Saturday, May 24, 2008

Doing Better

Thanks for all the encouraging comments, folks.

Please know that were my Mom to blog, you'd probably get to hear that I'm uncommunicative (I don't talk much, confide, and so on); I'm impatient; I'm not as respectful as I should be, and I don't listen to what she has to say, or treat it with appropriate respect.

I also don't dress appropriately much of the time, and don't bother to think how I look. (I also don't wear makeup, despite her encouragement, nor do I wear proper shoes, or skirts/dresses, etc.)

I'm not as supportive as I should be; this is especially true in comparison with several of my cousins and their relationship with their mother.

I don't think about other people enough, and am too self-centered.

All of these things are true, just so you know.

That said, we're doing a bit better. I think we're both trying hard.

We went to Hiroshima yesterday, and that was good for us. It's a good reminder that our petty irritations are just that.

We're off for our tour, and probably won't have internet access in the near future. Take care, blogfriends!

Thursday, May 22, 2008


In both senses.

It's just after 11 pm. My Mom just came out of her bedroom to check if I'm not in bed yet. (She did the same thing last night at this time.)

When I got up to use the bathroom at 5:30 am, she popped out of the bedroom to say good morning. She had been waiting to hear me stir. We had plans to meet someone at 9:30 at the train station, so it wasn't like we needed to be up at 5:30 to rush around to get breakfast. And being evil, I went back to bed for a bit.

Let's just say we're on slightly different sleep schedules, and one of us really believes there's a moral rectitude to getting up early.

In the past, I've thought to myself, "never again." But I realized today that I know that's not likely, and that I can't even tell myself that to feel better. So when she was off on a racist tangent with one of my friends, well, I wasn't happy. But I think I've learned to trust that my friends are aware enough to realize that my Mom and I are separate beings, and if my Mom says something, that doesn't mean that I endorse it. So I kept my mouth shut and wanted to think "never again," but couldn't.

I'm trying not to care and counting the days with despair in my very center.

And now I'm going to bed so that I can start again tomorrow at whatever hour.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Regan or Goneril

I love King Lear. But just today, I find myself wondering which I'm more like, Regan or Goneril.

I'm feeling guilty, and frustrated, and doubly guilty for being frustrated.

I see my Mom growing old; not seeing her for a while makes the changes more apparent, perhaps. And the changes scare me, more for my own future than anything else. Yeah, I'm selfish enough to know that things will be pretty sucktastic for me if I hit my 70s.

But back to Lear. Remember when he wants to take his retinue to stay with his daughter, because, after all, what's another 100 mouths to feed? They won't be any trouble at all! We're "supposed" to sympathize with Lear; his daughters should take him in, should care for him in his old age. It's a no brainer. They should take some time off from work to make sure he settles in, to take him here or there, or just visit. And if he tells them how to run their households, to bring a sweater, to get this other brand of toothpaste, they should listen respectfully because he raised them, and he's older and wiser than they.

It's part of our mythology, that in the "old days," children took care of their parents when they grew old. But, as historians of western Europe will tell you, it's mythology, and not how households were usually organized from at least the middle ages on. Certainly all those colonial types who left "the old country" didn't bring the 'rents along. Nor did the pioneers have a "mother-in-law" apartment above the ol' Conestoga.

But it's still a potent myth, isn't it?

And there's the rock and the hard place, Scylla and Charibdis, of how to deal with the reality. I think my Mom's articulating her own frustrations more fully, too, both with my sibling and myself. I get the feeling we're both big disappointments in the family responsibility department. Usually, in the past, she's pretty much held my brother exempt from criticism, but not now. And while at one time I would have been glad not to be the only one subject to criticism, now I feel doubly defeated. She's critical, but at the same time she realizes that she didn't spend her middle age taking her parents or in-laws on family vacations. It's just the rock and the hard place.

Of course, we're neither the first nor the last family to hit these issues. It's same old, same old back to Leir.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Calm Before the Storm

I got a lot done today, mostly a visit to Kyoto, to see Nijo-jo, which was at one time the Shogun's castle in Kyoto, and is now a world heritage site. It was well worth the visit.

