Archive for the Academics Category


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Sound, Travel on January 20, 2010 by Elephant Talk

There is a compulsion after a long time away from the blog to apologize for inactivity. I’m not going to do that. But this time I have a reason for my inactivity. I was inspired by my friend Tharp, who wrote an excellent post grazing over the highlights (and, indeed, lowlights) of the past 10 years of his life. I decided to write one myself, but it got voluminous and obsessive and turned into a longwinded unfinished project. (I can’t seem to do anything with brevity.) I’m only up to the middle of 2007. I’m into the start of the really good stuff and I just can’t see how I can fill all of those remaining experiences into a small container.

Anyway, that’s the reason I haven’t posted lately. I kept expecting to finish it and pare it down to something digestible for this medium. I will finish it at some point. It’s been an illuminating exercise going through all the joys, heartbreaks, craziness and adventures of the aughts. But by the time I’m done it may be too late to be relevant for a blog. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll post it at some point, maybe I won’t.

In the meantime, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my January.

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New GRE, same old story

Posted in Academics, Personal on December 7, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Hey, here’s a big news flash: The GRE is all about money. Just as I’ve been saying lately in my campaign of rants against this ageist form of human compartmentalization, the GRE is principally designed to make more money for ETS and test-prep companies.

They’ve recently announced a change in the format of the exam, to begin in 2011. (This news tip given to me by my mother, incidentally.) I had to scroll down to get to this little morsel:

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a long-time critic of ETS, agreed, saying that the modifications were generally “small to modest changes designed to refurbish and reposition a stale product. It’s all about marketing.” He said that the lengthening of the exam time could make fatigue “a more significant issue.”

The larger question, he said, is whether graduate programs need the GRE at all. Given that graduate programs admit from “a much smaller universe” (of colleges) than do undergraduate programs (with many more high schools), he said that “the argument that you need testing” to compare candidates “is weaker.”

Only one group is sure to gain by the switch, Schaeffer said. “Whenever you change a test, you give a tremendous boost to the coaching industry.”

Historically, test changes tend to encourage more people to seek out test prep services. Some rush to take the old test (on the chance they earn higher scores there) and so use coaching to speed up preparation; and those who are among the first to take a new test are more likely than others to want test prep because they can’t rely on informal advice about the exams.

And, from the New York Times:

Generally, Mr. Seltzer said he saw the changes mostly as an marketing effort, to compete with the GMAT test, used for admission to business schools.

Congratulations, ETS, I hope you rake in the dough. And thank you, universities out there, for supporting their business goals.

Yes, I’m still angry.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Korea, Personal, Travel on December 3, 2009 by Elephant Talk

First the bad news. My objective for going to Japan was a failure. It’s not that I failed the GRE, it’s that I failed to match or exceed my expectations. I scored 30 meager points higher than the last time I took the exam in August. I was hoping for, at worst, a 100-point improvement. I would have been happy to gain another 125-150. But I didn’t. So in that regard, the effort was a waste of time and money.

I studied my ass off this time, hours a day, every single day. I set aside other things in my life during a very busy time, and even strained a couple friendships in the process. I used exam guides, complete with diagnostic reports charting my progress. By the time I’d finished all the practice exams, I was projecting a score close to 1200, a score that would have been at least satisfying and would validate the effort. I did not get near that score. And it’s the kind of score you need to get into a good communications program.

So, once again I say fuck you GRE. I concede that you win, you’re too much for me. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to think that I could regain all the complex algebra and geometry skills I may (or may not) have had when I was in high school two decades ago. So I will never take it again. It’s an exam for young people. Old men like me are not meant to take it. So, then, are old men like me not meant for doctoral study? It would seem to be the case. Universities, which use the GRE to determine eligibility, apparently only want young people. Incidentally, yesterday I saw a Facebook update from a friend of mine who signed up for GRE prep classes in Korea (she’s Korean) and was denied admittance to the class. The reason? She was told she is too old to take the class. No joke.

