[Robert J. Fouser] Promoting popular Korean studies

By Robert J. Fouser
  • Published : Sept 11, 2018 - 17:15
  • Updated : Sept 11, 2018 - 17:15

September is moving time in university cities and college towns across Europe and North America as students get settled for the new academic year. For many young people, the move from home to university housing is a rite of passage.

A look at the universities that students are moving to reveals the great diversity of universities. The media, particularly in Korea, focuses on old elite universities such as Harvard or Oxford, but only a tiny percentage of universities fit this category. Europe has the oldest universities in the world, but many of these universities are not elite. Other countries, such as China and Japan, have elite universities that are young compared to their peers in Europe and North America.

The Korean media also likes to rank universities overseas because Korean universities have long been ranked according to a rigid hierarchy. This has created a distorted understanding of the diversity of higher education around the world. Some students may focus only on elite institutions rather than the institutions that meet their needs. University administrators may also be blinded by reputation and overlook interesting opportunities for academic exchange.

The interest in elite institutions also effects government efforts to promote Korean studies overseas. Investing in promoting Korean studies at elite institutions is a natural place to start because it helps raise Korea’s profile among future leaders. Elite institutions are also strongest in research, so investing in them helps promote research on Korea. This effort made sense when few elite institutions offered any courses on Korea.

Things have changed as Korea’s international profile has risen. As Korea has become more popular, a much wider range of students has taken an interest in Korea. K-pop, Hallyu, food, fashion, and digital culture have driven this change. Korea is now cool, and student interests naturally reflect that.

Korean studies today has grown into the two distinct strands: academic Korean studies and popular Korean studies. Academic Korean studies focus on teaching and researching Korea from a rigorous academic perspective. These universities have professors who specialize in Korea within a traditional academic discipline and who are associated with a Korean studies center. They teach and advise graduate students who later go on to teach in Korean studies programs.

Popular Korean studies, by contrast, focus on teaching about Korea to help students understand more about the Korean cultural production that interests them. The emphasis is on contemporary Korea, often within the broader context of popular culture. Learning may go beyond the classroom to include short-term stays in Korea or other forms of experiential learning.

Language learning illustrates the differences between the two strands well. In academic Korean studies, learning Korean is an important step to becoming a competent researcher. This often includes learning Chinese characters and for certain fields, classical Chinese.

In popular Korean studies, learning Korean is a way to understand Korea. Language learning contains a strong cultural component and is often linked to other forms of experiential learning. The emphasis is naturally on spoken Korean, and students are free to set their own goals.

The problem in comparing the two strands of Korean studies is that popular Korean studies in Europe and North America exist as a potential, not a reality. The reality is that Korean studies are concentrated in elite, mostly research, universities, which makes it difficult for the popular strand of Korean studies to take root.

To develop popular Korean studies, more universities, particularly non-elite institutions, need to teach about Korea. Opening language classes, survey courses on Korean culture and history, and experiential learning programs in Korea at more institutions will give more students a chance to learn about Korea. In the US, for example, 75 percent of students go to a public university, but only large elite state universities offer any teaching on Korea.

Since its founding in 1991, the Korea Foundation has taken the lead among Korean institutions in promoting Korean studies abroad but there is a limit to what it can do. Instead, an organic approach is needed. Students need to push their institutions to open classes on Korea. Korean organizations overseas need to encourage institutions to do so. And Korean universities need to encourage partner institutions to do so.

The boom in Korean language and popular Korean studies in Japan in the 2000s, much of which was due to Hallyu, shows the potential of this organic approach. The biggest impetus, however, came from students who pushed their universities to act. Students, after all, are why universities exist in the first place.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.