I was weirdly happy walking in Kyoto, feeling like I've gotten to know the basic city enough to find my way back to the train station. (That doesn't mean I can necessarily find my way to places not marked on the tourist map in big ways. I'm geographically challenged, and the smaller streets aren't laid out in ways I can easily suss.) As someone who's not really good at geography in general, I'm a tiny big egotistical that I can find my way around Kyoto. Kyoto is laid out as a grid, with obvious big hills to the east, a north-south river along which runs my train line, hills further up to the north, and then hills further away to the west. If I can see the hills, I can find my way to a train station. And yet I'm still sort of proud that I can find my way around, so I can just relax and walk.

It's my last relaxed visit in Japan, probably. My Mom comes tomorrow. I'm hoping it goes okay, but the last email I got from her sort of irritated me. It was one of those "send this to all your friends" emails, with several pictures of confusing overhead street-type wiring, from India, with a caption about how that's where the call center you end up talking to for computer problems is. It just seemed to have an easy assumption of racism and irritated me.

Why send the email to me? She knows I get irritated at racist stuff because we've had any number of fights about such things. So why poke at me with an email?

We're going to be in this area for a couple days, then do a tour. That may have been a mistake; we'll see. I'm pretty willing to get myself good and lost, and try to ask directions, walk an hour or so out of my way, and so forth. But I'm not willing to do any of that with another person being unhappy about being lost. I get lost rather frequently, and at some point, I just learned to relax about it. People who don't get lost frequently are maybe a bit less relaxed about it. So I decided to get us on a tour; that way we have arranged hotels, transportation to get us here and there, and guides to explain things. It could be great.

Or not. We did a tour once together, a couple years after my Dad died. The first summer after, I talked her into going river rafting with me and a friend, and it went well. I think she enjoyed it, but not enough to really want to do it more. But she wanted to do this bus tour of the Badlands and Yellowstone. (I can understand why she didn't want to just drive together, because while my Dad was alive, he pretty much drove, and that meant they didn't stop unless he wanted to. So if she's going to feel powerless about driving, she'd rather feel powerless on a bus where the power is abstract, than in a car where it resides with the driver, pretty much. My family is a bunch of control freaks, and I'm up there with the worst of them.)

So, off we went on this bus tour, because my Mom really wanted to go, but didn't want to go alone, and by the way, I'm single, so my vacations should be spent with my Mom, right? especially now that she's alone.

I like animals and wildlife a fair bit. So there we'd be, driving along, and the tour guide would point out that there were often elk in this particular meadow, a meadow we were passing at 45 miles an hour, passing the parking area, and I'm trying to glimpse to see if there are elk from the wrong side of the bus. Or we'd pass an area that's famous for birds.

But we couldn't stop, or even slow down, because we had to get to some big, famous drugstore, or gambling/shopping town so that we could all have a couple hours to shop or gamble. And this wasn't fun shopping, no hardware store, bookstore, or bike shop.

As if that weren't bad enough, we'd be driving through some grainfields, a two hour drive to our destination, and I'd be ready to fall asleep (because basically in a car, I'm either driving or wanting to nap). And just as I'd start to nod off, the guide would decide to make a couple comments about the area where we were headed. And then she'd add in some conservative comment about the joys of Reaganomics or something. My head would pop back up at the noise, just in time for her to stop after four sentences. At which point my eyes would start to droop, until fifteen minutes later, she'd realize she'd forgotten some point about the wonder we were going to see in a couple hours. And this would go on until we got to the scenic spot.

So my desire to be on a bus tour is sort of low. I'm hoping this will be way better; keep your fingers crossed.

On the other hand, I'm working on being a more generous person. My first step is to not try to pick fights. And since the one person in the world I'm most likely to pick a fight with is my Mom, I need to work on this seriously.

It's not that my Mom is a bad person; she's a really fine person. Ask anyone. And she certainly wasn't abusive as a Mom; quite the opposite, in fact, she was an amazing Mom. My college friends all thought my folks were the cool ones. And the things she thought to do when we were kids, so creative and neat.

But still, I have a lot to work on. Wish me a good attitude!

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I went to my last meeting of the English club today, which was fun and sad at the same time. I think meeting up with G, getting to know people at the club, was probably the best thing that could have happened to me here. It was a great opportunity to talk to people away from the university, to get a little understanding of some different people's lives and thoughts.

