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The Uni-Files - daily workload Archive

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

December 17, 2008

Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job?

I know the image. We have only a handful of contact hours (or ‘koma’) per week. We often get our own offices, decent budgets for research, and nobody is checking to see when we punched the clock in our out, in fact there is no clock at all. Sounds good, doesn’t it- and that’s even without mentioning the professors’ Jacuzzi, the helicopter transportation, the Terence Conran-designed office furniture, and the kinds of salaries that investment bankers would kill for.

I hope you know I’m kidding about the last bit but I’m serious that when I say that university teaching has its obvious perks, it might not be the Life of Riley that some seem to imagine. You may be aware of the difficulty of securing long-time status at a university in Japan, so job security is often an issue (more on that in this blog in the near future) but let’s assume for the moment that you have a reasonably secure job at a Japanese university. With only six 90-minute classes a week what could possibly make it difficult? OK- I’m not going to pretend that it is as physically taxing and teaching children or as intensive as 20 classes at a JHS per week, and I know that teachers at other levels face some of the items listed below, but regardless, what follows is a point-by-point summary of what you might NOT have known about a university teacher’s duties:

1. Your time off from class is not really a ‘time off’:
I hate it when people (including students and fellow teachers) assume that if you are not in class then you have no other duties and are probably just watching South Park re-runs on Youtube (or writing blogs- ahem). Wrong. There is class prep. There is marking. Materials making (both pedagogical and promotional). Student consultation, orientation and extracurricular events. Meetings. Often endless, pointless meetings (possibly designed so that people DON’T watch South Park re-runs when not in class). Of course this is true for most full-time teachers at any level. But at universities…

2. You are supposed to be PRODUCTIVE with that free time:
Every year you have to provide a list of publications for the past year that are then rated. Presentations must be listed and will then be rated. After all, you are expected to be a researcher. Active involvement, including leadership, in professional societies and organizations is crucial (you are expected to be a big face in the community), not to mention active collaboration and liaison with those in other universities. All these things go into a rating system. If you are producing nothing but your grades at the end of the semester it will not look good when contract renewal time comes up (this will also, by the way, be the topic of a future blog entry). And you don’t just teach programs, you are usually called on to develop and maintain them. But at least these are things that you can choose and have some control over but you can’t really control…

3. Participation in committees:
Some committees seem to have been made up purely for the purpose of having a committee but you still have to produce. An ‘International Affairs’ committee will have to produce reports and newsletters. Various overseeing and organizing committees have to produce reports. Entrance exam committees… well, you know. International exchange, liaison and other special programs will often take up the dinner hours or weekends. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because if you are a native English speaker you will also be…

4. A de facto English secretary:
I know that most NS teachers at every level get ‘help’ requests from students, teachers and administration all but I think I’m safe in saying that it reaches new heights at the university level. The administration needs its English translations (which can often be very technical, opaque, or arcane) to be picture perfect. There are hundreds of researchers at different departments who are expected to publish outside Japan and who see an NS teacher as a handy resource. And you are expected to have seminars, one-to-one consultations and other extra-classroom connections with your students (grad student thesis guidance being one).

5. Song and dance:
Many teachers at all levels have to participate in promotion and recruitment for their particular schools but there is one item that is more or less unique to universities. That is fundraising through grants. Over the past decade, even national universities have been weaned off the public teat and have to engage in raising funds by producing and promoting programs that can win grants and awards. This includes the infamous kaken-hi research grants which involve a monstrously bureaucratic application and follow-up reports.

So, it university teaching a piece of cake? No. Would I trade it for another position at another level of teaching? No. Would it be easy for a person like me to slide into a position teaching children and think “Wow! This is a breeze!”? No. But more on that in the next entry.

Mike G.

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March 03, 2009

A Day in the Life: The (Not So) Off-Season at the Uni

A lot of people, both in the university and outside, think that once the regular classes have stopped that I am on holiday. Or if not actually lounging at a poolside in Phuket, then I must be at least out on the golf course working on my fairway woods.

Most of you who teach full-time at public schools (Miyazaki U. is a national university) at any level know the correct response to this, which is: HAHAHAHAHAHA! In fact, unlike the so-called off-season, the days in which I am simply teaching classes, marking papers, or preparing lessons are in many ways the easiest in the school year.

If you want to know why, cue the violins, because here is what happens in a typical day (and this was an actual day) in mid-February, yes after all classes and English exams have finished. It’s a pleasant morning so I walk (about 15 minutes door-to-door) and reach my room at 8:35.

1. When I get to work I see that my new printer has arrived. I manage to set it up without any glitches or special problems. Getting rid of the mounds of garbage this creates is another matter.

2. My first ‘zatsuyou’ (busy work, officialdom) of the day arrives. I have to complete a document to get my newborn daughter on my work insurance. I use my inkan four times for the document. One part is problematic, the section on choosing a ‘setai nushi’ (head of household) since this affects taxes and also because elsewhere my wife and I are considered to be dual heads of household. I call her at home to discuss what to do. My name eventually goes in the slot and I hand the papers in.

3. I put in an order for a set of books I want. All the information, ISBN numbers and so on, have to be entered correctly by yours truly.

4. There are two official university emails in my box. Not only are they in Japanese (duh!) but the Japanese is inevitably written in the densest possible style, the equivalent of something like, “It has come to our attention that your good selves, privy to the pre-arrangements that have heretofore been noted…”. I scan once for gist (one is about re-examinations and the other about room arrangements and procedures for entrance exams) but need to consult the online translator and/or on desk dictionary to understand it completely. The point of one of the emails still eludes me so I ask the secretary, but even she seems unsure as to what the uptake is supposed to be. Eventually, I can make out that I am expected to go to a place deep in the bowels of the university’s password-coded system and enter a “same as last year” response. Navigating this labyrinth takes time and it seems that each branch has a different password, so this simple act ends up taking far more time than going downstairs to the academic affairs office and saying “Same as last year”. But of course this new automated is more (cough) efficient (cough).

5. A student has come to my office. I failed him because he was absent from class over and above the limit of allowed absences. He asks me why he failed and I tell him. He lingers and starts asking which days he was absent. I show him the form. He claims that I made a mistake on one of the entries, that he had just been late. Yeah. Like 45 minutes late. After pleading, looking contrite and suddenly deciding that English was very important indeed, I tell him that if he has a problem with this or wants to appeal, as is his right, that there is an ombudsman. He doesn’t take up the offer and finally goes.

