Labor from Below: What Neoliberal Capitalism Overlooks in K-pop (from KPK: Kpop Kollective)

Scholars frequently use the neoliberal capitalism frame to contextualize K-pop within the Korean wave, but the over-reliance on critiquing capitalist forces further silences the creative personnel of K-pop. If we approach K-pop using the “history from below” framework, we can reveal the perspectives of the individuals in the industry.  Read original at KPK: Kpop Kollective!

If Not Now, When?: Students and Difficult Reading

Source: Pixabay

Many professors bemoan the failure to do the assigned reading on the part of their students. But is that a reason to shy away from giving students challenging texts?

After regaling readers with the common experience of encountering students in the classroom who have not done the reading, Theresa MacPhail offers a solution in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She suggests assigning less reading: “Long story short: Don’t assign too much reading–and don’t assume you know how much reading is too much for your students.” Why? Because students are pressed for time and, “read only if they have time and if the readings are relatively easy to digest.” Moreover, she suggests that professors avoid long texts:  “It may be the biggest reason students are no longer reading the things we assign. They have complained over and over again that a lot of assigned texts are just too boring or too long or–the deadliest of combinations–both at once.”

In her own classroom, MacPhail incorporates other kinds of material, including documentaries and podcasts. She only has students read a few scholarly texts during the course. The result: “My student are getting the information–but in formats with which they are most comfortable. Instead of reading more, they are doing more research and writing.”

There are two things that struck me. One is the idea that learning should be easy and comfortable.  Whereas learning shouldn’t be torture, it also shouldn’t be without discomfort. I’m a proponent of meeting students where they are. At the same time, the goal is also to move the student forward, even if it’s just a little bit, and that often means taking the student out of a comfort zone to a new place that is unfamiliar and sometimes scary. But that’s ok! The unfamiliar then becomes familiar; then we move on to more unfamiliar things.  What we should be doing is making students comfortable with being uncomfortable, with ambiguity, with not knowing and confident enough to charge ahead and grapple with difficult texts or challenging readings.

The other idea that struck me was placing reading in opposition to research and writing.  As a person who designs and implements research programs for undergraduates and trains them to work on my own research, I know the value of reading for research. I know some academics who look down on basic bibliographic research, but that research is the foundation for any subsequent research. An inability to read well at this stage does not bode well later down the road.  I have seen students who have never been asked to grapple with a “difficult’ text that challenged them. As a result, they lack the confidence and ability to do so. If a student never has to grapple with a dense text, then a student will never learn how to grapple with a dense text. But it’s about more than grappling with jargon or a boring text. It’s about developing critical reading skills that they can use anywhere.

Rather than denigrating difficult texts, perhaps what we should teach students is how to read smarter, which would really make the best use of their time and engage them with the material.   Miriam E. Sweeney offers some great insights in her post, “How to Read for Grad School.” Instead of a cursory review of the material, these suggestions offer a reading strategy to ensure the reader understands the material at a sufficient depth to be able to engage its ideas. There are probably others who have written similarly.

In the 1970s, I remember seeing public service advertisements for the Reading is Fundamental program, which was designed to increase literacy rates. Reading is still fundamental. The way to address student reading is not to encourage students to avoid difficult reading, but to teach them how to engage it.


MacPhail, Theresa. “Are You Assigning Too Much REading? Or Just Too Much Boring Reading?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Jan 2019, (21 Mar 2019).

Miriam. “How to Read for Grad School.” Miriam E. Sweeney. 20 Jun 2012, (21 Mar 2019).

The Role of Implementation in High Impact Practices

Source: Pixabay

The mere existence of high impact practices does not produce results. Much depends on the way such practices are implemented.

High impact practices are a set of experiences that have been shown to improve student learning. Recently, Inside Higher Education reported on research published in The Journal of Higher Education that suggests that such practices do not lead to improved learning and higher graduation rates.  Marjorie Valbrun reports that the study concluded that “the graduation rates at colleges that incorporated all the practices were not higher than those that used few if any of the practices.” Such conclusions suggest that “examining the connection between the recommended practices and institutional outcomes was important because of the widespread use of the practices ‘at the expense of other possible offerings'” (Valbrun). This could lead some to suggest that we abandon high-impact practices for other types of activities.

