Gary Kennedy on Obstacles Faced by Foreign Professors in Korea
A British friend of mine, Gary Kennedy, whom I got to know through the international church that I attend, SIBC, and who also taught the same time as I at Kyung Hee University, has recently published a thought-provoking article in the JoongAng Daily on Korean education, "Foreign profs face obstacles in Korea" (August 30, 2010). His experiences don't exactly parallel my own, for he's in the sciences, whereas I'm in the humanities, so I have no need of the lab space for research that he requires, but some obstacles that we've encountered have been similar:
As a professor at two universities in Seoul for the past five and a half years, I've noticed that Korean universities in recent times -- instead of focusing on improving their education quality -- have been hurriedly employing foreign professors to improve their ranking so they can appear to be global players.As I stated above, some experiences differ. Unlike my friend Gary, I've had a number of excellent students whose English is quite good and who are interested in more than rote memorization, but this privilege comes from working as a professor in departments of English language and literature, where English skills would understandably be better. Nevertheless, I concur with Gary that the general problem of the disinterested student who expects a high grade for little effort and low quality exists also in the humanities, and such students can abruptly derail one's academic career by submitting low teaching evaluations as revenge.
While this may result in a better ranking, it is detrimental to students and limits severely the career tracks of foreign professors.
Today, once a foreign professor is employed, he or she simply teaches a standard quota of classes -- the same as Korean professors do. But many obstacles prevent effective teaching and learning.
First, students' English language ability is insufficient. Second, the technical content is difficult (particularly in science and engineering). Third, the student doesn't want to or can't communicate with the professor during question-and-answer sessions. Fourth, the traditionally minded university student believes he should get high scores while simultaneously believing he's on a four-year holiday after working hard to enter university. Fifth, the student focuses on memorization rather than understanding the material and applying new knowledge to real problems. And finally, the student expects the professor to feed him all that he needs to pass the exam comfortably.
It is also incredible that students are never held accountable for poor performance, while at the same time they are allowed to make judgments on professors. These class evaluation can significantly affect the contract renewal of foreign professors. In addition, Korean students' evaluations are taken seriously even though they've never developed effective study skills. As a result, students have little motivation to adopt effective learning strategies for the benefit of their future careers, creating a "mission impossible" situation for foreign professors who are trying to teach their students effectively.
Obtaining tenure in a Korean university is extremely difficult for a foreigner, and I speak from experience as a foreign professor who has published at least two articles per year for the past ten years while teaching in Korean universities. Once, I even had a tenure position as Assistant Professor (조교수, i.e., Jo Gyo Su) that was altered to a contract job as Visiting Professor (초빙교수, i.e., Cho Bing Gyo Su) when the university decided that no foreigner could hold tenure. I was informed that the Korean National Assembly had passed a law stipulating that limitation on foreigners, a 'fact' that I doubted but decided not to contest at the time because I had a wife and two young children to support and couldn't run the risk of suffering penury.
I would add to Gary's article the point that foreign professors often find themselves caught in the crossfire of Korea's culture war between 'conservatives' and 'progressives', and being pegged as one or the other -- often for mystifying reasons -- translates into implacable opposition by either the 'progressives' or the 'conservatives', a consequence almost invariably fatal to the career of a foreign professor lacking in the Korean connections to counter such opposition.
At any rate, any non-Korean interested in pursuing a career at a Korean university will definitely want to read Gary's entire article.