2017-04-26 18:38
American fights against hierarchical culture in Korean schools
Michael Lammbrau, left, assistant professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, the United States, eats tteokbokki, or stir-fried rice cake with his students during the university’s spring festival this year. / Courtesy of Lammbrau

By Choi Ha-young

Michael Lammbrau, 34, took master’s and doctorate courses during his six years in Korea. However, the American, who is fluent in Korean and loves Korean food, was hesitant to recommend studying here to those around him.

Lammbrau, currently working as an assistant professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the U.S., recently cooked “tteokbokki” or stir-fried rice cake with his students who have already mastered K-pop and K-dramas.

“When they started asking me about studying abroad in Korea, it saddened me because I was hesitant to recommend anything more than to study by full scholarship from its government,” he said during an interview.

He described himself as a “survivor” of the nation’s higher education system, where professors’ “gap-jil” was prevalent. The term refers to power abuse of superiors or customers, which involves verbal abuse and unreasonable directions. The newly coined word is a combination of “gap” that means top dog and “jil,” slang for behavior.

“There were many stories of students working as ‘very cheap labor,’ just enough to cover the expenses of rent for one room and little left over,” he shared his own experience. “Young graduate students, especially the ones pursuing doctoral degrees are stuck in a sort of adolescent purgatory, never being able to move on, marry, or start an adult life.”

Before learning about “gap-jil,” he thought he was the only one who experienced such treatment.

Last year, a professor twisted a student’s arm to eat his “feces.” Sexual harassment against female students is not spoken about anymore. The disputed anti-graft law restricts bribes at universities, showing how rampant it is there.

To protect his friends still studying here, Lammbrau kicked off a campaign to collect such cases and raise awareness for this issue, through the website of Arirang Institute that he founded: http://www.ariranginstitute.org/gapjil-munhwa/

The distorted hierarchy in universities severely hits foreign students as well as Koreans, due to their linguistic and cultural barriers. “I don’t think we understand the power distance that exists between the student and professor in Korea. We also don’t understand how to communicate with faculty members and administrators in Korea,” he said.

“I would often offend faculty members and administrators unintentionally and only learn later on when they wouldn’t return my emails, phone calls, or perhaps I would receive a poor mark.”

He proposed to enhance accountability and transparency in academic institutions, by authorizing students to evaluate their professors.  

“There isn’t even an option to formally appeal decisions by the dissertation committee in cases of neglect and poor administration. This lack of transparency leads to an incredible potential for exploitation by professors inclined to do so.”

He is planning to take advantage as a foreign organization free from the influence of “gaps” to normalize situations not only for foreign students but also for Koreans.

In the face of the drastically decreasing birthrate, universities in Korea are eager to invite more foreign students. However, without driving out “gap-jil” they are unlikely to come here, he said. “Many of my colleagues, friends, and family are hesitant to endorse any student exchange programs to send our students to Korea if they have no protection.”