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The Uni-Files - working conditions Archive

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

April 06, 2009

Getting (and keeping) a university teaching job- a few tips, insights and blatant prejudices

So, you wanna be a university English instructor in Japan, do you? It’s not all faculty-only jacuzzis and pre-recession daytrader salaries you know! If you want my perspective on whether university English teaching is a cushy job or what the day-to-day routine is like you can scroll further down this blog and read my earlier entries on those topics (and the previous entry regarding contracts won’t hurt either).

For today, let’s start with a few pointers about actually getting the job:
1. Almost all university positions go through the koubou (public announcement) process, and these are typically announced in Japanese. This has the effect of rooting out NJs who are not really committed to working within a Japanese institution so that generally only the more serious candidates come forward. Job openings posted in standard NJ forums can attract a candidate to position ratio of 150 to 1 or thereabouts (don’t ask for references- this .is an experience-based estimate)

2. The best regular listing of these positions that I’m aware of come from the JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) mailing list. You have to be a member to subscribe to the mailing list- but if you’re not a member you could ask a friend who is a member to forward announcements to you.

3. A Masters degree in a closely-related field, plus some tertiary teaching experience in Japan, is the absolute minimum requirement. A PhD is becoming the norm though.

Now, here come the interesting parts-
4. Although the position must be announced publicly, the university already often has a good idea of who they want to hire anyway.

5. The best way to become that person who will be hired regardless of the public posting is to be known and, especially, trusted by someone who already holds some influence in the faculty. A teacher who they already know at least a little and feel that they can trust, or one who comes recommended by a respected member of the current faculty, will trump pure academic credentials in many cases. This means getting to know your local university teachers (Japanese or NJ) and, most definitely, paying for their beer.

6. Most of these ‘known’ teachers are known precisely because they have worked as hijoukin (part-timers) at the university already. Get your foot in the door as a part-timer first. But this also means that those who whine about being a part-timer, or have otherwise not distinguished themselves while in the part-time role, can be shooting themselves in the foot by presenting themselves in this manner if they are really looking out for a more long-term position.

7. You will almost certainly start out on a limited contract. Unless you are hired directly from the faculty of Harvard AND have functional Japanese writing and reading skills your first contract serves as a trial. Why? Because when hiring the Japanese staff will find it harder to make sound judgments about an NJ’s character and academic history et al than they will with a Japanese candidate. With the J candidate they pretty much know what they are getting. Even so (see my previous blog entry for more on this), almost all Japanese newbies start with limited contracts these days too. And if you read that blog entry (plus the follow-up comments) you may also see that these limited-term contracts can effectively be (and often are) extended by being morphed into new positions, that is if it is thought that having you serve long-term will be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

So then, how do you keep the job? Some more advice:
1. For the first few years shut up, and absorb and learn what’s going on. In other words, DO NOT come in with big ideas about changing the institution, telling the veteran staff their faults as teachers, that their program sucks, and that you know how to fix it. This should be as obvious a rule as “Don’t sleep with the students” or “Stay sober while at work” but you’d be surprised. Many NJ newbies want to prove themselves by offering something ‘new’ that they are sure revolutionizes the system and makes the students better humans. That’s all well and good as an ideal, but often they are unaware of factors that underpin the current system- not to mention that if they come in claiming to have the panacea for all that they believe ails the university, this will not be seen as being ‘helpful’ or as their welcome contribution to educational development but merely as pretentious arrogance (and justifiably so).

2. You are part of the faculty, not just a classroom teacher. This means that you don’t go home after your classes are through for the day. You don’t take huge blocks of time off to visit Bali when the ‘official’ school year has ended. As I stated in my blog entry ‘A Day in the Life…’ actual classroom contact hours account for only a small part of what you should/will be doing. If you act like a ‘classroom-only’ teacher you will be treated as such (contractually I mean).

3. Make yourself indispensable. Become an active and enthusiastic, and most of all, an integral part of any committee or working group that you end up belonging to (while still avoiding the know-it-allism or bossiness I warned about above)

4. You are expected to use your non-classroom time to PRODUCE! Start writing a coursebook! Work on academic publications! Help establish an intra-university service of some sort for students! Get involved in the community under the banner of the university! Show the flag by being productive, NOT by pointing out everyone’s shortcomings! If your overseers notice you being productive and carrying out work that benefits the institution they will not want to lose you. Very few Japanese powers-that-be will want to give up a productive NJ contributor just to go through the hiring process with relative unknowns again. Give them reasons to find a way to keep you on.

