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The Uni-Files - the political side Archive

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

February 16, 2009

Parody- Armadillo's Blog

Today I’m not going to talk about teaching English at universities in Japan but rather about one aspect of the English-speaking diaspora in Japan, specifically Japan-based English blogs. Why? Until recently, I remained one of the dozen or so foreigners living in Japan who didn’t have their own blogs, but was recently asked by English Teachers Japan (ETJ) to start the one you are now reading.

This meant that I spent a few months beforehand doing what I had for the most part previously avoided doing, looking at other Japan-based English-language blogs authored by foreigners (or in some cases naturalized Japanese) to get a feel for the local blog culture. While a fair number were balanced, amusing, informative, and well-written, more than a few seemed to have a tiresome ‘chip-on-the-shoulder-about-Japan’ air, especially in the comments sections. If you want to know what I mean you might want to check out the parody blog below. Let’s call it Armadillo’s Blog, with Armadillo being the host blogger.

Welcome to Armadillo’s Blog-
Comments Section:
(15 comments)

1. Dear Armadillo,
Recently, I went into a book store in Nanikamachi and to my surprise and disgust there was no section for English books, except for textbooks and study guides. Since Japan wants so much to be seen as ‘internationalized’ I found this shocking. What do you think?
Farkey

2. Farkey,
You are right to be concerned about this so-called bookstore’s failure to serve certain ‘problematic’ customers (namely NJs). I called the shop and talked to the manager, a Mr. Yamamoto, who apologized for the lack of English books, claiming that he was not aware of any substantial demand for English books at his shop. However, he said that he would “look into” displaying a small section of English books in the near future. We’ll see.
Armadillo

3. Armadillo,
According to the most recent statistics, the total population of Nanikamachi is only 150,000, of which the foreign population makes up less than 1%. Here is the link. I don’t think that foreign customers represent a profitable demographic for that type of retailer. Anyway, there is another book shop (here) in Nanikamachi which seems to have an English section. Given this, I certainly don’t think that this particular shop’s decision to not sell English books is in any way strange or discriminatory.
Prokop

4. Prokop,
Are you just here to troll by pasting links or are you going to give a coherent argument of any kind?
Armadillo

5. Prokop,
Your a looser and a moran!!! if no books is in English in the store how Can my students get there english to be good ? LOL
Stubby

6. Armadillo,
I went back to that book shop in Nanikamachi 6 months after my post (above) and yes, there was a small display of English books there now. But do you know where it was? Right at the back, near the toilet! What does that say about their attitude towards foreign customers?
Farkey

7. Farkey,
It’s these kinds of not-too-subtle messages about the position of lowly NJs in Japan that make my blood boil. Anyway, I called Mr. Yamamoto again, who gave me the spurious argument that some section has to be placed at the back at the store near the toilet. He also rationalized the fact that the English section was near the toilet entrance as a mere coincidence (Yeah, right!). Anyway, he said he would do his best to change the location of the display. We’ll see. Armadillo

8. Armadillo,
I visited that racist book shop in Nanikamachi the other day and I noticed that their English section was now way up front near the counter. What’s up with that? Probably they are they worried that foreign customers will steal books so maybe they think they have to keep an eye on us. They treat us like criminals just because we’re foreigners!
Velcro

9. And the Japanese government does nothing!
Tumbleweed

10. Velcro,
This particular shop has clearly been flouting the basic human rights of foreign customers for some time now. I tried to talk to the manager, Mr. Yamamoto, again but after some background discussion apparently he was ‘out’ and the assistant (and I use that term lightly) manager, a ‘Miss Watanabe’, simply kept on repeating “I see. I see” when I presented my coherent and valid complaints. Obviously they have no intention of properly serving foreign customers. Boycott!
Armadillo

11. Armadillo,
Recently, as I was getting off a Japanese airline (the national carrier) on a domestic flight, the stewardesses were saying, “Arigatou gozaimashita” to all the departing Japanese or Japanese-looking passengers. But when I walked by they said, “Thank you very much” in English. This is unequal treatment and racial profiling! Not only that but they are treating me as if I’m too stupid to understand their language. I am still hurting from this blatant act of discrimination.
Mastodon

12. Mastodon,
As a national airline, their discriminatory behavior actually contravenes the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, and just about anything written by Amnesty International. But don’t expect the GOJ to do anything since so-called laws in this country mean nothing.
By the way, I’ve started filing a lawsuit even as I write this.
Armadillo

13. Armadillo and Mastodon,
Aren’t you guys making a big deal out of nothing? The stewardesses simply said, “Thank you” in a way that they’d be sure you understand. What’s the problem?
Prokop

14. Prokop,
Don’t you understand? The airline workers are probably getting told by the police to single out the foreigners. Maybe they get trained by the government who probably tells them to treat foreigners less politely than Japanese. Maybe they have it written in a manual. They probably learn it in schools too, which are controlled by the government, probably.
How can you support government-sponsored racism like this?
Velcro

15. Prokop,
Why are you such an Uncle Tom apologist? Our rights are slowly being destroyed by this airline passenger apartheid. What’s next? Marks on our foreheads? This is precisely why Japan is not respected and is thirty years behind the rest of the world in terms of human rights. If this happened in any ‘civilized’ country there would be riots in the streets!
Tumbleweed

…And so on.
You might think that ‘Armadillo’s blog’ is an exaggeration but you’d be wrong. The only allowance I’d make is that there are usually a few more reasonable folks (like Prokop) chiming in (and often hosting their own, more well-balanced, blogs). Other than that, what you see above is not uncommon. Of course, blogs rarely make for highbrow reading (thank goodness!) but scanning some of them can provide an interesting insight into the English-speaking milieu in Japan for both Japanese and foreign residents. Unfortunately, a number of them do end up sounding like English soundbites from Japan’s notorious 2ch, although the ‘seedy underbelly’ element of the blogosphere may be precisely one of the reasons it is worth checking out.

By the way, if you liked the spoof please feel free to link or copy it, with the usual protocols in mind.


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March 06, 2009

The On-Campus Language Center ‘Solution’ (Or What Is University English Teaching Really About Anyway?)

In the last 15 or so years a number of universities have responded to MEXT-initiated reforms by moving their English education departments into separate on-campus language training centers (thankfully this has not happened here at the UOM although it has been suggested- and duly shot down- in the past). The logic behind the move works something like this: English-language training is considered not to be an academic course but a kind of preparatory, and peripheral, skill training. Therefore, in these language centers students will upgrade their general English skills before embarking upon more serious or in-depth research in their university departments, the latter which will be overseen by content, not language-education, specialists. (Of course, there are variations on this theme from university to university).

In practice, what this has also meant is a move towards hiring more part-time (hijoukin) English teachers with some of the old full-time guard now marginalized or having had their roles (and sometimes salaries) reduced. So yes, cost-cutting is also a factor in making these decisions since the ‘incorporization’ of public universities over past decade or so.

One large question underpins discussion of this shift to on-campus language centers. Is it pedagogically sound to segregate English education from the wider academic life of the university? On one hand it seems that language center proponents might have an argument. That is, if one thinks of university English as merely being an extension of, or companion to, Eikaiwa, a consolidation of high school English, or something akin to an Eigo Senmon Gakko (English vocational school), there may be some justification for this educational apartheid. And unfortunately, some teachers inadvertently buy into this educational philosophy as an acceptable model for universities.

Yes, a few administrators and fellow profs at my own university hold the belief (slowly melting away as we stake our pedagogical ground) that the general English courses are taught by largely academically unqualified native speakers who are doing ‘communicative’ lessons which are thereby believed to be little more than on-campus ‘How are you?’ sessions. So, if and when teachers actually teach like that in a university setting they are throwing gasoline on this fire of marginalization.

This approach seems to me to be based upon confusion about the function of a university and, in many cases, leads to a dumbing down of standards. Students will inevitably rise or sink to the level of the challenges we set before them. Universities should not be glorified Eikaiwa schools or high school review classes (and yes I know of university teachers going over the same things my 13 year old son is currently learning in the first year of junior high). And although Eikaiwa schools have a useful function in society it is clearly not the same as a university’s. A university is supposed to involve cognitive engagement with content, stimulating thought, furthering understanding of some chosen academic subject. At this level then, English should not be an end in itself but a means to an end.

Let me give you an example. I teach medical students. They are, not surprisingly, interested in medicine first and foremost. Therefore, my English classes focus entirely on medical content. In the first two years this involves them learning how to taking medical histories in English, completing medical charts in English, doctor to doctor (or nurse) correspondence regarding case studies, all in English. The content is engaging for them and they are forced to think about medicine (cause-effect, bedside manner, rhetorical organization). And, as they carry out these tasks, they are indirectly absorbing sound English forms and vocabulary in that (medical) context. Communicative need not imply ‘conversation’. Communicative teaching can also imply academic accountability.

In other words, their English study is tied directly to the fundamental mission of the medical faculty and thereby to their overall academic studies. It is an integral part of their MEDICAL education. And here’s the rub: It is NOT too hard for them (and yes, the bulk of the students are standard Japanese HS graduates, albeit generally from ‘good’ schools). True, they may make basic mistakes in English, but they also have a 6 year English foundation on which they can, and should, now build. By using this approach, their latent understanding of English is stimulated and challenged through cognitive engagement with academic, forward-thinking content. If they have the cognitive ability to engage the content they can, and in fact do, upgrade their English ability to deal with that content.

If we treat university Eigo as an extension of HS or Eikaiwa we can go on forever with their mistakes in using basic general English structures and their seeming inability to master certain simple functions. But you know what? At my uni we regularly host visiting doctors and grad students from other non-English based countries and they make general English mistakes just as basic as many Japanese HS grads and yet are able to function academically in English (presentations, lead lectures, academic correspondence etc). If our students are not challenged by deeper content most of them will be stuck on the Eikaiwa merry-go-round and (repeat) this is not the function of a university, although yes, it does serve as a good justification for an on-campus language center.

OK. Here’s another reason why separate language centers don’t work well. Hijoukin teachers aren’t really committed to ‘the program’. I don’t mean that they don’t care as teachers, that they are being derelict in their duties, or somehow otherwise lacking a moral compass. What I mean is that if you are coming in from outside for two only classes a week (as I do at a nearby university) there is no way you can have the same overview and sense of connection to the program and get involved in its planning and maintenance the same way as full-timers can. Part time teachers can’t be on planning committees, they can’t have special classes for remedial work or orientation, they don’t have open offices to discuss student progress and problems, and can’t get involved with extracurricular functions, even with the best will in the world. Neither can they easily bridge their English classes with other disciplines at the university.

So, yes, a separate language center staffed by part-time teachers might appear to save money and serve a specific function. But is this bang for the university student’s or the taxpayers’ bucks? Obviously, I don’t think so. Is it pedagogically and academically sound? Keeping English in the mainstream of campus academic life will make sense only if university English courses and programs are both viewed and carried out as academically challenging and content-engaging courses, by administrators and especially teachers, and not treated as lightweight conversation lessons with foreigners divorced from their REAL university classes..


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March 26, 2009

University jobs, permanency and so-called ‘musical chairs’

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding foreigners’ positions at Japanese universities. Ivan Hall lambasted the (allegedly) closed and exclusive mentality of both universities and the Ministry of Education in his 1998 book ‘Cartels of the Mind’. James McCrostie has echoed some of these sentiments more recently in a few articles found here and here.

I think both accounts are a little one-sided and imbalanced in many places, although they also certainly hit on a few painful truths. Having been around the scene for awhile I am acquainted with several cases of allegedly (there’s that word again) unjust treatment of foreign faculty at Japanese universities. From my front row seat, I’d have to say that I’ve seen all types: cases where the authorities were clearly discriminatory and unreasonable in their actions, cases where both parties have been sloppy or have failed to live up to expectations or agreements, and an equal number of cases where the non-Japanese complainant squarely falls into the “What on earth were you thinking!” category.

I myself have been involved in union action against what I viewed as unjust and unfair practices in the past. I say this so that no one rushes to the conclusion that my hesitancy to outright condemn the current foreign-teacher contracting practices at Japanese universities is a product of some deeper-rooted political polemic. So let me talk about and explain the situation as I see it.

Q- What was the great purge of the mid 90’s all about?

During this decade, the Ministry of Education wanted to loosen their ties with national universities and grant even more independence to private universities. This meant that less governmental funding was available. Universities had to gradually become semi-commercial/privatized entities (houjinka) which meant a lot of applying for grants and awards, fund raising etc. In other words, the money was no longer automatic.

Q- How did this affect individual universities?
Here’s an important thing to note. MEXT did NOT (and almost never DOES) tell individual universities how and where to save or appropriate funds, although they did offer various suggestions and general guidelines, but rather it was, and still is, up to each university to adapt and use funds according to their needs and local policies (this lead to an enormous number of faculty meetings in the late 90’s). (Sidebar- this notion that ‘someone in MEXT ‘calls’ ‘someone’ in each university and passes on ‘directives’, like a general at army headquarters passing on orders to his field commander, is just…well…wrong). Anyway, one of the ramifications of this was, of course, the possibility of cutbacks in faculty. Everyone, including MEXT, was aware that there was a lot of deadwood in Japanese universities. One response to this was that something called the ninkisei system was introduced. It meant that tenure, as we know it, was gone. Instead, a limited number of renewals on contracts (different lengths of time and number of renewals according to different status) became the norm. These renewals have to be voted upon by other staff and be able to meet the fiscal budget. And yeah- there is no doubt an element of quid pro quo involved in these semi-automatic renewals, thus not really achieving the aim of getting rid of the deadwood or even stirring them to life.

Q- So, what about your contract, Mike?

Originally I was hired as a Gaikokujin Kyouin (foreign teacher) on a one year contract renewable six times with no further extension. Now I am on a five year contract, renewable three times, with no possibility of extension. I have to be voted in by the board of trustees after completion of each contract. Part of what gets reviewed at this time is my university “rating”, that is we accumulate points for publications, presentations, community involvement, participation in professional organizations, committee work and so on. This is another ramification of the move to semi-privatization, as new standards of quality control and re-checking have been introduced.

