Once more, dear friends, into the breach….

Korea Center PavilionIn my first post here I said that I was going to be teaching a Korean history course for the first time: I lied. Or rather, I was scheduled to teach it, but the course didn’t make its minimum enrollment. However, the time has come to try again.

The last time I did this, I was going to focus it on upper-level undergrads and make it as much about primary sources as possible. The only four books I’d ordered were Korea Old and New: A History (Eckert, Lee, Lew, Robinson, Wagner), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, and the two volumes of the new Sources of Korean Tradition from Columbia.1 Ambitious and, apparently, off-putting in the extreme.

I’m torn, really, on the question of whether to teach a “Rice Paddies” style course — all of Korean history in a single semester — or break it up (as I have my China and Japan courses) into pre/post 1700 (and start with the later one, which should draw more students at first). If I teach the whole history, I might well keep the poetry — I do poetry in my China and Japan courses, and the Korean stuff is lively and diverse — but I can’t see using the Sources sets as-is. This time I want to pitch the course much more broadly, and draw in some of the business and language students — Koreans actually make up one of our largest groups of foreign students, and our business department has a long-standing interest in Korea — so that the course really does reach critical mass. So I’m thinking that the heavy dose of Columbia primary materials is probably not a great idea. That said, I prefer to have students read primary materials as much as possible, or ethnographic-style observations, or historical scholarship which evokes a clear and detailed recreation of a moment or era.

I’d love to hear thoughts from our readers about what works and what doesn’t, what’s come out recently that’s good for students, and especially if there are better textbooks at this point.

Update: I just ran across Kenneth Robinson’s Korean History Bibliography, which looks like a great starting place.

  1. Vol. 1: From Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century ; Vol. 2: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries  


  1. Having been on the student end of this . . .
    Using the Sources set is a great idea, but making students buy the entire set seems like an expensive burden to place on them, particularly if they’ve also got to buy the poetry anthology and Korea Old and New. A course reader composed of the sources you actually are going to use seems like a more effective solution if you’re going to teach it as a single-term course. If you’ve split it up, then the Sources books themselves are neatly split into two volumes, letting students purchase one each term.

  2. Last time I looked into course reader fees, it cost about the same amount to the student if I used as much as 1/5th of the reader. If I used more, buying the book was cheaper.

    I love the Columbia sets, though they’re really more oriented towards graduate students and intellectual historians.

  3. Break at the 1700s?

    That seems pretty arbitrary to me, even if it’s premised on the first European contact. I’d break at the end of the Joseon, but that’s probably because that is where I see the biggest break in Korean literature. 😉

    Different classes, I suppose..

  4. Actually, it’s not based on first contact: this is where I break my China and Japan sequences. It’s arbitrary, I suppose, in the sense that there’s no obvious historical break at the time. That’s the point, actually: to start from a fairly stable place, a functional “traditional” society, before getting into the “impact of the west” era. If I start closer to the modern — 1800, 1850 — it always feels like I’m buying into an old Toynbee-ish declension narrative about the premodern. It makes the 20th century a bit of a trot, but the flip side is that the first half of the course — up to 1700 — also has a more coherent narrative that isn’t overshadowed by the modern.

    I’ve never liked courses that start with a transition: it gives students a false sense, I think, of how complete historical transitions are.

  5. I don’t recommend using a course reader; they generally more painful for poorer students than books are (If worse comes to worse, you can always order a book through the library) and plus the money always feels more of a waste compared to having a nice books for my library. My professor (Hwasook Nam at the University of Washington if you are wondering) actually uses Eckert and Lee’s book along with the sources, and I thought it worked out well. Then again I probably do not fit the audience you are trying to attract (A geeky historical nut that likes reading old things)

  6. I decided to keep it simple for this first time out: Korea Old and New, and the Columbia sources v.2. Then, because the North Korea coverage and age of the text bother me a bit, I’m adding Hyung Gu Lynn’s Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas since 1989 as a kind of capstone reading. I’ll have students doing some reading and presentations of journal article-length pieces for supplements. More details as I have them, but suggestions are always welcome here!

  7. curious: are you using Korea Old and New: A History (Eckert, Lee, Lew, Robinson, Wagner)–a s an example of how not to write a history book? i love the objectivity (LOL), the complete (and i really mean complete) lack of sources, arbitrary research (meaning that you never know how much and of what breadth you will get on any given subject), and a basic lack of integrity usually associated with history books – rigor was definitely not part of the preconditions for writing this book (not surprisingly, by all authors (sic)).

    am i the only one with access to national archives? am i the only one who has bothered to compare parallel sources? here is anotehr q.: is using historical records that are copies of copies of copies of copies of etc., translated from one language into another and yet another and yet another and yet another, really a reasonable endeavour w/o so much as noting the problem(s) associated with such an exercise?? am i the only one who was taught to source my materials? though i say that with the understanding that history books in korea will one day start using citations — which of course will cite all the books previously used without citations…big old ugly circle of ignorance…

    anyway, late, and drunk…night all…but really…have some academic fortitude…

  8. Well, it’s a survey textbook: they usually don’t have footnotes (at least not many) or rich primary source offerings. And I do note the problems involved with reading sources in translation, with relying on any single secondary treatment — I am at least as explicit about historiography and historical practice in my surveys as any, more than some — but you have to start somewhere with students.