5. Get along with everyone else! Again this should fall into the ‘well, duh!’ category but it’s easier said than done. More than your great ideas and skillful pedagogy, the fact that you don’t cause friction will be a major factor in getting some sort of contract renewal. Appearing cooperative is key and it doesn’t mean being an obsequious doormat. But it does mean using common sense by presenting yourself as someone who is pleasant to deal with. If you truly feel that a certain policy is harmful, that a proposal is not in the best interests of education or will be detrimental to students, there are effective ways of expressing this without sounding like a PoliSci sophomore who has just emerged from Self-Righteous Demonstrations and Protests 101, the shrillness of which will usually lead to your being tuned out by precisely those who you actually hope to influence (and, rightly or wrongly, will negatively affect views regarding future NJ hiring).

In such cases, if your contract is not renewed, you can shout into your beer all you want about how the ‘old boys club’ or ‘The Man’ resisted your ‘progressive’ teaching style because they felt ‘threatened’ by you, that they ‘couldn’t handle the truth’. You can make cultural blanket statements about alleged Japanese acquiescence and claims of outright discrimination, and you can refer to NJ’s who do manage to stay on as “Uncle Toms”, but basically it may be that you were not renewed because you were really just a pain in the ass to deal with.
(Sidebar- Maybe, just maybe, after five years or so, you have the right to become a little bit of a pain in the ass. That’s about it).

6. Learn more of the Japanese language and use it (although this can be a tricky area)
You will have plenty of bureaucratic paper/computer work to do and it is unlikely that much will be in English. You will be a burden by getting everyone else to handle your basic paperwork and office communications. When you talk with secretaries, Student Affairs Division people (gakumuka), administrators (somu/kyomu), and attend faculty meetings, you will look like you have a longer-term commitment to Japan if you at least make a go of furthering your Nihongo skills. Using English in such cases puts a burden on others but, more importantly, it gives off the appearance that you don’t plan to stay in the country long-term and/or will have a limited contribution to the institution. Obviously some ability with the lingo will show commitment (and respect) towards both the country and your workplace.

Now, I said above that the use of Nihongo at work can be tricky. Why is that? It’s because some other faculty may see you first and foremost as someone who they are supposed to address in English. This may be a result of 1) the fact that they assume you can’t speak Japanese, 2) they are competent in English and see this as an opportunity to use a bit of their Eigo skill or 3) they are in fact better at English than you are at Japanese and it is obvious the whole transaction will quite frankly run more smoothly if conducted in English.

In one sense, responding in English in such circumstances is courteous- you are duly following their choice of code. But there are always a few folks who, if you do so, believe that this is an unmistakable sign of your unwillingness or inability to use Japanese and is thus indicative of a short-termer mentality. On the other hand, if you respond in Japanese, they may see it as a rejection of their English gambit, their desire to utilize a bit of their English skills, which might be part of the role that they envision you to be filling.

There might also be cases (rare and overstated in the NJ blog world, but existing nonetheless) in which the foreigner who responds skillfully in Japanese is considered negatively because they are: 1) no longer ‘fresh’ and therefore do not represent the ideal caricature of an NJ or they are 2) not really acting like an English teacher is expected to (including the possible presumption that you might also be using too much Nihongo in your ‘lectures’ as well). Personally, I have NEVER experienced this response, so I urge all readers to fall on the “more Nihongo skill” side of the equation. But I have heard from reliable sources that these attitudes might be encountered. In short, it can be tricky to walk the tightrope between giving off the air of someone who is committed long-term to the institution while still fulfilling your role of being the NJ English teacher who is expected to bring a fresh or unique perspective to the students.

On the other hand, all the advice given above plus 400 yen will get you a tall mocha latte at Starbuck’s if the position you are filling is based upon special funding or a grant that dries up; if the position is borrowed from another department or faculty who now want it back; or if there are enough people in the university hierarchy who think it is somehow beneficial to keep a revolving door policy towards teachers. And waiting in limbo for some kind of extension while feeling powerless to affect it when you have a family to provide for can be unnerving, to say the least. Good teachers have been lost, jumping at better opportunities, when their current employers remained uncommitted.

Any advice I’ve forgotten? Questions? The comments section is open for business.

Mike

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April 20, 2009

Contract renewal at the uni; The Ninkisei song and dance

If I had known how it would affect my life 25 years later, maybe I wouldn’t have taken those backpacking trips back in the 80’s. Yeah- after graduation I went through that time-honored rite of passage, the lengthy overseas backpacking trip, first to Europe for about 6 months between my undergrad and grad studies, and then the better part of a year in North Africa and the Middle East while between graduate studies. So, I was learning about the wider world, gaining life skills, growing as a social being, right? You’d think. But when these gaps of non-study and non-employment appear on my CV in Japan they look to my employers like (to quote the waiter in the Monty Python 'dirty fork' sketch) ‘a huge bowl of pus’.

