Archive for March, 2015

David A. Mason, Promoting Traditional Korean Culture

by on Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

David standing in front of the tiny Yeonhwa-sa in the alleyway next to Kyung Hee University

David standing in front of the tiny Yeonhwa-sa in the alleyway next to Kyung Hee University

This is my second Skype interview with David Mason. The first was on Korean mountain spirits and is archived at The photographs are used with permission and come from his websites and http://baekdu-daegan.comI highly recommend spending a couple of hours browsing through the many pictures and stories.

I began by asking David when he first came to Korea and under what circumstances.

David’s story



Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Well now, I was one of those Lonely Planet book carrying, backpack travelers that everyone loves to either admire or disparage. In East Asia this kind of travel didn’t get going until the 1970s. I left America in 1981 with just a backpack and very little money. I really wanted to see China and Chinese culture, but the People’s Republic was closed then.

You mean closed to independent travelers.

Yes, group tours could already get in there. A professor of mine at the University of Michigan Philosophy Department went there in ’76, and that seemed kind of miraculous to us. He was on some kind of academic group tour. But I couldn’t get in, so with my backpack and very little money I went around China—Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan I heard that Korea was worth visiting. I didn’t know anything about Korea except something vague about the Korean War. The Lonely Planet company put Korea and Japan in the same book, which must have infuriated the Koreans. Other people considered Korea just a branch of China, which also would have infuriated them!

I took a test-journey up there and was immediately intrigued. I thought it was a third, distinctly separate, independent culture, noticeably Northeast Asian, but with its own flavor, different from Japan and China. I thought of it as a mystery country I didn’t know anything about, and few others seemed to know much either, I was inspired to hang around and check it out.

In March of ’83, I was teaching English in Korea when the PRC opened to independent travelers. I started making plans. My visa number was 00000978, so apparently it was the 978th independent visa, one of the first thousand to get in as independent; I was proud of that. It was very restricted, and many Chinese had never even seen a foreigner. They had no idea what to make of a foreign tourist. By contrast, Korea seemed sophisticated!

I’d first arrived in South Korea in July, 1982. The country was still noticeably suffering under brutal dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, an unpopular dictatorship because nobody liked him or wanted him. People were very grim, and there were soldiers were out on the streets, sandbag bunkers and even tanks near the universities. It was a very locked-down atmosphere. This surprised me because I didn’t know the recent history. When I started teaching English at a hagwŏn, or for-profit language school, the first thing I was told was not to talk about democracy or civil rights. “Don’t even say the word ‘democracy’ in your classroom.” I was pretty weirded-out by that.

It sounds like I had more freedom teaching in China in 1984.

Yeah, maybe… I stayed in South Korea for a year. After that I thought I was done with it. I went home and spent two years in California with a small business. But I kept thinking about Korea. I felt there was some karma, something unfinished that involved research, study and discovery. In January 1986, I returned and haven’t managed to change my country of residence ever since. My attention was captivated by the traditional culture and how little of it was known to the world, how little was available in English. Very slowly, step by step, I started making a career of explaining Korea to the world, exposing parts of its traditional culture in English, getting it on the internet, getting it in books and academic articles, things that had not been reported before. For maybe the first fifteen years I was English teacher doing my Korea stuff as a hobby. Slowly the hobby became a career, which is what it’s been for the last fifteen years. So that’s been quite gratifying.

Could you talk about your books and your work as a travel expert?

The Spirit of the Mountains

The Spirit of the Mountains

The first big breakthrough was co-authoring with Robert Storey the 1997 Lonely Planet comprehensive travel guide to Korea. That got me into the tourism business as an international writer about Korea. The second big break was with the book about the sanshin mountain spirits that we discussed in our previous interview. It was the first publication ever in English which treated the spirits in depth–with the deities, the art work, and the role the spirits played in Korean culture. Since it was groundbreaking, it created a lot of interest among Korean professors, the Korean government and other aficionados who celebrated its having been done for the first time.