Q- Whoa whoa back up there. How did you get from the original six years with no extension into this current, more permanent contract? Isn’t that an extension?

Actually I applied for newly created position (junkyouju- Associate Professor). The old position of gaikokujin kyouin was nullified, a new one opened, and I guess I had achieved enough during my time as gaikokujin kyouin to warrant a longer stay under a different contract (yes, I had to officially retire for one day and even got my retirement benefits before re-starting under the new contract).

Now here’s where I’d like you, dear reader, to consider something. If you read certain sites or books you will get the strong impression that foreigners gaining anything close to a permanent position is very rare. Yet, if you’ve been around the Japan EFL scene for awhile you’ll undoubtedly note that many of the same Gaijin teacher/professors’ names pop up here and there and that their affiliations are the same year after year. Yes, many foreigners are getting or holding more secure longer-term positions.

Just using my smallish home city of Miyazaki as an example…besides myself at the UoM, we have an international university with a largely NJ staff, most of whom are long-termers, a municipal university which has granted long-term employment to NJ faculty, and a joshi tandai (women’s junior college) where the NJs have been around longer than I have at the University of Miyazaki. We all know each other. No, it’s not rare to meet tertiary education permanents or near-permanents. True- some NJs have gotten a raw deal and others have shot themselves in the foot but I simply can’t say that it is the standard or default practice to dump the foreign teachers quickly.

Q- But Japanese university teachers automatically get lifelong employment, don’t they?

In short, no. Most entry level Japanese teachers start on similarly impermanent, limited term contracts or various part-time contracts and slowly work themselves into better positions. Yes, some do lose their jobs when their contracts expire. We have some Japanese teachers in the English department at the UoM who are currently on limited contracts. And we have a few NJ teachers in the same tenuous entry-level position. Yeah- it’s a precarious spot to be in, not knowing what’s going to happen in a few years but it’s not as one-sided as it’s often made out to be.

Q- What about this ‘gaikokujin kyouin’ thing? Tell me more…

Eliminating these odd positions was one of the suggestions made by MEXT during the reform years. These ‘foreign teacher’ position were relics of the Meiji or Taisho periods and carried the implicit assumption that the foreigner was only going to be in Japan for a short time and would therefore have fewer responsibilities, be quite generously rewarded financially, but be very limited in terms of job permanency and influence. Unfortunately, some universities used the elimination of this position to dump some foreign teachers outright (no, no one at MEXT ‘told them to’ although they do have the habit of passing the buck back to MEXT). Were they deadwood? Were they not planning to be long-termers anyway? Did they get the shaft? I can think of examples of all three.

My own university parlayed this into a new, more permanent position (with far more responsibilities and a salary cut). Thank you. I think. Am I just lucky or is it because I am such a raging stud of a teacher? The accidental recipient of undeserved largesse or the due consequence of being such an academic and intellectual colossus? Am I good at playing my cards right or did they just fall into a fortunate place for me?

Q- But isn’t discrimination still rampant at Japanese universities?

Here’s a waffly answer- it depends. What does it ‘depend’ on? Well, for one, if your Japanese is excellent you’re obviously going to be more fully clued in to what’s going on and your viewpoints will hold far more sway on policy-making committees. If your Nihongo is poor, it is natural that in some sense you will be marginalized. (Mine is about middling- decent in terms of committee work- which can involve some obtuse, convoluted and formalized expressions- although daily work lingo is no problem at all).

Your fellow profs will, as can be expected, express a variety of attitudes. Worst are the few (yes, a minority) who may feel the necessity to remind me that I have a “Japanese job”. Funny that. I thought it was just a job- a job that I was qualified better to do than the other candidates. I don’t remember seeing a “Japanese nationals only” clause in the announcement. (Sidebar- these tend to be the same people who interpret everything as a cultural difference- “So sensei, you argued against the new e-learning course. I think your American individualistic culture can’t quite understand our Japanese plan”. Yes, there are always a few throwbacks of that particular vintage).

There are also those who have the quaint notion that should your contract be abrogated you could always “go home”. Yeah. And any of them could equally “go home”, back to Nagoya, or Osaka or wherever they originally came from. It’s as if they think I have a “real” job waiting open for me back in Canada, perhaps where my “real house” and “real wife and family” are waiting too. What I suppose I should call my “fake” house, wife and family are 5 minutes down the road from the university. That is what I “go home” to everyday.
(Sidebar- This inevitably reminds me of my trips to the immigration office before I got my Japanese permanent residency status six years back. I often had to fill out forms asking me for my “home address” which was presumably somewhere in Canada. Because I hadn’t lived in a permanent house in Canada since I had entered university as a student, and because my parents had moved three times since I had left Canada many moons ago, I had no idea what my “real” address was supposed to be. I didn’t want to provide false information, like my old childhood home [which I think now may be a crack house] so I usually opted for my parents’ then-current address, which was often a place I had never even visited, let alone lived in)

But such people are, as I said earlier, a small minority (an irritating minority, but a minority nonetheless). Most of my Japanese colleagues are quite accepting and cosmopolitan and think it quite natural that I be in a “permanent” position and play an active role in the faculty. So that’s what I do. If there is a type of sequestering, it is due far more to the nature of departmental politics (turf wars rage at universities) than my being a Gaijin.

BTW-some hints on what you can do to get or hold university positions are coming in a future blog entry.

M.G.

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May 07, 2009

Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students

First-

My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

2. For any EFL teacher who claims that, “Japanese students don’t learn about things like global warming in their other classes so we need to tell them about it”:
Punishment- Deportation; with no possibility of re-entry to the country

Why you ask? Is there any topic that has been so done to death as this hackneyed old standard? I mean there are comic book characters now fight global warming! There are daily messages, guidelines, and notices given to the public through every arm of the media on the effects of global warming and steps to take for reducing it. Every second product on TV shills their product's environmental virtues. It seems like half the extracurricular classes at elementary schools focus on the problem of global warming and what we can do about it. Textbooks used in elementary schools have sections on global warming (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it). The issue is even addressed on Japanese cereal boxes, the ultimate arbiter of how cheesy a social issue has become. The global warming problem has become fully ‘establishment’, something passed down from authorities to which young people naturally start to develop a (healthy, in many cases) skepticism towards. My 13 year old son lampoons the whole business with a made-up character called ‘Eco-Santa’. Entrance exam designers at universities have long abandoned the ‘environment’ article as a standard exam text. It became too predictable and is now a boring cliché.
(Those who are not well acquainted with the Japanese language and/or wider Japanese society will often remain cocooned inside stereotypes which maintain that only progressive people, such as enlightened Westerners like themselves, are aware of and concerned about these ‘big issues’ and that Japanese media/society shield Japanese from awareness of these important issues. Uh, yeah- and they all wear topknots too).

So, when Mr. Brown, the teacher from Canada, comes into English class with his lesson on Global Warming to ‘inform’ his Japanese junior high schoolers of this important issue (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it)- it’s time to unleash the EFL police on ‘Mr. Brown from Canada’ and carry out the punishments proposed above.

[An aside- I once used an article in an EFL class which criticized some of the standard proposals on how to reduce our environmental footprint concluding that many of the standard proposed solutions often in fact led to greater energy consumption or other non eco-friendly results. In the workshee that I made to accompany this article I asked students to, among other things, 1) summarize the article in a sentence or two and 2) think of a suitable title. Although none of the environmental topics in the article addressed global warming, and although the tone of the whole piece was a questioning of popular environmental solutions, a large number of students 1) concluded that the article was about (wait for it)... “Global Warming” and 2) in summary, it was telling us that “we should do X to save the planet” (even where the article had explicitly criticized doing X).
Thank you very much for your contributions to mindnumbing social issues “discussion”, Mr. Brown from Canada].

Final note- global warming is a reality, a serious issue and is a multi-faceted, complex problem. But thanks to educational overkill, cloying oversimplification, and a resultant reduction to the lowest common denominator of ‘discussion’ it now has as much social impact as talking about Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s nekkidness.

Second-
Some positive encouragement for students:

In my earlier blog post about the new academic year I listed a number of frustrating classroom habits that I hoped to divest students of as soon as they entered university. Since this focused almost entirely on negative behavior I thought it would be a little more life-affirming if I also listed some positive classroom attitudes and practices that I try to inculcate early on. These include:

1. Making the most of a limited vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. That through negotiation, questioning and rephrasing you can communicate a lot using very little.

(Sidebar 1- Students are hobbled by the expectation or belief that unless they produce perfect English that they simply cannot express themselves and what they’ve tried to express is a completely uncommunicative mess. In fact, that is rarely the case as there are more non-native than native English speakers in the world and these people consistently engage in this type of imperfect language negotiation. And people who argue that specific ways of thinking are indelibly and irrevocably tied to specific languages (they are not! It’s the 21st century folks!) contribute to this sense of impossibility, of exaggerated distance)

2. That you can learn from your partner in any communicative activity. Don’t always depend on the teacher to learn! When your partner uses the ‘perfect’ English word, phrase, response pattern or grammatical form that you would probably not have been able to produce yourself- MAKE A NOTE OF IT SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW for future reference.

(Sidebar 2- many students assume that education is an amalgam of discrete items transmitted from teacher to student. It is disheartening when, after a lesson in which I’ve had students interact on a certain medical issue that involved active thinking and cognitive engagement, helped them to use certain rhetorical patterns to express this content, and helped them arrange all this in an acceptable written format- all in English, that what they remember I ‘taught’ from the lesson was one or two peripheral words that came up in the lesson, almost as an afterthought)

3. Learn from yourself. When you are trying to complete an in-class task or express yourself in English in any circumstance there will probably be times that you can’t recall or reproduce the word, phrase or best means of expressing whatever it is that you want to express. If so, keep your weakness in mind and STUDY OR CHECK IT LATER so that you don’t scrounge for the right expression the next time you need this item. Check the dictionary or a grammar reference. Or ask me, the teacher. Or ask another student.

(Sidebar 3- Students are often passive about their own shortcomings. They’ve made a mistake but tend to think ‘that’s it. It’s over. I can’t correct it now’ as if this communication is a one-time test that has been handed in and will be duly graded and there is nothing they can do about it now. Only the sharper ones realize that these tasks provide practice platforms for skill development and future language usage).

Mike

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May 15, 2009

Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors

First up today:
Language yaritori (give and take)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any others?

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May 27, 2009

Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed!

A. Grammar puzzles
Below are two structure questions/problems that came up in recent classes that I couldn’t explain succinctly to students. What would you say?

1. “I live in Saitama, which is next to Tokyo”.
Fine, right? OK- Here’s the student’s question- Why can’t you say, “I live in Saitama where is next to Tokyo?”. After all, we can use “where” in a similar structure: “I went back to Saitama where my parents live”- but not “which”. What are the underlying rules governing the relative cluses here and how would you give a quick outline to students who ask this?
(*note- I had originally written 'relative pronouns' above, which was clearly not an accurate description)

2. “I like action movies so I watch them as much as possible”.
This too is OK, right? But movies are countable, so why can’t we say “I like action movies so I watch them as many as possible”? And why is it that if we remove “them” from the sentence we can allow the countable “many”, as in: “I like action movies so I watch as many as possible”? What is the rule governing this and how would you explain it succinctly?

B. What’s so good about working at a university?
I’ve been very cynical in this blog recently and cynicism is just too easy, the official sport of people with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. So, in a positive vein, here are several things that make working full-time at a Japanese university (as an English professor) worthwhile.

1. You have your own office. What a blessing this is! You can hold private conversations. Take an inconspicuous break. Catch up on Stanley Cup playoff scores. Loosen your belt and let your stomach hang out. You can put on a Jaga Jazzist CD and nobody will be thinking that you must be screwing around (and I’m not- the music spurs me to do more). You can spread papers around wherever you please. After having my own office, I could never go back to a teacher’s common-area (the kind with partitions or cubicles) layout. I’d feel watched all day, under constant pressure, and probably achieve less in the process.

2. Nobody tells you what to do in your classes. It’s true that part-time university teachers often get told: ‘this is the system, we want you to use this textbook, teach according to this formula’ and the like. That’s understandable when Mr/Ms. Hijoukin is in and out of campus in half a day. But if you are a full-timer, the understanding is that you are almighty in your classroom decisions (including less and less pressure to pass very marginal students these days- often a problem at many universities in the past), that you were hired to make the educational and methodological decisions, and that it is really up to you to make something of your classes and not spend time trying to figure out what administrators want you to do. They have no idea what they want you to do because they are administrators, not teachers. It’s not their job. You make your job.

3. Many of the students are at an age where you can hold adult-level conversations with them. There is the somewhat justified image of the Japanese university student who is basically interested in some combination of drinking, sex, shopping, trying out new away-from-home hairdos, reading manga, and hanging out, but that is true of universities anywhere (except for you and I, dear reader, who were always impeccably studious of course). But many university students are curious, have developed sharp intellects that need stimulation, or crave in-depth discussion (we English teachers have a tendency to underrate student intelligence if their English skills are not consistent with their intellectual prowess). Many students offer interesting outside-the-box insights or ask probing questions, or simply know how to engage society in a refreshingly adult manner.

4. When you re-enter Japan and the ‘occupation’ section on your customs declaration card reads “University Professor” the customs guys become much more pleasant and malleable. “Did you bring any fruit or vegetables from abroad, sir? No? Then let me give you some! Bon appetit!”

5. At a lot of institutions the administrators-as-aristocracy, teachers-as-peasants meme is paramount. In fact, I worked in one place where it was so comically pronounced that it was almost a deliberate provocation. Not so at a university. Professors are, effectively, the management. Those who are in purely administrative roles tend to be far from imperious, almost obsequious. Now I don’t need anybody kowtowing to me but it feels good to have some status or at least respect for your position. Administrators administrate and professors proffer. They don’t give orders (they ask politely) or behave like they are holding my paypacket strings as a carrot. In return, I am polite and very hesitant before I question their office policies. It’s all about respecting territory.

