Posted by: scottishboomerang | August 1, 2007

The Good Life in Korean Academia.

There is probably no academic in the world who does not have some gripe against their institutions. If you are a postgrad student, you complain that your ideas get nicked by your professors (not a problem at my place, but I know of it happening elsewhere), or inadequate living conditions, or library or IT provision.  If you are a lecturer, you complain of lack of tenure or funding. If you are a tenured professor (for Brits, read “lecturer/researcher on a permenant contract”) you complain your university does not actually let you do any research because you are forced to teach things not related to your research or spend your time form-filling. 

But by far the most ignoble thing for professors and academics at Western institutions, (men and women who have spent years applying their expensively educated brains to further human knowledge, endevour and enterprise), is the size of their offices.  At every university I have seen in Britian, your average lecturer, who sports usually at least two advanced degrees, is confined to a room the size of a small shoebox, with no natural light, which she must share with 3 other professors plus a couple of postgraduate research students or post-docs.

Not in Korea. Not at my law school. The norm in Korea for a tenure-track professor is a roomy office to yourself.  HILS  is a place which has a space problem though. With an expanding student roll, there is actually a shortage of classrooms. With an expanding number of faculty members, they had to create new rooms by taking space from the lawschool lounge.  What they haven’t done is ask professors (all, bar a couple of exceptions, North American) to double up. So very large offices – in effect the same size as a smallish classroom that you can easily fit a class of 20 students at a squeeze – are being inhabited by one professor per room.

Given the same set of circumstances – as a tenured professor –  I would love the Korean set up. Korean universities in general offer some of the best working conditions, and an almost religious respect for faculty. Its also very difficult for a foriegner to get tenure in Korea – something which Handong should be praised for. You will not find, at my university, the sad practice of sacking professors at the four-year mark to avoid giving them tenure, a practice which is nearly universal in Korean academia.  For this progressive and pioneering attitude, we have to thank Handong’s President Kim, who is a true xenophile in an incredibly xenophoblic and nationalistic culture, who has at all times led by his wonderful example.

The unversity though, is very Korean, and a naturally conservative place. The pitfalls for foreign professors there are perhaps more subtle. The confucian way – the deferential respect and reverence by the students and broader society for a university teacher (hense the big offices) – is easy to get used to.  It’s also easy to get used to students never questioning your opinions (a surewire way to get intellectually lazy) .  Shut away in your big office away from everyone else also discourages by a geographical process interaction, debate and intellectual exchange between faculty.  In teaching then also,  the eastern way of proscribing thought – the “jug and mug” approach to teaching, as opposed to a method which is truelly Socratic – can also creep in. 

One of the things which strikes me about my law school is what an odd hybrid it is: a hybrid between to very different styles of education, an odd mesh of constantly shifting cultural boundries. Add to this mix Christian conservatism, and you have a curious tug between proscriptive teaching – the antithesis to the Socratic method – and Western style intellectual discovery.  I have observed that its fairly easy, in Korea, to slide towards the former, especially as religious conservatism tends to naturally discourge debate (it doesn’t have to, but unfortunately thats the trend). Its a short step then to discouraging intellectual inquiry as well.


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