“HOW DO you put an elephant in a refrigerator?” Ask this question to a university student in South Korea and some students will respond with: “If you are a professor, just ask your graduate students to do it for you.” For Koreans pursuing higher degrees, this sarcastic punchline has become emblematic of the country’s problematic culture of hierarchal professor-student relationships. To what extent are these claims valid, and how has the environment in which students find themselves contributed to such negative perceptions of professors?
Graduate students pursue the highest levels of academic attainment, and the rigors of their studies and research are reflective of this. Ideally, professors can advise students on how best to navigate the difficulties of a Masters or Doctorate program through consistent mentorship, guidance, and support. Despite the ideals, the heavy emphasis on respect for authority within Korean culture can complicate the relationship between professors and students. Social customs such as bowing, referring to a person with the nim honorific, or even looking away from someone while drinking are all performed to show deference to those of higher standing, and the mindset that encourages these types of behavior often carries over into academia. In 2013, the term “gap-eul relationship” was coined in order to verbalize the unbalanced relationships that can result from maintaining such a strict social hierarchy*. Gap and eul were originally legal terms referring to a contract relationship between employers and their employees. However, the new meaning of gap-eul reflects an increasingly widespread belief that gap, those with power and authority, are first and eul, come second.
Within the academic community, professors possess a high degree of credibility and extensive connections, through which they can aid students in publishing research or searching for employment. Additionally, all graduate students are required to complete a final thesis paper, which must be read and approved by a panel of professors who are experts in a student’s chosen field. In the field of sciences, the majority of published thesis papers must include the names of supervising professors, as the research is typically conducted in the supervisor’s lab using his or her resources. A good working relationship with one’s professors is crucial to success at the graduate level, but this can sometimes place undue pressure on students.
The fear of acquiring an unfavorable reputation with professors places students in the position of eul. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Tony Jung, a graduate student currently working in a research lab at Seoul National University, expressed concerns that, “Since the professor’s approval is vital to the success of our research publication, we students, are afraid to complain about the conduct of our professors as it is only disadvantageous for us.” Consequently, Jung commented that the majority of reports from students are anonymous, and lack the strength to create any substantial change.
Human rights abuse?
The mistreatment of graduate students was initially highlighted in the popularized webtoon “Portrait of Sad Graduate Students**.” Published in 2015 by a Korea University graduate student named Yeom, Portrait of Sad Graduate Students satirized the harsh reality of graduate students and the corruption of professors. In the webtoon, Yeom publicly asserted, “Don’t be fooled. We’re slaves, not students***,” pointing to universities’ lack of a comprehensive response to various reports from students of verbal abuse, private labor, discrimination, sexual harassment, underpayment, and copyright infringement. According to a survey of over 1,900 graduate students conducted by the National Human Rights Commission, 25.8% of graduate students did not receive fair payment after research or project implementation, 10% have been subject to abusive language, and 11.4% have conducted research in place of advising professors****.
However, these reports cannot be accepted as a complete portrait of the academic environment within Korea. According to Chosun Ilbo, a professor from the Hanyang University of Technology has been charged with the private use of research funding by deviating from the original allocation of resources. Due to a system in which students were only distributed labor fees upon the completion of research projects, the professor redistributed the labor fees equally to all his students to provide proper compensation for their work. In addition, many reports of mistreatment by professors are one-sided accounts and are, by nature, biased. Orapa Tamwattana, currently pursuing a combined Masters and Ph.D in the College of Engineering at Seoul National University, gave an interview with the Annals in which she expressed that “My professor always treats me the same as the other students; even though I am a foreigner, my professor is always saying ‘never leave any students behind.’”
A need for change
The gap-eul relationship, like any relationship, is not solely based on a single individual’s behavior. The issue is not only rooted in those who abuse their power, but also in a sociocultural environment that leads the weaker party into naturally assuming the role of eul. For example, according to Jung, “My advising professor’s daughter entered Korea University and he asked some of my peers if they could look into the employment condition for her major. Even though he was only asking, we felt obligated to do it.” The social norms of academic life in Korea lead many students to perceive a gap-eul relationship and struggle to fulfill even accessory requests in order to maintain positive relationships with their professors.
In response to such pressures, there have been instances in which students have resorted to unjustifiably drastic acts of violence. In an extreme case, a mechanical engineering student at Yonsei University detonated a homemade bomb in a research lab, injuring his advising professor. Although the student claims that he created the bomb largely in response to reproach from his professor concerning the said research paper in May, 2017, a police investigation disclosed that the professor did not give the student unfair instructions irrelevant to his research or thesis paper. Eventually, the student received a two year sentence for explosive damages and intent to harm*****.
The need for proper measures to monitor student-professor relationships and manage students’ stress is apparent. In response to the incident at Yonsei University, a task force was created to investigate the issue and develop measures to improve the university environment for graduate students. Additionally, in June 2018, the Korean Office for Government Policy Coordination formulated guidelines to eradicate gap-jil****** in public sectors during the National Agenda Checking and Adjustment Conference*******. These guidelines provide criteria and diagnostics to assist in the evaluation of misconduct as well as real life examples to serve as reference points with the aim of developing and implementing countermeasures for graduate student abuse. New laws such as the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act have also contributed to the improvement of university environments by requiring professors to be more discerning in their behavior towards students.
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The gap-eul relationship between professors and students is an issue that extends beyond educational institutions and into personal and professional relationships within Korean society. In order to improve working conditions for students, universities must strive to foster an environment where students and professors feel free to communicate openly without the attendant pressures of gap-eul.
*Korea Maritime & Ocean University Media Center
**“Portrait of Sad Graduate Students”: direct English translation of 슬픈 대학원생들의 초상
*****The Asia Business Daily
******Gap-jil: An expression referring to the authoritarian attitude or actions of people in South Korea who have positions of power over others.