C. The reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-type lessons finally revealed!

This notion of course tends to be a Western teacher’s self-serving conceit. I’m referring the stereotype that “they” Japanese teach teacher-fronted grammar-translation lessons to huge numbers of sleeping students, lecture-style while “we” non-Japanese teach highly interactive, dynamic, living English classes that our students love and adore us for. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met any Japanese teacher who admits to using the GT/TC method- every Japanese teacher I’ve met decries it as outdated. J students will often tell me that their J high school teachers taught GT but I think that this is something that needs to be researched a bit more. I’m a bit skeptical about accepting it at face-value. I suspect that even J students maintain the association of ‘Japanese teacher’ with ‘grammar-translation’ uncritically, just as many students will swear that my class was about ‘teaching technical terms’ when in fact only two such items came up tangentially in the lesson, a lesson that was actually about…oh… academic writing.

Regardless, I’m starting to understand the attraction of allegedly Neanderthal teaching methodologies as my age advances and my body starts creaking and groaning. Why? Keeping a class of 30 or so not-always-so-highly-motivated students is tiring! Keeping up the pace of work, making sure everyone is following along and doing the correct activities, checking, monitoring, handling the classroom equipment, summarizing, dealing with problems (both linguistic and behavioral) is tough! After 90 minutes of politically-correct methodology I am exhausted! It’s funny how learner-centered methodology can be so tiring to the teacher, whereas teacher-centeredness is much more relaxing.

So, I can see why a teacher might go into the main lecture hall with his power point slides (updated a bit every year), turn off the lights, face the screen and speak on his topic for 90 minutes. Maybe students are bored shiftless. Maybe half are asleep. Who cares? He’s teaching to whoever may be listening. Those who make the effort will learn something, he knows. If students don’t want to attend or listen he doesn’t care. It’s university after all. It’s their choice- he’s not a babysitter and he’s not there to entertain. nd at the end of the semester he gives the big lecture hall a class a single paper test and fails the ones who didn’t meet the standards. He knows his content well enough- he knows that it’s sound- and he’s passing it on to whoever may be interested, even if that's only a few souls (like this blog, perhaps!). At the end of the 90 minutes he’s not tired at all. He heads back to the lab where he can do his REAL work with the select graduate students who he’s entrusted with on a day-to-day basis, students who are really into the topic. Where he really feels like an EDUCATOR!

Luxury.

Yeah, yeah, I know that this violates the “Good English” teacher code and that I should hand in my teaching license to the relevant authorities for even thinking of this etc. etc. and, true, I wouldn’t allow myself to actually ever do it. But I CAN see the attraction. Just sayin’.

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June 03, 2009

English course exemptions and money matters

1. Class exemptions:

Most universities worldwide will offer course exemptions on basic courses to students who have transferable credits. We do too. Medical school attracts a number of transfer students, graduates, and even a few folks from the working public who’ve decided that they ‘have a dream’. If these students have a credit equivalent for English Communication or other basic English courses they are exempt from attending those courses at our university. I suspect that is true for most universities anywhere.

We have another exemption that is, in my opinion, less justifiable. A student with an 800+ TOEIC score is also exempt from the basic English communication courses. (In fact, at one time it was set at a paltry 550[!!!)). When students got word of that, a large number currently enrolled in the classes took a TOEIC exam and passed the 550 level easily, dropping out of my class halfway through the semester. It became an easy out, a credit given for success on a commercial venture- paper credit.

The biggest problem is that there is a huge difference between training for, and taking, a TOEIC test, and the interactive, process-learning, discourse-based English and resultant tasks that students practice (and hopefully master) in my classroom. A high score on an extracurricular, commercial examination has little connection to the contents learned and skills developed in my class. While that course is officially called 1st year Eigo Communication, it actually serves as an introduction to basic medical English discourse- and you can be sure students didn’t cover THAT on the TOEIC exam. The TOEICers haven’t gone through the process, and the process is what an interactive, COMMUNICATIVE course is all about.

Actually, neither have the transfer students. As a result, they enter general medical courses later on unfamiliar with the jargon, patterns, rhetorical style, modes of English medical discourse, what-have-you because they had an English 101 transfer credit from another university. A credit transfer from a course that had little or nothing to do with mine.

Ok. While I understand the need to grant some exemptions I wistfully recall the days when all 1st year students at my university were required to take the class- even if they were Tokyo U. graduates who had lived in the U.K. for 12 years and had TOEIC scores off the charts (and yes, we have a few students like that). Those students acted as mentors to others. They raised the bar. They raised the maturity level, the aura of seriousness in the class. They were role models. And I could still make tasks that challenged them because they were new to the whole medical discourse thing.

Some students with extensive English skills/experience do still take the Eigo Communication classes. But these tend to be younger students who lived abroad and are entering university for the first time and did not take a TOEIC exam. Naturally, there is a mixed bag. Some give off a “Been there done that” air (although the know-it-all-ism catches up with them pretty quickly). Some can be a bit too diffident in their approach to English or interactions with the teacher (the exaggerated ‘I know what students in America are like and so I’m going to affect those postures too!’ vibe). Interestingly, those who have daily-life English experience but who are still young and immature are often those most likely to start using Japanese in the classroom, poisoning the atmosphere, or be prone to putting their heads down to sleep or otherwise making ostentatious gestures of apparent indifference or boredom.( Again though, this is true of some, not the majority, of younger ‘returnees’).

I miss what the more mature, experienced students brought to the classroom. They knew how to be a student, they knew effective classroom habits, study habits, social interactions, and their influence could be felt throughout the classroom. I wish the exemptions didn’t exist. I feel like there is still a lot that my class could offer those students- but even more so there is so much that they could offer the younger students.

2. Money matters and education:

It is usually the ‘right’ thing to say something like, “We should take the money out of military spending and put it into something productive, like education” but sometimes I wonder. Have you ever visited those schools that have computer systems that could dwarf NASA’s but are used by a total of about 6 students for about 30 minutes a day each? How about those tiny, unused rooms that have state-of-the-art BlueRay setups so complex that no one at the school actually knows how to run anything more than the basic DVD program on it- and the rooms are usually locked anyway?

Getting money – or more accurately, procuring a big budget- generally just means more work for those of us at universities, since we have to preen and pose prettily for our yen in this era of semi-privatization (houjinka). These days, if you are getting grants you have to fill out several hundred elaborate forms, write dozens of interim reports, produce lushly illustrated pamphlets, lengthy account lists, follow newly-established FD protocols, and basically spend your time and energy doing things to justify having your big budget. And why carry out all this busy work? So that you can apply for the big budget again next year!!! And, frankly speaking, I’m not so sure that all of these materials we have to produce are looked at deeply by the officials who approve the funding. Sometimes I get the feeling that we could write, “We contributed the money to North Korea’s self-defence” or “We blew it all on booze and floozies” and no one would bat an eyelid (come to think of it, the latter might be considered a normal expenditure in some circles- nyark, nyark).

The treadmill goes round and round. The unfortunate thing, it seems to me, is that the expenditure-to-actual-educational-attainment ratio is negligible. Standard text books, magic markers, whiteboards and a visual display unit in classrooms should cover 95% of what teachers do (at least what English teachers do). Up to date computers and software? Yeah- for the teachers. Printers, copiers etc. too. But students seem to do 95% of what they do on their own keitais. Except for the very occasional extracurricular use of expensive E-learning software programs, on-campus computers don’t seem to get a lot of use (and I'm not just talking about my own little neck of the woods here). Now I’m not going to say that this is a waste of money. Installing a complex e-learning system probably keeps a few salesmen, business-types and factory workers employed. Keeping the money flow liquid is important in these times of economic downturn. I know that these things also lend prestige to an institution (they look good in pamphlets photos and explanations, and will inevitably be the type of room that visitors of note will be lecturing in). And I must admit that having my airfare, hotels and per diem for attending foreign conferences fully covered makes business trips doubly pleasant.

But the big question is, are we working merely to maintain budgets or to educate? OK- if that sounds a bit too St. Francis Of Assisi, meaning that it sounds like I’m heading in the direction of arguing that teachers should all impoverish themselves as servants to public service, here’s a suggestion of what to do with that extra money: Raise teachers’ base salaries! Seriously! National university professors do not make much money (and I’m sure this statement doesn’t hold true only for national university profs)! I have advanced academic degrees, 20 years’ experience teaching, and enough publications/presentations to stun an ox, but my monthly salary is equal to that of most Eikaiwa teachers I know with less than 5 years’ experience.

Don't get me wrong, I’m not pulling rank here- it’s just a fact. I myself earned more as a vocational school teacher 15 years back than I do now (cue violins). I have a friend who has been working at his school for 10 years. When his students graduate and find work their names, employers, and salaries are often made known. To his chagrin, my friend noticed that many students who joined the workforce straight out of high school were already earning more than he was- despite being a 10 year vet with a degree!

OK- Many university full-timers do get good fringe benefits. I’ll admit that. We get bonuses. Pension, insurance, health plans and housing allowances are the norm, at least at National universities. We get a retirement payment. Our study and research trips get fully paid for. The perks are quite generous. But the total is still not what you might think. The idea is, of course, that national university teachers are performing a type of public service. That’s fine- most teachers are happy to make sacrifices for the education of the students- but it still pains me to see money thrown around merely to maintain the budgetary cycle. Just like the road construction crews, the department has to spend its allotted budget in time in order to get the same funding again next year and repeat the Sisyphian task.

The end result? The feeling that my value as a worker is not so much to educate, or even to feed my family, but merely to keep the budget treadmill going.


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October 08, 2009

Unintentionally positive discrimination, fraternizing, and all that

A potpourri of smaller items today.

1. Unintentionally positive discrimination
Here's a case in which native-English speakers actually receive a positive break in the university heirarchy.

Like all national universities in Japan, ours has a database in which our various achievements, duties, involvements and so forth are compiled. These are assigned points, depending upon the size of the achievement, importance of duty (usually meaning committee work) and so on. The total 'value' of your database score can be a factor when renewing contracts.

Interestingly, in our database, a presentation given abroad is given a higher ranking than a domestic presentation. So are papers published in English, especialy in foreign journals. This is obviously meant to emphasize the importance of international recognition and of furthering academic horizons for Japanese academics. But of course, this also means that without too much effort, almost by default, I can pick up a lot of easy database points.

So, here's the 'moral' question. If we operate upon the principle of complete equality then I should be subject to the same system and rankings as my Japanese colleagues, right? But clearly this 'equality' favours me in some respects as a native speaker of English. So it is quite arguable that this full equality is actually unfair. An interesting dilemma.

Here's the counterbalance though- not being fully competent in Japanese (and I mean hardcore academic or administrative Japanese here) means that I inevitably take a lower ranking in other categories- I will not be taking high-ranking roles on committees or positions of high influence within the community or wider society in general (which is a key section on the database). And this will always be my achilles heel as an NJ.

2. The unending mystery of contract renewals...
I've written on this topic earlier but I keep learning more, as the current Houjinka system has made contracts something of an open-ended free-for-all. Anyway, it seems that many university departments apply for grant money to establish new positions under the rubric of 'new researcher'. One of the conditions usually included is that the researcher not have worked in a university before. It is a way of finding new blood and giving these people a chance to get into the university system. As you know though, these are almost always limited contracts, dependant upon the nature of the grant or funding. Obviously, by definition, one can't be a 'new researcher' forever.

Many NJs are hired under such contracts (although the number of Japanese hired in this manner is inevitably higher). The notion is akin to that of a trial or probation period- after which there are several options. Once the contract expires, the idea is not necessarily that the 'new researcher' be kicked out on their asses but rather, if valued by the institution, they can be re-hired or re-contracted under a different, hopefully more permanent, designation which is funded from a different budget. This, in part, explains the musical chairs nature of some contract renewals.

Unfortunately this still also allows some university authorities the moral luxury of believing that NJs hired in this manner, and I mean those fully contributing, won't suffer much if the contract ends outright because they can always 'go home'. Luckily for me, my faculty does not think in this way and fully recognizes that we have lives and families in Japan. The upshot of course is that the NJ hired under such a contract is expected to fully operate as a part of the team, which includes...

3. Fraternizing (or not)
Recently I was asked to act as a Zacho (an academic Master of Ceremonies) for the foreign language section of a Pan-Kyushu university conference held in Miyazaki. This was a very Japanese conference with all the strict formatting and formalities you might expect. No, it was not just about foreign language study, but for all humanities subjects. It was a big suit and tie deal. As Zacho, I had to use very formalized Keigo (respectful) Japanese and follow the rather rigid 'way' of introductions, announcements and shitsugi oto (Q and A).

Now that was OK. I was glad to be asked to take part, which represented a further validation of my status at the university, plus a chance to learn the Zacho role and duly brush up on my Keigo. (even though it was held on a Saturday and with no extra pay- but hey, that's what you do to belong)

The problem was the party afterwards. I'm a family man and I had an important event with my son lined up so I told the organizer (from my uni faculty) that I wouldn't be able to attend the follow-up party. The effect was palpable. He did not criticize or attempt to dissuade me but there was clearly an air of having neglected my duty in his face, despite his "Oh, I see. Fine" response.

We all know that extra duty as a part of being on the team, including the post-kakari drinking and eating uchiage, is a sign of your commitment in Japan. But, and I'll be frank about this, the discussion and atmosphere at such events is not always so enjoyable for me. Sure, I like to have a few drinks and chat with colleagues but this was to be one of those more formalized- seiza ands speech- affairs with people who I really didn't have much connection with on a personal basis. And to be perfectly frank I feel more obligation towards my son.

Still though, even three weeks later, I have a sense of regret, that I have done the wrong thing as far as being in the university fraternity goes....

But on a positive note...

4. Good stuff from a student
Here's something that makes you feel good to be a teacher:

Last year I had a first year student who was a slacker. He missed too many classes and even in those he did attend he was inattentive and lazy. His evaluations reflected this and I failed him. Now at my university, General English is a required course and if you fail a required course you have to repeat the whole year (meaning you can take some second year classes but you will be classified as a first year student until you pass all the required courses).

Of course failing a student also means you get to see the laggards again next year and so this student entered my class once again recently for the second term. I expected much of the same from him but soon noticed that he was participating more actively, responding more dynamically with other students during the tasks, and generally seemed to be more into it.