Soon after, George Kuh, author of High Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (2008), and Jillian Kinzie penned a response in Inside Higher Education, raising an important, overlooked aspect of the study. In addition to the circumstances of the students, they argue that “simply offering and labeling an activity a HIP does not necessarily guarantee that students who participate in it will benefit in the ways much of the extant literature claims.” In other words, the high-impact practice needs to be deliberately structured to achieve certain results. Its mere existence will not create positive results for students.

Much like when we teach classes, we need to envision what we hope to accomplish when we embark on a high impact practice in our institutions and how we seek to meet those goals. More importantly, we have to think about how such experiences will impact the student and what the student will take away from the experience. Are we simply adding a line to a student’s resume for a job or a cv for graduate school? Are merely creating data points for institutional data? Or, are we providing an experience and tangible products from that experience that students can share?

This is something I’m working on as I continue to implement our institution’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) for reaccreditation, which is undergraduate research, a high-impact practice. Creating ways to leverage these experiences will also make them more meaningful to students, who sometimes overlook the continued benefit of the experiences for later in their lives and focus on just doing them. One possible approach is combining high-impact practices. In addition to undergraduate student research, the overview of “High-Impact Educational Practices” published on the Association of American Colleges & Universities site lists other HIPs that may reinforce the positive impact of undergraduate research. I’m thinking of how making undergraduate research collaborative and culminate in projects or encouraging students to create research portfolios from their classwork may increase the positive impact of undergraduate research.

What is clear is that we must give careful thought not just to implementing such practices, but how we implement such practices.



“High-Impact Educational Practices.” Association of American Colleges & Universities (10 May 2018).

Kuh, George D. “What Really Makes a ‘High-Impact’ Practice High Impact?” Inside Higher Education 1 May 2018. (10 May 2018).

Valbrun, Majorie. “Maybe Not So ‘High Impact’?” Inside Higher Education. 25 Apr 2018. (10 May 2018).


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The Role of Implementation in High Impact Practices by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Digital Humanities for the Rest of Us


One Thing That All Humanities Scholars Can Do To Integrate The Digital Into Their Humanities

I recently gave a presentation at the Council on Undergraduate Research 2016 Biennial Conference on undergraduate research and digital humanities. The session was well-attended. Some the individuals who attended were not only interested in undergraduate research as a co-curricular activity, but also the unicorn that is digital humanities. I know many scholars in the humanities do not feel that they can participate in digital humanities. However, I think there is at least one thing that all humanities scholars can do to digital into their humanities.

Continue reading “Digital Humanities for the Rest of Us”

What is ‘Western’ Music?: Foreign Influences on K-pop

Seo Taiji
Seo Taiji

K-pop is well-known as a hybrid musical tradition, incorporating elements from musical traditions developed in locales outside of Korea, including Japan, Latin America and the United States. While some attribute some of the foreign elements to “Western” music, other scholars recognize the tremendous impact of distinct black American musical traditions.

In “What Is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity,” John Lie describes the dynamic between traditional Korean popular music traditions and foreign traditions. During the 1970s, he points out, “In urban areas, in spite of the elite embrace of Western ‘classical’ music, the prevalent popular music was ‘trot,’ a Korean variant of Japanese enka” (343).  Yet, the incorporation of Japanese music seemed less foreign because “the register of Korean and Japanese musical sensibility remained stubbornly rooted in traditional musical meters” (344).  According to Lie, a quantum shift occurred with the emergence of Seo Taiji and the Boys in 1992. While he acknowledges that the group “was one of the first groups to incorporate rap music and hip-hop sensibilities to South Korean popular music,” he also asserts that Seo’s significance comes from “pioneering a new musical soundscape that became almost invariably ‘Western’ pop music” (349).  Throughout the essay, Lie creates a dichotomy between Korean traditional music and “Western music,” which often means rock music:  “There was, in short, a chasm between Cho [Yong Pil] and Elvis Presley or the Beatles, much less Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin: the musical distance between South Korea and the United States (and the so-called West) remained significant” (346).  Lie collapses much of Western music, failing to note the impact of particular genres at particular times.

