Over delicious El Pelon Mexican fare and several bottles of wine and beer, we bantered about Cockney accents, multiple voice narratives, and fin-de-siecle Europe’s fascination with the freaky, the sleazy, and the revolutionary.

Is Fevvers (supposed to sound like “Feathers”), the Winged Victory, the virginal Flying Lady, the toast of Europe, a big fraud (both in terms of her girth and the magnitude of her deception)? Hard to say, since we can’t be sure we can trust any of the witnesses to her Grand Tour through London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia.

After Morrison, Poe, and Carter, we will be taking one last plunge into Gothic lit with our December 3rd choice: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.

Join us at 6pm on the first Wednesday of the month for free food, boozes, and talkiness. No need to read the book, just come with some conversation to contribute.

7gables salem web

“The Meaning of Human Existence”


Biologist Edward O. Wilson has spent his life studying evolutionary biology, writing books, and winning Pulitzer prizes, among other things. He is still going strong at 85 years old, and recently published “The Meaning of Human Existence,” a book intended to explain and convince the general public of the scientific theory of evolution. Drawing on analyses of evolutionary processes,    Wilson constructs a unique social commentary centering around what he calls the

“Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society.” Among other ways in which our genetic adaptations ill suit us for contemporary conditions, he notes our penchant for racism, our refusal to curb population growth, our failure to cooperate with one another on a scale commensurate with the challenges we face and our devastation of the natural environment.

In between comparing human altruism to ant behavior and speculating on the value of religion in society, Wilson “appeals to reason and imagination in hopes of enlightening us about our nature and inspiring us to change our destructive ways.”

Interested?Read more here!

“The Intelligent Plant”


Vegetarianism and veganism have been on the rise in recent years, and adherents often cite consideration of animal rights as a motivation. But what if they heard that plants can also feel pain? It is already well-known that plants respond to external stimuli such as sunlight, air quality, and other basic factors, but a mysterious CIA study said to have been conducted in the late 1960s reportedly found that plants also “listened” and responded to the actions and even thoughts of those around them, including displaying signs of stress and pain on witnessing violence against themselves or other life forms. Although this research has since been discredited by several expert plant scientists, it sparked the imagination of the nation and provoked a lively public debate on the issue. A controversial 2006 article published in a plant science journal attempted to explain what scientists know about so-called “plant neurobiology:”

Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coordinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.

The scientific community in general acknowledges that plants have advanced sensory systems, and there have been several intriguing experiments which provide a window into plants’  chemical “communication” systems and even evidence that plants can “learn” behaviors within their lifetime. However many see the anthropomorphizing of plants as being an embarrassment to the field of plant study as a whole, and “the use of the word “neurobiology” in the absence of actual neurons was apparently more than many scientists could bear.” However an incorrigible fascination with “plant intelligence” stretching all the way back to Charles Darwin to continues to fuel interesting research on the subject.

Find out more here, and give us your feedback below!

Wander with Odysseus: The Odyssey as an Alternate Reality Game


What if instead of simply reading about Odysseus’s journey, you could experience it with him? John Fallon, an innovative middle school teacher, had the idea to craft an alternate reality game (ARG) to help build enthusiasm for classics like the Odyssey  in his seventh-grade class.

Rather than merely reading about the adventures of Odysseus in English class, students can walk a mile in his shoes by channeling the skillset of the Greek hero who masterminded the Trojan Horse and outwitted the Cyclops.

ARGs are designed and run by development teams called ‘puppet masters’ who combine the digital and the real to deliver intricate narratives that blur the line between reality and fiction. Players enjoy a great deal of agency as they solve elaborate puzzles while they negotiate a world of phony websites and documents, midnight phone calls, and park bench envelope exchanges, to name a few of the tactics that can make these games indistinguishable from everyday life.

Fallon noticed that students became more engaged in the Odyssey through the ARG than when he had taught it through traditional teaching methods, and that “‘they did a better job of making their individual versions of Odysseus more clever and better problem solvers rather than just a cardboard cutout hero who bashes his way through problems. This likely stems from having experienced some difficult problem solving of their own in similar circumstances.'”

Other educators and programmers have also experimented with ARGs to help students learn about Japanese internment camps, code-breaking, and other lessons. While there is still significant debate about the efficacy and practicality of implementing ARGs and other immersive learning techniques in the educational system on a wider scale, Fallon and many others believe that they pose an exciting new opportunity to expand student learning in unique ways.

What do you think? Check out the full article here and feel free to add your feedback in the comments below.


“Using Sophocles to Treat PTSD”


Prof. Esposito has written to us here at the Core blog to let us know about an extensive and interesting article from the most recent Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Using Sophocles to Treat PTSD”. He writes:

I thought you might be interested in it especially since it’s about the performances of Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes, and Women of Trachis (as well Euripides’ Bacchae) done by the NYC-based company Theater of War who performed Ajax at Boston University in December, 2011 and will be performing again (this time both Ajax and Philoctetes) at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Core on May 1, 2015. Bryan Dorries, director of Theater of War, sent it along to me, and expressed his excitement about returning to BU with his company next May.

Here’s the opening of the article:

With its winding lanes and stands of cherry trees, Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base twenty-five miles outside Tokyo, feels more like a meditation retreat than a military facility. Until it was seized by the First Cavalry in September 1945, Zama was the West Point of the Imperial Japanese Army. Through the decades, the forest has been pushed back to accommodate a larger airstrip, a fire has taken out the old Japanese barracks, and most of the camp’s remaining structures have been replaced with drab buildings set discreetly into the lush green prettiness. One structure from the Imperial era remains: a large theater. Its exterior is plain but grand; its cavernous interior is decorated like a wedding cake, white with yellow piping. The charm of the building is difficult to reconcile with what happened outside its walls, in 1945. When the few Japanese soldiers left at Zama learned of their country’s surrender, some drew swords, cried, “Long live the emperor!” and stabbed one another to death or committed hara-kiri.

The full piece is behind the Harper’s subscriber-only paywall, but Core students can access it here (as it pertains to our study of Ajax in the first-year Humanities).

The Evolution of Religion


Check out this new graphic created by Simon E. Davies and shared by Jesus Diaz, gives us a fascinating visual of the evolution of the world’s major religions. Click here to see a larger version.

Professor Ricks edits a compilation of Bob Dylan’s lyrics

26A43074E-0B18-1715-CC6DFC40F7224C44Christopher Ricks, a professor in the Core Curriculum second year humanities, latest project has been editing and writing the introduction for an annotated and illustrated book by Bob Dylan that includes all of his lyrics. The Lyrics: Since 1962 is over 1,034 pages long according to Broadway World and gives the officially released lyrics of Dylan’s songs as well as variant and revision lyrics.

Professor Ricks has to say about the book that, “For fifty years, all the world has delighted in Bob Dylan’s books of words and more than words: provocative, mysterious, touching, baffling, not-to-be-pinned-down, intriguing, and a reminder that genius is free to do as it chooses. And, again and again, these are not the words that he sings on the initially released albums.”

However, if this book sounds like a must-have, you’ll be disappointed to hear that only 3,000 copies will be printed and sold at a whopping $200.