Because of the sanshin book, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism hired me for the 2001-2002 Visit Korea Year Program. For five years I worked for the Munhwa Cheyuk Gwangwang Bu and also the National Tourism Organization, which gave me five years of experience with tourism programs and official promotion of Korean culture to the global community, another step up the ladder. I was one of a twenty-member committee which designed and implemented the TempleStay program.

When were you first working on that?

In 2001 Korea held the World Cup soccer finals in the summer of 2002. In connection with that we had a two-year long promotion of Visit Korea Year. The TempleStay program was one of many programs and projects, initially just for the spring and summer of 2002. But it was very successful. The Jogye Order of Buddhism, which had at first resisted, came to like it too. We kept it going for one more year and then gave it over to the Jogye Order. After a one-year hiatus, they picked it up and got it running. It’s been very successful as a part of Korean tourism and as a Korean cultural-missionary-religious activity.

I’ve seen the signs when I’ve come into Korea, but the temple-stays I’ve done were organized earlier through the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center.

The book on hiking the trail

The book on hiking the trail

The TempleStay program was over the long run probably the most successful thing I’ve been involved in. It was a big step. So then I was hired as a professor of Korean cultural tourism, not as an English teacher, based on my five years with the government tourism industry and my master’s degree in Korean Studies from Yonsei University. So I spent nine years teaching at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, which had one of the biggest national hotel and tourism colleges. In a large faculty they had space to hire an unusual person like me to fill a certain niche.

After becoming a professor of cultural tourism, I started a new project promoting the Baekdu-daegan or the White Head Great Ridge, essentially the backbone of Korea. It’s the main mountain range that runs through the whole peninsula from north to south, the geographical-topographical definition of Korean landscape. It was totally unknown to the world community, without even a magazine article to explain it. There was some stuff in Korean, but not in any other language. I found out everything about it, put it in English and start promoting it to the world. This was my fourth big step, and it was also very successful. We started a website, baekdu-daegan.comand wrote a guidebook about hiking along the 735-kilometer mountains trail within South Korea. You can hike from near the south coast all the way up to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, through seven national parks and four provincial parks. It’s a wonderful hiking opportunity and a great way for Korea to promote itself. We were the pioneers who got it all into English and on the map of international hikers.

I have a picture in my head of the map of that mountain range. Is the trail mostly on the ridge?

The Baekdu-daegan range

The Baekdu-daegan range

Yes, the trail runs along the crest-line, from peak to peak to peak along the ridges that directly connect the peaks, so it’s never broken by water. Water never crosses this trail. Each stream or river in Korea begins on the eastern slope or western slope and flows from there out to the ocean. So that makes it a very special trail. There are other trails like this in the world, but only a few are this long. Think of the Appalachian Trail or the Sierra Crest Trail in the United States. They’re mostly about beautiful nature, with only a little bit of culture along the way. But on the Baekdu-daegan you’ve got Buddhist temples, little hermitages, shaman shrines, Confucian shrines, old battlefields and other historical sites and lots of shamanistic mountain worship. So it can also be a pilgrimage trail.

Probably lots of Buddhist statues too.

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

Certainly. There are a few spectacular Buddhist carvings high up on the crest-line and many others nearby. If you hike down from the crest into some mountain valleys, you can find many cultural treasures. Some of Korea’s greatest Buddhist monasteries are near that trail; let’s say within five kilometers of it.

Can you give me some examples?

The trail begins in the Jiri-san National Park, where you’ve got three temples, Ssanggye-sa, Hwaeom-sa and Shilsang-sa. Further up there are very famous temples like Jikji-sa, Buseok-sa and Jeongam-sa. Then all the way up at Seorak-san National Park are Shinheung-sa and Baekdam-sa. They’re all some of Korea’s greatest, most historic and most famous temples.

The combination of the TempleStay program and the hiking trail is really fantastic. You can stay overnight at some great monastery, live like a monk, get yourself some monastic education and meditation, hike for two or three days along the Baekdu-daegan crest-trail, then come down to another great monastery for another TempleStay. You can hopscotch through the mountains using the guidebook that we wrote, giving you a religious pilgrimage experience as well as the experience of hiking through splendid nature.

Passage to Korea

Passage to Korea

For the TempleStay do you have to make arrangements in advance, or can you just show up at the temple?

