People / The P Files
Seoul Inspiring
Charmed students meet dedicated professors. Mabel Lee finds out the Gangnam appeal of two South Korean lecturers




I ♥ my K-Prof

Wearing a six-sided velvet hat with golden tassels dangling from the side, a smiling, bespectacled man in maroon robes enters the room.

"Prof Bo!" gasps a group of graduating Communication students across the walls. They rush over, taking turns to take photographs with the cheery South Korean professor.

He is not a member of Super Junior or SHINee, but Asst Prof Jung Younbo sure has his share of young admirers.

"Prof Bo is very personable, and always makes the effort to get to know all his students," says Jamie Lee, one of his former students. "My friends and I had a memorable Korean dinner with him at Canteen 13, and we chit-chatted about everything from K-pop to Singaporean culture!"

"I like to find common ground with my students, as it helps to shorten the psychological distance between us," says Asst Prof Jung, who is from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information. "I don’t want them to feel alienated from the person teaching them in class."

At the start of every semester, Asst Prof Jung would find time to organise informal "pizza sessions" at the school. These get-togethers with his students are held in meeting rooms after classes.

Over crispy flatbread with ham and cheese, he lets his students ask him questions about anything – from his age to how he met his wife.

"One of them asked how long I take to gel my hair every morning," he recalls with a smile. "I replied: 10 seconds."

Often described as "dedicated" and "charismatic" by his students, the affable professor is also known for his innovative teaching methods.

Jeremy Sng, a final-year Communication student, says: "He once wore a series of cute animal hats during an e-lecture! It was extremely out of character for him, and we were very amused. It really motivated us to watch the e-lecture."

"He's not afraid of his students laughing at him as long as their interests are piqued," Jeremy adds.

"I knew I was competing with many interesting YouTube videos out there, such as Gangnam Style," Asst Prof Jung says with a smile. "I kept the e-lecture short by highlighting the key points, and tried to make it memorable by wearing puppy and frog hats that belong to my eight-year-old son Ian, five-year-old daughter Leah and beloved wife Jooyeon."

His passion and sincerity towards teaching is what inspires his students the most.

"When we seek guidance on something not directly related to our course, such as help with statistical analyses, he readily gives it to us," says final-year Communication student Kai Jie, who takes his class in Persuasion and Social Influence. "But he doesn’t ‘spoon-feed’ us, which helps to foster self-learning – a valuable life skill to have."

Asst Prof Jung, whose research focuses on interactive media, is working with engineers, pediatricians and speech therapists to help people with autism spectrum disorder.

As to the worldwide obsession with K-pop hit Gangnam Style, the
young-hearted professor, whose favourite Korean artistes are Girls Generation and 2PM, gives his take.

"PSY is hilarious – he challenges traditional cultural beliefs and attitudes by making a parody of himself," Asst Prof Jung muses. "It’s a great way to showcase your own style."

Hot shots, cool frames

This professor exudes Gangnam style.

"I used to live in Gangnam," explains Assoc Prof Oh Soon-Hwa, who grew up in the trend-setting district. "Gang means river and nam means south. Back then, I would climb the nearby Jirisan mountains whenever I needed to clear my head or get inspired."

Having spent 18 years away from home, the South Korean professor now hopes to infuse ideas gleaned from her travels into her teaching of photography at the School of Art, Design & Media.

"I’m also studying how social systems help artists in Korea, and hope to implement similar ideas here," says Assoc Prof Oh, who joined NTU in 2005.

In 2010, she initiated the Kwek Leng Joo Award, which is given to the top two Photography students in each graduating cohort, along with S$30,000 and S$20,000 in funding respectively for photography projects and exhibitions.

"I set very high standards for my students," admits Assoc Prof Oh. "But I think artists should be free to do what they want. I give them pressure, but not too much. It’s a very delicate situation."

To further her students’ interest in photography, she recently led a group on a 10-day trip to the renowned Pingyao International Photography Festival in China.

"It’s good to expose ourselves to global perspectives," says Assoc Prof Oh. "Freezing the moment is easy, but in photography you have to communicate within the composition – the view is very important."

Outside of classes, she also organises trips to places such as the Singapore Art Museum.

"I want my students to live with art instead of just studying it inside a room," says Assoc Prof Oh, who cites contemporary sculptor Lee Bul as her favourite Korean artist.

The fresh-faced professor, whose gentle demeanour may remind some of the female lead in popular Korean drama Dae Jang Geum, reveals her own brush with the K-wave:

"I once walked past some students listening to a very infectious Korean song. Out of curiosity, I searched for the YouTube video at home and played it. To my complete surprise, my four-year-old son Raphael started dancing to Gangnam Style like a pro! It was amusing," she says with a laugh.