Stanford’s new East Asian Studies major adds Korean track

Stanford’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures has transformed its major to be more inclusive of Korea, a country that is increasingly on the minds of American youth.

Koreanist Dafna Zur arrived at Stanford in July of 2012 – the same summer that the Korean pop music video “Gangnam Style” went viral on YouTube. While Zur conceded that the “Gangnam Style” cultural phenomenon sparked huge interest in her classes that fall, she said her students quickly became eager­ to dig deeper into Korean Studies.

Seoul skyline

Growing interest in the culture, language and history of North and South Korea has resulted in the addition of a Korean track to Stanford’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. (Image credit: uschools / Getty Images)

The scholarly pursuit of Korea was not always easy, however. Until recently, Stanford students could take classes on Korean sociology, language, history and culture, but their learning was not structured by a Korean or Asian Studies major. The East Asian Languages and Culture Department offered a major on East Asia in general, and also offered a Chinese major and Japanese major with optional courses on Korea.

The newly designed major, open to students this fall, offers four sub-plans that students may choose from – East Asian Studies, China, Japan or Korea.

“Once students learn more about Korea’s geopolitical position in the world, and its history of colonization, war and immigration, an interest in the country that might start with popular culture often spills into history, into social sciences, into literature and film,” Zur said in a recent interview at the Stanford Humanities Center. Zur, who is an assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, is spending the year as a fellow researching scientific discourse in Korean literature.

Responding to popular demand

“The major we’ve created responds to the interest we’ve sensed on campus and gives students the opportunity to explore Korea in a truly interdisciplinary way,” Zur said. The goal of reconstituting the major is to foster a stronger academic community, boost enrollment and allow more opportunities for pursuits like translation studies, she noted.

For instance, students who choose the Korean track not only receive rigorous language training, but also can broaden their knowledge by taking courses in anthropology, economics, history and sociology.

Stanford Language Center lecturer Hee-Sun Kim has taught Korean at Stanford for more than a decade. For her, adding a Korean track to the East Asian Studies major makes sense, given the steady rise in enrollment over the years.

“In 2003, we had 20 to 35 students altogether per quarter, about 60 annually,” Kim said. “We now have 40 to 50 students per quarter, 130 to 150 students per year.”

Enrollment in Korean language courses is growing, Kim said. And 80 percent of Korean language students are not of Korean descent, signaling broader interest in the language and culture. Kim also said Stanford has made other efforts to support the language, such as hiring an additional Korean language tutor for the first time.

The growing enrollment in Korean language classes is promising for Zur because it has increased the number of students she can reach through her courses on Korean literature and film.

“You really cannot separate the study of Korean language and culture,” she said, also adding that grouping China, Japan and Korea together under one umbrella of study acknowledges their interconnectedness and their significance in the contemporary United States, particularly on the West Coast in general and Silicon Valley in particular.

From the classroom and into the world

The connections among East Asian nations also resonate for Lillian Vu, a graduate student in East Asian Studies.

“Although my focus has primarily been Korean history and culture, in my experience, I’ve found it beneficial to take courses on Japan and China to gain better insight into the perspectives that have shaped Korea’s engagement with its regional neighbors,” she said.

Vu, who earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Stanford in 2015, said she started out with a superficial interest in Korea that involved “passing knowledge of Korean dramas and pop music.”

After studying Korean literature and film with Zur, immersing herself in the Korean language for four years and taking courses on Korean history and economics, Vu better understands “the salience of certain values and traditions in Korean modern society, particularly in the ways that social relationships and communities are structured.”

Such in-depth knowledge has benefitted Vu’s research on Korean cultural heritage sites. She also said that language and cultural competency in Korean could also translate into careers in fields like international relations, global business and entertainment.

The East Asian Studies major aims to prepare students to engage meaningfully with Korea, whether it be studying North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, developing analytic tools for the study of fictional and non-fictional texts, or examining the vogue of Korean popular culture in the media.

Zur added that the revamped East Asian Studies major connects her with a wide array of students – those that have harbored questions about Korea and its culture; those who may have Korean family heritage; or those who are just interested in that part of the world.

“I think you can only be enriched by exploring in depth a whole other cultural and historical tradition,” she said. “What we need as humans is to develop the ability to understand multiple perspectives beyond our own and to really appreciate their historical and cultural contexts, not just get the bullet points of policy.”