Friday, February 29, 2008

Clearing Little Confusions

Well, embarrasingly, after going on and on about how I love onigiri (and I do), I learned the real way to open them the other day. It's SO easy and obvious, and makes the package come out perfectly neatly.

And in this post, the shrine thingies I thought might be family memorials? Nope, probably not. I asked a Japanese friend (and I'm smiling to type that) and she looked at my pictures, and though not totally sure, said the ones she saw are stones with the names of kami, or Shinto gods.

I bought my shinkansen (bullet train) ticket today. A new adventure tomorrow!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Mouth Doesn't Work Right

I have real problems pronouncing a couple sounds here. Ryu, for example. It means "dragon." The problem is, when someone says these words, they sound like a combination of "L" and "D" to me, and not "R" at all!

Kudasai (thank you), the same sort of thing; it sounds like "kurasai" to me. It's like I hear the opposite of what's transliterated, or something. If I can get someone to say the word for me several times, I can usually get the sound, sort of. The thing is, D is in the front of my mouth, and R is in the back, so they shouldn't sound alike at all, right?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Torii, Torii, Torii

I talked another teacher into playing tourist with me today (it didn't take a lot of convincing), and we went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It's one of the most famous shrines in Japan, and especially famous for its thousands of torii (the bright orange gate structures you see, that serve as an entry from the physical world to the spiritual, or so I'm told).

I feel a fair bit of pressure to get out and do things, even on cold or nasty weather days, because I only have a few months here. The folks who are here longer, naturally feel less pressure. I've chatted with a few, and some have expressed interest in coming along on adventures and seeing touristy things.

When I'm in the Northwoods, I don't do many touristy things unless someone comes to visit or something, and that doesn't happen often. I think that's true for lots of people, even those in areas with lots more touristy stuff than the Northwoods. (I'm not knocking the Northwoods, but cities tend to have more touristy stuff, or national parks. It's just the way it is.) Being more aware of my time limits here makes me think about getting out and seeing more of my own area when I get back. It's important to remember to appreciate one's own area, I think.

But today was torii on the hills, up and down. Lots of steps. I felt a little out of shape, but I'm going to make the excuse that we walked between 2-3 hours up and down steps on hills.

I'm fascinated at shrines and such by the juxtaposition of old and new. Today, for example, we walked by lots of stone structure things, little altars, or little family areas? Some of the stones looked very weathered and old, and yet there would be new aprons on the stones or figures, or fresh flowers, or incense burning. So people are still actively using these areas to remember loved ones, ask for help, or whatever. I suppose this is no different from churches being both tourist/pilgrimage places and parishes, but I didn't grow up in an area where there were lots of old churches to visit, or something (and the ones we went to visit on field trips and such were mostly not used anymore as parishes, but were state park sorts of things).

I was frustrated again today by my illiteracy. Even my colleague who can make out lots more kanji, has difficulty comprehending a sentence at shrines.

Beginning Thoughts: Preparing Students to Study Abroad

As I mentioned before, I brought my student some chocolate cookies from Nara; they're called basically "deer droppings" cookies. I took them in today, and told my students that since they'd worked so hard on their papers I'd brought them something from Nara (the packages were in my brief case), and asked someone to volunteer to open them. One of the students did, and when I handed her the package, she instantly recognized it as one of those souvenir packages, and then read out the label (in Japanese) and started laughing. And everyone else laughed, too.

The cookies had chocolate cookie around a small center of chocolate cream. Pretty good (yes, I tried one). And I think the students enjoyed them and enjoyed laughing about them.

We started the second essay today, and did final revision work on the first essay. On Friday, we'll do a proofreading exercise.

I think I've figured out how to make sure everyone knows what to do for the next session (even though it's mostly in the syllabus). I say it in English, and then get someone to translate the most important word into Japanese, so everyone gets that. I'm going to develop one weird vocabulary, though. Today, I learned "hu sen." Yep, you, too, can say "post it note" in Japanese!

I attended a faculty meeting today; they said I didn't HAVE to go, but I was curious (yep, I'm that kind of stupid) and thought it might help me understand how my work here fits the overall picture a bit better. And it was a fairly interesting meeting, and did, indeed, help me see the overall picture a bit better.

In my limited experience, most of the US students I know who've gone abroad have gone where they can take courses in English, though they may also study a second language. So, for example, my American students go to Costa Rica, where they take a class in English about Costa Rican history, and another class about tropical ecology, and a class in Spanish. Or something.

In contrast, the Japanese students from here go abroad to take courses in English (or Spanish, if that's their major). So they really need to have solid English skills to keep up with the conversation in a discussion, to follow lectures, to get through readings, and to do assignments. That's a huge challenge, if you think about it. And from the faculty point of view, it's a challenge to make sure that Host University sends students abroad only after they're prepared enough to succeed abroad in classes in English. And even if a student has the basic language skills, if they choose classes poorly, getting in over their heads in an upper level class they aren't prepared for, they can really get into problems.

Interesting stuff, and important for me to keep in mind as I grade my students and try to help them prepare to study abroad. I may be willing to try different strategies to get information across, but they're unlikely to get that help in a lecture class of 150 students taking intro sociology of something in the states.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I was reading a forum I found yesterday, for foreigners living here, and got to thinking about how very many people have written about living overseas and such. There are a lot of foreigners here, a lot more than you might think, and not just obviously white folks, but Koreans, Chinese, and so on.

So, of course, nothing I'm saying is really new. Other folks have described, mostly better than I have, their experiences learning about the different cultural practices, trying to figure out kanji, walking around and such. And I've read some of their writings, even.

And yet, even having experienced things as a Peace Corps volunteer, what I'm doing now is really new for ME. And I'm writing to process things, to think out loud, as it were, and to remember things for myself. But I'm probably more boring than usual, especially for folks interested in teaching writing, academic stuff, or Shakespeare studies. Of course, anyone who's truly bored isn't reading, so that solves that!

I'm a little anxious about going to Hiroshima this weekend. It's far away, and I need to write down some basic stuff, figure out what to take with me, get cash. I'll be taking my first ride on a bullet train, spending the night in a hotel (I have reservations, but I'll have to find it in the city), finding my way to other places to visit, and then getting myself home. One of the faculty folks here takes students to Hiroshima, and I'll be tagging along. So getting there should be fairly straightforward. I hope.

And the cool thing is that I'll be able to join the class to see a speaker who's a survivor of the a-bomb there. The survivors are, as you'd expect, fairly few now, and mostly quite old and unwell. Yet somehow it seems important to learn and remember, like learning from my aunt's in laws who were Holocaust survivors.

Fitting In

I was walking home from the grocery store today when I was reminded of car parking. You see, the first day I got here, the staff member who guided me around told me that he'd noticed that in the US, people tend to park heading into a parking spot, while in Japan, people tend to park heading out of the spot. (This is non-slanted spots, in lots.) It's a very little thing, but it's definitely different. (On my campus at home, it's mandated that we park head into the space.)

