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The Uni-Files - In the real world Archive

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

December 28, 2009

So, just who are we anyway?

I'm past the age where chatting up the ladies in Japan is a viable option (not to mention that it wouldn't exactly be endearing to my wife) but I do remember a time when the inevitable "What do you do?" question would be popped by an enticing young lady I had just met. "Ummm I'm an English teacher," I'd stutter, almost wincing with anticipation at her look of disdain upon not having said 'investment banker'.

Let's face it- the general response (usually an implicit one in this land of tatemae) is not that of admiration. The general notion is that we Eigo no kyoushi are in fact talentless itinerants, drafted into the profession only because our mother tongue happens to be in demand. But we don't have any real skills- nothing of real professional virtue.

It's not just the lovely ladies with whom one has to use the 'E' word with trepidation. Any type of official, or even the guy who starts chatting with you on the train, will look almost disappointed when you mutter that you are an English teacher. It's a bit like saying you are a poet or philosopher or that you're looking for your big break to get into the movies- OK, you don't have a real job I see.

Of course it is true that some Non-J English teachers are here in a state of flux or limbo. It's just a temporary thing- a step on the way to that real job. Some are truly unqualified and in fact couldn't get much of anything 'back home' but have found that their mother tongue is at least marketable abroad. This meets the Japanese public expectation about the credibilty of English teachers- that of shiftless wanderers who couldn't make it back in Peoria. Others are what I'll call semi-qualified but will scrape their way up through the system and gain education and experience until they have, often to their own surprise, made an actual career of it. I'm not being derisive of such people in the least- after all that sounds a lot like me. Let''s face it, very, very few of us were actively recruited from the Education Faculties of Ivy League universities.

There are ways around the stigma of this shameful confession though. If you regularly write textbooks you can say that you are a materials writer or that you work for a publishing company. That will buy you some more J cred. In my case, I expediently avoid demeaning myself in the eyes of my interlocutor (and by 'expediently' here I mean 'soothe the ego') by saying that I am a professor. A university professor (yeah, yeah, OK- associate professor if you must). That certainly makes the hankos come down on that bank loan approval forms quite a bit faster and gets me trough customs just that bit faster.

When asked what exactly I am a professor of I have the option of keeping my J creds by stating that I work in the medical faculty. Hell, that might even be enough to elicit a 'Sugoi!' or two. But if the English element (or, slightly better, medical English) is revealed I automatically lose a few social testosterone points.

This is ironic because if or when my equally qualified Japanese colleague is asked what he does he gets big kudos locally for being a prof in the top faculty at the top university in the area (OK- It's Miyazaki- big fish, small pool and all that). But me? Nah- I'm presumed to be there largely because I speak the language as a native. I'm there by linguistic default.

I never wanted to be an English teacher. Now this is not a case of sour grapes or anything or armchair grumbling. In fact I just can't imagine anyone in their formative years declaring that their lifetime goal is to become an English teacher. When I was a kid I wanted to be a hockey player (Damn that gammy leg!) and an actor (Damn that gammy agent who didn't get me the good roles!). Then as I realized that I lacked only the size, strength and talent to play in the NHL I considered (more seriously) diplomatic work (damn that gammy French fluency requirement!) and becoming a Christain minister (damn that gammy proclivity for sin and subsequent guilt!).

I took philosophy and religious studies courses in university because I was interested in these subjects. I was not thinking about my job in the real world thereafter. I knew that you didn't see a lot of "Philosopher wanted" ads in the newspapers but so what? And I did learn a lot from these courses. I developed more refined ability with critical thinking as well as skills in managing discourse and rhetoric. I certainly felt that I became more articulate, able to express myself concisely, and suitably versed in Western culture (although this and 250 yen will get you an American Blend- a small one- at Doutor's).

After that, getting a teaching certificate and doing another graduate degree in Applied Linguistics were certainly intended to give me viable work options- although the latter was also of great benefit to my development. It helped me realize that my skills were in communication and that I did have some natural affinity for teaching. I also developed an academic interest in how languages 'work'. And as I was/am a travel buff foreign lands beckoned with opportunity... and so here I am.

I think a lot of us are in the same boat. We kind of 'fell into' teaching English but, as we got older, and the big brass door of life options began to shut, we realized that we had to become professionals or remain in permanent limbo. That this was our lot and we'd better make the best of it. Do a job well done, as an oldtimer would doubtless tell you. And when you get married and make babies it's not as if you have a lot of opportunities to reinvent yourself anyway. You've becoma an English teacher for life. That's your calling, your station now despite your best laid plans of becoming...well... an artist/poet/philosopher.

A lot of the university English teachers I know in Japan have similar backgrounds in the humanities. Few studied the so called 'practical' subjects. The vast majority are articulate and skilled communicators. Most have a facility for self-expression, so English teaching is a natural fallback. Many have dabbled in the arts in some form or another and have kept that up as a hobby. There's a certain commonality here.

And you know what? It's not a bad job. We have responsibility. We get to interact with a variety of people. We get to be creative. We are, to a certain extent, our own bosses with our private, personal spaces at work (at least in comparison to the poor saps in the Somu office cubicles). The work is not back breaking. We get to attend conferences and keep up the look of being professionals. There is an occasionally stimulating academic basis to what we do. We have the chance to conduct research that we are interested in. Some of us (and by 'us' here I mean 'me') can keep a blog and write newspapere articles on work topics that interest us.

So, is this what I really want to do? No. I still want, in my heart of hearts, to be a hockey playing actor-cum-rock star or travel the world and be paid to write abut my travel exploits- but something tells me that ain't gonna happen. But given the fact that most people on this earth don't seem to like their jobs or simply don't have any options as to work, given that drudgery is the normal price for taking home a paypacket, I can't complain. In fact, even if the young lovely I once tried to seduce didn't make pachi-pachi eyes at me when I told her my vocation, I'm still thankful for what I've got. I've got a life here.

Have a great 2010 everybody!

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March 10, 2010

Some exceptional students; and one 'Debito moment'

I suppose the popular stereotype of medical students is that they are a bit nerdy, diligent and thorough, and come from fairly well-to-do families with a history of medicine in the background (Daddy runs his own clinic). As I've mentioned before, there is in fact a wide variety among our number.

Let me tell you about some students who stand out in particular:

Student Y: 5th year female. Exceptionally sociable, a real person's person. Comes from a family of seven (seven!) children and- get this- was raised by a single, welfare mother (her father was absent from the time she was born- I didn't ask why). Her mother worked at any number of odd jobs to help get her kids through school. When her daughter was accepted for medical school it was obviously a huge triumph for the family and for the mother in particular. Suffice to say that this student needs NO motivation and never seems to find the rigours of medical study to be too taxing. After all, it's probably a breeze compared to what she has already been through.

Student S: 6th year male. This is less 'inspiring' and more personally memorable. In their first year 'getting to know you' lessons students interview one another and one of the common questions is 'Who is your favourite singer/musician?'. The answers typically include the popular Western and J-pop divas, a few rap/reggae acts, the odd boy band (J or otherwise), indie J bands like Qururi or Spitz, and the odd folkie/MOR act like Kobukuro, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that one completed form had 'King Crimson' listed as 'favourite musician'. Somebody in Miyazaki U. knows (and appreciates) those dissident tritones! After talking to the guy, he admitted a fondness for Van Der Graf Generator too. Ahh- back to my musically mind expanding post-high school days of the mid 70's...

Students A and K: Y is in her 5th year and K is starting his 2nd. Both come from tiny, remote islands. A is from one of those Okinawan outposts of about 500 people where the idea of going to university, let alone becoming a doctor, is rare and exotic. K comes from an island of about 100 people off a forgotten part of the Kyushu coast, accessible only by a once-a-day ferry. He's clearly a diligent and bright fellow- one of those kind who is always thinking and challenging himself. Somehow the dilligence required to succeed despite his locale followed him through junior high school where he was deemed academically fit to get full-funding to an elite boy's school in Kansai and then on to medical study...

Student E became pregnant during her second year, the father being a classmate. They did the 'right' thing, had the baby, and grew up very quickly, supporting each other and the child all while studying. Neither of them have failed a course despite now having two young children and a third on the way (!). Compared to this couple, students who think that the notorious physiology test represents the ultimate challenge don't know what tough is. Suffice to say that I would certainly trust a doctor with this much energy and gumption with my health.

We have numerous other interesting students, some with disabilities that they have to try to overcome, some who were raised abroad (of course some people in the J education system might consider THAT a disability), a few Todai grads who returned to Miyazaki wanting to become doctors, a few students who scored at the very top of the Center Shiken nationally but chose to stay in Miyazaki...However, I haven't asked their permission to mention them here (unlike those mentioned above) so I'll end this section by saying something about discretion and valour.

My 'Debito moment'

If you read this blog much you are probably aware that I'm not a big supporter of Japan's most well-known (notorious?) NJ human rights actvist (agitator/gadfly?). Debito bats about .100 for me, with about one out of every ten of his pieces in my opinion being accurate, balanced or worthy ('culture' as an overused and convenient excuse for dubious practices and the obsolescence of the koseki system being two that I agree with). But I'm sure that all NJs have our moments when we feel a bit put out by authorities in this, our adopted homeland.

This story concerns getting an international driver's license (I have a J license already) in Miyazaki. First, in filling out the international license application form I noticed a section asking us what our 'birthplace' was. Now this is tricky for me because, as you probably know, my citizenship is Canadian, as is my passport. But I was born in the U.K. (my family emigrated to Canada when I was 1 year old).
So I asked the clerk, "Why do you want to know my birthplace?".
"Because your citizenship must be noted on the license", she replied.
"But what if my birthplace and citizenship are different?" This took a few seconds to register with her.
"Oh. Ok. The country of your passport should be written in". I duly did so but mentioned that 'citizenship' or 'country of passport' should be the category, not 'birthplace' (you can just feel the long arm of the koseki here can't you?).

I then proceeded to the bottom part of the form where I was asked:
1. Where are you going?
2. When are you leaving and returning to Japan?
3. What is the purpose of your trip?

