Friday, December 31, 1999

a tale of two unis (now revised)

[Originally published Sunday, September 28, 2014, at 9:22PM.]

NB, 9/29, 1:42PM: I'm adding some revisions based on my buddy Charles's comments and my own cogitation.

I'm far enough along in my semester at Dongguk University that I think it's now safe to start making comparisons between my new job and my previous one. Ultimately, I'm not sure which school comes out on top: they really are like yin and yang—each school with good points where the other has bad points.

Here, then, in no particular order, is a list of some aspects of both schools, along with some desultory jottings as I think out loud. I'm scoring each aspect by awarding 0 or 1 point, then using a multiplier—from 1 to 3—to weight the importance of each score. A multiplier of "1" represents a low-priority category; a multiplier of "3" represents a high-priority one.

1. Pay.

DCU: my previous employer paid W30,000,000 a year to us first-year proles. After taxes and other deductions, salary came out to a nice, round W2,000,000 per month, net. This was very modest pay, and was one of the major reasons why I left the school after only a year there.

DGU: my current employer pays W2,900,000 per month gross. My first month of pay was W2.7 million, but after some discussion with a supervisor, I now know that we newbie profs should normally be getting about W2.5 million per month, net.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 0, DGU 1.
Multiplier: 3
Total score: DCU 0, DGU 3.

2. Housing.

DCU: I was placed in a very small weollum ("one-room") studio. The building had paper-thin walls and the most emaciated of kitchenettes. I could hear my neighbors' cell-phone vibrations, farts, and other noises. My neighbor below me complained, on occasion, about my chair-scrapings, despite my vigilant attempts at moving about silently in consideration of those around me. (Other neighbors showed no such consideration: one neighbor loved to do jumping jacks on Sunday for nearly thirty minutes.) DCU paid for this studio, for the most part: we profs had to pay about W100,000 a month out of our salaries; that was part of the standard deduction and didn't affect our net pay (a flat W2 million, as stated above).

DGU: My new place of work provides no housing at all, leaving us profs to fend for ourselves. This is obviously a disadvantage in terms of inconvenience and salary: you have to find a place on your own, and you're likely going to have to pay the full rent, wherever you end up. The advantage, at least in theory, is that your housing is truly your housing: the university has no right to kick you out of it, as DCU did to me at the end of my contract, booting me out a good three weeks earlier than the ending date. I'm currently housed in a yeogwan, which represents about the cheapest possible housing. My place is definitely a step down, in quality, from the studio I'd lived in for a year, but I've elected to suffer for a year, building up a store of cash, so that I can move into a better place and then begin paying down my major debts in earnest.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 0, DGU 0.
Multiplier: 3
Total score: DCU 0, DGU 3.

3. The walk to campus.

DCU: The walk to my office or classrooms from my studio was a gentle uphill trek that took about 13 to 15 minutes, depending on how fast I walked. The neighborhood was... well, it was Hayang, i.e., small-town Korea. But it was a pleasant walk, and it helped me start to lose weight, a fact for which I remain thankful.

DGU: The walk to my department's building, the Hyehwa-gwan, takes almost exactly 12 minutes to reach the front door. Add another minute or two to reach the fifth floor (where my faculty office is) via the stairs—even more time if I wait in the long line for the elevator (which I rarely do these days, not because I relish all that stair-climbing, but because I'm impatient and can't stand waiting an eternity for the elevator, just so I can go up a few floors). The walk is hillier since DGU sits on the side of Namsan. But I'm happy to be, once again, walking distance from my place of work. I also really like the grungy, blue-collar neighborhood I'm in, as well as my central location in Seoul: Jongno and Dongdaemun are both just a stroll away from my yeogwan, as are several local markets.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 1, DGU 1.
Multiplier: 2
Total score: DCU 2, DGU 5.

4. Campus ambiance.

I'll restrict the question of ambiance purely to the physical campus, its buildings, grounds, facilities, and services.

DCU: Overall, I though DCU had a great campus—well-manicured, open and spacious, with plenty of generally modern buildings (we language teachers were shunted to the more run-down buildings, as is par for the course on most Korean campuses, but even those buildings were far from awful. I can't say I have any substantive complaints about this aspect of my previous job. The landscaping was easy on the eye; the roads on campus all made sense, and once I started my walking routine at DCU, I found the campus eminently walkable. The dining facilities ranged all over in price and quality; some places were very good and others were a nightmare (I'm thinking specifically of the resto that served way-overpriced, way-skimpy tangsuyuk). By the time I left DCU, I had had meals at most of the on-campus eateries. There were several that went untested, alas. DCU's admin offices were generally competent and helpful, and help was often speedy.

