My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 1

I have just finished my one and only year teaching English part time at one of many campuses of a large private university in central Japan.  Some of you might not know what “separate campuses” means at a Japanese university, but in general it means that each campus has only a few departments.  In my case, it was exactly one rather esoteric department, with fewer than 10 majors.

Private universities in Japan are generally less prestigious than public.  Unfortunately for educational standards, a falling population of children means that universities care more about filling seats than opening minds… or to split hairs, care more about filling seats for 30,000-yen entrance exams than filling seats in lectures thereafter.  For obvious reasons this concern for income is especially evident at private institutions.  There is an entire book dedicated to the theme that higher education in Japan is a Baudrillardian simulation, all rituals and forms and no empirical reality.  Not that the logic of a credential eventually coming to replace education instead of being a guarantee of it is not found at public universities or universities in other countries, but Japanese private universities seem to set the standard for meaninglessness in higher education.

pilotwings_hang
Low-ranked private universities are to education as this is to enjoying your Super Nintendo

Because mine was a private university and my campus had a single department (which was not English), you might expect it to be the worst of the worst.  In fact, my year there was mostly pleasant, with friendly and helpful staff and enthusiastic students – more enthusiastic than I had expected at any rate.  I would have continued teaching there happily if other life plans hadn’t intervened.

Anyway, more will be said about this university as posts are added to this series.  On to nugget of wisdom the first.

University English is not better than eikaiwa

There are just as many nightmare stories about teaching university English as there are for eikaiwa, but of course this is viewed as expected for eikaiwa and a tragedy for universities.  When university teachers say hiring practices and expected classroom practice are starting to resemble eikaiwa it’s meant with the same matter-of-fact condescension as French school officials complaining that their students use ketchup.  Of course eikaiwa is a term that encompasses virtually all private English teaching, from highly standardized chains like AEON to schools run out of the teacher’s home with incomes of less than $10,000 a year.  It’s like complaining about the quality of the Internet in general.

I apply what I call the Lagunitas-Michelob Principle to quality issues at eikaiwa.  The principle has three main points:

  1. Average quality in an industry does not need to matter to knowledgeable consumers, because no one is required to buy a dead median sample of the market.  If Lagunitas IPA and Michelob Ultra Tuscan Orange Grapefruit are both available, you’re not required to buy something in between.
  2. In any case, quality differences in beer, which no one has to drink, matter much less than quality issues in tap water, which the entire population drinks.
  3. Therefore people should care way more about the quality of English education in public schools, which the entire population is forced to take, followed by university, which about half do semi-voluntarily, than eikaiwa, which a small minority pay to take.

That boilerplate defence of the eikaiwa industry out of the way, let me go over a few reasons that (prudently chosen) eikaiwa is a better educational investment than university English.

The teacher is happier and more in control.  The whole time I was a university English teacher, I was also an eikaiwa teacher.  My qualifications were the same, MA in Applied Linguistics, which is more common in eikaiwa than one might think.  At the university, however, I had to follow a syllabus set by another campus and use a book chosen by… well nobody seemed to know.  I didn’t hate either of them, for the record, but they did reflect the university’s emphasis on standardization.  I am the kind of teacher whose teacherly narcissism manifests itself frequently in the form of custom-made materials and homework.  I was told by another teacher at the university that I was technically not allowed to use my own materials, which upset me until I realized that he and seemingly every other teacher there ignored this rule.  Still, for the first time in many years I had to follow someone else’s teaching plan, someone who certainly didn’t know the names and interests, let alone the English abilities, of the people I was teaching.  At my school I always had the option to ride that Dogme train to the final stop when I felt I had a good moment going.  Standardization is a problem at some large eikaiwa as well, of course, but chains are after all only about half of the total industry.

Classmates are more diverse.  Japanese universities represent the end of a long period of educational achievement sorting which begins in junior high school (or earlier in the case of private elementary or preschools).  At each stage students are placed with narrower cohorts of classmates with more similar test scores and more similar likely career outcomes.  As a result, no one in a required university English class is significantly better at English than anyone else, and no one brings vastly different life experience.  Again, I liked my students at the university very well, but they were definitely all false beginners with 6 years’ worth of yakudokuinduced learned helplessness.  Students at eikaiwa are at least optimistic about their ability to learn – they did pay for the hour, after all.  They are also much more likely to have something really unique to offer up in a discussion: in my last few weeks of classes, students have talked about business trips to India, charcuterie, and a system of conducting audits of car parts suppliers.  University classes are ability-sorted to the point where classmates can’t provide each other as much in the way of inspiration or interest.  There is a lot to be said for near peer teaching, but my university classes always had peers that were a little too near.

managing-contradictions-of-corporate-social-responsibility-the-sustainability-of-diversity-in-a-frontrunner-firm
The dog has TOEIC 750.

You don’t have to stop after 4 months.  If there’s anything that separates foreign languages from other subjects, it’s that everyone knows that learning is supposed to take years.  Some variation of the quote “students do not learn what you teach when you teach it” is a product of the experience of every language teacher.  Yet faced with set spring and fall semesters with the expectation that some kind of evaluation will be given at the end, planners of college English courses sometimes devolve back to “teach them these language items, and at the end see if they know them”.  Ignored are concepts of interlanguage, natural order, or in the cases of many textbooks, the learner.  Now university teachers may try to work around these institutional constraints, and it is not a given that eikaiwa teachers take these things into consideration when planning classes either, but you are unlikely to be shuffled through a grammatical syllabus at a prefixed rate at eikaiwa unless you go to one of the nationwide chains.  With certain conditions met, enrolment at eikaiwa is more likely to result in an experience that respects crucial SLA concepts than a college English course.

Well that was longer than I planned.  Sometime soon I’ll be sure to put up things that I think are better at university (that won’t be this long).

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4 thoughts on “My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 1

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