Now, for a driver's license this seems to me to be rather intrusive. What business is it of theirs as to why I'm going abroad, or where? This isn't the freakin' immigration office, is it? So, I told the clerk that this was private information irrelevant to issuing a license and said that I didn't want to divulge my private information in this way and so wouldn't fill that part in. I said this kindly but firmly, mentioning that I'm sure she was aware of the current importance of privacy issues in Japanese public affairs.

So she did what you could expect. She called the old Kacho guy from the adjoining office and explained it to him. I have less patience with these kind of people. You'll soon see why. He approached me and said "You have to fill this in. It's a requirement".
"Why"
"Because it's necessary"
"I'm afraid you didn't answer my question. Why is my private information, such as the reason I plan to travel abroad, necessary for a prefectural MV licensing center to know"
"Because we can't issue the license without it"
"Ummm you seem to be evading my quesition" (I then raised my voice- not in anger- but so that customers nearby could hear).
"It this because you plan to give citizen's and resident's private information to the police or immigration authorities?".
Saying this directly made him nervous, and rightly so. I didn't actually think this was the explanation but yes, I did want to rattle him.
"No. It's information like a census. If we know the applicants' travel data we can serve them better".
"Shouldn't it be voluntary then? After all this isn't North Korea, is it, where every reason for every movement has to made known to officials. Anyway, this data would already be known to immigration officials or travel agencies."
"We just collect the data, but it's not collated with the driver's personal details".
"It's not the Edo Period, where you couldn't move without permission from authorities, right? It's Heisei 22 and Japan is a democrracy, right?". (Now I was sounding like Debito. Yikes!)
"Look you don't have to write in detail. Absolutely anything you write there will do. But we can't move until you fill it in with something".
"OK".

So under "purpose" I wrote "private". Under destination I wrote "various" (this makes sesnse of course because the license is valid for a year and therefore for multiple visits. It's not like sigle permit re-entrry visa). And under 'departure and retuirn dates' I wrote that day's date (although I am not due to leave until later in March). He took the form away for processing.

I then asked the clerk, "I'm sorry about this but privacy is a current issue I'm sure you know and none of this seems relevant for a prefectural driver's license office. So as a resident and as a customer (you pay ¥2680 for the license) I'd like to make a complaint about this application form and ask that these questions be abolished in the future. Please mention this to your superiors or however you may process complaints. Oh- and one question. I'm curious. Do Japanese people sometimes complain about these questions?"
"Yes," she responded, "a few".
"Thank you", I said, "So please pass my comments on".

A few days later some beefy men in sunglasses in an official DMV car came to my home, demanded to see my passport, and tore out my Japanese visa. They also ridiculed my wife for being impure in marrying a foreigner and my children for being of mixed blood. Then, upon leaving, one added that 'Only Japan has four seasons' (I'M JOKING!!!)

But I admit that I did do myself in a bit. By being obstinate about the departure date I inadvertently caused that date to be named as the starting date of my license's validation, and not the day I leave- as a result I waste about three weeks' validity. Of course, instead of asking the intrusive "departure and return from Japan" question they should just ask, "From which date would you like validation to begin?".

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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June 25, 2010

Blowing your top and hitting the ceiling- some thoughts on classroom anger management

Every teacher I've ever met can recount tales of student malevolence, ignorance or just plain bang-your-head-on-the-desk classroom numbskullery but hey teach, there's no need to get angry!

I'm speaking of course as a university teacher. Now, I won't pretend that our students have exactly the same social or emotional issues that afflict JHS or HS classrooms, and neither are we expected to be social or emotional mentors or guardians in the same way that teachers at those level are, and classroom displays of anger just don't cut it. At this level students are responsible for their own choices and if they choose to mess up royally, then by all means... hey, it's your life.

I used to get worked up, feel the steam rising in my ears, and give the students a dressing down worthy of a Bobby Knight (or Nicholas Anelka?) on occasion but either I'm maturing and am able to control my classes better or I've become more apathetic over the years. Probably a combination of the two.

Anyway, here's why explosions of classroom anger don't work:

1. The Crying Wolf effect- Blow up enough and people just assume it's your personality at work. They'll think you're a volcano and that sometimes you're the type who's gotta let off steam. Ho-hum. Hey, that's your problem buddy, not mine.

2. In response to your gnashing of teeth, students may just try to placate you as opposed to absorb whatever it is they are supposed to be gleaning from sensei's rant.

3. Most people do not respond positively, either in terms of motivation or performance, to outbursts of anger. My wife may direct the occasional tirade my way over my supposed lack of common sense regarding housework (such as not slicing carrots into the 'proper' shape) but this certainly doesn't make me want to just get up and do an extra toilet cleaning for my own edification. (Note- She doesn't read this blog. I don't think. Do you, honey?)

4. The legacy of angrily targeting an individual or group can affect classroom dynamics for a year (or longer). Your anger may be gone by the next day but your tirade will be remembered long thereafter- and not likely for its pedagogical value.

5. Positive reinforcement almost always creates better study habits than negative reinforcement.

6. If someone is actually trying to get to you and you respond with anger, they've got you. They've won. Throwing a great purple hairy (now how's that for a throwback term?) over it simply shows them your weakness.

7. So your lesson isn't going as well as planned because some students are being thick-headed. Really, so what? If that type of event is so horrific and earth-shattering as to induce an angry outburst your life must be pretty stress-free in other areas.

8. Most of the students in fact aren't doing the malevolent, ignorant or stupid thing. It is always a tiny minority who constitute the bizarre or of the mind-bogglingly 'don't get it' variety. We shouldn't identify this tiny bunch with 'our students' as a whole, although we tend to.

9. It would be unacceptable for students to explode in a similar manner so, as a role model...... Do I really need to finish this sentence?

10. Lessons aren't your 'show' when you're 'onstage' so don't treat it as if someone's trying to upstage you or steal your teacher's thunder. Treating such behaviour as a personal 'dis' indicates that pride may be a little too much of a factor in your teacher's repertoire. Most public displays of anger are just self-indulgence anyway.

But, some might argue, there are reasons to justify classroom anger. Ok. Let's think of some possibilities:

"The bad student's disruption ruins it for the good students"- This is more likely to be a factor in HS or JHS where bullying and/or intimidation will play more of an immediate role. Now, if it is at the level of actual 'gakkyu houkai' (classroom breakdown) the issue runs deeper than any shouting or waving of arms is going to fix. At this point it's too late for a teacher hissy fit. As for the university level, it's rarely long before the other students deal with the doofus in their own way- the troublemaker's social standing is not likely to remain high for long.

"Students produce when they've been told off. A little fear of the teacher can be a good thing"- At certain ages yes, but for young adults? Is this a legitimate learning dynamic at the university level? Instilling an atmosphere of fear might yield some short-term results but its long-term effect is not usually going to be conducive to developing better academic skills.

"Students will take advantage of you if you don't put your foot down. And they'll respect you more too when you do it"- Being firm, exuding strength and flipping your lid are very different things. In the first case you indicate that you are in control, but in the latter you indicate that you've lost control. Which are students more likely to respect?

Finally some common sense advice-
Dole out cautions and criticisms with regard for the students' personalities. That's right- don't treat them all the same. Some students can take a lighthearted chiding from sensei as a matter of course, and many do in fact respond well to directness and firmness, but for some- well they might just crawl into a shell and hate you and English forever and drag their friends into it (potentially sexist comment warning: this happens much more with female students it seems). And you don't need the hassle, right?

Laughing it off (while adding your caution or criticism) in classroom at the time is very effective and good for your heart and arteries too.

Calmly and carefully starting all over on a section that the students have made a hash of is more effective than wasting time hurling invective over their incompliance.

Warn sleeping, late, or inattentive students rather than get visibly angry at them. Strongly but firmly. After all, if they choose to zone out it's no skin off your nose. You always retain the power to give re-tests or to fail them.

If you reach a situation where no one seems to be listening to you, you certainly will get their attention with a tantrum but it's not the kind of attention you really want. Allowing for a little chaos at times can be liberating. Classrooms that teeter on the brink can be fun and still pedagogically viable. Teacher-mandated absolute control doesn't ensure that students are actually learning. Waiting aside for the chaotic moment to reach attrition and subside is also more effective than venting your spleen and tearing your sackcloths into ashes.

Never, ever, ever indicate that a student is, or has said something, stupid. While this might seem like the most common of common sense, many teachers make those "What-the-?", 'Duh!" "Are you nuts?" faces, or derisive snickers, without their realizing it. Watch out for those cases when, although you'd never say "Are you an idiot!?", your facial expression is betraying your thoughts.

Finally, although I hate to play the overused 'cultural differences' card, there is a very good chance that blowing your stack will be seen by students more as a Gaijin-esque cultural quirk rather than a means of enforcing whatever point you were trying to convey.

Chill. (Man, it's hard to say that at my age)

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July 01, 2010

One man, his son, and the J school system

Getting away from universities for a moment, I thought that readers might like to hear a few impressions of the Japanese public school system based on my own experiences, or rather, those of my son, who is now 14 and a third year junior high school student. He is a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen although he looks more Western than Japanese. He was born, and has lived his entire life, in Japan- save for a few holidays abroad.

Obviously the experiences of one school, one parent and one child cannot be generalized so take it for what it's worth. Also, as he has not started high school yet I have nothing to say about the educational meme at that level.

Allow me to do this 'interview' style- it's always much easier to organize my writing that way.

Q. Let's cut to the quick. Has your son ever been bullied because he doesn't look Japanese?

Mike: No. Not once. Even in minor schoolyard skirmishes no one has ever played the 'race card'. Discrimination of this sort is strongly, strongly discouraged at this school- and all others that I am aware of. In fact, when I've asked him about any such cases he has reacted as if the concept was foreign and confusing. All the kids have known him for several years and while they might have noticed his slightly different physical features when they first met him (when he was asked about it, he said "My dad's from Canada"- end of inquiry), nobody at school seems to notice or care anymore.

Q. Is he treated differently in any way at all?

Mike: Well, he speaks English well so kids ask him for help in that subject- and the guys want to know English swear words etc. He's quite happy to be regarded as 'good at' or knowledgeable in this regard. He's also seen as a bit of an internationalist as he has travelled abroad more than others.

