Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Gary Kennedy on Obstacles Faced by Foreign Professors in Korea

Foreign Professor in a Korean University
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

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.

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.
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.

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.

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At 11:41 AM, Blogger John B said...

"Foreign professors who apply for a post at a better Korean university will most likely be rejected because they couldn’t produce sufficient research papers in international journals. . . It’s an evaluation system that is out of step with the rest of the world."

That sounds like the evaluation strategy of everywhere else, actually.

I expect that foreign professors could try to lean on their department committees and get bilingual grad students formally assigned to liaison duties, which could help locate funding and navigate administration. I've heard Korean professors often bully their grad students into much more menial tasks, and that kind of admin experience would be very useful to students seeking a career in academia.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The problem is exacerbated in Korea for those professors in the sciences who can't get laboratory space for research.

I know one who tried to get a graduate student to help, but the student was ordered by a Korean professor not to help.

I didn't have that problem, since I'm in the humanities, but I was once at a university as a contract-based assistant professor and wasn't provided an office. I used the faculty lounge to meet students but was informed that I shouldn't do this. I don't know what that university expected, but the place clearly didn't take foreign professors seriously.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:04 PM, Blogger John B said...

I get his point about lab space, and I get that it probably comes down to the crappy academic job market and Korean schools that are basically treating foreign faculty as particularly exotic adjunct instructors. But I've also seen (even un-tenured) professors throw tantrums over the most minor issues. There is a lot to gain, and, based on the state of affairs he describes in his editorial, not much to lose. And if communication is really so bad as he says, working in academia just isn't worth it.

I guess my point is, I'm waiting for someone to say that some faculty members are making things work out despite the considerable resistance.

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There will always be some spoiled foreign faculty, but they don't hang around long, thank goodness.

Gary's not one of those, and I hope that I'm not.

A few foreigners have good positions, of course.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:53 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

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.

Don't think you would fare much better in the States in the new economic climate in many colleges and universities. It amazing how many classes are taught by adjunct professors. I had a professor who lost his track to tenure, so they would not have to pay his benefits. He wouldn't work as an adjunct and left. Fortunately for him he had a business. I had one adjunct say they could fare much better working at Walmart.

They also keep just enough tenured professors and research to maintain the prestige.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An article in line with the comment of Hathor:

"Why South Korean Universities Have Low International Rankings"

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...and limits severely the career tracks of foreign professors."

You needn't be overly concerned Jeff, remember Cran's got you topping the list in the will.

Incidentally, where's the old fellow been? More bulldogging?


At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, perhaps tenure was a thing that had its time and place but is now going the way of the dinosaur . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, that article's address gets cut off, at least on my screen, so here's the proper link:

"Why South Korean Universities Have Low International Rankings."

If you look at the coding provided under "Leave your comment," you'll find that linking is pretty convenient -- and more reliable.

Yes, I know that I can rely on Uncle Cran concerning the assurance of my future financial status.

But where is he? Not bulldogging, just busy with farmwork.

Also, some of his in-laws are getting old now, which is taking some of his time, I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the link.

Blogger, by the way, must be having some problems today. I received an email that this link was posted in an earlier comment, but the comment itself never appeared here.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, your comment with link is now missing again. Apologies to you. I hope that Blogger resolves this problem soon.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to point people to a recent discussion on the treatment of foreign faculty in Korea:

"Korean Universities are Ranked Low (partly due to bias toward foreign faculty)"

Hopefully, my comment appears this time.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another recent (opinion) article that is probably of interest to readers of this blog post:

"Protectionism in South Korean Universities"

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, they've appeared. I hope that they remain. But let me post the links in this comment:

"Korean Universities are Ranked Low (partly due to bias toward foreign faculty)"

Protectionism in South Korean Universities

Let's see if this works.

Jeffery Hodges

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