6. I have a speech to make in about 10 days at a university-sponsored international symposium in a hotel downtown. The slides are made but need some fixing. I also add and subtract bits of text. Tailor-work basically.

7. The proposed itinerary for a business trip to Malaysia in June has to be changed because the airline is changing the schedule. I put in a request for a change of the departure date and book an extra day at the hotel.

8. A doctor who is an ex-student (the hospital is attached to the university) appears and asks for help. He is doing some research involving…oh I don’t know, place some impenetrable scientific jargon here…. And needs to know if his proposed email response to an American researcher is appropriate. Fortunately, it is better than most such compositions I receive and requires only minor literary surgery.

9. I’m expecting the final check for my article (monthly) in The Daily Yomiuri (English language edition) to come soon but last night I was tossing and turning a bit in bed because I wanted to re-phrase a few sections and cut and paste a point or two. The basic article is on my work desk computer so I make the adjustments now.

10. The department secretary has just received email from two doctors in Thailand who will be coming for an intensive, advanced special program next week. These emails involve questions about budgets and money protocol. Before I can help her respond appropriately I have to clarify the terminology and protocols myself. This takes a little more time that you might imagine.

11. Back to my desk. I have to put in an abstract and registration form for the ETA-ROC language teaching conference in Taiwan this November. My colleague and I have lined up about 6 conferences for the upcoming year and we have sent four applications out so far. The form is online but since each conference has a different theme and has different abstract-writing requirements I have to adjust the tone and wording of the (pre-written template) abstract accordingly. I send it after duly filling all the categories but an email arrives back about 40 minutes later stating that I have not correctly filled in all the slots and to do so and re-send it. I scrutinize the form trying to see what I have missed, as there are none of the usual asterisks to indicate required fields and the like. I assume it must be the “Chinese name” section that I’m falling short on. I write my name in Katakana and send it again.

12. I get a call from the academic affairs section about which English teacher was responsible for putting in the grades of some 3rd year transfer students. There is a new system for these ‘henyuu-sei’ and someone (not me though) had failed to enter them.

13. Completed anketo ratings arrive by regular mail from a nearby university that I teach part-time at. Unfortunately, they ask you to write a comment back to them (required field!) regarding how you will respond to the anketo results so that you will be the best teacher you can be! I honestly can’t think of much to say, but I scrawl something about improving communication with students about expectations and re-send it by regular mail.

14. There is a telephoned question from the entrance exam center about a potential problem on one of the tests and I am required to visit in person (it is on the adjoining campus). I go and the problem, which was the most incredible precaution you can imagine, is immediately and simply resolved.

15. A 62 page ‘kairanban’ (circular) comes by. I give the topics a cursory glance but it is completely full with items like, “Pre-arrangments regarding the reconstruction of parking lot C” and the like. I sign it and pass it on. So does everyone. They could write, “You will all be fired tomorrow” in there and no one would ever notice.

16. Next there is a scheduled meeting regarding the schedule arrangements for the visiting contingents from Thailand the U.S. Everything from meal locations, sightseeing companions, airport pick up, to relaxation room requirements is discussed- more slowly and indecisively than I would like. I volunteer for some of the ‘kakari’ (chores). The meeting is, of course, held in Japanese and is, as usual, much longer than it needs to be, as if we are just waiting for someone to ask momentous questions like whether the teacher’s refreshment area should include low-calorie sweetener as well as regular sugar.

17. After the meeting, the English Dept. Professor (I’m a mere “Associate Prof.”) asks me to contact and push a colleague in the Agriculture faculty about getting some articles for our “International Newsletter” submitted in time, as he has been dragging his feet. I write the email in Japanese, which means that I check it carefully before sending so that I don’t look like a total Nihongo doofus.

18. The budgeting department for an upcoming business trip to Seoul needs information about the location of the university in Korea that I’ll be visiting (I find it via Google and hit the print button) as well as an official “mitsumori-sho” (price estimate) from the travel agent. I call him and get it faxed in later in the day.

19. There is a small problem with spam on the ETJ list (ETJ Life-in-Japan) that I moderate. I check into it a bit more through Yahoo groups and see a pattern of spamming from two dubious, and very similar, sources. I remove them from the list.

20. Last thing. We need to clarify the weighting of different questions on the entrance exams and make copies to give to all the markers. I take this on. Balancing the value of all the items to reach the set total of 300 is a delicate task but, hey, I’m a professional.

Oh, I could go on with some of the smaller, 10 to 30 second, tasks that took place that day, but you get the picture. No, there are no Pina Coladas to sip under the palm trees or nubile native girls offering me a massage. Finally, at 6:15 I pack it in, taking a few items that I can work on at home (including this blog). However, at home is my newly-born daughter and since my wife has been dealing with this sweet, joyous bundle of diapers, tears and wailing all day, it will be my turn as soon as I open the door.

Cue the violins again.

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May 01, 2009

Notes from the new academic year

1. The true meaning of FRESHman
I teach a lot of 1st year students, which is fortunate, become they come into the university virginally innocent, idealistic, ready to fulfill their dreams. They are compliant and curious, eager and effervescent. This honeymoon period lasts for about two months after which, like most people, students lower their expectations and fall back into their old habits. This is not a condemnation of “the system” or “kids these days!”, it’s human nature. You know, the way in which you’ve attacked something new with promises and passion many times in your life only to see that flame of idealism either smothered or tempered into something more balanced and realistic. Like when you started learning the guitar and swore that you’d practice three hours a day and become an accomplished musician even if it took you twenty years.

In the first few months at universities, students have yet to develop cliques, learn what they can get away with, see through any holes in the system or develop attitudes. This is the time when I tell them that if they are planning to be doctors it is expected by the surrounding society, and medical professionals worldwide, to have competency in English. They trust me on this, believe me, and you can almost hear the rustling of sleeves being rolled up. Until day-to-day drudgery takes eventually hold, it’s a nice classroom atmosphere, one that I don’t encounter with most classes 2nd year and up (although some about-to-graduate students suddenly develop a lot of earnestness just before they are about to enter the fray of the real-world).