Not only those travel gaps, but also the year I spent volunteering and working sporadically as a counselor in church-cum-community centers, are black holes on my resume. So, why would this period of self-sacrifice for next to nothing in community service not be a bulwark of my personal working history, you ask? It seems that because I wasn’t contracted to any one organization and don’t have some official papers to ‘prove’ this experience I was not really ‘employed’. And travel is, apparently, ‘play’. As far as my employers in Japan are concerned, I might as well have been spending all that time playing Space Invaders in my buddy’s basement. You see, for each year, or even part of a year, that you are unaccounted for work-wise, your salary is reduced, or at least it is so when you work for a National University in Japan or any similar job in which you are designated as a civil servant.

I have a colleague who, after high school, worked as a drummer for several years, doing the get-in-the-van-and-let’s-haul-it-to-the-gig-in-Moncton thing. Again, you’d think this would be a worthy life experience, building up character, learning the ways of the world, but on his CV it amounts to a huge vat of nada.

These things become viscerally apparent every time I fill out a resume here. So why am I filling out a resume now, I who am gainfully employed for the long-term, you might well ask? Well, in fact this month I received the bulky preparation forms for my ninkisei contract renewal.

I’ve explained about the ninkisei system a bit in earlier posts on this blog. It’s the new system under which all National University workers are on contracts, and these contracts can be renewed only after a very detailed listing of what you’ve achieved during the first section of your contract. This is my fifth year on my current contract, and my renewal period is five years so I have to my song and dance now. I has to show dem what I gots.

As I’ve written here before, the purpose of the ninkisei is to make people accountable, to be able to show measurable achievement to warrant your contract extension. The ostensible goal is to rid the system of deadwood, or at least to put deadwood to some use. And in a sense it works- if you know your contract renewal is coming up and if you’ve got little to show for it, you worry- as you should. The process is said to be a slam dunk unless you’ve committed some egregious sin, but unfortunately for me, just filling in the forms takes time and effort away from the very things I’m trying to sell myself on- my in-class pedagogy, my research, my involvements in various organizations and societies- in the first place. (Ironically, being active and responsible is penalized by having to fill in much, much more and to offer proof as well). I also worry that despite all my efforts to impress and be comprehensive, the overseeing committee that performs the review will take only a perfunctory glance at all I’ve done.

This huge stack o’ shiryou (reports) was given to me on the very first day of classes for the new academic year, so just when things are getting busy class-wise, around come these official and very important documents, 17 pages long when it arrives on your desk, but after completion to be about 30+ pages. In order to originally apply for this job I filled in a lengthy stack o’ documents but this one is even larger because now I have to include my working achievements, roles in the workplace, and the like.

(Warning- whining and moaning follows) What I really dislike about doing this is the fact that we have a database at the university (as all universities do) that we’ve spent considerable time filling in comprehensively. Yet, for this renewal, I have to put my personal data, education, working history et al in from scratch. What’s the point of having an accessible online database if the people from personnel make you fill all this out from alpha to omega each time??? Can’t they just put that in themselves from the database and then have you add any changes, additions and amendments??? Isn’t that the whole purpose of a database??? Welcome to a paper-based society, folks.

Another thing- this database also leads to your gaining a ‘score’ or rating, a combined total of your ‘value’. The problem is that some people are very good at manipulating the database to get a high score- knowing where a minor item scores big; knowing that being a largely ‘in-name’ advisor on some dubious and obscure MEXT committee (say, the Standing Sub-committee for Textbook Font Reform) will score five times as much as a solo research paper of note that took you three years to complete (note- end of whining and moaning).

Yes- and of course it is all in Japanese and I have to fill it all in Japanese by the end of April. This of course makes it three times harder for me than for any Japanese employee but hey, that’s a part of the game. I live in Japan, and I work for a Japanese institution, under the same rules as any Japanese. I would not expect a Chinese researcher in Canada to complain about having to list their achievements in English so that their overseers could make judgments about their work for contract extension. But the fact remains that instead of working more on my actual classes, student report, or upcoming research and presentations, I will be focusing inordinately upon this baby.

And it’s not normal Japanese either. The lingo is akin to the kind of pseudo-language you can see on American tax forms. Things like, “List any and all quasi-committee functions, but not roles, unless contained under the rubric of Faculty Development’. Okay, I exaggerate but you get the point. I ask Japanese colleagues to help me decipher this stuff but they can’t understand it either.

Speaking of committee work, you now begin to realize why there are so many meaningless committees in universities- it is largely to pad these types of resumes. Some, like the entrance exam committees, do real productive work. But some meet once year for a literal sleep-in but, hey, if you are on it you can claim this brownie point on forms like the ninkisei renewal. Just getting the names of the committees absolutely correct is no easy feat either. For example, while I may usually refer to it as the ‘Evaluation standards committee’, I have to list it by its proper name which is in fact, the “Committee for the proposal of reform, development and procedure in observation and evaluation standards”. And I have to add to that my role in the committee- well, what was it exactly? “Working group B sub-chief of questionnaire standardization”. I think.