When I look back at myself as a young woman in the Peace Corps, I regret not being more active in getting to know people more away from my work there. And I'm grateful for the new opportunity here.

I have a busy time ahead. I have to clean the apartment, finish preparing the final exam, pick my Mom up at the airport, grade the final exams, figure grades, turn in grade reports and evaluations, get the apartment inspected, and figure out how to feed my Mom and myself all the while. I also have to get my laptop changed back so that it isn't set for here, but will work at home. And that will mean the end of blogging or anything else on the internet until I'm back home.

G and another friend from the club are coming with my Mom and I to Kyoto for a day this week, and are going to explain stuff; both are trained guides, and both fluent in English, so I'm feeling pretty amazingly lucky.

And then my Mom and I are headed to Tokyo (I'm hoping I can get us there on the shinkansen/bullet train), where we'll join a tour group through Japan for 8 days, ending in Osaka at the castle. We'll come back here for a night at the apartment, and then head back to the US on (amazingly) the same flight.

One of the guys at the English club tonight gave me a map of Tokyo where he'd marked the places he recommends for our visit. Isn't that neat? He went out of his way to find an English map and mark it for us.

Busy days ahead!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Taking Credit

One of my students wrote a kick-ass final paper. Seriously good work!

I'm going to pretend I had something to do with it, and go out to play tourist for the afternoon. I may even get myself some ice-cream. Yes, it was that good.

(It was nice, when I returned papers, too. She'd worked really hard this semester, especially on this paper, and after getting it back, she was just one pure smile.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grading as Athletic Event

I try to warn my students to prepare for midterms and finals as an athletic event. If you're going to be clutching a pencil or pen for 2-3 hours at a time, writing furiously, then your hand needs some preparation.

Clutching seems to be my operative mode for writing when I grade. And since I sit still and grade for long periods (more than three hours at a time, for sure), I can feel it in my hand and in a sort of general antsiness/stiffness.

My thumb joint and second finger on my writing hand are a little sore. Unfortunately, I can't just change hands, since my other hand's primary life skill is holding down the paper while I write.

But the grading crunch should be temporarily over this afternoon, so I'll give my hand a nice soak in the bathtub with the rest of me!

One of my college friends had the most impressive callous on the second finger of his writing hand, just where he held the pen/pencil. I get sort of flattened skin there, but don't seem to develop a callous much.

Have you ever noticed if you look at your hands that some of your fingers seem to sort of twist in a weird way? Just me? (Nope, I'm pretty sure it's not arthritis, just my one finger sort of twisted outwards on each hand.)

Enough break, back to grading jail!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thoughts from Grading Jail

I need better self-discipline about grading. I used to have better self-discipline, but I've lost some of it. I need to get it back.


In any given semester, I end up teaching at least three people (usually students, occasionally another faculty member) some basic computer skill.

For example, someone will send out a computer file that we're all supposed to read, naming it "important.stf," or something like that. And then they'll resend it when someone else responds and says they can't open the file. (Maybe Macs don't have this problem?)

Then there's the "tab" function, or changing justification/margins, footnotes.

I wonder how people learn this stuff? In Japan, according to one of my students, there's a high school class that teaches people basic living skills, including computer skills. (The class sounds great, too. Tool use, basic electronics, cooking, for all. But I've still been teaching my students some basic stuff about computers.)

I don't know how to solve the problem of computer knowledge gaps, but I do know that all of these students can text message, work an ipod, and program a dvd player to do the dishes. And I can't do any of those things.

I also totally lack self-discipline about grading. Did I mention that before?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


There was a mid-size quake reportedly felt in Tokyo a couple days ago. The epicenter was out to sea, and so there wasn't a lot of damage.

And then there was Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. And now the big quake in China. The reports I've seen said a 7.8.

Loma Prieta was something like 6.8 to 7.1. And the Northridge Quake was something like 6.7. Since the Richter scale is logarithmic, a 7.8 is ten times the energy as a 6.8. My mind boggles.

Times like this, teaching writing, Shakespeare, the liberal arts, all seems pretty useless to me. Planting trees feels useless, too. It all feels useless.


