Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Present

Tuesday would be the only day I go to school this week and next, and guess what? I get a package. There's no one on campus, no one in the department, except me and the chair.

"It's either work or an important Christmas card," I tell Mr. Fedex.

"It's from a Xianting," the delivery dude said and looked at me in anticipation.

Aaah, Xianting. A former student who graduated a year ago. She was one of the best and most insightful students I had in my Lit in Translation course. She often came to office hours to say "hi" and chat a bit, and we got to know each other pretty well considering that she never studied anything else related to Japan. She told me that she wanted to invite me to a "distinguished student dinner" last year, but refrained as it conflicted with my late class. I ended up going anyway when another "recognized" student asked me. I never pass up a free dinner.

Anyway, I saw Xianting at the end of Finals period last year. She came by the office to say "good-bye" and that she enjoyed the classes from her "favorite teacher." We hugged and she left for bigger and better things on the West Coast. Besides the occasional random comments on Facebook, that was the last time I heard from her. Until Tuesday.

"Ah, my girlfriend in California," I smiled at the delivery dude.

He grinned as I signed for the package. He descended down the hall seemingly pleased at the thought he was delivering joy instead of work over the holiday season.

I knew better, of course. As any experienced professor could have easily deduced, inside the package was a request for a letter of recommendation. *sigh*

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Current Schedule

Click the office hour or course for details. If the hours are inconvenient, feel free to email me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Growing Pains

Since the inception of the Japanese Language and Literature Major Program in 1996, the goal has been: 1) To provide Japanese language instruction to all GW students that meets real-world objectives, goals that realize language proficiency in real-world situations. 2) To provide education in Japanese literature and culture to GW students that encourages diversity in thought and flexibility in opinion. 3) To establish a regionally and nationally recognized program by graduating competent students in the field of Japanese language and literature, and by disseminating cutting-edge research through publications by its faculty.

Over the past five years, we have striven to fulfill these goals, and the results suggest that we have had a degree of success, given our resources. With three full-time faculty, we have 1) improved the quality and timeliness of instruction so that the average student can reach the advanced language levels and still expect to graduate in four years (sometimes three); and 2) maintained a consistent number of Japanese Majors and a lower attrition rate. Since Spring '03, we have maintained a consistent number of Japanese Majors. In Spring 2003, there were 20 declared majors; in Fall 2008, there are 20 declared majors. Enrollment in advanced Japanese courses has also remained consistent. An average for fourth year Readings in Modern Japanese (JAPN 107) has been 16 students, and Literary Japanese (JAPN 109) 12 students―with 18 students this year. We have also addressed a previous weak spot―no highly advanced Japanese courses for students who entered GW with advanced placement or have studied abroad―with the course Advanced Conversation and Composition (JAPN 121-22).

And yet, we suffer from growing pains as expanding is proving to be a difficult. My main concern is a lack of course offerings that go beyond basic language an literature instruction and highlight the specialties of full-time faculty. Our goal of encouraging diversity in thought and flexibility of opinion is partially addressed through advanced language and literature survey courses. However, these do not take full advantage of the resources available in the program and at the university. Specialized literature or linguistics courses would provide our students with greater insight to Japanese and an opportunity to broaden their minds to different ways of thinking. It would have the added advantage of fostering pride in faculty efforts, encourage further research, and compel them to stay on the cutting edge of their field.

The dilemma: Not enough time. The full-time faculty members carry a teaching load that is equal to or greater than those of similar programs at others institutes. Prof. Tsujioka carries a 3-4 course load; I teach 3-3, a well as a proseminar course that I cannot count toward my teaching load (JAPN 198). Prof. Hamano's indefinite reassignment to the Language Center simply compounds the problem. In an ideal situation, the hiring of two full-time faculty would allow the program to grow, produce and contribute.

One full time position would be a hire to cover the void left by Prof. Hamano's reassignment. A specialist in Japanese linguistics or Japanese literature with experience or expertise in language teaching would fill this vacuum. The second hire would be for a teaching specialist for language instruction. This position would reduce the continual need to rely solely on part timers and stabilize instruction with staff who would have a vested interest in the advancement of the program. Further, it would partially free full time faculty to teach courses in their own field of specialty, thereby privileging students, creating opportunities for advanced research―and greater visibility for the University, and lay the ground foundation for a possible graduate program.

