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The Uni-Files - research Archive

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

August 31, 2009

Handy-Dandy Guide to Sloppy Cross-Cultural Research

If you’ve read many of my pieces in the Daily Yomiuri or have come across some of my articles in The Language Teacher, ETJ Journal, or JALT Journal you may be aware that culture in ELT is something that I get particularly stoked about.

Not because I’m passionate about 'learning about different cultures' or 'experiencing the rich cultural mosaic of the world’s languages' or anything like that (although I like to think that I’m a seasoned traveler and a bit of a human geography boffin), but mainly because most of the research is so blatantly poor and basically serves as a foundation for, or reinforcement of, prejudices. It also, if you ask me, fosters a sense of psychological distance from others, promotes simplistic binary logic, creates false dilemmas, and serves as a platform for stereotyping, xenophobia, and exclusionary thinking.

That so much of this 'research' is accepted as fact in pseudo-academia and is subsequently regurgitated by teachers and other ‘authorities’ it is no surprise that it has taken root among both the gemeinschaft and the zeitgeist (not to mention the meme) of the general public. And no, I’m not just talking about Japan so please don’t think of this as some kind of Debito-lite harangue. I am, however, talking about the kind of mentality as expressed in this type of TV presentation (lifted from the Japan Probe site), likenesses of which can be found worldwide (note that this example came from South Korea).

Anyway, without further adieu, here’s a template for carrying out your own legitimate sounding but nonetheless sloppy cross-cultural research:

Let's start with a sample social experiment-
At the bottom of a series of steps (such as the entrance to a museum or large public building) in two locales place a prominent sign that instructs all those walking up or down the steps to take two steps at a time. No reason or further instruction is to be given.

Observe people responding to the stimulus in one such place marked representatively as THE EAST (let’s say Seoul) and one representing THE WEST (let’s use London). Assume that whatever happens in Seoul must be essentially ‘Eastern’ and that which occurs in London must be quintessentially ‘Western’. (Also pretend also that Easterners and Westerners are simple monolithic categories- it makes the research that much easier)

Note how many people followed the two-step instruction (or not) in both locales. The results will be different. Don’t mention that results would also be different even if the test was being conducted in two different locales in the same city, even in the same neighborhood. This is crucial because the study can then legitimately be called a CULTURAL difference!

Now the key point: It doesn’t matter which locale had more people follow the instructions or not because what’s really important is to confirm your existing prejudice about Eastern or Western people. It’s great! You can ‘prove’ your tautologies and convenient a priori reasoning can be achieved regardless of which group followed the instructions! How convenient! Let’s see how this works next in our all-important analysis section!

All important analysis section:
OK. Let’s imagine that in Seoul 120 out of 200 people followed the two-step at a time instruction whereas in London 105 did so. (Don’t mention that the notion of Westerner might be very foggy and imprecise in highly multi-cultural London because that might compromise any pre-conceived conclusions). Now we can do the all-important racial stereotyping… oops I mean cultural analysis. To wit: “This result shows that Eastern people place a great emphasis on social harmony as evidenced by their willingness to follow a rule believing that it was for the social good. Westerners on the other hand do what they think is best for them personally without regards to social harmony or society at large.” Pretend that the above is not making a judgment about which is better but is just a matter of stating ‘cultural differences’.

That’s a pretty pleasant way of describing the alleged Eastern mentality isn’t it? And conversely, rather hard upon the selfish, narcissistic Westerner. OK, I can imagine that some Asia fans might want to stop right there. Case closed. But hey, if you feel uncomfortable with Asians and their 'deviously inscrutable ways' and weird cuisines, you might want to alter this analysis to something less sanguine for the East. So let’s ‘analyze’ the very same results again: “This result shows that Easterners are cowed by any apparent authority and have little ability to think for themselves. Westerners on the other hand, think more deeply about the justification, necessity and other complex philosophical concepts”. Pretend that this analysis too is not being judgmental but merely explicating ‘objective’ and ‘visceral’ cultural differences. Repeat either of the above analysis to school children with the added belief that this will help them to ‘understand and appreciate other cultures’ better. Do your best to stifle the mocking laughter that should be rattling your conscience at this point.

But we can go even further! Let’s imagine the results were exactly the opposite of what we said above, with London having the more ‘compliant’ populace. Then, if we are partial to the West we can say: “This shows the sense of public duty and obedience to the rule of law found in Western institutions” whereas if you are one who feels threatened by the ‘resurgent, ascendant East’ you can add: “...whereas Easterners display little regard for laws, social propriety, or public duty”. Sounds like something out of 19th century British travelogue, doesn’t it?

And the Uncle Tom/’apologist’ Asiaphile or cloistered Japanese/Chinese/Korean nationalist can play the same game too- only with the qualitative analysis reversed: “This result shows the Western fetish for iron-clad rules and bureaucratic minutiae as opposed the warmer and fuzzier logic of Eastern people where sensibility is determined by an awareness of surrounding environment and circumstances”. Feel free to add something about harsh, stark desert cultures vs. fecund harmonious agricultural societies here. This will help children learn that agriculture never existed in Europe due to the harsh desert climates of Ireland, Norway, and the like. Add that it will also likely lead to major cultural clashes when sorting out garbage in Japan.

Garnish all of the above with a few university eggheads to lend it the tang of academic credibility then serve it up to the general public for consumption. Do the same thing with some alleged feature of two languages under the banner of ELT research. Inject this type of thinking into government ministries and boards of education.

Hey- it’s all about generating cross-cultural understanding, right?

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September 23, 2009

Drop the puck! It's ELT Conference Season!

For a university English teacher fall means conference season. If you’ve got a budget, this is where a good chunk of it will likely end up. If you are trying to get established in the biz, make connections, or building up your resume with presentations, conferences are pretty much essential. They are also a good place to have a few drinks (after the presentations, that is) with your peers and shoot the breeze. You can take in as much academic stimulation as you like or treat it like a bit of a holiday. Or both.

I recently presented at the national JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) Conference in Sapporo, and the MELTA Conference in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, in June (quick descriptions of each event later in this post). My remaining schedule for the next few months includes:

1. CUE National Conference- Tezukayama University, Nara. Oct. 16-18
CUE is a JALT SIG. OK- let’s explain the acronyms. JALT is the Japan Association of Language Teachers and a SIG is a special interest group, with CUE being to the college and university educators group. This conference weighs most heavily on my mind right now because I’ve been invited as one of the two plenary speakers (apparently they couldn’t get Noam Chomsky), which usually means that I will present in one of those intimidating, cavernous amphitheatres more suited to full symphony orchestras or religious revival meetings fronted by charismatic 'prophets’ than for humble EFL commentary.

OK- I haven’t actually seen the CUE conference facility yet (actually this will be my first CUE national conference) but the fact that a hefty number of my peers will be there to stroke their beards while judging my academic worthiness adds more than a bit of pressure.

Anyway, I’ll be speaking on “An Immodest Proposal; that all university English teaching be ESP/EAP”. I’m also part of a follow-up panel discussion on the topic (ESP- English for specific purposes; EAP- English for Academic Purposes). Heckle politely please, I’m sensitive.

2. JALT National Conference- Shizuoka, Nov. 19-23
Although the JALT conference (and JALT membership) is open to any language teacher it has become a de facto university teachers’ association headed and maintained largely by dead, white, university-teaching males like myself (note to women and non-Caucasian males- yes, I know that a lot of you are active contributing members to JALT but I’m talking about the outward image here. You know what I mean. I hope).
This is the place to spot Mr. James look-alikes. It’s also the place where you can check out name badges as surreptitiously as possible and note things like, ‘So that’s the guy who attacked my article in that online newsgroup!’ or “So that’s the brainy woman who writes all those clever articles in the TLT” (The Language Teacher- JALT’s monthly).

What ultimately makes this a de facto university teachers’ conference is the whopping 17,000 Yen fee for the conference (and that’s for basic pre-registration). If you’re not on a university budget, and when you add transport and hotels to the cost, it can burn a hole in your pocket. However, you DO get your money’s worth. This is (IMO) the best run conference in Asia- the organizers seem to have thought of everything. There’s a cheery air (not to mention a lot of old boy back patting) and better displays, food, and related events than you find at other conferences. And the variety of topics and presentations is so widespread and comprehensive that you can always find something stimulating and worthwhile.

Let me add here that JALT is a good place to earn a spot by presenting something that appears very up-to-date, radical/progressive, and statistic/research-based. “Does Twitter negatively gender balance in language education? An empirical analysis” is the type of title that gets the JALT steering committee all hot ‘n steamy.

I’ll be presenting “EFL Training Programs for International Exchange” at this year’s conference with my UOM colleague, Rick White.

3.ETJ Kyushu Expo
ETJ means English Teachers Japan and, in addition to the Kyushu Expo in Fukuoka on Dec. 06, there are several similar ETJ Expos being held all over the country. ETJ is affiliated with, but is not an official subsidiary of (I hope I’m getting the terminology correct) David English House Empire Incorporated (the multi-national cabal). OK- I’m joking here. The DEH tentacles are wide-reaching but benevolent.

The ETJ organization does place emphasis upon the teaching of children although not exclusively so. The audience/participants at the ETJ expos nonetheless tend to include a higher percentage of Japanese HS, JHS and elementary school/JET and AET/Conversation school teachers than the other conferences listed here. The upshot is that there are fewer pretensions at the ETJ Expos- it’s a simpler, more familiar feeling. And the entry fee is more than affordable: 500 yen for members, and ETJ membership is free..

The presentations here often lean towards the practical than the theoretical. Recipe-types seem to be very popular indeed. The conference is not supposed to be ‘academic’ although many presenters certainly display a strong academic foundation. I’ll be presenting “12 Goals for Culture Teaching to Young Japanese Students” at the Fukuoka Expo Dec. 06th.

