A tiger professor at SNU

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A tiger professor at SNU

Korea’s musical community is embroiled in a controversy over an apprenticeship system that went too far. The uproar originated with a petition - titled “A music university professor’s violence against students” - to the Seoul National University administration by a group of students in the vocal music department of the top university. In the petition, students reportedly claimed that they had been habitually beaten by a professor, forced to sell concert tickets as well as bring gifts to her.

Though a disciplinary panel of SNU will soon get to the bottom of the issue, we need to deliberate on why such a disruptive noise has emerged from the ivory tower.

Kim In-hei, the professor at the center of the controversy, said in an interview that her students mistook music education’s long tradition of strict apprenticeship as violence. She explained that her hot temper might have led her to frequently hit students on the head or back, but said that it’s not violence.

Remembering her school days, when she cried after being severely scolded by her academic adviser, Kim said that such a strict teaching method is an essential part of vocal education. She also strongly denied she had coerced her students into selling concert tickets or buying presents for her.

Considering the intrinsic nature of the arts, such a harsh method may be inevitable because a great work of art is created only when students and teachers work in a concerted fashion, sometimes including physical contact.

However, as the system demands almost absolute obedience from students, it often turns into a dominant-subordinate relationship between them - the more so particularly in our art world which values connections as much as skills and competence. It may also give rise to a warped culture in which students become easy victims at the hands of influential professors, as has been seen before.

Education based on apprenticeship may be a double-edged sword in the sense that it can effectively hand down a teacher’s special skills or know-how but at the same time it can go against the tide by sticking to old practices. That’s a conundrum that not only the music department of SNU but also Korea’s entire music world should address. Can we imagine that the world-famous cellist Chang Han-na could have succeeded without her admired teacher Mstislav Rostropovich? Chang called him “my genuine teacher.” It’s time to reinvent a desirable relationship between teachers and students in the world of music.
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