A couple of weeks ago, I was unexpectedly called into the English department head’s office; I automatically felt as though I’d done something wrong. Despite the fact that I’ve been working at this university for two months, this was my first time meeting him. Here’s how our very first conversation went:
Dr. K: Oh, hello — nice to meet you.
Me: Nice to meet you, too!
Dr. K: I asked you to meet with me because there are three students in your conversation class who have not been coming. Here are their names.
Me: Yes, I recognize them from the attendance sheet.
Dr. K: These students have jobs, so they cannot attend your class. I need you to understand their situation and manage their attendance.
Me: Umm… manage? Can you explain that more clearly?
Dr. K: Yes, well, these students have a job so they cannot come to class. But they cannot… erm… You shouldn’t… erm…
Me: You’re telling me not to fail them.
Dr. K: You should understand their situation.
Me: So, I should give them D grades?
Dr. K: Well, um, you need to understand that they cannot –
Me: They haven’t stepped foot in my class once.
Dr. K: Yes, but our university helps to prepare students to find a job. It is not easy. These students have jobs, so please understand them and maybe a C is okay.
Me, with an are-you-fucking-kidding-me? look on my face: Sigh. Different culture.
Dr. K: No, it is not the culture. The enrollment at universities is very competitive these days. We cannot lose students.
Me, teeth gritted: Oh, I understand.
Dr. K: Thank you for your understanding.
I went to the head teacher to discuss this with him; pretty standard, he said. He’s a businessman, so from his point of view, this is the right thing to do; finding a job is most important thing for our students. I’m an educator, so I’m struggling with this idea. To me, education and learning are intrinsically valuable; furthermore, telling students that they don’t actually have to earn their grades not only devalues what we do as teachers, but also what every other student at the university is doing and the university itself.
After talking to teachers at other universities, I found out that this is standard practice across the board! University students in Korea: paying to pass. And I mean, I get it. Being a university student isn’t going to pay the bills. But still.
I told Dr. K later on that I strongly disagree with this practice, but I’ll do as he asks (if I don’t, he would just go into the system and change the grades himself). Just like my students, I’d really like to keep my job.