Q. Has there been a bullying problem at his schools in general?

Mike: Not at all. There have been a few minor schoolyard scraps and a small handful of classroom outbursts but these are rare enough to have been big news on the school grounds, not run-of-the-mill occurrences.Compared to where I went to JHS (Whalley, B.C.- one of least desirable areas for young teens in Canada I'd have to think) my son's school is heaven. In my old JH school, brutal fights were a near-daily occurence (even teachers were attacked) and there were drugs, alcohol, sexual assaults- you know the situation. The idea of any of these infiltrating my son's school is just preposterous.

Q. How about any experiences of odd treatment by the teachers?

Mike: Yes, he's been on the receiving end of a few odd T-initiated experiences (although these are dwarfed by normal treatment).

Once, in elementary school, his teacher was setting up the lunch distribution which, that day, included pineapples. Suddenly she asked, "Does anyone know where pineapples come from?". One kid ventured, "Hawaii". "Right, and which country is Hawaii in?" she continued. "America," came the answer. Then she asked, "And who in our class also comes from America?". The kids were confused. They looked around. My son was confused and looked around. Then the teacher said my son's name. The kids all went "Huh?" because they think of him as Japanese and know that his Dad is Canadian. My son found this all rather amusing- not at all hurtful and thought his teacher to be a bit naive (and rightly so). Not long after it was revealed that this teacher was suffering widespread emotional problems so....who knows?

Another time, in junior high, when the social studies teacher was teaching U.S. geography he suddenly asked my son to sing the U.S. national anthem, which he doesn't know from Schubert's Seventh. The teacher thereafter asked him to name the U.S. states which again, is not something he has any special knowledge of. Later, as the class ended, the teacher asked him personally (and not in a nasty way) if he was going back to the U.S. sometime. This did piss off my son a little bit- as it should have. He clarified who he was to the teacher and, fortuitously, some of his buddies backed him up: "He was born in Japan, sensei! He's never been to America. How can he 'go back' there?".

This teacher was transferred around that time although I don't know why. I also heard though that my son was being a bit of a goof in that class and his behaviour may have triggered (but not justify) the odd requests from the teacher.

Q. Did you bring these situations up to teachers or other school authorities?

Mike: His mother did- in a polite way at sankanbi (visitation days). The teachers clearly understood. The point was made.

Q. Since he is fluent in English has that led to problems in his English classes?

Mike: Not much. He says he has trouble with teacher's accents sometimes but in fact the writing and spelling lessons have been helpful for him, as has some of the more detailed grammar practice. Some of it actually serves as good discipline for his English too- in which his attitude is almost too free and easy.

But here's one example of a recurring problem found on tests and worksheets:
My son will give answers that are discursively correct and represent the natural use of communicative language but do not conform to the official answer. The most salient example of this was a test wherein the students were asked to match characters from a story with certain items, utilizing the scheme "Which X is Y's?". My son duly matched a blue jacket with the character Jack and to the question, "Which jacket is Jack's?" answered, "The blue one". Which is wrong, you realize, because the 'correct' answer was, "The blue one is".
The criteria of treating a verb as necessary in this type of construction is obviously artificial and redundant. He finds this frustrating (as do I) but now plays along.

Q. What about the good old 'history textbook' issue, specifically Japanese WW2 history?

Mike: I've seen and read parts of the JHS history books, at least the 'relevant' parts. They are (IMO) well-balanced, accurate, and thorough enough for a JHS history book. The negative actions of Japan during WW2 and its current legacy vis-a-vis East Asia is made clear. Nanjing and other atrocities are dealt with without mitigation.

(Tangential rant warning: Most people who talk about the so-called 'whitewashing' problems in Japan's history textbooks, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about- which includes most of the Western press, who seem happy to regurgitate popular, unfounded prejudices as fact. There are, in fact, several approved JHS history textbooks and all have been required to deal with the WW2 issues in a manner that makes Japan's responsibilities clear. The most controversial of these books, chosen only by a tiny minority of Japanese junior high schools, had to make adjustments in order to pass scrutiny. You can find accurate English translations of these online.

I wish every country's history books were as well-balanced about their wrongdoings as Japan's are. Fringe, in-denial weirdos here are just that, a fringe, the same types that you can find anywhere. It is not at all normative in Japan.

The other thing to remember is that history is an academic subject- with a particular focus on cause and effect and the flow of ideologies and custom. It is not supposed to be a mere compendium of 'what happened' for the purpose of some 'hansei' (guilt reflection) upon one's wrongdoings or a prosecutor's interrogation intended to force one to admit guilt by national association. Rant ends)

Q. What's the hardest part of being an NJ parent with a child at a J school?

Mike: I can't help him with kanji- which is the basis of pretty much every subject, save English. Even in Math (which I'm not good at anyway) the goal or point of the problem is written out in Kanji. I suppose the other thing is the huge amount of notices and requests you get everyday. There's always something needed for some event and the details are (IMO) overly thorough. J parents may expect this but NJ's are likely to think, "OK, enough's enough".

There are some useless school rules and regulations too. These often seem like authorized bullying to me and have the negative effect of causing students to confuse rule-following with morality. As one example- my son's school tie was brought from the official school uniform supplier shop (expensive!) but was apparently cut from the last bit of cloth. This meant that near the bottom of the tie the design ended and the pattern from the next cut began, leading to a sort of linear discontinuity in the design. Upon school inspection he was scolded and told to get a 'proper' tie. We told the teacher responsible in no uncertain terms that this tie had been purchased at the school-designated shop and that we had paid (too much) for it. The teacher backed down immediately and apologized.

Q. What do you think are the strong points of Japanese public schools, at least based on you and your son's experience?

Mike: Every teacher has been hard-working and in 99.5% of all situations- extremely professional. I've seen excellent classroom management and teaching technique/methodology. My expectation that it would be more redolent of a Victorian era boarding school, with rote memorization, in-your-face authority, and with no emphasis upon creativity or autonomy has been undermined. Although schools naturally vary, I see this common belief among some NJs as a prejudice held by people who believe, offhand, that that's just what 'the Japanese are like'.

The teachers seem extremely concerned about the welfare of the students. And communication channels between teachers and parents, what with home visits, the aforementioned sankanbi, and in-depth notices, and PTA ongoings, is also excellent.

Most of the teaching I've seen or heard about has been learning centered, not teacher-centered, nor learner-centered- and the form/content of homework has almost always been helpful and pedagogically relevant, not just busy work or rote memorization. Many of the classroom methods I've seen practiced have been clever and innovative (although that should not imply off-the-wall avant-gardism). Math, in particular, has been noted worldwide for the interactive and innovative ways in which it is usually taught in Japan.

In fact, my biggest teacher worries have been regarding the native-English teachers- ALTs, JETs or otherwise. While some are indeed very good and seem to know about language acquisition, methodology, classroom management etc. either by instinct or by training, some really know very little in terms of how to teach languages, manage a classroom, or develop a curriculum. I feel unsure about entrusting my childrens' education to such people.

Q. What don't you like about the system?

Mike: For one thing there are too many days given over to preparing various special events, ceremonies, sports and culture days etc. The planning is almost too detailed and meticulous. In most of these situations, students spend a lot of time following orders and sitting around- getting 'form' right. It may be a show for the parents but I find it overbearing and a matter of wasting time- the 'show' backfires.

Of course, this may be said to have some cultural relevance but what justification is culture other than saying: "Well, the people here before us did it so we have to as well"? Although the undo-kais (sports days) are incredibly well-planned and run they can also be terribly annoying given the amount of time students (and parents) have to prepare, sit through meaningless speeches, partake in militaristic pomp and ceremony (usually while crouched in the hot sun), and spend very little time doing (or enjoying) the actual sports.

I think the teaching could also move more from the receptive to the productive mode- more task-based, demanding active thinking and creating from the students, a greater focus on cognitive engagement rather than just getting through the prescribed content, although those are far from being Japan-specific problems.

I'm interested in hearing how my experiences and feelings correspond with those of parents and/or JHS/elementary school teachers reading this blog.

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October 19, 2010

Getting a university teaching job- Q&A from a reader

Everyday bags of letters from blog readers arrive on my desk telling me that they have been good teachers, utilizing progressive methodologies, and so, come April 1st, couldn't I bring the glad tidings of a contract extension as I ride through the nation handing out seasonal goodies.

Today, I'd like to respond to one such letter from Jason Sturgeon, a letter that I think represents both the situation and querstions that many readers may have about the nuts, bolts, and financial rewards, of a university English teaching job in Japan...

Jason writes: I came to Japan in 2005 on the JET program and have enjoyed life here so far. I intend to stay in Japan my whole life, BUT not making a mediocre salary the whole time. I want to step up my career and my salary. To that end, I'm searching for information on what I can do and how to do it.

I was interested in teaching English at a university level not only for the rise in pay, but also for the more interesting things I could do. Teaching at middle school is ok, but I don't feel like its MY work. There's always someone else designing and deciding the lessons. Plus working at a university allows you the opportunity to do research, which I'm very much interested in. (I've been reading a lot about bilingualism in children and the Language Acquisition Device and would love to poke further into that study) So, here are some of the things that you might be able to help me out with. First, what kind of salary range do you think the average foreign professor would fit into?

I'm not expecting to get rich quick, but I also can't keep making the amount I'm making now, or I'll be in some trouble come retirement time. If you can tell me what your salary is, that would be helpful for me, Also, assuming that you make more the longer you work, getting promotions and such, what is the salary range of a professor starting out versus the salary of a professor near his or her retirement? I've found some information on this topic on Japanese websites, but the data is old and seems inaccurate. More than one site said that a full-professor (one who has been working for 20 years or so) makes anywhere from 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 yen a year. That sounds really high. I was wondering if you could confirm or refute that claim.

Mike:
Yeah, let's talk money. It does matter. But keep in mind I can speak largely only of my own case. OK- Each month my pay slip says I get about 325,000 net and about 420,000 gross. But wait. This includes paying into my pension, all national health (and other) insurance plans, all taxes, the lot. All benefits are provided. Now, add the following to this: we get bonuses twice a year that come to just over 4 months worth of salary total. Next, 'teatte' or stipends for extra work on various committees- maybe another 100,000 over the year. I also am granted an outside class or two which adds about another 50,000 per month. My research funds are separate but generous.