There are lots of little things like that, things that don't seem big, but are definitely different.

The first day I went to a shrine with some other faculty, when I first got here, we looked in some shops along the way. The shops all have beautifully packaged sweets or crackers or such. My colleagues told me they're souvenirs. They seemed like really weird souvenirs to me, like they wouldn't last long or something.

But this weekend, another faculty member was here, and he explained about the souvenir thing. The deal is that when someone goes away on vacation or something, they get packages of the sweets for the folks back home, back at the office, and so forth. And, he told me, they're especially great as a little thank you.

Our Japanese guide seconded the idea. Both encouraged me to get some for the office staff at Host University. The office staff there is, in a word, incredible. In several words, wonderfully helpful and kind. Seriously, they've been answering questions and helping me figure out where to go next and how to get places. They've helped me make copies, helped me fax a recommendation form, showed me maps, helped me buy things from meal tickets to bus tickets.

So, I got a couple boxes of treats in Nara, all of them decorated with stuff associated with Nara, the great Buddha, deer, the temple guardians, and so forth. And for my students, I got chocolate deer dung treats. (I hope they have a sense of humor.)

My colleague told me to be sure to set things up, when I was talking to the head staffer, so that she'd be sure to know this was thanks for all the help, rather than a gift in expectation of something else, if that makes sense.

So I took my flash drive with pictures in, and showed them to her, thanking her for helping me with directions and suggestions for what to see, and saying (in all honesty), what a great time I'd had and how much I appreciated her helping me. And afterwards, I told her I'd gotten a little something, and hoped she'd share it, because I wanted to say thank you to everyone for their help and share some of the fun of my trip. She announced that I'd brought treats, unwrapped them, and took them around to everyone, and people smiled and seemed to enjoy them. So I hope they really do realize how grateful I am. I wish I could actually say it in Japanese.

There are lots of local dialects in Japan, I'm told; the suffix for dialect is "ben." I've learned how to say "thank you" in Kansaiben (aka Osakaben). I've been using it on the (mostly) women who ring up my purchases in stores, and it tends to get a suddenly extra big smile. Okini!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Deep Tired

Another cold day, snowy and wet (but still not as cold as the Northwoods!), so I took myself to the imperial city main train/bus station to get a map, and then to the National Museum. The station was huge, at least on a part with Grand Central, with a mall underground, a hotel, big stores all attached seeming. I found the visitor center through a department store and up on the 9th floor. I dislike shopping in general (with bookstore type exceptions), so being in a big department store, trying to find the elevator, not knowing how to read or really ask directions, and jostling with tons of people wasn't so great. But I found the elevator, got there, got some maps and travel suggestions, and off I went to the Museum.

Museums are great for when it's too cold or too hot to be comfy outside, especially if you can really take your time and sit down with some art (or historic artifacts, depending), and just relax your eyes and look.

I had to laugh. You enter the museum grounds and pay, and then walk to one of the buildings to see whichever collection or exhibit you're after. It was snowing when I got there, and the ticket checking woman gave me an umbrella to walk across the grounds with. Yep, there's a rather large collection of brightly colored yellow umbrellas just for people to use in the grounds. How is that for thinking ahead? (Even though I was already pretty snowed on.)

The museum has done a good job putting basic label information in English, but as you'd guess, the really good stuff seems to be in Japanese. There are all these longer explanation looking things, and I just felt like a three year old not being able to read them.

The best parts for me were the ceramics collection and the kimono displays. Wow, talk about amazingly intricate and beautiful embroidery and dye work! The scrolls were cool looking, but again, I couldn't read them. And some of the painted screens were just stunning.

And then, after a couple hours, it hit me that I was just deeply tired. There's no good reason for it; I'd slept well, gotten good rest, so I shouldn't have felt tired. But I did. I almost fell asleep on the train back (which has warmed seats, by the way, making for a really happy rear end). (I hope I'm not coming down with the rather ubiquitous cold/flu thing that seems to be going around!) So I don't think I got as much out of the museum as I would have had I not been so tired, but it was worth the visit, I think.

I should be in bed now, but I forgot to turn on the bedroom heat until just now, so I'm going to take a nice hot soaking bath first while the room heats up.


Saturday, February 23, 2008


I spent most of last week meeting with students about their drafts before their peer editing day on Friday. Mostly, our meetings were helpful, I think. For the Friday meetings, pretty much everyone had a draft, some of them very complete and well written, some not so much of either.

Among my native English speaking students, I generally find that students who have abundant ideas can usually put those ideas into writing pretty well. They've got the basics of sentence construction, and when you ask them for a specific example, they can come up with one and explain it. The students who have trouble coming up with an example usually also have trouble with more basic writing stuff. The two seem to go hand in hand.

For example, say my students are writing to describe a meal. The stronger students tend to get pretty specific pretty quickly; they're likely to talk about who was at the meal, what food was served, what conversation topics came up, where they were, and so forth. My weaker students tend to make generalizations about the meal; they'll say they really like pizza, but when I ask them to describe a really great pizza, they look at me like I'm nuts. Maybe all pizza is equally great for them, or they only think of pizza as having the same ingredients? I'm not sure.

Here, however, I can see that there are students who have lots to say, but can't quite get the English to work, and students who have lots to say and have English sentences down pretty well. But then there are students who don't seem to have much to say, but can write strong English sentences. (And, yes, there are a few students who seem to have trouble on both fronts.)

I went to Nara yesterday with another teacher here, someone who's a TESL specialist. I was feeling pretty good about my students having come to office hours, mostly having well-prepared bubble maps or drafts. But he reminded me that while many of my students are, indeed, engaged in their classes, every student knows that I hold a lot of power because if they don't do well in my class, they won't be able to study abroad. It's true. And, of course, students know about grading power in the US, too. But it seems different, somehow.

There's a faculty meeting next week. Now, I have to admit, I've been loving the relative lack of responsibility for committee work and meetings that I have here. But, I should go to this meeting. And, it will be educational. I'm not sure that this is true of all or most colleges/universities here, but at Host University, there's a pretty top-down approach to management. At faculty meetings, the Dean or other official (depending on the meeting level) explains this or that change that he's decided on (always a "he" here, I'm learning). And the faculty may give some feedback, but basically it's a done deal.

Partly, I'm guessing, the top-down approach is necessary because of the transient nature of many faculty members; they have a LOT of non-Japanese adjuncts who are here for a set year renewable contract, beyond which they can't/won't be renewed. (I'm not sure if this is a legal thing or a business decision thing; it may be Japanese law, or it may be the HU's way of avoiding having to pay into a pension fund for foreign workers.) HU depends on tons of MA level adjuncts, here for defined terms (a set of years), and phud level visitors, here for even shorter terms. Does that affect the development of new classes, or is that counter-acted by visiting folks constantly bringing in new stuff? I'm not sure.

