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April 6, 2009

Getting (and keeping) a university teaching job- a few tips, insights and blatant prejudices

So, you wanna be a university English instructor in Japan, do you? It’s not all faculty-only jacuzzis and pre-recession daytrader salaries you know! If you want my perspective on whether university English teaching is a cushy job or what the day-to-day routine is like you can scroll further down this blog and read my earlier entries on those topics (and the previous entry regarding contracts won’t hurt either).

For today, let’s start with a few pointers about actually getting the job:
1. Almost all university positions go through the koubou (public announcement) process, and these are typically announced in Japanese. This has the effect of rooting out NJs who are not really committed to working within a Japanese institution so that generally only the more serious candidates come forward. Job openings posted in standard NJ forums can attract a candidate to position ratio of 150 to 1 or thereabouts (don’t ask for references- this .is an experience-based estimate)

2. The best regular listing of these positions that I’m aware of come from the JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) mailing list. You have to be a member to subscribe to the mailing list- but if you’re not a member you could ask a friend who is a member to forward announcements to you.

3. A Masters degree in a closely-related field, plus some tertiary teaching experience in Japan, is the absolute minimum requirement. A PhD is becoming the norm though.

Now, here come the interesting parts-
4. Although the position must be announced publicly, the university already often has a good idea of who they want to hire anyway.

5. The best way to become that person who will be hired regardless of the public posting is to be known and, especially, trusted by someone who already holds some influence in the faculty. A teacher who they already know at least a little and feel that they can trust, or one who comes recommended by a respected member of the current faculty, will trump pure academic credentials in many cases. This means getting to know your local university teachers (Japanese or NJ) and, most definitely, paying for their beer.

6. Most of these ‘known’ teachers are known precisely because they have worked as hijoukin (part-timers) at the university already. Get your foot in the door as a part-timer first. But this also means that those who whine about being a part-timer, or have otherwise not distinguished themselves while in the part-time role, can be shooting themselves in the foot by presenting themselves in this manner if they are really looking out for a more long-term position.

7. You will almost certainly start out on a limited contract. Unless you are hired directly from the faculty of Harvard AND have functional Japanese writing and reading skills your first contract serves as a trial. Why? Because when hiring the Japanese staff will find it harder to make sound judgments about an NJ’s character and academic history et al than they will with a Japanese candidate. With the J candidate they pretty much know what they are getting. Even so (see my previous blog entry for more on this), almost all Japanese newbies start with limited contracts these days too. And if you read that blog entry (plus the follow-up comments) you may also see that these limited-term contracts can effectively be (and often are) extended by being morphed into new positions, that is if it is thought that having you serve long-term will be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

So then, how do you keep the job? Some more advice:
1. For the first few years shut up, and absorb and learn what’s going on. In other words, DO NOT come in with big ideas about changing the institution, telling the veteran staff their faults as teachers, that their program sucks, and that you know how to fix it. This should be as obvious a rule as “Don’t sleep with the students” or “Stay sober while at work” but you’d be surprised. Many NJ newbies want to prove themselves by offering something ‘new’ that they are sure revolutionizes the system and makes the students better humans. That’s all well and good as an ideal, but often they are unaware of factors that underpin the current system- not to mention that if they come in claiming to have the panacea for all that they believe ails the university, this will not be seen as being ‘helpful’ or as their welcome contribution to educational development but merely as pretentious arrogance (and justifiably so).

2. You are part of the faculty, not just a classroom teacher. This means that you don’t go home after your classes are through for the day. You don’t take huge blocks of time off to visit Bali when the ‘official’ school year has ended. As I stated in my blog entry ‘A Day in the Life…’ actual classroom contact hours account for only a small part of what you should/will be doing. If you act like a ‘classroom-only’ teacher you will be treated as such (contractually I mean).

3. Make yourself indispensable. Become an active and enthusiastic, and most of all, an integral part of any committee or working group that you end up belonging to (while still avoiding the know-it-allism or bossiness I warned about above)

4. You are expected to use your non-classroom time to PRODUCE! Start writing a coursebook! Work on academic publications! Help establish an intra-university service of some sort for students! Get involved in the community under the banner of the university! Show the flag by being productive, NOT by pointing out everyone’s shortcomings! If your overseers notice you being productive and carrying out work that benefits the institution they will not want to lose you. Very few Japanese powers-that-be will want to give up a productive NJ contributor just to go through the hiring process with relative unknowns again. Give them reasons to find a way to keep you on.

