[Note: You’ll probably get more out of this if you start at part 1.]
So, we’ve established that Korean humanities programs — or at least a number of them — seem not to prioritize writing. We’ve established that this conflicts with the normal Anglophone idea (or at least, a common idea from the Anglophone world) of how a humanities education works.
I want to emphasize, though that this is not just a philosophical difference. The philosophical difference has profound effects, down to the level of budget, the level of resource allocation, and more — and that this is a self-reinforcing situation. If you think I’m slagging on Korean professors without context, here’s my chance to disabuse you of this notion: they’re trapped in the same system I am, and that system is structured in a way that profoundly limits how much writing ca be assigned to students — and how much teaching of writing can be achieved at the undergraduate level, too.
Here are a few examples of how and why I say this:
- In none of the universities where I’ve worked has a Korean “TA” (조교) been anything like what a Canadian TA or RA is. All the Korean TAs I’ve ever met were office staff, plain and simple. (Which opens a whole new kettle of fish: while they can sometimes help with grading multiple choice exams, they are wholly ill equipped — and too busy — to do first readings of essays, no matter how big your class size is. So in a class of 70 students, assigning anything but the most easily-graded work is simply insane. It’s not just class size: it’s class size and lack of administrative support for teaching it properly, that I’m highlighting here.
- Semester schedules at schools in Canada where I’ve studied or taught tended to be designed to allow for the possible inclusion of writing components in all courses. For example, deadlines for submitting grades after final exams were not so close to the end of the exam period — a system which all but forces profs to give nothing but multiple-choice exams, or simply set aside their whole lives (and I mean everything) for two or three weeks while they work through all that grading. Eventually, one’s need to meet the deadline trumps one’s desire to teach well, or to evaluate effectively. It just has to. Having a pack of administrative business-suited non-academics sitting on your shoulders wears you down after a while, is all. It’s worn me down, after all, and I’m an idealist.
- Teaching of writing is not structurally mandated into departmental programs in the same way. When I was a grad student, I got a teaching assistant gig in which I basically served as an extra adjunct writing prof. That is to say — a large pool of students and a large pool of part-time professors did writing instruction. This was budgeted, it was organized, and it was seen as important enough to offer enough classes that all students on campus could take it. Even engineers.
- Publish-or-perish in the West doesn’t always seem to consist of the equivalent of dropping professors in a shark tank full of blood and being told swim… or die. People do get let go if they’re not publishing, of course — but my impression is that some Korean universities are almost draconian about it. (I was told a shocking story a year ago of a professor whose last publication requirement for attaining tenure was in the queue for publication in the spring… a month or two after his final deadline. The paper had been accepted, but many (usually more well-regarded) journals outside Korea take longer to publish… a fact disregarded by administrators who, after all, have no idea about how academic publication works anyway. What happened? The professor was unceremoniously dismissed. (Maybe he was lacking connections, or had an enemy above him someplace, or maybe they were making an example out of him, I don’t know, but it was still pretty shocking.) Even those who would like to dedicate time to quality teaching need to perform triage, in order to stay in a position where they can make a difference.
So I’m not blaming Korean professors alone for this. There’s a systemic component to it: while I have no doubt some couldn’t care less whether their students learn to write, I’m sure some do… but they’re faced with the same situation as I am, and the same necessity of triage that I am faced with. And, of course, enrollment in their classes isn’t filtered by people who couldn’t be bothered to sit through English-language lectures, so their classes are on average even bigger than mine.
So I am resolving, now, to two things:
- This is Rome. I might not need to visit the temple and worship Jupiter, but I’d damned well better find a way to make Rome livable for me.
- I’m not going to live like other Romans, however, in part because I think there are new ways of doing things that can push stuff in a positive direction.
I’ll give an example of this: I have at least a few former students who studied literature with me, and who have emailed me to let me know that they are working on becoming professors of Korean literature, or some other humanities field, and who plan on integrating as much as they can of the methods I used with them. I have a particularly touching email from a student who said she was so excited to teach students to have their own ideas and opinions — and express them — about Korean literature.
So I think that while adjusting to Rome is a necessity, I don’t think living as the Romans do is necessarily the way to do it. Not if you want to be a force for good in the lives of your students.
And I do.
How? More about that next time.