The raise per year is negligible, about 2%. I've been teaching here for 13 years, and have 24 years' teaching experience in total (I'm 50), all post HS. Interestingly, my monthly net pay at a senmon gakko in Tokyo 20 years back is higher than my current salary, at least on the payslip, but not so when all the benefits are added together. Also, my previous position at this university was the now outmoded 'Gaikokujin kyoushi', for which the monthly salary was about 20% higher than now but with fewer benefits and much less job security. (Job security will always be the issue for teachers trying to enter the university scene- regardless of nationality).

Private universities (mine is National) may pay more for veteran teachers with PhDs from prestigious universities but tend to have less job security and benefits. And certainly being a Full Professor anywhere will bump you salary-wise above the Associate Profs (like me) and Lecturers, but the chances of that happening are generally close to 0.

Jason: Next, what kind of qualifications do universities require of their English professors? I've heard that either a masters degree in linguistics or a TESOL degree is necessary, but which one? Or do you need both? Along the same lines, could I expect to make more if I had a doctorate degree, or would that be making myself overqualified. I have also heard that you need to have "publications" in order to be considered for a position at a university. If that is the case, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. What exactly counts as a "publication".

Mike:
A Master's in the field is an absolute minimum for getting your foot in the door. And 'in the field' will generally mean Applied Linguistics or something close- and only one such Master's is enough, although an additional teaching certificate (I have one) never hurts. A PhD almost always helps but not necessarily. I was starting my PhD when I began here and yet was actively discouraged from pursuing it because 1) it would put me in a less affordable salary bracket, 2) the then reigning professor wanted to be the head hog without any fear of 'competition', and 3) it was thought that it might interfere with the daily work I was supposed to be doing.

As for publications, I know that this a dilemma for those not in universities but who want to enter. After all, most non-university teaching jobs have no need for publications, as a academic research is not considered part of the job since contact hours are the real work. A publication will generally mean an academic journal that is refereed. Any teaching materials' publication would also hold water. If a post-grad thesis is published, that is also acceptable. So, for those with no background in this sort of thing, I suggest getting involved with some group research wherein you'll get your name published but may not have to take a lead role (new academics do this all the time). Action Research, where a teacher delves into solving actual classroom dilemmas but usually without the full academic paraphaernalia can also get published and is more accessible to younger teachers and researchers.

Jason: Also, what kind of work hours do you have? I'd like to know the minimum per week, the maximum per week and the general average per week. I know that some parts of the year are busier than others. For the purposes of this question, work hours means time spent either at the office, or at home doing university related tasks, including administrative tasks.

Mike:
You could conceivably come into the university only to do your classes and the surrounding prep (copying) etc. and then go home BUT you would never get a contract renewed if you took this tack. You would not be considered a teacher with long-term or promotional potential. Most universities operate a data base of your 'worth' to the institution in which all your publications, presentations, extracurricular duties, related social (such as this blog and my Yomiuri columns) and professional associations and commitments, admin work and committees, both leading and simple membership. You will also these days be expected to regularly produce research results AND try to raise money for such (as with kaken-hi scientific research grant applications). Without getting involved in all of these things, your database score will be unlikely to justify keeping your contract the next time renewals or cuts come around.

And holidays of any length are very rare, at least at national universities. If I can scrape a week together in the off-season when there are no committee meetings, special courses, intensive private work with students (grad theses, seminars), and administrative or extracurricular duties, I consider myself lucky. At some private universities I hear of teachers regularly taking a month or so off and chilling out- absolutely unthinkable for me, and NOT because I'm a workaholic or anything.

Personally, I am in the office- and usually active- from 8:30 to 5 PM every weekday but will also do some work at home. I have 7 90-minute koma contact hours per week. Weekends too may be taken up with obligations, especially involving research trips, conferences, organizing/participating in special events and lectures, and even follow-up 'semi-obligatory uchiage' parties But nobody is really checking you on a regular basis. There is no time punch card. I can visit my home at times as I live within walking distance and no one would notice or care- but then again (blows own trumpet) I've built up 13 years' worth of trust here.

Jason:
In general, any information you can give me about your own personal experience would be the most desired and useful to me. Stories and information from a source "straight from the horse's mouth" seem more real than averages and stipulation. I feel like if it happened to you, it's very possible I could have the same thing happen to me.

Mike:
One thing comes to mind immediately Jason, It REALLY helps to be active and known in the local teaching community, both J and E. Join teaching organizations and participate. Attend training sessions. Go to meetings and conferences. Most university jobs are offered to known quantities, through connections- although usually at first as limited part-time gigs. New foreigners often become recommended by veteran foreigners whose judgment is trusted by the staff of the university (usually the Kyoujukai- Professor's Working Group).

Does any vet have anything to add to Jason's inquiry? Or do readers have any similar questions? Comments are open...

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October 31, 2011

Workshy, layabout teachers should pay back salaries

The first part of this entry's title is, I admit, my own paraphrase. But the second part comes straight from the horse's mouth, in this case, this recent (Oct. 21st) article in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Since I know that some readers are unlikely to click the link and read the original from start to finish, let me summarize it. The article talks about how spot checks on 855 teachers at 191 public schools in four prefectures were found to have 'misused' a total of 4575 working hours over "recent years". These ne'er-do-wells will be asked to pay back the amount of salary they absconded with in terms of absenteeism.

30 seconds per day

First, let's do some math. 4575 misused working hours divided by 855 teachers is just over 5 hours per teacher. Let's choose two years as the base timeline-- that's about 580 working days. So, a whole 5 hours per teacher on average were found to have been wasted over two years. This amounts to about thirty entire seconds per day not spent on activities related to their work. As a taxpayer, I am appalled that thirty seconds which could, indeed should, have been spent putting a happy face sticker on one more student's report on "Prefab Huts- Our Underappreciated Friends", has been spent doing something as unproductive and self-indulgent as, oh, getting some exercise.

According to the article, "The Board of Audit [aka 'Hall Monitors'] intends to ask in its audit report that the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry [now, apparently, the Justice and Labour ministries as well] order such teachers to return part of their salaries to the state". No doubt the money will be put to public service of great utility, such as providing one extra twenty-page 'shiryo' for the sub-section chief's assistant secretary who missed the meeting on, "Confirming the previous sub-committee's decision to acknowledge Septic Tank Appreciation Week in specially-designated parts of Gunma Prefecture."

It's payback time...To me!

Here's a novel idea. If teachers who misused working hours should have to pay back that proportion of their salaries how about paying extra for all the work that teachers did outside their prescribed working hours!? You know, all those extracurricular activities, PTA doodads, extra help for either gifted or troubled students, not to mention test-making or marking at home and other above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty sacrifices that most teachers make. I mean, if you want to get all anal about working hours, well, that sword cuts both ways.

These shiftless, parasitical teachers' apparent misdemeanours included, "engaging in activities unrelated to their jobs." OK, some were found to be involved in union activities and related work during their working time. That is indeed in violation of public workers' protocol. And yes, teachers who simply disappear for a day or don't even bother dropping by on work days should be reprimanded, especially when their absence forces somebody else to carry the load. But those rare frequent-absentee types are hardly the kind of teachers this wrist-slapping seems to be targeting.

'Holidays' and 'vacations' as working time

How so? Well, another claim made in the article was that at 82 schools in Hokkaido, just over 2000 hours was lost because some teachers did not work "during working hours even though they were required to be at schools during long-term holiday periods such as summer vacation".

Now, did anyone else catch the oxymoronic (or just moronic) conflation of "working hours" with "holiday periods" and "summer vacation" above? Again, over a one-month summer holiday plus period, about 24 hours per school was lost- or one hour per day among the entire staff! And, yes, we are talking about the season when students do not come to school yet teachers are still required to be at their prescribed working stations from at least 8:30 to 17:15. Why? Is school supposed to be like a bank or something with set public opening and closing hours?

Criminal evidence exhibits

How did the audit board discover this scandalous deception? One way was by noting that, "... in some cases teachers turned off the security systems after working hours started or turned them on before working hours ended".

Yeah, they left work and correctly activated the security system. Does not being in their seats mean they weren't working? Conversely, does being in the school mean they were being useful or productive?

More evidence of criminal behaviour: "In one case, the reported training venue was a library, but the facility was closed on that day". This happened one whole time! It seems that this scofflaw behaviour has reached epidemic proportions.

Charged with attempting to better yourself

More skullduggery is exposed: "At 19 schools in Okinawa Prefecture, teachers took extended breaks in working hours during schools' summer vacations, or attended meetings of educational research organizations not related to their work without using their paid holidays for the purpose. There were 208 teachers involved in these cases, who misused 1,183 hours".

Now let me get this straight. These teachers are being criticized for attending meetings of educational research organizations (such as, I presume, going to something like an ETJ or JALT conference or workshop) during their summer 'holidays' and should be penalized because they didn't use their official days off to do so?!?! I mean, these teachers are using their work time to better themselves as teachers, to learn more about their craft, and yet they should be regarded as moral lepers? As if they would be achieving much more of value for their profession by sitting at their teacher's room cubicles reading newspapers or trying out 50 different fonts for the new, seasonal PTA o-shirase forms?

Or maybe they took lunch breaks that lasted longer than the standard 45 minutes. Yes, I too confess to occasionally jumping into my Swift and going out for a decent meal when I'm not rushed for lunch. It may last up to a whole (gasp!) hour. But the next day, with classes right before and after lunch, I'm shoveling a 150 yen tuna 'n ham Sando down my throat over 10 minutes while dealing with some bureaucratic twaddle (and there is a staggering amount of this stuff at the national university level) which was emailed this morning with a 1 PM deadline. That's my lunch break.

Teaching is neither retail nor factory work

The audit board (aka "The Man") apparently gained their data by checking entries in the teachers' attendance records and by interviewing teachers. As we all know, asking teachers about the activities of their peers is a sure-fire way to get statistically objective truths. As for 'attendance records' -- I mean, what is this, a Springsteen-esque factory from the 50's? Punch in time- punch out time--- with time cards collected and checked before paypackets are dispensed? Mother, or rather bossypants nanny-types, know best. Sure, I can understand that if you work in retail you can't just walk out of the shop for a stroll while customers may be at the door. And I understand that factory workers can't just shuffle off home at any hour without having to face the music. But teaching is neither retail nor factory work.