You have to arrange it in advance. There are some temples that run a regular program so you can arrange everything only one day in advance just by letting them know you’re coming. There are others where you have to arrange a week or more in advance, and maybe you have to have a group of people to do it—not just one person. We devised a website,, where you can make those arrangements. You can find the information, decide where you want to stay, like in some of the twenty great temples in the Seoul area or spread out over the rest of South Korea. You decide on which temple and what kind of program. You can check the availability and make a reservation right there online. This is the only program like this in the whole world, really. People can stay in temples in Japan and Thailand and other places, but there’s no organized system like this with a central website, information in English and a standardized program in English.

How much does the TempleStay typically cost?

Around 50 USD, which is really very reasonable for a 24-hour experience with everything included: vegetarian food, green tea ceremony, meditation practice, spiritual lectures and formal ceremonies.

The encyclopedia

The encyclopedia

My next step, let’s say part five of this effort, was to co-author an encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism with Ven. Hyewon. This was something that needed to be done. There had been some dictionary efforts in Korean culture, religion and even specifically Korean Buddhism. But nobody had done an encyclopedia with the key terms given attention, long explanations in very clear English and reference to international terminology in order to make very clear what Korean Buddhism was all about. The encyclopedia was connected to the TempleStay program and was a major part of the target audience. The people running the program really needed it, and a hundred of them did buy copies. They needed to know how to explain Korean Buddhism—the deities or the art work or the type of building or some type of Zen Buddhist practice—in clear, simple English foreigners would understand. Some foreigners who really love the program have been buying the encyclopedia so that they can look things up and have a deeper understanding of what it’s all about. So I think this has been another breakthrough, the globalization of knowledge about Korean traditional culture, getting it clear and accurate, not in a rah-rah booster way, but in a very realistic way that’s acceptable for a foreign audience. We started doing the encyclopedia three years ago, and it was finally published a year ago. In the past year it’s been reasonably successful.

My ambition is to get the Encyclopedia into the twenty-first century by making a digital edition with the entries properly linked to each with cross-links, hot-links like a Wikipedia page. It could be online and searchable and even in an app with different terminology for a hand-phone or an iPad. That way someone standing in a temple can look up more information on the spot.

I want to digitalize my works so the public can use them as digital information sources. I’ve broken my book about the sanshin mountain spirits into a few different sections, and I plan to publish those in a self-publishing, digital, downloadable fashion so that people can read them on a Kindle or an iPad or a hard copy, as they choose. Digitalization would also permit cross-linking and enlarged photos and everything else that goes with digital content. For someone who is already fifty-seven years old, it can be a little difficult to get going with this twenty-first-century technology, but I’m trying my best to figure out how it works.

You’ve also been giving lectures for the Royal Asiatic Society?

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Yes, I would have to say I’ve been keeping pretty busy. I do half a dozen public lectures every year for various organizations. I guide maybe twenty to twenty-five tours every year recently for various organizations, tours to mountain areas and temples and shaman areas and Confucian shrines. I’m showing Korea’s traditional culture in very personal way to those clients who are interested. I give lectures for universities and organizations like the Royal Asiatic Society, explaining Korean culture in English, trying to say something interesting that foreign audiences can get something out of it.

All this is in addition to your teaching career.

I am now with Chung-Ang University in southern Seoul, south of the Han River. Chung-Ang is another one of the top ten or fifteen universities, a big school with a great reputation. They’re treating me well, and I have good students. So I might be there for the duration of my career, for eight more years.


From Adjunct Faculty to Korean Faculty

by on Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Flags in front of the Korean War Museum, actually flying at the same height.

Flags in front of the Korean War Museum, actually flying at the same height.

One event that was been very much in US social media lately was the National Adjunct Walkout Day, a nationwide strike and education project on February 25. Stories had appeared of someone teaching as an adjunct faculty member dying in poverty, homeless PhDs living in their cars, teachers not having the time to go over students’ exams or homework, people living on food stamps without health insurance. (Please see the links below, which include some compelling videos.)