Now the good news: Japan is amazing, simply amazing. It was the perfect place to make me forget about my disastrous test score. So after the exam, I dug into Japan for four full days and nights. Nights in Osaka, day trips to Kyoto and Nara, a jam session in Kobe. I had a blast.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Travel on November 25, 2009 by Elephant Talk

It’s the night before Thanksgiving day here in Asia. I’ll be spending my Thanksgiving morning in an airplane flying from Busan to Osaka. As anyone who has read the past few entries knows, I’ve signed up to take the GRE there the morning after that. So while people in America are turning off the final NFL game and falling into a tryptophan-induced slumber, I’ll be waking up to take a 4-hour standardized examination. Fun for me.

The good news is that after that, I have four days to explore the Kansai region. I’ve booked five nights total in Osaka. I hoped to base myself in Kyoto, but everything was booked up by the time I got around to planning places to stay. So I will take day trips there and to Nara, if all goes well.

This whole journey has kind of a lonely feeling to it. Part of it is the knowledge that it’s obligatory. It’s not really vacation; I’m going there because I have to. But it’s also the solo travel aspect. I don’t mind traveling alone, but I prefer the company of others. It gives you someone to share experiences with, laugh at absurdities, and discuss options. Soaking up a Blade-Runner-esque nighttime cityscape or a lush, green temple setting is nice to experience solely through one’s own eyes and ears, but it’s also nice at some point to turn to someone and say “cool, huh?”

But I’m excited. I don’t care about the GRE. I’ve studied as much as I care to, and that whole structure can go to hell. I’ll get whatever score I get. But I’m looking forward to the rest of it. I know very little about Japan and didn’t do much research, so I do feel woefully under-prepared for the vacation aspect. The one time I was there was for a Fukuoka visa-run that lasted all of 24 hours. That trip, only two weeks into my Korea experience oh so long ago, felt simply like an extension of Busan. So this feels like my first time. And I’m always up for a first of anything.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Music, Personal, Sound, Travel on November 21, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Time is, without question, the most valuable resource we have. It is a fixed entity. We know more or less how much of it we have (at the most, anyway), and we are aware of the milestones along the way. Once we get to a certain age, these points become marks of incremental regression in ability, facility, energy.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, because I’ve been living primarily in the future for the past three or four months. It seems like everything I do lately is geared toward doing the next thing. This happens when you live by one-year contracts, and every cycle brings about a different signing scenario. I was profoundly disappointed by the last go-round, so I’m pushing myself even harder toward the next thing.

I’m applying for doctoral programs. This is an incredibly time-consuming process. It’s a bunch of maddening details made more insane by the vast body of water that separates me from my native country. Communication lags and takes the form of text, and there are certain things that need to be done in person that cannot be done. There is research, massive amounts of research. There is contact with advisors and students and program coordinators. There is contact with past professors for recommendation letters and advice. There are transcripts to be ordered (this simple thing being a strangely murderous process from my current location). There are statements of purpose to write, things to collect and package, things to consider including. And, of course, my big obsession right now: the GRE. I’m studying like a madman. I don’t know if it will help, but I’m dedicating myself to giving it my best shot. The exam requires a trip to Japan, which requires hotels, air travel, a big plan.

I also have, of course, my regular life. This involves teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, grading quizzes and projects, planning lectures, considering end-of-semester deadlines. It involves musical projects to which I’ve devoted myself. Everything else, including Korean language study, I’ve put on hold.

So this is how I exhaust my time. I’m burning that non-replenishable tank of fuel by preparing. The truth is, I’m not convinced that it will amount to anything. I don’t know yet if a) I’ll be accepted to a good PhD program, and b) I’ll accept an offer that comes to me. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m ready to leave. I like it here. Korea gives me time… to work, travel, write, play, experience. I like my friends, I like my life, I like what the place gives me. But I’m approaching that critical three-year period. From what I’ve seen of the foreigners here, this is the threshold. People who have been here two years talk about a future back home. People who have been here for three don’t. And if I do decide to stay, Plan B involves me staying for a very long time.

