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The Uni-Files

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

October 08, 2011

Is this really an improvement for Japanese universities? Critiquing a critique

Think of all the bad cliches you can think regarding alleged Anglo-Saxon values (putting aside for a moment the fact that many people wrongly conflate 'Anglo-Saxon' with being white, or even with being Western). You know, the ones about winner-take-all cut-throat capitalism, the need to rationalize everything numerically, the low regard for the emotional welfare of the small fry, and an emphasis upon bottom-line results, all directed with ruthless efficiency.

It's a pretty damning caricature but one, as you will have surely noted if you are well-read or travelled, that is widely believed. I've often been in position where people have assumed these characteristics must inevitably be ascribed to my good self, being a wasp and all, despite my protestations that these attributes did not in fact reflect my personal values nor the education, formal or otherwise, that I received.

But after reading Paul Stapleton's article in the September/October issue of JALT's 'The Language Teacher' magazine I felt like this caricature had been not only underscored, but justified by being presented as virtuous.

Let me explain by outlining some of the key points made in Stapleton's article (although it is obviously better if you read the link provided above). Stapleton worked for twenty years in a Japanese university but recently left to take a new role in another country (Hong Kong to be exact). Stapleton's article compares the two systems and finds the Japanese lagging on many counts. Although Stapleton is careful to note that his experience cannot be assumed to be representative of Japanese universities as a whole, the conclusions he draws from this personal experience nonetheless are used to critique Japanese universities en masse.

'An atmosphere of mistrust'
For example, Stapleton relates how test grades given by individual teachers at his current (favourable, non-Japanese) institution will be subject to "internal monitoring and external review", and then possibly modified by others to ensure "fair and balanced grading". For me, having my own students'-- my own courses'-- graded assignments reviewed, and possibly changed, by other teachers violates the tenet of academic non-interference and smacks of institutional nannyism. Micro-management of this sort generates an atmosphere of mistrust. What is wrong with the idea that if you hire someone to do a job (such as grading) you assume competency, until some egregious problem raises its head?

Stapleton also explains how teachers at his current institution are ranked (!) based on a cumulative "magic score" garnered from student questionnaires about the teacher. Teachers who receive lower 'rankings' are called to task. He goes on to explain how this "can, and does" lead to non-renewal of contracts. First, the reason as to why teachers should be ranked against each is other beyond me. Universities are not Billboard charts. Student ratings and comments should primarily exist as a means of feedback for the teacher, and with an emphasis upon qualitative commentary as opposed to raw numericality.

Secondly, although Stapleton is aware of the dubious veracity of using student questionnaires as a measure of pedagogical competency, he does not address the likelihood that pandering to students in order to accumulate popularity points will be at odds with his supposed emphasis upon increasing academic rigor and accountability.

Low bar for research
Stapleton also criticizes at length the alleged "low bar" that Japanese universities maintain when evaluating personnel (referring to database scores which are carried out at all national Japanese universities, especially since the advent of 'houjinka' system, or semi-privatization). He mentions that dubious essays published in non-refereed department journal will suffice as research publications. But he also seems unaware of, or chooses to ignore, two factors that might considerably alter his perspective on this issue.

The first is that national universities rate publications by an established impact factor, so it is not possible for a throwaway piece in the department journal to have the same database value as a full publication in a top-notch publication. The second is that all teachers and researchers on the database can choose a weighting system for their contributions-- that is, researchers can choose to put greater weight on research scores, teachers on teaching roles, or on administrative involvement (which is a large part of a professorial role at national universities). In other words, people with different roles are not constrained by the same rubric, let alone some numerical "bottom line" acting as a cut-off barrier. It may seem fuzzy, but it is more flexible, and thus, I would argue, fairer.

Is the hamster-wheel scenario more humane?
Frankly speaking, it also seems much more humane to me. While Stapleton's faculty would appear to be running on a hamster wheel trying to maintain the bottom line under threat of losing their livelihoods, the "Japanese" system he criticizes recognizes the value of different roles and how individual contributions may not manifest themselves in fat database scores. While deadwood still occupies some Japanese academic offices to be sure, those (full-time faculty) with dubious scores or contributions will have their situations discussed so that all the affective factors can be made known.

While "clear benchmarks" may aid in illuminating expectations, set established minimal "bottom line" scores don't allow for such human variables. To me, Stapleton's approach seems more suited to the sharkpool world of retailing than academia: "Go out and sell a minimum of $50,000 or you'll be out on your ass!"-- Show me the money! I really wonder if this score chasing is really as conducive to raising research standards as Stapleton assumes, since I can easily imagine lower-tier academics focusing more on the tail-chasing act of maintaining numbers than on doing research because they love it or because it is truly beneficial to their teaching area. They produce because they fear the crack of the whip. Is that really a virtuous motivator?

