Teaching Japanese Literature Through English
(Jeffrey D. Shaffer Education Development Center）
＿＿When I was first asked to teach the Academic English III class I was not quite sure what to expect. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the prospects of teaching an “academic” class, but seeing as I had been asked to teach about Japanese culture via English… well that was something quite different! I did not (and still do not) feel qualified to teach Japanese people anything as regards their own culture. Practically speaking, I have only lived here for the past 15 years, and not having been raised here as a youth puts me at a great disadvantage to even your typical high school student. However, after pondering this proposal for a little while, I felt like I MIGHT be able to share some insights and some history behind Classical Japanese Literature, something I had a passion for when I was an undergraduate student myself.
＿＿But do not mistake me, I still seriously doubted whether I would be able to bring any NEW knowledge to the classroom, though my greatest hope was in being able to at least provide an outsider’s view as well as an “English language” approach to what I assumed to be an already-familiar subject with my students.
＿＿I soon discovered that the Academic English III classes were designed to be a mixture of native-Japanese students as well as visiting foreign students. This gave me a bit more confidence in that it was more likely that the visiting students had studies less about Japanese literature, which means I would NOT merely be covering already familiar ground. And so, I decided I would focus mostly on the foreign students and have the Japanese students add to the class with her pre-existing knowledge, doing their best to explain in English. The idea was that the two sides would be able to support one another and come together in the middle –– the foreign students learning more about Heian life, history, and literature, and the Japanese students being communicating what they know in English.
＿＿I was quickly to discover that my base assumptions about my Japanese students was false — many of them did not know very much about classical Japanese literature. Apparently, they were given an introduction to the subject during their secondary education and little or nothing beyond that. So, I soon found myself trying to teach BOTH the foreign students and the native students alike (which was even more difficult than I imagined as the Japanese students did not have the background knowledge I had expected would help ｔhem understand the materials in English).
＿＿One of the first issues I needed to settle was how to structure the class. As a literature class it’s not particularly fair to give a lot of quizzes based on the readings (which test their memory and not their understanding). So I decided simply to try structuring it like a typical American literature class. This meant that the students would have long reading assignments for homework and in class we would discuss what they had read, share deeper insights into the history, culture, time period, and other such aspects.
＿＿Thus a typical class would see students preparing by reading a large chunk of literature (in English) for homework, then come to class where I would answer questions left over from the previous class. I would then give a small lecture on some aspect of the Heian culture, and after this they would break into groups and discuss the reading and their understanding of it — focusing largely on the items that interested them most (or they thought horrid or amusing or odd, as the case may be). Following this we discussed these items as a class with me providing deeper insights or explanations. After this I allowed time for Q&A and then we finished the class by having the students fill in comment papers (with the more interesting points or questions being addressed at the start of the next class).
＿＿This overall structure seem to work well. The students were very amiable and worked together well, though they often had to overcome the language barrier to explain their ideas. The content, itself, was not as much a problem as I had assumed it would be. Certainly some students were referring to a modern Japanese translation of the text, though I did not say much on this issues so long as they restrained their in-class discussions to English. I wanted to make it challenging enough for them to learn, but easy enough for them to participate and catch the “fascination” of such ancient and inviting literature (and culture).
＿＿The students seemed to enjoy the literature, itself, though at times they said it was boring, or exciting, or even shocking. These, however, were natural responses and I welcome them. It was important, as I discovered, to accept their feelings and their opinions as part of the learning experience — there is no CORRECT interpretation or understanding of a piece of history or literature, though there many be more “likely” interpretations or understandings. And as a “centerpiece” for discussion (which was the main goal of this class) everyone should be allowed to discuss their own unique reactions.
APPROPRIATE BALANCE OF INFORMATION
＿＿Another difficulty I had in approaching this class was how to take the mass of information that “describes and explains” the Heian period and provide it to the diverse group of students in a way that was digestible, interesting, and yet not overbearing. Because I could not go into rich detail in my native language of English, I found myself often trying to find ways to simplify the material for the sake of the Japanese students.
＿＿I also made conscious choices as to what order I thought the various major aspects of the Heian Period. For example, I began with the location of the Heian capital as well as the overall structure of the city, palace, buildings, etc. I also explained to them what a typical “room” would be like, such as the rooms the ladies-in-waiting typically spent their entire lives (and where much of our reading materials were not only written, but also took place). More difficult subjects such as “superstitions” or “Heian views on beauty” were held until a later class when we would have gathered a somewhat greater understanding of the people and the times. Often we would return to the same subjects in various different ways, looking at how they all intertwined and affected one another (such as the relationship between men and women as well as the relationship between people of rank and the lower-class peoples).
EVALUATION AND GRADES
＿＿Because I had decided to structure this class similar to an American literature class, most of the students grades came from participation and weekly “reports” based on the reading assignments. Basically these “reports” were e-mails that each student would send to me explaining what they liked or didn’t like about the reading assignment as well as their thoughts and impressions. (This was expressly chosen to get the students to think about the reading materials and not simply read through it). Additional grading came from a six to eight page final report they were asked to prepare in English (single spaced, with bibliography). For their final reports, students were allowed to write upon any interest they had, even something not specifically covered in class, though it had to be directly related to the time period.
＿＿On the whole, I would say that the Academic English III class was a success, though it was not without its difficulties. It is my personal opinion that it would be difficult to sustain an entire fleet of such “Teaching Through English” classes at the university level because I believe it would be difficult to find appropriately-qualified professors to plan, lead, teach, and evaluate them. I feel as though it only worked (barely) in my case because I had some college-level background in the subject material. I suspect some serious difficulties in more advanced, hands-on, technical subject materials such as physics or perhaps even language acquisition. Their very specific and technical nature seem to make the language-barrier even that more difficult to overcome.
＿＿On a final note, I would like to say that I did enjoy teaching this class and I was quite looking forward to teaching it again the following year. However, it was not to be. With such an “experimental” class I believe it is even MORE important to attempt teaching it for two or three semesters. In that way the teacher can have the required time to try out new ideas and then make steady improvements as the course, and semesters, progress. Hopefully by the time the class has been taught three or more times, most of the difficulties will have been addressed in an efficient and maybe even enjoyable way.
＿＿As for now, it was a success, but I believe future iterations could have been even better.