Monthly Archives: November 2015

Becoming Superman, Part 1

I moved to Japan to live in Nagano in October 2000 and at first my only transportation was a bicycle I bought shortly after arriving. However, in the spring of 2002 one of my students graduated from university and got a job in Tokyo, and so was looking to sell his scooter that he had used when he was a student. I asked him why he wasn’t going to take it with him to Tokyo and he said it was too expensive and the scooter wasn’t worth that much money. He asked if I was interested in buying it, and when I asked him how much he was selling it for, he said, 20,000 yen, which I thought was quite reasonable and so I ended up buying it.

We went to the motorcycle shop he had bought it from to change the ownership registration to my name, and then I started driving it around Nagano. Before long, I was using the scooter to drive back and forth to my classes, although eventually December came and I realized that snow was going to be an issue as far as transportation with the scooter was concerned.

Not wanting to spend the money to buy a car, I started asking around about what my different options were, as by now the scooter was an important part of my ability to get back and forth to work. Someone eventually suggested I change the tires to snow tires. I asked if there really were such things for scooters and was assured that yes, indeed there were.

So I went back to the motorcycle shop that had changed the title for me and asked if they had snow tires for scooters there. The man working there was really advanced in years and replied that yes, yes they did have snow tires. I asked if I could buy them that same day or not, and he said that yes I could, and so I asked how much they were and when I should come back. He said it would take 90 minutes to change the tires on my scooter.

I spent the next 90 minutes walking around downtown Nagano, up to Zenkoji Temple and back again, and then stopped in at the shop. My scooter was up on their service stand with back tire off. The old guy working there says, “Come back later! Come back later!” I ask how long should I wait, and he says 90 minutes.

By now it’s lunch time, so I head somewhere for lunch then kill another hour or so wandering around. When I get back into the shop, this time the back tire is on but the front tire is off, and he says, “Come back later! Come back later!” I ask how long again and this time he says an hour. And so I kill another hour of time.

After this last hour, when I get back into the shop the guy is furiously tightening the bolt on the front tire and says, “I’m almost done! Please wait.” Once he finishes, we settle the bill and then I get my scooter to drive back home.

All of my walking has made me hungry, and so I decide to stop on the way home for a small snack. After I finish, when I get back on my scooter I think the handling is a little strange, but figure I just bought the snow tires, and so perhaps the handling is a bit different with the snow tires on it.

I start on my way home, and as I’m approaching a crosswalk I see a lady waiting to cross the street. I make it a point to stop for people in crosswalks, so I hit my brake, and the front end of my scooter collapses out from under me and I go over the handlebars, striking a Superman pose for a brief moment before hitting the pavement.

The question I ask my students at this point in the story is what happened that caused the front end of my scooter to collapse and me to become a very short-lived Superman? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Want to know what happened? Part 2 of the story is here.

The interview or not getting another job in Japan

The mountains of Nagano, where I long to be

I’ve been sitting on this story for a while, but just got a bundle of work sent off to my PhD supervisors earlier today, which gives me some time to write my thoughts down.

As my current position is contracted, that means I’m going to have to leave Toyama eventually, which was one of the big incentives for me to start working on my PhD shortly after starting in my new position. This also means that I’ve been keeping my ear open for potentially interesting new positions. And the news is that I found one.

Don’t get too excited, though; the story’s already over, and I didn’t get the job. However, I’ve been sitting on and thinking about my experience of the application and interview process, and how I want to share it. There have even been a number of news stories that have attracted my attention and gotten me closer to writing about my most recent ill-fated job application. One of those is about the latest effort to internationalize Japan’s higher education sector (just one of many) and the other is about how some advertised academic positions have already been filled before the interview process even begins.

I’ll start with the second of the two articles, because it’s the first I read, and because as I went through it, I was surprised that all of the universities in the story got to be anonymous. I understand why the different job applicants and university representatives get anonymity; they’re people, and they may need to look for another job some day, and so keeping them anonymous makes sense. But my understanding of universities is that they are generally multimillion dollar business entities and so I have little empathy for them or their predicaments, and feel that if they are acting questionably, they should be called out for it.

The application

I haven’t yet decided if the place I applied to was acting questionably or not, and will likely never know, but I didn’t sign any non-disclosure agreements and don’t see any compelling reason to keep the information secret, and so will divulge it.

I was looking to go back home, to Nagano. Specifically, to the new Nagano Prefectural University they’re planning to open in 2018. To me it seemed like a strange kind of synchronicity, as my PhD should be finished by then, for better or worse, and our son would be moving from elementary school to junior high school, and so it would be excellent timing to move back into our house in the mountains. Their application page started off with Japanese only, which was a bit intimidating, but I was willing to go through the effort for the opportunity, and then they created an English application form, which made the position seem even more enticing. There were two parts of the application that had to be written in Japanese, but their website stated, “Translation by other person is accepted” and so I pulled in several years’ worth of favors to get my education and research interest “further aspirations” statements translated.