Promotion- age, merit, or other?
And while Stapleton lauds promotion based upon merit (although he appears to conflate this with high database scores) I think he overstates the centrality of age as the determining factor in promotion in Japan. It is most certainly not the determining factor at my own university (although professors anywhere will generally be older because they have stayed in their positions longer, it's not that they originally attained that position solely or even largely because of age).

In fact, the whole notion of 'promotion', in the sense of the business-world model that Stapleton seems to be describing, doesn't really apply to national Japanese universities. Professorial seats, when open, are publicly announced-- and outsiders with excellent academic credentials or current Associate Professors very familiar with the existing system, who have been acting as de facto professors for awhile, tend to gain these seats. Moreover, department heads, deans, and committee leaders rotate regularly, often through internal elections. The need to jockey for position, to scramble, to outpace an opponent, is less pronounced.

'Who benefits?'
A bigger question might be this: Who benefits from Stapleton's system? It is telling that not one of the improvements that Stapleton mentions is connected to pedagogy, education, or improving learning skills. Rather, every one of Stapleton's comparisons is about bureaucratic efficiency, garnering academic brownie points, justifying budgets, and about maintaining control and "accountability" or, as I read it, about keeping people on their toes by making them anxious about the possibility of losing their jobs. There is no reason to believe that students receive better teaching methods or superior curricula due to all the factors cited by Stapleton despite his claim that good students are naturally drawn to such universities, so we can't say that it really seems to benefit the students.

Surely lower-rung academics wouldn't be benefitting from this dance-or-I'll-shoot-at-your-feet scenario either. It seems that those who might benefit most, as is often the case when "accountability", "bottom lines", "meeting numerical standards", and contract renewal are buzzwords are the people in power which, perhaps unsurprisingly in Stapleton's current institution appears to include Paul Stapleton himself!

'To hell in a happi coat'
Unfortunately, the article ends with an old bugaboo or, I might even say, cliche. Stapleton argues that without changes, meaning the adoption of the systematic "rigor" and "efficiency" carried out at the university he now works at, Japanese universities will be marginalized, since they are already "outliers" in terms of accountability; that the negative effects of these qualities rooted in Japanese culture will lead to decline.

The old 'unless Japan changes this society is doomed' (Doomed I tells ya!) slogan is something I have heard on every Japan-related topic over the past twenty years. Yes, there are aspects of Japanese society that, if not addressed quickly and appropriately, could lead to future hardship (i.e., the aging problem), aspects of Japanese culture/tradition whose time has come and gone and now are burdensome anachronisms (the koseki and juuminhyou system), and features Japan would do well to borrow from other countries (traffic roundabouts). But the notion that Japan is headed to hell in a happi coat, a downward spiral into oblivion, unless Japan adopts Stapleton's preferred model (the superior one apparently held by "developed" countries) this just sounds like the same old alarmism.

If this is the future I don't want to be a part of it
If I recall correctly, I met Paul Stapleton once and have also attended one of his presentations. In no way did he come across personally in the same manner as the procedures he advocates do. And although it's true that different systems bring out the best in different people, I wonder if he is aware of how his article might come across, if he is aware of some of the demerits of what he calls 'rigor', 'efficiency', and 'accountability'. For this reader at least-- if this is supposed to represent an improvement in academics, education, and of societal advancement in general then, sorry, but I don't want to be a part of it.



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Comments

Thanks for this interesting review.

I agree that performance related metrics is a recipe for bad management. However, I do have some sympathy for external monitoring, especially for graduate school work. It seems to me to be a potentially bad practice that PhDs are not assessed by an outside examiner. Also, in my experience, some private universities have needed to be more upfront about faculty recruitment (although I believe that MEXT now demands that all f/t positions be advertised).

Regarding Stapleton's other claim, if you decide to chase (Anglo-Saxon) world university rankings as the measure of globalization, then the criteria are never going to be in Japan's favour, as it requires research output to be mainly in English. I suspect post-colonial Hong Kong may actually be the East Asian outlier, but that's a contentious point.

Hi Martin.

Certainly agreed on the idea of having external examiners when dealing with post-graduate students.

As for faculty recruitment, the national univ. process (which you are probably familiar with) demands a public advertisement, application and submission of comprehensive data/samples, and an audition/interview before a committee made up of ranking members of that faculty. After this, the top candidate is selected via committee election. The committee may well already know the candidate they want to fill the seat but it's not a 'promotion', and not dependent upon age, as Stapleton described. Lower level positions, such as gaining 'koushi' status, usually involve clear benchmarks such as having completed one English publication in the academic field in an 'impact' journal while on staff. This too is quite independent of age or current place in the heirarchy.

You are probably aware of this already so I'm writing this for the general reader.

And as for private universities- who knows?

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