I find the whole attitude towards work in this article to be an unwelcome throwback to what should be a bygone era. It reeks of the "real work means sitting at your desk in an office" mentality, which is one of the things I find least endearing about typical Japanese workplace settings (and I'm sure that many Japanese will agree with me on this). Of course, while being observed by big brother at your cubby hole you will do your best to string one hour's worth of work over eight. It's far from being productive (which is what the real criteria of working should be based upon) but, hey, it looks like you're working, so kudos to you.

It also reminds me of the opening scene from The Flintstones. When the quarry end-of-shift alarm rings Fred immediately lets out a joyous whoop and slides off his dinosaur to head home. The alarm sounds so his work day is done. Or it's redolent of some industrial revolution Dickensian sweatshop where well-fed men with whips monitor the workers to make sure that no one is so much as rubbing their eyes while on the bosses' time. Should this be the model applied to the teachers' room?

But I'm also wondering about the psychological and physical costs invoked by having people sitting dutifully at their desks for 10 or so hours-- how much they end up spending on drink or cigarettes to reduce boredom or stress, how much they spend on chiropractic treatment or days taken off because of general poor health. Let's weigh all that against the money 'lost' by the miscreant teachers.

The heights of self-indulgence-- producing from home!

The fact is that most teacher-related work can and does get spread out over and beyond non 9-to-5 times and the fact is that much can be done at home. Again, it's not an office or factory job. For example, since I live near my campus I occasionally drop by my home for a short time during 'working hours' because I can actually concentrate better on things like making teaching materials, grading, writing up research etc. Sometimes I actually-- oh I am a slave to self indulgence-- play a CD to enhance my concentration while I do so. John Taxpayer must surely be bristling. Come and get me Audit Board! You can drop by and check what I'm up to on Saturday or Sunday but-- oh--- I might be busy marking homework or making new materials in this, my-- ahem-- free time.

In fact, this approach to work spawns a whole cottage industry of looking-like-you're working-hard behaviours, such as leaving work and locking your door but keeping your lights on so it looks like you're hard at work. And even if you are in your office, nobody can see that you are actually deeply engaged in a epic bout of World of Warcraft. Everyone thinks you're putting in your 'working hours' and hey, that's what counts.

Then there's the morning vs. evening impression-making factor (at my university at least). I have a lot of morning classes so I arrive at or before 8 (and yes, after reading the article I want to be compensated for the work I do between that time and my official work starting time) and no one else is there. I go to my morning classes 8:40-12:00 (lights off in my room-- environment and all) and upon my return to my office, see that others have since arrived, at 10 or 11. These same people stay until 7 or 8 PM, which in Japan is when you get real credit for 'working hard,' while good old Mike is heading off at 5:15 to pick up his daughter from nursery school. The lazy git!

The hockey vs. soccer player working models

Working styles differ too. Myself, I'm the type who works feverishly for spurts of one hour or two. When I concentrate I am, with all due modesty, probably in the very top percentile of human productivity-- but I can't keep this up for eight or more hours. Yet I get everything done-- and then some. So, after an intense spurt of activity I do take some time to watch a Youtube video, check hockey scores, or book a hotel for an upcoming family trip. For these indiscretions I think I owe each taxpayer reading this article approximately 2.6 yen. Hansei shimasu.

The fact is, I work more like a hockey player than a soccer player. The soccer player has to (usually) stay on for the full ninety minutes and thus must pace himself, whereas the hockey player has to go all out for one-minute shifts before heading to the bench for recuperation. Since my productivity is equal to (or even exceeds) most should I be penalized for my working habits? (This is a rhetorical question. Don't say 'yes').

"Moral failings as members of society"

The symphony continues:
"About 9.4 million yen was spent on this misused time in Hokkaido and Okinawa Prefecture".
Ummm ok. And how much did it cost to carry out this audit and produce the report, pray tell?

And then: "Teachers should never be paid when they're not actually working," said constitutional expert Prof. Setsu Kobayashi of Keio University. Let me speculate as to what Professor Kobayashi might want to add to this statement:
"If them coolies ain't actually pickin' cotton or diggin' ditches theys be sluffin' off. Ain't happenin' on my watch!" (Cocks his gun on the plantation wraparound verandah).

In fact, the good Professor also said, "This is not just a problem with them as teachers, but a moral failing [as members of society]." Yeah. And maybe Professor Setsu "Monty Burns" Kobayashi and the Audit Board should update their understanding of what 'teaching' and 'work' mean to,oh, a post World War 2 model.

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July 13, 2012

Dem's Fightng Words: More on pragmatics, strategic competence, and jerks

As some readers may know, I wrote an article addressing the 'micro-aggression' debate in my Indirectly Speaking column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper on June 12th. There were a number of responses to the piece, mostly directed to my personal email address, but also a few which appeared in online forums. This blog entry will address some of the critical points raised by readers. A little later.

But first... let me relate a few real-life experiences that will hopefully enhance some of the points I want to make.

"It must be tough for you in Japan"

Let's go back to my wedding party held in rural Kyushu several years past. An older guest, a little bit worse for whiskey-wear, approaches me. "It must be tough for you in Japan," he begins (in Japanese, natch). Why? "Well, you don't really understand our country, our culture." I see where this might be going but, hey, he's a guest at my wedding party so I'll try to be gracious. "Actually, I'm not sure anyone really understands an entire country or culture," I respond. "But I feel quite comfortable with a lot of life in Japan". "But your understanding is chuto-hanpa," he spits out. "Hell, you don't even understand the word 'chuto hanpa' I bet!" "Sure, it means half-baked, lacking, like that," I reply. "Oh, so you read a dictionary! That still doesn't mean that you understand Japan!". He is literally in my face now, eyeball to eyeball. "Uh yeah. Fine. Whatever." I take my leave.

Micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? Well, soon after the encounter, I asked my wife-- "Who is that guy?" "Oh him, he always gets obnoxious, especially after a few drinks. Just ignore him". Later I see him haranguing some young people at the party, scolding them about how young people today have no morals, guts, depth, etc. He is right in their faces.

So, again-- micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? I say: neither of the above. The guy is outright aggressive. He's in your face and wants to be. He's violating social norms and doesn't care. He's a... let me try to find an appropriate academic term here... a jerk.

"Why did you marry a Japanese?"

OK. Let's try another one. "Why did you marry a Japanese?" I was asked this by two different people soon after the wedding party. Now, I should start off by stating that the questioners gave off no sense of challenge, the kind of paralinguistically pregnant jutting chins which imply the question really means something like, "Why are you taking one of OUR women?", or "What's the matter can't you find a woman in your own country?". These were innocent questions. Innocent but a little awkward.

I answered coyly, "I didn't marry a Japanese woman. I married (insert wife's name here)." In other words I hardly married her for her nationality or because I was clinging on to some outdated notion of alleged J female subservience. I'd married a person, not a nationality. I didn't force this response down their throats but I did try to set them straight on my marital motives.

Micro-aggressive, racially-charged question on their part or something else? I'd attribute it to a certain inter-cultural awkwardness. They'd been focused upon cultural motives when for me the decision to marry was obviously an individual one. (I recall that ex-US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer was asked a similar question, believing that his interlocutors expected to hear something about the virtues of Japanese womanhood from him. Instead he answered, "Because I love her.")

"Will you be returning to Canada?"

Finally, one more item from the same event. My mother-in-law asks me, "Will you be returning to Canada?" Racially-charged indicator of expectation or legit neutral query? Obviously the latter. Many ex-pats return to their countries of origin and the mother wants to know if her daughter is likely to be spending her life abroad. In fact it would be strange if she didn't ask this question! Given who is asking the question, and when, it hardly takes a linguist to accurately peg this as a legitimate inquiry.

Now, it's true that the examples above don't always address raw pragmatics, which is generally a matter of indirect speech acts and subsequent uptake, but they're certainly in the same ballpark.

My own Japanese pragmatic failures: "Excuse me, I'll return"

And I can also certainly think of cases of my own incompetency using Japanese and not being fully cognizant of the uptake in Japanese society. A good example would be playing outside with my son when he was younger, along with a few other neighbourhood parents and their children. At 6:30 it's time to head inside for dinner so I announce to the other parents, "Sumimasen, kaerimasu" (Excuse me, I'll return).

More competent Japanese users will be aware that this sounds rather abrupt as though I'm pissed at something and am more or less walking off. If I had said "Mou sorosoro desu" (Well, it's about time) the uptake arising from this very indirect phrase would have been spot on. So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for those Japanese who have no ill intentions but mismanage the social formulae.

But this brings me right to some questions and doubts that readers had about the article (I should point out that the vast majority of responses were overwhelmingly supportive).

How is it an English-learning problem if it occurs mostly in Japanese?

A few readers correctly pointed out that since most of these infelicities occur in Japanese it can hardly ascribed to a lack of knowledge of English interpersonal strategies or pragmatics.

That's true. The problem in such cases is not an issue of second-language competency, but one of dealing appropriately with second-culture members. Suddenly, the social norms that mark the first culture, or most any culture for that matter, either go out the window or are, at some level, believed not to apply to C2. (This notion is particularly enhanced, IMO, by a longstanding emphasis upon explicating 'cultural differences' as the basis of culture learning).

The fact is that some people lose their interpersonal footholds when engaging other cultures. It's a bit like talking to extraordinarily attractive women/men or famous people, you can become a bit self-conscious and start sounding like a dumbass pretty quickly.

The other point I want to make here is that my column deals with English-teaching, as does of course my job, so the content had to be connected to English teaching. And indeed my English-learning students do manifest many of the problems that I addressed.

Aren't you admitting that pragmatic failure equals micro-aggression?

Another reader questioned my quoting of pragmatics stalwart George Yule, stating that pragmatic failures can certainly be seen as aggressive and generate ill-will. After all, doesn't this seem to support the original micro-aggression thesis that I'm doubting?

