Today’s post is from guest blogger Leslie Ann Hynes, undergraduate student at Simmons College in Boston. This is the first in our That’s So Next Generation series, highlighting voices from the generation born after 1980 (GenY or Millenials)
Through an agreement with the university my study abroad program is associated with, my fellow study abroad students and I were able to take courses taught in English and offered to both Japanese and overseas students. I opted for one such class, an introductory course to Japanese popular culture.
There was no homework. The readings, it seemed, were merely suggestions, and while the only students on laptops were the international students, the professor never seemed to mind when people text messaged or got off topic during our group conversation time. The syllabus was vague about the grading requirements, or even the assignments to expect during the semester.
In the end, we had a single assignment: an eight to fifteen page long take home, open book exam. When another American student and I, unnerved by how easy this was, approached our program director to ask what was going on, he explained that it wasn’t uncommon in Japanese college-level classes for the entire course grade to ride on the final exam. We were horror-struck: our entire grade would depend on one assignment? We didn’t even know what sort of grader the professor was, what he looked for in a paper.
One day after class, we stayed back (something only the international students seemed to do) to ask those questions to the professor, himself. What kind of work was he looking for? Should we cite our sources? If so, what style? Would it be appropriate to simply cite the name of the article and the page numbers from the photocopied handouts he gave us? He told us not to worry, that a fifteen page final would be sufficient for an A, in as many words. (He wasn’t joking; I wrote fourteen pages and received an A-. If I’d been aware that he wasn’t making a generalization, I would’ve found something to put in that last page.)
Speaking to our program director again, we were told that this is actually fairly common. Except for the big universities like Todai (Tokyo University), where the major corporations and even the government scouts for new hires, college in Japan is “hard to get in, easy to get out.”
As a New Englander, I thought I understood college application stress. (I hear New England is infamous for this; being from there, I always assumed that’s just how college admissions went.) I had no idea. The system here relies entirely on a single test taken by prospective students. All through high school, students study hard, not because an interviewer will ask why they got a D- in physics and give then a chance to explain what they learned from having nearly bombed a class and why it won’t happen again, but because it will be on The Test.
“Pass on four, fail on five,” goes another idiom. Students who go to cram school and sleep only four hours a night will pass their entrance exams; those who indulge in an extra hour will not.
The campus becomes deadly quiet during examination week. This is a big deal, and the high school seniors are not to be disturbed; all of our classes are either cancelled or relocated to the library building on the far side of campus, and we’re directed to go around, not through.
Once you’re in, you’re in. Most students attend most classes most of the time, but for a handful to be missing on any given day is routine, and the professor never seems to mind. (Though if you are showing up today, he wanted you to at least do so on time.)
Another study abroad staff member explained to us that companies will really want to know about the clubs students participated in, their involvement in on campus activities and that they at least passed their classes, and it was much more common to see the flamenco or hip hop teams dancing, the English club talking excitedly together, and the (American) football team practicing than students studying quietly in the library.
It’s not as though these things don’t happen in American universities, but unlike professors I’ve had at home, the pop culture professor didn’t even seem to mind that not everybody showed up. Then again, maybe my home university is the outlier here; I can’t make sweeping generalizations of either the American or Japanese higher education system, having only attended one college in each location. (I don’t want to stand here and say “all Japanese colleges are X and all American colleges are Y.”)
What would Z look like? Biased as I am towards the American model (or, at least, the University I Attend There model), I don’t know. I like what I have at home: the coursework is more vigorous, discussions are deeper. However, I know some of my fellow (American) students enjoyed the model of the University We Studied At Here; they liked having little readings and almost no homework. Some admitted to being here more-or-less on vacation. (That is a topic for another time.)
Maybe American universities should offer more Underwater Basket Weaving courses, for fun. A class like my pop culture classes, with light reading and only a few, easy assignments: less than a survey course or introduction, something students can take for fewer credits than usual for the sake of pure curiosity (which is how most of the overseas students ended up taking an introduction to anthropology and Japanese pop culture in the first place).
Practical? No, probably not. However, if there was one piece of the university I study at here in Japan that I could bring home with me, it would be classes like Japanese Pop Culture. Not to replace the other courses, but to be presented alongside of them as enrichment.
(Maybe undergrads don’t need to do a hundred pages of reading a week to get a basic idea and decide whether or not we want to continue this line of study.)