East Asian studies may add Korean focus

Currently, East Asian studies majors at Yale can choose to concentrate on either China or Japan, but not on Korea. Now, members of Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies, or CEAS, are working to change that.

CEAS chairperson professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan said in an e-mail that the council hopes to have Korean studies at Yale by the fall of 2003. A Korea Task Force, which includes faculty, administrators and students, is trying to obtain outside funding this year to bring visiting professors specializing in Korean culture and history to Yale over a three-year period, Yiengpruksawan said.

Yiengpruksawan said the creation of a Korean concentration within the East Asian Studies major will depend on CEAS’s ability to secure the resources necessary to solidify a Korean component within the program.

“We cannot say anything about a Korea concentration for the major until we actually have a Korean programmatic component in place,” Yiengpruksawan said.

Currently, Yale offers a limited number of Korean language and history courses within the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department. But, there are no “Koreanists” on the Yale faculty, Yiengpruksawan said.

The relatively small number of academic resources available to students on Korea has led students and faculty members to push for a permanent place for Korean studies at Yale.

“We now have no sustained coverage in Korean history, culture or social science despite the increasing importance of Korea, economically and otherwise, to the emerging global community and economy,” Yiengpruksawan said.



Catching up to peer institutions

In contrast to Yale, other major universities, including Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles, offer well-developed Korean programs that feature a variety of courses and permanent professors.

Adrian Hong ’05, a member of the Korea Task Force who is currently working for CEAS, said Yale’s lack of a Korean studies program almost affected his college decision.

“I was contemplating going to Harvard because of that,” he said.

Hong is currently helping CEAS to obtain a grant from the Federal Department of Education to help finance the creation of Korean studies at Yale.

Richard Strassberg, chairman of UCLA’s Interdepartmental Program in East Asian Studies, said he thinks Korean studies have become prominent in American academia because of Korea’s historical and current relationship with the United States.

“Korea has been an historically important culture in East Asia, a bridge between China and Japan, as well as a country that is geographically and economically important to the U.S. today,” Strassberg said in an e-mail.

University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings, an expert on modern Korean history, said in an e-mail that the rising interest in Korea can be attributed to a growing population of young people interested and influenced by Korean culture.

“The field has been transformed, primarily from below, by a large influx of young people here and by a true flowering of scholarship in South Korea in the past 20 years,” he said.

Cumings said he believes Yale is heading in the right direction with its efforts to establish Korean studies.

“Yale is doing the right thing — and your administrators out there will not regret it,” Cumings said.



Departmental resistance?

Although Yale’s Korea Task Force is making progress, Yiengpruksawan said the group has encountered some resistance from a few members of the Yale faculty and administration. Yiengpruksawan said she could not be more specific because she believes that, in time, her colleagues in East Asian Studies will agree on the importance of a Korean concentration.

Cumings said resistance to Korean studies often comes from within the East Asian academic community.

“All around the country, teachers of Japanese and Chinese have huge fears of losing students if Korean is offered, because so many [Korean-Americans] take those languages,” he said. “Sinologists and Japanologists, who naturally want an historian for every important dynasty or historical period going back to antiquity, do not want one of their positions drained away by a Korean history position.”

But whether or not the Korea Task Force succeeds in creating Korean studies at Yale, a number of improvements have already been made, Hong said. A new, CEAS-organized Korean lecture series has brought experts on Korea like Cumings to give talks at Yale this semester. In addition, a CEAS postdoctoral program has created new seminars on Korean politics and literature.

Sociology professor Deborah Davis, a member of the Korea Task Force, said the lack of a Korean concentration was a shortcoming of Yale’s East Asian Studies program.

“For those of us in East Asian Studies, Korea has always been a player,” she said.

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