The stories resonated with me because even way back in the late 70s I’d been unable to find a permanent job after getting a PhD in German literature and cranking an impressive list of scholarly publications. In 1983, I gave up and went back to graduate school for an MA in linguistics and certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I then taught at universities in China and Korea. I eventually got tenure at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a former adjunct faculty member from California who is now teaching at a Korean university. We spoke over Skype from Korea to the Philippines. I asked her to talk about her experience in the States and in Korea.

Gwen’s story

I’d originally planned to teach English in high school. I hadn’t thought about academia until one of one of my professors said I was suited for graduate work. I decided to do the master’s degree in English language and literature. During my second year of graduate school I had the opportunity to teach two composition classes. That’s when I decided teaching in college was an option for me. I was accepted as a PhD candidate at a university on the east coast, but at the time I was married and living in California.

I really enjoyed teaching composition. As soon as I graduated, my department rehired me as an adjunct. I thought I’d just teach a few classes. The next year I started teaching at a community college as well. I liked the differences between the two student bodies. The community college was in a lower socioeconomic part of town, and the students came from more diverse backgrounds. I taught at the two campuses for my last five years in the States. I had between four to six sections, usually composition, but sometimes a Developmental English class, which made my workload quite a bit lighter.

Can you give me some specifics in terms of how much money you were making and what conditions were like for you and your colleagues?

Absolutely. I had a somewhat different perspective than some of my adjunct friends who had kids to support. They tended to complain more about the wages. In 2012, my last full year in California, I grossed just over $50,000 between the two campuses.

By my last year, my workload was quite significant, but not totally overwhelming. I had full healthcare coverage from my university even though I only taught two classes. A colleague of mine had full coverage for herself and her two children. That’s California, and clearly some of the circumstances are different in other states or within other university systems.

What percentage of faculty members were adjuncts?

Our department had close to 50 adjuncts. The number of classes taught by each adjunct varied from one or two, up to four. Four was considered a 0.8 appointment, the maximum appointment for an adjunct, but not full-time, or 1.0. Because of the way our contracts were written, all adjuncts were considered “part-time, temporary employees.” What that boiled down to was that if budgets for are department changed or enrollment was down, they could cancel our classes at any time without having to give us another class to compensate for the loss, as they would have had to have done for full-time faculty. Technically, five classes would have given us full-time work, but because we were teaching composition classes of up to 25 students each, our department head said, “You can’t have five classes because of the overwhelming amount of work.” As a result, adjuncts would teach four classes at my campus and then teach more at community colleges. I heard of one guy who had eight composition classes one semester.

We were appalled. We’d hear horror stories from students about his never returning students’ papers and never providing any feedback on their writing. Eight composition classes is ridiculous. Four is a lot, particularly since our students were required to produce 8,000 words each semester, usually divided into eight essays, four in-class and four out-of-class. Later for some courses we could consider revisions toward that 8,000-word count. Over time I fine-tuned my course so I was not absolutely killing myself and still getting my students to do the work required of them. They were also doing a lot better work because we used the revision process.

Each semester I used similar reading materials based on current social issues. It got boring, which was a big job dissatisfaction issue. And, I hate to sound like an old person, but in California I even noticed a difference between my first year of teaching in 2003-04 and my ninth year in 2011-12. There was an increasing sense of entitlement. A handful of students would not be jazzed about having to take composition. They figured if they just showed up and turned something in they should get an A. Because of the economic issues in America, they realized they were spending a lot of money on a degree and they probably still wouldn’t get a job when they were done. Their disheartened attitude translated into a bad attitude in the classroom.

When I started teaching in 1966, it was a lot of fun. But by the late 70s, attitudes had changed. I remember an article called “Whatever Happened to the Class of ‘65? They’re in the Classroom with the Me Generation.” The illustration showed a balding, long-haired hippie in jeans with a peace symbol around his neck and a sad-resigned expression on his face. Beside him were rows of students in business outfits, all looking straight ahead with fixed expressions, like “I’m looking right through you at the money I’m going to make after this stupid foreign language requirement.” It mirrored a lot of my experience.