So even though I'm appreciating the break from committee work here, I'm also thinking appreciatively about the level of governance typical at colleges/universities where I've worked. (Though, still, there are times when a "suggestion" comes down from on high, and somehow, gosh, despite widespread faculty disagreement, still gets implemented.)

And Nara. I'm feeling a little overdone by temples and shrines, I think, but there's a great Buddha at the Todai-ji Temple in Nara that took my breath away. I took a picture of the building from outside, before heading in, but once I was inside, I was too awed to think about my camera. The pictures really don't do it justice. It's like explaining to someone about a redwood tree, and showing them a picture with a car to show size versus actually seeing, touching, smelling a redwood.

There are tons of deer in Nara, hanging out, being fed by tourists, eating whatever. They look sort of mangy, but maybe they're seasonally shedding?

At the tourist station, they called a volunteer guide for us, and once again it was wonderful. So I asked my guide about the deer.

In the Northwoods, we have a deer problem, too many deer, problems with overpopulated deer eating young plants, especially trees, so that they don't grow and replace the forest. Scientists have published studies that show the sorts of damage deer do to forested areas (ideal habitat for White-Tailed deer is more open than forested, but the overall predation is still a problem). The Northwoods solution is to add to the hunting season, hoping that hunters will remove more does, especially, from the population every year.

So I was wondering, given the density (there were literally deer EVERYWHERE, following people around and such), about damage to plants. Some tree boles were wrapped with wire fencing, which I guess was to protect them. And then there was a fenced off area, and it was LUSH with growth at all sorts of levels, and really demonstrated how utterly barren the rest of the area was in the parks all around. It was striking.

But, my guide said that people here don't eat deer.

I'm fascinated by how cultures decide what counts as food (or potential food) and what doesn't. Seaweed counts as food here, but not in the US. Deer counts as food in the US, but not horsemeat (except for pet and livestock foods), or whale, or dog. (There are exceptions, but I'm thinking in broad cultural terms.)

(I'm pretty open-minded about food, or so I usually think, but I realize that my open-mindedness isn't so open when I think about eating dog.)

I've been here almost a month now, and I'm pretty happy with how things are going, with my learning curve, with my teaching and students, and with the areas I've been to visit. I'm planning a trip to Hiroshima next weekend, and I'm looking forward to that. But for now, I'm going to spend some time this afternoon in a museum, and look at art rather than architecture or great Buddhas.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Air Show

Over the Kamagawa (aka the Kama River; "kawa" means river, and gets pronounced "gawa" in certain combinations), there's a regular, unscheduled air show. The show is dominated by Tonbe or Black Kite (Milvus migrans). When I think of kites, I tend to think of relatively smallish raptors, but these guys are huge, impressively large, even. (Click the picture to see a bigger size.)

They're also beautiful in flight, soaring over, stooping, and lording over us groundlings. The first time I walked along the river, I didn't have my camera along because I find that having my camera along changes my focus and interactions. Sometimes, I like to go cameraless, and have that experience, and sometimes I like to have the camera along, take pictures, and use it to focus my attention differently.

On my most recent trip to Kyoto, mostly to visit the imperial palace (and also to walk along the river again), I actually took my camera AND both lenses (the regular and the telephoto). I love the telephoto for trying to take bird pictures, but for inside areas, for buildings, and for shots where I'm trying to get the sense of the scene, the regular lens works better. (But usually, I'm too lazy to carry both.) I was glad as I walked along the river after visiting the palace to have my telephoto, because the birds are just so amazing!

Bubble Maps and Office Hours

Yesterday, we spent the whole class working on thesis statements on the board, and making bubble maps for the essays. I think just under half the class got help on the board, and hopefully everyone learned and thought about things.

Doing thesis statements on the board is one of those difficult things early in the semester. In my regular classes (the ones I usually teach with native speakers of English), students are shy about criticizing, uncertain about what makes a good thesis statement, and less certain about what makes an ineffective thesis statement. The class here had the additional difficulty of having to try to speak English at the same time, so you'll understand that they were pretty silent. After a few examples, one or two students did pipe up to say when a thesis statement did a good job being specific about the assignment, so I was encouraged.

I think most (maybe all) of the students have been taught bubble mapping in the past; some said they had, and they seemed comfortable with the basic idea.

I held the beginning of a week of extensive office hour appointments today, and was happy to see that every student who came in had at least a bubble map for the essay. I'm not claiming I taught them how to do it, but they were all using bubble maps effectively, and I was able to help several focus their essay in more depth.

I spent a lot of time trying to explain why giving examples is important and effective, so I need to talk more about that in class, and also talk more explicitly about how direct American style essays are compared to essays in Japan (and some other countries; I think of French essays as being spirally, getting to their point after circling it a bit).

All in all, very fun office hours; the students who signed up (I didn't require them this time) seemed enthusiastic and willing to try hard to make their essay better.

I'll meet with students all week, and then they'll do peer editing on Friday. The essay is due for real next Tuesday (it's a 2 day a week class, very strange!). I'm thinking I'll probably have extended hours on Monday to help with last minute worries and such. And then proofreading on Tuesday in class! (I wonder if students have sticky pads here?)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Best Fast Food!

I'm basically a lazy person who doesn't much like to cook. So fast food is a good thing. Except when it's not. You know, when it's gross and tastes awful? Not.

But I've found the perfect fast food, and it's onigiri! I had my first onigiri on the airplane from Malaysia to Japan, a snack. And I had to watch someone else to figure out how to eat it. But it was worth the effort!

At the store, you buy these little green triangles with writing I can't read, wrapped in plastic (note the recycling information for the plastic, though!). See the directions on the side? I don't know what that means, either. But here's the idea. Inside, there's a triangle of rice about an inch tall, with something else in the center. The red package from this company has a sort of meat thing (first picture), while the pink package (that I opened), has salmon (I think).

The plastic wrap is actually two layers, between which is a sheet of nori, a seaweed paper thing. You can see that I've unwrapped the plastic from the rice ball, but the nori is still inside its part of the plastic. I'm guessing that keeps it crisp and nice! (I think if you make it fresh, you just put the nori right on. But if it's made by commercial machine, then the nori probably gets nasty waiting to be bought at the store?)

And here you can see that I've unwrapped the nori, and that it's ready to be wrapped around the rice. It's sort of shiny, but has a mild, pleasant taste that goes nicely with the rice and salmon.

It's a good snack: you have your all important rice food group, some protein, and a veggie of sorts! And it's a really good size for a snack or (if you're as lazy as I), the rice portion of dinner.

I was going to take another picture of the onigiri all wrapped up again, but I was hungry. One trick I've learned: the rice gets a little dry if it's been stored more than a day or two (even in the fridge), but you can make it have the right consistency if you nuke it for a couple seconds.