Missing the uptake, mismanaging pragmatic forms, or mis-conveying your intentions regularly lead to misunderstanding, confusion, friction-- true. No one doubts that such cases exist. For example, answering, "So?" when someone says, "I need some ice" as you are opening the fridge would be taken as a rebuff but is it always intended as such? Likewise, answering, "I see" and not actually bringing the ice (or by rendering the original request a bit too obliquely-- "This drink tastes good with ice") could also lead to friction, a sense that the other person is either trying to piss you off or is refusing to play the social game. But isn't it true that some people are simply not adept at these interactions or somehow misinterpret them without intended malice? So when we consider intercultural encounters in particular, we are hardly forced to take a tour down the interpretive path of racial micro-aggression.

Strategic competence and pragmatics: Any notable difference?

Another reader wondered if it was legit to separate strategic competence (our ability to manage interactions, particularly how to avoid or fix breakdowns) from pragmatics. The two are connected but shouldn't be conflated. When we offer hints about how to open, close, elaborate, negotiate or confirm utterances, we are focusing upon strategic competence-- and a failure in these areas can easily lead to what was misdiagnosed as micro-aggression.

Pragmatics, which is also a part of the wider field of socio-linguistics, is, as stated earlier, concerned with indirect speech acts, illocutions, implicature (how we understand the implications of a speech act), and uptake. These are connected to strategic competence, but are better separated in a discussion regarding the sources of alleged micro-aggression.

Yet another reader felt that I had implied that pragmatics was something that only highbrow, well-educated teachers were aware of but that in fact many teachers would have a working knowledge of pragmatics even if they were not conversant regarding its wider, egghead-y theory and applications. That's true-- and addresses an impression I did not intend to convey. Any competent, alert teacher will be in tune with socio-linguistics in some form-- academic or otherwise.

Where's the quote? And why not quote the source directly?

Another reader brought up the fact there was no direct reference to the original Japan Times article that I was referring to. He thought this detracted from the force and validity of my response. I agree. I had originally included the JT reference (date, page etc.), the online article URL, and the related blog URL. But the Daily Yomiuri editor told me that they have a policy of not making undue reference to the JT, as a 'rival' newspaper, so these references were removed. My copy editor disagreed with this policy, as do I. I duly relayed this reader's criticism to the DY editor.

The same reader also thought it unfair that I directly quoted George Yule, Jim Ronald, and an unnamed online source (who had agreed to be quoted, although the website where his quote was placed-- www.tepido.org-- was soon thereafter closed by the website owner), but not the original JT writer and blogger of whom I was being critical.

The critic said, I had merely paraphrased the original writer and therefore could be interpreted as being deliberately misleading or strawman-izing. This is a legitimate point. There were certainly many quotable items from the original piece that would have been as self-damning as those used in my critique, and using them would have lent my argument more credibility.

"Why does this stuff only seem to happen to you English teachers?"

Finally, there appeared a critic who claimed that they almost never encountered these awkward or allegedly aggressive comments, that their relations with Japanese people were quite normal and strongly implied that there was something wrong with the whole English-teacher idiom if we had frequently experienced or were bothered by the phenomenon. In fact, this critic served me a healthy reminder that the vast majority of NJ-J interactions don't contain these infelicities, a fact that we should never lose sight of. But it is also true that if you are in the English-teaching field you will be more exposed to awkward interactions simply by virtue of the number of people you have to meet and interact with on a superficial level.

Also, this reader seemed to want to denigrate the English-teacher in Japan meme more roundly, but I'll address this in another blog entry.

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August 01, 2012

Let's laugh and point at those lowlife English teachers!

I’m tired of apologizing for myself. Yeah, I’m an English teacher. You’re a cook. He’s in retail-- runs a small business. That guy’s a financial advisor. My brother-in-law drives a truck.

Hey, we could scoff at that too! Except when you realize that the trucks he drives are those earth-shakingly enormous super-monster-goliath mining trucks, the kind that send the pulses of prepubescent boys who watch Discovery Channel racing. And he makes about $80 an hour. You’re not scoffing now. Now, I'm not sure what else he'd do if he didn't drive a truck, but in his field he has driven himself (yeah, a weak pun I know) to the top of the heap and provides well for his family. He's a decent working man doing OK. So no one scoffs- nor should they.

I could introduce myself by saying that I’m a professor at a National University. It's true, so sometimes I do. This always wins me some politeness creds at immigration. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll soon find out that I’m an English professor and, well, that’s still just an English teacher, not a real professor, isn't it? Am I supposed to be ashamed? Apparently.

Why? Apparently, my only skill is that I speak my mother tongue and that if I were back in Canada I wouldn’t have a job or be of any social value. Maybe a late night shift at a convenience store or gas station would be my calling. I’m a dork and a loser ‘back home’ but think I'm a freaking hero in Japan.

Oh really? Like every time I visit Canada all the other guys my age are neurosurgeons and high-powered executives, dressed in Brooks Brothers splendor, with a tanned healthy blonde on each arm, keys to the Lexus dangling conspicuously. Yeah, right.

It’s true that I don’t have great mechanical aptitude, that I’d look about as comfortable handling a lathe as Ayako Imoto would parading in a Milanese high-fashion show. And I’ve lost my muscle tone for lying pipe. Hey, I barely have the muscle tone for looking at pipe. But if Mr. Pipe-Layer and Mr. Lathe-Handler come to my classroom I will kick their asses when it comes to the class management of 35 students or developing a viable ESP curriculum.

But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about other English teachers in Japan. Teachers like Clark Steamhamm.

Clark is decent at academics and is inclined towards the humanities. He’s fairly articulate and conversant. He studied humanities at university for stimulation and to stir his curiosity, not for job-training. He got an MA but hadn’t given too much thought to an actual vocation thereafter. Clark likes to travel. He hears of a gig in Japan teaching English and comes over. He finds that it suits his skills and sensibilities. He gradually picks up some ELT-specific certifications, hones his classroom skills, and eventually gets his feet in the door of a Japanese university. He then begins a PhD program in Applied Linguistics and ultimately gets a steadier position at the university. He writes papers, does research, presents at conferences, takes roles in professional organizations. He gets married, has kids, buys a house. He'll be here awhile.

So do we scoff at Clark? After all, he’s just an English teacher. What would he do ‘back home’? (As if ‘back home’ is a relevant issue for Clark now). Hey, the guy has a steady job. He’s an academic, a minor academic to be sure but…. He has educated, furthered, and marketed himself so that he can buy a house and raise a family in reasonable comfort. Ha ha! What a looser!

Next let’s look at Ed Skidmark. Ed’s less academically inclined than Clark—he just doesn’t have the patience for it. Ed stops in Japan while backpacking through Asia and meets a girl (this will become a common theme). He likes it here and decides to stay, living in rural Kagawa Prefecture. But what to do? Ed decides to start up Ed’s Maple Leaf English School in his small town, since there is little competition and an apparent market. Ed develops some business acumen and some social skills because he is now an entrepreneur, a businessman. He learns Japanese and works hard to establish his business in the community. He also develops some fine practical teaching skills over time. Ed marries the woman he loves, and has kids. Everyone in the town knows him and his school. He has financially rocky moments, but he does OK.

Do we laugh and point at Ed? After all, he’s also just an English teacher—and one without an advanced degree. But he’s a self-made man, running a business, and establishing himself in the community. Ha ha—what a dweeb.

OK, how about Leonard Swatcloth? Leonard came to Japan because his real love is pottery—Japanese pottery, at which he is quite adept and he can always sell a few pieces at exhibitions, but he knows that this is hardly a profession in which he can safely retire. So he teaches English on the side—maybe at Ed’s school. He gets a few local qualifications and becomes a decent teacher, although it never becomes his passion. But it helps him support his pottery jones and he feels fulfilled because of this. How then shall we poke fun at this skill-bereft Charisma man?

Finally, let's look at Dane Chocolate-Lather. Dane got his BA in the UK and got hired on the JET Program. He’s not sure he’s suited to teaching, and only occasionally enjoys it. But he met some people from a well-known ELT publishing company and managed to shoehorn his way in as a local sales representative and, possibly in the future, a materials writer. This role suits him better. But hey, it’s just ELT-- so he’s about as successful as that guy zombied out to hell in front of the Sunderland methadone clinic every morning, right?

OK. Let’s look outside of English teaching. Do we laugh at the guy who comes to Japan and can cook some basic dishes from his home country? The guy who opens an ‘ethnic’ restaurant in Toyama and manages to make a decent living while improving his cooking skills, not to mention honing that all-important entrepreneurial and social acumen. After all, just about anyone can cook a few dishes from the old country! So why can't we apply the same sophisticated critique to him that usually applies to English teachers: Moran!

Or the guy from Brisbane who shuns English teaching completely-- it's just not his thing at all-- but decides to open a bar in Japan, which becomes moderately successful. Screw the business acumen and social skills, anyone can pour a beer! He’d sure be useless ‘back home’ right? I mean, you sure never find people who open bars and serve drinks in Australia! No, they’re all rocket scientists and structural engineers!

And then there’s the guy (*note-- I am conscious that all my samples are males, this is because it seems that females are off the finger-pointing hook to a much greater degree for just being English teachers than are males—which does indicate an implicit sexism in the charges, true) who gets his degree in business admin and starts out by apprenticing in a minor financial firm in Salem. But he gets tired of being reined in, being way down the decision-making ladder, and thinks he would have more freedom if he took his knowledge of investments to the foreign community in Fukuoka. He gets the necessary licenses, starts pressing the flesh, and—if he gives a bit of winning advice and a few profitable tips, he gets established in the local financial advisor scene. Yeah, absolute rock bottom scum. A leech on society.

Sure, we could also point to Fergus Totalform, who basically flits from teaching job to teaching job in Japan, has no real qualifications for teaching, and doesn’t apparently care much about it (his ‘hobby’ seems to be not having his contract renewed). He drinks way too much and borrows money from other ex-pats who can then wave it bye-bye. He's burned a lot of bridges. We all know of guys like Fergus. But of course there’s absolutely no one like this in Canada. No one.

Does this all sound like someone threw a stick into a pack of dogs and the one that got hit is yelping? Maybe. Or is it just a response to a few people from outside the ELT Community who have no idea of what's involved, how we get established and build lives here but, for some reason, feel superior. I don't really need the respect, nor do I ask for it. I just want those people who point the fingers to know who the hell they are pointing at.


