Monday, December 07, 2020

The Last Assignment Given to My Students This Year

Who I Am, Who Are You?

This stream has nearly run its course, but we remain wayfaring strangers. Never before have I taught an academic year without meeting a single student face-to-face. I almost always meet every student. Some come to meet me outside of class in the English Lounge during my office hours, and everybody meets with me individually at least once, for an oral exam. Our situation this year is therefore unique. But I don’t want you all to leave our class without knowing something about me. Here is my story.

I was born in the Arkansas Ozarks in 1957, which now seems like a long time ago, and it is very far away, nearly 7,000 miles (about 11,000 km). The Ozark Mountains are not very high, rising no more than half a mile up above sea level, but they are forested and quite beautiful, and the region until recently was very poor, which saw the Ozarks losing population rather than gaining it and thereby helped preserve its beauty and natural state. Our streams of my youth had varieties of fish and other water creatures not often found elsewhere in North America. There were leg-length catfish, alarming alligator gar, washtub-sized snapping turtles, and weird hellbenders, among other strange creatures. Many of the streams were fed by springs that rival in size many of the great springs found elsewhere in the world. Mammoth Spring, not far from my hometown, is one of the largest, with over nine million gallons of water flowing from the ground per hour. That’s about 35 million liters per hour. The region even has streams that disappear into the ground, due to the numerous caverns in the vast karst ecosystem beneath the surface of the land, where if you go spelunking, you’ll find blind little ghostly-white creatures that have lived there for eons and eons. If you prefer hiking, don’t go alone through the wildest parts without a shotgun, for black bear and mountain lions still prowl the deepest woods.

I left home in 1975 for an undergraduate education in English literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. My family had no money to help me pay tuition, so I worked up to twenty-five hours a week for some of the cost and borrowed the rest from the federal government. Since I was funding my own schooling at Baylor, I studied many fields alongside my major and discovered my gift for writing, and I was offered by the school a scholarship for a master’s degree in creative writing, but I wanted to study history, so I went to UC Berkeley to study European and American history, but I maintained my interest in writing and managed to obtain several literary awards over the years even while earning my doctoral degree in history and teaching in various places throughout the world. Those years – in geographical (not chronological) order, I suppose I could say – found me in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Czech Republic, France, England, Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Russia, Australia, Singapore, Japan, and Korea, among other places I’ve absentmindedly left out.

While pursuing some of my doctoral studies in Germany, I met a Korean woman also pursuing her doctoral studies there. In fact, we met on a train heading toward Hamburg when I inadvertently sat down beside her and got into conversation. She was studying the Austrian writer Robert Musil, and I happened to be reading his masterpiece, The Man without Qualities. I had just finished an early chapter in which a man and woman fell in love on the day they met, and to show that I was indeed reading that novel by Musil, I recounted the story to her. The two of us also fell in love the day we met, and we married in 1995, three years after our first meeting, in 1992. We spent a year in Korea before I took us to Australia for three years’ of postdoctoral study and teaching. We had a child there, then spent a year’s study in Jerusalem, where we had another child, afterwards returning to Korea, in late 1999, where we’ve lived ever since, with me teaching language, composition, literature, history, and religion for our livelihood. I’ve also published scholarly articles in these fields. And I’ve published poems and stories. My retirement age is now drawing nigh, and I look forward to pursuing a literary life writing more poems and stories. If anyone is interested in my writings, go to Amazon and search my name there, where you’ll find that I’ve published two novellas and a book of poetry.

That pretty much sums up my life so far, and you now know who I am. What I would now like from each one of you is a short piece of writing telling me who you are – and who you want to be. Think of this as a moment for self-reflection, including reflection on what you intend to do with yourself in your life. You may write a single paragraph, or more than one, should you wish. That is to be your own choice. These are not expected to be academic writings, and I will not grade them. I will, however, read every one of them – and I will keep them all for the years to come as reminders of the ‘invisible’ classes that I taught during the time of the global Covid-19 pandemic in the year 2020 AD.


At 2:49 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I imagine you look forward to the writing you'll soon receive (or have already begun to receive...?).

Your autobiography often feels less like "bio" and more like "geo": geography and even geology. There's a real sense, from what you write, that the land forms and defines a person. I suppose one could respond, "Well, duh—how could that not be so? We are all, to some extent, the products of our environments." But not all bios take the land into consideration: more often than not, the typical bio is a litany of events and achievements. This bio was refreshingly different.

At a guess, you won't be able to share your students' output on the blog for reasons of privacy. Still, I hope you'll be able to transmit to your readers a sort of impressionistic pastiche of your charges' thoughts that gives us a kaleidoscopic idea of whom you've been interacting with this semester.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I must be homesick . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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