2. Good classroom cop, bad classroom cop

This is also a time in which I have to set about applying classroom rules and root out those questionable and annoying behaviors (I start out more bad cop than good cop- something you can’t do when students are more perceptibly ‘customers’ first and foremost). These include:

a. Not allowing students who I call upon to immediately turn to the person next to them for consultation.

b. Not letting students do the absolute minimum to complete a task and then begin chatting in Japanese as if it’s now Izakaya chinwag time.

c. Not allowing students to hold up papers to their faces or even scan them for non-existent answers when a paper has preceded a communication task (You gotta love it when both partners eyes’ remain steadfastly fixed on an instruction sheet throughout the actual activity as though their open-ended communicative responses are somehow going to magically emerge from the fibers of the paper).

d. Not writing down everything that I write on the board or stopping an activity because I am jotting down something like a monitoring note.

e. No sleeping. Duh. My classes are definitely not boring and I do not play that equivalent of teacher 10 minute drum solos: lecturing about the language. Not banning the head down position can let loose a virus of permissiveness. It’s rude to me and others. If you are very sleepy, even for the best of reasons, stay home please! (Sidebar- I am shocked how many students can nod off almost immediately after the lights are dimmed and the PowerPoint comes on).

f. Not being late (double duh!). Some students think that because any university class is described as a ‘lecture’ that they can walk in the back unobtrusively ten minutes after the lesson has started and just catch up on their note taking. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in a normal English class. In those first ten minutes I will have outlined today’s plan and goals, given a brief demonstration or instruction, have handed out some accompanying print, and made groups. When a student walks in after all that has been done and start with the “What am I supposed to do?” routine I become a bad cop.

g. Not allowing something I call ‘The English Sandwich’ which is the case where, in a communicative activity, students surround a tiny morsel of English meat with an enormous slab of preceding and post-scripting Japanese bread. Something like this (the bits in parentheses are said in Japanese).
A. (Hi. OK are you ready? I’ll go first. OK. Number one. This one I guess)
B. (OK. Go ahead)
A. Have you ever been hospitalized?
B. Yes. (I was once)
A. (Really!)

3. The good, the bad, the otakus and the jocks
During the first activity in my first class a few weeks back I heard one girl speaking English much like I’d expect to hear a British-educated Indian to speak. Curiosity piqued, I asked here whether she had lived abroad. Raised in Pakistan it seems. We get a handful of students like this who have extensive English-speaking experience each year. These students are either a delight (they catch on to things quickly, help lesser lights, and can converse with confidence and insight on a wide range of topics) or a curse (they become know-it-alls, lack respect for the teacher, and affect a ‘been here done that’ posture).

On the other hand, some of our kids from very rural high schools where their only real English experience might have been a few fleeting communication classes with an ALT or JET before the juken prep kicked in. I’ll take these tabula rasa types with good attitudes, basic intelligence and curiosity, and general good naturedness, over the fluent-but-I’m-not-impressed-by-anything returnees anytime.

Med classes are generally 55-60% male, although some years have seen a slight majority of females. Now, I’m willing to bet that most of you teaching in Japan generally find females to be more Eigo friendly, with less of that sullen classroom posturing and an uplifting sense that English is accessible and engaging. But among Med students I’ve noticed a very positive upswing recently in the skills/abilities and general attitude of the males. They seem to be more assertive and less stand-offish than before. They tend to create the energy and can-do atmosphere in the classroom, which in the past, was the product of the ladies.

The usual sub-types persist though. While medical studies might attract a few more otaku types than some other faculties, we get our share of school spirit/student council member types, wanna-be-your-buddy puppy dogs, jocks, achingly cool surfer dudes, ‘hot babe’ gals, fashion plates in designer clothes, finishing school debutantes, a few biker-like toughs of either sex, and some international backpacker-cum-borderline hippies. It’s a pleasant mix, as they come from all over Japan and tend to be a little older and more mature than the other faculties’ students because many spent years at yobikos, are transfer students, took time off to ‘find themselves’, or have already graduated or worked but now want to change the course of their lives.

4. The nursing students
The nursing students are very different, as you might expect, from the medical students. Most are local (South Kyushu accounts for the vast majority), right out of high school, have very limited experience with anything (including English) and are 90% female. Before entering the classroom the contrast with the med students is startling. The Meddies tend to be rather subdued before class but the nursing class sounds like a hen party. A very drunken hen party- which can either be quite a laugh or an annoyance depending upon how you approach it.. Don’t get me wrong- these classes have a lot of energy and the nurses seem to be less shy about trying out English and making mistakes (and just seem to be enjoying the whole process more). If the nursing students are ‘with’ you, the teacher, they are with you all the way. There’s more of a party atmosphere in these classes and I think that teachers who are too uptight or regimented would bristle in these sessions. Fortunately, my vast wealth of experience (wink wink) has taught me how to engage these potentially unruly classes and get the most out of them. There’s a lot of ‘go with the flow’ involved, but also the harvesting of anything of sustenance that flows down that stream with you.

(*More on varying teaching styles according to classes and teaching highly mixed-level classes in the future).


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May 15, 2009

Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors

First up today:
Language yaritori (give and take)

I suppose this qualifies as a rant- one directed at those who think that because I am officially in the same position as Japanese instructors at my university, I should do exactly the same work as a Japanese person.

At first it sounds reasonable, right? After all, since my position is not one founded on some kind of citizenship-based discrimination, such as being a designated ‘foreign’ teacher, I should perform the same duties as a Japanese. Equality is equality, right? But there’s a catch. Effort-wise it will take me at least three times as long as any Japanese person to read and/or fill in the various documents and other administrative paraphernelia that comes my way. So doing the same work as a Japanese person will require an unequal amount of effort from me. In effect, by trying to be equal it becomes effectively unequal.

Likewise, those many Japanese, both university faculty and staff, who have to deal with communication in English for whatever reasons (international exchange, business, research, lesson materials etc.) will take far, far longer to carry out those duties in English, than it does for me. It’s not equal. The effort will not be equal- so the actual contents of the job, and resultant expectations regarding language usage and skills, should not be the same.

