Category Archives: Teaching

#KeioChronicles: What I Learned From Teaching Japanese Students

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I had been tweeting using the hashtag #KeioChronicles. This summer (as I did last summer), I was one of three Course Instructors for the Keio/William & Mary Cross Cultural Collaboration. Japanese students from Keio University come to William & Mary for a two week program, which involved lectures on American culture from W&M faculty, dialogue classes, or discussion sections, led by Course Instructors, and group research projects that focus on some aspect of cross-cultural analysis. In addition to all of this, we also took the students on cultural “experiences,” some of which included going to the beach, experiencing American consumption at the Williamsburg Outlets, and attending a baseball game.

My primary role was to lead my class in discussion of the lectures that we had. I helped them formulate questions and did my best to answer them, or at least help them direct their questions to the lecturer of the day, who visited each dialogue class for about fifteen minutes. I was also responsible for grading my students on their participation in class, on the journal entries that they write throughout the program, and on their final research project presentations. And, as if that were not enough, I also drove the vans for the program to get the students from place to place. (We’re talking huge 12 passenger vans.)

I always learn a lot from participating in Keio, whether it be from watching their final presentations, which included topics ranging from the types of ties worn by politicians in American and Japan to differences in elementary education in the two countries, or in my everyday interactions with the students, like taking them to Chick-fil-A for the first time. Last year was particularly heavy because I had to learn how to teach through a tragedy as it was happening. I had to keep it together while white supremacists marched on my former home of Charlottesville. I had to try not to cry when I heard the news that one of them had driven a car into a crowd of people, killing a young woman. But most importantly, I had to learn how to turn tragedy into a teachable moment when it felt like my world was falling apart.

So upon finishing this round of the program, it felt appropriate to come up with a list of things I’ve learned from Keio, my students, and teaching this year.

  1. I learned how to take a bad review. Bad reviews are a part of life, much like rejection, and at first, I’ll admit, reading it stung. In a way, a bad review is a type of rejection– something about your teaching style did not vibe with the writer of the review. I learned, however, not to take a bad review personally.
  2. I learned to not doubt myself. This is related to #1. After taking some time to assess my own work in the classroom, I wondered if someone had finally seen through me and called a spade, a spade. I wondered if I wasn’t knowledgeable. It took me sometime to realize that this wasn’t the case. One negative comment shouldn’t knock me off course. Especially when I had had such a positive impact on all the rest of my students. In fact, I’ll always cherish the kind words one of my students wrote in her journal entry about me and my teaching:
  3. I learned to take advantage of the fact that this is one of the rare moments I’ll be asked to teach something that is not my expertise. While we did have a class on race relations and digital humanities, which is totally my wheelhouse, we also had lectures on business and religion. I had to do a lot of reaching while leading class on these topics, but I chose to look at it as a learning opportunity for myself as well as for my students. I am on a career path that values life long learning, and teaching Keio is one of the few opportunities I have to take advantage of learning completely new things.
  4. I learned that explaining America is one of the toughest feats there is. The nature of this program calls on the Course Instructors to do a lot of explaining– why things are a certain way in American culture. A lot of the time I had to accept that I wouldn’t immediately know the answer; more often than not, they had to accept that the answer was not black and white. My Japanese students had to learn to accept ambiguity, theories, and speculation. I think they are used to being presented with knowledge as cold hard facts, things that cannot be disputed in anyway; I’ve come to discover that knowledge is nebulous and often what I know, even if it is a lot, is usually not the whole story.
  5. I learned as much from my students as they did from me. The questions they asked always kept me on my toes. If I didn’t know, I always challenged myself to find out the answer. They often helped me think about topics in a different way.

Teaching Keio was an adventure: every day was different, with a new topic and new questions. Even when I thought my students would struggle, they surprised me by being engaged, asking amazing questions, and sharing insightful thoughts. They brought a good energy to my class and we learned together in an environment that held as many laughs as thought provoking conversation. Teaching foreign students is truthfully not that different from teaching students from your own country. The main difference is that while teaching students from a different country, you will be forced to reckon with much more of what you take for granted. The very things you accept as true are the things they will want to know more about. The very fabric of your existence, they may know nothing about: I got blank stares when I asked them about whether they had heard of #BlackLivesMatter but they all nodded when I mentioned #MeToo. Suddenly, I was forced to explain a movement in detail that has become the backdrop of my life since 2014 so they could understand the necessity of such a force. I taught them about my America, and in return they attempted to explain Japan to me: why they had heard of #MeToo and not #BlackLivesMatter, whether or not gentrification or some equivalent existed in Japan, and generally why more people don’t protest in Japan. One of my students brought a wonderful Japanese expression to my attention: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

But it was more than just being in the classroom together that brought me joy: it was the moments of watching my students master ordering food at restaurants and trying the spiciest wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. It was our spur of the moment Target trip after lunch, all of our van rides together, and hearing Japanese mixed with English. It was the big things like watching my students dance and sing with unbridled enthusiasm at the Talent Show; it was the little moments like their smiles as they read the notes I wrote them when it was time to say goodbye and all of the pictures we took together that night.

To the Red Dialogue Class–

Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you the best in all your future endeavours.

Love from your teacher,