At the end of class he approached me and told me in good, clear English that after failing last year he had asked himself why he had failed. Why did he suck at English and why was he so lazy and indifferent? To answer this he set a challenge for himself. He took six months off and went to Vancouver and focused on lifting his English skills up several notches.

And he did. His whole student deportment seemed to have been revitalized, his posture, the glint in his eyes. Here's a guy that realized he was lagging behind, challenged himself to pull up his bootstraps- and succeeded in doing so. Cool.

I wish I could say that his transformation came primarily from my teaching and my class but I'd be lying. Still, it's uplifting to see such students take the English bull by the horns...

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October 22, 2009

Universities as glorified high schools

University is when students should be expected to take charge of their own education, to become autonomous learners, to be weaned from the dependency and passivity of high school pedagogy. Why then do so many universities in Japan do everything they can to foster the image of a glorified high school?

Take the chimes, for example. Yes, in a university!!! Although I've become somewhat inured to them over the years, I was shocked whern I first heard that kin-kon-kan-kon echoing through the uni corridors. Having students depend upon an automated command to get them into their classrooms on time does not bode well for the development of self-reliance or independence.

Next- look at those timetables. Most students seem to have each koma filled with a scheduled class. Five days a week, 4 koma a day. Little or no time for reflection, absorption or, most importantly, extended reading and research. Universities should be allowing students time to integrate what they've been learning, allowing time for further independent exploration, but no. It's the familiar high school regimen of one lesson after another, encouraging a passivity to content, a tacit reaffirmation of the lecturer-recipient notion of education.

This is also reflected in much university classroom architecture. Sure, unis the world over have some amphitheatre-styled classrooms but, despite their popularity on TV dramas as being somehow representative of standardized university 'atmosphere', in reality one can usually find far more facilities suited for interactive seminars or tutorials. But while Japanese educators seem to be very aware of the utility of seminars and tutorials, the architecture in Japanese unis rarely reflects this. Rooms used for seminars in Japanese unis often not seem designed for such a purpose, in fact they are often makeshift storage-type rooms. Seminar-type classes are often scheduled in rooms with a fixed frontal lecturn and fixed seats, moulded to the floor like prison toilets. Trust me, this is not conducive to seminar or tutorial-style engagement. Once again, it's all so redolent of high school. (Of course, many universities were designed in the late 60's or early 70's when Japanese educational architecture was apparently going through its Stalinist-Brutalist phase).

After their classes, which also foster that junior high schoolish separation of males and females, (sidebar- what is it with this? When I was a uni student I made damned sure that I was always in close proximity to attractive females as a matter of course!), students are behoven to THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THEIR UNIVERSITY EDUCATION- BUKATSU! (clubs). I don't blame them because the timetabling system pushes them into a recess-playtime mentality whenever free time, and the concomitant dangers of possible 'asobi' (shudder), raises its ugly head. But again, where is the disjunction from high school?

Another thing that is likely to make students reminisce about the warm, familiar bosom of high school ed is the odd habit seen in many uni faculties of having the exact same students going from class to class together as a single unit. So much for meeting a wide-variety of peers and exposure to different atmospheres. They can instead function as a unified troop, an alignment
that can be particularly hard on teachers, who might appear as unwelcome outsiders in such closed and secure personal settings.

Now it's not as if Japanese educators and/or administrators are unaware of the greater objectives of university education, the goals of developing the whole person. Many are explicitly opposed to a corporate training-ground mentality and decry the same dubious 'academic' meme that I've described above. So what gives?

One positive move that I have noted is the introduction of many EAP (English for Academic Purposes) type courses for first year students. Instead of a standard rules-based orientation, students are shown how to carry out research, take notes, deal with textbooks and homework assignments in a manner that befits a tertiary instution (or at least prepares them adequately for the rigors ahead).

This is a worthy first step away from the shackles of a high school mentality but there is still a long way to go.

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November 06, 2009

1. The image of MEXT and 2. Learning from open-ended conversation tasks

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd The Daily Yomiuri newspaper printed my most recent article in which I outlined some positives (and negatives) found in Monkasho (MEXT) guidelines. One of my reasons for writing that article was to show that a lot of typical criticism directed at MEXT policy is unfounded- although there are clearly still aspects of policy very much open to criticism.

However, it seems that some people don't like any mitigation in the negativity expressed towards MEXT as I found out thereafter (looking at some responses). Hmmm. I get the impression that some people's image of the Ministry of Education's home base is something like this:

MEXT is made up of a pair of greasy bureaucrats in blue polyester suits, with bad combovers, chain smoking in a poorly-ventilated Nagatacho back office, plastic bags of dried squid covering their cluttered desks. One, Ukon, can be assumed to be a rabid nationalist, whose main aim is to keep the pernicious influence of foreign languages out of the grasp of the natives, while the other, Makoto, is an uptight nerd from Tokyo University whose hobby consists of compiling obscure English minutiae to be placed into the national curricula or entrance exams. Oh yeah- and they harass the poor OL's in the office.

In fact, many of those involved in educational decision making are well-established professors and other highly-regarded cosmopolitan professionals in the field (including, at certain levels, native English speakers). Policy and rationale behind guidelines are freely available online, and many have English translations.

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

I've written and stated elsewhere on several occasions that the idea of 'teaching conversation' seems daft to me. Conversation is a social skill- if you are a skilled interlocutor in your 1st language you can usually carry over those traits to the 2nd. It's not like you have to learn again to be good at conversation when take up a new language (although it's true that you will need to gain awareness of peragmatic norms, discourse markers and the like- but that's not what people normally mean when they talk about 'teaching conversation').

Teaching conversation spawns images of Cyrano De Bergerac coaching the inarticulate Christian in his attempts to seduce Roxanne. This is surely not what ELT educators have in mind.

The other aspect of 'teaching conversation' that comes to mind is that of inculcating formulas and mantras to be learned. Highly instrumental ready-made samples of how to order a hamburger or what to say at immigration. This is not language teaching. In such cases you might as well just use a Lonely Planet guide as a textbook.

Yet I do carry out conversational tasks or activities in my classes. Why, you might well ask? One reason is quite obvious. Students can feel constrained if too many activities are limited in scope and teacher or text controlled. They do not feel that the language being used belongs to them, they are not really actively producing communicative content, they are detached from the communicative process.

It's like being a sport coach. Yes, you have to work on muscle training and technique but sometimes you just have to let the athletes play too.

But the big question has always been: How can students learn from an open-ended conversation activity? Won't they just be using the same language forms that they already know, making the same mistakes and basically driving in the same linguistic ruts that they always do?

Maybe. But they can get better from conversation practice if you do the following (which obviously I try to):
After the open conversation section students should be aware of which words or ideas they could not express well in English, which grammatical or lexical patterns did not communicate well, where they got bogged down.

These must be fixed. Students should study precisely these areas after the activity (or ask a teacher). In other words, the goal is to learn from your weaknesses. Once you know your weak points you can focus on them and polish them for the next round. I tell my students to make notes on these points immediately after any and every open-ended conversation-based task.

Another thing students can do to learn from conversation tasks is to note vocabulary or structural patterns that were used well and succesfully by their partners. We've all felt the 'Yes! That's the phrase I often forget' moment of recognition and inspiration when talking to others in our L2. But if they are not explicitly noted these useful tidbits are likely to fade from memory quickly.

So, students can learn from conversation practice (which is, of course, very different from the notion of 'teaching conversation') but it must be done using explicit conscousness-raising and note taking in order to be effective.

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January 14, 2010

Japan- Love it, Leave it, 'Change' it, Or...?

Japan- Love it or leave it! Does the old redneck adage hold any water?
I think it might.

OK- Today's entry is not about English teaching or universities but I hope you'll let me indulge in a little socio-political discourse anyway.

I think we've all come across NJs who are so unrelentingly and persistently negative about Japan, with the badmouthing becoming so predictable and boring that we can't help but wonder, yes I'll say it out loud: WHY DO YOU STAY HERE? After all, I can't imagine many of us are refugees, who can't return to our countries of origin for fear of losing our lives. And we are not usually so destitute or neglected that we are economically forced to endure (Yes- I am talking about English-teaching types here). OK- some have been assigned to Japan by a company but those 'sentences' are usually temporary. I also can't imagine too many such people would be reading this blog.

Does this then mean that the choice to stay here forces us to be non-critical, appreciative of whatever Japan puts in our paths? Obviously not. But I certainly think there is an heirarchy for complaining- that is, some bases and motivations for critique are more legitimate than others.

So then, what exactly are my criteria for legimiately carping about Japan?

First, the legitimacy of a complaint has to be connected to how much one has invested in this country. So, greater complaint legitimacy resides in the following order:
1. Citizens- those who have gone through the naturalization process have the greatest right to present their beefs. They've made the ultimate investment in the country. Score a 10/10 for griping privileges.
2. Permanent residents- they have also made their intentions of full participation in this society known. Their beefs may not carry the same pure weight as that of a citizen but they have still made a notable investment.
3. Other NJ tax payers- These people either haven't yet or don't wish to make the same commitment to this society that the above two categories show. But as tax payers and participants in this society they have some legitimacy in complaining, although it cannot- and should not- resonate as much as that of a citizen's.

Running parallel to the above are those who can answer 'Yes' to the following questions:
1. Do you have children who are Japanese, and especially, do you intend to have them grow up in Japan? OK- That's an investment. Give yourself some legitimacy points.
2. Is your spouse Japanese? Ditto- but not quite as big an investment as with the kids.
3. Are you a land, house, or business owner? Yes.You have legitimate interests too. Give yourself some carping kudos.
Of course, you will generally find that those with the greatest 'citizenship' commitment to Japan are those who have the family, business, land/house cards to play as well.

But wait, there's more...
What is the scope of your critique? If you are, say, a land owner and you want to moan about land reform practices or deed titling in Japan the fact that the content of your beef and your investment match adds more credibility to your rhetoric. But if your scope is a critique of ALL OF JAPAN, INCLUDING EVERY INSITUTION AND THE PEOPLE THEREIN, then you're just bitchin'. OK- This might be acceptable in a bar or some such place where a certain whining quotient is a given but don't expect it to carry any social or political clout. Don't whine when 'nothing is done' about it.

Next- what's the motivation for your complaints? Is it truly out of concern for 'building a better Japanese nation'? OK let's be VERY careful here (tangential rant warning)--

If this is your motivation I will argue that this is the mandate of the citizen first and foremost and those with immediate family as citizens close behind. But for others who take this line let me raise the missionary, neo-colonial charge- and this applies in particular to pasty-faced, melanin-challenged Westerners like me. Listen up- how do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be 'saving' other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions, and values that only had validity 'back home'? "Look Japan, we want to lead you on the path to light and righteousness which we know of, for we have seen its shining virtue back in Flin Flon, Manitoba". A bit patronizing n'est ce pas?

Imagine, if you will, some VietNamese people in Australia saying that they are protesting Australian human rights to 'help Australia become a fully modern nation'. And imagine that this notion of saving Australia and changing it into a fully modern nation consists largely of telling Australians that they should have more VietNamese values, that they should adopt more progressive VietNamese traditions and institutions. Add to this the fact that most of these protestors have not taken out Australian citizenship, nor do they plan to. Pile on top of that a hypothetical in which many of the whingers have little or no English ability or understanding of Australian society or history- or that they get most of their alleged insights from dubious internet websites written in VietNamese.

So, people who want to think of their complaints as somehow being beneficial to Japan, that you are gracing this country with your noble spirit of opposition, that your protests operate under the banner of personal largesse, think again. (rant concluded)

The above applies of course to those who say they don't want to leave Japan, but to 'change' it. I mean, if someone married to a Japanese calls for reform of the koseki system, this kind of call for change seems reasonable. But to 'change Japan' as a whole, as in alter the very fabric and foundations of this society? Uh no. (Prepare for tangential rant #2)

This is for you, Mr/Mrs 'I want to change Japan': When you first chose to come to Japan (and for 99% of us it was a choice) were you not aware that Japan was not a Western country? That the society was based upon certain principles and values that were, shall we say, less familiar to us? And wasn't this in fact part of the attraction? That you were truly living somewhere else and not in a facsimile of Adelaide, Milton Keynes, or Columbus? If so, why would you want Japan to become 'not Japan'? Did you not expect that as a visible minority (don't play PC games with this term please, you know what I mean) you would be marked as different- positively AND negatively (just as you will be in most of the non-Western world)? Did you not expect to be thought of- and even think of yourself as- an outsider? If not, why didn't you do your homework before you came?

Now- does my little rant above excuse those occasional cases of out and out hostility and exclusionism that we all know of and perhaps have faced? No. But the NJ who claims he/she wants to 'change Japan' is talking about reforming the very country they have chosen to live in, not just how to deal with the occasional bigot or ignoramus (I suppose some may feel that ignorance and bigotry are systemic here, a wholesale national violation of 'human rights', and is therefore endemic to the populace at large- such attitudes usually reveal more about the speaker/writer's own prejudices rather than 'human rights' issues per se).

Anyway, don't you think that most Japanese would find this attitude at best arrogant, and at worst, threatening? Hell, I do. Sure as eggs is eggs, I wouldn't want Japan to suddenly change into Vancouver- East. Because, with warts and all, I chose to live in THIS society and within THIS culture. Now that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom or a willing punching bag. There are some things that I think could be improved here and in my small, grass roots way I can and do work for change in those narrow areas (especially those which I'm knowledgeable about and have a vested interest in) but I'm not on a God-given mission to 'change the country', especially into a version of what I left behind.

(rant #2 finished)

(Back to the main script)
You also lose credibility points if your motivation is smugness or sanctimony. Let's face it some people just love, in fact make a virtual cottage industry of, telling others how wrong and backwards they are. Such people actively hope for, actually go out of their way, to try and induce racism or ignorance in others so that they can them triumphantly claim 'victim' moral highground. These are the kind of people who are trying very hard to get offended, to find fault as a matter of course, and then interpret it in the worst possible way. This way they can feel justified when they put their hands on their hips and shout 'xenophobe' (which apparently is supposed to shock the alleged xenophobes into becoming tolerant, accepting people). Yeah, right, sure.