Now, you might expect that since I’m living in Japan- and have been for almost twenty years- that working in Japanese should be second nature for me. And, as far as verbal communication goes, I’m pretty capable and comfortable. Cultural protocols are also fine with me. But reading, writing, and the capacity for all levels of interaction in the language? Whoa! Wait a second! I was not a Japanese major in university. I did not study Japanese in any way before coming to Japan. My job is not about teaching in Japanese- I am expected to teach in English. I have no natural or professional training preparing me for a fully 'Japanese role' and nor was I expected to have any when I was hired. I wasn’t hired as an administrator. It is natural that I can’t read, write or process Japanese (especially given the highly bureaucratic, academic, and dense Japanese used in administrative and managerial contexts) in the same way a Japanese person can. There was no Japanese anywhere in my life or surrounding environment until age 30- which can't be said for any Japanese person regarding English. So cut me some slack.

I cut Japanese colleagues slack as far as English goes. I COULD say that since Mr. X is an English professor he should be competent enough in English to require no help with developing educational materials, and that his English research should need no checking or revision, and that I would not be needed when there is some communication breakdown between him/her and folks abroad. After all, Mr. X was an English major, and that means- unlike myself- he has had concentrated study- direct, intensive training- in that ‘other’ language, and was actually hired to teach that subject as a qualified expert, a professional. None of this can be claimed regarding me and Japanese. But, hey, the reality is that they are not native English speakers and as such, and being separated from the English-speaking world on a day-to-day basis, I don’t expect native-level performance from them. So, I cut them some slack and help them with English where and when that help is needed. Even though THEIR job descriptions (and this goes for people in international affairs sections and related roles too) might assume that they should be completely functional in English, the reality is otherwise. And that’s fair enough- it’s just good common sense

So, that same principal that should be applied to me and the Japanese language. If people really expect me to operate at the same level of a Japanese person, logically, I would need at least a couple of years’ sabbatical from my regular work to fully concentrate on Kanji study. But it’s not going to happen. Just like in order to be absolutely and fully functional in English, all English-faculty and international affairs-related Japanese staff should regularly spend extensive and intensive time in English-speaking areas. But it's very hard to do so. Instead, we should give and take on the language issue and help each other out, regardless of our job descriptions.

So, on a committee where an English native-speaker’s touch is essential I would be happy to take a leading role. And on a committee which deals largely in Japanese esoterica, I will sit in the background more passively. When I am asked by some administrator to produce a lengthy Japanese report regarding my research trip, I will do the bare bones but I expect a Japanese person to help polish it, even though technically I am in an –ahem- ‘Japanese position’ and required to carry out this duty. But, when a Japanese professor of English has to write a research paper, or the Kokusai Koryuu (international exchange) chief has to make up an English document, they will come to me for more precise wording and an overall check, even though it technically falls under their own job descriptions.

It’s just common sense. It’s give and take and it’s best for all involved. Tell me that I should do exactly what a Japanese does, sink or swim, because of my ‘Japanese’ position and then I should duly refuse all those requests for helping Japanese faculty and staff with English because, hey, "that’s not what ‘Japanese’ do". Cut me some slack with the expectations about using Japanese and I’ll be happy to be a resource for aid in English. This sword cuts both ways.

Second up today-
Frustrating student behaviors part...?

1. The “Eh?” hiccup virus-
The students are in groups doing a communicative English task that involves some kind of question and response. Student A says something that student B doesn’t quite catch. Student B looks a bit panicky and says “Eh?”. To which student A replies, “Eh?”. After which student B turns to student C, next to him/herself, and says “Eh?”.
As if it is forbidden to say, “Sorry. I didn’t understand”.

2. The whiteboard trumps all part 1
You’ve got students focused on a task, in pairs, deeply involved. So you make a few notes on the board, maybe instructions for the next activity, maybe a language note to be explained later, hey- it could be your planned lunch menu, whatever. Suddenly, when you stop writing, you notice that all the students are looking at what you’ve written on the board and are either copying it down or are scratching their heads trying to fit it into the task they’re supposed to be doing.

3. The whiteboard trumps all part 2
You start off with a topic-based free talk in English. On the board you’ve written- “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened? Tell your partner about it”. You tell your own story for a few minutes as a sample, make partners and then tell students to go ahead and free talk. And then you hear one student turn to his/her partner saying: “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened?

4. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 1
You tell students that a certain English word does not always mean X, that in this case it actually means something rather different. For example, that Japanese “byoki” is not always “disease”, that “your condition” is often a better way to talk to a patient. So some student looks in his/her dictionary and tells you, “No. The dictionary says that ‘byoki’ equals ‘disease’”.

5. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 2
A new word or phrase comes up in class, let’s say it’s “preventative measures”. You explain the phrase, saying “things you do to prevent, or stop something from happening”. You give an example like, “It’s what Japanese officials are doing at airports to contain the H1N1 virus- checking all passengers from North America before they are allowed to leave”. You note for them the very revealing context in which the phrase arose in the class in the first place.
And after all this explaining, students just open their dictionaries and jot down the matching Japanese headword anyway.

6. The devil-word-you-know trumps the newbie
A student uses an inappropriate word while doing a speaking task, for example, “The virus is not so strong”. As a teacher you suggest “mild”. The student writes it down, thanks you and, as you walk away, you hear them say, “Because it’s a not so strong virus”.

Any others?

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June 25, 2009

The 'Gaijin Party'- some classroom recipes

I think one expectation that the operators of this website had when asking me to blog here is that I might throw out the odd helpful classroom recipe for teachers looking for ideas. Actually, most of my lessons are very localized- rather idiosyncratic, eclectic, and geared specifically towards university-aged nursing or medical students (more on how I, a non-medic, do content-based lessons for such students will be dealt with here in the near future). But I do have a few lessons that are general, transferable, and always seem to come off well in the classroom (both in terms of student response and utility). I’ll write about those today.

A few of these (ahem) ‘greatest hits’ lesson recipes have appeared in the My Share column of The Language Teacher magazine over the years.
You can see an old one about using crosswords to teach explanation strategies here .

You can see another one about students making their own tests, here.

And a third, called Grammar Gambling, can be found here .

I’ll describe another successful lesson below. It’s called ‘Gaijin Party’. And here’s how it works:

1. You’ll have to make a bunch of cards that contain a foreigner’s name, job, and country. To indicate the truly international scope of English I tend to choose non or semi-native English speaking countries. It also legitimizes imperfect or broken English in the eyes of the students. Have enough female and male names to match the gender of your students.

