The recent incident involving a music professor and her abusive teaching methods sheds new light on the dynamics between teachers and their pupils within music and art departments. / Korea Times file
By Han Sang-hee
Well-known music professors often make headlines here not for their exceptional performances on stage, but because of the corrupt practices within the department and for exploiting their pupils or college hopefuls.
Disgraced music professor Kim In-hye of Seoul National University, recently fired for using violence while teaching and taking advantage of her students, is the latest in a series of abuse cases.
Prof. Kim’s abusive and maniacal way of teaching is no way justifiable, but the case cracked open a decades-long bittersweet lock in the relations between teachers and their pupils in the music and other art departments of universities.
The bottom line is that there are music professors that actually demand that their students buy tickets to their shows, expect expensive presents and even cash gifts. However, many students point out that this must be judged by considering the unique cultural practices within such departments.
``When I first read the article (about Prof. Kim) I was torn between two thoughts. First, I thought it was no big deal because such cases are not new at all, and then I also thought that it could be a good chance to put an end to these wrongdoings,’’ said Kim, a student who studies music at a university in Seoul.
According to Kim, who wanted to be identified only by his surname, it’s more important to look at the whole picture.
``You need to understand the entire system, not just the fact that a professor hit a student or asked for money,’’ he said.
Music departments, along with other arts and physical education departments, are infamous for similar practices. Unfair and uncivil it may appear to the outsider but sometimes, the method is believed to be the best way to learn faster.
``When I was preparing to enter an art university, I had to learn so many things in a very short period of time. I would get hit if I did not finish my work within a certain time. Ironically, this sometimes really helped. I would feel bad after being hit, but it’s a method that just pushes you to become better without wasting time,’’ said Cho, an art major at a university in Seoul.
The vicious cycle
Jung, who studied art at university some 20 years ago, said she was never directly hit by a professor, but heard about fellow students who had to buy tickets for their professor’s exhibitions or other art-related events.
``Many of the students bought the tickets because they felt like this was a way to express their gratitude. It would have been a problem if the professor forced them to buy a large amount, but this didn’t happen that often,’’ she said.
Since fine art and physical education circles are quite small, it’s important to know the right people: in this case, the professors are important networks for your future career.
``The art world is the same as society. It really is a small world and the competition is very fierce, so one thing leads to another and some students started to give gifts and money to professors to stand out. Others just followed suit,’’ Kim said.
Cho also agreed with the importance of being favored by professors.
``If you don’t have a professor’s support, it really is difficult in terms of your career. It may not be impossible to succeed, but it could work as a disadvantage or take much more time than expected,’’ she said, adding that this was why students had no choice but to follow ``tradition.’’
The bigger picture
Professor Kim In-hye was eventually fired for her habitual use of violence while teaching and for extorting money from her students. She was also criticized for forcing her students to sing at her mother-in-law’s birthday, although she did pay for their meals which cost 100,000 won per person.
Music major Chung, who wished to be identified by only her surname, said that although she agreed that assaulting students was not proper, it’s different in the eyes of a music student.
``Working part time jobs for experience is very common, such as performing at weddings or small events. If you weren’t familiar with the practices within the musical education system and read the article or heard the media reports, it’s easy to think that the professor was just using her students, but it’s common. It could have been a part time job or just a favor. This happens a lot,’’ she said.
A physical education professor at a national university also pointed out that it’s impossible to think in a dichotomous way.
``There can be distinct characteristics to a major that cannot be handled in only one certain way. The same goes for corporal punishment in schools. This issue can be a very gray area. The fact that she actually hit someone is not the issue, but whether she was doing this in a moderate, understandable and educational way,’’ the professor said.
As the professor and fellow students said, discipline can take different shapes and sizes. For some this can be considered violence, while others may think it as an effective method of teaching.
``The press indeed had a field day. But they forgot a very important issue: balance. They were not interested in seeing the bigger picture,’’ he added.
Chung, along with most of the students interviewed, agreed.
``It’s very hard to draw a line between a good teaching method and a bad one, especially when you are dealing with something ambiguous like art or music. There is no right answer. Sometimes, it’s more than facts. If the teaching method or any type of punishment is overdone, that’s a different issue, but you can’t criticize without understanding the background culture. Remember, art is something that is taught from heart to heart, not by textbooks, information, and written exams,’’ Chung said.