Last Student Loan

Originally uploaded by here_for_now

In my basic EFL Writing class last week, students created simple questionnaires, then asked each other, collated the results and made a brief report. A couple of students chose part-time jobs as their topic.They then posted their reports on their blogs.

One of the purposes of having students write in English on public blogs is to

  • encourage them to think of their audience, and
  • create a potential audience that is not necessarily familiar with Japan or Japanese.

Japan is a high-context culture, which means one where people are almost always talking to an in-group or other; their “nakama” 仲間. They are not used to explaining the context of what they are talking about to others who do not share that context; there’s hardly ever any need. So this is one area where I, as “gaijin” (foreign) teacher, can play an important and valuable role: I offer a point of comparison which is outside their frame of reference, outside their in-group. I do this mainly by pretending not to know what they are talking about.

The course is entitled Talking About Japan, and the premise is that the students imagine they are on a homestay in an English-speaking country. They create conversations between the visiting foreigner (themselves) and the host family on a number of different topics, selected by me (so far), starting with their name. I call them out to a quiet corner of the classroom, two by two, and they have a conversation in front of me, which I grade, and towards the end, I join in e.g.:

“You go to a what university? A private university! Are all universities private in Japan? No? Half? The majority? A minority? What percentage, would you say? What other kinds of universities are there in Japan? What kind of students go to a private university in Japan?”


“What’s that in your pocket? Manga? What’s manga? Oh, a comic! But you’re 19! Surely you’re too old to be reading comics! Do all Japanese 19-year-olds still read comics? Really!? Why? Most people in this (the host family’s) country stop reading comics after the age of about 10!”

Cat among the pigeons.

It’s fun. And it has a serious purpose: to give them a broader or different context from the one they are used to. The one they are used to is one where everyone shares the same context so there is no need to explain (and hence also little need to question or examine) the terms or concepts. “Everyone knows there are both private and public universities in Japan; everyone knows the national universities are harder to get into than the private ones (except perhaps for the very top private ones); everyone knows that undergraduate programs in Japan run for 4 years”, etc., etc. So, because “everyone knows” this background, this context, it goes without saying; it does not need to be said. But, in a different context, e.g. in a different culture or country, it does need to be said because the context is not the same.

In addition, they assume that the norm in Japan is the norm everywhere else, too. (In Britain, for example, most undergraduate programs run for three years, not four.) They have no point of comparison. They have never had to explain these kinds of things before, and perhaps consequently, rarely had to think about these kinds of things before. Despite the Internet, “kokusaika” 国際化 (that’s not a rude word – it means “internationalization”, whatever that means), globalization, etc., my students (at least; can’t speak for others) are still remarkably parochial and insular in their thinking. This is the main purpose of the class: for them to learn to see their own culture in a different perspective, in a different context, and my role is to provide the different context, the reference point of comparison which is outside their context.

All of which is a very long-winded way of introducing an article I found online today about a survey of British university students. It’s mainly about student loans, but it puts the subject of part-time jobs into an interesting context: financial survival! It also includes some interesting statistics, which I plan to use in my classes, in order to provide a badly needed point of comparison. Here’s a sample:

Three quarters of students have jobs. They spend, on average, almost the same number of hours being taught per week (15 hours) as they do at work (14 hours)… While a quarter of those who work spend up to eight hours a week doing so, almost half spend nine to sixteen hours in their jobs. Another fifth spend 17 to 24 hours at work each week, and 5 per cent work between 25 and 32 hours. About 40,000 students (3 per cent) work more than 33 hours a week.

(The Flickr photo I used above includes some comments which reveal just what a big issue student loans are now for British students. When I was a student, tuition was free. See Wikipedia for more details.)

Another reason I want to use this article in class is to help give them a clearer idea of what I mean by an “interesting subject”, and to wean them away from childish ways of thinking and towards more adult (i.e. more conceptual) ways of thinking. However, that topic deserves its own blog entry.