2. Pre-activity. In groups have students brainstorm on questions they think would be good to ask foreigners who they’ve just met at some party in Japan. About 6-8 per group should be good. Collect the lists and make a grand list of the best, most appropriate, useful, conversation-engaging questions on the board. Some grammar/vocab/interaction/politeness/culture points may be dealt with here too (NB- forbid the dreaded nattou question)

3. Now, half of the students will become foreigners. This means you will give them one card (see step 1 above) each. These students are sent into the hall. They will be the foreigners listed on the cards and they will be attending an international party in the classroom. While they wait outside they have to think about their ‘story’ and character.

4. The half that stay inside the classroom are themselves, Japanese ‘hosts’ of the party. Briefly go over some ‘first meeting’ protocol such as greetings, offering a drink, seat etc. The hosts can practice this for a few minutes and also try to memorize those best questions that have been collected earlier by the teacher so that they don’t talk to the foreigner from a script.

5. While these hosts practice and prepare this, you can brief the ‘foreigners’ outside. Do they have any questions about their identities? (Some will not understand some jobs or countries, and maybe name pronunciation- the latter being less important because it’s not like the hosts will know any better). Explain that they will go to the party one by one (often through 2 doors simultaneously if you have a large classroom and number of students) by knocking and then waiting for a host to come to the door and greeting them. They must put their cards away before entry. Also, arrange an entry order, which you will moderate.

6. Check that the hosts are ready to meet, greet and talk with the foreigners. Arrange a greeting order for the hosts and prepare them to listen for knocks. Hosts should not follow the board list order of questions or read from a script (learning to negotiate meaning and using strategies for that purpose is a key skill in this activity).

7. Start the activity. Send in the foreigners one by one, making sure that a host is coming to greet each and every one.

8. Let them chat for quite awhile as you monitor the ‘party’ classroom. They WILL do it in English and they will have fun. Most will use the strategies and questions that have been deemed fertile.

9. After sufficient chat time do a round up as follows:
Point out that they could have a good conversation despite limited English. Point out that most English speakers in the world are not native speakers and in fact communicate in similar ways. Point out that using the guest’s names and asking about native countries and jobs in more detail can be engaging.

10. Reverse the guest/host roles, dish out new ‘Gaijin’ cards, and do it again.

11. If there is sufficient time at the end, you can teach and practice a 3-way introduction. “Taro, have you met ---? This is Ahmed from Iran. Ahmed, Taro a student here at ---".

I’ve been doing this lesson early on in the spring semester for several years now. It’s a motivator and it involves transferable language and interactive skills. It can also serve as a consciousness raiser.

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July 30, 2009

The So-Called Off-Season or No, I am not eating a banana pancake in Kuta as I write this

The other day one of my genkier students popped by my office to chat and check up on my condition (see the previous blog entry). Her opening line was, "Oh! You're here! I thought you would be probably be away on your summer holidays". This was 4 days after the last regular class had finished.

Why do so many people- even colleagues- assume I'm on my 'summer holiday' as soon as the last class is completed?

OK- I can forgive the parents in the neighborhood who, having their kids at home, assume that Sensei is equally free to frolic as he/she pleases. But students and colleagues? C'mon!

Here's the deal, folks. I work at a national university so I am considered a civil servant and civil servants don't get 'summer holidays'. Yes, we are officially allowed to take 20 workdays off over the course of a year. We are rarely able to take them.

True, we are also given three extra summer work days off. (We can choose which days but interestingly, the majority of my Japanese colleagues take the three days that correspond to O-bon, which is one of the worst times to travel of course, but with extended family obligations and celebrations...
As for me, I tend to use the days in mid-September when prices and crowds drop)

The reality is that actual classes take up very little of my total time and effort, and again, I know this is true for many teachers out there. But for those who think I'm getting a full body massage in Goa as I write this here's what we do during the so-called university off-season:

1. Tests and re-tests (automatic passes at university? Hah!)

2. Grading (including lengthy essays) and entering the marks followed by a disgruntled student who comes by and wants to know exactly how you calibrated his final score of 64.

3. Meeting one-on-one with students whose assignments need further work- and rarely those students you really want to meet

4. Committees- things like the bi-annual meeting of the Committee to Statistically Re-Confirm the Auxiliary Status of General Committee Contingency Planning. I have several of these babies. And we are required to produce sub-committee reports

5. The bulk of entrance exam content enters the mold at this time. Native English speakers are inevitably involved in this

6. Summer course and special classes have to be taught- I have to teach a concentrated course (15 sessions in 4 days) in Comparative Culture and English Education at Kumamoto U. next week. I have a similarly concentrated English for Medical Purposes 5th year course to teach at the end of August. Both demand a fair bit of preparation

7. Fall is conference season. The proposals have already been put in but summer is the time to work on the presentations, power point slides, and accompanying papers

8. This is one of the few times during the year in which you can concentrate on doing, writing, or editing research. Considering a university teacher may be expected to produce three or four items per year, this can take up an undue amount of time and effort

9. Lengthy write-ups for kaken-hi research grants

10. This is the time of year that doctors and medical researchers come to my office and ask me to check their English. This holds true for many office workers producing English documents too

11. A large national conference on Medical Education is to be held in Miyazaki in early September and I have to give a report and presentation on our English education system. This involves a fair bit of advance co-ordination since we are serving as quasi-hosts

12. Yeah- that thing I forgot

So, no, I'm not back in Canada for a full two months. At best if I decide to visit the family in Canada I could grab about a week or so before work obligations would come a knockin'. And no, I'm not backpacking around the beaches Thailand while I blog.

So, now you- dear reader- know the score, and no doubt many of you are in a similar boat. But why oh why would many of my colleagues also assume that I'm off sipping Pina Coladas in the South Seas? 'Because that's what we've heard foreigners do on their summer vacations'? Why would they assume that I don't have committee work (like them), don't apply for grants (like them), don't research and publish it (ditto), don't have to teach or serve at special courses and events...keep on going...

The popular notion that the native English teacher must be hitting the bars of Siem Reap as soon as the final class bell rings troubles me. Can you see the light on in my office every morning from 8:30? Well, that's me!