Most significantly, Lie overlooks the tremendous impact of African American music on K-pop. In K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, Kim Chang Nam describes the impact of African American music rather than generic “Western” music:

It is not easy to discuss African-Americans’ influence on music in isolation within the scope of Korean popular music history. Considering the fact that the progression of Korean popular music unfolded under the profound influence of pop and rock from the United Kingdom and the United States, where African-Americans were prominent music pioneers of popular music, it should be noted that their impact indeed permeated the overall history of Korean popular music. (33)

Not only did this hold true for Korean music of the late 1960s, but also of the 1990s:  “It was the hip-hop of the early 1990s that marked the full-fledged emergence of a Korean hybrid hip-hop, the heir to the soul music that went through a short-lived boom at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s and demonstrated a Korean variation on the genre. Just as soul music appeared as a hybrid form of soul-psychadelic, hip-hop instantly surged into the mainstream as a compromise form of rap and dance music” (70). Kim goes on to cite  Seo Taiji as “playing a critical role in popularizing hip-hop and rap music” (71).

The hybrid nature of K-pop requires the historiography of K-pop to untangle the complex impact of foreign musical traditions. Musical traditions like hip-hop and soul emerge under specific socio-cultural conditions, and carry specific meanings for their first audiences, which is often carried to more global audiences. Lie’s assertions place a premium on national distinctions that keeps traditional Korean music in view, but a comprehensive overview of K-pop’s development also requires Chang’s approach, which also makes distinct foreign musical traditions and their impact on Korean popular music visible.


“Seo Taiji, Xahoi,” Hallyu Harmony, accessed September 3, 2014,


Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym Publishers, 2012.

Lie, John. “What Is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.

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What is ‘Western’ Music?: Foreign Influences on K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Girl Culture, Individuals and Neoliberalism

SISTAR's Sailor Moon Cosplay
SISTAR’s Sailor Moon Cosplay

As part of my research for my book project, Crazy/Sexy/Cool: Transnational Femininities in K-pop, I’ve been reading up on girl industries and girl cultures. Such scholarship invariably places these in a neoliberalist context, and this has a bearing on female K-pop groups.  On one hand, K-pop girl groups are created by Korean agencies to appeal to global mass audiences, who are mostly female. At the same time, individual fans find such groups appealing, sometimes in ways that challenge the intention of the Korean agencies. Marnina Gonick and Yeran Kim take two different approaches that bear on my work on K-pop girl groups.

In “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies,” Kim argues that “girl bodies are the core of the neoliberal regime of knowledge, power and pleasure” (334). Specifically, female K-pop girl groups are “cultural content that is designed and cultivated in a corporate management system. The mission and process of self-making as idols, regulated in the norms of competition, strategic training and management, self-invention, flexibility and multi-playing, embodies neoliberal idealization” (336). This makes sense to a certain extent, given the careful training of idols in general. This strategy can be traced back at least to the Hollywood casting system of the early 20th century, which was used for male and female starts. There is a business as well as cultural interest in promoting certain images for profit. The image that is used to appeal to various ages and ethnicities of fans reflects an ambiguity:  “The girl’s excessively sexualized body image tears up the pretentiously safe discursive surface of the girl, which should be innocent and pure in its literal meaning. The girls’ ambiguous sexuality is placed between pretty child/seductive adult, and split between conflicting binaries of purity/sensation, innocence/maturity and neatness/vulgarity” (340).

It is this very tension between seemingly opposing images that Gonick seeks to unravel in “Between ‘Girl Power’ and “Reviving Ophelia.”  While she writes on girl culture beyond K-pop girl groups, Gonick argues that rather than reinforcing the binaries that emerge from girl cultures, we should see them as interconnected. She describes a binary that includes Girl Power, which “represents a ‘new girl’: assertive, dynamic, and unbound from the constraints of passive femininity,” and Reviving Ophelia, which “presents girls as vulnerable, voiceless, and fragile” (2).  She argues that both “participate in the production of the neoliberal girl subject with the former representing the idealized form of the self-determining individual and the latter personifying an anxiety about those who are unsuccessful in producing themselves in this way’ (2).  Gonick recognizes that these modes of girl culture are contextualized by neoliberalism as Kim does, but gives more emphasis to the way girls participate and make meaning of these complex images:  “Both Girl Power and Reviving Ophelia discourses emphasize young female subjectivities as projects that can be shaped by the individual rather than within a social collectivity. The discourses encourage young women to work on themselves, through the dual campaigns of the Do-It-Yourself self-invention and ‘girls can do anything’ rhetoric of ‘Girl Power,’ as well as the self-help books and programs that are available to remedy girls in crisis” (18).

