Experiences with students in Tohoku University classrooms: Can Tohokudai become a leading university?

Dear Readers of The Sentinel,

I was asked to write some monthly articles for this newsletter on topics of gender, ethnicity, race or identity by the editor-in –chief, Trishit Banerjee. I accepted the offer, not really knowing what you readers of this column might be most interested in reading about, so please give me some feedback on topics that interest you by contacting the editor.

As many of you might know from seeing my name above, I worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth for some eight years, from 2009 until my retirement in 2016. I also volunteered for a few terms teaching a class to foreign students called ‘Nippon jijou’ which I took to mean ‘Japanology.’What do you think ‘Japanology’ means? Actually I made up the curriculum myself after learning topics that most interested the foreign mix of students at that time. The topics ranged from education, social history, interpretations of history, to cinema and literature, the arts, religion and ideology, health, to youth cultures, to ‘Cool Japan’ and so forth.

I had also taught a very similar course to Japanese students called gaikoku jijou (=things of foreign countries). I used nearly the same curriculum and teaching materials for both classes. I did not use any text book for the course, although I am considering writing my own text someday. I have also taught elementary school children in a volunteer project following the 3-11 triple disaster in Tohoku along with student help from both Japanese and foreign students at Tohoku-dai. I feel that children could use the same or a similar text to one that I might use with university students.

Experiences with students in Tohoku University classrooms

(Originally written: November 13, 2009)

When I came to work at one of the top universities in Japan, I had very high expectations of my students as Tohoku-dai was very competitive and difficult to enter and I respected the students there as elite and hard-working.

I felt that I was facing classrooms of Japan’s elite students. I was sure that I would be able to expect a lot of them. And, indeed, a roomful of 40 plus students, with bright eager faces, listening intently to my English-only first lecture on the first day of class impressed me. It was a class of Engineering students, the pride and joy of the university – the elite leaders of our future in Japan. I immediately worried that perhaps the text I had chosen for my class might be too easy for them.

I found that what the students really excelled in was study-skills. After all, a good proportion of them had attended cram-schools throughout much of their schooling to learn, not only the basic skills of mathematics, Japanese, English and science, but also good study skills.

When I gave them a pop-quiz in class one day, I was impressed how they immediately went to work, underlining, jotting notes, dividing up the tasks at hand and then writing quickly and energetically. When homework was assigned, they all had it completed by the next class. I could see that they were really trying their best. Their attendance was also good.

But what I noticed immediately as well was that even with these elite students, they often would not raise their hands or volunteer to speak up. They even often hesitated to raise their hands when I just asking “Please raise your hand if you have ever been overseas.” Or :“Please raise your hands if you have ever heard of something.” After every class I set aside the final ten minutes for them to write a short note of what they learned or felt about the day’s lesson. Invariably, when it came to expressing themselves in writing, many of those students who had neglected to raise their hand during class were able to do very well in expressing themselves in writing.

Another unexpected event happened later that first term with the first year students. I had given them an assignment to choose a chapter from the reading text and supplement it with another English reading (from another source of their choosing, such as a book, magazine or even The Internet). They were to read the two source materials and make a written report of it and then later present it orally to the class. As it turned out, in a class of 42 students, half of them later admitted to plagiarism (=copying someone else’s writing and claiming it to be one’s own), when I asked each student to fill out a form on the matter. I then held a discussion with them to determine WHY they had plagiarized so blatantly. Was it because they thought that the teacher (me) would not notice? Did they think it was acceptable to plagiarize? Did they misunderstand the assignment? When I opened this to a class discussion and called on individual students to offer rationale, some students admitted that it was easier or faster, or that copying insured that their English would be perfect. They thought that because the Internet is so big that the teacher would never find out. They were busy with lots of other classes. Most of them knew it was NOT alright to do it. I am certain that this sort of thing goes on in all countries, in all universities, and in America too.

But the big difference is that in America, this is considered an extremely serious offence. In some instances, students can be suspended or expelled from the university and certainly flunked in the class where it occurred. I have heard of elite students in the prestigious medical department of highly ranked universities in America being expelled for cheating or plagiarism. Also, most students in America realize that it is illegal to take someone else’s words as one’s own. I felt that these bright faces at Tohoku-dai that so eagerly followed every word I spoke during those first few classes had let me down.

As a teacher with integrity I could not allow this problem to be ignored. In mid-sentence of their reading of their oral presentations, I stopped a few students to ask them what percentage of their paper was copied directly from the Internet. It is so easy for a veteran English teacher in Japan to spot when a Japanese student copies sentences from some English source. There are certain expressions and usages of English, that Japanese, even very good English speakers rarely use.

In the end, I allowed my plagiarizing students to save face by adding several pages in their own words summarizing what they read and inserting their own feelings and attitudes towards the topic. I then resolved for future classes never to allow students a window for plagiarism by allowing them to access the internet but selected all reading materials myself.

As expressed by Prof. Laurel Kamada. She worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth from 2009 until she retired in 2016.

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