The two I've already presented at this year are:

1. The JACET Conference (held Sept. 06-08 in Sapporo). JACET stands for Japan Association of College English Teachers. Unlike JALT, this organization really is only limited to college and university types. Most members (by far) are Japanese. The national conference always seems to me to be a very sober affair- much less festive than JALT and with a more pronounced ‘read your paper’ motif. Most presentations are thirty minutes- the standard Japanese twenty for the presentation and ten for Q and A division, although in fact the Q&A rarely lasts that long and the moderator feels forced to ask questions. Until recently the conference was (in)famous for older gentlemen in suits and ties sitting at the back with their hands poised over bells to announce the twenty minute time limit (and the now ubiquitous “five more minutes” cards). This always gave me a sense that simply getting through my presentation- carrying out the bureaucratic necessities- was more important than what we actually presented but that may be changing. JACET also brings out a lot of narrow-field specialists with presentations titled “The redaction criticism of aspect in post-De Sauserre genre informatics reevaluated”.

2. MELTA- This Malaysian conference is a relative newcomer to the field but like most South East Asian conference is very welcoming (there are a lot of associated parties and events). This year’s conference was held in Johor Bahru, just outside Singapore. Interestingly, even though it is relatively new and not well advertised there were still several Japan-based presenters (perhaps being held in the rather conference-barren month of June had something to do with it). Like most South East Asian conferences, it was held in a hotel which meant that several of the presentation rooms were designed for wedding receptions, not language seminars. It can feel a bit odd standing there talking about learner autonomy research in a setting that screams “And now a toast for the bride”.

I also had a presentation scheduled for the International Conference on Applied Linguistics in Iran for late this September but due to the political turmoil there it has been cancelled. This is all very unfortunate, but obviously more so for the Iranian people involved.

The biggies on a worldwide scale are of course the TESOL Conference and the IATEFL Conference although these tend to fall at bad times and in difficult locations for yours truly to attend. Comprehensive lists of language-teaching (and related specialty) conferences can be found online. Here is a good one.

On the ‘possible’ list over the next six months (depending upon money, classes, time, and the opportunity to present) are:
PAC 5 at PALT (The Philippines)
ETA-ROC (Taiwan)
Thai TESOL
TESOL Arabia
Asia TEFL Conference
KOTESOL Conference (Korea)
CamTESOL (Cambodia)

I’ll write more on these conferences (and the process of applying and presenting at conferences) in the next blog entry.

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September 30, 2009

More on conferences and presentations

Last post I offered some candid comments regarding a few of the ELT conferences I attend or present at regularly. I'll continue today by talking a bit about the 'Asia circuit'. and getting a presentation accepted at these conferences. By the way, please don't think of this as a comprehensive step-by-step guide but rather as a collection of off-the-wall observations.

The Asia Circuit-
A buddy of mine noted how you get a conference bag each time you attend or present and remarked that you could talk about conferences the way international soccer players talk about caps. "I've been 'bagged' 16 times. Yup, 16 international bags, I have".

In the past few years I've been 'internationally bagged' at ThaiTESOL, ETA-ROC (Taiwan), TESOL Arabia, AsiaTEFL (in Beijing), KOTESOL (S. Korea), MELTA (Malaysia), FEELTA (Russia-Far East) and PALT (The Philippines). Except for ArabiaTESOL this may look like the Asian Golf Tour schedule- and it has something of that feel about it. Several familiar Japan-based names seem to pop up at a number of these.

Let's start with PALT (I'm not going to link these, assuming that you can Google the relevant terms for yourself if you want to know more). This year PALT is the host organization for the PAC, meaning Pan-Asian Conference. The PAC has a rotating host organization which usually combines this big event with their own domestic national conference (that would be JALT in Japan, who have hosted PAC before). The PAC is the biggest conference of its type in Asia and, as you'd expect, attracts participants from across the continent (actually from all over the world).

I attended PALT in 2007, but didn't apply for this year's PAC-PALT- Dec. 3-5 (somewhat to my regret as the time approaches). I do remember the highly formal setting of The Manila Hotel. My presentation was made in an enormous ballroom where the waiting staff was still clearing lunch when I started speaking, which is obviously a bit disconcerting. I also remember a gruff character coming forward durting the follow up Q and A and saying that he "objected" to what I had presented- the first time someone has had an 'objection' to my 'plea' in an ELT presentation. I also remember the discomfort I felt at how obsequious the hotel staff was, including flushing my urinal for me and proffering hand towels to me immediately after performing my bodily functions. But I don't need to tell you that my Filipino counterparts were incredibly friendly, welcoming, and helpful because if you know anything about The Philippines you probably know that.

ETA-ROC doesn't seem to operating this year. This Taipei combination of language teaching conference and book fair was always haphazard, and organizationally a bit sloppy, but had the most enthusiastic participants in Asia. A lot of younger Taiwanese teachers attended these presentations and their enthusiasm more than made up for the lack of physical space and confusion. In short, ETA-ROC is a microcosm of Taipei's traffic system and busy but energetic populace. The food here was always first-rate too. I hope this one retuns to the circuit.

One thing that I've always found odd about ETA-ROC- most of the attendees are young, new teachers who seem to be looking for basic guidance and/or recipes but an inordinate number of speakers are academics who present on very narrow academic topics. I'm not sure how or why that incongruity exists.

Like PAC, the Asia-TEFL conference rotates through a different country each year. Next year it's in Hanoi- and yes, I'll be there. Not surprisingly, the Bali-located conference last year drew a huge number of applicants although yours truly was rejected. Asia-TEFL is more or less the highbrow academic conference on the circuit and I can't help but think that I should have upped the academic lingo in my proposal last time (I went too much for a rather forced and obvious Inter-Asia commonality theme).

ThaiTESOL would probably win most popularity polls among Japan-based uni-types. Let's face it- doing ANYTHING in Thailand feels like a holiday and this is THE best conference for going out on the town period. Full stop. I don't consider myself to be among the great expat boozehounds but this is a great locale for the post-presentation drink or five.
The ThaiTESOL conference is usually held in January but because Bangkok hosted the Asia-TEFL this year there is no conference in Jan. 2010. sniff.

Anyway, here's a personal sidebar- I can't help but wonder if I'm on a ThaiTESOL conference blacklist because I was accepted for five years straight and then rejected for two consecutive years thereafter (despite having upped my public and academic standing- not to mention my proposal writing skills). The last one I attended had a quasi-political theme which I thought was nonsense and proceeded to criticize the 'accepted' view in my presentation (I had prepared a thorough critique of some politico-linguistic academia and pedagogy for this presentation). Anyway, one of the conferences organizers happened to attend my spiel and seemed to mistake some of my examples and references to the dangers of ethnic reductionism and racism in reading politics into language as being my own view, and told me afterwards that she thought my (throughly anti-racist) presentation was "full of racial prejudice".

KOTESOL is very much Korea's JALT counterpart. If you think a lot of modern Korea emulates Japan, at least on the surface, this is a logical extension of that in almost every aspect. A lot of university teachers, mostly Westerners, present here and have many of the same themes and concerns as JALT. It's quite sober, like JALT on a smaller scale, but it does seem easier to make Korean teaching contacts from KOTESOL than it does to make Japanese contacts from JALT.

FEELTA, I've presented at once- in Vladivostok. The jarring effect of flying less than 2 hours from Japan (Niigata) and landing in a land of European faces and architecture, and especially the 6 foot tall ladies, overrides my memories of the conference itself. But once again a rule sems to persist: the more haphazard the organization (the legacy of the old Soviet bureaucracy and lack of public information remains) the more engaging and welcoming the people involved are.

TESOL Arabia (Dubai) is quite large and elaborate. They do take themselves very seriously, being the main conference in that part of the world. There is an extremely wide range of presenters here- every continent is represented...and then some. I found it disconcerting to present in a small room where, among my audience of 14 people, 4 were Muslim ladies wearing the full regalia (all but eyes revealed). Since I like to read audience expressions and make eye contact this was a new situation for me. By the way, TESOL Arabia and KOTESOL both require that you be members of their respective organizations before you are allowed to present, upping the costs and the paperwork.

Considerations regarding presenting:

Fees- Here's one of my beefs. OK, with a strong Yen and generally wealthy populace, Japan is a good base from which to attend other Asian conferences (Arabia excepted). Unfortunately though, some of these conferences require bank transfers for fee payments (no credit card payment online etc.) and, given the costs added to do so with Japanese banks, and the ridiculous amount of paperwork involved in what should be a minor transaction, this can often end up as an extra unforeseen hassle. Those conferences to which I can Paypal or pay by credit card are so much more relaxing.

Some conferences are very organized and prompt in their email exchanges. These conferences also tend to supply timely and comprehensive information. JALT is probably the best in Asia in this regard. With others it can seem like no one has acknowledged your submission, little (or broken) information is forthcoming, it can be hard to find the appropriate contact person, or the links you need to follow on the website are not working. With some, you arrive at the venue and there are greeters and enormous signs everywhere- it is a big hoodad. At others, you show up and all there is is a low key, relatively unmarked reception table in a dank university building basement and you wonder if, by mistake, you've actually gone to last year's venue.

Finally, some quick advice about submissions. One- follow the rules and guidelines, even if they are labyrinthine. Sometimes elaborate registration and application forms are made, just to see who is serious and who isn't. Check things like grammar and spelling very carefully- the whole proposal, no matter how great the research, can just reek if you have mindlessly misplaced a 'your' with a 'you're'.

Conference themes used to be relatively unimportant but they seem to be more relevant these days in terms of the selection process. In the recent past, you'd have themes like "ESL- Making the most of our opportunities" which pretty much allows for ANYTHING. But now I see more and more themes like, "Incorporating the Humanities into Second Language Learning" in which the selection committee is ruling out immediately those submissions which do not address the theme adequately.