You also lose brownie points if you are doing nothing about whatever you find so objectionable. And, damn it, too many people conflate whining or bitching with showing concern, with 'activism'. As if those who don't chime in with the bashing are apathetic or tacitly accepting the status quo.

OK. Visible in-your-face protest might fall under the rubric of 'doing something' but here again we are subject to the legitimacy criteria I've outlined above. Is your critique focused or just a verbal volley of spittle launched at Japan en masse? Are you doing it mainly to point the smug finger of accusation at 'them'? Have you invested enough in this society, or that aspect of Japan that your objection addresses, to make your protest relevant?

There's more to consider. Is your oppositional rhetoric based upon sufficient knowledge regarding the background to the situation you are questioning? Or is it just a sophomoric knee-jerk riposte against Japan Inc. (or the comic-book villain-style 'Team Japan')? Can you read and speak the language sufficiently to make a well-founded, informed claim? If so- kudos. Your claim has a stronger foundation. Are you familiar with the background to, and the wide-ranging function(s) of, the object of your wrath? If it becomes apparent to Japanese associates that you aren't you will obviously lose legitimacy points.

And guess what. At that point, if J or NJs start thinking, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?" it will be because you've actually lent credence to that old redneck adage.

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January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?

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March 18, 2010

Teachers' Meeting! (A 'Morality' Play)

Watanabe: First, I’d like to welcome you all to this meeting. As senior teacher I’ve been asked to create this working group on student morality by the Prefectural Board of Education, who seem to be worried about the alleged decline in student morals and want us to do something about it within the context of English education. (Aside) Hmmm I seem to remember my teachers saying the same thing when I was a student but whatever…
Anyway, other teachers will be addressing the issue within their own subject’s working groups and a report of suggestions and plans from us in the English department will be sent to the Board so feel free to offer your ideas.

Saito: I think the answer here is obvious. Morality means following rules. Therefore the more rules we create, as long as we rigidly enforce them, the greater the amount of morality.

Watanabe: Uhh, what kind of rules do you have in mind, Saito?

Saito: Any arbitrary rule will do. How about this? Whenever a student speaks English in response to a teacher’s question they have to stand and move one away from their desks to the right, starting with a lateral step of 80 to 100 centimeter’s length. This will demonstrate respect for others, particularly those who create arbitrary rules and have the ability to punish those who violate them.

Watanabe: Saito, I think you are talking about some artificially imposed idea of 'manners'. Morality means something more than that.

Hayashi: That’s right Saito, where is love of country in your proposal?

Watanabe: Love of country? What’s the connection? Can you elaborate, Hayashi?

Hayashi: Come on, Watanabe sensei! Are you really Japanese? Morality is basically patriotism. Patriotism demonstrates care for others- as long as they are our fellow countrymen that is. Love of nation leads to moral acts.

Watanabe: Such as?

Hayashi: Well in terms of English teaching it means helping our students explain Japanese culture, the Japanese way of thinking, and Japan’s positions to foreigners so that they will agree and come to appreciate the beauty of our country. (Eyes well up with tears). I can think of nothing more moral than sacrificing the fun part on their homestays for the betterment of Japan.

Watanabe: Ummm, I’m not sure there is a single Japanese way of thinking or a set ‘Japanese position’ on most issues or that students should be fodder for national propaganda.

Kobayashi: I think you are all missing the point. Morality means respect for life. Students have to learn that life is precious.

Watanabe: And how do you intend to teach that, Kobayashi?

Kobayashi: Well, we tell them in our classes that life is precious and that we must respect it in all forms. (Silence)

Watanabe: And this will be achieved by just telling them that this is so?

Kobayashi: Well, I’ll tell them to say it in English. I also think it’s important to remember that each person has his or her own morals. Who’s to say who’s right and wrong?
(Long, awkward silence)

Saito: We are. We’re the teachers.

Watanabe: Kobayashi, I know you mean well but I don’t think that really helps us in our current situation. After all, some students recognize no moral authority at all and many simply do not understand the nature of the social contract, how to interact in society.

Yamamoto: Ladies and gentlemen, you are all avoiding the inevitable. Morality is connected to grammar. Proper grammar leads to greater morality. Look at our own language. Back when everyone said “taberareru”, the correct form, we lived a peaceful co-existence in Japan based on respect for our fellow man… and syntax.

Saito: Hear, hear!

Yamamoto: But now kids, and even (shudders) some adults say (gulps) “tabereru”. And with this increase in sloppy grammar it is no coincidence that we see a rise in drug usage and threatening hairstyles. In fact I was talking about this just the other day with the girls at the Pink Thrill club. They all agreed that morals loosen when prepositions do. Or at least I think that’s what I said. I’d had a few too many that night. (Takes a long drag on his cigarette and blows the smoke across the meeting table).

Nishimura: Well I came of age in late sixties and we had some pretty radical ideas about morality and I think a lot of them are still valid. Morality is something that is imposed by the man, man. So, I call for counter-morality, morality that seeks to destroy the corporate industrial morality that oppresses the human spirit.

Watanabe: More concretely?

Nishimura: Like, I envision Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd jamming in the background while the students stage a sit-in, where they take back the streets from Big Oil, turning it into a people’s street.

Yamamoto: Nishimura, you know what that leads to don’t you? It might start with street protests but it ends with uncouth grammatical contractions.

Hayashi: Not to mention interracial marriage.

Watanabe: Nishimura, I’m not sure that’s a viable option in our current situation.

Nishimura: Fascist! Just wait until Narita airport expands into your backyard!

Hayashi: Communist! Nishimura, are you really Japanese?

Saito: Well Watanabe sensei, what do you say? As the senior teacher here and as head of this working group I will gladly submit to your authority on the topic.

Watanabe: Well, I agree that morality is not something that can be imposed from above or taught as a series of discrete facts. When we do that the students are not learning morality they are simply obeying orders to avoid punishment and not really dealing with any moral notions at all. In fact, I believe it retards their moral development. Confusing morals with arbitrarily chosen manners or rules, or conflating it with patriotism, is just a form of bullying, or in the latter case, is just chauvinism masquerading as ethics. Morality implies that the individual acts from a consistent, principle-based ethical foundation and is not purely driven by self-interest, momentary caprice, or simply by acceding to authority.
For moral development, young people have to engage human nature, understand complex relationships, decision-making and its consequences and have to actively engage these. English case or situational examples exposing them to moral dilemmas in complex characters and situations and asking for descriptions, explanations, opinions and so on might help them to reflect on the notion of right and wrong at a deeper level and thereby provide a strong foundation for moral principles. By presenting such issues in English and having our students deal with them productively, perhaps our students can not only further their English skills but become engaged at a deeper cognitive level too.

Saito: Whatever you say, Watanabe sensei.

Nishimura: Lackey!

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April 05, 2010

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

Two sections today.

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

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

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: How so?

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

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

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

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

Me: Is that a real possibility?

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

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

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

Me: Thanks for your time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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May 27, 2010

J universities as bastions of progressive policy?

There are those who think that Japanese universities are a reflection of the top-down authoritarian structure that they see in Japanese government or large companies- in fact some think of them precisely as extensions of government and companies, as conservative bastions of the 'dominant culture'. Perhaps such people think of all Japanese as falling into line under a regimented authority structure regardless of the actual system employed, in order to suit their own preconceptions about this country. No doubt there are certain inaccessible corridors of power in Japan, like anywhere else, but how widespread is it really? And are universities a reflection of this?

Well, I can speak only for my own university, which I have every reason to believe is typical of national universities, and although located in conservative Miyazaki, the popular view of Japan as a top-down authoritarian society does not hold in this case.

Say what?

Well first let's take a look at the power structure. The president and all faculty deans rotate from department to department and professor to professor and are elected democratically by all full-time faculty. This means that there are no Self-Appointed President-for-LIfe types who founded the university based on their industrialist daddy's cash. Neither is the Riji-kai (Kyouju-kai at unis- like a board of directors) an unchanging cabal of stodgy old boys but rather a fluctuating broad-based set of educators. Here's where Japan's (in?)famous worker rotation system displays some tangible benefits. These are not bureaucratic 'suits' but regular class-teachin', lab-researchin' guys 'n gals MANY OF WHOM DO NOT EVEN WEAR TIES! Every department is represented and every educational (and more) policy of note goes through them. In fact, they tell the bureaucrats what to do.

When Monkasho wishes to implement a guideline or policy this group ratifies it and decides how, or to what degree or in what manner, it may be carried out. Suffice to say that Monkasho guidelines are not carried out like imperial decrees.

Most of the Uni presidents and deans I have known reasonably well and, generally speaking, they are well-travelled, amiable, broad-minded types. It is very easy to arrange a meeting with them. In fact, I recently spent 1 hour discussing the wider establishment of a discourse-based English education focus with the university vice-president, who also happens to be head of the English policy committee (of which yours truly is a member). This wide number of committees with rotating chairs helps to distribute power even more widely so that the power structure remains fluid.

Let's look a little further.

There is an ombusdperson section, openly advertised, with the provisions of due process for grievance are clearly laid out, and complaints can be carried out in confidence. There is also a widely-advertised support center, fully-funded, for sexual harassment, power harassment, alcohol harassment and other unfair or psychologically debilitating practices.

There is a support center for women, staffed entirely by women (and feminist supporters may be happy to note that they are a thorn in the side of some rather rigid older profs), which also lends tangible support regarding child care leave and aid. And yes, males can take advantage of this too (see Matthew Apple's story of taking child care leave from a university in Nara here).

NO ONE tells you what to teach and content is not checked by any 'authority'. This principle is almost religiously enforced, somewhat to the chagrin of visiting part-time English teachers who often want to, or expect to, be told what they should be teaching- and few such directives are forthcoming.

The university grounds are completely and fully smoke-free (although just ten years ago there were numerous smoking areas outside classrooms which became encrusted with a near-permanent yellow sheen and a 24 hour Eau De Marlboro aroma plus every other piece of consumer junk that students tend to leave around for the garbage fairy to pick up).

There are rotating ecology and watchdog committees to monitor mismanagement and abuses and to make/apply further suggestions. I realize that the latter might sound more ominous than progressive but it is management practices that are being checked and balanced so...

I talked about the movement to full access and disclosure (and associated problems) in a recent blog entry.

Another thing I've alluded to here before is the attitude of the office staff and/or bureaucracy. Since professors and doctors call most of the shots there is virtually no sense of being under the thumb of inaccessible boardroom suits. They don't decide policy, they carry it out- and this is reflected in the kindness (almost deference really) with which they treat the teaching faculty.

And how might the university look not-so-progressive? Well, by far the majority of senior profs are male, but that number will almost certainly decrease as the number of women in associate prof positions has risen propotionately in recent years (demographics, demographics). The support center also promotes female researchers/academics in this regard, plus the fact that among the medical staff (I work in the faculty of medicine with an attached hospital), the number of female doctors about to move into positions of greater authority is quite high.

One could say that the number of lecture-oriented classes is still too high, although that too is changing.

Despite these few hiccups, there is little doubt that the authoritarian image of Japan and Japanese institutions held by many does not apply here.

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July 22, 2010

Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 21, 2010

Marching and morality

I have a request for those junior and high school teachers who make their students practice and perform military-style marches during PE classes, sports days and the like. Please, stop it! Kakko warui (it looks bad)! Dasai (it’s old fashioned)! Jikan no mottainai (it's a waste of time)!

I wonder who the teachers are trying to impress with these insipid performances. Certainly not the kids. My son doesn’t want to be a soldier. Very few kids do these days. They don’t even play with toy soldiers anymore... or haven’t you noticed? My son feels stupid acting like Private G.I. Jackboot and rightfully so, as the solemnity of the display reaches levels of near self-parody. Not only is rigid symmetry aesthetically unpleasing but it actually belies what should be the joyous nature of a sports day. Why mark it with what amounts to a displaced military parade?

You might say that all students should learn about adherence to set procedures and selfless teamwork. Fine. But if I wanted those qualities inculcated in this way I would have sent him to cadet school. I didn’t. Yes, I understand that military discipline and team precision, even mindless adherence to regimentation, might be useful for soldiers, firefighters and the like but- and please read this closely- no one sent their kids to your school for that reason! It’s a basic educational tenet- match the practice with the purpose!

Perhaps you might think that the students’ order and discipline will impress us. It doesn’t. It doesn’t show us a sense of discipline as much as it indicates that the students can be manipulated into performing meaningless regimented activities by someone who is more powerful than them. It shows us that, like circus animals, people can be coerced into performing mindless routines. Strangely, I do not find that impressive.

You might argue that it has some latent moral value- that it reflects concern for the other, submission to the group. But the moral message conveyed is actually quite the opposite. It tells students that if you have power you can, even should, harangue the less powerful with orders that serve no other purpose than to make them display submission. If that is the school’s notion of morality then I’m sorry but you’ve failed as teachers.

Morality is a matter of developing a set of principles that individuals can apply in ways that are ethically sound and harmonious. If your highest idea of ethics and social harmony is determining whether a child’s knees and elbows are symmetrical or not then your sense of morality is, frankly speaking, immature. Wouldn’t time be better spent having students work out thought-provoking moral case study dilemmas than forming lines in the gym and then marching rigidly in place for an hour?

In short, what students learn about morality from such displays is that morality is just an arbitrary force to be exerted upon others for the sake of exerting authority. Dog eat dog. Eat or be eaten. Is this the ethic you are trying to teach? If so, I don’t want you teaching my kids.

Now, you might think that I am one of those namby-pamby types who gets all misty-eyed about airy-fairy notions of self-expression and independent exploration (not that these are bad things). But you’d be wrong. I think discipline, order, and an active regard for others are foundations for a healthy society and that these virtues can be inculcated in microcosmic societies like public schools. But surely more thoughtful, complex, wide-reaching means of developing self-discipline exist than practicing rituals more suited to military service or disaster prevention units. In short, this stuff is out of place in a general education curriculum. And, if so, again the practice has not been suited to the purpose. As such, it represents a pedagogical failure on the part of the teachers.

