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Teaching assistants or professors` slaves?

Posted October. 12, 2012 02:34,   


A corny joke tells about “how to put an elephant in a freezer.” Politicians bribe an elephant to enter a freezer. Police torture the animal and get it to confess to being a chicken, then put it back in the freezer. A mathematician differentiates it and put it in the freezer. Another version of the joke uses Pierre Fermat. It goes like this: “I have discovered an amazing method to put an elephant in a freezer. But I have too narrow margins to put it down.” This is derived from an episode involving the famed French mathematician, who said he did not put down the process on how he solved a question due to a narrow margin. If one asks a professor to put an element in a freezer, his or her answer would be, “Ask your graduate teaching assistant to do it.”

Another joke asks, "Why is a professor is popular among wealthy leisured ladies? He can come anytime she wants because he always has time." When he sees a lady, there is at least one thing to learn: if he cannot come in person, he will send a teaching assistant instead. This is a joke for laughter, and I surely hope professors will not misunderstand the intent. Nevertheless, an element of hidden truth behind such a joke invokes a feeling of regret. Foreign professors in Korea shake their heads in wonder how a professor is like a ruler can never be defied, to graduate students and teaching assistants.

The Human Rights Center at Seoul National University surveyed 1,380 graduate students about bad practices routinely committed in relations between professors and graduate students. The survey showed 41.6 percent of the graduate students had their rights to study and research infringed on due to negligent preparation for class by professors. About 16 percent said they authored research papers on behalf of professors or senior students, while 28.1 percent said they were forced to participate in events. Other cases included professors forcing them to refrain from taking classes taught by professors whom the former disliked, forcing them to take certain subjects, or demanding money or valuable items in return for serving as thesis reviewers. In other cases, teaching assistants were often forced to wash dishes, go shopping, or pick up laundry for professors, help a professor`s children with their homework, or attend drinking parties against their will.

These practices are also prevalent at schools other than Seoul National. Several years ago, a professor at a women’s university ordered a teaching assistant to clean the former’s bathroom, which caused a stir. Sexual harassment cases that often occur also derive from the hierarchical relationship between male professors and female graduate students. Anachronistic practices occur due to the apprenticeship system here, in which the professor holds the authority in approving dissertations for graduation, and the appointment of professors, and which makes it virtually impossible for students to pursue the same academic field as the professor once he or she is stigmatized by the professor. Professors might respond by saying they underwent the same process when they were teaching assistants. But it is wrong for professors to commit such abuses just because they endured them. It is high time that such bad practices end at institutions of higher learning, the place of intellectuals.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)