In some larger conferences, variety is important so there can be some prejudice in wanting to accept left-fieldish presentations or those that address very narrow or hitherto neglected areas. "Twittering as classroom discourse" has an up-to-date air about it, with the tempting waft of new technology. "Post-feminist language domains in spoken text" will get support for its apparent 'progressive' content. Something that sounds statistically objective, "A reappraisal of the X medical corpus- based on a five year study", should tickle enough members on the selection committee. So might the exotica and charity of "An educational outreach program to the children of Dagestan- a field report".

Good luck if you apply. And your comments regarding your own experiences and further advice for readers is very welcome here.

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October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...
Hmmm.

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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October 28, 2009

Needs analysis nonsense

Say your kitchen sink isn't functioning well. Water's not going down and the smell is starting to infest the whole kitchen despite your best efforts with the plunger. Call a plumber, right? So, he arrives, takes a perfunctory glance at the reeking drain and says, "I need to perform a needs analysis". Then he leaves. And he researches the causes of sink stoppage- what the symptoms may tell us as to best course of plumbing action. Two months of research later he returns and announces that research shows that "a coagulating agent may be blocking the drain".
Really now! And you know what else, balls are used in soccer!

Doesn't sound like much of a plumber, right? After all, a trained and licensed plumber should be able to make a quick diagnosis, based on his training and experience, and then immediately start getting inside the damned pipes and unclog them. And, if in that process something unexpected pops up, such as a family of decomposing badgers, we expect that he'll be able to adjust accordingly and improvise a solution. That's the idea of professionalism, n'est ce pas?

Right- except apparently for English teachers who seem to think that professionalism requires them to carry out a 'needs analysis' regarding their students. (I'll take a stab at the answer here- they need, um, English, right?).

I've expressed my criticism of 'needs analyses' as being uneccesarily obtuse and eggheaded elsewhere and I stand by it. So, do I think about my students' needs? Yeah. When I started working at a medical school I thought about it for, oh, five minutes or so. Here's what I came up with (and they still hold true 13 years later):
1. Medical students need to know medical discourse.
2. They will probably have to perform or attend English presentations at some point in their careers.
3. They will have to do academic reading, and likely writing, in English.
4. They will probably have to be able to communicate with non-Japanese fellow professionals at some point.
5. Some will never use much English again.
6. Some will work abroad in English intensive situations for long, sustained periods of time.
7. These students are generally right out of high school or yobiko and therefore will have a standard HS english education up to this point.
8. Some students will have been exposed to English abroad- perhaps extensively.

End of needs analysis. With this 5 minutes' worth of thinking in mind I started designing my courses. It hasn't failed me yet. Exactly which aspects of medical discourse they will be weak in and those which may be a priority is something I have gradually learned over teaching my classes, a constant refining to be sure. But I presume that every teacher learns about 'needs' this way and not by some detached in-advance 'study', as if the 'needs' are somehow out there just waiting to be discovered by a research project, like genomes in a petri dish (or wherever one finds genomes these days). Any teacher with the slighterst amount of classroom sense should also be able to make any adjustments based on perceptions after a few classes, and incorporate those insights into the program design for next year.

Very occasionally I have made use of corpus data but my educated-teacher common sense usually takes priority. Awareness of, but not blind dependence upon, copus data can be useful in designing lessons but a general awareness of authenticity is hardly the same as a 'needs analysis'.

Of course, the one thing you want to avoid with anyone under 23 years of age in a school or university is asking the students themselves what they want. You'll get the expected rigamarole of "to make friends", "for travel", "to learn about the world",, and in the case of medical students "to learn medical terminology". The bmost appropriate paraphrasing of the first three listed above might be "Whatever. I dunno", and as for learning terminology, well they don't always know what's good for them do they? That's why they're the students and we are the teachers.

And it seems to me that any teacher with training and qualifications should, by virtue of those credentials, have an almost immediate understanding of student needs. And if it's not clear then, take two more minutes to ask an administrator where most grads end up doing what and go from there. It's not that hard.

Now imagine that you do ask an administrator at your school where your students will likely take their English educations and he/she replies, "Well most of our males end up in construction crews and the majority of the girls gravitate towards the 'entrtainment' industry". What will you do then? Teach the females 'mizu shobai' lingo on the one-off that someday a client might be a non-Japanese speaker sampling the bright lights? Teach the guys some 'work talk' on the small chance that they will work with someone from a developing country (who will certainly be looking for the chance to brush up on their Japanese anyway)?

This exposes a problem with needs analyses- it treats language as largely instrumental. In a case like the above (admittedly extreme, but in order to make a point) sometimes the purpose of English might be instrinsic, mere exposure to the language in order to gain an appreciation of something that might be mind-expanding and could be applied at some later point if any individual chooses to do so. That doesn't come out on a needs analysis.

And it's fine when you have very narrow, specific goals that apply to ALL students, such as 15 grad students ALL needing to get a TOEIC certification and then going to research nuclear physics in the UK. But more often than not the expressed 'needs' will be both general and varied. And the inevitable conclusion that 'there are many needs' is not some kind of revealed truth that is hovering out there waiting to be discovered by 'analysis', it's something you should be able to gather from minimal exposure to any teaching situation.

Imagine what our students and colleagues must think when the allegedly trained professional shows up at his/her workplace without any apparent innate sense of what his charges 'need'. What impression will be created when he or she has to do a survey, a statistical compilation, and collate all the data before offering a sense of what might be best for their students?

It doesn't sound like professionalism to me.

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January 21, 2010

'Misses' and 'objectivity'

The Center Shiken (National University Entrance Exam) took place a week back and I'm sure many readers were involved at some level, most likely by proctoring. And if you were proctoring, (even if you were a back-up proctor, yes, there are benchwarmers in Japan's Center Shiken proctoring world) you will know the intricate protocols, steps, conditions, and general hoop jumping that is involved in what many might mistakenly think of as an easy process.

The key notion is of course that the Center Shiken must be fair and fully objective. That's why it is held nationwide with the same subjects being tested at the same time in over a thousand locales Japan-wide with over 500,000 students taking part. In order to maintain this integrity the surrounding system has to be airtight. Details are meticulous and must be adhered to under threat of your photo appearing in newspapers regarding a breach of Center Shiken protocol. No compromises. Nothing slipshod is allowed.

Lengthy protocol explanation sessions, complete with instructional CD ROMS, are prepared for proctors. The instruction booklet is the size of a small telephone book and, as far as I can read, contains provisions regarding appropriate actions to take if an examinee freaks out, becomes physically ill, if an alien lands in the testing room, and if an examinee suddenly morphs into The Dave Clark Five.

You know, the Japanese are generally very good with this type of thing. One old school generalization about Japan that I hold on to is the fact that the couuntry is pretty risk adverse and great lengths will be taken to ensure that there are no 'misses' ('miss' being the standard abbreviation for 'mistake', and it is the default term used in Japanese). If you've ever been involved, or merely watched, a kindergarten or elementary school undo-kai (sports day) you can see the meticulous, orderly planning manifested in a seamless- but somewhat tense and regimented- performance. (Whether people actually ENJOY it is another matter).

The thing is though, the more you try to avoid 'misses' by fine-tuning, tightening the screws, or devising manuals that try to cover every contingency, the tighter the system the more likely that a 'miss' is likely to occur- precisely because you've created a huge checklist of protocols that now could go wrong. As analogies, think of pure-bred dogs and how finnicky they are. Think of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who tweaks his computer to a T but it's always malfunctioning when any new software is introduced. Think of body builders where each muscle teeters on the brink of both 'perfection' and complete physical breakdown. The fact is, the tighter you build the foundation, and the more pieces that you use, the greater the likelihood that one piece will falter and lead the whole thing to collapse.

Hence, the near fetishistic emphasis upon 'miss' avoidance can actually induce scenarios where more misses are likely to occur. At the Center Shiken we proctors were quite tense, with almost every second accounted for and formally backed up in some way, making sure that the myriad steps were taken in precise order, with military obedince to the manual. This meant that we had to act with speed and efficiency but also meant that any screw ups would lead delays or claims from examinees of some breach of norm. And the more nervous, cluttered, and time constrained you are, the more likely that a 'miss' will occur. (There was also a ubiquitous stretcher placed outside the examination area, as if to underscore the severity of it all).

Now, here's the twist.
A miss in the test administering protocol is considerede a huge black mark. Therefore, about 95% of the pre-test information sessions and meetings focus upon the avoidance of a 'miss'. But, as an English teacher, I am more concerned about 'misses' at the larger level. Let me explain.

At the orientation sessions for teachers making the second-stage university entrance exams (NOT the Center Shiken orientation sessions) the overwhelming emphasis is also placed upon not having any 'misses' in the test. There is, in my opinion, too little emphasis placed upon producing a test that is valid and reliable. In other words, the overriding rubric is negative: "Don't have any mistakes on the test. That's all we ask". The endless fix-up and follow-up sessions are designed to make sure that no misses get through.

A big, get-called-before-a-committee mistake would be something like the following:
Match the four paraphrased sentences below with the undelined sentences (1,2,3,4) in the passage.
a.
b.
d.
e.

Although the lack of a 'c' answer should not really confuse students or cause them to answer incorrectly, this would be a huge black mark for the test makers.

Anyway, administrators usually want 'objective' style tests because objectivity, it is believed, reduces the likelihood of mistakes. So, in order to meet the heavy 'no-miss' criterion you could make discrete English language test questions like the following:
1. The Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in [ ].
a. 1998
b. 1984
c. 1993
d. 2004

2. Hitler's [ ] regime lead to the restructuring of Europe's political boundaries
a. nebulous
b. soporific
c. pernicious
d. sendentious

As you will see, there are officially NO misses in the above questions. But they are clearly absolutely crap questions for an English test. (I've exaggerated the samples- I can't imagine any exam actually making such questions although they did come close in the not-too-distant past- to make a point).

