Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 1

Christian’s class at Underwood College in Yonsei University

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market in higher education about thirty-five years ago. Christian and I spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

I teach at Underwood International College, one of the sixteen colleges in Yonsei University. It was founded ten years ago as a western-style, English-only, liberal arts and sciences college like a top private liberal arts college in the United States. All of the classes, from introductory through upper-division, are administered by one unit. The college was a response to a brain drain; that is, Korean students who wanted liberal arts were going to the States because there was no equivalent of that in Korea. The first class opened nine years ago in the basement of the theology building with four faculty and eighty students. This year we have forty-five tenure-track faculty and two thousand students. Statistically we are one of the most competitive programs in the country, and in Korea that’s what counts. We take about 1% of our applicants.

In order to guarantee its position as a truly international college, Underwood requires every

Faculty member to be from the United States or other English-speaking countries. No one with a Korean passport can have a tenure-track appointment, so we don’t have the problem you find in other schools where a class is supposed to be in English, but in fact it’s only the PowerPoint that’s in English and the lecture is in Korean. By contract, all of my classroom time must be in English. So that it’s actually a professional advantage that I don’t know any Korean.

Our stereotypical student is rich, from Kangnam. Within Yonsei we have a reputation for being a rich kid’s program, although I’m not sure this is true. But our students are the kids who succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn [cram school or for=profit “institute”] game because they were there until two in the morning. In hyper-competitive Korean education, it’s very important for a program or college to be respected by Korean mothers. This is because the admissions process is so competitive, there’s no way in the world a student can do everything without help. Parents guide the admissions process very closely. They are very educated. They’ve pored over the university website, and sometimes I think they know more about our programs and requirements I do. I’ve heard a rumor that I’m known on some of these blogs and online discussions my surname, Blood!

Both the university and the Ministry of Education are very aware of the role that a family plays in a student’s education. This does have some unintended consequences. For example I’ve been told is that the foundational principle of all Korean education is equality, but Korea has huge differences in region and social class. The Ministry of Education will devise a new rule to try to level the playing field, such as, when students apply to our college, they must declare a major before they apply. This was necessary to avoid people just selecting a major on the basis of how competitive it is to get into. Then parents figure out how to crack the code, so to speak, and so next year, there’s another rule, and so on.

At Dongguk University people were selecting majors on the basis of how easy it was to get in decades ago. That’s why there were so many forestry majors. Students would get advice from older students in their departments, their “seniors,” who would tell them what classes to take, but when I left in 2006 the old Confucian “junior-senior” relationship was starting to break down. At Dongguk the students ran a website where they could comment on the faculty. I never looked at it, but I was told I had the reputation for being tough but fair. The mothers were never even mentioned except for their traditional role in managing their children’s primary and secondary education. But times have changed, and your school is much more competitive than Dongguk, which was a second-level university.

The competition doesn’t interest me. I went to alternative schools and a400-person liberal arts college, St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, a Great Books college which did not require SAT scores [Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken toward the end of high school.].The college believed that studying for a grade was antithetical to true learning. The kind of people who go there can’t care about rankings and grades. You just wouldn’t go. My master’s and PhD are in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, another school that was always been anti-establishment.

Then I came to Korea where everything is about your test scores and your GPAs and other measures that Koreans call “specs.”On the campus at Yonsei, everyone is very aware of the school’s status, and sometimes it feels as if we’re acting more for the sake of reifying our institution’s standing. I actually love it, and I kind of enjoy compensating for my status-free undergrad education. It suits me well. There’s a lot of structure. Either I got my rebellion out of my system when I was young, or it’s fun being totally subversive, which at Yonsei can mean showing students that it’s not all about grades and tests.

My students are fantastic. They are hard-working, they are very dedicated, and their English is excellent. They’ve succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn game. They’re very good at listening, taking notes and memorizing, but a lot of them have a difficult time acclimating to classes which are primarily discussion. Many don’t fully understand what means to have an education in western-style liberal arts and sciences. The program starts out with core classes in history, literature and philosophy. For several years I taught for several years a core course called Western Civilization, starting with Homer and wrapping up with Freud. It was a big picture overview for students who might not know the western tradition, which I thought was great. But most Korean students aren’t expecting to be reading Freud if they’re in an engineering program.

Last semester I taught three classes. One of them was Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. There were twelve people in the class. We read fifty pages a week. In class we sat in a circle and talked about it. Another class was on Roman literature, so we did Virgil’s Aeneid, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and the Satyricon of Petronius. This is in English translation. In the States, I taught the Iliad all through graduate school, and the student reaction was about the same every time—and the opposite of what it is in Korea.

If you remember, in the Iliad, Agamemnon is a commander in the Greek army. It’s the tenth year of the Trojan War, and the story opens after Agamemnon has made some bad leadership decisions. Achilles breaks rank and rebels against him. He’s is quite excessive, he’s very selfish, people who read it think he’s immature. But western readers identify with him as the individual, the hero, whereas Korean students always side with Agamemnon. I have to convince them that Achilles is sympathetic, even though he’s being so selfish.

Do you get into explaining to them what individualism actually is or the good side of individualism, as opposed to individualism equals minus Confucianism?

Yes, and a lot of my students are already sympathetic to individualism, and that’s why they’re at our school instead of Seoul National or Korea University or Ewha Woman’s University.

There’s also not a tradition of literary criticism as an academic discipline here in the way we find it in the west. So sometimes it’s a hard sell. Students are eager to take philosophy and history, but they don’t understand why you’d study literature other than for its historical value. Also, the Korean terms for words we use in literary analysis, like “irony” and “metaphor,” are just transliterations from English. There areno Korean words. I know from publishing literary work in Korean journals—the article would be in English, but the abstract in Korean—that people are never sure how to translate a lot of these technical terms which we oftentimes take for granted. Here there’s not the same sort of tradition of studying literature without reference to history. In Korea it’s usually more historical.