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April 09, 2010

Kaken-hi: The perils of getting what you wish for

Congratulations to me. I think.

To tell the truth I'm a little shell-shocked. You see, I was just informed that I received the equivalent of $20,000 (very sloppy numerical miscalculation now fixed) in the form of a 2-year research grant. Most readers have probably heard of kakenhi, a grant-in-aid for scientific research, doled out by the Japanese MoE through the university system. But if you haven't, here's the lowdown:

Kakenhi are what keeps departmental budgets (and to a certain extent, jobs) afloat and are a fundamental feature of working in a Japanese university. Fundamental because you are expected to at least apply for a grant if you are a full-time teacher. Fundamental because any specialized programs you participate in will likely have resulted from somebody's kakenhi cache. Fundamental because the number of kakenhis your department receives is often (and unfortunately) considered to be the primary indicator of your departmental worth. Fundamental because any score founded upon your database 'gyoseki' (academic achievements) will rise exponentially if you have one.

As a result, I have carried out the copious kakenhi application procedures (10 pages plus) 4 times now. To be frank, I have never put too much thought into the actual content of the research proposal because I have never needed the money (or more accurarely, the various fiscal and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it). In other words, I was just going through the application procedures because it was expected of me (making no attempt at all looks bad on your database), without any actual hope or expectation that I would get huge sums of cash thrown my way.

But the other day- congratulations, Guest sensei. You got a kakenhi.
The plan is to research, develop, and produce a viable English corpus for our nursing faculty. To be perfectly honest, the idea was actually suggested to me by a colleague who is doing Doctoral research in the field and who thought that a combined proposal, written in English, would aid her chances. But now, as the 'principal researcher' the fiscal research ball is in my workplace court. (Was that a sloppy attempt at a metaphor or what?)

Anyway, here are my suggestions for those who hope to reap one of these babies (and it would be nice to hear further suggestions from those of you who've been successful in securing kakenhi dough):

1. Write it in English. Because you can and... because you can. The competition will be lesser and although the decision-making committee will have someone or two proficient in English on board, there will never be the same degree of scrutiny that meets a Japanese proposal. And it just seems more 'international' somehow.

2. Focus upon the notion of collaborative research. Especially if it is cross-cultural or trans-national. Be sure to mention how you plan to carry out investigations with the highly-respected Dr. Schlong at MIT as well as the eminent Prof. Gakuryoku from Kyoto Univ. (I'm not at all suggesting that you be facetious or try duping the committee with false names- your research WILL be investigated and followed-up on and fraudulence can ruin careers and land you in jail).

3. Since they are officially SCIENTIFIC grants you should employ a scientific research outline in your proposal. This doesn't necessarily mean statistical sophistry but it does mean having clear, palpable targets and research goals. A lot of EFL-based research is, IMO, pseudo-scientific at best (and that is NOT a criticism) but you will have to use the format and terminology to make the right heads nod.

4. Have a clearly stated fiscal budget laid out. State directly that you wil need 500,000 Yen to go to Dublin to research the effect that Guinness has upon the discourse involving the local variety of English. State outright that you require 300,000 to visit Bali in order to take first-hand field notes on the types of English strategies required in the upmarket resort industry.

5. Involve research partners who can share the burden. Some 'buntan-sha' are listed only in name in order to make an impression but having a buntan-sha or two who will actually be heavily involved (and is good with computer graphics, making resports, and reading/writing kanji, dealing with bureaucratic paperwork) will be best.

6. You must produce something tangible and this must be stated from the beginning. Big, fat reports that no one reads are commonly doled out to fulfil this condition but if you don't want to bore yourself to death, or dupe the tax-paying public, you should produce a viable book or piece of software that other people will WANT to use, something that gets you cited, noted and most importantly, gets your name on that extended work contract.

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May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).

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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.

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".

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.

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.

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.

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 26, 2010

Two items: 1. Nobel Prizes, Research and REAL WORK 2. How to avoid a test (and fail!)

Two mini-posts today…

1. Nobel prizes, the office concept, and research in Japan

Much was made in Japan of Prof. Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido Univ. being awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. There is no doubt that Nobel Prizes provide a boost for national egos, even if the winner is usually more a product of individual genius that a product of that society. Oddly though, when a Japanese academic wins a Nobel prize it is usually accompanied by an equal amount of hand-wringing about shortcomings in the nation’s educational and research environments.

I say 'oddly' because you’d think that achieving the ultimate academic recognition would serve as a vindication of an educational system but not in Japan. One reason is that co-winner Eichi Negishi is based at the U. of Chicago and has been so for almost all of his research career (and he is not the first Japanese researcher who has been able to flourish abroad and be critical of research setting in his country of birth).

The criticism is that university research institutes in Japan are static and rigid. That there is a stifling hierarchy which discourages the type of open environment necessary for innovation and success (although I would argue that most countries would like to have Japan’s –ahem- lack of academic/innovative success).

Not working in a research lab I cannot confirm all of this firsthand but the fact that even young Japanese researchers (among them some that I’ve met on my own campus) seem discouraged certainly lends some credence to the notion. But I’d like to raise another factor that inhibits the pursuit of excellence in almost all of Japanese educational institutions but is rarely mentioned as a factor....

OK. When you think of the term “Japanese worker” what comes to mind? The guy in the blue suit who sits at a cubicle (or a shared table) in a company office 8AM-8PM, right? Mr. Salaryman (or Ms. OL in the case of women). This seems to be the set model for ‘working’ in Japan. Therefore, if you are not somehow engaging in office work of some sort you are not really working.

Now you might think that primarily teachers should teach, doctors should treat patients, and researchers should do research, right? And perhaps the occasional bit of paper work might come their way for inputting grades and the like. But not in Japan.

An enormous amount of my working time, concentration, and effort is taken up by requests from various offices in the university. Elaborate questionnaires have to be filled in, meaningless committees have to write vapid reports, databases are changed and have to be re-inputted, the Student Affairs bureau wants you to keep a record of student visits to your office and the purposes thereof- I could go on and on but you get the point. It seems like almost everyday the secretary comes to me with something to fill out, prepare, input, or comment on.

