[Viewpoint] What makes a humanities scholar?

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[Viewpoint] What makes a humanities scholar?

This summer, I am working on a translation project that I had postponed because of other priorities.

It is not easy to concentrate in the sizzling heat, but writing and translating are a job that requires a chunk of dedicated time, and summer vacation is the only time for professors to work on books.

Whether a writer or a translator, anyone with the experience of publishing a book would understand the struggle.

As you work on a manuscript for an extended period of time, you often feel exhausted and even sick. The intensity of the work is no less, really, than physical labor.

But even after all that hard work, you cannot expect much reward.

Many colleges and universities still exclude writing books or doing translations from their achievement evaluation because they are not academic papers.

It would be rewarding if a book were welcomed by readers, much less academia, but that’s not the case a lot of the time.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development said that Koreans read the least number of books per year, and many books are met with lukewarm reaction.

Kim Yong-ok, a famous philosopher and prolific writer, confessed the struggle in his book, “Conversation.”

“This year [1990], I published seven books. Guess what the professors tell me when they see me. Knowing nothing about the publishing world, they say, ‘Hey, you must be making good money after you quit the university job. Every book will bring in a lot of cash!’

“However, if a humanities book sells 10,000 copies, it’s a best-seller. It is quite a disappointing figure. If you sell 10,000 copies of a book priced at $4 and get a royalty of 10 percent, the total income from the book is $4,000. If I write five best-selling books a year, my income would be $20,000. It is not even close to what a lazy professor receives as a salary. My shoulders are aching from too much writing.”

You might have sold, say, 10,000 copies in 1990, but the market is even grimmer today. Until the late ’90s, you might get 2,000 to 3,000 copies printed of the first edition for a humanities book. Lately, it’s been more like just 500 to 1,000 copies. When you print 1,000 copies of a book priced at $20, your royalty would be $2,000.

The reading population is shrinking constantly. So you are better off, financially, using the time to write a paper rather than a book. If you are lucky, a paper could lead to a research fund of $20,000. The time and effort needed to write a book can produce the equivalence of five to six papers, so it is understandable that many professors dedicate themselves to academic publications.

Liberal arts scholars make the extra effort to write books because they believe that the true mission of the humanities is communication. These scholars say a paper would be read by only a handful of other academics in the review committee.

The public is not likely to read the papers, which are often challenging even to the experts. So the best way of communicating with the public is through a book.

However, most professors are confined to the ivory tower and do not make the effort to communicate with the public. Aside from a few professors with awareness, many do not even feel the need for communication with readers.

So, countless professors finish their tenures without publishing a single book after spending their whole lives in the liberal arts. Can you really call them scholars of humanities? They are better named “technicians” since they neglect the “road not taken” and only do what the system allows them. To these professors, the crisis in the liberal arts is only a threat to their job security. To humanities scholars, academic papers are a necessary part of the job - not the ideal.

The format of a paper itself is influenced by the methodological approach of the natural sciences; we need to examine the prospect that it does not correspond to the identity of the liberal arts.

With little systematic encouragement and readers’ welcome, you need some way to keep going, an inner strength, to pursue producing humanities content for communication.

In my case, I keep telling myself that each book is as important as the four years of service of a lawmaker in the National Assembly.

Writing and translating 10 books would make me a 10th term assemblyman.

Some readers might laugh at such pride, but I can only continue writing by allowing it to give meaning to my work and boosting my self-esteem.

Liberal arts scholars endeavoring to work outside the system are volunteer troops. They can be found both inside and outside universities.

They believe that communication is the only way to break through the crisis in the humanities and the best means to improve society. They are distinguished from the liberal arts technicians because they voluntarily pursue communication.

Here, one question arises, and the generational divide gives way to another concern in academia today. Is the future of Korea bright when scholars hand over the task of communication to the few remaining next-generation scholars?

*The writer is a professor of western history at Woosuk University.

by Park Sang-ik
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