DGU: DGU's campus is comparable in size to DCU's, but because the campus sits on the side of Namsan, it's a warren of stairs, elevators, and buildings that are weirdly connected together, creating a confusing, maze-like feeling for the uninitiated. I didn't like this at first, but I've since come to appreciate the school's many weird twists and turns and nooks and crannies, which are diametrically opposite the clean-cut, open layout of my previous employer's campus. During orientation, our guide joked that DGU students were voted in the top two of Korean students with the best calves, mainly because of all the stair-climbing and hill-walking that are part of everyday life here. As for eateries, I've been to a few, and the overall impression I get isn't much different from the one I had at DGU: some restaurants are good; some are awful. I'm slowly learning which places to avoid. The faculty cafeteria is a good place to practice dietary self-discipline, thanks to its vegetarian buffet. DGU's admin facilities are as nightmarishly labyrinthine as the campus itself: bureaucracy has a stranglehold on this place, that's for sure. There's way too much bullshit paperwork and way too many rules, regulations, and procedures to follow. This can be stifling.

All in all, I'm going to score this aspect slightly in favor of DCU.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 1, DGU 0.
Multiplier: 2
Total score: DCU 4, DGU 5.

5. Colleagues and bosses.

DCU: I was told by our team leader at DCU that, only a few years before, the DCU expat English faculty numbered only six people. When I was picked up by Catholic in a wave of hiring, the number reached thirty-six. We were divided into six teams, each team with its own team leader, thus creating a more or less smoothly operating flow chart with clear lines of authority and information flow. Various people griped that their team leaders were often unhelpful; my own team leader was able to answer all my practical, procedure-related questions, and he provided extra wisdom regarding how to navigate both Hayang and Daegu. Although he and I had many substantive differences of opinion, we got along professionally, and at the end of my year at DCU, he said he was sorry to see me go. My colleagues at DCU were generally fine; there might have been a couple assholes laced throughout the crowd, but I tended to get along with everyone there, and often appreciated their own attempts at collegiality, even if I didn't often join their evening activities (e.g., trips into the big city for dinner and drinks).

DGU: I'm still learning who everyone is at my current job, so it might be too early, yet, to make any comparisons. We have a larger faculty here at Dongguk: forty-eight foreign professors. We are not divided into teams, which makes for a rather annoying dynamic in which information emanates to all of us from two primary sources: (1) our department's main office and (2) our head teachers, who use the title "Course Director" in their shotgun emails. The head teachers are readily available by email; they answer my questions very promptly, sometimes even late at night. Generally speaking, the course directors pick their battles carefully and send emails only when it's crucial to do so. The main office, by contrast, sends out a blizzard of emails, bombarding us with mostly unnecessary correspondence on a near-daily basis. I will say this, though: the main office is doing its best to provide us with opportunities for extra work. There's always some request coming down the pipe: a Korean professor needs tutoring, a fellow expat prof needs to be replaced for a month while he works on some project, a club needs a foreign-faculty advisor, an intensive English course needs teachers, etc. I say "no" to all of these requests because (1) I've already got two other jobs, and (2) the pay for these DGU gigs is ridiculously low, usually around W35,000 an hour. Thanks, but no, thanks.

This one's a tough call; I'm generally positive about my coworkers and bosses at both jobs, but I'll score this one slightly in favor of DCU. DGU has FB for a few more days, and that hasn't been pleasant (there was no FB at either of my previous universities). I also feel that, while our course directors are good, competent folks, they're also kind of distant. That's not necessarily a bad thing: a little laissez-faire keeps the ambiance from becoming too stifling.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 1, DGU 0.
Multiplier: 3
Total score: DCU 7, DGU 5.

6. Paperwork.

I don't need to write much here. DCU wins this one hands-down. My new place of work is so snowed under with forms for this and forms for that that my eyes are crossed. DCU had paperwork, to be sure, but nothing on the order of the shit I have to sift through at DGU. I'm currently trying to call up and fill out a form to get permission to keep working at KMA. Yet another motherfucking form.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 1, DGU 0.
Multiplier: 2
Total score: DCU 9, DGU 5.

7. Students.

Here, too, there's no comparison: students at my new university are light-years ahead of Daegu students according to every metric you can think of: motivation, smarts, talent, effort—you name it, and Seoul students kick the asses of Daegu students up and down the street. The students are, for me, the saving grace of my new school: they're a true pleasure to teach, and they appreciate what I'm trying to do for them. They make my time at Dongguk worthwhile, and I can already tell I'm going to miss the crop of kids I currently have. Christmas this year is going to be bittersweet when we all part ways. I had a very small handful of students down in Daegu that I thought were worth my while to teach; alas, most of those kids were lazy, under-motivated zombies who were either hypnotized by their cell phones or busy doodling on their desks, and not many of them appreciated what I was trying to do for them.

(Actually, desk-doodling makes for an interesting point of comparison: Catholic University's desks were covered with often-intricate student artwork, whereas Dongguk University's desks are, for the most part, neat and fairly devoid of graffiti. This is a crucial indicator of student focus and motivation. To spend that much time making complex drawings, you have to stop paying attention to the lecture. Dongguk students obviously pay more attention to their surroundings and spend far less time dog-paddling in tiny mental puddles.)