Right. In the States for some students I was just an obstacle. Also, the digital native generation had arrived in college. These students didn’t see communication as something needing thought or processing. They communicated instantly. They were so used to saying anything, in any form, at any time to anyone that it made an impact on how they viewed a course in composition or critical thinking. In that nine-year period I mentioned, Smartphones became more prevalent, and along with them were texting and gaming. It didn’t register that writing was a process or that communicating effectively and clearly and succinctly was important.

I can see how that could greatly change teaching composition.

Composition carried the heaviest workload in the department, which is why the majority of adjuncts were teaching it. Of course I’ve heard of adjuncts feeling exploited. I never viewed myself as exploited because teaching comp was something I’d chosen to do. But it would have been nice to teach a literature class once in a while. I could play the devil’s advocate and tell dissatisfied adjuncts to teach at another campus like I did, but I’m from a densely populated area with lots of universities and community colleges. For someone in a small town that might not be an option. Maybe that’s why a lot of people are living below the poverty line. I know one of our faculty members was living in low-income housing. Actually at one point my salary would have  qualified me for low-income housing in California—until I started teaching at the other campus.

Getting back to when you were thinking about getting a PhD, what happened to the graduate assistantships? Those used to provide a university’s cheap labor. I had teaching assistantships the whole time I was in grad school, so I emerged without debt. I understand that nowadays that is not possible.

There are a lot fewer of those positions because the market is saturated with PhDs who can’t get appropriate positions. Schools have cut back on the number of people admitted to their PhD programs and even more on the number of people who get funding.

Well yeah. The job market was bad even several years before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

But in 2004 you could see a massive shift happening, where tenure-track faculty positions had become rare. Literature seminars would get cut because they weren’t filled.

Actually, I also came out of graduate school without debt. I was married at the time too, so I wasn’t the sole financial earner in the household. In 2002-04 graduate tuition at my school was about $3,000 a year, which I don’t find an obscene amount. Since then it’s skyrocketed. As a potential PhD candidate I wasn’t offered any financial assistance. Out-of-state tuition would have been $10,000. I felt it was one thing to go to law school and get $50,000 in debt, then make $80,000 or $90,000 in the first year after graduation and more money after that, while it was quite another thing to get $20.000 or $30,000 in debt for a PhD in the humanities, then come out and make $30,000 in the first year—maybe. I decided I wasn’t going to go into debt for a PhD in English literature.

Well, in Korea my colleagues at Dongguk University appreciated the fact that I had a PhD, but it was my master’s degree in linguistics and the TESOL certification that was paying the bills.

Exactly. My graduate school also had a TESOL master’s, but at the time it wasn’t even on my register. I’d thought of living abroad for quite a number of years, but I’d never thought I could do it. Then for personal, and I guess you could say soul-searching, reasons I decided to move to East Asia. A friend said she thought Korea would be a good fit for me, and she helped me through the process. When I came to Korea I was teaching for EPIK, a government-run program which places native English speakers in the public schools. I’d also been offered a university position, but I turned it down because EPIK was more supportive in helping teachers get their feet wet. I’d never lived anywhere other than my home town. So I taught at a high school for the first year in Korea, which was totally different from anything I’d done in California. My whole life was turned upside down, but in a good way. That was what I had chosen, but a year and a half later I left the high school for a university position.

Are you in the English Department or in the institute?

No, I’m teaching English Communications in General Studies. It’s quite easy and pretty much set up. I could have gotten a class in the English Department, but I declined. I haven’t taught writing from a strictly ESL perspective, although at my community college most of my students were not native speakers. In Korea I wouldn’t want to teach a writing course at my current university because the workload would be astronomical and they wouldn’t pay me any more for it.

The class I teach covers the first four semesters. It’s based on a book that still has some grammar in it, middle-school-level grammar points the students have studied it a million times over. They can ace any test I give them. If I were doing a pure conversation class and I could control it, it would be speaking 90% percent of the class time. But I don’t have that freedom.

Could you go around the classroom and write down grammar mistakes you hear students making and then go over them at the end of class? In my experience students wake up when they realize that grammar doesn’t just mean falling asleep during mechanical exercises, that it actually applies to their own speech or their own writing.