    I’m not a Korea scholar by training, so I’m always going to be at something of a disadvantage, stretched beyond my comfort zone in teaching this, and probably lacking in nuance compared to real experts. But I think I have enough background, and enough skill to offer my students something worthwhile.

  9. Jonathan, I think that any history course for the general public, i.e., non-historians, should be crafted based upon the needs of the audience. For instance, when I worked in Yongsan the demonstrations were at their height, and many new young company commanders and First Sergeants needed a survey lecture on Korean History that would familiarize them with the facts behind the complaints of both the ultra right and left. SO I put together a presentation that often lasted a minimum of two hours, sometimes more, on a 50 minutes class schedule. Even that was rushing it. But we talked about the state of the Choeson dynasty in the late 19th Century, Korean conflicts with European powers, the Kangwha island battle, Japanese interests in Korea, King Kojong and attempts at reform, the Tonghak rebellion and righteous Armies, the Queen Min murder, the Sino-Japanese War, increased Japanese influence and presence on the peninsula, the role of missionaries in Korea’s modernization, increased Japanese presence, The Rusdso-Japanesethe 1905, the so-called “Secret Treaty” (Taft-Katsura) and the ‘coup’ that made Korea a protectorate. Korean attempts to get their case before the Hague. The 1910 Japanese takeover. Japan’s role in the development of Korean capitalism and modernization, the Samil Independence movement, the establishment of a government in exile in Shanghai, Righteous Armies opposition to the Japanese that spread up into Manchuria. The role of the early Soviet Union in supporting Korean independence fighters. The 1921 conference and Japanese efforts to make colonialism more palatable to Koreans. The Japanese role in developing Korean archeology and nationalism. The Anti-Japanese United Army and the role of Kim Il-sung in both the anti-Japanese resistance and the Soviet occupation of North Korea. The post-war period with American gaffes, Kim Koo, Kim Il-sung, and Park Hyong-yong, all with differing anti-Japanese experiences, and all competing for power. And the armed insurrections in North and South Korea that led to 25 June 50, which was where I stopped. Sounds pretty boring in a single session, but that was all I had. My goal was to give people who had never been in Korea before, or had done a previous tour, an idea of how Korea had gotten to where she had, and why some nationalist and leftist circles viewed the U.S. as they did. Surprisingly, this lecture became quite popular and I was often asked to go down into the units themselves and give it. I was a bit more dynamic in those days, so few went to sleep, but it was always gratifying to run into some GI who had sat through my lecture who had then gone to the library and pullsed out a booik or two on Korean history.

    My point is, the best history course is one that meets the needs of its audience. My audience needed to know what the U.S. role had been in Korea, why we fought for it, and why some Koreans still viewed us with suspicion. I believe it succeeded. So, what are the needs of your target audience? If you are aiming for Korean scholars, by every means start at the beginning. But if the majority of students you are teaching will only take a single or perhaps two Asian history courses, by all means give them an overview of modern Korea and how it got that way first before delving into the esoteric so much beloved by all of us. That way, if they do go into foreign service, the military, or end up doing business in Korea, your lectures will have opened a door to their understanding of Korean history and culture. Chances are, those who do end up with a connection to Korea, will do further readings and studies on their own. When people ask me: why study Korea? My answer is always the same. First it is one of the developed worlds most important economies, and second: How it got to be so is a fascinating story in which the United States played an ancillary but important role. (Obviously for an American audience)

  10. Even that was rushing it.

    You’re not kidding.

    There’s a number of agendas I need to fulfill with a course like this, but I have the luxury of doing it in 30-odd hours. On the other hand, I don’t have the luxury of an audience with a built-in connection to the material. I don’t know what my audience needs or wants when I build a class, so I try to make sure that I’ve got at least a little of everything: covering the basic turning points, creation of contemporary identities, cultural literacy; historiographical skills, pedagogical skills; intellectual, political, economic, military, gender, artistic, literary….. I love it all, too. I don’t think of it as esoterica, either: by the end of a semester, there’s usually an “aha” moment where the method of my madness comes clear and they realize that they’ve been building up a solid body of knowledge and sensibility.

    If something catches their fancy, great. If it doesn’t, at least they’ve got a foundation they can build on in other areas, skills and comparisons.

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