On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 3: When in Rome… Stop and Ask Yourself: Why Do Romans Do What They Do?

[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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Series Navigation<< On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 2: A Little Context For YouOn Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 4: Finding Your Own Way to Live in Rome >>

6 thoughts on “On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 3: When in Rome… Stop and Ask Yourself: Why Do Romans Do What They Do?

  1. Actually, Romans are leaving Rome. At least in the field of economics, there are fewer Korean students going to Ph.D programs abroad; and (unlike pre-2000s were virtually all of them came back), very few are coming back.

    Our department is looking for new Korean professors for the last two years, and we only had two new Ph.D’s applying. Further, I am told that this is the same situation for virtually all other schools except the top 5-7 economics departments, whose requirements are closer the American standards.

    (The really idiotic thing is that while we *say* we want young fresh Ph.Ds. in order to achieve transparency, we require publication. Obviously, young Ph.Ds did not have the time to actually publish. Can you say “Catch-22”?

    And you can’t completely blame the universities for this rule – it comes out of the government guidelines which recommend higher levels of transparency, which means emphasis on things you can count; and the guidelines which require higher standards for research. So, due to government’s insistence that we do more research, we are actually turning away people who can do most research. Can you say “paradox”?)

    1. Junsok,

      Yeah, the Romans leaving Rome… hmmm. That’s… alarming.

      As for blaming or not blaming universities… the thing is, universities have, in the past, ignored all kinds of rules and laws. In fact, universities across Korea routinely ignore rules that our university seems off-and-on to enforce, like the hire-for-2-years-then-fire “rule” which has become the popular interpretation of the labour law for hiring temporary workers.

      Also, it occurred to me the other day to wonder what kind of high-pressure, perform-or-perish standards are being applied to the Administration workers at our university? I know for a fact that at least several employees in one Administrative department have cost the university millions of won in damage out of ineptitude and lack of interest in doing their jobs, but they seem to hold onto their jobs year after year. It’s bizarre they would have better job security than faculty who actually do the teaching… it’s not like some admin is about to get canned after ten years of service because his final publication is coming out after some technical deadline.

      Which has nothing to do with me, mind. If I’m sacked for not publishing enough, well… that’s life, and I was busy doing other things like bringing my blood pressure doing and pushing my fiction-writing career. But the real paradox to me seems that the people who are being so “inflexible” in enforcing these rules are not subject themselves in any meaningful way to any comparable inflexibility.

    2. Bradley,

      I know, I actually am revising my thinking a little on account of the essays I just finished grading. Some of them were pretty much amazingly good, given what the students have to work with. (A few were flat-out wow without that caveat.) It is very hard to let go of the idea that writing is an important skill — because one shouldn’t. It’s just, I’m less completely convinced that writing should be the default medium we ask students to use to demonstrate what they’ve learned or mastered or whatever… unless what we’re asking them to master in the particular class is writing itself. I’ll be posting more about this in the next few weeks, I think.

      Junsok,

      On your second comment: yeah, times have changed. Well, I’ll be cranking out some papers this summer, and we’ll see what happens. I have a few good ideas that can be done, and may even be publishable in time, within Korea. But once those are written and submitted, I think I’ll try get back to fiction for a while. I’m getting antsy not working on stories for a week or two now.

  2. In my case, I’m not even teaching in a humanities or liberal arts school. My school is engineering only, and the students have never, ever been required to do much writing it seems.

    I’m not teaching a course in “essay writing.” It isn’t my job to teach that. So I think I’m going to have to let students do other kinds of projects, that don’t include written reports or essays. I’ll let them create a google earth map full of tags or something like that. However, it’s hard for me to let go of, given that my own way of relating to ideas is so oriented to writing.

  3. Oh, and when I joined the faculty in 2003, they required one paper every two years, (that’s 0.5 per year, as opposed to about 1.5 currently). and if you couldn’t fulfill that, I was told that the university gave you an extra year. (And apparently, some professors found that too hard, so they left).

    Times have changed.

  4. Concerning the administrative officials, and what pressures they are under:

    As far as I know, the only pressure they face is sucking up to the boss. They are full-time workers (as opposed to untenured professors who are technically contracted workers – which means limited rights and protections as opposed to “full time” workers). I am not completely sure, but I believe they are also unionized, so they would have the unions and the labor laws protecting them as well. So, I believe the administrators are better protected than non-tenured professors. (I don’t think this is the case for our school, but I’ve heard some professors from other schools say that the administrators get paid at a similar or even slightly better scale than professors as well – but professors can earn money through outside projects. Administrators can’t).

    And you wonder why Korean kids want to be bureaucrats when they grow up.

    Also, on Romans leaving Rome – because the foreign trained PhDs are coming back in fewer numbers, this has created more openings for PhDs from domestic universities. We’ll have to see whether they can actually take up the slack.

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