Engaging in Korean Studies through non-Korea courses – blog by John G. Grisafi

Students interested in studying Korea may think that Penn has a relatively small number of courses on Korea – aside from language courses – when compared to China or Japan. There are certain semesters in which more courses are offered than in others and there appears to be rise in the number of variety of courses on Korea offered at Penn (which will hopefully continue) but it is still likely that many students feel there the opportunities to be limited. Fortunately, in my time at Penn I have found opportunities to engage in Korean Studies in courses that are not specifically focused on Korea.

There are, in my experience, a few different ways to categorize courses in terms of how their content relates to Korean Studies as well as how you as a student can choose to engage with them. I can organize the courses I have taken (and which are applicable to this topic) into three categories based on relevance of content to Korean Studies. In addition to that, many courses offer a variety of opportunities to more specifically engage with Korean Studies through choices made by the students regarding assignments.

The first of my three categories is courses which provide knowledge relevant to and sometimes concerning Korea through the study of cultures or topics which intersect with Korea. Examples include the introductory survey courses on China (EALC 001) and Japan (EALC 002). In addition to the fact that Korea or events that historically involved Korea may be discussed in the course, these introductory courses in China and Japan are, in my opinion, necessary for scholars of Korea in acquiring basic knowledge of the nations and cultures neighboring Korea and which have had significant influence and impact upon Korea.

The second category is that of more advanced courses such as China and the World: Modern Times (HIST 394), The Politics of Shinto (EALC 253). Each of these courses teaches much about a topic relevant to Korea but not specifically about Korea and only occasionally or briefly makes reference to Korea. HIST 394, taught by Dr. Arthur Waldron, provides much content on China and its relations with the world in the twentieth century. This information provides historical and cultural context relevant to Korea as well concepts and theories applicable to Korean Studies. Additionally, the course content occasionally directly discusses interactions with Korea. EALC 253, taught by Dr. Jolyon Thomas, teaches much about topics which do affect Korea from time to time historically, particularly in the period of Japanese colonization of Korea. I will say more about both of these courses below.

The third category is courses which have some portion focusing on to Korea as part of a larger curriculum about multiple countries or regions or repeatedly discuss Korea as part of region or theme. Examples include Global History of Communism (HIST 202), Sects in Violence in East Asia (EALC 207/607), and Cross-Cultural Relations in Ancient East Asia (EALC 140/540). HIST 202, taught by Dr. Alex Hazanov, discusses Communism in East Asia, including Korea for a portion of the course. This course also has elements of the second category in that an understanding of Communism and its history is quite useful for understanding Communism in context of Korea. EALC 140/540, taught by Dr. Yoko Nishimura, focuses on the study of ancient East Asian cultures, including linguistics, genetics, written records, and material culture such as pottery and other artifacts. Interaction of people and states is a major theme of this course and it provides much knowledge on early Korean history and also familiarizes students with the different types of evidence and methods through which this period can by studied. I cannot yet explain much about the Korea-related content of EALC 207/607, taught by Dr. Thomas, as I am still taking that course but I do know one of the assigned books (Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF) is about contemporary South Korea.

I have additionally been able to further engage in the study of Korea beyond the material directly taught by the instructors of the courses by, when relevant and within reason, choosing a research topic pertaining to Korea. I have done this so far in four courses which were not specifically Korea content courses: HIST 394 (China and the World), HIST 202 (Global History of Communism), EALC 140/540 (Cross-Cultural Relations of Ancient East Asia), and EALC 253 (Politics of Shinto). In HIST 394, my final paper discussed China’s role in the Korean War with an emphasis on China’s objectives and strategy. This allowed to me examine the war and China’s participation through a China-centered approach rather than the Korea or Western-centered approaches with which I was previously more familiar. In HIST 202, my research paper was on the “Soviet-based Korean Communist Movement beyond Kim Il Sung.” This paper allowed me to explore the history of Korean Communist groups before and beyond Kim Il Sung’s Partisan faction and the impacts of Soviet and Comintern policies on these groups. In EALC 140/540, I wrote my final paper on the Proto-Three Kingdoms Period of Korea, examining the historiography and adding a geographic analysis. A project that has personally been especially intellectual and academically rewarding for me, though, is the one that began in EALC 253. For that course, I wrote a research paper on Shinto in Colonial Korea. That paper led to my participation in Dr. Thomas’s Shinto Symposium here at Penn in September 2016, where I presented my work alongside classmates as well as professors from various institutions.

That final example, I think, demonstrates a particular benefit of engaging in Korean Studies in courses covering a range of topics. By studying Korea through varying approaches and in context of different topics, we as scholars of Korea can learn more and discover novel ways to study and discuss Korea. Additionally, I have found that my professors typically appreciate having scholars of different specialization in their courses and incorporating their own interests into the class discussions and assignments. This is not to say that a scholar of Korea should always be thinking only about Korea, but rather that we should be mindful of connections between fields and subjects of study as well as opportunities for new research and discourse related to our respective interests.

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