Both authors talk about the divergent images promoted by girl cultures like those that surround female K-pop girl groups, but Kim favors a structural interpretation of how fans interpret those images. She relies on reading such interpretations through the economic and governmental means that produce them and elides the interpretative work that fans do. Gonick keeps open the possibility that fans read those conflicting images in ways they may find empowering or the foundation for self-improvement.


“SISTAR’s Sailor Moon Cosplay Tickles Fans’ Fancy.” KoreAm Journal. 17 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Aug 2014.


Gonick, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia”: Constituting the Neoliberal Girl Subject.” NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 1-23.

Kim, Yeran. “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies.” Journal of Gender Studies 20.4 (2011): 333-345.
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Girl Culture, Individuals and Neoliberalism by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Authenticity, Crossover and Rhythm and Blues

American Bandstand, 1960s
American Bandstand, 1960s


Authenticity is a major theme in scholarship on rhythm and blues (R&B), which poses some interesting challenges for my work on how R&B travels transnationally.  Some writers define authenticity in R&B solely in terms of the experiences of African Americans, deeming crossover beyond the black community as pandering to the mainstream (read white people).  Others take the hybridity of black music as their starting point and suggest alternative ways of reading the appeal of R&B beyond American blacks.  The centrality of music aesthetics as well as audience agency proves most useful for my work.

For some, R&B is defined by its reflection of black life.  Nelson George throws down the gauntlet in The Death of Rhythm and Blues when he links R&B to black life that revolves around “a black community forged by common political, economic and geographic conditions” (x-xi). R&B “becomes a sad shell of itself” in the midst of attempts to crossover and appeal to non-blacks:  “As a result of these broad social changes [that include assimilation], black culture, and especially R&B music, has atrophied.  The music is just not as gutsy, or spirited or tuned into the needs of its core audience as it once was” (xii). For George, R&B’s core audience is black, while the crossover audience is white. But what about other kinds of audiences that have embraced R&B?

However, when R&B is valued for its aesthetic as well as socio-economic value, hybridity challenges such reductive racial authentication. In The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999, Richard J. Ripani takes issue with George’s perception that “the music had a greater degree of ‘blackness,’ up to the late 1980s, by which time, he believes, that the potential for crossover success by black artists had sapped the music of its African-American cultural strength” (12).  Because R&B is a hybrid musical form where “every rhythm & blues song is a blend, more or less, of inherited AFrican and European musical styles. . . . it seems folly to try to determine which have a sufficient degree of a given musical characteristic to be considered ‘real.'” (8).  Instead, Ripani identifies elements of the blues system incorporated in the many genres under the umbrella of R&B.  Brian Ward complements this approach by focusing on the creativity in the music itself in Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations: “This sort of racial essentialism actually undervalues the dazzling complexity and syncretic brilliance which have characterized black American musical forms in favour of a desperate search for African roots and retentions, as if these comprised the only criteria for evaluating the worth and relevance of contemporary African American music” (11).

Moving the interpretative lens to music aesthetics also allows for a fuller exploration of audiences, and in terms of my work, opens up the way to exploring how black music travels and speaks to non-blacks. Ward recognizes the agency of diverse audiences:  “Those meanings were also constructed by individual and collective listeners, sometimes in ways which defied the initial intentions of the artists involved and transcended the economic priorities and racial conventions of the industry within which they worked.  Black and white audiences could. . .  shape the social and political meanings of musical products by the manner of their consumption” (5).

Focusing on the music, the thing that diverse audiences engage, allows me to understand how black music is embraced in its many forms by K-pop, beyond lyrics. Clearly, there is something in the music that resonates with non-black audiences. Ward and Ripani helps me to work out the meanings of music aesthetics that are embraced by transnational audiences.

Image: “American Bandstand, 1960s.” Facebook. N.d. Web. 7 Aug 2014.


George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Ripani, Richard J. The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm and Blues, 1950-1999. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998