I've been thinking about getting a dog when I get home. I'm worried about the time I spend at the office, time when the dog would be alone at the house, and the time I spend out biking. Well, and, to be honest, wanting to travel without having to find someone to dogsit. And worrying about the whole resource issue. (I'm guessing my old dog had a pretty serious carbon footprint, if I think about how far his food was probably shipped and stuff. I bet he had a greater carbon footprint in his short life than a lot of folks living in the third world.)

Still, purely selfishly, I'm thinking about getting a dog. I like being part of a pack, even if it's a pack of two.

If I were half the person my dog thought I was, I'd be a pretty amazing person.


I got my incentive check, the one we're supposed to spend on consumer goods so that we can support the economy. I'm trying to decide between Planned Parenthood and the local food bank. Both organizations do good work, and both can always use the money.


I can't give blood until late January, I think. It's weird, maybe, but giving blood seems like at least an attempt to do something meaninigful. When I got back from the Peace Corps, I couldn't give for five years because of the malarial prophylaxis. But now it's supposedly a year for visiting a malaria area. (Assuming I don't come down with a surprise case of malaria, of course. I didn't do the prophylaxis thing for my short visit to low risk places, but I did smear DEET all over myself, and slept in netted rooms and such.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mystery Solved

Through the semester, I've gotten mildly frustrated by students coming in late to class. Weirdly, the class starts at 2:25pm. And every time, several students are late. I start the class on time, only to be interrupted any number of times by students quietly coming in. They DO try to come in quietly and try not to disrupt; it's not like they're loudly tromping in, calling out to friends. But it's still a disruption.

I went over to another faculty member's place for tea and desert tonight with some other folks, and asked if it was me, if I've lost control or respect or whatever, or if they had the problem, too.

And that's when we figured it out. Most of the classes in this part of the university (the international section) are on even hours/half hours. A class starts at 1pm and ends at 2:20 or so. BUT, my class, since all the students are Japanese, runs on the schedule of the regular university. (Because their classes are spread out geographically, they get 15 minutes between classes. But they still have the same number of minutes in a class, so by the time the afternoon rolls around, the timing between the two sections is way off.)

So my students may be coming from a class that ends only moments before mine begins, so they don't have time to get from one place to the other. Or they're expecting class to start at 2:30, and think I'm just nuts all semester.

I wish I'd known it at the beginning of the semester!

Some things, you don't even think to question. I never would think of a school having two really different schedules.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

On for Tomorrow

I've blogged a couple times before about getting to know some folks here who are part of an English club that gets together every other week to practice English for an afternoon. Well, I've been asked to lead a session for tomorrow (as I also mentioned before).

We're going to talk about places you'd recommend visiting, and places you wouldn't recommend, and why. I think that will give people lots to talk about, because they all know some places to visit. And it's also potentially helpful for when they meet English speakers visiting here.

I've emailed with a club officer about the logistics, and it's interesting to see our different approaches. When I want to split folks into groups, I do a quick count off thing. And then if I want to move folks around between groups, I have one person stand up in each group and move one group in one direction. And another stand and move one group in the other direction (usually thinking of a circle sort of). And if necessary, have someone else stand up and move two groups over. And so on.

But they always make up lists of which people will be in which group ahead of time, and write them on the board. I'm not sure if they're making a conscious effort to balance groups or something, or maybe they know that someone just doesn't like a different person?

Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Dance of Lateness has Begun

A student just came in to talk to me (before class, so she gets kudus for that) about turning her final essay in late. I told her I'd accept it, but there would be a grade penalty.

After she left, my office-mate said that he sometimes wondered about what characteristics were common to students throughout the world, and what were specific within a culture, and we both agreed that turning things in late was probably common to all students. And to all professors. And pretty much most every one else.

I should start a quick poll on how many of my students will not be prepared to turn in their essays today.

Worrying about Precedent

I've been holding office hours for the past several days, and then last week (before a big four day weekend here). The final papers are due tomorrow, so things are down to the wire.

A good number of the students I've talked to this week have been fine tuning the works cited page, checking that they're explaining examples well enough, and so forth. A couple have seen me more than once this week, getting suggestions, revising, and then checking with me again to make sure they did the work well. They've worked hard, and it shows in their essays.