This mindset is what’s playing with my brain right now. It’s what has me thinking about time. Even if I wasn’t applying for doctoral programs, I’d still be using my time living in the future. I’d be studying Korean language (a long-term future endeavor), or I’d be re-writing my textbook (for future publishing), or I’d be thinking about new job opportunities.

It’s also got me thinking about the other things I could otherwise be doing with the time I’ve been given. I could be learning to play guitar. I could be expanding as a drummer. I could be mastering MAX/MSP. I could be writing a novel. I could be creating an ambient soundtrack to a non-existent film. I could be… Dancing Nancies.

Words, words

Posted in Academics, Personal on November 18, 2009 by Elephant Talk

OK, so that previous post was the angry, negative outlook on things. On the positive side, all this GRE studying is giving me a nice brush-up on vocabulary. Words are funny things. When you study them and stare at them over and over they become like little living creatures. They have personality (sound funny, sound strong, etc). And a word can change when placed in different contexts.

GRE study guides usually have some proprietary version of their “Big 500.” My Kaplan guide has its 500 and my Watermelon guide has its 500. There’s a lot of overlap. As I study, I’ve been writing down the words I don’t know or that I like and forming them into my own sentences, or putting them into relationships, all in an effort to remember them. Things like: “He expatiated a speech meant to expiate for his wrongdoings.” or “His irascible personality is implacable.”

One of my sections has “Words that I thought I knew but didn’t.” As follows:

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GRE venting

Posted in Academics, Culture, Korea, Personal, USA on November 17, 2009 by Elephant Talk

So I’m taking the fucking GRE again. As I said a while back, I completely bombed it over the summer. For some reason I thought that taking a massive, potentially life-altering examination on summer vacation was a good idea. I didn’t respect the exam, so I didn’t study.

I still don’t respect it. I think it’s worthless. Universities are massive bureaucracies, tiny pockets of Soviet style objectivism. The GRE only encourages them to be even more unimaginative and lazy. Strange that the great institutes of higher learning would choose something so inane as their threshold of determining candidacy. Yes, letters, SOPs, background, accomplishments, work all matter. But the GRE, developed by a for-profit private sector company, is their gateway. Many universities aren’t even shy about it. They proudly state that one must get a combined 1,100 or 1,200 to even be considered.

Why do I hate the GRE so much? Because it’s a measure of neither creative nor intelligent thought. It’s a means of getting people to fall in line with everyone else. Getting a good score does not require intelligence, it requires obedience to a structure. My theory is that universities want to see that you are willing to dedicate yourself to something ridiculous for a lengthy period of time to prove that you’re willing to work on some equally ridiculous research project for your adviser over a prolonged period of time. The GRE requires two things: time and discipline. You study nothing of significance. You study how to take one particular exam.

But okay. This time I’m playing your stupid game. I bought one of these very positively reviewed GRE prep guides. It cost me $25 and I downloaded it directly to my iPod Touch. Actually, it’s a groovy little app, and it’s been very helpful. But it is essentially a bloated cheat-sheet, full of tricks designed to inure you to the test structure. Now, right there, something’s already not right. If it was really about intelligence, no one would have access to the rules; these books would be banned. We’d all have to go in like newborns and figure the damned thing out on the spot. But instead I see things like “The analogies portion of the verbal section falls into X number of basic question types. Here is an explanation of all the different question categories…” and on and on like this. I feel like a pervert reading this shit.

Incidentally, this is the exact same problem Korea has with English. Koreans fervently study English. But they don’t learn how to talk or write; they learn how to pass the TOEIC. They take classes whose specific aim is how to beat the structure, how to crack the code. This is why the overwhelming majority of Koreans can’t engage in a simple conversation in English. They don’t learn the fucking language. They learn how to beat the exam.

I take the GRE in 10 days in Osaka. I’ve been studying my ass off, and becoming bitter and resentful in the process, because I’ve got far more important things I could be doing right now. If I get 1,200 it will be a miracle. But if somehow I do, I’m not going to be proud. I’m going to feel broken, because I’ll know that the only thing I did was waste my time jumping through someone else’s hoops.