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The Uni-Files

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

July 22, 2010

Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence

I'm feeling rather buoyant at work recently despite the usual cluttered end-of-term schedule and the searing and humid weather. I'm feeling a bit lighter on my feet because I've received a little validation and recognition, and more importantly, good EFL methodological practices have been acknowledged.

Let me explain why in a roundabout way. I'll start off by making a few general political comments and then tie these to the university EFL workplace and my current situation...

Most of you will have heard of proposals to offer suffrage to permanent NJ residents of Japan and there has been some intense debate on the topic in various quarters. The best argument in favour of suffrage is probably that as permanent members of our community, with financial, family and workplace investments implanted, we deserve a say in our governance. Fair enough. But is voting the only way to be represented, to have a say? Is it the most effective way?

Some might argue that simply because we pay taxes we should be given the vote- no taxation without representation- but I'd hesitate here. Your taxes give you the right and means to use numerous government services provided at various levels. Don't want to pay your taxes because you can't vote? OK. But then don't expect to use any welfare, health, garbage collection, or childcare facilities and services- which are what your tax money is paying for. No taxes- no benefits. Surely we don't want to become entwined in this circle (assuming that no one who reads this blog is a private militia survivalist living in a plywood shack in Idaho).

In fact, despite the current lack of a local vote you are, and can be further, represented. Your local town hall will include numerous resident's committees, advisory boards filled with residents, and resident representatives in all sections. By joining or volunteering for any of these, any of those bwhich match your concerns or interests, you are doing far more visceral work for the development of your community than a single vote would (especially if your candidate loses).

My thinking is that if one really is so concerned about influencing local polity as a concerned resident then it would be incumbent upon one to learn about the issues (if you had the vote would you exercise this right responsibly by studying the issues?), the players (ditto), and most of all, to get yourself involved in some committee work (being an NJ will in no way disqualify you). This will mean sharpening your Japanese skills and making an effort but hey, that's participatory democracy, and presumably that's what people really believe in.

At the most local of levels there are the jichikai, or neighbourhood associations. I just finished serving as the Vice-chairman of ours for a year and it was an eye opener (and good not only for my Japanese skills but neighbourhood public face too). Our current Chairman is an American PR. We are treated like any other resident and use our involvement to make local decisions. This too is grass-roots participation and involvement. If people want to be counted and represented, to influence local policy, this is where to start.

I hope those who clamor for 'representation' plan to make themselves active and knowledgeable with the same fervency as they spout their suffrage advocacy if and when PRs ever get the local vote.

OK, now let me tie this to the university milieu.

Many NJ teachers feel left out of university decision-making, that they aren't represented or listened to, that they cannot affect educational policy. Voting is generally limited to the Kyouju-kai (Professor's committees). But, as with local politics, there are ways of getting yourself involved and noticed and ultimately making a difference. Like getting your PR status, it takes time, knowledge and some passable J skills but if you really want to be a player there are ways.

One is to inform yourself about current university system and policies WELL before criticizing or offering alternatives. Half-baked critiques based on unwarranted beliefs about 'the man' and 'his system' will not bode well for your seat on any committee.

Two- work on your J skills. Otherwise your credibility as a player takes a big dip and you will end up merely fulfilling the token Gaijin caricature.

Three- Have an active interest in some issue and something coherent to say about it. Whining about your boss doesn't qualify, except over a Guinness.

Four- volunteer for a committee. And yes, this means commitment and more work. In other words, don't just talk the talk but walk the walk. Get yourself involved by attending any open meetings of interest to you and thereby putting yourself in a position to get onto a committee. Again, and, I can't stress this enough: get informed about it if you want to be taken seriously.

You can avoid all the hassles and responsibilities by just doing your regular teacher's work of course (and that can be an attractive option) but don't complain then about your inability to affect policy or how the man is keeping you down (with apologies to those NJ at universities who are shut out of every meaningful decision-making process- yes, I've heard of a few such places).

So, how does my sprightly step tie into all this? Well, I'm a member of our Zengaku English Study Program Committee (I'm the only NJ on it as the rep from the Faculty of Medicine's English section). This committee is comprised of representatives of all faculties of our university, but many are not ELT educators at all. Still, this committee is responsible for developing or propagating new English programs, making recommendations to each faculty on English teaching policy (note- but NOT compiling edicts or dictates).

In the recent past, this committee adopted a program that I felt on my levels was unworkable, awkward, as well as methodologically and educationally dubious- and costly (although I admit that it has some limited benefits). And because I showed concern (and knowledge) on the topic I was placed on the committee. However, after some committee members, having been led to believe in certain unattainable benefits of this program, have gradually come to question it- including the committee Chairperson himself. This gave me the opportunity to present an alternative to the Chairperson and thereby establish my credentials as somebody who is trained and has experience in developing EFL programs and curriculum.

The chairperson has since asked me to make a formal Powerpoint proposal for our next meeting, where I am to explain the theoretical and practical logistics of my own proposal. Here's a big chance to establish a viable university English program beyond my own faculty (Medicine). Although it soothes the ego to be sure, the feeling that I'm being treated as a player, being counted, and seen as having some skills or knowledge worthy of developing a wide-ranging policy gives me a sense of purpose, of being useful. It is a positive move also in the name of sound educational policy. And, it goes without saying, it is good for the students who may have somebody trained and experienced in the field providing a framework for their university English education.

Disclaimer- I am not a natural go-getter who has the energy or inclination to get involved in every issue and expect others to do likewise. I pick my spots and try to influence where I have some knowledge or skill, something positive to offer. Although I can still whine with the best of them, getting yourself on board beats griping or constantly feeling like you're the victim of poor managerial decisions.

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Hey Mike, congrats on this opportunity. If you you wouldn't mind sharing some of your ideas on what you plan on implementing for a program at your uni that would be great. Of course if that is something you'd rather keep close to the vest then I'd undertsand. But I (and maybe others) would be interested to hear what you think an English program at a J uni should look like.


Thanks, Mark. It's a good idea. I' ve hinted at various aspects of how I think J unis should handle English courses on this blog but writing it in some detail here as my next post will not only flesh it out for readers but help to clarify and coordinate certain concepts in my own mind- and thus become the first step to making a cohesive presentation to the Profs.

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