On the first day of class, I gaze out onto a sea of eager young faces. I can already sense the students will be highly engaged, yet I secretly hope for more than sheer enthusiasm. In my ideal Korean literature class, students take the course because of an interest in literature and not necessarily to explore their Korean identity. I certainly do not object to teaching students who want to know more about Korea, but it is difficult to teach literature to those who have little training or interest in it as a course of study.
Korean literature is generally taught in North American universities in an area studies department as one of the three major literary traditions of East Asia along with Japanese and Chinese literature. But far more than these better known national literatures, Korean literature functions as a means for heritage students and Korean studies majors to learn about the country in general. Meanwhile, the particular qualities of Korean literature that make it vital and worth studying for the way in which it, like other memorable works of literature, help us understand ourselves and the world around us—these qualities are too often lost. Instead, students are more likely to be concerned with what the story can teach them about being Korean or the culture rather than with what the literature itself has to offer. As an instructor of literature, I believe that this is where the problem lies. Usually, Korean literature is taught in isolation from literature programs throughout the rest of the university, and instead of attracting students in English, Comparative, or World Literature, the classes are composed largely of students who have had little exposure to creative fiction or poetry. For this reason my classes often compensate as a general introduction to literature for heritage students. In an ideal college curriculum, Korean literature would be taught as part of a Comparative Literature or World Literature program. Introduced in this context, I believe it could make an important contribution to the university literature curriculum, further enhancing students’ understanding of literary traditions that exist outside the English language.