5. Get along with everyone else! Again this should fall into the ‘well, duh!’ category but it’s easier said than done. More than your great ideas and skillful pedagogy, the fact that you don’t cause friction will be a major factor in getting some sort of contract renewal. Appearing cooperative is key and it doesn’t mean being an obsequious doormat. But it does mean using common sense by presenting yourself as someone who is pleasant to deal with. If you truly feel that a certain policy is harmful, that a proposal is not in the best interests of education or will be detrimental to students, there are effective ways of expressing this without sounding like a PoliSci sophomore who has just emerged from Self-Righteous Demonstrations and Protests 101, the shrillness of which will usually lead to your being tuned out by precisely those who you actually hope to influence (and, rightly or wrongly, will negatively affect views regarding future NJ hiring).

In such cases, if your contract is not renewed, you can shout into your beer all you want about how the ‘old boys club’ or ‘The Man’ resisted your ‘progressive’ teaching style because they felt ‘threatened’ by you, that they ‘couldn’t handle the truth’. You can make cultural blanket statements about alleged Japanese acquiescence and claims of outright discrimination, and you can refer to NJ’s who do manage to stay on as “Uncle Toms”, but basically it may be that you were not renewed because you were really just a pain in the ass to deal with.
(Sidebar- Maybe, just maybe, after five years or so, you have the right to become a little bit of a pain in the ass. That’s about it).

6. Learn more of the Japanese language and use it (although this can be a tricky area)
You will have plenty of bureaucratic paper/computer work to do and it is unlikely that much will be in English. You will be a burden by getting everyone else to handle your basic paperwork and office communications. When you talk with secretaries, Student Affairs Division people (gakumuka), administrators (somu/kyomu), and attend faculty meetings, you will look like you have a longer-term commitment to Japan if you at least make a go of furthering your Nihongo skills. Using English in such cases puts a burden on others but, more importantly, it gives off the appearance that you don’t plan to stay in the country long-term and/or will have a limited contribution to the institution. Obviously some ability with the lingo will show commitment (and respect) towards both the country and your workplace.

Now, I said above that the use of Nihongo at work can be tricky. Why is that? It’s because some other faculty may see you first and foremost as someone who they are supposed to address in English. This may be a result of 1) the fact that they assume you can’t speak Japanese, 2) they are competent in English and see this as an opportunity to use a bit of their Eigo skill or 3) they are in fact better at English than you are at Japanese and it is obvious the whole transaction will quite frankly run more smoothly if conducted in English.

In one sense, responding in English in such circumstances is courteous- you are duly following their choice of code. But there are always a few folks who, if you do so, believe that this is an unmistakable sign of your unwillingness or inability to use Japanese and is thus indicative of a short-termer mentality. On the other hand, if you respond in Japanese, they may see it as a rejection of their English gambit, their desire to utilize a bit of their English skills, which might be part of the role that they envision you to be filling.

There might also be cases (rare and overstated in the NJ blog world, but existing nonetheless) in which the foreigner who responds skillfully in Japanese is considered negatively because they are: 1) no longer ‘fresh’ and therefore do not represent the ideal caricature of an NJ or they are 2) not really acting like an English teacher is expected to (including the possible presumption that you might also be using too much Nihongo in your ‘lectures’ as well). Personally, I have NEVER experienced this response, so I urge all readers to fall on the “more Nihongo skill” side of the equation. But I have heard from reliable sources that these attitudes might be encountered. In short, it can be tricky to walk the tightrope between giving off the air of someone who is committed long-term to the institution while still fulfilling your role of being the NJ English teacher who is expected to bring a fresh or unique perspective to the students.

On the other hand, all the advice given above plus 400 yen will get you a tall mocha latte at Starbuck’s if the position you are filling is based upon special funding or a grant that dries up; if the position is borrowed from another department or faculty who now want it back; or if there are enough people in the university hierarchy who think it is somehow beneficial to keep a revolving door policy towards teachers. And waiting in limbo for some kind of extension while feeling powerless to affect it when you have a family to provide for can be unnerving, to say the least. Good teachers have been lost, jumping at better opportunities, when their current employers remained uncommitted.

Any advice I’ve forgotten? Questions? The comments section is open for business.

Mike

April 20, 2009

Contract renewal at the uni; The Ninkisei song and dance

If I had known how it would affect my life 25 years later, maybe I wouldn’t have taken those backpacking trips back in the 80’s. Yeah- after graduation I went through that time-honored rite of passage, the lengthy overseas backpacking trip, first to Europe for about 6 months between my undergrad and grad studies, and then the better part of a year in North Africa and the Middle East while between graduate studies. So, I was learning about the wider world, gaining life skills, growing as a social being, right? You’d think. But when these gaps of non-study and non-employment appear on my CV in Japan they look to my employers like (to quote the waiter in the Monty Python 'dirty fork' sketch) ‘a huge bowl of pus’.