And then there are things that just don’t translate well to a very Japanese format, for example, my ‘honseki’. We don’t have that concept in Canada. I was born in the U.K., moved to Canada at age 1, and grew up in an around Vancouver but I have nothing which proves this, no ‘juminhyou’ or anything like that. Still, I suppose that Vancouver is my ‘honseki’, for what that’s worth.

Listing licenses and qualifications, as we must, can be problematic too. The standard degree titles translate well and fit into the format easily but I also received a certificate in counseling waaay back when living in Vancouver, and you really should list anything. I took several courses and got a piece of paper and I don’t know who it was authorized by because in those days it just didn’t seem to matter. In Japan, licenses have very clear authorities and titles, “National Pachinko Appreciation Licensing Examination- Advanced Level” that sort of thing- but what can I say for my counseling license? “Like, I took some courses and stuff, ‘n got some kind of certificate, from the city of Vancouver- I think”. It just doesn’t fit well.

The same goes for things like publications and presentations. For example, we are expected to write the official themes of the conferences we attend or present at. You guessed it, most of mine were written in English and have to be translated into Japanese but these themes tend to be nebulous titles like, “The notion of practice- feasibility and procedure in the age of post-modern pedagogy”. How the hell do you translate that?

As far as publications go, they seem to be most interested in numbers so, interestingly, your half-page My Share entry in the local English associations’ bi-annual newsletter seems to account for just as much as a cover article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The centrality of the ‘Number of publications’ section is also the reason why medical departments in particular include the name of everyone in the department in their research papers- that way everyone gets listed 10 times a year when in fact only one paper may actually be their baby.

Then there are the intimidating sections where it asks you how many scholarships, awards, grants, and so on you have received. Well, English is not exactly an area in which awards of this type are abundant. What can I say here? “Yes, I got an award for ‘Lifetime Achievements in Information Gap Task Design’ from the Shikoku JALT sub-committee on Task-based learning”. Actually, I could probably list stuff like that and nobody would question it. It’s like those faux internet site awards: “Voted fifth best site on vestry design in Belgium, 2002!”

There’s also a section in which we are to list ‘rewards and punishments’. I think this is amusing. Who would list their punishments when going for a contract renewal? It reminds me of those customs declaration forms at immigration that ask, “Are you bringing any illegal drugs or firearms into the country?” “Oh yeah. I’m in tight with both the Colombian cartel and Al-Qaeda. For got to jot it down. Sorry!”

‘Roles’ in society and the community also makes up a large chunk of this form. Okay, my Daily Yomiuri articles come under this heading and there are plenty of other outside-university activities that I’ve been involved in so I can make this section nice and fat, but a lot of English roles are rather nebulous (there’s that word again) when applied to strict Japanese categories. For example, this very blog is sponsored by an English education organization and it relates to my job as a type of ‘community involvement’ since it is about university life in Japan but how do I categorize my role here? ‘Blogger’ sounds like I’m just playing around with my own personal site for ego enhancement and amusement (come to think of it, that may be more accurate than I’d like to admit) but ‘regular commentator’ doesn’t quite cut it either.

As a result of trying to master this form, I spend an inordinate amount of time not only not doing the things I’m really paid for (the things I’m trying to write about on this God-forsaken form), or even filling in the damn thing, but instead getting prior clarification on the actual meanings of various sections, as well as acceptable formats and protocols from the person responsible over in personnel. Now, you might expect this character to be some greasy old bureaucrat in a cheap polyester blue suit and a bad comb-over, the type who doesn’t make eye contact, smells of cigarette residue and dried squid, and dislikes pesky Gaijin, but in fact the person responsible is a very pleasant and eminently helpful middle-aged woman who takes a lot of time to explain clearly and thoroughly what Mr. Not-so-fluent-in-reading-Kanji is supposed to do. She’s apologetic about the bits that are hard to translate or don’t fit into a Japanese context well, and it feels just wrong to whine and complain when she’s being so very pleasant and helpful.

So I’ll do that on this blog instead. Back to filling in the forms now…

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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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July 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Yeah- that thing I forgot

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

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

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

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September 23, 2009

Drop the puck! It's ELT Conference Season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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October 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 08, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sense a few problems with this thinking though.

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

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

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

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

Which is teaching English, not speaking it.

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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 31, 2011

Workshy, layabout teachers should pay back salaries

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

30 seconds per day

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

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

It's payback time...To me!

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

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

'Holidays' and 'vacations' as working time

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

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

Criminal evidence exhibits

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

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

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

Charged with attempting to better yourself

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

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

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

Teaching is neither retail nor factory work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hockey vs. soccer player working models

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

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

"Moral failings as members of society"

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

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

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

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