The interview

I sent the application package off, and was invited to the interview, which was good news. Interestingly, and conveniently, the interview was scheduled for a Sunday, which meant my family and I could plan on staying in our house for the weekend in order to attend the interview in good time.

Almost all of the correspondence leading up to the interview was in Japanese, but it was pretty standard fare, although it seemed the committee was a bit disorganized, as they started by saying that the interview would be first, followed by a teaching demonstration, then they later switched the order. I thought it a bit strange that there was only going to be a teaching demonstration and no research demonstration or explanation, but was assured by a friend that research is usually raised during the interview if there isn’t a presentation on it.

Warning signs

I was also disheartened by the syllabus explanation they sent me. My teaching demonstration was going to be for an ‘intensive’ English program of two 15 week courses, one taught by a Japanese teacher of English covering reading and writing and the other taught by a non-Japanese teacher covering speaking and listening. If you’re wondering what my hang-up is, then you should know that’s the standard English syllabus at almost all Japanese universities, and there’s nothing intensive about it; they’re dressing up yesterday’s syllabus and hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of the people who approve the university proposal.

However, since that’s the regular syllabus at almost all Japanese universities, that also meant I had plenty of teaching materials to cover it. The big question I was asking myself, going into the interview, was whether I wanted to go to all the trouble of getting a PhD in academic literacies, researching writing for academic publication, and then teach ‘intensive English’ to first year university students at a tiny university in Nagano for the next 25 years or so until I retire.

That was the big question: how important was it to me to live in Nagano, where we have a house, and how much would living in Nagano make up for work conditions that were less than ideal? Fortunately the steering committee at the university saved me from having to answer that question.

The disastrous demo lesson

On the day of the interview, everything seemed set to go OK. There were five people on the committee and two or three support staff in the room, one of whom I had corresponded with via email leading up to the interview. The head of the committee gave a kind of standard I’m important enough to open this interview speech, and then I started my teaching demonstration. I had a little story in the demonstration of a cab ride through Dalian on my first trip to China where I ended up fleeced on the price of the ride, which I thought might garner a bit of sympathy from my listeners, and which makes for an interesting travel story, the theme of the lesson. However, mid-sentence I’m interrupted by one of the interviewers who says it’s common knowledge that you always have to check the price of the cab fare first, and so I was a terribly naive traveller who didn’t have any common sense. Why didn’t I verify the price of the cab up front? That threw me off, and seemed rather strange, if these five people were acting as my ‘students’ as the correspondence I had said I should treat them. Nevertheless I soldiered through the lesson and felt that I recovered somewhat before the end.

Pop quiz

Then the whopper came. They brought me half a page of printed Japanese, explaining that while they felt foreign staff would be important to building a great university, they also needed all the faculty to make a full contribution, and so they wanted me to read the document, despite it being a bit unfair, they hoped I would understand (they hadn’t mentioned any language tests in my earlier correspondence with them).

I almost walked out at that point, thanking them for their time. In retrospect, I think I should have. But instead I read what I could of the paper. I’m pretty sure it was the university’s mission statement, something about developing members of a global society, but the intricacies of the kanji lost me; that’s what Google Translate is for as far as I’m concerned. I got about halfway through and decided I had had enough and stopped.

The head of the committee smiled like he had caught a kid with their hand in the cookie jar. I decided that I didn’t want to work with those people even if it did mean I could move back to Nagano; one gives advanced warning about things like language tests, or explains in application forms that there are minimum language requirements. Deciding this is an issue to be brought up at the interview stage indicates a level of sloppiness in planning that I simply wouldn’t be able to stand. Next the questioning began

Question time

The head of the committee says that they’re looking to build a great university, and so he would like to know how I could contribute to it becoming great. I thought about the question, and then I talked about myself. Because I had already decided that I couldn’t contribute to the university’s greatness, as it was well along the path to have very little of that, and quite a bit more mediocrity, although I didn’t share those thoughts out loud.

The next question was about how Japanese students can be shy, and so what is it that I do in order to overcome their shyness? This is a slow, easy pitch that can readily be hit out of the park. It was also obvious the questioner was reading it off the paper in front of her, and so it was completely separated from my 30 minute teaching demonstration. Rather than swing, I bunted out an answer about one student who I had a particularly hard time with in my classes.