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September 14, 2012

English as Imperialism- beating a dead horse with ELF

I don’t expect English speakers to look or sound like me. After all, that guy in front of me in the security line at Seoul's Incheon Airport last week- where was he from? I’d guess Romania or Bulgaria. Hungary perhaps. And he was speaking English to the Korean official. And at the plane entrance there was a woman I’d identify as Thai or Indochinese discussing some matter with the Turkish purser. In English of course.

All the English I heard was ‘accented’ (a loaded term, I know) and offered up the occasional missed article or misplaced pronoun-- but all the speakers were competent in communicating their needs. It was both efficient and successful.

It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers and that business, politics, art, academia, sport, and even words of love are carried out the world over by Lithuanians talking to Brazilians, Zaireans to Vietnamese… in English. This implies that new standards and norms arise. International intelligibility replaces native-like competency as a learning goal. Tony Blair and Barack Obama need not be your language role models.

A new, paradoxical reality

I’ve blogged about the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) here before, as well as in the Daily Yomiuri. This is not new stuff. But as English becomes woven indelibly into the fabric of international communication a new, rather paradoxical, reality emerges:
The old discourse about English as an agent of imperialism is a dead horse.

How's that, you ask? Isn’t the fact that all these non-native English speakers are compelled to communicate in a foreign tongue a perfect example of linguistic hegemony?

Not really. First keep in mind that these common, widespread examples are NNS-NNS interactions. There is no power differential here, as there may be in an NS-NNS exchange. They are on equal, neutral ground. Second, this emerging new ELF belongs to them. They create and negotiate this language. They are now its owners. I have my little piece of English property (North American variety) and they have their own English territory too. I won’t pee on their linguistic lawns.

The old paradigm- Anglos and ownership of English

The old paradigm of English as an agent of imperialism assumed the NS-NNS dimension as normative. It is ironic that Phillipson or Pennycook (the auto-quote sources when it comes to the ‘imperialism’ school) seem to implicitly assume that Anglo-Americans own the language and by way of financial, military, or political power and influence, foist it upon others.

OK, the fact that English has emerged as the international go-to language as a by-product of imperialism, hard version or soft, is beyond historical doubt-- but now that linguistic play dough is putty in the hands of others. It’s not our toy anymore and we can’t take it home with us. It’s like the train system that the British established in India-- that’s Indian state-owned railway now. End of story.

The flight I referred to earlier took me to an international English studies conference in Istanbul. There, several hundred specialists, academicians, and linguists engaged in seminars, lectures, hands-on sessions and the like. I’d estimate that Anglo-Americans made up about, oh, 2% of all attendees. Macedonians argued with Italians, Egyptians held discussions with Danes, Croats lectured to a potpourri of other continental nationals. In English. In their own way, not like a newsreader from Minneapolis or Bristol. As hard as I looked I didn’t see a lot of ‘imperalizin’ goin’ down. What I saw was a variety of ideas and ideologies being shared and expressed. Assuming that Japanese people in Japan are somehow obliged to speak to me in English would be imperialistic. A Japanese footballer giving tactical advice to a Slovenian teammate in the same tongue is hardly so. You can see the difference.

World Englishes- the polar opposite of ELF

Let me shift gears here a little now to clarify something about the World Englishes debate. You’ve all likely heard of the movement to accept and preserve local varieties of English, that Philippine English, Pastikani English, Singaporean English, and Caribbean English are all perfectly legitimate and intelligible language systems, often infused with local colour. Well, ELF is not about that. The World Englishes meme is all about accepting and recognizing differences. ELF, on the other hand, is about developing a unified form, a standard that makes disparate L1 speakers mutually intelligible, just not one based upon the Anglo-American model.

In other words, World Englishes is about legitimizing local disparity, whereas ELF is all about cross-national communication, defined by its speakers. Singlish (Singaporean English) speakers using their local patois when addressing, say, Belizeans are not likely to succeed—which is precisely what is implied by the term ‘local variety’-- its utility is limited, insular. But if there is some common ground, preferably one that doesn’t force them to sound like Jeremy Irons, communication will be more successful.

Fanciful notions of language as a moral agent

I have another bone to pick here too. I have always been bothered by how the ‘English as a tool of Imperialism’ forces have often mischaracterized language, perhaps willfully so. What I am referring to here is the fanciful, and scientifically absurd, notion that by learning English you also automatically absorb some of its foundational cultural values—that language means (or is somehow 'identifiable' with) ideology, culture, and belief systems. Besides the monolithic view that cultures have set 'values', there are so many problems with this simplistic association that it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose the biggest fallacy is anthropomorphism, assuming that an entity such as a language has motives and intentions, that it is a de facto moral agent. Only animate objects, and perhaps viruses, can be said to have these qualities. All languages can express a wide variety of beliefs and ideas. It’s self-evidently far from true that every English speaker has the socio-political slant of a Mitt Romney. Virulent anti-Western, anti-Imperialist, anti-Capitalist scribes have been penned in English around the globe. It’s not like there is something indigenous to the language that somehow forces you to shop at Walmarts or invest in hedge funds. Saying so would be akin to believing that eating Chinese food in Dublin will somehow make the eater more sympathetic to the Chinese Communist party. In fact, this entire ‘viral’ view of language reminds me of Monty Python’s Deadly Joke sketch (the one that causes readers to die laughing), in which it is stated that a police officer happened to see a few words of the joke, leading him to spend several days in hospital.

Magical incantations and Potter-esque spells

It also imbues language with magical, incantational qualities. There’s something Harry Potter-esque about the notion that mastering verb declensions or relative clauses in English leads to imparting certain modes of thought. Chant the magic spell and presto, you too will become a middle class Caucasian complete with his or her big sack o’ values.

The fact that English entrenches itself deeper as a true ELF with each passing day attests to the absurdity of the view that the global use of English serves as a subtle conduit for Home County or Midwestern values. So does the fact that local Englishes worldwide absorb and reflect the local culture, not that of, say, Portland.

Reflection or creator of cultures and ideas?

Ah ha! the critic might say at this point. If I admit that language reflects the local culture, doesn’t English then reflect the values of its dominant culture (Anglo-American)? The answer is a qualified yes. Anglo-American English reflects Anglo-American culture. The specific, local language is certainly derived from the surrounding local culture. But it doesn't create that culture.

For example, Japanese keigo (honorific/respect forms) reflects a social hierarchy that is less evident in Anglo-American culture. Hence, Japanese employs terms like kacho, bucho, shacho (all types of ‘bosses’) who, in turn, require certain verbal inflections and address forms when spoken to. But while may one use these within the Japanese language/cultural milieu it doesn’t automatically make the speaker more respectful or humble or somehow create a sense of honouring thy superior. Hey, I use the forms too in Japanese-- in many cases towards people that I feel are cretins (and I can assure that almost all Japanese do the same).

We can discuss certain Anglo-American cultural benchmarks in Anglo-American English clearly because our variety has evolved to reflect that which is socially or culturally pertinent (as does any language). And you know what? We can trash and critique and scoff at those cultural benchmarks in our English too because the language, any language, allows you to do so! Being able to reference it (shared culture) doesn't mean you buy into it (shared ideas, values, beliefs). The ability to identify or define doesn't imply a value statement. And when English is used in Jamaica or Hong Kong or Malta it will reflect the foundations of those cultures too.

Why? Because the language I use belongs to me, I don’t belong to it. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate across borders in English, it belongs to them too. ELF- it’s very democratic. Everyone can be an owner.

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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.

Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.

Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.

Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.

One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.

So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.

The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.

Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.

And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.

4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?

I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.

Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...

5. Is there really a problem?

All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?

Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.

The international test results canard

Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.

And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.

6. So just who is responsible?

If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.

Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.

Stop blaming...

Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.

And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.

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March 14, 2013

Racism in Japan: Where Medamasensei gets it wrong

The Tokyo subway. About 11 PM on a weekday. It's 1994. I'm heading home from a gathering, reading the Daily Yomiuri. A Japanese man, wearing an expression of disapproval makes eye contact. He has an air of over-confidence when approaching me, rather rare in Japan. He speaks in broken, yet reasonably competent, English but his lines seem too well-rehearsed.

"Your newspaper doesn't say the truth. White people killed off American native people, sent Japanese Americans to prison during war. It is genocide. American newspapers are run by white people. Hide facts about racist white acts. You are not told truths about racist white history. American media. American education. Same."

I didn't smell any alcohol and there was no real hint of physical aggression but nonetheless this intrusion was unwelcome. Nearby commuters were also shifting uncomfortably sensing the unpleasantness.

Thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, I made some dismissive comment about not being American and the newspaper being Japanese but it was clear he wasn't listening. He had his mind set. He had a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, a bone to pick, and I was his target, his captive audience. He went on at some length berating 'my' media and education until, thankfully, my station came into view.

Pulling the rug from under one's rhetorical feet

I think most readers would equally find this rude and annoying. But why? Let me list thy ways:

1. He was factually incorrect about the alleged absence in North American media and education regarding past racist policies inflicted by people who look like me. Maybe more could be done but the notion that this is avoided or not known to the general populace is just wrong.

2. It's neither his role nor responsibility to inform me, as if I have no access to 'the truth' that he is now bestowing upon me, as a stranger on a train. As a result, from the outset I am suspect of his motivations-- he just wants to vent at a suitable target, which automatically makes any point he is trying to make less effective.

3. By using the Daily Yomiuri as his foil, and not knowing my nationality, nor the education I've received, he has pulled the rug from under his rhetorical feet. His attempts at criticism lacked credibility and applicability.

Medamasensei-- Personable and charismatic but...

Which brings me to 'Medamasensei' and a Youtube clip he posted a few months back entitled Racism in Japan. Apparently, he was harassed for uploading this clip by some Japanese nationalists (I have a side comment for such people at the end of this post although I somehow doubt that the average uyoku reads my blog) and since then Medamasensei has posted a response , also on Youtube.

Miki, his real name, seems like a well-intentioned, charismatic, and personable guy. I sense that he has a real concern for his students. He teaches English at a high school in Okinawa. He is, as is obvious in the clip, an American of Japanese ancestry and is reasonably competent in Japanese.. But despite his good intentions I think Miki has made some of the same mistakes that my 'subway interlocutor' did, which weakened the force of his message and gave his uyoku critics some unfortunate ground.