(You can make these yourself, of course, and real cooks do so all the time. But I'm not a real cook in the least, so I eat the prepared ones.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Not Thatched Roofs!

On older buildings around here, I've noticed what I thought were thatched roofs. But today, I learned that they're not thatched, they're cypress bark. How cool is that? (That, if memory serves, is the ceremonial throne building/room, where emperors were traditionally crowned (though not the current emperor, who I gather was crowned in Tokyo).

At the Imperial Palace, there's a model display to show what the roof looks like. And it's pretty amazing! They also use bamboo "nails" to prevent rust. Smart, no?

As you can see, there's a rather thin area, which is the real roof (it's a couple inches thick, so thin is relative), and then a really thick area for an eave type thing. The bark pieces are long and thin, and so from the ground look (to me, anyway) like thatching.

Here's a slightly different angle, where you can see that the cypress bark pieces are all packed evenly in place, so that you have an idea of what looking closely at a roof would look like. A new roof, anyway. The tour guide said that the cypress bark roofs last from 25-30 years, and are pretty labor intensive to replace.

Here's a roof that needs work! You can get an idea of how worn and weathered it is by looking at how uneven the bark has become. It's pretty interesting, isn't it?

If you click and look at the roof in the first picture, you can see that it's in really good shape, and looks relatively new, especially compared to the last picture.

(As always, you can click on an image to make it bigger!)

See, I AM learning cool stuff while I'm here!

Teaching tomorrow, and then major office hours for my students' first essay, due next week.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


My first days here were pretty overwhelming. Some other faculty folk took me to Kyoto, and showed me the Chion-in Temple area, helped me buy bus and train tickets, and so forth. And yet, when I went to do those things a second time, I needed more help. But now, I'm beginning to get the basics. I understand the train schedule signs, and can buy tickets (at least the ones I'm familiar with). I know where to go to get bus tickets. I can get myself to the drugstore, grocery stores, and around Kyoto a bit.

I was particularly happy yesterday that I was more comfortable walking and taking the bus in unfamiliar areas of Kyoto. And I've learned a few more kanji.

Today, I got a phone call from the local library. Alas, I said that I couldn't speak Japanese, so someone with good English got on the line, and we figured out that I'm not the person they're looking for, and don't know that person. I apologized, and the woman on the other end of the line apologized, and I realized that I'd bowed. Yes, there, alone in my apartment, I bowed to the phone. Weird.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What Your Car Really Says About You

The Yahoo thing when I checked my email has a link to an article about what your car says. It's stupid. So I've decided to explain what your car REALLY says.

If you live in the urban area where I did my phud, and were my neighbor, your car said, "Step away from the car. Do not touch the car. Step away from the car. Do not touch the car..." ad nauseum, anytime a large truck drove by a block away, anytime someone honked a horn in the area, and endlessly anytime the earth did the wave (which it did on occasion there). What does that say about you? You have too much money to spend on a car security system, and your neighbors detest you, even though they don't know who you are. I was very happy to move away from that car, though my apartment was pretty nice, had off-street parking, a decent landlord, and was (well, until the fires...) convenient to a small strip mall with a small grocery store. (I got a job in another state, so the commute would have been hell.)

If your car (like mine) often sports a bike rack on the back, sometimes with a bike, that says, "hey, my driver either likes to bike, or wants you to think s/he likes to bike." Or else the driver has found something else that's convenient to hang from the rack on the back.

If your car has multiple child seats, that says, "My driver has kids." You see how simple this is? And if the car hasn't been washed in ages, someone may write the obvious on a window in the dirt, so it says "wash me!"

See, it really IS easy.

The problem is, people with money (or people who want to read about people with money) gave Forbes money for the pleasure of reading their article, while mine is posted for free on the internet. Obviously, that says something about my being a stupid academic who doesn't take good advantage of ways to make money!

Golden Day

About 10 days ago, I asked some of the faculty with more experience here for a suggestion for a field trip, and they suggested something called the Silver Temple (Ginkakuji). So I found another faculty member, and off we went. It was an incredible day. We started in the early afternoon, took the train to the Imperial City, and then walked up to the temple area.

As you can see if you scroll down, this temple is known for a dry garden, which is what I typically think of when I think of a "Zen Garden" (I think). It's got gravel, or stone, and big stones, perhaps some moss, but mostly gravel or sand and a few big stones. At Ginkakuji, the dry garden is a raised platorm of sand/gravel, about two feet tall, which has to be cared for every day. (You can see this if you scroll down after clicking the link.)

And then we went along a walk called the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugakunomichi). It was okay, but will be spectacular in a month or so, I bet (and I hope I'll be back).

Along the way, we tried some sweet potato candy, and met a couple of Canadians (because they asked us if the candy was good, and we shared). It was a wonderful day, and the other faculty member taught me several really useful kanji (for exit, and river, and north).

The Canadians suggested that Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavillion) would also be a great day trip, so that's where I went today.

I feel a little awkward inviting other faculty folks along, mostly because they've all been here for a while, or often, and so what I'm going to are beginner places, and they've probably been a dozen times. And I wanted to get a stronger sense of getting places on my own, so I got a city bus map copy, and asked about the area, and made my plans for the day.

In the northern part of the city, there's the Imperial Palace; you need to arrange ahead of time to get a permit to go there, so I thought I'd go by there along the way, and see if I could get a permit for some time soon. I found the park just fine (always encouraging), but the guard said it was closed on weekends, so I couldn't get a permit until the weekday. (Maybe I'll try next week?) So I checked my bus information, and off I went, to the Kinkakuji!

As I was heading in, there was a group of three or four people standing to the left of the entry, in white jackets. One of them told me that she was a volunteer guide (and it was on the jacket, too), and that volunteer guides offer to give tourists a basically guided tour of the temple. I've heard of that in Japan, but hadn't experienced it yet, so I said thank you, I'd appreciate a guide, and off we went.

I have to tell you, what a fun and enlightening experience! She explained all sorts of things to me, answered lots of questions I have about what I've been seeing.

And it was INCREDIBLE, too! The original building was built in the 14th century, but it was burned down in about 1950, and rebuilt, and then refurbished in the late 1980s, re-covered with gold leaf.

It was snowing, so not quite as scenic as the pictures at the site I've linked, but I need to go when I have time and stuff, and enjoy what I can, so I did, and yep, still amazing!

After the Kinkakuji, I still had some time, and I'd been told about another dry garden at another temple, Ryoanji (I'm not sure what the English meaning would be). So I walked there. It was well worth the visit, too!

I don't think I really "get" dry gardens, but I enjoy looking at them and getting a sense of the patterns and such. They also make me think about how intensive the work of keeping them "groomed" must be. I've been noticing, as I walk in gardens and such, how many workers I see, quietly raking in amongst trees or off the walk, or whereever, just a lot of people working semi-behind the scenes to keep things beautiful.