I wonder about the grandmas and grandpas watching this spectacle and what they think. Does it bring back any memories of wartime? Do unpleasant associations with an unpleasant past arise? I also think about this society’s alleged valuing of the so-called ‘Peace Constitution’ and the aversion to almost anything that could even remotely look like an international military exercise. And when I think of these things somehow, these high school military parades seem very, ummm, un-Japanese.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Countries in which mass games, military parades, and rigid marching formations (not to mention local politicians haranguing the masses to ‘do your best’ over echo-drenched loudspeakers) are popular tend to be those whose regimes are hostile towards Japan. Why Japanese teachers would want to emulate societies whose values are antithetical to that of their own is beyond me. So, if you think these exercises are somehow related to ‘love of country’, well exactly which country are you talking about?

You might argue that this is a part of ‘Japanese culture’ and perhaps that as a non-Japanese I am not sensitive to such national cultural nuances but, as I’ve explained, there are significant sectors of indigenous Japanese society who equally loathe this type of display and don’t want their children to behave as if they are living in a foreign dictatorship or under a military regime. Something more, well, Japanese would be appropriate, don’t you think?

Also, while some appeals to culture can be substantial, if that appeal consists of little more than arguing, “Well, this is what we’ve always done” then that’s an insult to your ‘culture’. You’ve basically characterized your ‘culture’ as a product of mindless mimicry. Personally, I hold Japanese culture in higher regard than that.

You might wonder what concern this is to a university English teacher like myself. Other than the obvious fact that my own children are being educated in Japan I have very good reasons for questioning these goose-step routines. Universities should be places where students develop learner autonomy and take the bull by the horns, taking responsibility for their education, as they should be on the road to becoming independent learners and researchers, right? Except that’s not happening. Students arrive too passively, waiting for directives from the teacher. They are not prepared to take the lead, waiting for someone to give the orders, to show them the correct manoeuvres. This not only affects the quality of their education, but ultimately the quality of the product for Japanese society.

Part of a high school teacher’s role should be preparing students for university. But there’s a big difference between preparing students for university entrance exams and preparing them to be an actual university student. And right now the latter is not being addressed well. And the cause is most painfully evident when we watch these horrid military exercises on sports day.

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January 27, 2011

Commentary: Keio's dropping of the Center Shiken and the (non-existent) Monkasho English 'word list'

1. Keio University drops the Center Shiken criteria for entry- Good!

Since it is exam season, and also because the aura surrounding exams are impossible to escape in Japan, I bring your attention to: this recent news item
... which informs us that prestigious Keio Univ. will drop the Center Shiken from its entrance requirements from next year.

This is, in my opinion, a good thing. I can well understand the argument made by Keio officials- that the Center Shiken did not sufficiently stratify student results, at least not enough so as to make it a meaningful or reliable indicator of suitability for entrance.

This is bound to happen of course when over 400,000 people take the exact same test. And at the higher-ranking institutions, entrance or non-entrance can be based upon a miniscule 1 point difference- hardly a reliable basis for determining whether you've got the right students, and definitely less so as a reliable measurement of intelligence or commitment.

If a university decides to use only it's own 'niji shiken' (second-stage) test plus an interview as the criteria for entrance (most now apply some weighted combination of the Center Shiken plus their own 'niji') they can more effectively streamline the procedure and judge students on their individual merit. Moreover, on a test made by Keio people, the element of anonymity would be reduced, making it more relevant to the specific goals or aims of the university.

This is not to say that there is something wrong with the content of the Center Shiken- it is quite well-written and reliable. It is simply the concept, this massive machinated mammoth that defaces the candidates and can make entrance to a specific university and department a matter of a computer spilling out numerical results somewhere in Tokyo.

Just think of the washback effect it would have on high school education if more universities chose to streamline or personalize their exams and bypass the goliath that is the Center Shiken.

2. There is no Monkasho English 'word list'. Sort of.

File this one under 'you learn something new everyday', or at my age, about once every three years.

I had long assumed, and not without good reason, that Monkasho (the Japanese Ministry of Education and A Whole Pile of Other Stuff) had a set list of English words that high school students could/should be expected to 'know' (whatever that may mean) upon graduation and in preparation for entrance exams. I had assumed this until a reader asked me to locate the list- and I couldn't. Then I started asking questions and no one seemed to know for sure- until I contacted a certain Mr. Big (not his real name, in case you were wondering) from a nearby campus.

I had assumed this because senior Japanese people around me had long made mention of a set list of words that were deemed suitable on entrance exams without a gloss. In other words, if 'catapult' or 'solenoid' appeared in your exam text (as they should!), you were pretty much required to mark them with a * and add glosses at the end. Or at least edit them in some way.

So, you might well ask, how did one know if 'catapult' or 'solenoid' were 'off-the-list' words that warranted the gloss treatment? Well, every educator worthy of his/her title in Japan has a large Shogakukan dictionary strategically placed at their right hand side (the 'Progressive' version being the closest to a standard- although Kenkyuusha is also widely used) in which words that are expected to be known at different levels of JHS and HS education were duly marked. No mark meant that we could not reasonably expect examinees to know the word.

Now, you might also well ask how the dictionaries set their asterisk criteria. This is where I had previously assumed that Monkasho had set the standard. After all Monkasho does have a required list which you can see by scrolling around on this page. But, as you will soon note, this is only a short beginner's list. A further careful reading of this Monkasho document reveals the number of words to be incrementally learned at each stage but no actual list of words. Thus, the JHS/HS teacher can use one of the 'marked' dictionaries as a reliable guideline.

But no one seems to know exactly how the compilers of the dictionaries set their standards, although it is widely believed that their choices are based upon the vast (and somewhat secretive, plus hard/expensive to obtain) Tokyo Eigo Kenkyuu (English Research) Corpus. Apparently, most of these marked items make up the bulk of the handiest reference available for such teachers and prospective examinees, this being the JACET 8000 , which is available in any bookstore that caters to dealing with entrance exams (meaning 99% of all bookstores in Japan).

So now you know. Like I didn't.

Any further insights would be appreciated- and questions welcomed.

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March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

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

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

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

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

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

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 08, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 29, 2011

On Demo Lessons, English Contests, Heroism, Coddling, and Mental Illness

A number of issues to discuss today.

1. English Teacher as Hero?

Let me start by suggesting that you watch this life-affirming, heartwarming video showing an 8-month old baby boy with a cochlear implant hearing his mother's voice for the first time . I'm linking this because one of the doctor/professors at my university (one who I know quite well having helped with his English publications and played golf with him) played a pivotal role in the development of this device. The man's a hero.

There's a part of me, of everybody I assume, that wants to be a hero too-- something that can make you look back on your life and allow you to say that you contributed to humanity so that you will be fondly remembered. Actually, I'd settle for being one of those veteran teachers who received a batch of flowers, a teary speech of thanks from the graduates, and a Sensei-with-the-students memorial slide show at the annual year-end Thank you party.

But this always happens to someone else. I'm jealous. And even though these affairs are inevitably maudlin and a bit contrived, sometimes I want to be that special teacher who the students hold dearly in their hearts-- who they refer to as an inspiration later when they are inventing, oh, even better cochlear implants.

But the reality is that teachers who try to too hard to be loved by their students can also often be seen as saps, pushovers-- 'pashiri' in Japanese. It's a bit like that overly needy guy at the singles bar-- the eligible ladies can smell need like an investment banker can smell an unearned bonus. And, yes, sometimes the most feted teachers have reputations as hardasses.

And while the teacher who gains plaudits has often done something way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty, a real self-sacrifice of time and effort for his or her charges it is also possible that even if you do go all out you may still earn little no more recognition than an o-tsukare-sama from one of your peers.

While I think I am generally quite liked by my students (knock on wood) I just can't imagine myself being a life-changing force for them. Correct me if you think I'm wrong, but there seems to be little that an English teacher can do (at least with university students) to become that hit movie-inspiring catalyst; the To Sir With Love type of mentor. Perhaps English teachers shouldn't strive to be heroes but merely aim at doing a good, solid 9-to-5 job and have no expectations beyond a basic appreciation from the students (and a half-decent salary).

But what I'm wondering is-- have any readers been, or seen, English teachers lauded as heroes by students? How and why? I'm curious.

2. Demonstration Lessons and American Idol

Ok, admit it. You have watched American Idol, even though it is to music appreciation what Greece is to fiscal responsibility. Since the candidates are given about 15 seconds to strut their stuff, the talented ones are pretty much required to indulge in a bout of vocal histrionics the whole time to show range and, I suppose, 'soul' (even if the tune would be more effective sung in a near monotone- I'm still waiting for some Celine Dion-esque diva to cover 'Autobahn'). It's basically a display of surface showmanship designed to impress celebrity judges, and is hardly indicative of what being a fully-fledged 'vocalist' entails.

This reminds me a bit of English class demonstration lessons (which fortunately, we are not required to do here at Miyadai since we don't have to actively recruit, being a national university and all). The problem with demonstration lessons is that you are expected to do an appealing, representative, and educationally sound lesson-- but in 20 minutes, and with a bunch of students who don't know you, the school, nor each other.

Now, generally speaking, one's best lessons tend to be those that have the following properties:
1. The lesson is connected to the one before and will connect to the one after. It fits naturally into the overall curriculum and stated purpose of the course.

2. There is a balance between teacher talk and student talk.

3. There has been sufficient introduction, presentation, or other groundwork laid before the meatiest part of the lesson-- the main task for the students-- is introduced.

4. As mentioned earlier, the students are at ease with the teacher and with each other. And the teacher knows what the students' abilities are, as well as what they have or haven't studied previously.

5. There is at least 60 minutes to pace and flesh the lesson out, especially to reinforce key teaching points at the end.

And yet none of these qualities are options when doing the standard 20 minute song-and-dance demonstration lesson.

So, my question to those readers who do demos is-- How exactly do you manage it?

3. English Contests in Japan-- And who should really be eligible?

As most readers know, in Japan there are numerous English speech or debate contests. Theoretically, any student enrolled at a Japanese school school can enter (am I right?).

So what about Pete? Pete is Canadian and has been in Japan only two years as his parents have been temporarily placed in the Nagoya office. He is, in every sense, a native English speaker. If Pete enters the contest would it demotivate other students? Does it somehow detract from the meaning or purpose of the competition? So, do you rule Pete out? If so, on what grounds?

Then what about Tatianna. She's from Poland and has been in Japan for six years but has a pretty good facility with English due to her family's past and some education in Poland, not to mention that her father's international business is conducted in English. But she's not a native speaker so should she be eligible? If you were a judge and you saw her Western face would you judge her more harshly even though she's not really a native English speaker?

Would you judge her more harshly than you would Ryo? Ryo is as Japanese as miso soup but he spent six years in the U.S. so his English is pretty close to native. Other students might feel disadvantaged by Ryo's appearance in the contest given his lengthy sojourn abroad, but it would be hard to disqualify him. Or would it?

Then what about Izumi? Izumi's case will dovetail with many Uni-files readers', I imagine. Izumi is half-Japanese half-whatever, and of course a Japanese citizen, and has grown up almost exclusively in Japan. However Izumi speaks English to her Australian father at home so her English is native-like. And she looks more Western than Asian. Izumi has an advantage to be sure... but is it an unfair one?

Is it any more unfair than the student who excels in science contests in no small part due to the fact that her mother is a Professor of Biochemistry at a prestigious university?

If you were a judge, would you treat all of these contestants equally and objectively? And if not, shouldn't we tell the contestants who might not get equal treatment that they shouldn't waste their time because they have no chance of winning from the outset?

I understand how a judge might think it's unfair for Pete to compete against your regular Yusuke or Sayuri in an English speech contest but where and how would you draw the line for participation and equal assessment? I can understand that it might feel 'unfair' or against the spirit of the competition if Pete wins the English speech contest, Tatianna is 2nd, Izumi 3rd and all others, your regular Yusukes and Sayuris, just also-rans. And it might further foster the notion that 'English is for foreigners'.

But I'd like to know how you would handle this...because otherwise we might be wasting Pete, Tatianna, and Izumi's time and effort.

4. Mental illness? Anti-social? Or just weak-willed?

We've all come across students who appear to have mental disorders and, in some cases, clinically confirmed mental disorders. The big question is, how do you handle this in terms of grading and credits?

In some cases, you don't have to. The student with the disorder may be as intellectually capable and hard working as anyone else in the class and their effort and test grades end up reflecting this. And on the other extreme side of the equation, students who display full blown psychosis and simply can't function properly probably shouldn't be in class and need more intensive treatment. But I'm talking about that middle ground.

You know, someone suffering from diagnosed depression or PSTD that is affecting performance. Do we cut them some slack in terms of grading their performance or, while considerate of their situations, are we bound only to grade the actual class performance regardless of external factors because otherwise it is unfair to the other students, since their grades are connected only to performance and not to personal issues? And if we choose to fail the afflicted student,shouldn't we be worried about the adverse effect this will have on their already fragile state?

The choice to fail, or at least defer a passing grade, might seem callous but if we make allowances for students with depression, we can start making that allowance for a number of students in the class. We could make them for the anti-social students, the impossibly shy, the permanently sleepy, or the perpetually bored. After all, it is arguable that they too are suffering from some disorder even if it is hasn't been clinically diagnosed. Mental disorders exist on a continuum-- having had a doctor check it from a list doesn't make it any more real than the problems of a person who never thinks to visit the psych ward.

Claiming some sort of exemption due to depression could become a convenient excuse. Even if the disorder has been clinically diagnosed, well, that may not mean much. These days the mere suggestion that you feel depressed is often sufficient to draw a get-out-of-work letter and/or meds from psychiatrists (I read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test recently on these matters-- I also know from Japanese doctors that this practice is much more common in Japan than it used to be). The problem is that since Fred feels depressed (as we all do at times), gets an official diagnosis and medication, we feel like we should go easy on him-- while Betty, who might have the same degree of depression as Fred, simply toughs it out and goes on with her work, home life, and social life despite how much of a struggle it all is. But we don't treat Betty with the kid gloves-- nor is she asking for them.