Let's start with the motive. Miki is an English teacher. And he's American. So why is he giving a lecture to Japanese students about alleged Japanese attitudes and behaviors in Japan? No doubt the students will start off with this schema. Does he have a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, does he just have a bone to pick with us as a captive audience? One can't help but think that it's a set-up to vent or point fingers.

Imagine a Chinese language teacher from Beijing working in Canada suddenly 'teaching' a group of Canadian students, in English, about government or media censorship in Canada. Moreover, what if it was apparent that he assumed that Canadians were oblivious to the idea that government or media censorship existed in Canuckland and that it was his duty to inform them. The implications might make the audience a little defensive, doncha think? Not because they are in denial but because they smell a rat. Sounds a little like the guy on the train, right?

'Racial discrimination' but not about 'races'

Miki also used a number of unfortunate examples that weakened his point and cast doubt upon his argument. He was using the word 人種差別 (racial discrimination) but used examples of Okinawans vis-a-vis mainland Japanese, and even inter-island prejudices within Okinawa itself. But this is not racial. The same holds true for his discussion of the dowa/burakumin.

Even his argument about discrimination faced by Koreans in Japan is unlikely to be interpreted as 'racial'. People in the Korea, China, Japan triangle will generally acknowledge that some countrymen, or even themselves, may hold prejudices or general dislike towards the other countries (usually governments more than individuals) but such animosity is likely to be thought of not as 'racial' but as 'national'.

Then there is the dubious example of the baka-chon camera. I asked four Japanese about the alleged slur it contained. Two had never heard the word. Two others laughed at the word and described it as an outdated hick phrase used by old people who were none-too-smart about using cameras, hence the term. The idea that it meant that the camera was "so easy to use that even dumb Koreans could used it" seemed to them to be far-fetched in the extreme. If this is Miki's Exhibit A it does seem like he is grasping at straws. Given that in his response Miki shows a demonstration of Japanese nationalists in Shin-Okubo (Tokyo's most Korean neighborhood) a few months back marching while holding up placards saying, "Kill all Koreans" and "Koreans, go hang yourselves," Miki seems to have whiffed on the baka-chon front.

Is Japan in denial? Or is there a problem with the question?

This brings us to a key question. Why did only two of Miki's students raise their hands when he asked them if they thought there was racial discrimination in Japan? One answer is that high school students don't raise their hands for much. You could say, "If you are human, raise your hands," and perhaps get only a handful of responses. I can't help but wonder whether if Miki had asked the question negatively, "Who thinks there isn't any discrimination in Japan?" there would still be only two hands in the air.

Imagine again the Chinese teacher lecturing Canadians on government censorship and asking, "Is the media in Canada censored and controlled?". I imagine most of the students would argue, "No. Canada has a free press, freedom of expression, etc.". This now gives the Chinese teacher the opportunity to claim that Canadians don't know or are in denial while pointing out selected cases where media were asked to withhold information. Gotcha.

But let's assume that all Miki's students were alert and actively participating. And even though the examples he cited didn't conform to the notion of 'race', could it be that so many of his students, and by extension so many Japanese, are in denial about racial discrimination in Japan? Here's where it gets tricky.

I asked four Japanese people point blank: "Do you think there is racial discrimination in Japan?" Three times in English, once in Japanese (there is no real semantic difference). The four were:
a) The Japanese spouse of a foreign national and mother of a mixed-race child. Well-educated and traveled,
b) A Japanese doctor. Highly-educated, well-traveled, internationalist, very conversant on social and political affairs.
c) A mixed-race (Western-Japanese) high schooler.
d) An ethnically Korean Japanese.

Without exception, their initial responses were, "What exactly do you mean?". I played naive: "Just what I said".
Then,
a) Do you mean systematic, or widespread, like it's somehow representative of Japanese character?

b) Do you mean like apartheid in South Africa or pre-civil rights white-on-black in the U.S., where governments explicitly discriminated against their own citizens?

c) I don't get it. Everyone in Japan is Japanese. (I responded, "I mean, for example, someone like you- bi racial"). But I'm fully a Japanese citizen so I have the same rights and am subject to the same laws as any other Japanese.
(Later...) So what you mean by 'Is there racial discrmination in Japan?' actually means, 'Do any pure 100% Japanese discriminate against non-Japanese?' (Clever, that)

d) Occasionally, I hear of some people speaking ill of Koreans, but is that racial? We're all Asians. And does 'looking down on' or 'speaking ill of' or 'not liking' meet your definition of racial discrimination?

"I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against"

Next came some clinchers...

a) If all you mean is, "Is there anybody at all in Japan who has prejudice towards people of other races or nations. Are there any cases or people anywhere in Japan?" then the answer is obviously yes*. But that's so obvious I didn't think that's what you meant. I thought you were speaking more generally, referring to some kind of established policy.
(*Her gestures and facial expression here had that "Are you kidding me?" look)

b) It goes without saying that some individuals hold prejudices, like anywhere else. But as policy? Like apartheid? No. (My response: "I mean by type or attitude, not by scale"). "Of course, it would be foolish to say that no one in Japan has these attitudes. I thought you meant something more institutional or fundamental."

c) Actually I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against, often raising the issue, assuming they know what it's like to be me, telling me how I must feel. I prefer some Japanese guy speaking to me in broken English to that.
(Ouch! Food for thought)

d) There's a touch of negative attitude on occasion, if that's what you mean by discrimination. More in my parents' day though On the other hand, Koreans get associated with cool sometimes too due to pop culture, esthetics, and so on. But Japanese look down upon other Japanese for various reasons too and Koreans do the same thing with other Koreans.

You can probably see that one common denominator here is that the question was not initially assumed to mean, "Any cases of discrimination by any Japanese individual ever" because that just seemed too leading and obvious. The uptake of the term was more that of 'official policy' or some popular groundswell, a systemic, widespread characteristic of Japan(ese). The different nuances between prejudice, discrimination, and simple dislike came in for questioning too, as did Japanese as a nationality vs. ethnicity.

"We get that stuff a lot"

I also asked about education against discrimination in Japanese schools:

a) Of course. In moral education class throughout the system we were taught to respect and keep the dignity of others. We were taught to treat others equally. The Dowa situation, even though it's disappearing, was discussed. There was a lot about respecting other nationalities, cultures, differences.

c) Yeah we get that stuff a lot. That we have to understand and be kind to our fellow man, regardless of religion, race, hairstyle, and so on. It's been pretty standard stuff from kindergarten on.

So, just as North Americans receive a fair dose from public education and media reflection about some shameful parts of our racial or discriminatory history-- even though discrimination still exists-- so do the Japanese (and I see no shortage of this sentiment in both popular and serious Japanese media too).

We: Aware, with raised consciousness. You: Morally undeveloped

What some Japanese seem to object to is the insinuation and assumptions, like the guy on the train was making with me, that they haven't been informed of this, that they are morally unaware, even retarded, consciousness not yet raised to 'our' level. If we take that attitude then aren't we in fact the ones being prejudiced and/or discriminatory?

I think though there are some gaps in the understanding of racial discrimination in many places throughout the world. The model for racism seems to be, as the doctor hinted at, U.S. white-black or South African apartheid. I've traveled to countries with highly dubious records of racial minority treatment who've assumed that their local model, notbeing the same as pre-civil rights U.S. or South Africa's, somehow doesn't meet the litmus test for racial discrimination. That needs to be fixed.

I also find it ironic that despite Miki's inarguable statement in his follow-up video-- his point that racial discrimination is carried out only by 'some' people about 'some' others-- certain members of the online non-Japanese community have attributed the nationalists' harassment to "The Japanese" as a whole. Full face palm and desk headbang for that.

"It seemed kind of illogical to me"

Maybe that's what Miki was trying to do, to help his students avoid racial generalizations. But as the Japanese wife/mother, who watched Miki's Youtube clip, said:

"If he had asked, 'Do you think Japanese people sometimes hold prejudice or discriminate based upon gender, socio-economic status, university ranking, home region, nationality, race etc'. everybody would have said 'Yes'. I'm from a country prefecture so I sense it a little when I mention my university or hometown if I visit Kanto or Kansai. But he used the term 'racial discrimination' and then talked about all these other things. And yet his conclusion was as if he had now proven to them that there is in fact racial discrimination in Japan. It seemed kind of illogical to me."

Miki could have placed the issue about common prejudices into an English class and found out his student's perceptions that way, letting the student's use their own voices before making judgment. And this could have lead to some fruitful discussion in which Miki could have used his energy and enthusiasm to make some valid points regarding some problems faced by foreign residents in Japan. Unfortunately, when I saw Miki's video I was instead reminded a little of the guy on the train in Tokyo.

Of course, some readers might feel that it's unseemly to rake a guy, who simply tried to raise consciousness and address an important issue, over the coals but the point is that these laudable goals were not likely to be achieved-- not with Miki in the missionary position (cough, cough) with his assumptions. In fact the whole thing may have backfired-- meaning, many of the comments on Youtube and elsewhere critical of Miki were not from raving nationalists but from readers genuinely skeptical of Miki's MO and examples. Teachers have a lot to consider before they enter soapbox mode if they actually want to be effective or influential.

A note to the nationalists

And, as promised, a note to the nationalists (who are as likely to read this blog as I am of winning the Kentucky Derby, but what the hey) who tried to harass Miki for his videos: (although I should note here that, looking at the history of this blog, threats of calling up or informing workplaces when one finds a view disagreeable are not limited to the political right)

Although I am strongly anti-nationalist (in regards to any nation, as I consider nationalism to be irrational and artificial tribalism), I'll agree with you nationalists about one thing. Japan is a great country. I have chosen to make my life here because there is so much that is admirable about the people and the country. You are lucky to have been born here and I too feel an emotional connection to this country. But do you think you make Japanese people or Japanese culture look good when, in the name of your fine country, you become over-emotional or wish to censor those who you disagree with? Do you wish this to be seen and regarded by outsiders as "Japanese behavior"? Because, trust me, such responses can and do make your country- my adopted home- look worse than you claim Miki did. Don't do it. For your country.


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