On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 2: A Little Context For You

[Note: You’ll probably get more out of this if you start at part 1.]

Last time, I noted that the normal approach to undergraduate university humanities education in Korea seems to involve far less writing than in universities I’ve attended in Canada, and what I’ve heard from friends who studied in England, Scotland, America, Australia, and other places.

Allow me to elaborate: as a music student, I did almost no writing except in my elective courses. This is problematic, but I will defend it slightly by saying we did a lot of submitting of work — but they were music theory exercises, analyses of pieces, and so on. Still, I didn’t learn to write as a music student. It was comparable in the Introduction to Computer Science course I did — a lot of work to hand in, but no “essays.”

But in humanities courses? Essays were the done thing. Even in classes that required in-class essays (almost always essay questions) I was still usually required to write at least two essay per semester — and often, it was 3 or 4 essays, about one per month.

Granted, teachers with sizeable enough classes had teaching assistants, and granted, I rarely got too much feedback on the work. I’m not saying it was always a way in which professors helped me learn, and in fact I wholeheartedly agree with what Gerald Graff wrote argued in Clueless in Academe (my review of the book is here), namely that:

schools and colleges themselves reinforce cluelessness and thus perpetuate the misconceptions that the life of the mind is a secret society for which only an elite few qualify.

I had precisely one professor in all my years of university who actually modeled academic writing for me. One. The expectation was that I would just go out and read a bunch of academic writing, and learn by observation and imitation. And I did, and it worked, but then again, I had to learn, since I was handing in essays every few weeks or at least once a month.

Pardon my French, but this way that I learned how to write,  is quite frankly a bass-ackwards way to learn writing, and to be honest, all of what I learned about argumentation in those years came from hanging out on mailing lists (like this one) and arguing with smart-and-opinionated people… well, and also sometimes some rather bizarre, unbalanced-and-opinionated ones.

This is also a bass-ackwards way to teach writing. The thing is, my response is that writing should, instead, be taught well at the start of one’s studies, and then nurtured, pushed to grow and grow throughout a program… not just dropped from teaching altogether.

But in Korea, it doesn’t seem to work that way, at least not at a lot of universities. Not at the ones I’ve worked at, anyway.

I did a little poll of my current students. Unscientific, to be sure, but I asked them how many of them had taken a writing course in Korean at some point, and learned about essay-writing in Korea.

I was floored by the results: the only academic writing courses they ever take are focused on writing in English — thereby guaranteeing they don’t have a solid foundation to build on, and that they’re not equipped with the standards, norms, and skills of basic writing when they start doing it in a foreign language.

(And I’ll add a caveat: I’ve been given a lot of leeway to diversify the writing course offerings in our department. A lot, for which I am grateful, and which I think has had a good effect in general. We have Creative Writing classes now, taught according to the Milford method. We have Journalistic Writing courses, where students can focus on basic writing skills and on developing style without the encumbrances particular to academic writing. These are great things. So I’m getting a lot more support in terms of more course offerings, and more diverse offerings.

(But this doesn’t translate into a program where writing is a high priority. For that to be the cases, students would have to be writing constantly, for the majority of their courses. And that’s not something that’s about to happen even if everyone I work with agrees with me, for reasons I’ll elaborate in Part 3.)

Let me emphasize the most singular problem as I see it:

The students I teach, and I suspect many, many undergraduate students in Korean humanities programs, don’t actually take explicit university-level courses on how to do academic writing in Korean, in their mother tongue. There’s nothing to systematically clue them in regarding things like citation, plagiarism, how to structure an argument, how to make an argument, indeed why to make an argument at all.

I’ve been told by a couple of foreign students doing graduate studies here that a lot of their Korean peers don’t really seem to have much idea about writing even in their mother tongue until graduate school, where suddenly it’s something they’re expected to do at a professional level. (And the attendant struggle is a little more understandable. Imagine writing an MA thesis when you’ve never written an essay before, or never gotten any instruction on how to write one, even.)

