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[Kim Seong-kon] Crisis of the university English department

With the passage of the bill in the National Assembly for the incorporation of Seoul National University in 2012, the SNU Department of English is under fire once again. Under the new system, all SNU departments will be reformed for greater efficiency, just like a commercial company. The English Department has much work to be done and still seems like a dinosaur: mammoth in size, hopelessly old-fashioned and highly inefficient. Hence, the once flourishing and much admired English Department is now facing an unprecedented crisis. 

University administrators, for example, wonder why the English Department has to have so many faculty members. “Why does the English Department need a group of professors for each period and each genre?” they ask in suspicious tones. Indeed, it seems quite a luxury to have a specialist for 18th century British literature, one for the 19th century and another for the 20th century.

In the case of faculty members at the University of Tokyo, which has already been incorporated, their business cards carry titles such as Professor of English Fiction, Professor of English Poetry, or Professor of English Drama. Indeed, wouldn’t it be enough to have a specialist for each genre? Perhaps we may need one more expert on British literary theory. Then four faculty members would be enough to cover British literature, as well as four for American literature. Then the remaining 20 professors in the SNU English Department must be surplus men. At least, the administrators seem to believe so.

Meanwhile, students, too, do not hesitate to express their disappointment in the English Department. “We entered the English Department expecting to improve our English proficiency,” they complain, “but we find few courses that serve our intentions.” They also grumble, “We do not want to be specialists in 18th or 19th century British literature. What does it have to do with our future careers anyway?” After graduation, most English majors find jobs at private companies, secondary schools or government agencies. So they want to take practical English courses such as “English Conversation,” “English Composition” or “Business English,” all of which are not readily available in the English Department.

Company personnel offices criticize the English Department as well. They protest: “We hired English majors because we thought they could speak fluent English. But they could not say a word when foreign buyers came to us.” Naturally, companies want the English Department to train its students either as fluent speakers of English or as specialists in British and American culture. Unfortunately, the English Department seems to fail in both.

The Department of English also has enemies within SNU. With the rapid decline of enrollment in foreign languages, other language departments, especially the German and French departments, have been blaming the English Department for their unpopularity. “Only the English Department is flourishing in this age of crisis in the humanities,” they cry out in exasperation. “They sweep up all the incoming students and prosper while we suffer sharp decline.” They argue that students should learn European languages as well. In reality, however, students are only interested in learning English. The English Department is hardly responsible for such a phenomenon. Nevertheless, it has unwittingly become the target of other language departments’ jealousy and grudges.

These situations all seem to point to a fundamental question: “What is the identity of the English Department in Korea?”

Professors of English assert that they are not English language teachers and therefore the English Department is not a place where students learn conversational or business English. “If you want to improve your English proficiency,” mutter professors of English, “you should go to a hagwon (private academy), not to the English department.”

It is true that the English Department is not an English language institute. Nevertheless, we should consider the fact that our English Department is different from those of English-speaking countries, because English is not our native language. Accordingly, we need to modify our age-old curriculum and teaching methods to suit our unique situation. Some professors mistakenly insist that the sole aim of the English Department is to produce scholars of English literature. This may be true when it comes to graduate students, but certainly not of undergraduate students.

There may be a way to solve this dilemma and create a win-win situation. We can improve our students’ English skills and simultaneously serve the goals of liberal education by reading intermediate literary texts. Reading masterpieces written in English and discussing them in English will surely enable our students not only to improve their English proficiency, but also to experience intellectual adventures and cultural understanding

It would be inappropriate, indeed, if we forced our undergraduate students to take 18th or 19th century British literature. We should also offer a host of interesting courses which are helpful to our students, such as “Race, Gender and Identity in English Literature,” “Literature and Film” or “American Pop Culture.” Then we may be able to kill two birds with one stone, free from criticism. 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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