To be perfectly honest, I've come to feel that if I read an academic book on EFL in my office for more than 5 minutes I’m screwing around, indulging in a personal hobby. If I work on an academic paper on my computer I’m somehow cheating the university time-wise. Help! They’ve gotten to me!

I often get the impression that administrative office staff thinks that if we are not on our actual teaching contract hours that we aren’t really working and therefore have to fill our idle hands with some nefarious tasks to legitimize receiving our paychecks. And yes, I have heard researchers here claim the same thing- that they are always busy with ‘zatsuyo’ (paper work) and thus are forced to delay the very research that the ‘zatsuyo’ is based upon or work until the wee hours. The surrounding, peripheral work has supplanted the real work. It seems that the most important thing is to dance through the hoops created by someone in the office downstairs, not to produce actual research of worth. Your research could be total crap and you'd still be rewarded for it as long as you completed your online 'Research Report- reflective imprssions of the allotted travel funds section' correctly. And only in 12 MS font.

As I work next to an attached hospital (plus the fact that my wife is an MD) I know that this afflicts doctors (and nurses) too. Doctors complain of rushing patient visits in order to complete the pre and post visit paper requirements, which are ever increasing, demanded by the paper pervert powers in those dusty cubicles.

Maybe this is why research is usually more practical and productive at Japanese companies than at universities. The expectation inside a company seems to be that office workers do office work and the lab people stay in the lab and there are a sufficient number of clerks and secretarial go-betweens to bridge the two. Less so for universities and hospitals. Secretaries and clerks have their roles here to be sure, but the more they do on behalf of the teaching/research staff, the more the bureaus downstairs make up because- well we have to do some real work, right? And real work of course means filling in online forms and shuffling more and more papers…

2. How to avoid a test: An almost true account of where my class apparently ranks in the student life hierarchy

(Setting- My classroom with 32 2nd year English communication students)

Me: OK. Next week we’ll start the role-play tests based on what we’ve been working on over the last five weeks. You’ll be doing the role-play in pairs- 12 minutes per pair. Even numbered students will come next week, odd numbered students the week after.

Everybody: Ehhhhh!!??

Me: What do you mean, ehhhh???!!! It’s a university. We have tests here, right?

Yamada: But we have a test the day right after that in Anatomy! We have to study hard for it!

Me: Perhaps then you should ask the anatomy teacher to postpone his test- because you have an English test the day before and you have to study for that!

Watanabe: But it’s not fair because the students like me who come next week have the anatomy test as well as your test, but the students who come in two weeks don’t!

Sato: But it’s not fair for students like me who come in two weeks either!

Me: Ummm, why not Sato?

Sato: The rugby team is playing a tournament that weekend and we have practices!

Me: You don’t have practices Thursday morning, when our test is held!

Kobayashi: But we’re having a drinking party on Wednesday night to celebrate the tournament.

Me: Now why on earth did you schedule a drinking party on a weeknight?!

Hayashi: Our club seniors decided. So we have to go, and then we won't be able to study for your test. Plus it’ll be hard to get up in the morning for this class!

Me: Well that’s a choice you make. Please your seniors or get a failing grade on the test.

Suzuki: Give the test in three weeks! It’s better!

Yamamoto: No way! In three weeks the orchestra is doing a concert the day after English class and we in the orchestra have to focus on that. I may have to miss English that day anyway to set up seats in the concert hall.

Me: If I listened to you guys we would never have a test at all. Or even classes for that matter.

Setoguchi: Why don’t you do the tests in the final test season, like other teachers?

Me: Because it’s not suited to two weeks of role-play testing AND I can’t give you proper feedback. Plus, we use ongoing evaluation in English class. It's not just a pile of knowledge that we’re testing.

Abe: Yeah, Setoguchi, shut up! If we had the test in the usual testing season we couldn’t study for it anyway because we have three other tests scheduled then. So we wouldn’t be able to study for the English test at all.

Me: All right. I hear you. The only solution it seems is to do the test right here, right now in the next 30 minutes. Take out one pen and one piece of paper everyone. Here we go. This test, or should I say pop quiz, will account for 60 percent of your grade. Good luck!

Everybody: Ehhhh!!!???

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March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

With all the events of the past few weeks, it seems almost trite to be talking about the state of English education in Japan. And when people have lost relatives, homes, and are huddling under blankets in underpowered evacuation centers, complaining about inequities in the education system seems like self-indulgent whining.

I suppose if there are two things which come to mind for me in light of the situation up north one would have to be the sense of impotency of being a mere English teacher, as opposed to being someone who could really help in a more visceral, constructive way (of course I encourage all of us not directly affected to give financial aid!). The other is how proud I am to be a resident of this country- where the people have responded to adversity with such resilience and dignity.

But university English education is what this blog is all about so let's talk about the 'off-season' (yeah, right!) and the 'B' word. Yes, I know that the off-season should be a time for battery recharging but for me this is the season not to be jolly. But first, a few disclaimers...

I like my job. I can think of few I'd rather do (or in fact be capable of). I cannot remember a single day in the past dozen years where I have dreaded coming in to work (OK, proctoring the Center Shiken comes close, but that doesn't really count). I have never yet felt the need to ignore the alarm clock beckoning me to toil for my daily bread.

I like teaching my classes and 95% of the students. I am inspired when I walk into the classroom. I get a buzz. The great majority of my students are appreciative and attentive. I can't recall ever feeling a sense of burden before a lesson.

I have my own office. This means I can check hockey scores at will. I can go in or out of my workplace as I see fit and nobody really cares why or when. It's nice.

But perhaps all this is why the 'off-season' (in reality, the 'meeting, entrance exam, research, scheduling/planning, and special courses season') actually causes me to feel ('B' word warning!) burned out- precisely because the dopamine effect of the classroom, the adrenalin rush of dynamic interaction, has been withdrawn. Now, I can't complain about having too much work per se- again, look at what people are either volunteering for or being forced to do right now in Sanriku up to 18 hours a day. And for me it's NOT the feeling (although this is not uncommon among teachers in Japan) that I am wasting my life performing songs and dances for students who would rather be tuned into their ipads. So, if it's not overwork or a sense of being disrespected or under-utilized, why the feeling of burnout?