To put it in perspective: imagine trying to learn to write a stylistically correct essay or argument in, say, Chinese, or French, or Arabic, or Hindi, without having mastered — or even gotten basic instruction about — writing academically in your mother tongue.

I’d assumed they were getting proper writing instruction in Korean at some point, and that what I was getting in the form of English-language assignments was a result of some mix of struggle, slacking off, and a major lack of inputs in the target language. I was wrong, and that throws new light on what I’ve been doing in the classroom: I’d been asking them to present such arguments, and then doing my best to pick out the ideas amid all the inevitable garbling (and correct the basic grammar, syntax, and structure, without overwhelming them). This also suggests something of what I need to change about my approach to having students present their own critical ideas (which I’ve often asked them to do in essay form).

But first: why is this the case? That’s the next installment in this series.

Series Navigation<< On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 1: Sarcasm, and a RecognitionOn Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 3: When in Rome… Stop and Ask Yourself: Why Do Romans Do What They Do? >>

2 thoughts on “On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 2: A Little Context For You

  1. For better or worse, since I am grading, and have tasks due by the end of the month, I’ll keep the comments short.

    Writing: I teach two courses which have writing components. (Lsst semester, I had about 80 students in those two classes, and i required 2 papers each – so that’s 160 papers that I read in two weeks for grading – not fun). Basically, the problem is that these kids have no training in writing. In high school, writing (except for writing silly half-page essay required for college entrance exams) is thought of as a waste of time, because it does not directly add to their test scores; and in college, professors don’t want to spend the time grading papers. (Young professors are too busy cranking out papers required for recontracting, or doing projects that actually gives money, fame and/or recognition – older professors are too busy golfing). So these kids don’t get to write. They just get half-baked summaries on how to (theoretically) write a paper. They have to learn to write when they get hired for jobs. (And they wonder companies are reluctant to hire recently graduated kids with no experience). You’ll also notice that high school teachers and college professors blame each other for this mess, but do nothing to actually *change* it.

    The sad thing is, I learned the basics of writing in 5-7 grades in the US, and it has served me very well up to the university level – which means Korean students are not even getting a decent elementary school education. (Which is not to say that these elementary school kids are not busy…)

    I tend to think that (for our university) we should replace most of the freshmen humanities and analytic courses with just basic courses on writing (with feedback from instructors) and a course on how to prepare and apply for jobs; but then I start wondering – where do we get enough qualified teachers to teach these classes? Given the lack of students with experience in writing, there is (naturally) a lack of qualified teachers, so the problem gets steadily worse. I certainly don’t want to spend my entire semester reading mediocre papers; and I hardly consider myself a good writer.

    This semester, one of my writing courses were taught in English, and students had to submit papers in English (though only 2-4 pages each). It’s fascinating. The sentencees make sense as literal translations of Korean into English, and would sound natural in Korean; but in English, it reads needlessly complicated, includes many many useless phrases and clauses, and avoids directness and specificity. I am convinced more than ever that you have to approach writing in that language’s own terms.

    Concerning sarcasm – the pseudo – Confuscianism Korean culture which forces the young to respect the old, or the followers to respect the leaders (no matter whether they deserve respect or not) IMO discourages real sarcasm, or even biting humor, so what you are left with is … anger.

  2. Junsok,

    Thanks for the comment, I know you’re busy. I figured college and high school teachers would blame one another.

    And wow, 2 papers from a class of 80… I salute you! (And again, I want to stress, all of this is my doing archaeological guesswork based on what my students tell me. Then again, it’s also stuff I cannot inquire about directly. I can’t survey my colleagues about how much written work they assign, as there’s the high chance that someone can interpret criticism implicit in the question, even if it is just a case of my trying to understand.)

    Once I get to a class of 50, I start wondering if I can actually handle 2 papers. (Especially when some of them are going to be written by people who just can’t write in English.)

    I will admit, your case makes me feel like a slacker, in terms of what I write in the rest of this series. Though, as you point out, I need to get cranking out papers… if it’s not already too late. Hmmm.

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