But a couple papers are looking like disasters. I'm especially worried about one student.

I try to be very up front and honest during office hours when I'm concerned about a paper, and I was with this student. I told hir that I was concerned with the length of the paper so far, with the lack of research, and so forth. Pretty much the same thing I told hir last week, when s/he came to just check on some research questions, but hadn't started actually writing yet. (Despite the fact that we had two peer editing sessions. Not really impressive.)

I was going to come home and blog about the students I've been seeing, how hard some are working, and how some aren't working hard enough, and leave it at that. But then I got to thinking, and that's always dangerous.

We started brainstorming last week for questions for the final; I asked them to make a list of things they'd learned, and then brainstorm as a group and we put the lists up on the board, so that they could try writing a question that would elicit a response that would show how much a student had learned. And during that process, my student mentioned that the thing s/he had learned was that s/he needed to revise essays. (Indeed, this student has revised the first two essays with good results.)

But tonight I'm thinking, uh oh.

You see, when I wrote up the syllabus, I hadn't intended to have students revise essays after they were graded. I had good reasons for that thought, but once I'd graded the first set of essays, I felt that the students were likely to learn a lot by revising, and that they were less prepared for the work than I'd anticipated. So, I encouraged students to revise their essays, met with them about revisions, and regraded the essays. A number of students worked impressively hard and did really solid revision work.

(One of those students, in fact, talking to me today for the second time this week, said that he really wanted this paper to be good because he'd been quite disappointed by his early grades, and wanted this paper to be better. [His hard work shows, too.])

The point is, though, that I hadn't written a revision policy into the syllabus, so there's also nothing written into the syllabus to say that there won't be time to revise the final essay. But realistically, there just isn't time for me to grade them, for the students to revise them, and for me to regrade them.

But now I'm worried that the student who has learned that revision is important is counting on having an opportunity to revise hir final essay, and that maybe that's why hir draft so far is so weak.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Catching up!

I really appreciate the suggestions folks made for my fall classes. If you made a suggestion, please email me your snail address, so that I can send you a little something fun as a reward! (And if you have a suggestion now, add it in!) My email is: bardiacblogger AT [nospamplease]yahoo DOT com. Take out the square bracketed stuff, and translate the rest.

More Class Stuff
A while back I talked about listening to some history lectures on line. I'd like my senior level class next semester to learn a little history, and I'm thinking of assigning them several of these lectures. What do you think?

Pros: different way of getting information, very flexible for those with mpg type players. No less flexible than other computer information for those who'd have to be at a computer. Nice for different learning styles. Information in a really good narrative form, nicely focused.

Cons: Students will remember less than if they read and took good notes (in my fantasy life). Sort of weird to use someone else's lectures? (But really, any weirder than using other on-line resources people put up?)

I would plan to ask them to listen to these in the first couple of weeks, a lecture at a time, with class time for questions. And I'd consider the hour of listening to lecture as an hour of homework time, so probably reduce reading a bit in that week.

A student has asked to overload into one of my classes. On one hand, the student probably needs the class in a real way and stuff. On the other hand, we try to limit the class size in these classes for a good reason. I'm leaning towards letting this person enroll as an overload. Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Discovering AKINO Fuku

I went out today with a friend, first to a shrine, and then to the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art for an exhibit of the works of AKINO Fuku. (I've learned that you can put Japanese names in either first name/surname, or surname/first name order, without confusing Japanese people. But for us westerners, using all capitals helps us recognize the family name.)

She was really amazing, it seems. After establishing a career as an artist and teacher, in her 50s, she visited India as a visiting professor, and thereafter was deeply influenced by Indian art, culture, and landscape in her paintings. She also visited Afghanistan, Cambodia (these are the places I saw mentioned in the exhibit), and painted in response to her travels.

This picture is called "River Crossing." It's a little hard to see on a screen, but the black bits are the heads of buffalo, swimming across a river from left to right. The pointy black bits are their horns. Once you see it, it's just amazing.

I bought a small print of another buffalo picture, but I can't find it on the web to show you. As my friend said, it will make a memory for me. It will indeed.

