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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

March 03, 2009

A Day in the Life: The (Not So) Off-Season at the Uni

A lot of people, both in the university and outside, think that once the regular classes have stopped that I am on holiday. Or if not actually lounging at a poolside in Phuket, then I must be at least out on the golf course working on my fairway woods.

Most of you who teach full-time at public schools (Miyazaki U. is a national university) at any level know the correct response to this, which is: HAHAHAHAHAHA! In fact, unlike the so-called off-season, the days in which I am simply teaching classes, marking papers, or preparing lessons are in many ways the easiest in the school year.

If you want to know why, cue the violins, because here is what happens in a typical day (and this was an actual day) in mid-February, yes after all classes and English exams have finished. It’s a pleasant morning so I walk (about 15 minutes door-to-door) and reach my room at 8:35.

1. When I get to work I see that my new printer has arrived. I manage to set it up without any glitches or special problems. Getting rid of the mounds of garbage this creates is another matter.

2. My first ‘zatsuyou’ (busy work, officialdom) of the day arrives. I have to complete a document to get my newborn daughter on my work insurance. I use my inkan four times for the document. One part is problematic, the section on choosing a ‘setai nushi’ (head of household) since this affects taxes and also because elsewhere my wife and I are considered to be dual heads of household. I call her at home to discuss what to do. My name eventually goes in the slot and I hand the papers in.

3. I put in an order for a set of books I want. All the information, ISBN numbers and so on, have to be entered correctly by yours truly.

4. There are two official university emails in my box. Not only are they in Japanese (duh!) but the Japanese is inevitably written in the densest possible style, the equivalent of something like, “It has come to our attention that your good selves, privy to the pre-arrangements that have heretofore been noted…”. I scan once for gist (one is about re-examinations and the other about room arrangements and procedures for entrance exams) but need to consult the online translator and/or on desk dictionary to understand it completely. The point of one of the emails still eludes me so I ask the secretary, but even she seems unsure as to what the uptake is supposed to be. Eventually, I can make out that I am expected to go to a place deep in the bowels of the university’s password-coded system and enter a “same as last year” response. Navigating this labyrinth takes time and it seems that each branch has a different password, so this simple act ends up taking far more time than going downstairs to the academic affairs office and saying “Same as last year”. But of course this new automated is more (cough) efficient (cough).

5. A student has come to my office. I failed him because he was absent from class over and above the limit of allowed absences. He asks me why he failed and I tell him. He lingers and starts asking which days he was absent. I show him the form. He claims that I made a mistake on one of the entries, that he had just been late. Yeah. Like 45 minutes late. After pleading, looking contrite and suddenly deciding that English was very important indeed, I tell him that if he has a problem with this or wants to appeal, as is his right, that there is an ombudsman. He doesn’t take up the offer and finally goes.

6. I have a speech to make in about 10 days at a university-sponsored international symposium in a hotel downtown. The slides are made but need some fixing. I also add and subtract bits of text. Tailor-work basically.

7. The proposed itinerary for a business trip to Malaysia in June has to be changed because the airline is changing the schedule. I put in a request for a change of the departure date and book an extra day at the hotel.

8. A doctor who is an ex-student (the hospital is attached to the university) appears and asks for help. He is doing some research involving…oh I don’t know, place some impenetrable scientific jargon here…. And needs to know if his proposed email response to an American researcher is appropriate. Fortunately, it is better than most such compositions I receive and requires only minor literary surgery.

9. I’m expecting the final check for my article (monthly) in The Daily Yomiuri (English language edition) to come soon but last night I was tossing and turning a bit in bed because I wanted to re-phrase a few sections and cut and paste a point or two. The basic article is on my work desk computer so I make the adjustments now.

10. The department secretary has just received email from two doctors in Thailand who will be coming for an intensive, advanced special program next week. These emails involve questions about budgets and money protocol. Before I can help her respond appropriately I have to clarify the terminology and protocols myself. This takes a little more time that you might imagine.

11. Back to my desk. I have to put in an abstract and registration form for the ETA-ROC language teaching conference in Taiwan this November. My colleague and I have lined up about 6 conferences for the upcoming year and we have sent four applications out so far. The form is online but since each conference has a different theme and has different abstract-writing requirements I have to adjust the tone and wording of the (pre-written template) abstract accordingly. I send it after duly filling all the categories but an email arrives back about 40 minutes later stating that I have not correctly filled in all the slots and to do so and re-send it. I scrutinize the form trying to see what I have missed, as there are none of the usual asterisks to indicate required fields and the like. I assume it must be the “Chinese name” section that I’m falling short on. I write my name in Katakana and send it again.

12. I get a call from the academic affairs section about which English teacher was responsible for putting in the grades of some 3rd year transfer students. There is a new system for these ‘henyuu-sei’ and someone (not me though) had failed to enter them.

13. Completed anketo ratings arrive by regular mail from a nearby university that I teach part-time at. Unfortunately, they ask you to write a comment back to them (required field!) regarding how you will respond to the anketo results so that you will be the best teacher you can be! I honestly can’t think of much to say, but I scrawl something about improving communication with students about expectations and re-send it by regular mail.

14. There is a telephoned question from the entrance exam center about a potential problem on one of the tests and I am required to visit in person (it is on the adjoining campus). I go and the problem, which was the most incredible precaution you can imagine, is immediately and simply resolved.

15. A 62 page ‘kairanban’ (circular) comes by. I give the topics a cursory glance but it is completely full with items like, “Pre-arrangments regarding the reconstruction of parking lot C” and the like. I sign it and pass it on. So does everyone. They could write, “You will all be fired tomorrow” in there and no one would ever notice.

16. Next there is a scheduled meeting regarding the schedule arrangements for the visiting contingents from Thailand the U.S. Everything from meal locations, sightseeing companions, airport pick up, to relaxation room requirements is discussed- more slowly and indecisively than I would like. I volunteer for some of the ‘kakari’ (chores). The meeting is, of course, held in Japanese and is, as usual, much longer than it needs to be, as if we are just waiting for someone to ask momentous questions like whether the teacher’s refreshment area should include low-calorie sweetener as well as regular sugar.

17. After the meeting, the English Dept. Professor (I’m a mere “Associate Prof.”) asks me to contact and push a colleague in the Agriculture faculty about getting some articles for our “International Newsletter” submitted in time, as he has been dragging his feet. I write the email in Japanese, which means that I check it carefully before sending so that I don’t look like a total Nihongo doofus.

18. The budgeting department for an upcoming business trip to Seoul needs information about the location of the university in Korea that I’ll be visiting (I find it via Google and hit the print button) as well as an official “mitsumori-sho” (price estimate) from the travel agent. I call him and get it faxed in later in the day.

19. There is a small problem with spam on the ETJ list (ETJ Life-in-Japan) that I moderate. I check into it a bit more through Yahoo groups and see a pattern of spamming from two dubious, and very similar, sources. I remove them from the list.

20. Last thing. We need to clarify the weighting of different questions on the entrance exams and make copies to give to all the markers. I take this on. Balancing the value of all the items to reach the set total of 300 is a delicate task but, hey, I’m a professional.

Oh, I could go on with some of the smaller, 10 to 30 second, tasks that took place that day, but you get the picture. No, there are no Pina Coladas to sip under the palm trees or nubile native girls offering me a massage. Finally, at 6:15 I pack it in, taking a few items that I can work on at home (including this blog). However, at home is my newly-born daughter and since my wife has been dealing with this sweet, joyous bundle of diapers, tears and wailing all day, it will be my turn as soon as I open the door.

Cue the violins again.

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