Stanford Korea Program’s Conference Draws Leading Korean Studies Scholars to Advance a Shared Vision for the Field’s Future in North America

Future Visions: Challenges and Possibilities of Korean Studies in North America — Social Science panel. From left to right: UC Berkeley's Laura Nelson, University of Michigan's Jordan Siegel, Stanford's Yong Suk Lee, USC's David Kang, Harvard's Paul Chang.


How can Korean studies faculty cultivate supportive and critical scholarly communities with graduate students? What can be done to overcome the severe constraints on Korean language training in North America? Why is there a dearth of Korea scholarship in academic literature? And how should Korean studies librarians prepare for the future in the light of new technologies and young researchers’ increasing interest in digital scholarship?

These were some of the questions examined at a two-day conference, “Future Visions: Challenges and Possibilities of Korean Studies in North America,” convened by the Korea Program of Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) on November 1-2. Co-sponsored by the Seoul-based Foundation Academia Platonica, the conference, the first of its kind, gathered distinguished Korean studies scholars from twelve North American institutions to consider the state of the field, assess its challenges, and carry forward a vision for its future direction and potential. Its six unique panels focused not only on the major disciplines of Korean studies—history, literature, and the social sciences—but also on language education, library collections and services, and Korean Wave.

“The presentations and discussions by our fellow experts reflected the breadth and depth of Korean studies in North America,” says APARC Director and the Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin. “Our program was established at Stanford in 2001 and has since become a leader in Korean studies in North America, so it is a special privilege for us to bring together colleagues from eminent institutions around the continent to further advance Korean studies education and research in the academic and policy worlds, and to build upon our track record of action and achievements.”

“The field of Korean studies, however,” notes Shin, “has significantly changed over the past seventeen years and it isn’t without its challenges. This is our opportunity to consider frankly where we go next and how we could explore the path ahead together.”

Conference participants indeed engaged in deep conversations and shared ideas and dilemmas regarding teaching in the different disciplines of Korean studies in North America. Harvard sociologist Paul Chang listed three types of challenges facing the field: publication, academic, and professional challenges. David C. Kang, professor of international relations and director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, emphasized the publication challenge: why is it, asked Kang, that top academic journals in the discipline of political science and international relations publish so much more scholarship about Europe than they do about Korea and Asia at large, even while the rise of Asian nations is surely one of the most consequential issues of the twenty-first century? The onus, Kang argued, comes back to East Asia scholars “to produce better and more compelling scholarship, and to better train graduate students.”

University of British Columbia's Ross King and conference participants.

Yet complex issues surround the question of how to broaden graduate coursework—and whether to do so. Korean language and linguistics expert Ross King, head of the department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, was one of several panelists who considered the obstacles to graduate training, among different aspects of academic challenges facing the field of Korean studies. King probed into how Sinocentrism and what he called the “Mandarin conceit”—that is, the notion that training in Literary Sinitic should be predicated on a near-native proficiency in modern Mandarin Chinese—are emerging as a major stumbling block to the study of premodern Korean literary culture. He also pointed to the constraints on language training in both Korean and hanmun in North America, which, he claimed, is why we can probably anticipate continued decrease in the number of ethnically non-Korean (non-Korea-educated) graduate students undertaking graduate study in Korean literature.

University of Washington's Hyokyoung Yi (left) and Stanford's Joshua Capitanio at a panel on library collections and service.

Sung-Ock Sohn, who coordinates the Korean language program in the department of Asian languages and cultures at the University of California – Los Angeles, further shed light on King’s prediction. She explained that while enrollments in Korean language classes have shown a sharp increase in American higher education institutions in the past decade, particularly at the introductory level and among ethnically non-Korean students, there is a high attrition rate of students from an introductory to advanced Korean classes nationwide.

How should the field move forward?

Participants proposed a host of ideas to that end. These included helping graduate students collaborate with colleagues in Korea; dedicating funding for junior faculty to spend periods of time before tenure conducting research and honing language skills in Korea at appropriate institutions, and for mid-career scholars to spend a year in Korea; emphasizing the application of social science theories and methods to premodern and modern East Asia; motivating scholars to apply a comparative lens to the study of the historical and contemporary experience of East Asia; and integrating linguistic and cultural diversity in Korean language classes by, for example, incorporating service learning in authentic contexts and extending the content spectrum to include topics such as Korean popular culture.


K-pop star Siwon Choi (left) highlights closing panel on Korean Wave.

Korean Wave was the focus of the conference’s widely attended closing panel that featured K-pop star Siwon Choi, a member of Korean boy band Super Junior, and multi-platinum music producer Dominique Rodriguez, managing director of SM Entertainment USA. They spoke about the global reach of Korean pop music and some of the ways in which Korean popular culture could stimulate interest in Korean studies. Dafna Zur, assistant professor in Stanford’s department of East Asian languages and cultures, who chaired the panel, challenged her students to consider “what it means not just to monetize culture but to design culture with specific markets and audience in mind.” The Stanford Daily published a detailed article on the panel.

“We are grateful to Foundation Academia Platonica for its generous support of Stanford’s Korea Program at Shorenstein APARC and for making this conference possible through our shared vision for the future of Korean studies in North America,” said Gi-Wook Shin. “Our thanks also go to our many other friends and partners, including the Korea Foundation that has helped achieve great results through its commitment to promoting understanding of Korea in academia and beyond and its support of the overseas Korean Studies Program since its establishment in 1991.”

South Korean TV company SBS NBC filmed the conference that will be featured in an upcoming documentary about Korean studies in the United States.

Read the conference report or listen to the audio recordings of the sessions, below.