One of the things I really liked about Akino was that she seemed to have studied every sort of western art you could think of, from those medieval bronze grave markers that people like to do rubbings of to Picasso, and she could bring what she studied in, and make it work with Japanese traditional art, and then with Indian influences. Her pictures don't look the same at all, but you can sometimes see connections between the pieces at the exhibit. For example, there's a series of studies of nude figures, mostly showing form and a sort of bold outline approach (I'm not doing these justice at all, sorry). And then in a later painting, a shadow figure which could almost have stepped out of the study series. But it was just set at the edge of another scene, and fit there perfectly.

The day was as perfect as one could wish.

Monday, May 05, 2008

More Local Culture

Last weekend, I went with some of the office staff and faculty to a Hanshin Tigers game. The Hanshin Tigers are the local professional baseball team.

The name is cool, and seems typical of the sort of complicated punning that works well in Japanese. Most (all?) kanji have two potential pronunciations. For example, if you look at the kanji for mountain, it can be pronounced "yama" or "san" depending (I'm still not clear on when you use one or the other).

Hanshin takes the last kanji in Osaka (the "saka" part, which can also be said "han") and combines it with the first kanji for Kobe, which can also be said "shin," and voila, the Osaka-Kobe team! (Similarly, the local train line between Kyoto and Osaka uses the kanji for Kyo and O, and alternative pronunciations, and it's the "keihan" line.) (The Tigers are owned by the Hanshin railway, I think.)

At any rate, we went to see our noble and illustrious Tigers battle the nefarious Giants. Alas, we lost. But going was still worthwhile for this, the Tigers' fans version of the seventh inning "stretch."

Yes, we all filled up little sperm balloons, and then on cue from a song, we let go and the stadium came. So to speak.

I couldn't stop laughing at the imagery. I mean, I know Candlestick did "the wave" back in '89, but...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Winding Down

I have just under a month left here, and I'm mentally getting ready to go home. But I'm also conflicted about home. And in between now and then, a week I'm worried about.

I'm frustrated by being here, being illiterate, feeling crowded often. I miss my bike and my garden, friends I can hold easy conversations with, my books.

On the other hand, when I get home, I'm going to miss being able to visit a world heritage site via an easy bus/train combo for an hour or two. I'm going to miss being able to get somewhere without worrying about traffic or parking, and having that somewhere be culturally interesting.

At the end of my stay here, my Mom's coming for a week (well, really a bit more, but I'm trying to worry less), and I'm already stressed about that. I can hear her in the back of my mind, policing my behavior ("you're not going to wear THAT?"), criticizing everything.

You know, if I totally disappeared into some mountains or something, no one would notice for almost a full week. I should probably take my passport, eh?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Dance of the Capital

When I first got here, on my first trip to Kyoto, I saw a couple maiko (apprentice geisha), and blogged about wondering if a geisha could be feminist.

At the beginning of April, one of my colleagues at the university asked me if I'd like tickets to a dance performance called the Miyako Odori (Dance of the Capital; miyako is an old word for capital, and odori is dance). She told me that she's been studying tea ceremony for some years, and was given tickets to a dance performance and tea ceremony, but was too busy to go. She'd been wondering who might really enjoy the experience, and her thoughts landed on me. Of course, I said "yes" with great enthusiasm.

I didn't blog about it at the time because it was so weirdly complicated. My colleague had ticket things, which had to be exchanged in one of several places for actual tickets for a specific performance, seven days ahead of time. Now as you know, I'm totally illiterate, and can't speak but three words of Japanese (okay, maybe I'm up to 5 now). So my colleague and I were talking in the main office, and one of the staff members (H) helpfully offered to call the theater and get information for me. And as we were talking, I asked H if she'd ever seen anything like this, and she hadn't, so I asked if she would be interested in using the second ticket. She was, but only if we could arrange to go on a Sunday, since that's the only day she has off.

We decided to go on Sunday the 27th. And the next time I had a chance, I went off to find the theater in Kyoto. H and another staff member made a map for me, which was a great help.