The first question does not measure English skill in any way but rather teasts localized knowledge which happens to be presented in English. And even if this was accompanied by a passage containing the answer (c) it still would not be indicative of English skill, especially in terms of measuring suitability for university entrance. Also, if the answer was contained in the passage 99.9% of the examinees would get it correct which renders the stratifying force of the question meaningless. So, while there are technically no 'misses' in the question it is nonetheless both invalid (it doesn't measure what an English entrance exam is supposed to be measuring) and unreliable (it's either too hard, based on chance specialist knowledge, or -if the answer is in the passage- it is too easy) and thus cannot have any stratifying function for placing examinees.

But it IS 'objective'. It contains no 'misses'. Also, the answers can be immediately measured numerically: 2 out of 2. Administrators love this type of thing and consider it somehow more 'objective' because the results can easily be rendered as numbers- even though these numbers basically indicate NOTHING about actual English ability. "Hey, if it's mathematical it must be objective!"

In the second example, the vocabulary choices are obviously way over the students' heads which means that if the correct answer is chosen it will almost certainly be chosen randomly (and of course a trained chimpanzee has a 25% chance of getting the correct answer on a 4-item multiple choice question).

Hey, but it is still 'objective' and contains no 'misses'--- despite the fact that it is thoroughly invalid and unreliable.

OK- I can't imagine any university entrance exam test maker making such egregious errors (in fact, in my research I have found that many second stage entrance exams and recent Center Shiken are quite valid and reliable). But the point is that an inordinate focus upon avoiding misses and maintaining this surface, shallow notion of objectivity can obscure the bigger picture- that of makng valid and reliable tests that acuurately or reasonably measure a wide range of student English skills.

Questions that demand deep thinking or skills such as making inferences, reading between the lines, predicting, summarizing and so on tend to be both more complex and nebulous than simple kigou (so-called because they can be answered by a letter mark- a,, b, c, d) questions. This complexity or lack of clarity can often led to what overseeing commitees think of as 'misses'. Overseeing commitees don't like the alleged 'subjectivity' or interpretive element that such questions demand. Hence the safety factor in making more discrete TOEIC-type questions

I find this fear of alleged subjectivity odd. After all, as trained professionals it is precisely we who should be expected to be able discern which students display the greatest ability in a subjective or essay-type question. By taking away the subjective evaluation element from a trained, experienced pro (who is supposed to be an expert in the field- that's why you've hired them to teach at a university) you've basically narrowed the scope of the test. You're no longer measuring extensive English skills but discrete item knowledge. You're no longer testing English ability but knowledge about English.

Your emphasis on 'no misses' at the expense of greater test validity and an artificial sense of objectivity that in fact often reduces test reliability means that you've messed up the bigger picture of measuring holistic student English ability.

And that's the biggest 'miss' of all.

A QUICK FUNNY- My all-time greatest classroom mistake

A long time back, when I was new to Japan, I had a small class in which I asked the students to tell me about the Japanese person who they admired most. One of the students answered 'I admire Chiyonofuji'. At that time I had no idea who Chiyonofuji was, so I asked. "He is a small restaurant," came the reply. "Non, no," I responded. "He OWNS a small restaurant or he runs a small restaurant. Not 'He IS a small restaurant'". The student looked both frustrated and amused. "But he IS a small restaurant" he insisted. A few seconds later another student spoke up. "Chiyonofuji is a sumo wrestler," he explained.

Oh (blush).
But come to think of it, some sumo wrestlers are actually like small restaurants.

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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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June 04, 2010

Japanese universities slip in Asia rankings- a few comments

Some readers may have noticed this headline and short article appearing recently on the eltnews website.

The rankings are based upon several criteria, including: academic peer review (40%), employer review (10%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%), proportion of international students (5%). (*The actual website includes more criteria so I'm not sure where ELTnews got the percentage breakdowns from).You can see both world and Asia rankings (plus the breakdown of each listed university via the links) here.

So are we to take it that Japanese university educational standards and performance are heading downward? In short, no. So, why did the Japanese universities slip and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis these rankings? Apparently, Tokyo U. would have been Asia's numero uno had only academic factors been cited, so the slip cannot be said to come from a decline in academic achievement. The drop then seems to be based upon the two 'international' categories and 'student exchange' criteria.

Japanese universities have always tended to keep fewer non-citizens on faculty compared to other developed countries. No surprise here. As the vast majority of classes, administration and research will be carried out in Japanese, opportunities for those who don't speak the language are extremely limited, especially when compared to the Hong Kong and Singaporean universities. But this still doesn't explain the slip. Perhaps then economics come into play. The appreciation of the yen and hard times in general means that fewer foreign students and possibly, researchers (even though the Japanese hosts foot a large number of those bills) can afford to visit or stay.

On the other hand some J university rankings actually rose, not the least of which was my own humble place of employment, the University of Miyazaki, which made a significant jump- from 201st to 131st (although this would still be the 7th division if this were British football or the J9 league domestically). In our case, this is due to the fact that the number of international exchanges and cooperative ventures at all (student, faculty and research) levels have exploded recently as has- and this is important- the way in which we are now carefully compiling and providing this information to the public- which influences sites like the one linked above. (I don't imagine that our huge leap forward is founded solely upon the enormous amount of international respect this blog garners).

But while the language factor will always cause Japanese universities to lag somewhat in such rankings there is still no excuse for avoiding the development of international relations, of actively cultivating exchange. Our international profile expansion was founded largely upon GP (good practice) grants and has now become an established, permanent (?) part of the university program. And the English section plays, as you can imagine, a big role in both establishing and maintaining this. So the bleak economic situation need not adversely affect every aspect of international exchange- after all the YEN is still strong and the internet continues as a means for international exchange.

Since the J universities ranked highly in terms of research and academic citations, we can't say that academic level is a weakness. but there is a dimension in which I feel that Japanese universities might actually be lacking: Teaching skills. Education.

You see, most universities in Japan heavily favour hiring personnel with strong research backgrounds. People with a lot of papers, people with established names in the research field. And that's fine. Having students (usually grad students) apprentice under the mentorship of a world-class researcher can hardly be anything but beneficial. But most of these people also have to TEACH!

And they are often- ahem- not too great at 'teacher-y' things such as class management, communicating to large groups, creating tasks, the very items that undergraduates deal with almost exclusively. They usually don't have backgrounds in curriculum development and syllabus structuring. They are far from up-to-date on assessment and evaluation.

So here's the point- to improve Japanese universities on a more visceral level (I make it a habit to use the term 'visceral' at least once each blog entry) more attention needs to be paid to hiring people with these types of backgrounds to fill TEACHING roles.

The University of Miyazaki's Faculty of Medicine's international academic status seems to be built on the back of its world-class ranking in peptide research (note, that's peptide, not Pepchew) but unless the people involved in this highly-rated program also hire people who can teach and inspire the undergraduates, who may someday evolve into peptide researchers themselves, we will lose our ranking and, more importantly (viscerally?), advances in medical research may also come to an end.

Added editorial note- Apologies for initial typos in many blog posts. We are asked to compose on the blog page (and not just copy from Word), which when done with an IE browser, produces no spellcheck (Firefox though, does). On top of that, I tend to be oblivious to some of my own typos even upon proofreading. I know how ironic this appears when talking of university education and academia...

Will strive to take more care in this department instead of rushing to get the blog online.

I've also heard that my entries come off without paragraph breaks in some blogreaders. Suffice to say that my paragraph delineation seems perfect upon composing here and when it appears in the actual blog but I will take advice on how to fix this so that it doesn't happen on some blogreaders.

Mike

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August 07, 2010

EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi!

This dispatch comes from Hanoi (somehow the word 'dispatch' seems to collocate naturally with Hanoi- especially with words like 'shelled' and 'bunker'), where I am attending the AsiaTEFL conference and, having just concluded my presentation, am now free to run wild- at the computer.

The conference is taking place at a hotel complex that's a bit of a throwback to 80's Viet Nam or China- that Official Communist Party Guesthouse locale, a dated rabbit-warren of low-slung buildings of "Serve-The-People Residence Block 3" style architecture, surrounded by high cement and barbed-wire walls, dimly lit, and staffed by some grim-looking folks (unlike the very friendly conference minders and organizers). It's also a bit of a distance from the center of the old town so attendees stuck there seem to be getting a bit stir crazy, since there are virtually no attractions within walking distance (although you really wouldn't want to walk in the Hanoi summer humidity with what is probably the world's most intense, in-your-face, traffic).

Fortunately, I'm not staying at the conference venue but at a hotel closer to the city center- hence I can write this in comfort and ironic detachment. How sophomoric.

I always enjoy Asia TEFL because about 95% of the conference attendees are Asian, no surprise there, covering pretty much every country on the continent. On the first day however I attended only presentations made by Japanese EFL researchers, eager to see what they were up to. Two caught my eye in particular, both in a critical way, enough so to warrant blog commentary.

Now, I'm not going to use this blog to point fingers at specific people (unless they're REALLY asking for it) or denigrate other people's research, since the same charges could be levelled at me. So let me start with this caveat- the following presentations were well-delivered by pleasant and knowledgeable people with strong academic credentials. But each contained something unsettling that compels me to write...

The first was a presentation on using a manga about non-Japanese residents of Japan to sensitize Japanese students to ethnic diversity and NJ identity in Japan (the manga sample involved an ethnic Korean resident), the scenarios they face, their status, histories etc.

Since many Japanese may be unaware of NJs in their midst, or what limits in terms of rights, different standards etc. they may be facing, this issue is relevant and was handled sensitively- no bashing alleged of the 'the Japanese are xenophobes' variety, no overdramatizing the plight of the NJ, and, especially, less of an emphasis upon finding the 'cultural differences' than one usually encounters.