So, that was my golden day. More soon, but my hot bath just called me!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Northern Illinois University

I got home yesterday, after a long day wandering through and around temples and shrines in the imperial city, flipped on the computer to quickly check email and the news, and was stunned to see reports of another shooting, this one at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Heartbreaking, once again.

Some of my friends went to NIU, and I'm wondering how they are, and feeling very far away.

The campus here is gated, and it seems they can totally close it off. On Sundays, I can only get on or off campus from the faculty apartment area through one exit. There are security cameras around; if I can spot them, then there are probably lots I'm not seeing, too. And I've heard that if the security folks notice something odd, they ride their bikes to the area to check it out.

Of course gun control is pretty tight here, so the security seems a bit much to my mind, being used to open campuses throughout my education. And short of metal detectors, no amount of security would stop a gunman in most situations, certainly not in the day to day life of most universities.

I just can't comprehend violence like this. And I don't want to be able to comprehend it, on some level.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Reading the journals for yesterday's class was fun, as much as any sort of grading can be fun. One of the things that made it interesting was seeing how a few students chose words, and how the connotations of those words did or didn't fit.

For example, there are words in English that we use almost exclusively in certain circumstances. When we use them outside those circumstances, then they carry the overtones of those circumstances with them, and make us think. Or they seem awkward and out of place. Without using the example my student used, the best I can come up with is "denizen." A denizen is an inhabitant. But we'd rarely use denizen, UNLESS we either using archaic language for a reason, or working with fantasy or something, because it's pretty much used for that. So if you used "denizen" to talk about the cat lying on your sofa, you'd get all sorts of overtones, archaic, high-falutin', whatever. And that could be effective, or funny, or fall flat.

So one of my students used a word like that, except it's a word that has connections to death and such, and so tends to feel negative to most native English speakers. But it wasn't WRONG to use, per se, just not what a native speaker would use unless s/he were making a special point.

And it was interesting and fun to try to explain that to the student after class.

I'm pretty sure she found the work in her electronic dictionary, but still, she's advanced enough that she's choosing interesting words.

I'm sure T/ESL folks are really familiar with this, and have effective ways to help students learn well, but for me, it's a bit different, and so interesting.

Japanese White-Eye

Some bird names are just great. Click to see a larger picture, look towards the center. There's a bird with a greenish back, and a bright white eye-ring. I'm pretty sure it's a White-Eye, and almost as sure that it's a Japanese White-Eye.

My bird book says they're 10-11.5 cm, and that looks about right to me. This weekend, I took a ton of pictures, trying to get one that was clear and showed the eye well, and this is the best I got.

I was thinking about why I enjoy birding the other day. Face it, I'm not a good birder at all. I'm slow recognizing birds I know, and slower figuring out what I'm looking at, even if the bird is cooperating by hanging out and letting me look for a long while. And yet I do enjoy it.

Partly, I enjoy that birding makes me slow down and look around, and look more carefully at what I see. I notice birds more, and feel okay about just standing still, listening, and trying to relax my eyes so I see things better. I'm not one of those Enclyclopedia Brown people who notices everything, so thinking about birds helps me notice more. (I think my lack of paying close attention also contributes to my difficulties finding my way in newish places, too.)

I also like that way that I learn birding. Starting out, you basically see a bird. Then, after a while, you see a duck, or a gull, or a passerine. And as you get more familiar in a given area, or with a given sort of bird, you see a Glaucous Gull or a Black-Headed Gull. And as someone who's got a lot to learn about birds, I'm constantly aware of what and how I learn them.

For example, this weekend I saw some ducks. On the most basic level, ducks are pretty sexually dimorphic, with males generally being quite a bit more colorful than females. Beginners such as myself generally focus on the males, because females are quite a bit harder to tell apart. So, there were these ducks. And when I first started looking at them, they looked like they had sort of cinnamon colored heads. And I couldn't find anything that looked quite right as I glanced through the book. Then I started noticing a yellow patch on the underside of the tail. And then as I got closer, I could see that the cinnamon head actually had a beautiful green patch to it. And that helped me see it as a Green-Winged Teal. Once I got a sense of the coloring and shapes from the book and from looking at some birds, then I could see the green patch a lot more easily on the head, even at a distance. And more reliably, when I came across another group later. So for now, I have a sense of Green-Winged Teal, and I recognize them. (The color on the picture doesn't look as green or yellow as the bird looked in less glaring light, but it was the best picture I took.)

So I like the way that learning even basic bird identification makes me think about how I learn, how I look at things.


I had a most delightful lunch today with a student who will be visiting NWU next semester. S had come to talk to me last week (but just before my class) because one of her profs suggested talking to me, since she'll be at NWU. And she did! So we made an appointment to have lunch today, and we did.

I'm continually impressed by my students' English skills. It's not that they're perfect; it's that they're so willing to give it a go and seem so interested in improving. S, too!

So S and I had a nice conversation; we talked about the cold, and I tried to reassure her that she'd be fine with a warm jacket and such, and that she could get them in the Northwoods should she need to. And we talked about the river and places to go near campus, and living in dorms, and so forth. And she helped me understand a few things about living here, which were very helpful!

So, I thought I'd try having lunch once a week, or maybe twice a week at the student cafeteria with whatever students from my class can and want to come. I suggested it this afternoon in class, and several students looked enthusiastic. So I hope we'll all enjoy it!

Class seemed to go well today. I'm guessing it takes time and a half or longer for me to teach something to this class compared to my usual first year classes. Partly that works out because I'm consciously trying to give an extra example, and to make things clear from two directions if I can. (I should probably try that in my regular classes!) Partly it takes these students longer to write sentences in English to practice whatever we're working on.

For example, today we worked on Christensen's paragraph organization. I'd planned to do that. And my reading of their introductory journals this weekend reinforced how helpful it might be. It's got to be doubly hard to try to be organized when you're working in a second language. For me, for example, speaking my second language, I'm pretty much thinking of the sentence I'm trying to say at the moment. But in writing or speaking English, I tend to think in whole paragraphs sometimes, at least when I'm really aiming to get a point across. But since I can't do that in my second language (though I do "think" in that language when I'm hearing or speaking it), I'm sure my sentences are more disjointed than they are when I use English.

It took a bit longer for them to write their practice sentences and paragraphs.

Thinking about the journals they handed in last week, and comparing how relatively well-written those were, I'm guessing they put a TON of time into writing those. I'm impressed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Walking the River

My Host City is bordered on the west by a large river, and near the city center, a smaller river joins the large one. I'd been told about paths along the rivers, and today was a gloriously beautiful day out, so off I went. Today is National Foundation Day, a national holiday, so no classes; all the more reason to take a long walk. I found my way to the smaller river, and from there to the big river, and it was great. The smaller river is paved. Yep, as weird as that sounds. (If you've seen pictures of the Los Angeles River when it actually has water, you have the basic idea.)