This raises another issue for me-- should depression be an excuse for rude and anti-social acts? Should we look the other way when students with a diagnosed depression walk into class 30 minutes late, immediately put their heads down on their desks, are unresponsive to the teacher or peers, and leave whenever the feel like it because, hey, they're depressed dammit!

It seems to me that depression should never be an excuse for anti-social or just plain rude, inconsiderate behaviour-- the pathology of being a sociopath is hardly a standard by-product of depression. The depressive is rarely psychotic and so can still judge the merits of their own actions. You and I both know enough people who have suffered from quite severe mental illnesses who still maintain a certain amount of social grace and persevere with duties and requirements even though they feel like zombies. (And yes, I've been subject to extreme changes where my spirit seems to be running out of my hands like water, where the real world almost appears like an apparition, and death and life do not seem so distinct-- thankfully much less so now than when I was younger).

So, the question once again is, how do you deal with students with diagnosed mental disorders?

5. Is it coddling?

As some readers may know I advocate giving students as much information, help, detailed outlines, and guidance as possible before they do tests or graded assignments-- with the goal of (hopefully) helping them to produce the best possible result. This includes giving them succesful old tests or assignments to look at, a list of textbook pages for study, I provide graphic outlines of what I expect them to do, do practice runs, prep classes etc.

But, after a recent presentation in which I mentioned this approach, one attendee suggested that this might be coddling students too much. This seems to me to be a reasonable argument-- that by giving them too many preparatory pointers I may actually be making them more dependent on the teacher, inhibiting the development of their autonomy, and not letting them use their own academic study skills to work things out.

So, the question (yet again) is... where do you stand on this?

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January 10, 2012

Language Wars: This is Japan! Speak Japanese!

Recently, while in Vancouver I overheard two Asian men, likely Vietnamese, conversing in that language in a supermarket. I felt myself burning up inside. This is Canada! An English-speaking country! 'Speak English!' I thought to myself. Later, on the same trip I met up with my brother and his wife, who is originally from Thailand, at their home. Occasionally, my brother spoke to her in Thai. I couldn't stand it any longer. Why were these foreign languages creeping into English territory! "Speak in English! This is Canada!" I scolded him. Then he swore at me-- which was OK because he did it in English.

All right, I confess. Neither of the two anecdotes above really happened. However, I've met, both in Japan and elsewhere (often at linguistics conferences), people who seem to think that it would be a natural reaction-- that not only are native-English speakers generally linguistic chauvinists but also believe that such attitudes are default settings-- acceptable, normal behaviour regarding one’s mother tongue. Not surprisingly such people are likely to take a similar attitude with their own languages. Yes, I've been told, bold-faced, that I would certainly feel chafed if I heard people not speaking English in Canada, wouldn't I??? (putting the whole French issue aside for a moment).

As (I imagine) with most readers of this blog, my answer is absolutely not. It is unthinkable that I would ever think, let alone react, like that. In fact I will speak to my wife in Japanese anywhere in the world-- if only the two of us are talking. My rule is that on any given occasion the most acceptable language is that language which aids in reaching whatever the communicative goals are. Language is a tool and I'll use whichever tool is most likely to get the job done. As a tourist in a Anglophone country I will learn the greetings in the local tongue but beyond that will have to depend on English (sometimes apologetically so). The fact that my mother tongue happens to be the most widely spoken and understood in the world doesn't change the fact that this is the language that is going to get the job done for most outsiders.

I don't like English

My students often assume that English is or was my favourite subject. But I don't particularly like English. Nor do I dislike it any more than I like or dislike your average, ohhh, shovel. My mother tongue has little emotional impact for me. It is merely a tool, a means to some communicative end. But it seems that quite a few people find this hard to believe.

The idea that a language can have a personal, emotional impact or be treated as a political weapon, having any function beyond being simply a means of communication, is hard for me to absorb. I can remotely imagine being raised using a rarely-heard tongue which has since been superseded by linguistically hegemonic forces and feeling it tied to my personal identity-- but for me that's an academic exercise.

In fact, I've often gone out of my way to place myself in situations where I can't or won't hear English-- especially during my backpacker days when I ventured through about 50 countries all over the globe- a majority in which English was not widely used. I never felt that a part of me was lost in such English black holes, rather I felt stimulated by the unfamiliar environment. But maybe it's easy to feel this way when yours is the big language on the block.

‘We feel ashamed when this happens’

Recently I visited a tiny, nondescript, but unique craft beer shop located in the absolute suburban boonies of Kawasaki which from the outside looks just like your average Mom 'n Pop shop from the 60s. The proprietors (three middle-aged Japanese sisters who love craft beer- especially Belgian brews) were extremely happy to chat with me during my visit since I had come 'all the way from Miyazaki'. I asked them if they get many foreign customers (Japan-based beer connoisseurs may know of them online). A handful, they said. Can they all speak Japanese? I asked. No. What should we do then? How can we improve our English to speak to them? We feel ashamed when this happens.

I told them that it wasn't incumbent upon them to learn English when the visitor is on their turf. It was the visitor's responsibility to learn the local language. And if the person was in Japan only temporarily I'm sure they could muddle through basic beer talk and purchases, but that there was hardly obligation for the sisters to learn English solely for this purpose-- and certainly not to the point of feeling ashamed. They were both shocked and relieved to hear this response, as if they didn't expect it at all. They assumed that English-speakers assumed (or even deserved) some type of linguistic entitlement.

There seems to be a widespread belief in Japan that somehow Japanese are obligated to speak English to Westerners, and more to today's point, that somehow we expect or demand it. Because of this, some who can’t speak English feel a sense of shame or even dereliction of duty. And for some, this (unfounded for the most part) belief can lead to resentment and overt defensiveness.

‘You’re forcing me to use English’

Among those who are most prone to this response are, ironically, Japanese professors of English or other academics who are proficient in English (although this phenomenon is hardly limited to Japan). It seems that some see using English in Japan as a kind of kowtowing, the appeasement behaviour of submissive colonial subjects. I know of some cases where professors of English actually have rules that absolutely all conversations that take place between Japanese staff and non-Japanese staff must be in Japanese-- of course this includes all teacher meetings and briefings too. I know of cases where a Professor of English has demanded that non-Japanese English teachers give him a report in Japanese wholly and self-admittedly for the sake of testing that NJ teacher's Japanese level. I know of a few who tell their students in their initial classes things like, "I hate English".

Once I asked (in Japanese of course) one such Professor why he held this type of policy. He answered that if foreigners weren't functional in Japanese they would be 'forcing' him to use English, which he seemed to regard as a particular burden. This, he added, represents typically arrogant Anglo-Saxon self-centeredness-- the assumption that eveyone had to speak English to them (yes, I know that Anglo-Saxons are often wrongly conflated with NES). This was followed by the predictable, "This is Japan. They should speak Japanese!" mantra.

But most notable to me was the fact that the offense taken did not seem to be concerned with functionality, that such an NJ would be more useful if they were more proficient at Japanese, but was more emotionally laden-- that a lack of Japanese proficiency automatically constituted a type of cultural, even personal, disrespect.

I've also met some academics and intellectuals who believe that Anglo-Saxon native English-speakers in particular are on a very conscious mission to propagate their language, willfully and acting as catalysts in making the language a global standard-- hoping to put ourselves in the linguistic driver's seat while everyone else is a mere passenger. And that we think this should be the case, believing English to be a superior language and all. (No, the ELTNews doesn't get kickbacks from the British Council).

Competing lingua francas in the workplace

English teachers in Japan in particular face a dilemma in this regard because there are competing lingua franca forces at play in our daily lives. Our basic working language is English, at least in the classroom. And there is no shortage of Japanese colleagues who prefer to interact in English. Now, I've blogged on this point before (in 'The Politics of Hello') but who am I to deny the Gakucho, who speaks English very well, when he opens a dialogue with me in English.

Oddly though, the are also many who open dialogues with me in English but later, when talking to others, begrudge my alleged 'insistence' upon using English-- they seem to have assumed that I can not or will not use Japanese from the outset. (Sometimes students believe this too- even though I occasionally give some information or a summary in fluent Japanese in class they are surprised when they nervously come to my office for something and discover that I can and will deal with them in Japanese-- if that's the language they'd prefer to talk in).

The 'J or E?' dilemma

On the other hand, what should the protocol be when, at a meeting held in Japanese, a senior professor asks me a question-- in English? Since all other committee members are Japanese and have varying degrees of competency in English I think Japanese provides the most functional response, although I may add a brief English summary to please the questioner (who may have asked because he/she doesn't know I can manage in Japanese).

On the other hand, if Professor A addresses me in English and I reply in English, Professor B, who is standing beside A, might well assume that Professor A is kowtowing to the arrogant neo-colonialist. Then B may think- Why don't his type bother to learn the local lingo? On the other hand, if I answer Professor A in Japanese it might sound like I'm not playing his game, that I will choose the mode of discourse, and moreover am insinuating that A's English isn't good enough to engage him/her in. It's a dilemma.

I also have a minor dilemma when walking into Indian or Turkish (or similar) restaurants in Japan. Which language is going to be the most functional? Since their daily working language with most customers is going to be Japanese that would be my first choice. But sometimes they greet and treat me in English. If I sense that they are more comfortable in English then I'll go that route. However, if I use English from the outset I'm afraid I might come across as your typical Panama-hatted, white-suited "Speak to me in mah language boy!" plonker. And yet again on the other hand I may look like a show off or somehow unnatural using Japanese when the restaurant staff is perfectly conversant in English (though in fact they often are not).

The reciprocal use of English

I've had students in Japan though who've argued that when they go abroad as tourists they try to use English so when foreign tourists visit Japan they should learn Japanese. I remember once asking such a student where they had used English abroad and they answered, "Thailand, Italy, and France". Hmmm.

I delicately mentioned that if we are to hold the principle of language equality then tourists and other visitors from Thailand, Italy and France should also speak English in Japan since no one in this entire equation is a native-English speaker. The reciprocal use of English as a second language holds both ways. Since they were still perplexed, I added, "Well you didn't speak Thai, their native tongue in Thailand right! You used English. So..." The point was made. Then again, some of these students were the same ones who thought I must live in an American-style house (while I was in Tokyo!) and that I got paid in dollars...

Of course none of this justifies the attitudes of some NESs who walk into any and every non-English speaking scenario and treat the locals as if they were still living in Bumfluff, Idaho. If you can't manage the local parlance (i.e., you are a tourist, or if that person's English is clearly going to be superior to your version of their language, or if you truly suck at foreign languages but not for a lack of effort) showing at least some sense of humility and moderation is called for-- you are on their turf after all. But the widespread belief that English NSs can't or won't do so is, in my opinion, largely unwarranted.

It goes without saying (although obviously I'm saying it anyway) that if you plan to live and work abroad you should do your damndest to learn the local lingo. You are obviously of more use at any workplace in Japan if you can manage meetings, information and interactions in Nihongo. But this is a functional reality-- like the fact that getting your car insurance or explaining your computer defect will run smoother when you do it in Japanese.-- it should not be an emotional or political one. Interpreting language inability as refusal, or unduly attributing chauvinist motives to the NSs in advance, and thus taking offense against the violation of the sanctity of your linguistic turf seems to me to be a bit overwrought.

Functionality trumps sentiment at this point.


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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

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

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

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

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

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

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

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

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

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

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

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

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

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

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

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

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

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

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

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

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

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

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

5. Is there really a problem?

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

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

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

The international test results canard

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

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

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

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

6. So just who is responsible?

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

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

Stop blaming...

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

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

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March 14, 2013

Racism in Japan: Where Medamasensei gets it wrong

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

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

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

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

Pulling the rug from under one's rhetorical feet

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

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

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

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

Medamasensei-- Personable and charismatic but...

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

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

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

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

'Racial discrimination' but not about 'races'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next came some clinchers...

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

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

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

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

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

"We get that stuff a lot"

I also asked about education against discrimination in Japanese schools:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It seemed kind of illogical to me"

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

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

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

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

A note to the nationalists

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

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


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May 07, 2013

Provocative conservativism: Deciphering and dissecting one weirdass policy piece

I'm a bit of a sucker for cognitive dissonance, especially if the source of that dissonance is at least somewhat esteemed, experienced, and aware of the contours of whatever topical playing field they are addressing. A high ranking Tea Party spokesman who extols the virtues of some aspect of the welfare state-- now you’ve got my attention. A radical environmental activist who points out the virtues of corporate investment and indulgence—hell, I’ll give it a read.

Upsetting the pie of established EFL canon

The same holds when it comes to language education. I’m not really interested in a longtime ELT stalwart pointing out the necessity of fostering learner autonomy because, well, because frankly it’s a yawner. I don’t feel that my inner teacher is going to be nourished or stimulated by another layer of whipped cream on the pie of established EFL canon. But if that grizzled classroom vet offers up their views on why a teacher-centered classroom will actually boost learning-- then I’m all ears. Not because I innately believe the titular premise, far from it, but I expect that my pedagogical peptides might be upset, even offended—which is always a good way of getting me out of the didactic doldrums.

What then to make of this opinion piece (the original is now offline so I’ve pasted the text at the end of this blog entry) from the April 16th, page 17, copy of The Japan News (ex-Daily Yomiuri) by one Masakazu Yamazaki, noted playwright, critic, ex-Professor of Osaka University, and former chairman of the Central Council for Education. In short, a Japanese person of some note (short for notoriety?) and influence. The title (titles are almost always decided by copy editors, not the writer, by the way) seems promising enough: “Forget Cram Schools, Boost Compulsory Education”. Unfortunately, it soon descends into a doctrinaire stew, a pungent potpourri of pedantic pedagogical policy (sorry 'bout that) alternating schizophrenically between a slightly seductive post-modern revisionism and predictably old-school throwback flag-waving.

Crystalline insights and Luddite knuckle-dragging

I urge you to read the whole thing and try to place the logical puzzle together—if you can. I suspect a few key pieces are missing. Shards of crystalline insight are coupled with stains of luddite knuckle-dragging, but lacking the sense of irony that might allow these intellectually apposite bedfellows to blend into something resembling a cohesive philosophy. Normally, I would not afford such a screed the time of day but given that this is a man of apparent learning and influence and that his piece holds a prominent place in the newspaper that I contribute a column to, the educator in me feels a need to put up my hand—if only to ask to go and wash them.