(Tangent- I was, however, taken aback by the presenters' final call to 'celebrate differences'- I say this because it is precisely this overemphasizing of differences that leads to otherizing and any resultant notion that NJs can't really be culturally Japanese or just can't/don't fit in. Since the whole point of using this manga as educational tool was to emphasize the common humanity of the characters, who the Japanese had assumed to be fully Japanese, the sudden intrusion of the 'let's understand the differences' mantra seemed to take the wind out of the rhetorical sails).

More dubious though was a preamble about racial majority 'privileged groups' who set the societal 'norms' and thereby see themselves as 'superior' but thus 'don't recognize the plights of minorities' and 'are in denial' even if they claim not to hold such attitudes (claiming that others are in denial when they do not confirm your beliefs is of course a sloppy and fallacious argument). And, yes, this initial example served up that predictable old target: White Americans.

Now here's the rub- you are giving a presentation on trying to remove ethnic/racial discrimination and prejudices from young students and what do you do? You proceed to make blanket statements about how a whole race apparently thinks! Talk about pulling the carpet of credibility from under your own feet. And yes, as a North American white guy I did feel uncomfortable listening to people tell me about what I apparently must believe because of my skin colour.
(Tangent- I've been told how white people like me think we are superior and look down on others numerous times in Japan. I always complement such people for knowing- and subsequently telling me- what I apparently think about other ethnicities based only upon seeing my degree of skin pigmentation. I might also add a little bit about how their view was actually the norm a few generations back but that anybody who has an education, or lives within any interactive social milieu of sorts in N. America is likely to have had such views confronted from day one. And oh yes, I do realize that I have been privileged. I got through Sociology 101, thank you very much).

Now, to be fair, the presenter (again, who was Japanese) DID apply these same claims to the Japanese ethnic majority with regard to minorities in Japan- that most Japanese were in denial about it, but felt superior and so were unmoved by the sufferings of others, ignorant of diversity, etc..

So, at the end of the presentation I asked her outright (privately- and in a fairly congenial way I might add) if she would feel superior to me if we were both in Japan. She knew where I was going with this (I think) and duly dodged the question- not waning to apply her generalization to herself. But I pressed on with the argument that labeling entire races/ethnicities of people as having superiority complexes or of being ignorant of others was not a viable way to confront discrimination and racial-ethnic ignorance.

She also dodged my next (and yes, loaded) question about whether she thought that I, personally, being of pale skin and all, probably believed that I am superior to non-white people. After all, according to content of her presentation, I probably should. Of course, SHE didn't feel that way about NJs in Japan herself and implied that she believed that I would not feel that way about non-whites by saying that 'although not everyone feels that way many are still in denial', but then why use the 'present company excepted' escape clause after you've just indicted an entire race?

Go figure.

The next presentation was very different in tone and scope, focusing upon Japanese student turn-taking difficulties in English. The research locus (and the research data was very professionally compiled) was that of a Native English speaker (NES) chatting with three different small groups of Japanese students in Japan, and subsequently having the researcher analyzing the turn-taking mechanics of the conversations.

The native English speaker was asked his impression of the quality of each discussion (good, bad, or so so) and his evaluations were correlated with the number and type of turn-taking mechanisms used by both Js and NES parties in the discussions. As you can probably guess, most of the turn-taking signals and acts were initiated by the NES and, what's more, the fewer the Japanese initiated or signaled a response to a turn, the worse he rated that conversation. (You know the scenario- you have to do all the topic selection, ask all the questions, do all the repair and backchannelling while students simply nod or make mundane textbook-like sentences in response).

So far, so good, right?

It was the conclusion that was worrying. The researcher concluded that because English and Japanese turn-taking styles and conversation management are so different it leads to communication problems. Therefore, Japanese students should be taught English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies.

Still seems reasonable? OK- I should add that the researcher's view of J conversation management is that it is not a Japanese cultural convention to topic-select, interject, and backchannel but apparently to patiently wait until a turn has finished before venturing a support statement. Yeah. Right. This will come as news to anyone who has seen a Japanese variety TV show, drank with Japanese in an izakaya, or- hey- has seen any group of Japanese friends simply hang out together.

The reasons that the conversations between the NES and the Js was stilted seem obvious to me. For one thing they were staged, and thus seeing them as formalized, the Js did not follow normal discourse patterns- that is normal JAPANESE discourse patterns such as: topic self-selection, backchanneling... and so on down the list. It seems pretty obvious to me that there was a power dimension at play, that the NES was seen as a type of authority figure. So the responses (or lack thereof) from the Js was not a cultural factor but one of perceived power relations. They would react similarly to a Japanese person perceived to have power or authority. They were clearly not acting as Japanese people managing a conversation, but as Japanese talking in a formalized situation with a supposed authority figure.

So, what they needed to do in order to make the conversation flow better was NOT learn so-called English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies but to use JAPANESE norms and strategies, such as support statements, repair, backchanneling, topic-selection- you know, stuff that humans, not specific cultural groups usually do, in informal situations.

Why bring in the canard of 'different cultural norms' as the explanatory factor for everything? We're not all that different!

And, yes, I did raise this point (again in a congenial manner) in the follow-up Q&A sessions. The presenter seemed rather surprised and I didn't want to put her on the spot but my comment did draw a strong and supportive response from other audience members (some of whom disliked the presenter's implicit notion that it was incumbent upon the J students to learn alleged English cultural standards when conversing with NES's in Japan).

At least these presentations stirred me up. Made me think. I suppose this is why I'm here. And I can't help but wonder if anyone was thinking similarly critical thoughts about my presentation...

(Tangential ego-inflating section:
I was in the line for visas at Hanoi Airport when the guy behind me (to be fair I initiated by asking him something about visa formalities) said, "You're Mike Guest, aren't you?". "Umm, yes, how did you know?". "Oh- you're world famous (?!)". Although he was obviously exaggerating, this caused the other people in line to turn around, eager to see the world-renowned celebrity in their midst. They saw me instead.

At another recent conference, where I was asked to do a keynote speech, I overheard one attendee say to a staff helper in reference to my good self, "That's the famous guy". I hope he was being ironic because I'm not exactly fighting the fame groupies off.

At this conference too, I've had a few people say, "Oh so YOU'RE Mike Guest!" (which I can never, nor am I intended to I suppose, accurately interpret as either, "You're my EFL hero! Let's make children together!" or as, "Why does the Daily Yomiuri let unqualified, self-absorbed and height-challenged people like yourself write such crap?"). The world of EFL is so insignificant that it's a bit unsettling and awkward to have people treat you- even for a fleeting moment- as though you are anything more than what you really are, that is, a mere English teacher. Thinking that you're a big shot in the world of EFL is like boasting that you have the best outhouse in the Ozarks...

But, hey, since I'm now in the downside of my life span, if people want to say "Hey I really liked your presentation" or "I'm glad you wrote what you wrote" then I guess I'm happy, I'll take it. Being a mere English teacher you'll take whatever recognition you can get.

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August 16, 2010

I never meta-cognitive skill I didn't like- and explaining Monkasho primary school policy: More reactions and responses from Hanoi

...or more specifically, the recent AsiaTEFL conference held in VietNam. Two more presentations from Japanese researchers caught my eye and caused the following synapses to occur in my brain-

First was a joint presentation in which the opening (and very nervous) presenter showed findings which indicate that students who focused upon using meta-cognitive strategies when dealing with EFL tasks performed better than those who leaned towards affective strategies.

OK, Lingo section: I do understand that 'meta-cognitive' is probably Exhibit A when it comes to pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nomenclature (the word 'nomenclature' being Exhibit B) but it seems apropos (Exhibit C) here. Meta-cognition basically means being conscious of thinking strategies, in this case how you plan to attack a communicative task in a reflective manner, 'thinking about how to think' in short.

"Affective strategies" are more emotional, usually determined by the speaker/writer's own belief, or lack thereof, in their ability to carry out the task. In many cases in Japan, affective behaviour revolves around the notion that student A doesn't expect to be able to do task X well with this becoming the defining factor in creating the (ultimately mediocre) product.

Therefore, the researcher argued, we should be focusing upon developing or supporting student meta-cognitive skills in EFL.

Now there is both a great strength and fault to this logic. I do believe that a transfer of cognitive strategies from L1 (Japanese) to L2 would benefit Japanese students, who in so many ways seem to abandon all cognition when dealing with English tasks and rely instead upon memorized L1-L2 cognates alone. Helping students to frame tasks, try to determine the best approaches, and understand what rhetorical forms might lead to the best communicative outcomes, is overlooked. In other words- big picture support and guidance will allow the smaller pictures to develop.

BUT, and this is a big trailer-park corn-chips munching but, isn't the research here ass-backwards? Wouldn't good performers use meta-cognitive strategies precisely because they are... wait for it... already good at English??? And the poor ones, knowing that they don't have the goods, will worry and struggle to get through (the affective approach)? In other words, meta-cognitive skills don't cause students to become better at English, but rather are just reflections of existing competency in the language. Students use meta-cognitive skills when, and because, they are already good at English- not in order to become good. Correlation and causation don't necessarily share the same front lawn, friends.

Nonetheless, the manner in which a teacher guides students towards using meta-cognition is still worthy of deeper EFL thought- in other words, we should be meta-cognitive about the role of meta-cognition.

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

... was led by Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia (Jochi) University. Yoshida is probably the most internationally recognized Japanese scholar in the EFL/Applied Linguistics field and is a man with his fingers in many policy-making pies- including the establishment of Monkasho policy- and this is what he addressed in Hanoi.

More specifically, he outlined the rationale behind the new elementary school English requirement (to start in the next academic year). It goes something like this...

... a fairly comprehensive survey of junior high school students showed that their interest in English, and enjoyment of the subject, peaks at the beginning of JHS and drops like a rock soon steadily thereafter. No surprise here to anyone who has been in Japan for more than 20 minutes, but at least this very thorough and balanced survey substantiates the fact.