There are weird looking things built into the water. This, for example. I think it's a sort of fish ladder, to help fish get up against the current. It's unlike any fish ladder I've seen before, but that's my best guess. (If you have other ideas, feel free to let me know, please!)

And, of course, I took some bird pictures. I saw some Green Winged Teal, and some European Widgeon, and some other birds, including a total mystery bird.

Here's the mystery bird. I actually broke down and ordered a Field Guide to Birds of Japan today, to the tune of almost $100. I've been limping along, and it's frustrating, and I'm really not good enough at birds to do well without a fairly specific field guide.

Along the smaller river, there are several bridges, and under some, it looks like homeless folks have set up housekeeping. I also saw that along the river in the imperial city; somehow, I guess I didn't think Japan would have homeless people. But of course, every place that has homes probably has homeless people. And along the larger river footpath, there were also some small tent sites that looked like they were inhabitate pretty long term.

The most unusual thing I saw along the path, though, was a small shrine looking thing. Some (Shinto, I think) shrines are basically small stone statue things, or marker things. I saw them before in the temple complex in the imperial city. Sometimes there are offerings of various sorts in front of them.

So here's this fairly typical looking little statue thing, and offerings? Soccer balls? Bottled water? The flowers and fruit (in back) seem typical, but soccer balls?

I may be totally wrong about the offering thing, however. This little shrine thing was only about 50' away from a tent set up, so maybe there's some storage going on here? Or maybe the offerings are brought to be used?

I'm not sure.

I met another teacher here the other day, and he invited me to a party this evening with some other teachers, which was a wonderful treat. But I have to admit, I feel like a completely boring person when I compare my life to theirs. I don't know how they've traveled and done all these amazing things, live abroad here and there, learned this and that, all sorts of coolness.

We discussed favorite cities, and they had some amazing international choices. I don't know any international city well enough to have it be my favorite, alas. And only a couple cities I know at all really enter the competition. Still, it's an interesting question, no?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

It's the Same, only Different

My second day of class today. We started working on an essay assignment based on personal knowledge and analysis. Basically, the assignment asks students to analyze their experience of something familiar and to think about it along some specific lines.

It's a good assignment for my English speaking first year writing students because it takes something familiar, but asks them to think and write in a college level way. They don't have to absorb and learn a ton of new material before starting to write and think about a college assignment. And it works pretty well at being what it is.

Writing well is sometimes counter-intuitive; sometimes it doesn't make sense right off the bat.

In this case, I ask students to start by listing some basic ideas. Then I share a list, and get them to work more on their lists. Then we share ideas on the board, and I ask them to add more to their list. They also give each other feedback about possible essay topics. The goal is to get them to think broadly and openly about possible "topics" for the essay they'll write within the assignment parameters. Intuitively, many students want to just grab a topic as quickly as possible, and start in.

But, counter to that, sometimes the writer makes a better choice after mulling a bit. It's hard to convince students to take the time to mull, though. In class, I do it by having them pre-write about several potential topics. Sometimes, they seem to think I'm nuts. But sometimes it works.

I learned a lot teaching today's class. We went a bit slower than I expected, because I needed to take time to explain some vocabulary on the syllabus and the short reading for today. That's important, and well worth the time, but I hadn't accounted for it fully. So we didn't get as far freewriting and pre-writing for the essay assigment as I had hoped we would. So I gave homework: take another thing from the list and freewrite/pre-write about it.

The class nodded when I gave the assignment and asked if they understood. All nods. And then about half the class came up afterwards to clarify one or another aspect.

So, obviously, I need to be clearer in giving the basic assignment! I sometimes need to be clearer with English speaking students, too. It's always something I work on.

I think it's especially hard because the assignment is counter-intuitive; it's asking them NOT to get started on the essay writing in any obvious way, but rather to step back and do "other stuff." IF I do my job well, then the "other stuff" does actually help them get started, but there's a sort of leap of faith in an instructor to doing that work in good faith. And then it's luck if it pays off quickly, rather than at some later date.

So, I'm taking it as a hopeful sign that they were willing to clarify the assignment with me, because it means they're willing to try that leap at least once. I hope I am worth the try.

What else I learned? All of my students have these amazing little computer dictionaries! WAY cool! And once I got them started at the beginning, they were really great at asking about vocabulary and such they weren't sure of. And really good at helping each other through my explanations. (The winners of today were "monstrosity" and "sprawl." You have to imagine me trying to explain "monster" along the way to "monstrosity." Yeah, I'm nothing if not graceful and suave in the classroom.) (One of my profs did the most amazing coelemate worm impression when I was an undergrad. He somehow got a whole hydrostatic "skeleton" thing going. I aspire to be half as memorable!)

They also had really cool sounding lists going once the got into the sharing phase. I hope that bodes well for interesting essays!

I'm aiming to play tourist in the imperial city tomorrow, and to visit something called the Path of Philosophy. Sounds cool, doesn't it?

I'm planning to take my camera along, hoping to take some pictures of some of they WAY cool birds I've been seeing!

Chestnut Munias

Chestnut Munias. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia.

Yes, it's more birds!

These little guys were hanging around on the lawn at the resort. On some of the walls and balconies of the resort, there were vines and such all over, and the Munias were nesting there. It was really cool, but the only clear shots I got where you can really see them are on the ground.


I've been trying to read what's happening, and where the evacuations are. But, on US sites, Britney's latest drug and family issues are way more important.

Here's what El Comercio (the main Quito newspaper) says. And here's an interview with more information.

It looks like Banos (with a tilde, however one does that on a computer) hasn't been evacuated (since you can find pics of people praying there; it's a big pilgrimage site for miracles).

What's this, you wonder? Tungurahua is one of the great volcanos in the central Andes of Ecuador, and it's erupting. The city of Banos is a few kilometers towards the north, on the road down into the upper Amazon basin. Ambato is a bit further north, 30 kilometers, perhaps?

Here's a satellite image: WAY COOL! Though it doesn't show the volcano erupting.

If I were a praying person, I'd be praying now. Keep Ecuador in your thoughts. Here's the website for the Cruz Roja Ecuatoriana, which has more information about the emergency.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

In the Interests of Education

Go to Dr. Virago's place over at Quod She, and you'll see some great pictures of Norwich, England. Seriously, she's got great pictures of churches, and talks about medieval Norwich.

In contrast, here at Bardiac, you're getting a tour of my bathroom fixtures, because people asked. And you ask, you get educated; that's the way I try to work!

First off, when I say bathroom fixtures, what I really should do is explain that in my apartment, there are two rooms, adjacent, but not adjoining. The first is basically a small toilet room. There's a toilet, there's a little toilet paper thing, and enough room to turn around and stuff. Just a few steps down the hall from that is a washroom, with a sink and a washer/dryer combo (because, I'm told, they realize that foreigners aren't necessarily into hanging laundry out), and a door into the bathing room. The bathing room has a tub, which is shorter than standard US tubs I'm familiar with, but also quite a bit deeper. The bathing room also has a shower thing, and a little stool, along with a drain in the floor. In Japan, the practice is to wash with the shower thing, perhaps sitting on the stool to really scrub clean. And then when one is scrubbed clean, you get into the nice tub and soak for a bit. I gather that in family situations, the same water gets used several times over in the tub, since the bodies going in are all nice and scrubbed clean.