I do have that flexibility, but I’m supposed to cover one unit per class, and they’re tested in a standardized mid-term and final. If I don’t cover all the material my students might feel they were done a disservice. Next semester I’ll be more familiar with the material, and I’ll know the students, so I’ll have a better idea of where there’s wiggle room for adjustments.

One of the mentors for the foreign faculty said, “Look, don’t keep stressing grammar, grammar, grammar. These kids learned all that. If you look at their KSATs, they have been having this stuff pounded in their heads for the years.” So this person suggests being friends with the students and making them feel comfortable. I do that and I tell students that if they just speak they’re creating language. So far I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from that. And guess what? The more they talk, the better their language gets.

At Dongguk University we spent five years looking for another native speaker with an MA in TESOL. We finally hired someone in 1993, but people with master’s degrees and teaching experience were still very, very few.

And now there are very, very many.

I heard that teachers in Korea were panicking because English departments—or maybe the Ministry of Education—wanted job applicants with PhDs, and they were reducing the salaries.

I haven’t seen that PhDs are becoming a necessity, but I suspect there will be more strenuous monitoring of master’s degrees from online programs or diploma mills. Salaries have certainly been decreased and workloads increased. People who don’t meet the qualifications are scrambling. Last year when I applied for university positions I was told by one of the larger universities that I didn’t get the position because I didn’t have any university teaching experience. I said, “I have nine years university experience.” He said, “But not in Korea.” Now, it’s true that they did have a big pool of applicants to choose from, but they didn’t even look at my US experience. I was shocked. But I’m okay. I’ll be at this university for two years. When I apply again, my resume will show that I have two years of university teaching experience in Korea. I suspect then they’ll see that I also have nine years of teaching in America.

A lot of people are trying to find out where the next place is going to be and what credentials will be needed to get jobs there. People who went back to school for a master’s in TESOL aren’t necessarily getting jobs either. You hear about DELTA certificates and CELTA and all these different credentials. Jobs in the Middle East were once paying over $100,000, but now those salaries have gone way down. Plus there are the significant cultural differences. I think that in Korea more teachers will be ethnic Koreans who are completely bilingual, meaning that they speak both English and Korean at a native-speaker level.

When I first went to Korea in 1988, ethnic Asians weren’t getting jobs because they weren’t white. There was considerable prejudice against them.

I know that there’s a mindset here about learning English from foreigners, rather than English-speaking Koreans. And I’ve heard from the students that they don’t like classes taught by people with strong accents, such as Filipino-accented English, because the teachers’ language is hard to understand.

Of course some Filipinos speak English without a Filipino accent, but Filipino-accented English can be quite noticeable. For example the unstressed vowels are not reduced. So even highly educated people might pronounce “curtains” as core + tains, with two stressed syllables. The intonation and lack of reduced vowels take some getting used to. I can see why those kids might be objecting, but I’m sure at least some of that is an attitude against people from a third-world country.

When I was looking for a job, a friend said, “Oh they’ll love your blond hair and blue eyes—and smiley and happy personality.” I can see that appearance is still an issue with parents especially. I mean, in the hagwons, the language-school businesses, the parents are paying for what they want. I’ve heard horror stories about a hagwon hiring a foreigner who doesn’t look like what the parents wanted. And they had to get another one.

What about your students?

In Korea people’s attitudes are so different toward teachers and education from what I encountered in California. Most Korean students view me as someone who can actually give them what they need. I frequently have students coming to me, thanking me and shaking my hand. If they do something wrong they’ll take responsibility for it. It’s so night and day from the States, which is one of the reasons I’ll probably stay in Korea.

Links to copy and past in your navigation bar:

Death of an Adjunct.

At Last: New Labor Board Ruling Could Finally Allow Professors at Private Universities to Unionize.

Facebook page: National Adjunct Walkout Day. Lots of articles and videos.

National Adjunct Walkout Begs Reflection on State of US Faculty

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day.

Underpaying Adjuncts Hurts Full-time Professors and Students Too.

Warwick University to Outsource Hourly Paid Academics to Subsidiary