Most JHS students found English harder than expected and were soon disenchanted at not sensing any progress in their English skills. This is very much like that time you bought a guitar believing that you would soon learn what it takes to become a guitar god- but you gave it up in two weeks when you found out that musical skills actually require discipline and hard work, so now your guitar collects dust in that dark room under the stairs next to your table-hockey set.

Anyway, what Yoshida believes (and as is implemented in Monkasho policy) is that this drop occurs because JHSers are usually coming in with a background of pretty much nada in English and jumping immediately into the fire pits of vocabulary lists and abstract systems such as grammar. Yoshida likened it to a standing long jump- gravity pulls you back to earth more quickly than if you've built up some speed beforehand. The new elementary school requirement is supposed to turn that standing long jump into a more sustainable running long jump.

This means that before students deal with the more theoretical and abstract elements of English they should learn English from the perspective of the 'joy of communication' and feeling out the "differences between Japanese and other languages", simply getting a taste for other modes of communication, without much pressure. (Note that the new English course is a required class but will not be a fully graded/tested course). This means that the emphasis will be upon the spoken language with absolutely no writing/reading or even alphabet introduction until JHS.

*note: At the same conference, in a completely unrelated presentation, a Japanese teacher criticized the above rationale as being too vague- 'the joys of communication?' Huh? Another asked "Why treat it as 'other languages' when we all know that it means English?" Fair enough.

Here's my two cents:
Cent one: Why do so many teachers, including policy-influencing professionals, treat grammar as if it must be taught in a theoretical, rule-based, analytical manner? Grammar can (and should) be inculcated using less abstract and more meaning-based, content-focused methods and materials. In fact, generally speaking, much of grammar (especially the more intricate stuff) is something that it understood not prior to deployment but after a certain amount of communicative competency is established. In other words, we become conscious of the rule and its function only after we have used and seen it used. for meaningful purposes. Grammar thus describes structurally what has happened to make communication succeed. After that, as learners gradually acquire the 'rule', the prescriptive element comes into play - it can hererafter be consciously applied when faced with various grammatical choices.

In short, grammar need not be this detached, theoretical topic that must be taught explicitly as discrete rules prior to meaning making. In fact the two go hand-in-hand, often unconsciously on the part of the learner.

Cent two: Yoshida showed us an official written rationale (in English) for the new policy as one of his slides- about the 'joy of communication' and 'noting differences'. Two things struck me here (and I addressed these in the brief Q&A session that followed). One was that the word 'communication' was used frequently- that in foreign language classes students should learn communication skills, and focus upon communicating with others etc. But wait. This isn't an English skill- it's a human skill, and something that they should be doing in Japanese (kokugo) classes first. Why assume that communication is a skill derived from learning foreign languages? After all, if students master communication (written and spoken) skills in their native tongue then many of these communication skills will transfer more naturally from their first language to their second (and here we start to dovetail with meta-cognitive strategies above).

Yoshida said that yes, more should be done (and is being done now) with developing communication skills in L1.

I also noted out the numerous emphases upon learning the 'differences' between English and Japanese as a primary learning target. I found this 'divide and separate' policy disheartening. After all, if you start a child's English education by focusing upon how unlike Japanese it is, aren't you just increasing the psychological distance between the two languages, aren't you effectively placing the first barrier to acquisition? The subtext seems to be, "Kids, this English stuff is hard and really different from what you already know how to do". How is that supposed to inculcate the 'joys of communication'?

In response, Yoshida noted something vague (and a bit desperate IMO) about students needing to know their Japanese identity better because 'they don't know who they are'. Go figure.

Finally- I had a chance to talk at length with an ESL teacher from Toronto who plays host to ESL students from all over the world.

When I told her that I lived and worked in Japan she said (hesitantly) that in fact Japanese formed by the far the greatest number of problem students at her institution. How so? By not fitting in or getting along with others, affecting weird and inappropriate behaviour, and complaining about everything. She much preferred Koreans, who, in her words, were earnest, respectful, focused, more communicative, and seemed to fit in and get along.

Interesting. I can't help but wonder if many Japanese students who take a long time off from their normal J university studies are the type wh treat it more as a lark. An extended vacation and an increased chance for shopping. On the other hand, students from many other countries might be trying to enhance their English skills to get a certification or test score that will be instrumental in getting a good job or increased social standing back home, allow them to study as grad students abroad, or even eventually emigrate to English-speaking countries. Thus, it actually has more than hobby-level interest for them and really means something back home. Right now, many in J universities treat English study abroad as a type of playtime away from their real study at home and thus meaning little more than a delay in their graduation date. You know, the mark of shiftless workshy types.

But I'm only speculating. What do you think?

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September 06, 2010

A gap in the university curriculum that you, O gaikokujin teacher, could fill

About 10 years ago the Faculty of Medicine here at the UoM hired a philosophy professor to fill a perceived gap in the General Education curriculum. The new course was to focus upon medical ethics and, since this hiring, this class has become a standard part of the medical students' training. But this professor noticed another, more fundamental, gap in the system and moved quickly to fill it.

This gap was teaching academic skills to 1st year university students. Yes, before this professor's arrival, the students here received no special training in skills such as carrying out research, writing a research paper, organizing case studies, debating, note taking, classroom conduct, critical thinking and the like. The course he established was originally called 'Japanese Communication' (some wisely asked why it should be called 'Japanese' since it was obvious that this was the lingua franca of the classroom for all students and teachers in the course- save yours truly- so it was recently changed to 'Freshman Seminar'). The focus in this course was/is upon how to operate and communicate appropriately within an academic milieu.

It seems to me that such courses should be obvious, mandatory, slam dunks. Now, please understand that this is not a Japan vs. everywhere else dilemma. I understand that some universities in Japan have treated this as standard fare for a long time, recognizing that high schools would not be focusing upon these skills. And in fact, in my own university days in Canada, I did not receive explicit instruction in such things, and had to live by trial and error. Looking back, I certainly would have appreciated- and most definitely needed- such a course.

These thoughts are inspired by comments based on my last blog entry, comments from Steve M. and Mark H. about the importance, roles, and functions of meta-cognitive skills and their development. Consciously learning how to learn, if you will. Certainly if students do not learn these skills even in their mother tongue, we can hardly expect them to do so in English without explicit teaching and practice.

The fact is, that if this Philosophy professor hadn't introduced this preparatory course we might still be floundering. Too often 'orientation' consists merely of data transfer: learning schedules, contacts and positions, calendar information, facilities, and, most importantly it seems, knowing where you CANNOT park your car. Learning how to function like a real university student somehow got lost in the song and dance.

So, I would modestly propose that EVERY university make the following learning areas mandatory for incoming students:
- How to carry out research
- How to write a research paper
- How to take notes
- How to carry out collaborative projects
- How to use several key computer programs effectively (MS word, Internet searches, Power point, Excel)

In short, how to start taking the reins of your education- to get out of permanent high school mode and become a real university student.

And this is where English teachers can contribute- by applying these skills in English classes. Offering a course in Academic Skills in English to, say, 2nd year students, as a required course would probably be attractive to the powers-that-be. These skills might include:

- How to write a research paper in English (formatting, organization of content)
- Basic rules of structuring written English (e.g., CAPS, using parentheses, spacing, commas and periods)
- How to use a dictionary PROPERLY
- How to make the best use of existing English resources and/or technologies
- International correspondence (Set/formal modes such as application forms, and/or informal modes such as email norms and netiquette).

My colleague (a fellow Canadian) and I have been chipping away at this in our regular English courses over the past few years, after previously having received all manner of reports, essays, and email that corresponded to no known norms of standard English (grammar and vocabulary skills aside).

You may be familiar with how they are typically written.
Each sentence is written on a new line.
It looks like a tanka.
There are no indentations
But suddenly one line might be pushed back for some unknown reason.
Punctuation is random.
so are capitals
It reminds me of the way non-Japanese use Japanese prepositions.
A shot-in-the-dark, hit or miss approach.

Random spaces occasionally appear too.
This may be because they tend to use Japanese fonts.
So the flow is choppy as well as visually unappealing.
This happens no matter what, the genre or register may be.
because there is little crossover concept of what sentences and paragraphs are
Between Japanese and English,
Unlike other European lan-
guages.

One result of which there can be no doubt is that the students are much happier to learn some rules and adopt some recommendations which allow their work, at least visually, to meet English norms. Among them is a palpable sense of having achieved something. After all, it should come as no surprise that Japanese students understand that there are places where propriety and correct form are to be observed and therefore absorb these guidelines pretty quickly. Almost immediately, those half-baked 'research essays', previously written in the last fifteen minutes before the deadline, in three different fonts plus a few unreadable scratches in pencil, with headings and paragraphs more or less randomly generated by the disorganization fairy- the type of submissions that will usually haunt you during the time you spend alone in your office- magically disappear.

For that reason alone, it is something that NJ university teachers should be looking into.

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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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November 08, 2010

Sending Japanese teachers abroad for English training- Does it make sense?

A little ditty in the Daily Yomiuri caught my attention last month.

The article tells of the government's mulling of a plan to send young Japanese English teachers to the U.S. to improve their English abilities. One thing immediately caught my attention- the estimation that it would cost 10 million yen annually for each teacher sent. As a result, sending just 1000 teachers would incur a total cost of 10 billion yen annually.

Wait a second. That's about $120,000 per person per year, right? So where exactly are they planning to house these young teachers? At the Four Seasons? One would expect that they would be housed at residences for foreign trainees connected to the institutions they'd be attending- which are invariably publicly subsidized. Add a per diem ($70 per day would be more than generous), air travel costs (150,000 Yen return) and study fees (variable) and you'd still be a long way from justifying a $120,000 package per person.