As you might discern, I'm simply wishing...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Tale of Genji

Next Fall semester, I have an extra slot to teach.... ha! Like I need more courses to teach! I've applied for the Dean's seminar to teach a course on The Tale of Genji.

Genji, the Shining Prince, was not just about a dilettante and playboy, although I can understand such comments by students in a survey course of Japanese literature. But when a student compares this icon of Japanese literature to a suspect on MSNBC’s “To Catch a Predator”—even in jest—I am compelled to consider a course dedicated to a deeper appreciation of one of the masterpieces of Japanese literary history, The Tale of Genji. A Dean’s Seminar would provide an appropriate venue for such a course.

Misconceptions concerning the Genji are not limited to my students. The Japanese novelist and nun, Setouchi Jakuchō, regards Genji’s actions as more than seduction: “It was all rape, not seduction.” If Setouchi—a recognized “expert” on classical literature in Japan—can make such a comment in a New York Times interview (1999.05.28), then comments such as those uttered by my students should not surprise anyone. Using an abridged version to accommodate a survey course, that covers more than a thousand years of poetry, chronicles, diaries and essays, simply compounds the problem. All available abridged versions primarily cover the early chapters when Genji is young and sexually active. As a result, even an astute reader such as Virginia Woolf fails to capture all that the Genji has to offer. In a review of the first volume of Arthur Waley’s Genji translation, Woolf writes: “Some element of horror, of terror, of sordidity, some root of experience has been removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness out of the question, but with it too has gone some vigour, some richness, some maturity of the human spirit.” (Vogue, Late July, 1925) Such conclusions, based only on the first few chapters, are unfortunate but inevitable. Time, effort and, of course, reading the entire text are necessary to appreciate fully the Tale of Genji.

The Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu (b. ca. 973-d. ca. 1014), provides a view into the culture of the Heian court, a place both foreign yet somehow familiar. For example, political power was controlled by a branch of the Fujiwara family, a control based on political maneuvering: Through the mid-Heian period, Fujiwara leaders arranged for their daughters to become the primary wives of succeeding emperors, ensuring their position as imperial advisor/regent by virtue of being the grandfather of the crown prince. In the Genji, this legitimacy is challenged when the Genji—charismatic and beautiful since birth—is born of a lesser imperial consort. His mother is literally bullied to death and the emperor’s primary wife reveals herself to be an evil step-mother, coddling her own son the crown prince while tormenting Genji. The emperor, all too aware of the situation, ensures his son’s safety by assigning Genji to a distant branch of the imperial line, thereby disassociating him from any issue of succession.

However, knowledge of the political and cultural realities of the time is not the only requirement to appreciating the Genji. Japanese literature is notorious for its open-endedness. Anyone who has read “In a Grove” by Akutagawa Ryūnoske—later made into the film Rashōmon—will have experienced the Japanese sense of non-closure. This is certainly the case in the Genji, in which the main character dies with one quarter of the story remaining. The narrative continues, focusing on Genji’s descendants and how they are influenced by his past actions, whether by karmic affect or a confluence of circumstances. The effect on the reader is an appreciation of the open-endedness of life as portrayed in a story that seems to continue on regardless of the absence of the protagonist. Life goes on no matter who dies.

A course on the Tale of Genji will deal with topics such as these, through readings of the main text and selected secondary sources. The main text is a recent translation by Royall Tyler (2001). The fact that it is in translation should not detract from any appreciation of the tale; Tyler has provided a translation that is remarkably faithful to the original, making it just as accessible as the Genji monogatari translated into modern Japanese for college students in Japan. Secondary sources will provide insights that will lead to deeper discussions and analyses of the story. Ultimately, the course will reveal the vigor, richness and maturity of the human spirit in the Genji that was lost on Woolf, while encouraging diversity in thought and flexibility in opinion for GW Freshmen through an understanding of a world centuries away.