An Interview with Dr. Sangjun Jeong, Seoul National University

Dr. Sangjun Jeong
Dr. Sangjun Jeong

American Studies in the Pacific

Dr. Jeong is a Professor of English at Seoul National University. He is a specialist in American literature and intellectual history. His research interests include New England Puritanism and American democracy, the tradition of political novels in the US, and the American way of life and Disneyland. Dr. Jeong has been a visiting professor in literature at Duke University and a visiting scholar at Harvard. He served as the director of the American Studies Institute and the executive director of the Language Education Institute at Seoul National University, and the president of the American Studies Association of Korea. In 2015 he was a Fulbright scholar at the History Department at Duke University. His most recent publications include “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Postmodernist Historical Novel,” “Representing the Other: 24 and Leatherstocking Tales” in American Studies, and “The State of American Studies in Korea” in the Journal of American StudiesDr. Jeong was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from March of 2015 through April of 2015.

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: Currently you are working on a book project tentatively titled: Mapping American Studies in the Pacific, which will examine American Studies, or United States Studies in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. Could you give us a bit of background regarding the history and current state of American Studies/U.S. Studies in S. Korea?

Dr. Sangjun Jeong: I believe that doing US Studies is more important than talking about it. Sometimes, though, it helps your practice to reflect upon how you’ve been doing what you do and how others are doing it. I was especially intrigued by Chinese Americanists who seem to have a clear idea of why they study the US—why and how the US has become the most powerful country in the world. I thought about looking into global US Studies only to find out the project too large to deal with. So I decided to limit it to the Pacific countries you mentioned, but I would like to expand the list a little bit more including Latin American countries that definitely constitute the pacific rim such as Peru and Argentina.

Most Koreans would agree that the US has become one of the most important countries to Korea not only in national security and economy but in culture, since the US governed South Korea for three years after it was liberated from the Japanese rule in 1945. The way that Koreans see the US has changed over the years depending on what’s happening in and out of the country, like with the rise of China, to take a most recent example. Accordingly, the scholarship on the US has accumulated in the area of politics, history, culture, and literature. Generally speaking, watching American Studies scholarship for the past twenty years, I have felt that we Koreans need to delve into the US in a more interdisciplinary and transnational manner despite enormous increase in knowledge on the US in disparate fields.

IFUSS: Speaking about S. Korea, You note that the original impetus of American Studies/U.S. Studies was an interdisciplinary approach to American culture that attempts to understand the United States as a whole. You maintain that despite changes in methodology, this holistic view is still the goal. You note, however, that today rather than an interdisciplinary American Studies program, what we find is more the study of specific aspects of the U.S. being carried out in separate disciplines and departments, such as English, History, Political Science, and International Studies. So are you saying that in S. Korea there is a decline in American Studies/U.S. Studies, yet an overall increase in the study of the U.S.?

SJ: It seems my presentation was not clear enough. We need to distinguish two different uses of the term American Studies in Korea. First, it refers to an interdisciplinary program; second it means the academic study of any specific aspect of the US. American Studies, in the latter sense, is being done now as it has been done before in separate disciplines, American literature in the English department, American politics in the department of political science. When American Studies in the former sense emerged in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, an interdisciplinary approach was not really widespread in the academia. For the past several decades, however, one of the most prominent trends in humanities and social sciences seems the emphasis on the importance of interdisciplinarity. This can be regarded as the success of American Studies. Each separate discipline tries to adopt an interdisciplinary approach on its own. You do not have to go to another department to do interdisciplinary research; you can do it in your own department. Even in the American Studies department students do not really take courses from other departments as much as before. The success of American Studies methods, if it had been serious about transmitting them, ironically invited its decline, so to speak, just like the demise of New Criticism in literature departments in the 1950s and 1960s. The level of interdisciplinarity is certainly different from discipline to discipline. Americanists in each department in Korea seem to take the interdisciplinary research in their department as interdisciplinary for various reasons and are somehow content with what they’re doing, including myself. You can notice that the articles in [the U.S. based] American Quarterly are pretty different from those in the Journal of American Studies, the journal of the American Studies Association of Korea, in their level of interdisciplinarity. That’s one of the things that I had in mind when I mentioned the decline in American Studies in Korea.

IFUSS: Could you speak to some of the generational differences among S. Koreans in terms of attitudes about the U.S. and how these attitudes might relate to what today’s undergraduates in S. Korea expect from, or are offered in, American Studies courses?

SJ: When I was in my teens the per capita income of Korea was less than $1,000 USD, whereas my children are used to the way of life in a country where the per capita income was above $10,000 or these days approaching $30,000. They received a different education especially about the US, the relationship between Korea and the US, between the US and the world. I would like to believe they have more practical, balanced, and sophisticated views on the US, overcoming the sense of being colonized in their minds. I try to organize American Studies courses that I offer from a comparative, transnational perspective with as many specific cases as possible.

IFUSS: You have commented on the “English fever” that has been going on for several decades in S. Korea, where Korean parents are willing to go to great effort and expense to hone the English skills of their children. As you noted, for most Koreans having “excellent English skills” is not simply a matter of effective communication and correct grammar, but, more specifically, having a standard American, “newscaster” accent. At the same time, you have also noted that younger generations of Koreans tend to have “neutral” to “critical” attitudes about the U.S. What kinds of language ideology or concerns with cultural distinction do you think are at work here?

SJ: English is definitely used as a divide for social status. It is one of the most important components that constitute your cultural capital. Not every English is equal in its status, because a hierarchy exists, as you know, American English at top, followed by British English, and so forth, perhaps. Some years ago many Koreans—I don’t know how many—were shocked by a report that some parents had their children get a surgery on their tongues so that they could speak English like native speakers. This is certainly an extreme example, but you can figure out the intensity of the English fever. Some Koreans have suggested that we adopt English as our official language for various reasons, one of them being the English divide tends to reproduce and perpetuate a class distinction. What I find ironic is that those who enjoy social privileges and economic comfort partly due to their linguistic distinction are most critical of the suggestion. I understand there are a myriad of legitimate grounds to oppose the suggestion, and the critics must be well-intentioned.  I do not believe they tried to maximize the volume of their cultural capital. Switching the topic a little bit, I would like to add one more point. Although its importance has got a bit lessened in part due to the US shale [gas and oil] revolution, the Chinese language has emerged as another linguistic capital that you should increase along with English. But Chinese alone is not enough; it should be both English and Chinese. Sometimes you get satirical about yourself as you observe the subjects on the periphery trying to learn the language of the empires, although that’s not the whole story of learning foreign languages.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.