This was followed by questioning about why I did my MA and am studying my PhD with UK universities, while my undergraduate work was completed at a US university, asked by the same lady who interrupted my story of my trip to China earlier. It seemed an asinine question, but I cobbled together an answer.

The next question I don’t remember very well. It was asked by the second of the two male panellists, the one who wasn’t the head of the committee. I think it was about whether I would be willing to support students outside of class and in extracurricular activities. I replied that I’m already doing this, am happy to do it, and mentioned that there were some numbers quantifying how much I do this in my application materials.

Japanese Japanese

The next question, asked by the only member of the panel I know personally, and the only non-Japanese member of the panel, was whether I would be willing to work to improve my Japanese so that I “could become a full member of the university faculty”. This time I pushed back, saying I already was a full member of a university faculty, and that I haven’t decided myself how much I’m willing to prioritize Japanese over my research interests. I didn’t say this, but I also felt it ironic that I was answering questions in Japanese that had been asked of me in Japanese, but the measure of my lack of my Japanese ability was the reading ‘test’ they had given me early on in the interview. I mentioned that if I could keep up my research and learn Japanese, I would, but that my research is the priority for me over Japanese, especially since I’ve invested so much already into my PhD.

Then I was asked if I would do less editing work to improve my Japanese. I answered that I had stopped most of my editing work to do my PhD, and so would be able to use that time for Japanese after the PhD is done if I needed to make it a priority.

Any questions?

Another question was about the potential to make international connections with universities outside Japan, and I mentioned my part-time work with the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester, along with some other connections I have. The unpleasant interrupter lady said that I mentioned the University of Leicester, but that they didn’t have a TESOL program, and so she wanted to know what I was doing with them, and then she ran off a long list of departments that I presume she’s familiar with at the university. I replied that I would have to look up the formal program name and department, but that I was teaching for them as an Associate Tutor on their MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics program. She didn’t look very happy with that response. I got it wrong, too. It’s an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. Silly me.

Finally, the head of the committee invited me to ask them questions, and I didn’t say, “When can I leave?” I said the functional equivalent, though. I said I didn’t have any. Because I didn’t want the job. I had decided, and so I didn’t want to know any more. That pretty much sunk my ship the rest of the way, from what I could tell, but even now I don’t really have any questions about the position; I still don’t want it.

One of the last questions regarded to what extent I felt myself a teacher and to what extent a researcher. My answer was 60% teacher, which seemed to surprise the person who asked it.

The head of the committee finished with a long diatribe, explaining how a university professor in Japan needs to be willing to support and encourage students to learn, and to spend time outside of class with them (I’m not sure how that’s specific to Japan), how I was young had had considerable potential, and so with some work on my Japanese could really make a significant contribution, and then finishing with a kind of rhetorical, “Are you willing to do these things?” I replied yes, packed up my stuff, and left. I got my rejection letter in the mail two weeks later.

Reflections: Regarding me

I like that the article on fake hiring committees talks about viewing such experiences as learning opportunities. Taking that perspective, I improved my ability to complete the Japanese university applications, which are difficult to understand even when translated into English, and at least one person I know didn’t get invited to an interview, so I must have done something right to get as far as I did.

Furthermore, I’ve said before that I wouldn’t want someone to hire me for my weaknesses, and my Japanese reading and writing abilities are certainly¬† weaknesses, so it was good that the interviewers made their priorities plain before I got to the university for my first day of work. This way I know that it’s most definitely not the place for me.

That they didn’t ask me any questions about my research, aside from my willingness to give it up, tells me that their expectation is to hire a teacher, not a professor. That’s fine. I wish them well with it, and know that the position is not one that I would excel in.

I don’t get to move back to my house in the mountains, which kind of sucks, but in stories the hero’s journey home is always the most dangerous part, and so going back to Nagano, just like going back to the US, would be a difficult path for me to walk safely. Not impossible, but also not worth it for that job.

In terms of my interview performance, I never did manage to convince the interviewers that I am a teacher researcher, and that much of the research I do is based in my classroom and intended to help improve it. I don’t know if that’s a message I could have gotten across, as they appeared to be of the opinion that the two are mutually incompatible.

Another thing I couldn’t get across is that I’m already a full member of my faculty, and that I’ve served on several committees and am also heading one from this year. They never did seem willing to acknowledge that I already had a position and was considering moving; they appeared to treat me as someone who was unemployed looking for a job. They also didn’t seem to get that I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me, and that they failed their interview at least as badly as I failed mine. Especially the unpleasant interrupting lady.

Reflections: Regarding that university

I hope whoever they chose is a fit for them, and that as a new university they don’t end up trolling the lanes of mediocrity, but that seems to be the entrenched path they’re following, from the little I’ve seen of the people working to build the new university. I suppose there’s some need to wear emerald glasses when embarking on this kind of a project, but two 90 minute classes per week, for 15 weeks as intensive English? Give me a break.

