Teaching at Japanese Universities
Feb 10, 2010 Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) 7962 Views
I wish to draw attention to practices in university English departments in Japan, which are by their very nature counter-productive and often harmful to the acquisition of English as a foreign language in Japan. . I have been a university instructor for the past 4 years and have taught English in Japan for the past 12 years. I also have a T.E.S.L. certificate and a Masters in Applied Linguistics. This article is meant for the public, at large and for administrators of university English departments in the hope that they will make a sincere effort to improve their administrative practices with a view towards benefiting students. The arguments below will apply more to universities where English is offered as a required course, but does not exclude universities where it is offered as an elective. Naturally, I understand that many of the practices mentioned below are common in many industries throughout Japan, which makes them no less harmful, but my focus is the university industry.
Over the past few years, there have been a dearth of stories in the news regarding how consumer products (i.e., beef, housing, etc.) have been misrepresented to the public, often at the consumers’ expense. Companies, motivated by profit, substituted low quality for high quality products, while charging premium prices. There have also been stories of public figures misrepresenting their educational backgrounds. It should come as no surprise that this practice is also going on in most of Japan’s private university English departments. What makes the practice particularly heinous is that most universities are entrusted with the education of Japan’s young adults and therefore with Japan’s future. And, considering that English is considered the lingua franca of the modern world, at present, the implications of receiving an English language education that is inferior in quality to what is paid for is a serious concern
To understand this situation one must remember that most of the English teaching industry in Japan is based on the NOVA (now defunct) model. As most professional EFL instructors are aware, NOVA was not an educational institution. It was primarily a business. One must also remember that most universities in Japan (some 1700 institutions) are private. Over the past decade, rather than making an effort to make education in Japan more international by having more tenured foreign instructors, the university industry has opted to have more part-time Japanese and foreign instructors.
As most part-time workers well know, this means no benefits, no bonuses, no professional development and very little job security, only an hourly wage. In fact, for the past five years, some Japanese universities (e.g., Meijigakuen, Meisei, etc.) have actually resorted to using dispatch companies (e.g., D.I.L.A., Westgate, etc.) to find their instructors. Using dispatch companies basically means that the instructor does not receive any pay during university holidays. Instructors also have no control over which classes they will teach from year to year and sometimes, not even the number of classes, which directly affects their income. The main problem with treating English language education as a business is that both the education and the welfare of the students are not primary concerns, and therefore both suffer.
How does one become a EFL instructor at a Japanese university? Well, many Japanese university administrators cannot speak English and in my experience, view the whole hiring process as just too much trouble. Consequently, most instructors are hired because they are acquainted with an instructor who is working at a particular university.
The cronyism (i.e., favoritism shown to friends and associates) demonstrated at most universities in Japan almost certainly reduces intellectual debate and hampers institutional growth. Thus, guaranteeing a lower general standard of English education for students
Basically, as long as the person “looks” the part, they can become a university English instructor in Japan. Background checks are almost never carried out. In the past, foreign “professors” have been found not to even have undergraduate degrees. In one particular case, one degree was photocopied and the name changed for up to five people. The general public has no idea how some foreign “teachers” enjoy taking advantage of the laziness and incompetence of the administrations of some English language departments. In addition to some instructors having no Master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for having a university teaching job in the West and some instructors have Masters, which are not language or teaching related. But, are, nevertheless, teaching language courses or are teaching classes unrelated to their Masters (e.g., MBAs teaching conversation and writing classes).
Once a person becomes a university instructor, there are no quality controls in place regarding their teaching. In language schools and some vocational schools (two-year colleges), most instructors are observed and given advice to improve their teaching. University instructors are not observed. The only quality control governing the classroom practices of university instructors are the student surveys that they are required to conduct towards the end of their courses.
Regardless of education and experience, at some universities, once an instructor starts there, they are placed at the bottom of the list for promotion or advancement; a practice which ignores the internationally recognized principle of being able to transfer experience from job to job as long as one remains in the same profession. In short, this means that a highly educated instructor with better education and more experience than another instructor has FEWER advancement opportunities and may teach less classes, and consequently be paid less than a more junior instructor. (While working for Tokai University, the director of the Foreign Language department promised me more than 6 classes/wk. At the end of my first year, I began to ask for exactly that. At the beginning of my second year, not only did I not receive them but found that an instructor with less than half my experience and no Masters had been given the 2 extra classes I was asking for.) The savings incurred by this practice is minimal to universities, but incalculable to students.
The implications of having instructors who are, in a word, unqualified are obvious. Garbage in. Garbage out. The calculation is a simple one; when learning anything, would you prefer to be taught by someone who has no experience or training or someone who has? Make no mistake, being able to speak a language and being able to teach it, are two completely different things. It is difficult for students to undo the poor instruction they receive from uncommitted instructors. The poor hiring and class allocation practices of most Japanese universities, directly results in students graduating with very little or no communicative competence in the English language. And, if universities, private or public, are not willing to uphold standards in the recruitment of their instructors, why should students bother to obtain an education given by substandard institutions with substandard practices? And, why should parents pay for such poor quality instruction (and, by extension, the salaries of the administrators who create the problem in the first place)? It seems more than a little hypocritical to ask students to adhere to university standards, when the university itself isn’t adhering to any.
With regard to color politics, over the past decade school boards have been censored for only hiring “blonde-haired, blue-eyed teachers”. A top-ranking executive of the now defunct NOVA also admitted in an interview that the company would routinely turn away qualified applicants who were non-Caucasian. Why do the majority of the Japanese people seem to prefer white-skinned, blonde-haired people as English teachers? Simple. Somewhere, along the way, the thinking that Caucasians are better than non-whites, seems to have become a permanent feature of the Japanese mindset. And, of course, the majority of the Japanese people like looking at their pretty eyes; a fact that should hardly matter in a university setting. In my experience, linguistic imperialism still reigns supreme (i.e., the mistaken conception that only white-skinned individuals speak proper English and only they are able to properly teach it) in Japan.
