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Clearing The Fog
[ Issue 149 Page 6 ] Thursday, November 24, 2016, 13:40:19 Agar Omondi agar@kaist.ac.kr

 

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Fall Semester, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences found itself at the centre of a storm. The Kaist Herald met with Professor Michael Pak, the Vice Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and together they attempted to clear the thick fog of sensationalism that has informed most discussions since then.

Let’s cut to the chase. What happened?

Despite what was reported on social media and some school newspapers, the number of courses offered in either English or Korean hasn’t changed. What has been standardized are the class sizes. Previously, courses  taught in English had a cap of 40 students while those taught in Korean had 60.

Over the years, however, we have noticed a decline in the number of undergraduate students enrolling at KAIST. Actually this demographic trend affects not only KAIST but other Korean universities as well. We also observed a growing imbalance between students who chose courses offered in Korean vs. English in the school and naturally saw fit to update the school policy to take all of these into account. The faculty calculated that 40 was the optimal class size for courses offered by the school.

Your representatives in the Undergraduate Student Council(USC) caught wind of our plans and voiced their concerns - most of which were very genuine. After laborious but comprehensive haggling between the school’s administration and the USC, we decided to allow three of the statistically popular courses that are taught in Korean to raise their respective class sizes to a maximum of 80. We did this despite the obvious logistical and learning challenges we knew such a move would raise. But then that is why it's called a compromise and not “having things your own way.” The school adjusted to these new developments and committed itself to addressing them.

Unfortunately intransigence prevailed among some students and here we are.

We saw the USC make some very dire predictions about what was sure to happen once the semester began if the class sizes for courses taught in Korean were reduced. Have these come to pass?

To the contrary, things have proved quite otherwise. We have seen no shortage of courses for students. In fact, the three large lecture courses (with 80 students) we created as a compromise did not all get filled! Our initial calculations have proven to be correct.

I think it will be beneficial for anyone who has an opinion on this issue to step back and study the situation in a broader sense. Not so long ago students had to meet certain quotas for courses that were offered in English by the School. That was on top of the EFL language courses! I think the current situation more than tries to accommodate everyone.

One of the USC’s main point of contention has been the apparent lack of student input in the policy making process at the School. Would you like to comment on that?

I somewhat agree. Unlike other departments, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences doesn’t have students majoring in it. This means that accessing students’ views whenever issues related to policy arise is always going to be a bit of a challenge.  But that wasn’t the case this time around. Genuine efforts were made to accommodate your views through the students’ government.

That being said, I think some of the USC officials’ actions in this particular issue have not been particularly exemplary. One would expect that those claiming to represent all students equally be less swayed by ad hoc campaign promises and focus instead on the germane needs of all those they claim to represent - the international students included.

There were also some rather shocking comments in the anonymous student forums about the relevance of English courses at a Korean University.

Yes, I also heard about that. This institution aims to mould you not only into scientists or engineers but also into opinion shapers in your countries and beyond. The School of Humanities and Social Sciences offers students from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to share ideas on issues in a way that they definitely can’t in courses taught in other departments. One of the reasons why we use English is because it is the global lingua franca - at least for now. To shy away from using it is to embrace parochialism, which, I think you will agree, is close to suicidal in a world that is growing more and more connected by the day.

 
 

 

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