The stressing of the importance of Japanese ability, and the lack of interest in research (no questions about it during the 60 minute interview) seem to indicate that they’re interested only in someone who can show up and teach and sit in on committee meetings to keep a seat warm. I hope it works for them, and that it’s worth being in Nagano for whoever got the job.

Reflections: Regarding Japanese universities

And so we come back to the topic of Japanese universities, and the latest of the Japanese globalization projects. It’s interesting that the rhetoric is they want to raise global citizens but that Japanese university faculty tend to be about as parochial as they can get. I have a coauthored book chapter on this theme under review as of writing, and will add a link if and when it ends up published, on the topic of how non-Japanese are constructed as outsiders in the Japanese academy. An interesting statistic is that less than 5% of the professorship in Japan is non-Japanese. Really. It’s that small. I’m practically rare, by Dungeons and Dragons metrics.

One of the reasons I decided to get a PhD is that it would open up more of the international job market to me, while Japanese would open up more of the Japanese job market. There’s a certain appeal to supervising MA students, which I do now part-time with two UK universities, and I wonder whether working with PhD students would bring the same or more satisfaction, but there are very, very few positions in Japan where a non-Japanese professor can supervise postgraduate students, which is really unfortunate.

But if Japan wants to move itself into the mainstream of university education, it’s going to have to change. I simply don’t see myself being the agent of that change. I rather see myself eventually moving elsewhere to find deeper job satisfaction, and continuing to long for my house in the mountains of Nagano, one of those things that is all the sweeter for not being able to have it all of the time.

2015-11-11 Update:

After I finished writing, I stumbled across this post on assholes in academia. It seems  fitting and relevant thought to share a link to it here.

Do you have something from your own experience to add? Feel free to do so in the comments.

My Asthma Story Part 3: Moving to Toyama

The Tateyama Mountain Range from Shiratori Castle, Kureha Mountain

If you haven’t yet read part 1 and part 2 of this story, I would recommend you start there.

There didn’t used to be a part 3 to this story, but when I took my current position at the University of Toyama, I had to change doctors, from my pulmonologist in Nagano to a pulmonologist in Toyama. I asked my Nagano doctor to write a referral letter for me and presented it at the University of Toyama Hospital, and was soon assigned a pulmonologist who took over the management of my asthma medicine. After seeing him a few times, he said that my recommendation letter mentioned high cholesterol, but that his speciality is pulmonology, and so rather than try to manage my cholesterol, he wanted to refer me to a lipid specialist.

I reluctantly agreed, and the lipid specialist first wanted to do another blood test to check my cholesterol levels. I went in and had the test done, and when I met the lipid specialist, he said that yes, my cholesterol levels were high, which made feel rather upset, but then he asked if I had eaten breakfast the morning that I had my blood test done. I replied that of course I had eaten breakfast. I eat breakfast every day. It’s supposed to be healthy. He said that the cholesterol levels should be a person’s fasting cholesterol, not their cholesterol after they’ve eaten, and so he asked me to have the blood check done again.

At our next appointment, he checked my fasting cholesterol levels and said they were borderline high, but not so high that I would need to take medicine, and recommended that I keep trying to eat healthy and exercise.

So in the end, after I finally saw a lipid specialist, the final verdict was that my cholesterol wasn’t that high after all. The problem was instead that no one had told me I shouldn’t eat breakfast on the day my cholesterol levels are checked until I finally met the lipid specialist.

I wonder what the message of this story is? That specialists should stay within their field of speciality when treating patients, as my pulmonologist in Nagano never mentioned seeing another doctor about my cholesterol, while my pulmonologist in Toyama said it wasn’t his speciality and so he didn’t want to try to treat it? That very simple miscommunications, such as the directions to not eat breakfast in the morning can have a huge influence on test results? I think that certainly doctors and pharmacists should explain the potential side effects of the drugs they prescribe and dispense, especially considering my experience.

Overall, I’m glad my first pulmonologist in Nagano pushed me to do exercise. Cycling has been an overall boon to my health, although I certainly could have done without the episode of drug side effects that I experienced. My guess is that my cholesterol really was very high around the time that he first checked it, but I ate breakfast every time he checked my cholesterol, so I’ll never really know what the numbers should have been.

If you’re interested in the topic of the treatment of high cholesterol, the US recently overhauled their guidelines. There’s a really engaging explanation of the new guidelines and their implications for treatment on the UCTV website presented by Dr. Robert Baron, UCSF Professor of Medicine.