I suppose age is a factor. I've turned fifty. At fourty, it seems you can still maintain a hopeful narrative that your job and research will bloom and prosper, that you can and will raise your station to become a player of international stature. You can even tell yourself that you might just still write that great 21st century novel, record that CD that's been playing in your head for years, score the cup winning goal in your national football league, and end up dating a Eurobabe supermodel who actually digs you. You can afford to look forward.

At fifty though, you stop. You're scrambling to hold on to what you've got, clawing at your remaining time like you're Bear Grylls hanging by his fingers on a crumbling cliff top. And, oddly enough, that's OK. But change is difficult. You start to become traumatized at the possibility that you might have to change brands of shaving cream. And everything hurts physically- sitting at your desk writing research papers, driving your car, reading self-indulgent whiny internet blogs, and especially knowing that you are now unlikely to change in any significant way except to get older. You now know that your research will not suddenly be recognized as seminal, epoch-making work by Henry Widdowson and Michael Halliday.You will not be asked to become Professor Emeritus at The Sorbonne. But that's all fine. You're happy to have a decent beer in the evening, a loving family (OK, not necessarily in that order), and take the occasional trip to Southeast Asia. It'a tradeoff, I suppose.

But factors other than age can and do lead to widespread teacher burnout- and yes, I am feeling this pinch as I write this. Here are four further causes that come to mind:

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

When about, oh, 80% of your time and effort at work goes into filling mindless functions that basically exist to perpetuate the current system, to feed the machine as it were, you can be forgiven for feeling like the proverbial hamster on the treadmill. The fact that excessive bureaucracy can be a demotivating factor probably falls into the "No shit, Sherlock!" school of discourse, but the point is that the off-season is surely Carnival parade 'n party time for bureaucrats.

Now, as a teacher, I can and do feel inspired by educating and challenging both myself and my students. But, and call me a Philistine if you must, somehow I don't feel motivated and inspired when I'm filling in the university database's 300+ item/category 'achievement' file with a smack-in-your-face deadline. Now, I'm not gonna go all 70's-sci-fi-novel-cum-progrock-concept-LP on you and assume that this is a 'me vs. the system' scenario, the protagonist as an independently sensitive soul in an uncaring world, but hey, when work becomes a matter of little more carrying out duties simply because someone else has decided that some 'busy work' duty has to be carried out- well you are allowed at least 5 burnout points.

2. Not being absolutely fluent in reading Kanji leads to burnout.

No doubt you could contribute much more of significance to your workplace if you could digest those 20-page 'shiryo' the way natives (and those cursed Gaijin Kanji nerds) do. You could feel on top of things- more relevant and involved. But I'm not a good visual learner and I struggle with Kanji. This is not some type of xenophobic anti-Gaijin barrier erected by my superiors- it's my shortcoming (and maybe yours). Not feeling up to speed on issues that MAY matter and thereby not contributing what I could or should, not to mention that trying to read some obtuse shiryo will take me at least ten times longer than Dr. Sato next door, aids burn out- about 3 points' worth.

3. Feeling that your real work is not being recognized or appreciated leads to burnout.

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

Case In Point A- You sit on a committee which seems to exist solely for the purpose of producing a bi-annual report. A report that no one reads because it's about having meetings about producing a report. But, dammit, preparing and formatting that report is treated as serious, important stuff!

Point B- The entrance exam overlords keep banging into your head that you must avoid any 'misses' on your exam. They wouldn't know if the exam you made was in fact 100% structually invalid or that all the tasks and questions measurably unreliable, as long as you don't, for example, put the wrong, unofficial kind of bracket on the question sheet. But you do put in the wrong kind of bracket, and your 'miss' gets pointed out to you on exam day.

Point C- You care about your course content. Good. And it's not just you- many other teachers do too. So, you duly fill in your syllabus- but the online syllabus entry form carries 20 different category headings and all must be filled in according to a format explained in a, wait for it, 20-page shiryo. You want to explain your well-thought-out educational rationale here but you know that no one will ever read it anyway and that the guys in suits downstairs are more concerned that you have officially filled all six slots for 'available office hours' (using the obscure single font type that the system recognizes) for each of your twelve classes.

You could probably write in that Educational Goals section: " make myself more attractive to the ladies in the class" and no one would bat an eyelash. You wonder why you are writing down '...developing strategic competencies' instead. Score 6 burnout points here- two for each of these three cases mentioned above.

4. No one cares about your research focus except for...

... the editor of the journal you've submitted it to. Who cares a little TOO much. And you can add a burnout point or two if he/she is the type who is more concerned about the fact that you did not italicize the title of the chapter noted in the proceedings papers listed in your references- so you are therefore IN VIOLATION OF APA STANDARDS (this warrants CAPS because it is taken as seriously in the world of EFL publishing as, oh, arson is in the real world), and therefore you are clearly not a serious professional!

Then, the head of your department has no idea what you are researching but is happy when he/she looks at your database and notes that you have two items listed under 'research publications' for the year. It could be that you merely wrote a short review of a muffin shop to a suburban shopping bulletin board but hey, if you have that publication listed the department bigwig is happy because funding your research (which remember, he/she actually doesn't much care about because his/her role in the houjinka system is now primarily to secure funding) will be easier next year. But despite this realization, you try to be professional and still shoot for the lead article in TESOL Quarterly or Applied Linguistics. Score 5 burnout points here.

[I want to add here that people in the hard sciences have a huge and distinct advantage over soft, pseudo-sciences like Applied Linguistics when it comes to research papers. That is- it's tailor-made for publication, cookie-cutter prefabricated for the background-methods-results-discussion format. There is no vagueness or nebulous quality to it. Rigorously empirical, it is precisely this formulaic quality that makes it easy to slot into that great template of research paperdom, unlike opaque EFL/ESL topics such as, "Learner Perceptions of Secondary Intercultural Aspect in Cleft-structure Usage". And if you're a scientist- a real one- you can also put the names of all your lab mates under the paper title and they'll do the same for you. Presto- suddenly your the author of 11 hardcore published research papers within a year!]

So here then is the question to you, dear reader- where do you rank on the off-season burnout scale? Have I missed any major causes of off-season burnout? And what do you do you to avoid it? Me- I'm waiting for my classes to start again. I want to feel that energy flow. And in particular I want to see the faces of our students from Northern Japan...

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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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