Not only those travel gaps, but also the year I spent volunteering and working sporadically as a counselor in church-cum-community centers, are black holes on my resume. So, why would this period of self-sacrifice for next to nothing in community service not be a bulwark of my personal working history, you ask? It seems that because I wasn’t contracted to any one organization and don’t have some official papers to ‘prove’ this experience I was not really ‘employed’. And travel is, apparently, ‘play’. As far as my employers in Japan are concerned, I might as well have been spending all that time playing Space Invaders in my buddy’s basement. You see, for each year, or even part of a year, that you are unaccounted for work-wise, your salary is reduced, or at least it is so when you work for a National University in Japan or any similar job in which you are designated as a civil servant.

I have a colleague who, after high school, worked as a drummer for several years, doing the get-in-the-van-and-let’s-haul-it-to-the-gig-in-Moncton thing. Again, you’d think this would be a worthy life experience, building up character, learning the ways of the world, but on his CV it amounts to a huge vat of nada.

These things become viscerally apparent every time I fill out a resume here. So why am I filling out a resume now, I who am gainfully employed for the long-term, you might well ask? Well, in fact this month I received the bulky preparation forms for my ninkisei contract renewal.

I’ve explained about the ninkisei system a bit in earlier posts on this blog. It’s the new system under which all National University workers are on contracts, and these contracts can be renewed only after a very detailed listing of what you’ve achieved during the first section of your contract. This is my fifth year on my current contract, and my renewal period is five years so I have to my song and dance now. I has to show dem what I gots.

As I’ve written here before, the purpose of the ninkisei is to make people accountable, to be able to show measurable achievement to warrant your contract extension. The ostensible goal is to rid the system of deadwood, or at least to put deadwood to some use. And in a sense it works- if you know your contract renewal is coming up and if you’ve got little to show for it, you worry- as you should. The process is said to be a slam dunk unless you’ve committed some egregious sin, but unfortunately for me, just filling in the forms takes time and effort away from the very things I’m trying to sell myself on- my in-class pedagogy, my research, my involvements in various organizations and societies- in the first place. (Ironically, being active and responsible is penalized by having to fill in much, much more and to offer proof as well). I also worry that despite all my efforts to impress and be comprehensive, the overseeing committee that performs the review will take only a perfunctory glance at all I’ve done.

This huge stack o’ shiryou (reports) was given to me on the very first day of classes for the new academic year, so just when things are getting busy class-wise, around come these official and very important documents, 17 pages long when it arrives on your desk, but after completion to be about 30+ pages. In order to originally apply for this job I filled in a lengthy stack o’ documents but this one is even larger because now I have to include my working achievements, roles in the workplace, and the like.

(Warning- whining and moaning follows) What I really dislike about doing this is the fact that we have a database at the university (as all universities do) that we’ve spent considerable time filling in comprehensively. Yet, for this renewal, I have to put my personal data, education, working history et al in from scratch. What’s the point of having an accessible online database if the people from personnel make you fill all this out from alpha to omega each time??? Can’t they just put that in themselves from the database and then have you add any changes, additions and amendments??? Isn’t that the whole purpose of a database??? Welcome to a paper-based society, folks.

Another thing- this database also leads to your gaining a ‘score’ or rating, a combined total of your ‘value’. The problem is that some people are very good at manipulating the database to get a high score- knowing where a minor item scores big; knowing that being a largely ‘in-name’ advisor on some dubious and obscure MEXT committee (say, the Standing Sub-committee for Textbook Font Reform) will score five times as much as a solo research paper of note that took you three years to complete (note- end of whining and moaning).

Yes- and of course it is all in Japanese and I have to fill it all in Japanese by the end of April. This of course makes it three times harder for me than for any Japanese employee but hey, that’s a part of the game. I live in Japan, and I work for a Japanese institution, under the same rules as any Japanese. I would not expect a Chinese researcher in Canada to complain about having to list their achievements in English so that their overseers could make judgments about their work for contract extension. But the fact remains that instead of working more on my actual classes, student report, or upcoming research and presentations, I will be focusing inordinately upon this baby.

And it’s not normal Japanese either. The lingo is akin to the kind of pseudo-language you can see on American tax forms. Things like, “List any and all quasi-committee functions, but not roles, unless contained under the rubric of Faculty Development’. Okay, I exaggerate but you get the point. I ask Japanese colleagues to help me decipher this stuff but they can’t understand it either.