Here, then, is the command center for the toilet. Yep, it's a bidet. I'm not sure what the difference is supposed to be between the blue and the pink buttons (I've tried them both), but I'm guessing they're somehow gendered. The red button turns it off. The buttons below that control for warmth. (Because who would want an icy bidet? Not me!) To the right, where you can only see the edge of a button, is the control for the seat warmer. Yes, the seat is warmed. It's really, really nice on a cold morning!

Even the flush mechanism has instructions. If you're a faithful reader, you'll recognize the kanji for "big" (person with arms outstretched); the other is, I guess, small. You know when a kid tells you about fishing, and holds out his hands to show you the size? You can now imagine what I'm thinking when I decide which flush to use. You'll never think of my toilet in quite the same way again, will you?

This is how the toilet looks from the front. So you also get an idea of how small the room itself is. I have to admit, I like the icons for the bidet thing, except they're deceptive. Rather than a sort of reverse shower on one's bottom, it's more like a semi-sharp stream, aimed a bit further back than seems quite effective for optimal cleaning. Or maybe I'm sitting wrong? (I've never worried much about sitting wrong on a toilet before. Hmmm.)

Notice the spigot on top, running over a decorative blue thing? I'm not sure what that's about, but it's fresh water that's filling the tank for the next flush. Maybe I'm supposed to wash my hands there? (Rather than walking into the next room?)

The tub is it's own matter. There's this control panel on the wall above it. It's on in the picture. The top left button turns it on and off. The top right button adds water. The lower right button seems to reheat the water that's in the tub. And the lower left button seems to turn on an intercom thing. I have this scary idea that the intercom somehow goes to the guardhouse at the main gate of the university, and that they're supposed to come help somehow if I start yelling that I need help. But really, I think it's an intercom to the living room/kitchen area of the apartment, where there's a main control for the tub. (Sort of funny, because it would be standard easy talking/yelling distance in the US households I'm familiar with.)

The center information tells the temperature the tub is set to, I think; I turned it up a bit from 40 (Celsius, of course!), but when it fills, it seems to be fairly moderately warm. When it reheats, it's incredible!

In my last post, I talked about the tub talking back. Here's the thing; it doesn't say anything when you turn it on, but if you hit the intercom button, a bright and cheery, and stereotypically high/female voice says something and you can also hear the voice out in the main room. And when you hit the reheat button, the same voice says something different, but also in a bright, almost excited tone. I keep thinking she's saying "here comes the hot water!"

So there you are, a tour of my bathroom fixtures. This blog is nothing if not educational, right?

Naive and Privileged

I'm slowly meeting some of the other faculty folks here, slowly. There seem to be four broad categories of faculty, the Japanese tenure line folks, the semi-permanent foreign folks, the not so permanent foreign folks, and the exhange from another home university folk (that's me). When I signed up for the exchange program, I was sort of under the impression that there would be more faculty like me, visiting from a home university for the semester. But this semester, I'm it for that role.

What I have been surprised to discover, but shouldn't have been, is that there's a veritable army of adjuncting people here, working with little job security, putting together classes to teach at multiple universities. There seems to be a common thread of ABDness, starting in on adjuncting while finishing the phud, and then getting caught in the loads of teaching it takes to support oneself and one's family. That's a fairly familiar story through adjunctland, I know. Some of the folks I've met here are here because their research interests led them to the area, others because they've made international families.

The semi-permanent and not so permanent foreign faculty here seem to have little job security; some tell me of working at various universities or colleges around the world with all sorts of hiring and firing weirdnesses.

When I was going into the Peace Corps, I rather romanticized what it might mean to be an ex-patriot, based, no doubt, on my High School teachers' romanticizing of Hemingway or something. While I was in the Peace Corps, in my early to mid-20s, I got to know a few ex-pat teachers, people in their late 20s and early 30s, almost all men, who'd teach at X American School for a while, with plans to move to another school in another country at some point. But all of them worked hard, and none seemed to have any romantic notions of Hemingway-esque adventures, and I lost mine along the way, which was healthy and good for me.

Of the people I've met, several express a sense of permanence here, and yet even these folks don't seem comfortable with the language, really, not like people I knew in SA were comfortable in Spanish.

To be honest, it's really hard work living and working in another language. I'm doing it probably as easily as it can be done: teaching in English and working with people who are at least bi-lingual in English. And it's still work to figure out what to get at the store, how to take the bus or train, how to license a bike, get my alien card, all those things that just have to be done in another language. (I keep that in mind when I meet immigrants to the US; I have a lot of respect for people who make their way in US culture as immigrants.)

And yet it's still an adventure, still special to live deeply within another culture (or shallowly, in my case here). And it's exciting, and satisfying on some important level for me.

But, thoroughly boring bourgeoisie Bardiac appreciates the idea of having a home university to return to, a sort of permanent academic place, and with it a real home with a yard, a toilet I know how to work, and a bathtub that doesn't talk back.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I've been having vivid dreams of late, and some teaching anxiety dreams. In one of them, all the students sat on the edges of the class, and wouldn't say anything. Happily, students in college are mostly interested in being there, and usually do their part to make a good classroom chemistry. So I'm not really worried about that. And the classrooms here aren't laid out like that, even.

Then I had a dream about teaching fourth grade. Yeah, fourth grade. That really would be a nightmare! I was trying to find someone to ask a question of, or something, but the classroom was in a different building and I couldn't find what I was looking for. Then I woke up.

I am a bit nervous about teaching my first class tomorrow. I got the class list today, and of course, the names aren't quite as easy for the English speaking memory as Sally or Joe. On the other hand, I don't have four Britneys.

I've been thinking about it. My teaching here is going to be at the edges of my experience, and that's really challenging. It's pushing me in composition teaching, which I consider a weak spot. And then there's the whole classroom culture thing, and that's where I expect the real challenges.

I'm also very excited about it. I'm going to learn so much, and I'm looking forward to how what I learn is going to challenge my assumptions about how classroom teaching and such "work" for me.

I still need to get a copy of the course packet I sent in. I hope the copying worked okay, and that it will make sense when I put it into use!

Wish me good teaching, and fun, interesting students! (And wish them a fast-grading, patient, and caring teacher!)