But when I got to the theater to exchange the tickets, I learned that you can only exchange tickets EXACTLY seven days before the performance, so I would have to go back (I'd assumed they meant at least seven days, but that wasn't it). At any rate, I wasn't sure til we actually got there that I wouldn't mess things up, so I didn't want to blog about it. And then the blog was blocked for most of last week, so I didn't have a chance to blog about it then.

But on the 27th, H and I met at the train station early, then went and had lunch in Kyoto, and then went to the performance.

The dance is put on by a dance school that trains (some of) the geiko (the Kyoto dialect word for geisha) and maiko of the Gion district of Kyoto. I read up a bit in the playbill, and it seems that shortly after the Meiji restoration, when the capital was officially moved to Tokyo and the emperor's whole court moved there, folks in Kyoto were a bit worried about an economic downturn. The city put on a big exhibition for commerce, and this dance school did a public performance. And since then, they've put on yearly (I think) public performances, called the Dance of the Capital (other geisha districts also do public dance performances). And now the geiko community is working to change things a bit so that the big economic downturns of the past several years (which have limited the big expense budgets of businessmen who traditionally hired geiko to entertain) would have a less deleterious effect on the geiko community economically.

What can I say? The tea ceremony was a bit of a disappointment. I couldn't see much, and things felt very rushed. BUT the dance was incredible. I've never seen anything like it! The music was totally new to me, but really got into my head, and the dancing was so beautifully controlled and graceful.

The dance this year told the story of Genji, in honor of the one thousand year anniversary of when the story was supposed to have happened. There's a big opening scene, with a large number of dancers all in blue kimono. Then the scene turns to spring, and we meet Genji. The dance follows through the seasons, and the finale happens in spring again, with the sakura (cherry blossom) season represented beautifully on stage. (And since April is sakura season, this was way cool!)

I think H enjoyed it even more than I did, because she could follow the plot a whole lot better.

I've embedded several youtube videos I found on the web of this year's performance, ending with the finale (final of the three clips). So you can share some little bit of my experience.

I still don't know if a geisha can be a feminist, but I've gotten the sense that they can be quite savvy businesswomen. And they're danged amazing dancers and musicians (which is a big part of their entertainment, as I understand it).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Important Questions at the University of Toledo

A number of people have been blogging about what's happening at the University of Toledo. New Kid on the Hallway wrote an especially interesting post, in which she points us to the petition. Here's part of the text of the petition:

We believe that a clarification of the 10-Year Plan is needed to prevent a course of action at the University of Toledo that may jeopardize our ability to meet the strategic objectives of the State of Ohio to improve higher education.

We, the undersigned, petition the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents and the Governor of the State of Ohio to review and amend the direction and governance of the University of Toledo.

Like New Kid on the Hallway, I'm not sure that sending a petition is likely to make a big difference in any way for the University of Toledo, but I added my name. I encourage you to add yours if you think the issue is important, especially beyond the confines of the University of Toledo, Toledo, or even Ohio.

As I understand it from reading the various links that New Kid and others have provided, along with other public information, the new president of the University of Toledo has decided to change the focus of the university from its traditional comprehensive (liberal arts) focus, to a focus on the STEM disciplines (STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), narrowly conceived, with almost no input from the faculty, students, or community.

The problems at the University of Toledo seem of two types. First is the over-valuation of STEM disciplines and comparative devaluation of a liberal arts education. Second is the importance of shared governance in academic institutions. I'd like to focus on the first issue, for now at least.

Valuing Education: STEM and Liberal Arts Education

I think we in higher education have done a poor job (not only recently) explaining the value of higher education, especially liberal arts education. For a while, we didn't need to, perhaps, and got lazy. First there was the GI Bill; no one needed to explain to GIs coming back from WWII or Korea that getting a college education, especially with government assistance, was a great idea. Their kids, the baby boomers, were a huge generation, and were encouraged to get an education by their parents. And then there was the whole Sputnik panic, and a big government push to educate the next generation of engineers to get us to the moon, with a smaller echo of focus on educating humanists, too.

After the baby boom and end of the Apollo programs, however, we university folks faced two serious difficulties: a smaller population of college students and an increasing resistance on the part of the public to help pay for higher education through taxes. And we didn't do a good job explaining to the public why paying for higher education through taxes is important and valuable. (Similarly, NASA seemed to have a problem deciding where to go and convincing people it was important to get there.)