This is the kind of thing that generally passes over readers' heads, largely due to the 'stunned-by-numbers' phenomena. You know, where someone in the media states that there have been 'over 750 thermos-related deaths in Iowa in the past year'- until you realize that that means two thermos-related deaths per day in a single state! Or when you hear that the government has 'set aside 750,000 hectares for rutabagas experimentation at a cost of 6.8 billion dollars' but whether these numbers are realistic or not doesn't really register because they are so big as to become virtual abstractions.

Anyway, later in the article, something else a bit odd pops up.

The JET program is duly mentioned as being the current mode of English 'exchange'. But this is followed by the statement that the JET budget is being reviewed and, further, that the Ministry is requesting only 130 million yen- which appears to be the fiscal JET allotment- down 14% from last year's fiscal budget.

Say what?

So the JET program is to be allotted 130 million yen per year with which several thousand JET teachers are to be housed, provided a salary, paid travel costs etc. If we apply that to, say, 3000 JETs that comes to around 420,000 yen (about $5000) per year per JET. I know you can get some decent cardboard as walling for that price but...

Again, compare this with the $120,000 estimated for Japanese to study abroad. Consider also how cheap the U.S. is from a yen-earner's perspective right now. The numbers don't add up. Can somebody tell me what's missing here?

Anyway...
The article seems to be saying that sending Japanese teachers abroad might be a way of replacing the JET program, at least in terms of budgeting. So is this a good thing? Let's weigh it up:

If the numbers in the article are correct it would seem that hiring 3000 JETS is far far more cost-efficient than sending 1000 young Japanese teachers abroad. However, I suspect that the numbers are wrong. But by how much?

And what about the pedagogical side- the educational benefits? This is of greater interest to the Uni-files. Many (most) JETS are untrained, uncertified, and inexperienced as teachers. Most do not plan careers in teaching. The Japanese teachers are of course teachers by trade so it could well be argued that theirs is the better long-term investment.

One argument in favour of JETs though is that even if they don't bring teaching expertise into the classrooms, they introduce many young Japanese to foreigners and living English, which in fact has always been the stated purpose of the JET program.

It could also be argued that several JETs do in fact go on to become very good, qualified, professional teachers and that the JET experience provides training for them- which is later paid back into Japan's education system through their teaching skills.

On the other hand, young Japanese teachers going abroad to improve their skills has a certain obvious appeal. Although some JHS and HS English teachers do have a very sound grasp of English it is pretty clear (often by their own admission) that many struggle with dynamic, idiomatic English (and sometimes with anything beyond the textbooks they use). This is especially so given that the new Primary school English curriculum is about to be introduced as of next April.

I sense a few problems with this thinking though.

Although I would expect that their daily English skills would improve after a year abroad I'm wondering if and how this would improve actual classroom instruction in any tangible way. Textbooks in JHS and HSs are already set and I'm not sure that an improved ability to hear English more fully or having a more dynamic control over grammatical choice or vocabulary range would impact the type of things that the textbooks and curricula cover.

Nor have I seen much in these textbooks that is 'wrong' or unnatural English that 'improved' English teachers would be able to 'correct' (although many sections do seem a little stilted because everyone speaks too perfectly, with almost too much civility and without any evident personality). In short, I'm not sure how much idiomatic English would affect the teaching of foundational English or to help students prepare for university entrance exams. How would sensei's increased facility with the day-to-day lingo really benefit learners who have an existing, set curriculum to complete? JHSs and HSs don't exist to teach students daily conversation or 'how to do X' abroad.

My intuition is that poor class management skills, sloppy methodology, and/or inadequately developed curricula might be a greater factor in causing student motivation and skills to atrophy rather than a lack of native-like fluency. Perhaps then further teacher-skill training would have greater educational value than English study abroad.

Then, of course, as I blogged about recently in regard to Nobel Prizes and research, there is also the problem of having in-service teachers away from their workplaces so long. After all, only a small part of a teacher's work is bound up in teaching their main subject. In Japan, with the teacher-as-all-thing-to-all-people motif being what it is, having even one staff member away for a year could seriously impact the workload of others. Reducing teacher's extracurricular workload and using a budget to hire more clerical or specialist staff to carry out these extra duties would free up teachers to attend training sessions and become more competent at what they do.

Which is teaching English, not speaking it.

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November 28, 2010

Corpses of corpora

Collecting corpora. How do they do it?

I visited a hospital in Singapore recently in order to conduct some on-site research as to what nurses actually say and do on the job- or an analysis of specialist discourse (to make it sound more pretentious). This was my first attempt at doing anything even remotely related to corpus development or confirmation and I’m hoping a few things that I learned might ultimately be of benefit to ESPers, those who teach English to nurses or other health care workers, or anyone carrying out English corpus or specialist discourse research.

First things first- recording these types of language domains is pretty much impossible. Even if you could closely mic one nurse it would come out as either nonsense or as impenetrable jargon. The resulting script would look something like this:

Nurse A: No. That one. (Unintelligible). Can. You need it now? 36- Dialysis. Yes.
Nurse B: (unintelligible)

It's a mess. It looks like the aftermath of a language accident.

There are also huge privacy and liability issues- doubly so at a hospital- and administrators are understandably hesitant to allow this type of intrusion. Triply so when someone is trying to do an important (and busy) job. You can feel like a real prat following people around, holding up mics and jotting down notes, ear cocked into the conversation from behind like a cub reporter trying to get his precious scoop. But I had no choice, so me and my trusty notebook trekked around several wards, attached to ‘my’ nurse.

But interestingly even this incomplete record of the workplace reveals a lot. One can immediately see the truncated speech forms, how herky-jerkily dynamic the interactions are, how ellipsis becomes an integral feature of speech, how specialist jargon is regularly and widely used as stand alone transactional content (lists of data figure heavily in medical discourse), and even how local varieties (the stand alone ‘can’ being very Singaporean) enter the fray.

This is, as you might realize, quite different from the types of dialogues one tends to find in English textbooks. Although textbooks are certainly utilizing corpora based discourse more than they used to there still exists the overriding tendency to represent speech in full sentences, invariably complete, orderly and ‘correct’. While this may have pedagogical benefits for the learner, the question as to whether this is accurately descriptive or not is of course another matter:

Idealized version: “Good morning Mr. Chen. I’ve brought you your breakfast”
Actual version: “Breakfast!”

It is also very interesting to note discourse framing features such as: the percentage of the time nurses communicate with patients vs. other nurses vs. other health workers (two-cent answer: nurse-patient communication ranks well down the list percentage-wise). Why and when code-switching (both in terms of register and English variety) occurs also makes for interesting analysis. How are structured speech events, such as roll calls and handovers, organized to maximize communication? Catching all this takes some serious effort.

Another factor also comes into play- ‘incorrect’ English. One has to try and determine, was a language ‘violation’ a result of the vagaries of spoken vs. written English, with the two following different sets of governing rules? Or was it just heat-of-the-moment sloppiness? After all, we all speak non-prescriptively at times; we get tongue-tied, are less than eloquent, and change logical courses halfway through our speech. Or was it the local English variety? Or perhaps again the person was not really a native-speaker of English.

A Japanese colleague is visiting the U.S. to research for a similar purpose and I myself will be visiting some other locales to get a better sense of other varieties of nursing English. Ultimately, we hope to piece together a rounded and accurate picture of what should be prioritized, or even included at all, in ESP teaching materials such as Nursing. But, man, this is much harder than I thought.

Comments on any readers’ experiences of researching, developing or using corpora-based ESP materials are welcome.

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December 07, 2010

Double Dipping- Divergence Duty or Dubious Duplication?

OK, you are probably now asking yourself two questions:, 1. What is 'double dipping'? and 2. How many 'D' words can one alliterate in a title without it crossing over from clever to cornball ?(answer: 6). Anyway, double dipping refers to the practice of academics doing the same (or a very similar) presentation twice (or more).

You can find an interesting summary and discussion on the practice here. I encourage readers to read the follow-up comments at the bottom of that article as well.

Is double dipping dubious? The arguments against it are based primarily on the notion that it is a type of CV padding, a sleight-of-hand used to pile up the 'presentations' category. Other arguments I've heard are based upon the rather old-fashioned notion that at a conference you literally 'read your paper'- that is, you do some research, you write a paper based on that research, you read it at a conference, and finally you publish the paper in the conference proceedings. In fact, the linked article above even uses the telltale term 'conference papers' in its title.

Some also argue that if it is OK for a teacher or academic to double dip a presentation, then it must be OK for a student to hand in the same paper twice. Now, I don't think anyone would doubt that double dipping a paper, either as a student or as a researcher, is unethical. Self-plagiarism is just that. But papers and presentations are as similar as apples and peanut butter. For one thing, if you write a paper once but hand it in twice you have made no effort beyond that of writing the initial paper, whereas a presentation requires a full effort each time. After all, there is a big dynamic, energy-based difference between 'doing a presentation' and merely photocopying a paper, Moreover, a paper archived is (normally) accessible to any reader who seeks it. A presentation isn't.

Doing a similar presentation twice (or more) is actually more akin to teaching the same classroom lesson twice- to different classes. Would anyone have a problem with that?

Regardless, the fact is that back in the days when there were fewer conferences and travel was more difficult and the idea of 'presentation' was not quite what it is now, and the avoidance of double dipping made better sense.

But times have changed. It's actually very hard to find people who don't double dip to some extent in the academic world and there are actually numerous sound, educational reasons for doing so. In fact, can anyone imagine such ESL/EFL luminaries as David Nunan, Chris Candlin, Michael McCarthy, Paul Nation or Henry Widdowson actually NOT doing essentially the same presentation twice or more? In almost any academic endeavor you will see that academics and researchers go over the same presentation themes several times before embarking on new horizons. Many make only the slightest adjustments even after several years of variation on the same research.