Well, our tradition is based on learning how to come up with your own analysis of something, which I think is very un-Confucian.

In the past when my students studied western literature, their teachers gave them one interpretation. Read Death of a Salesman, and this is what it means. The same goes for Robert Frost’s poetry or Shakespearean sonnets. I say, “What do you think?” We put two competing, contradictory theses on the board along with evidence for both of them. These very accomplished, sharp students are not comfortable with that.

Actually, I even had American graduate students who hesitated to express opinions—or to work out their own analysis of a literary text. I had one class which met three times a week. The first two class periods they were responsible for the discussion of that week’s work, and I’d sit there silently and take notes. On the third class period I’d lecture with an analysis of the work and with answers to points the students had made about it. So they had to come up with their own interpretation before I said a word. That worked.

My experience as a teaching assistant and as an adjunct professor in California in the 2000s was that students would not shut up. They were so confident that anything they said was worth the group’s hearing. So it was quite a shock to be in Korea and see that the students were very, very good, but it felt like you had to pull comments out of them.

I had that problem except when I put them into small groups, and then they would talk. Speaking to the whole class was considered “speaking in public,” which in the Confucian culture was a sign of arrogance, while speaking in groups of four was okay.

The stereotype of Korean students is that they’re good at regurgitating information, studying for tests, that sort of thing, while the stereotype of American students is that they’ve been training in critical thinking. My own experience, especially now with “No Child Left Behind” is that American students are really bad at absorbing and retaining any meaningful information.

I haven’t taught Americans since 1982, so in some ways what you’re telling me is new information.

Even during the short time I taught in California, 2003 to 2011, there was a sharp decline in the students’ ability to absorb anything. I don’t know what is going on in American middle and high schools, but it is frightening. To put this in the best possible terms, American education does not emphasize stuff. It emphasizes patterns. Korean education emphasizes stuff rather than patterns. Korean students will memorize every fact in the book that you give them. The way they learn history doesn’t show them how to extrapolate a pattern and synthesize it on their own. But they can learn it very quickly once they’re working with a teacher who expects that.

Well, actually, I have had a similar experience, first showing students how the Korean approach to something was different from the American approach and then having them apply that information to certain real-life situations. They were able to do that.

My students learned very quickly. In my opinion, all the training in critical thinking in the world is not helpful if you don’t know some things to think critically about. Korean students are willing to do the work and are very fast at applying it. Now, I’m sure it’s very different in business, but the college students are ready to do it. They are such a pleasure to teach. Not only are they good students, they don’t piss, moan and complain about having to work. They want to be there, and I usually only say things once or twice and they’re off and running. Many days I cannot believe I get paid to do this.

I had the same feeling about Dongguk.

Now, on a different issue, I understand it’s much harder for an expat to get a job teaching in Korea than it used to be.

In the early 90s we spent a couple of years trying to find another native-speaker for the other position in the English Department. Nowadays the situation is the reverse. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I sympathize with people who went to Korea thinking it would be different than it turned out to be. On the other hand, with their credentials many people wouldn’t have had a chance of teaching at a university in the United States even thirty-some years ago.

Look, we all know that it’s probably been too easy to get a teaching job here just because you had the right native language. But now it’s going to be harder if you don’t have more credentials and a plan. The Ministry of Education is also forecasting I think a 20% decrease in college enrollment in Korea in thirty years because of the declining population. It’s already started planning ways to contract the university system and has changed the funding formulas for how they distribute federal funds to universities. From what I understand, schools will only get their funds now if they demonstrate how they are going to handle population decline. So in anticipation of this there’s a kind of unofficial long-term hiring freeze. It’s going to be harder and harder for people who don’t have a master’s to get a job they want here.

I’ve heard a master’s plus two years university teaching experience, not including the time you spent at the university where you are currently teaching. I think the confusion and discontent among expats comes from the regulations’ being interpreted in different ways, which has always been a problem with Korean regulations.

One thing Yonsei does beautifully is recognize how time-consuming it can be to develop courses and write papers. When there are high expectations for research output the administration is definitely reasonable about a teaching load. It’s nice to work for an institution that understands. I have it so much better than most of my friends in the United States.

At Yonsei everything is tied to research—all promotion and reappointments are contingent on research output. The point system gives 90% for research and 10% comes from teaching.

That’s university-wide. Yonsei supports faculty research very well. Unfortunately, my college is teaching-intensive. So we’re pulled both ways. But I wake up every morning thankful for this job.

My closest Korean friend still does not have tenure after ten years of teaching and publishing and doing the extra work which is assigned to the lowest-ranking tenure-track faculty.

I have commitments through next week. I spend a lot of time in meetings, on junkets, entertaining people and planning things. Ten years for a tenure decision is pretty typical at Yonsei.

We have a bilingual staff to take care of things, especially for the international faculty who don’t know Korean. It’s so much easier for them to do it than to explain to an American how to do it. So then when I get home from work I have to remember that I don’t have an assistant working for me.

A reader writes:

Interesting article. Thanks, Carol. Relevant stuff for my career…I will look forward to part 2!

Another reader writes:
Good article, quite similar to my experiences teaching Media Studies here the past few years.
Jobs have definitely improved over the years, as have teachers’ credentials.
Yet another reader:
Thanks much for this, Carol.  Since I teach on the Dept. of Global Studies at Pusan National U, which has a similar program to UIC, I can relate to what H. Christian Blood is saying