It's now increasingly more expensive to go to college, and we're facing serious economic problems. Most people don't want to pay more taxes, and lots of us are worried about the environment, technology, and so forth. Students facing large student loans want to be reasonably sure that they'll be able to get jobs and support themselves in a manner that seems reasonable to them. People think of education in terms of "return on investment" and "opportunity costs," and they want to make sure they're spending their resources of time and money as best they can. And the STEM disciplines seem promising.

Is a STEM based education more valuable than a liberal arts education? (Recognizing that a liberal arts education includes math and science majors.) At a quick glance, it can seem that the STEM disciplines are more valuable. We do, after all, need engineers, and they do some great work (I'm especially fond of modern sanitation, for example). But do our liberal arts students learn things that are important outside their specific majors? If so, we need to explain what those things are, and why they're important. But they're "fuzzy" compared to things like engineering skills, and thus hard to explain well.

I'm not at all original in thinking that we need to communicate better about the value of a liberal arts education. One of the leaders in this area of education is the Association of American Colleges and Universities. I realize that I probably sound like an ad for them sometimes, but I've found their materials and information useful, and their media campaign "LEAP" is something worth looking at.

According to the AAC&U, a liberal arts education involves
a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement. Characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study, a liberal education can be achieved at all types of colleges and universities.

I think we need to emphasize the importance of broad knowledge and transferable skills, especially skills in critical thinking, which seem sadly lacking these days. We equally need to teach students to think hard about values, ethics, and civic engagement. If we don't do that well enough, then we need to do better. But if we train the smartest, most tech savvy engineer in the world with no sense of ethics, we've made a mistake.

The AAC&U has two reports about learning outcomes (I hate THAT WORD!) and the liberal arts, and they're worth looking at. The first is "Liberal Education Outcomes: a Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College." Part of this report talks about why business leaders think the skills students gain in the liberal arts are important, especially skils in understanding human culture and the world, communications and numeric literacies, and civic/social responsibilities. Another part focuses on how students gain these skills through a liberal arts education. The second, "How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning," focuses almost totally on what business folks want from college graduate employees, and how colleges can help their students get there.

The AAC&U isn't publishing these to satisfy people who want warm and fuzzies, but to convince us that liberal arts studies make good economic sense for our students (as workers, employers, citizens), and for all of us as taxpayers who should see higher education as a public good.

[It's worth noting as an aside that we never see places like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford decide to cut way back on the liberal arts in their curricula. Perhaps the people with real power whose kids are educated at those places recognize that it doesn't matter if someone majors in Math or English; what matters is that they learn to learn, make connections, learn to think, and get their basic thinking challenged on all sorts of levels. (Afterwards, of course, they may still be dimwits. But I'm sure Yale tried!!)]

Here are some links to posts other folks have done on the issue:
Modern Medieval
Reassigned Time
The Age of Perfection

I'm sure there are more, and I'd be happy to link them if you let me know.


A while back, StyleyGeek tagged me for a desktop meme. The idea is that you show a picture of the desktop where you blog.

StyleyGeek's desktop looks like a desktop. I, on the other hand, have always blogged primarily from my laptop, sitting on a couch, with (if possible), my legs up on an ottoman or something.

Here's where I'm blogging now.

You can see the tatami room in the background, past the TV. Out the window I can see a typical urban looking landscape, with some mountains in the background, but it looks too bright to see all that in the photo. You can just see, at the bottom right of the window, the requisite clothes-hanging thing, on which my clothes are drying at this moment. (Most apartments seem to have balconies with clothes-hanging things of one sort or another on them.)

On the desk, there's the computer, with a picture I took of a bowl I got on the screen. Then the requisite coffee cup and "OMG, I need to learn some Japanese" book, the TV remote, and, of course, my Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan book.

I'm late to the game, so I won't tag anyone, but I love to see where people work, so if you wanted to be tagged, please consider yourself tagged and show us!

Back in Action!

Yay, Blogger/Blogspot has evidently decided that I'm not spam!

I'm off to do stuff that needs to be done, but I leave you with this (note the katakana, which seems somehow appropriate!):