Yamazaki describes current maladies in Japanese education as arising from “the public’s perspective of education,” “a mind-set deeply rooted in Japan”. So far, this in line with standard progressive modes of thinking—but he then goes off-track by defining this 'deeply-rooted mindset' as being post World War 2 educational reforms, “…a superficial replication of American-style education imported after the war”. Superior, he believes, is Japan’s pre-war education policy. More on that later. Now, if you are confused about how ‘deeply-rooted mindsets’ line up in this rhetorical picture, you’re not alone (not to mention that he seems to associate corporal punishment, the current center of much controversy, as a by-product of the post-war era too). But wait, there’s more.

Egalitarianism-- a bad thing

The post-war policy, he says, “prompted Japanese to seek egalitarianism and homogenization.” So…. egalitarianism is a bad thing? The devil’s advocate in me wants to bite at that interesting nugget but little support for this contention is offered. Nor is any forthcoming regarding the very dubious notion that pre-war Japan was not homogeneous. If Yamazaki wants to put forward an off-the-wall reading of history, fine, but it has to be backed up by something more substantial than his Osaka U. pedigree and person-of-merit awards.

The wisp of support he offers here is the argument that post-war education rejected “cram education” in pursuit of “higher educational backgrounds” (whatever that means) and “creative education”. Now, dear reader, you should be really confused because, in short- he is saying cram education= good, creative, egalitarian education (that ‘deeply-rooted, post-war hallmark of Japanese education apparently) =bad. In fact, it seems that the copy editor was confused too because this sentiment directly contradicts the article’s title.

Curing the dropout problem-- by kicking them out

We are then treated to a bizarre diversion. He argues, and many will be sympathetic to this, that the current easy entry into universities means that many university students cannot carry out even basic academic functions, connected to a lack of perseverance. And in high schools many are unable to keep up in class and high-school dropouts account (not surprisingly) for a majority of juvenile delinquents. He also laments the inability of teachers to fail students (perhaps part of his criticism of egalitarian education). So far, so good.

But then, Yamazaki goes on to argue that the reason for the number of High School dropouts is that primary and junior high school students with “poor ability are allowed to go on to high school”. Ummm, yeah. So if, as in pre-war Japan, only those with high academic ability went on to high school, the academically-challenged would/should be quitting after junior high school instead. You have to admire the stunningly twisted logic at play here: High school dropouts form the majority of JDs so if they drop out from junior high school instead delinquency would go down. It’s like saying that most welfare recipients come from lower educational backgrounds. Therefore, if you didn’t give them any education at all we’d have fewer welfare recipients.

Anti-elitist elitism?

To his credit, Yamazaki rues the lack of curricular distinction between those students truly seeking higher education as opposed to those who seek only basic education. It leads to a muddled mediocrity (my words) in which academically gifted students are left unchallenged and become complacent. Government aid should focus on supporting this academic elite, he claims, and it should be based upon intellectual merit and not just a perpetuation of wealthy students heading off to Daddy's elite alma mater. Fine. But this would presume a greater stratification in Japan’s educational system, although I’m not sure that a substantial hierarchy of this type does not already exist and was even more widespread before the war.

Thinking for yourself 'creates confusion'

But now we get to the real meat of the essay, as far as English teachers reading this blog (or the original article) would be concerned. Yamazaki contends that this higher academic education should focus upon… wait for it.. rote learning, as opposed to wishy-washy post-war imported John Dewey-based notions of getting students to think for themselves which, Yamazaki states, “causes ‘confusion’ in this society” (as if his essay wasn’t already doing that).

Now let’s just stand aside for a moment here, suppress our knee-jerk auto-correction instincts, and survey the proposed pedagogical landscape from a detached, objective point of view. There is in fact a place for rote learning in the education system (along with drills and grammar translation). As Yamazaki notes, it is almost impossible to internalize the basic multiplication tables without rote. Basic second language vocabulary also involves no small amount of rote drudgery at some (usually early) stage. But as a basis for education?? (and some might argue, although I do not, that rote learning is still the dominant model in Japanese education, pre and post-war distinctions be damned). Sorry, but at some early point languages, as with most subjects, have to be treated as dynamic, interactive, open-ended, flexible, context-dependent organisms in order to be internalized and hold the later potentality of turning into something more fecund and productive.

Does recitation equal understanding?

Yamazaki’s shoddy logic is herein exposed most viscerally. He states that in pre-war education, students recited, by rote, “all kinds of famous literary works” and further, that this helped students “memorize various ways of thinking and expression”. Just a second. One doesn’t come to understand something as all-encompassing and nebulous as a ‘way of thinking’ by memorizing it. These are not discrete knowledge-units in which comprehension can be reduced to recitation. Expressions too, have to be placed within a meaningful context to be understood and applied productively. Memorizing isolated, de-contextualized expressions alone aids in usage no more than memorizing an entire golf instruction booklet will help you shoot par at Augusta.

Yamazaki proceeds to argue that rote learning is most effective in moral education. And again, his initial point is not entirely without merit. A certain amount of what we consider courtesy and socially appropriate behavior is generated from repeated exposure to social norms. But it is precisely locating this behavior in the realm of human experience, with real social interactions, that help inculcate it. The repetition of greetings “with a loud voice” will not lead to becoming “more considerate to other people” unless one equates mindless adherence to procedure and ritual with morality. A conditioned, cowed response is not a ‘moral’ one.

Young people as corporate fodder

Finally, I encourage readers to note the final sentence of Yamazaki’s piece, where he discusses how hardship encountered in practical, continuous real-world education (again, the kernel of a good idea) can bear fruit in terms of “contributing to the growth potential of corporations”. Ouch. Here I stand sandal to sandal with the 'progressives'. If the bottom line of Yamazaki’s proposed new policy for Japanese education is to ultimately treat young people as fodder for the strengthening of corporations, I have just felt the floor drop from under his tenuous scaffold of an argument. He’s out of touch with both the ceiling and the floor.

OK. I’ll give the man his due. He’s not trying to be popular, he’s not pandering to tired notions of progressive thought—what he’s arguing is truly “alternative” (meaning you won’t find the Birkenstock and pony-tail crowd hammering these points home at a teacher’s conference anytime soon). I like the fact that he doesn't buy the norm and wants to twist and re-tie the popular narrative. I’ll even forgive the lack of cohesion in his argument, as the rigid, formulaic analyses typically employed by teacher-types to make tepid pedagogical claims is soporific in the extreme. But I can’t ignore his selective views of history, the standard elderly persons' blinkered nostalgia for a Golden Era that never really existed, the confining dualisms, and most of all, his simplistic, almost child-like, view of rote learning. I can’t help but think that this is a man who perhaps should have eaten his daily bowl of imported Dewey and not be so sanguine in extolling the virtues of a mindset that helped bring Japan close to international pariah status and near total destruction.

Here's the original piece:

Forget cram schools, boost compulsory education

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration considers education reform
as one of its top priorities. As the future of Japan hinges upon
establishing a social foundation that fosters intellectual development,
the government should make an enormous effort to nurture human resources
to this end. Against a backdrop of a recent stream of cases of corporal
punishment and bullying at school, it is understandable for the prime
minister to emphasize the importance of child discipline and moral
education. As the government is responsible for education, it has no
choice but to advance structural reforms in school administration in
implementing its education policy.

I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the Abe Cabinet's initiatives
on the educational front achieve tangible results. However, I cannot
help thinking that the root cause of Japan's education-related problems
lies in a malady that cannot be easily cured by administrative reforms
in schools. It seems to me the public's perception of education,
together with a mind-set deeply rooted in Japanese society and its
conventional wisdom, has distorted the country's education system. The
malady stems from the social trend following the end of World War II
that gave rise to "popularization," prompting the Japanese to seek
egalitarianism and homogenization.

In a nutshell, the trend can be summarized as a combination of two
phenomena--the insatiable pursuit of "higher educational backgrounds"
and the rejection of "cram" education that emphasizes rote learning and
memorization--the latter idea coupled with a naive yearning for "
creative education." Needless to say, the two phenomena represent the
public's antipathy toward Japan's prewar education and a superficial
replication of American-style education imported after the war.

Postwar Japan adopted the so-called 6-3 compulsory educational system
--six years of primary school and three years of middle school.
Eventually, students going on to high schools started to increase, with
the high school attendance rate now standing at 98 percent. Likewise,
the enrollment rate for colleges and universities has risen to 50
percent. This was accompanied by an increase in the number of colleges
and universities, but the expansion was so rapid that, technically
speaking, their combined capacity is large enough to admit all
applicants. To support the trend in which virtually everyone can receive
a high school education, the former Democratic Party of Japan-led
government acted to make high schools tuition-free.

Despite the emphasis on the popularization of higher education, there
has been no genuine increase in the country's overall academic ability.
For example, some students admitted to universities do not even know how
to add or subtract fractions, while many students lack perseverance--
they cannot be bothered to read through the lead story of a newspaper's
front page. According to government statistics, high school dropouts are
said to account for the majority of juvenile delinquents, evidence
perhaps that many high school students are unable to keep up in class.

The reasons for this are simple. Primary and middle school education
falls short in terms of quality and students with poor academic ability
are allowed to go on to high schools. The postwar educational system
does not permit primary and middle school teachers to fail students and
let them repeat the same grades. In other words, schools are like pasta-
making machines--they allow failing students to graduate year after year.

Although the competence and devotion of teachers has to be questioned
as to this situation, it should be noted that parents focus primarily on
the diplomas their children obtain rather than what they actually learn.
In one case, a primary school teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching
students with poor records he gave them extracurricular lessons. The
parents were so incensed they stormed the school to denounce the teacher.
These helicopter parents--known as "monster parents" in Japan--accused
the hapless teacher of "bullying."

Screen students more strictly

What this country should do is concentrate spending--out of a limited
budget--on programs to improve primary and middle school education
rather than make high schools tuition-free. It may be a good idea to
hold a universal graduation examination for primary and middle schools
throughout the country. But, first of all, every primary and middle
school should carry out frequent exams of their own to determine which
students are failing and help them improve their academic abilities. A
provisional enrollment system could be introduced to allow high schools
to accept students with lower academic achievements, as long as they are
given supplementary courses a few hours a week in subjects they did
badly in at middle school.

In the realms of higher education, there should be stricter screening
to divide students into two groups, with one seeking early employment
and the other going on to universities. Of course, students wanting to
pursue careers as athletes or entertainers should be permitted to do so.
To nurture future leaders in the development of a knowledge-based
society, excellent students seeking a higher education should be
entitled to receive grants that cover not only tuition but also living
costs. At present, Japanese university students spend an average of only
four hours a day studying, including hours in and outside school.
Students chosen to receive scholarships should be obliged to study by
themselves for more than 10 hours a day.

My proposal is not aimed at widening the social divide--it envisages
a completely different goal. At present, an inordinate number of
students entering top universities are from wealthy families and many of
them attend private cram schools and middle schools specialized in
entrance examination preparation. I am confident that improving
compulsory education will rectify such inequality.

If our society can rid itself of the social malady caused by the
pursuit of "diplomas of higher education" and "poor academic ability,"
it may be possible to eliminate the chronic mismatch between job-seeking
university graduates and employers. This mismatch undoubtedly results
from the belief on the part of students that "I'm a graduate of a four-
year university, so I'm supposed to land a clerical job at a major
company." In reality, this delusion only narrows students' job
opportunities.

Rote learning suits Japan

As I mentioned, the second characteristic of postwar education is the
rejection of "cram school" education, a trend that favors creative
education to encourage students to think for themselves. The person
behind this idea is John Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher and
education reformer. There is little space here to elaborately criticize
Dewey's ideas, but I have to point out that they caused needless
confusion in our society. For instance, when students are told during a
composition class to "freely write whatever you think about," they
probably are at a complete loss about what to write.

For human beings, language is a basic cognitive tool that allowed us
to become thinking animals. In other words, we cannot do anything
specific without learning a sufficient number of speech and writing
patterns in the first place. In prewar schools, students recited all
kinds of famous literary works. They were therefore given rote learning
lessons to memorize various ways of thinking and expression. What must
be done now is to reinstate this tradition and cram kanji characters,
phrases and the usage of metaphors into students' memories.

The same thing can be said about science and mathematics. Everyone
knows we cannot take those courses without memorizing the multiplication
table first. I remember a TV program that featured a Columbia University
professor who invited a group of middle class students who did not like
science to join an ad hoc class. The teacher had the students memorize
genetics material while listening to hip-hop music. After acquiring a
basic knowledge about genetics by rote learning, the students,
surprisingly enough, began studying science on their own.

Rote learning is most effective in moral education. What children
find easy to comprehend are not patriotism and filial piety but things
related to daily discipline, such as saying "Good morning" or "Good-bye"
in a loud voice, or "Clean your classroom when you make it messy." Once
children are used to doing this, they will become more considerate to
other people and conform to accepted standards. This will be achieved
only under the cram school model.

Education never ends

Finally, I want to emphasize that education does not end after a
student leaves school. For many years, I have said people should put off
planning their lives by 10 years because of the declining birthrate and
aging society. To be specific, the mandatory retirement age should be
extended to 70 and university graduates should become eligible to find
full-time jobs at an average age of 30--with the exception of police,
firefighting and defense personnel, because physical strength is needed
in these professions.

In the 10 years after leaving university, graduates should have the
option of studying abroad or participating in nongovernmental
organizations to obtain social experiences in Japan and overseas. To
earn their way, they could work in the agricultural, fishery and
forestry industry and at artisans' workshops, among others. A decade of
hardship would surely become the most meaningful period of
apprenticeship in their lives and, from the perspective of employers,
employing these young people would be a superb way of contributing to
the growth potential of corporations.

(Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Yamazaki is a playwright and critic. Previously, he served as a
professor at Osaka University and chaired the Central Council for
Education. The government has accorded him a Person of Cultural Merit
award.

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