Moreover, you may well be invited to do a certain presentation elsewhere because someone saw your presentation and felt that it would be beneficial for a new, different audience. And this is key- the audience is always changing for a presentation. They are seeing it for the first time. If, at your initial presentation, you've only presented to 15 or 20 people- that is the entirety of your audience- not exactly bang for your research buck. Reaching a wider audience for your research therefore seems to me to be a pretty good justification for double dipping, especially when distances are wide but research-funded travel is more realizable. Some smaller conferences actually appeal for presenters, and if these minor conferences also happen to be held in remote locales- away from the larger conference venues- it holds great benefit for the local organizers, the local academic organizations, and the local audience (both educationally and financially).

In fields of greater import than EFL the dissemination of good research to a wider audience is almost a duty. If someone has successfully found a complete cure for cancer you don't want the audience to be limited to 10 people at a community center in Missoula.

Of course if you just go through the motions and do the exact same presentation each time you are simply being sloppy and lazy, no question. You owe it to your new audience to tailor your presentation according to audience type, size and setting. You also tweak it simply to make it a better presentation- learning from the bits that didn't go so well before.

Imagine being a musician travelling from town to town. Of course you will perform many of your hit songs because that is what the audience wants to see. But you will also (or at least should) vary the performance according to audience size and setting, and even according to the live dynamics of the actual performance. You'll add and subtract songs and your stage presence and performance will change. This makes perfect sense. No one expects a completely new show each and every time. Of course, riffing off the same old hits for several years without any change in content or direction might eventually place your wares in the has-been 99-cent used CD bin. Academics who mine the same barren shaft for more than a few years likely fall into the same category.

Another argument in favour of double dipping is that since there are several conferences these days, which serve not only as stages for presentations but also as opportunities to network, fraternize, engage in symposia, and attend other presentations for your own edification, If you had to undertake entirely new research for each such conference the quality of the research would almost certainly be superficial. You simply can't undertake totally fresh, new research three times a year (or more) yet the experience of partaking in three conferences a year would be considered a near-necessity for anyone involved in academia.

Then there is the CV padding canard. The fact is that presentations count for very, very little in terms of CV weight. Presentations are viewed more as experiences with personal networking value- good for the researcher's self-development- but not as academic achievements of great weight. Publications hold several times the weight- as do, albeit to a lesser degree- roles in academic societies, adjunct teaching invitations, citations, editing/review positions, social roles/functions connected to one's university position and so on. Presentation numbers don't figure much into contract renewals at all.

Of course there are some steps one can take to minimize any negative impact of double dipping. Aside from the above-mentioned common sense tweaking and adjusting, you can always make mention to the audience that you are making a presentation similar to that which you have done elsewhere (lest you inadvertently cause someone sit through it all again), as well as letting conference organizers know (and approve) of the situation in advance.

Lastly, having been an audience member for numerous double dipped presentations in the past, excellent presentations that I have often benefited greatly from, I can vouch from personal experience that the practice offers far more benefits than demerits. If anything, dounble dipping- within reason of course- should probably even be encouraged.

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June 05, 2012

My how different you look! 15 years of university changes

As the old saying goes, "If you turn a corner slowly enough it ceases to be a corner". Actually, that's not an old saying. I just made it up but it makes me feel clever and it is appropriate for today's entry so there you go.

This year marks my fifteenth teaching at a university in Japan. Having kept the same office on the same campus and using many of the same classrooms for all of that time, on a day-to-day basis it appears that not too much has changed. But if I was to enter into a time warp and go back fifteen years, I'm sure that I'd notice how much-- besides the inevitable construction of new buildings and parking lots-- has been altered.

More social support networks

The first would be social support networks. Now, there is a campus ombudsman and a women's support center, both with full-time staff and both in regular contact with teachers, administrators and committees about protocols, procedures, and sometimes, personal issues. There are now very clear, well-supported avenues one can take in regard to power harassment, sexual harassment, academic harassment, and even alcohol harassment. This, in turn, has forced potential violators to consider their actions as highly visible campaigns are carried out to discourage them and inform victims of possible recourses of action.

Unfortunately, this has also lead to more spurious claims of harassment, such as against a professor for warning a student about slovenly work and possibly failing a class, or a section manager asking an underling to carry out some standard procedure. Fatuous claims are, unfortunately, the reverse side of the otherwise healthy open-avenues-for-redress coin.

Newly forbidden activities

Smoking has pretty much gone the way of the leisure suit and the mullet. Fifteen years ago students smoked right outside the classroom, and teachers, researchers and office workers did so in their offices or hallways. It looked like a scene from Mad Men on occasion. Now, except for a small, hidden outdoors gazebo purposely-built, smoking on campus is utterly kinshi!

Even the notorious campus festival pre-party has been toned down. I'd say this was inevitable because it really couldn't have been 'toned up'. I'm no shrinking violet, but even I was shocked when I witnessed my first zenya-sai. I know that medical students worldwide are renowned for letting off steam but I had no idea that anyone would do that on a stage with a bucket of nattou, a flower arrangement, and a pair of Speedos. How they got the octopus on the lighting rig I'll never know. It's far more sedate now (a surprising number of OBs and OGs think the current students are a buncha wimps) and senior students now patrol the campus pot-fest for unruly behavior or to thwart drunk driving. (It is amazing to what degree, both positive and negative, the influence of seniors can weight upon the behavior of the juniors).

Money-chasing

The semi-independent status provided to national universities from the Ministry of Education, Textiles, Aquarium Maintenance, and Banjo Appreciation (or whatever it's called now) has had a palpable effect too. The first involves the need to raise funds for research. The importance of applying for, and hopefully, receiving, Scientific In-Aid grants has increased exponentially. The ability to gain research funding probably trumps pure educational skill in terms of value to the university. That might sound facetious, but it does mean that you can't afford to not be involved in research-- that universities are seen as research institutions as much as they are educational.

Transparency and full accountability has become a major issue. The requirement for full documentation, with all T's crossed and I's dotted for expenses, travel, and research activities, has probably increased everybody's paper-workload by about 20% but, as a public institution this is paramount. But even things like Valentine's gifts from students or o-miyage for fellow staff have become frowned upon for fear of being seen as an impropriety-- as a type of bribe. Visits to teacher offices by students are also now supposed to be notated-- day, time, purpose etc.-- in order to ward of possible subsequent claims. Unfortunately, this makes teacher-student relations less fraternal, less collegial.

(addition) Connected to this is a greater cognizance of privacy issues. Teachers used to be issued a booklet containing all student contact details, backgrounds etc., which I found very helpful. But now, due to privacy concerns, a request for any information must go through the Student Affairs Division. The same is true for using any existing patient information as classroom materials for students. It has to be scrubbed down and sterilized. The irony of course is that the new concern for privacy goes hand in hand with the call for transparency and openness.

Contracts and the DATABASE

Contracts have changed too. Tenure, in the old-fashioned sense, no longer really exists in national universities. Permanent employees instead are issued multiple renewable contacts. This wards off the possibility of maintaining academic deadwood, since one has to maintain one's database score. Thankfully, the old Gaikokujin Kyoushi positions of the late twentieth century have been laid to rest. And the ephemeral nature of research budgets means that part-time staff live a precarious existence-- roles and some income dependent upon whether the research proposal is passed or not.

Speaking of the database (which perhaps should be written in caps as: DATABASE) this incredibly complex item has become ubiquitous in recent years. Managing this ungainly collection of performance data (cynics might even say 'manipulating' it) is a necessary and time-consuming skill that never used to carry much import at all. Now, you might think that a database is (and please excuse the dense, technical terminology that follows) a 'base' of information from which specific 'data' can be collected. But you'd be wrong. When some committee or department or research project wants certain pertinent data from you they can't go to the DATABASE. That's because the DATABASE is an evaluative tool and therefore is not accessible to all and sundry (especially sundry). The committee or department instead has to make their own data form from which you input all your stuff once again-- except now the categories and details overlap or are somehow different, which means that a simple cut 'n paste won't (pun intended) cut it.

A drop in academic skill and achievement?

Have the students themselves changed? Demographic changes mean that competition for national university seats has decreased and thus cumulative admission scores are on average slightly lower than before-- especially at the lower end of the entry scale. However, I haven't really noticed this effect qualitatively upon the English skills of the incoming en'eki (straight from high school) students. What I do notice though is fewer mature students than in the past-- who often had real-world English experience, not to mention general academic and social maturity.

My students still don't have potential employment issues-- the dreary employment climate has had little to no effect. As medical students they know that their skills and qualifications are in demand so there is no extrinsic pressure to perform well as students merely for employment's sake. And, thankfully, we don't actually have to engage in song-and-dance recruitment tactics. Yet.

The M-F medical student ratio has remained about the same-- about 60-50 in favour of the males (110 students are admitted every year). But there has been a recent campaign to get them to stay in Miyazaki after graduating since we were losing large numbers to the bigger burghs for quite a while or enticing Miyazaki residents who studied other subjects at elite universities like Todai to return to Miyazaki and take up medicine. This has meant a more localized student body too-- as well as more students gaining entry based upon recommendations (such students tend to populate either the very upper or lowest tiers).

Less bureaucratic tooth-sucking

The university has become actively international. There is a pretty constant influx of students and researchers from sister universities in other Asian countries, international health care organizations, more visiting experts from abroad, and more opportunities for our students to pursue health care activities abroad. International contacts and relations produce less bureaucratic procedural tooth-sucking than they did fifteen years previous.

This openness has extended to on-campus commercial activity too (although this could still stand improving). When I started, there was one bookstore and food supplier that had a monopoly on our book-buying and on-campus eating choices. Now, local entrepreneurs are welcome (as long as they follow the rules) and we can buy our books from whoever we damn well please-- and with much, much less of a mark-up.

Of course in writing this I run the risk of unfairly applying my own university's situation to the bigger Japan picture. After all, one major development arising out of the new semi-independence scheme is that individual universities can be more flexible and idiosyncratic in their choices, that fewer and fewer general guidelines are passed down from Monkasho. So I ask you-- have you noticed similar-- or different-- changes at your own?

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