Speaking of committee work, you now begin to realize why there are so many meaningless committees in universities- it is largely to pad these types of resumes. Some, like the entrance exam committees, do real productive work. But some meet once year for a literal sleep-in but, hey, if you are on it you can claim this brownie point on forms like the ninkisei renewal. Just getting the names of the committees absolutely correct is no easy feat either. For example, while I may usually refer to it as the ‘Evaluation standards committee’, I have to list it by its proper name which is in fact, the “Committee for the proposal of reform, development and procedure in observation and evaluation standards”. And I have to add to that my role in the committee- well, what was it exactly? “Working group B sub-chief of questionnaire standardization”. I think.

And then there are things that just don’t translate well to a very Japanese format, for example, my ‘honseki’. We don’t have that concept in Canada. I was born in the U.K., moved to Canada at age 1, and grew up in an around Vancouver but I have nothing which proves this, no ‘juminhyou’ or anything like that. Still, I suppose that Vancouver is my ‘honseki’, for what that’s worth.

Listing licenses and qualifications, as we must, can be problematic too. The standard degree titles translate well and fit into the format easily but I also received a certificate in counseling waaay back when living in Vancouver, and you really should list anything. I took several courses and got a piece of paper and I don’t know who it was authorized by because in those days it just didn’t seem to matter. In Japan, licenses have very clear authorities and titles, “National Pachinko Appreciation Licensing Examination- Advanced Level” that sort of thing- but what can I say for my counseling license? “Like, I took some courses and stuff, ‘n got some kind of certificate, from the city of Vancouver- I think”. It just doesn’t fit well.

The same goes for things like publications and presentations. For example, we are expected to write the official themes of the conferences we attend or present at. You guessed it, most of mine were written in English and have to be translated into Japanese but these themes tend to be nebulous titles like, “The notion of practice- feasibility and procedure in the age of post-modern pedagogy”. How the hell do you translate that?

As far as publications go, they seem to be most interested in numbers so, interestingly, your half-page My Share entry in the local English associations’ bi-annual newsletter seems to account for just as much as a cover article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The centrality of the ‘Number of publications’ section is also the reason why medical departments in particular include the name of everyone in the department in their research papers- that way everyone gets listed 10 times a year when in fact only one paper may actually be their baby.

Then there are the intimidating sections where it asks you how many scholarships, awards, grants, and so on you have received. Well, English is not exactly an area in which awards of this type are abundant. What can I say here? “Yes, I got an award for ‘Lifetime Achievements in Information Gap Task Design’ from the Shikoku JALT sub-committee on Task-based learning”. Actually, I could probably list stuff like that and nobody would question it. It’s like those faux internet site awards: “Voted fifth best site on vestry design in Belgium, 2002!”

There’s also a section in which we are to list ‘rewards and punishments’. I think this is amusing. Who would list their punishments when going for a contract renewal? It reminds me of those customs declaration forms at immigration that ask, “Are you bringing any illegal drugs or firearms into the country?” “Oh yeah. I’m in tight with both the Colombian cartel and Al-Qaeda. For got to jot it down. Sorry!”

‘Roles’ in society and the community also makes up a large chunk of this form. Okay, my Daily Yomiuri articles come under this heading and there are plenty of other outside-university activities that I’ve been involved in so I can make this section nice and fat, but a lot of English roles are rather nebulous (there’s that word again) when applied to strict Japanese categories. For example, this very blog is sponsored by an English education organization and it relates to my job as a type of ‘community involvement’ since it is about university life in Japan but how do I categorize my role here? ‘Blogger’ sounds like I’m just playing around with my own personal site for ego enhancement and amusement (come to think of it, that may be more accurate than I’d like to admit) but ‘regular commentator’ doesn’t quite cut it either.

As a result of trying to master this form, I spend an inordinate amount of time not only not doing the things I’m really paid for (the things I’m trying to write about on this God-forsaken form), or even filling in the damn thing, but instead getting prior clarification on the actual meanings of various sections, as well as acceptable formats and protocols from the person responsible over in personnel. Now, you might expect this character to be some greasy old bureaucrat in a cheap polyester blue suit and a bad comb-over, the type who doesn’t make eye contact, smells of cigarette residue and dried squid, and dislikes pesky Gaijin, but in fact the person responsible is a very pleasant and eminently helpful middle-aged woman who takes a lot of time to explain clearly and thoroughly what Mr. Not-so-fluent-in-reading-Kanji is supposed to do. She’s apologetic about the bits that are hard to translate or don’t fit into a Japanese context well, and it feels just wrong to whine and complain when she’s being so very pleasant and helpful.

So I’ll do that on this blog instead. Back to filling in the forms now…

About April 2009

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in April 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2009 is the previous archive.

May 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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