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Black-Market Study Notes in Korea

We recently got an e-mail from a reader we’ll call C.:

I’m a professor at an English-language liberal arts college in Seoul, South Korea, where I teach Greco-Roman classics in translation. Compared to most any American school, the academic climate here is hyper-competitive, and my Korean students are studying machines who will do whatever it takes to get good marks. If you’re familiar with the insanity of Korean education, those are my students, the ones who’ve spent years in private tutoring academies 6 days a week, doing nothing but preparing for our admissions exam.

I just learned through the grapevine that some students who took my freshman core course on Western Civ. are selling their notes, study guides, and reconstructed versions of the exam. The prices they charge current freshmen vary, depending upon the grade the seller received from me. Students who did very well (A or A+) can charge $200 for their notes; students who received Bs can ask $120 to $150. Students with a B- or lower can’t find buyers.

The grading is insanely competitive. According to university policy, only 35 percent of students are eligible for an A+, A, or A-; the next 35 percent for B+, B, B-; the remaining 40 percent duke it out for the Cs, Ds, and Fs. The problem is that these are the best students in Korea, and far more than 35% of the class earns an A. So the A- students get bumped down to B+, and the B- students get bumped down to C+, etc. I understand how this marketplace came to be.

I’d already changed the syllabus significantly, so the notes should be much cheaper because about 50% of the curriculum has changed (no one seems to have noticed, even though I posted the new syllabus online months ago). Or perhaps they did know, and the current prices reflect this.

Evidently, there’s long tradition of this, called jjokbo, which means something like “genealogy.” For quite some time, precise notes and class materials were passed down within an in-group (very old Korea). The high prices are a recent innovation (very new Korea).

The college’s dean will be handling the discipline, but what would you do? I’m already rewriting the midterm and final exam questions, so they’ll be different from last year’s. Should I buy a $200 packet myself and distribute the PDF to everyone?

Any suggestions for C.?