Question: You are currently working as the head professor for the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies. Do you see any changes in students’ attitudes or actions in the lecture room?
Bae: There is not much change actually. Normally students who are interested in feminism and social issues that are related to gender take the women’s studies subjects that are offered. Those students who take my subjects do not display a stark comparison to the past since they probably have a pre-existing interest. That being said, big issues related to feminism receive a lot of public attention on the Internet and on social networks. Those issues come and go, and so I think students are generally more concerned and vocal about issues that attract a lot of public criticis on the Internet rather than verbalizing their own experiences of the world or interpreting their own life based on knowledge of feminism that has been established or is being established.
Meanwhile, I have been thinking more and more that I need to familiarize myself with the semantics of the digital world in order to study the young generation these days.
Question: Could you tell us about the context for the creation of Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies?
Bae: The Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies was created in 1999, and the doctorate course was created in 2002. In Korea, undergraduate courses on gender studies were not available at the time. Naturally, there was no educational unit for gender studies at Seoul National University for a long time. The establishment of our program was the first establishment of its kind in a coeducation institution.
To provide some context, feminism was on the rise in society in the 90s and there was a strong movement against sexual assault within university campuses. This led the student community to develop strong and rigorous opinions about gender equality and sexual equality. I started to lecture at the university sometime after that in 2006. When I was undertaking my doctorate, I worked as a teaching assistant for a professor who was planning to create the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies. Thinking back, I started my undergraduate in 1993 and the establishment of the program was largely led by the School of Social Sciences. To talk about my personal experience, when I began taking the doctorate courses, there were an increasing number of students who were around the same age as me, and were continuing their studies while being married with children. Since we were studying in the same space as the social science students who were active in the field of academics I came to the conclusion that the discipline of social science was not addressing problems related to the experiences of women at all. So, we voluntarily formed a group and began seminars. A good tradition that the faculty of social science at Seoul National University is that the school fully reflected on our request to open up a new subject. We requested the inclusion of gender issues in the subjects taught, and the first course was created with the name “special social science research.”
We challenged the faculty by pointing out the lack of female professors. As this process continued for several years, sociology professors also recognized the need to teach gender studies. So Professor Chung Chin-sung was assigned as the first women’s studies professor in 1997. With the support of Professor Kwon Tae-hwan and other teaching staff, the Inter- disciplinary Program was finally able to be created. It is not really an easy thing to do, to create a new educational unit, but it was possible through the cooperation of other schools in the university, the official support of the Seoul National University Women Professors Association, and a petition.
When the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies was first created, I think the social science students liked to act like our seniors. Now, after 20 years, however, it has become an independent educational unit of its own. In spite of this independence from social science, raising social problems, a basic theoretical framework of sociology which considers gender an important social category, was always an important framework for gender studies. It is still being used to help further develop women’s studies at Seoul National University.
Question: Could you tell us about the general characteristics of students who enroll in the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies, and how the program is managed?
Bae: Currently, the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies is being managed precisely in an interdisciplinary manner. It can be said that gender studies is inherently an interdisciplinary discipline. One could view it as a distinct discipline if they are solely interested in the study of gender itself. However, like all disciplines, it can be approached from different angles. That is why the program has a structure of an interdisciplinary program that is comprised of professors specializing in various single disciplines. We are making various attempts to forge a perspective of gender studies by having different professors every week.
There is a tendency for more students to apply for the subject when social interest in feminism is strong at the time and for less students to apply when the social attention subsides. But I used to hear about parents worrying a lot if their children were taking women’s studies courses, even preventing the student from doing so. Things are not like that anymore, however. Currently, we see various gender issues erupting throughout Korean society while society has failed to develop specialists who can deal with such gender-related issues. To improve the current situation, we are developing the workforce that society desperately needs while conducting research on a wide range of areas.