April 06, 2009
April 06, 2009
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.