Linguistic imperialism openly ignores the fact that most of the individuals that speak English as a first and second language are non-Caucasian (And, that most of the people the Japanese are likely to speak English with, will also be non-Caucasian). In my 4 years as a university EFL instructor, I have never met another male, black, brown or yellow (with the exception of Japanese English instructors, of course; at Tokai, out of approximately 70 instructors, I was the only one), North American, university EFL instructor. In my entire career in Japan, I have met only eight non-white teachers of English in the Kanto area (most are no longer in Japan).
The two black, female university teachers I met, during my career, were basically pathetic attempts to appear politically correct (i.e., tokenism). . I had no doubt that they were fully qualified, but they were being used by their institutions to show to the outside world that the institution was racially tolerant, ethnically diverse and progressive; a situation which is far removed from the truth and quite similar to the plight of colored people in the workforces of Western industrialized nations some thirty years ago. You see, in Japan, since there are no enforcement procedures in place and the courts turn a blind eye, discrimination in relation to age, sex, marital status and ethnic origin is widespread. A UN ambassador stated the same thing in 2006. In Japan, the unwritten and unspoken convention is to treat people from various countries and ethnicities differently, depending on where they come from and by the color of their skin. Accordingly, Caucasians seem to garner the lion’s share of courtesy and consideration from the Japanese; whether they deserve it or not. This practice is not only racist, but elitist as well
Why does this situation continue? The truly insidious thing about discrimination and prejudice along ethnic/color lines in Japan is that most Japanese as well as Caucasians are fully aware that it’s happening. The Japanese deny it in order to “save face” and do nothing about it because they seem to believe that it’s the way the world should be. It also bolsters their sense of self-worth to feel superior to another group of people (as if denying opportunity to a group of people denotes superiority). The Caucasians, however, don’t deny it, but go along with the situation because it socially and economically benefits them. The impression I’ve gotten so far to date in Japan is that the contributions of colored people, may be needed, but are certainly not wanted.
What does this all mean? The real reason why English language education doesn't work at the university level in Japan is due to the poor attitude towards English acquisition held by administrators of Japanese universities, in other words, poor leadership. This attitude is fueled by the fact that English threatens Japanese cultural identity and is a constant reminder that most of the elements of modern Japanese society are of Western origin. This immature attitude results in English programs being tailored to “Japanese taste”, which, of course, is not the real thing at all. You would also think from observing administrators and their staff that many of them don’t really like their jobs. It should come as no surprise to anyone to know that if any task is approached with a poor attitude, the product of that task will be of poor quality.
A primary symptom of this poor attitude towards English language acquisition is the lack of standards for the hiring of EFL instructors and class allocation for those instructors. Administrators are not doing the jobs that the parents of students pay them for. Many of these administrators are products of the “relaxed education” policy that was, and still is, popular in Japan. Relaxed education basically provides a way out for students not to strive for excellence and any learning activity that is considered too difficult or too troublesome can then be ignored. Some administrators are also lax in the performance of their duties because no one questions them (a learned, pre-Meiji era mind-set) and it’s simply easy for them to do so. This poor approach to their work ethic provides a reason for students to believe that English is not that important and, consequently, can be given only a passing effort. And, ultimately, you cannot teach people who do not want to be taught. A positive attitude is absolutely necessary.
The poor attitude towards English language acquisition is characterized by university language department administrators, who are ego-driven, petty, spiteful and narrow-minded. This results in a “divide and conquer” approach to communication, based on power through the use of secrecy and withholding information. Especially information that would place said administration in a negative light. (I was asked to resign from a teaching position at Meikai university after a student attacked me from behind in the classroom. As part of the settlement I had to agree not to pursue any future legal action against the university; the administration actually threatened to blacklist me in the university community, if I didn’t cooperate – an illegal action in Japan. The new director was not a fan.) This approach creates division and doubt rather than understanding and enlightenment, for teachers and the public. Thus, some administrators operate on the basis of “bad faith”, which fosters an atmosphere of distrust. Naturally, most instructors do not give their best effort in this sort of negative environment. Most professional EFL instructors are principled, disciplined individuals, who do not require nor expect to be manipulated by theory X (i.e., top-down, control based) mentalities.
What can be done? If university administrators working in English language departments are really not interested in working with the English language, they should move on. Students should be put first. Also, more emphasis must be put on substance rather than form. Instructors should be hired and allocated classes exclusively on the basis of experience and education regardless of ethnicity or the color of their skin; in other words, merit-based criteria. If true multicultural awareness is to be achieved, diversity targets must be set and enforced. Hiring instructors who are experienced and educated in language or teaching are preferable to those who do not have those qualities. Instructor qualifications should be posted on university websites, making it easier for verification by the public.
University administrators must be held accountable for the decisions they make and the one’s they don’t. University administrators should be subject to an annual performance review, based on objective criteria set by a professional body, which would determine their suitability for salary increases and promotion. Pressure should also be put on university administrators by parents to make sure that their children are getting the education they are paying for. At present, the Ministry of education is the only body that has the administrative fiat over Japanese universities. And, far from being trendsetters in society, as they should, most Japanese universities seem to be one of the institutions most resistant to change. Many simply do not change unless the Ministry forces them to.
As most intelligent people are aware, change is a fact of life, to resist it allows for decay and eventual decline. It remains to be seen whether or not the Japanese public and Japanese universities have the will to be on the forefront of change or if they will allow another generation to suffer because they can’t be bothered to care. The future is in your hands.