Sunday, February 03, 2008


I THINK this is a Crimson Sunbird, but it may be a Scarlet Sunbird. You'll need to click on this and look for the bright red bit at the center. The bird's about 4 inches long. I was about 15 feet away, using my telephoto when I took the picture. (Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia)

I took a series of pictures of this bird, and they really bring out one of the difficulties for me with my new camera. I need to learn how to override and focus manually faster. When I take autofocus shots, the camera tends to look for straight lines and focus on those straight lines. That's okay if you're focusing on something a good long ways away, or with lots of light. But if you're taking telephoto pics of something small under tree cover, then I've got problems and need to learn to focus manually to overcome them.


Classes start here soon, which is good. It's been a bit rainy, but I got myself out for a walk today. I need to make sure to try to get at least a walk in when I can for some excercise!

I've found myself surprised by how quiet the city is; the cars seem quieter somehow, and certainly off the main street, walking on the narrow little streets, the noise seems subdued. On campus, I live away from the main street, and don't hear traffic noises at all (though I sometimes hear my neighbors a bit).

Friday, February 01, 2008

Why I Teach Literature

Back on 22 January, New Kid on the Hallway was kind enough to tag me for a meme about why we teach. New Kid wrote that
Craig Smith at Free Exchange on Campus has tagged me for a meme. Inspired by Dr. Crazy's wonderful post about why she teaches literature (and how those reasons are different from the ones espoused at the MLA), he writes, I am challenging faculty to tell us why they teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort. So, I'll weigh in (and then I have to tag some folks).
This is an interesting charge, asking not only why we do what we do, but also to think about the impact of academic freedom on our work.

This morning, rather than braving the cold to go explore the neighborhood a bit (It's actually Saturday here, though my computer doesn't realize it), I read some of the varied responses to the meme, especially over at a big group site populated by (mostly) males theorizing class issues and criticizing Dr. Crazy for hoping to give her students a chance to talk the talk so they could enter the middle class should they get a break and want to.

It was interesting to me how authoritatively these men (so far as I could tell) feel able to explain that Dr. Crazy's students don't actually need her to teach them to talk about complex issues. One points to hip hop as an example of such a complicated discussion with no influence of white or middle class culture/education, whatever.

Hip hop? My experience of hip hop is admittedly pretty limited to what I hear on the radio, especially these days. I've lived in an urban area, but as a white grad student, I didn't really hang out in the hip hop scene. Nor did the mostly black working class women who were raising their kids in the neighborhood, since they were too busy working and caring for kids. But in my experience, a lot of hip hop is exceedingly conservative in its sex/gender practices; that is, it promotes patriarchal values, violence against women, objectification of women, ad nauseum. No doubt, someone can point to this or that hip hop artist who's so feminist that I'd cheer, but what I've mostly heard isn't.

But I know other white men who seem to think that hip hop is the epitome of radical challenges to "the man." These men hint around that I'm just not cool enough to understand. I am, and will always be, terminally uncool by male standards.

What does that have to do with why I teach? Well, I'm that uncool, and I'm going to tell you.

I teach because I'm paid to. That's right, the Northwoods, in its infinite wisdom, gives me money enough to cover my food and housing and such, in return for certain services, many of which involve various aspects of teaching. I rejoined the middle class (I grew up solidly middle class), and I am glad to be able to buy food without worrying too much about costs, to pay my winter heating bill, to cover my mortgage, and to worry some about retirement! Do you know what a privilege it is to worry about retirement?

I fell in love with Shakespeare and early modern literature, was encouraged by some faculty members to pursue that love, got incredibly lucky on the job market, and here I am, with a job where I teach literature and writing, mostly, do committee work for governance, research and write about what I love. It's hard work, but it's a heck of a lot easier than some jobs I've had.

And it's deeply satisfying. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the lit I mostly teach are wonderful to read, discuss, and teach. They challenge my understanding and my abilities to communicate. They challenge my students to think about complicated cultural productions, and to think about the hows and whys of culture. If there's anything radical in what I do, then it comes in challenging students to think about "what goes without saying," to think about what we just do without thinking about it. In my case, my most direct challenges are often feminist challenges, using feminism to ask students to think about sex/gender, race/ethnicity, class, language, power.

The literature I teach demands respect. It demands that I attend to what it's saying, not just what I want it to say, or what my ideologies suggest, but to the possibilities of textual meaning. My challenge to my students ask them to treat the text with respect, to really read it, to listen to its intricacies.

Students who can read and listen to Shakespeare, can also use those skills to attend to what loved ones are saying, to what the neighbor says, to what politicians and officials are saying. If I do my job right, then perhaps my students and I can treat other people and their ideas with respect, hear them out, and respond usefully. (Alas, I think there's a lot of evidence in recent political and social discussion that our society is failing in this most basic task.)

I know I disagree in some fundamental ways with my students. But when I see that they can respect texts, work with people respectfully, and discuss complex issues with intensity and care, then I have hope that we can do better as a society.

So what about academic freedom?

On a basic level, academic freedom is important as a principle. We should research, study, and discuss all manner of ideas and literatures (and sciences and stuffs!).

On a practical level, though, too often "academic freedom" is used to protect patriarchal and sexist/racist behavior. Yes, we're allowed to teach women writers, but we're quickly stifled if there's a real feminist challenge. There's a lot of lip service, but real change is another thing.


One of the great things about my time this semester is that being in a different culture makes it really easy to ask basic questions about my basic practices. Why do I live in such a large house, rather than a condo or something? Why do I eat this and not that? What counts as acceptable politeness, and to whom? Why?

On that note, I'm off to challenge myself around the neighborhood a bit!

Wrap up the Week

Black-Crowned Night Heron (I'm pretty sure), Sabah, Malaysia (Borneo)

I've seen one in the states, fleetingly, but this guy posed graciously for me; I saw two, on separate days, so it may have been the same bird. Click on it to make it big, and seriously, s/he's got GREAT eyes!

I'm sort of proud of this picture; I think it's one of the better bird pictures I've taken. It even gets some of the glistening color in his wing feathers!

The orientation schedule for today had a visit to the great, ancient city nearby today, so I asked and they let me sign up. 180+ international visiting students signed up, too. And an almost equal number of Japanese students VOLUNTEERED to show us around. We went in small groups; mine had four Japanese students, three international students, and me. It was wonderful. The school did a great job putting things together, and the students I was with, at least, were good company. (They also got a great chance to practice some English, I suppose.)

Our guides were so fun, and really tried to explain stuff about the temple area, and we walked and walked through an old part of the city, way up the side of a hill, until we overlooked the great city itself. And that was beautiful in its own way.

We walked for several hours, up and up and up and then down and down and down (which was faster). And in the old part, as we were going up the hill through the temple complex, there were all these shops. One of them had a hawker out front handing out cups of steaming hot tea and inviting people to step on in; so we did! Inside, was a sweets shop, with lots of different displays and samples. On a cold day, that hot tea was a perfect incentive!

And now I'm off to bed. I've been here a week now, and I think I'll be able to find my way to the city over the weekend to try to find the English language book shop, and hope to find a bird book there.