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 0, DGU 1.
Multiplier: 3
Total score: DCU 9, DGU 8.

8. Access to buildings.

With my DCU ID card, I was able to access any building on campus at any time of day. DCU tended to close many of its buildings over the weekend—especially on Sunday, thus necessitating the ID card. At DGU, I have a faulty ID card that allows access only to my own faculty office—not to any other building, and not even to the main doors of my own department's building. I can't tell you how much this sucks balls. The only thing better about the DGU situation is that all the buildings are accessible seven days a week.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 1, DGU 0.
Multiplier: 2
Total score: DCU 11, DGU 8.

I suppose, when all is said and done, the environment down in Daegu, at Catholic University, was better than what I now experience at Dongguk. But despite the 11-8 score, Dongguk does have a few significant advantages, chief among them the better pay, the Seoul-based location (which I didn't discuss), and the far, far superior student body. I'm also learning that we Dongguk teachers have more autonomy than I'd originally thought when it comes to how we run our classes; while I still think it's too much to ask us to use pre-made syllabi, I now know there are ways around this ostensibly suffocating system. Perhaps, as time goes on, I'll have a clearer view of what the boundaries really are, and I'll discover that there's even more breathing room than was first apparent. For what it's worth, though, I'm here at Dongguk now, so there's little use pining for the past. Besides, I was eager to get the fuck out of Daegu for a number of reasons, many of which I won't get into here. I'm glad to be back in Seoul, my second home, and I'm glad to be making some decent bank. Debt repayment continues through October, then in November I'll begin stockpiling cash toward renting an apartment next year. Much to look forward to.

ADDENDUM: One more category:

9. The city I live in.

I was too tired to write about this last night, but Seoul beats the shit out of the Daegu-Hayang-Gyeongsan area. I know there are some Daegu loyalists among my former bosses and colleagues—people who've found Seoul to be too crowded, too noisy, too full of itself, too polluted... too too. I understand their feelings and completely agree that Seoul isn't for everyone—especially not for the timid. But I love Seoul, and I'm ecstatic to be back, whatever misery I may currently be suffering. This city has been my home for almost a fifth of my life, and it's taken good care of me while I've been here. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty to complain about, but to my mind, the good far outweighs the bad. Seoul is a hub of energy; when I was living in Hayang and visiting Seoul on occasion, I'd feel a charge every time my train pulled in to Seoul Station. A feeling of "I'm back, bitches!" would wash over me, and I'd see myself as finally being where things are happening. It's a primitive recognition: the sensation that Seoul is mighty, a place of craft, in the old, Germanic sense of that word. I still love Korea's quieter areas—its hidden valleys, its tucked-away mountain shrines and temples—but Seoul is where I'm most at home. There's no beating that feeling. I draw power from this place, even when it kicks me in the head.

Initial score for this aspect: DCU 0, DGU 1.
Multiplier: 3
Total score: DCU 11, DGU 11.

A tie. But if you asked me whether I'd rather return to Daegu, my answer would be Hell, no. Sorry, Daegu, but you can keep your annoyingly incomprehensible dialect, your strangely high cost of living, your sleepyheaded students, and your limited number of things to do. You're a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't wanna live there. Again.



Charles said...

You should weight the categories, I think. And why didn't you discuss the Seoul location? I would think that location of campus would be a category worth considering.

The real question is, numbers aside: are you happier here than you were in the armpit of Korea?

Kevin Kim said...

Didn't discuss Seoul mainly because I was tired and running out of mental steam. And yes: I probably should weight the categories, although that would also require more mental energy than I can muster at the moment. Maybe assign a multiplier, from 1 to 3, with "1" meaning "low priority" and "3" meaning "high priority"? The scales would likely tip in favor of Dongguk, especially if I added a discussion of Seoul-versus-Daegu.

Anyway, yes: I'm relieved and gratified to be back in Seoul, the thrumming Omphalos Gas of this half-peninsula. There's very little that I miss about the Daegu region.

Charles said...

Good. Glad to hear it.

Now we just have to figure out how to get together at some point for some victuals. Although October promises to be a pretty hectic month 'round these parts.

Kevin Kim said...

You doing anything for American Thanksgiving (November 27 this year)? Not sure what I can bring, but I can try to bring something. Maybe a Costco pumpkin pie. Those are pretty good.

Charles said...

I don't usually do much of anything for American Thanksgiving; it's a bit early in the game to know whether or not I'll be doing anything on that particular day (as you know, here it's just another Thursday), but more likely than not there won't be anything special going on. Except class in the afternoon.

As for the pumpkin pie... well, pumpkin is probably my least favorite variety of pie in existence, as un-American as that may seem. I will eat just about any other pie there is, though.