Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On Japanese Academics

Which applies, more or less, to Korean academics as well. Of course, this isn't entirely the situation in Korea—homework exists, they may or may not use a similar standardized test full of "gotcha!" questions, and they may or may not have the same weirdo hiring schedule—but from what I hear from people at a university level, it's similar enough.

Slashdot recently posted a story about A Japanese University giving away iPhones to curb truancy. Slashdot comments, as Slashdot is wont to do.

MadMerlin: [Attendance is] still a dumb requirement for graduation. Unless it's different over there, University is optional, paid for entirely by the attendee, and generally not started until one's about 18. There's absolutely no reason to make attendance part of the requirements for graduation, if you choose not to attend, that's completely up to you.

kklein: I saw this come up on Hacker News yesterday and knew it was only a matter of time before it hit Slashdot, and I'd be typing this (more people read Slashdot, so I thought I would just save my energy).

I am an assistant professor at one of the top schools in Japan (Aoyama Gakuin, by the way, is also in the top 10 for sure). Allow me to explain what sounds like crazy-talk to someone from the Western university system.

Here is the lynchpin for the whole thing. You understand this and you understand everything:

In Japan, it's very hard to get into a good college, but once you do, it is customary to do virtually nothing until graduation. Companies hire people largely on the name of the school on their degree, and GPAs don't even exist at most schools, and are most certainly not given to prospective employers. Furthermore, the employer is actually who does most of the real-world education. When I worked at a foreign-language college, I had students--bright, definitely technically-inclined students--being hired by IBM to be system engineers. Except, our school only offered foreign language and other "international studies" classes. No math, no science, no engineering. I don't even think we had any history professors. (The term "university" here does not mean what it means in the West. It really ought to be translated as "post-secondary school.") But our graduates were (correctly, I think) identified as people likely to succeed in IT by IBM-Japan's entrance examinations, and they were hired. The first few years of their "employment," therefore, will actually be CS classes--but only on what IBM does.

Now, the companies aren't really all that stoked about this, especially companies like IBM, but they have hit their work visa limit and can't bring in any more Indian guys who actually know what they're doing, and besides, it's awfully nice to have native speakers of the local language working at your company. But this is how it is going these days, and how it pretty much has always gone. Universities are finishing schools.

Here's the other point that contributes to rampant truancy: The job hunt is a nightmare over here. Companies only hire once a year. Everything in Japan goes on an April-March schedule. So if you don't have a job lined up by the time you graduate in March, you are screwed until next April. Doubly screwed, in fact, because the lingering question next year when you do the rounds of examinations and cattle-call interviews will be "why didn't this person get a job last time?" So Japanese university students tend to cram all their classes for 4 years into the first 2 and a half years. They literally have classes all day every day. They can do this because there's no homework.

You read that right.

I have taught at every level of the Japanese education system, from primary school through university, and I can tell you this: Homework is an anomaly. Yeah, they have it, but nothing like what I had in the US system. So all this shock and horror over "cram schools?" Guys, if these kids' parents didn't send their kids there, they wouldn't get any studying done. Basically, those places are small-group tutor companies, and they do a really important service. Don't feel sorry for the kids because they have to go to "cram school"; feel sorry for them that their academic and vocational lives are going to hinge on a single, poorly-designed, multiple-choice test designed by professors who don't know that "trick questions" are the worst thing you can put on a test, because all they do is create noise (full disclosure: I design standardized language tests; I actually know what I'm talking about here). Unlike the US, which uses highly-reliable, at-least-arguably-valid standardized tests (SAT or ACT) designed by some of the best psychometricians in the world, people are judged here by whether they can figure out the "correct" answer to an item that someone who knows nothing about test design and implementation penned in his spare time.

The "no homework" culture is exacerbated by the fact that we profs are, ourselves, human beings with feelings and understand why our students might be a little more interested in securing food for the rest of their lives than reading a couple of chapters of the textbook and coming in ready to discuss it.

The next difference is that traditional Japanese classes go like this: You come in, some old guy sits down in front, then he pontificates for 90 minutes about what he thinks about the world. There will likely be a test on this, and you might have to write a paper at the end showing that you agree. I don't think that's how it works at my school, as my school (well, my campus, anyway) was built mostly by foreign-educated professors who wanted a more dynamic, um, learning-based university experience for their students.

So let's say that we're at a traditional school like Aoyama. Let's say I'm a traditional Japanese professor. I've got 400 people in my class, but on any given day, there might be like 10-20 in there. I do my schtick every week and we get to the end of the semester. The handful of students who actually came give me their final tests or papers. Then 390 come looking for me asking for "extra work" so they can pass because they have a job all lined up and they need the credit. Except, these people know nothing about the topic, and getting them caught up will take up my entire break, which is when I actually need to be researching, writing, presenting--you know, the stuff that profs actually have to do to keep their jobs. I've got Academic Affairs (which outranks me) pressuring me to figure out something for these people to do, because the school's reputation--the only thing that really matters, because it's how we get students--will suffer if suddenly it turns out that all these students with our name on them can't graduate and can't start work in April. So what do I do?

I start passing people for doing virtually nothing left and right. There is physically nothing else I can do; I can't handle this many "contingencies," and I'm kinda-sorta-not-allowed to fail this many.

So to combat this, schools start having strict attendance policies, which students figure out how to game, and next thing you know, we're handing out iPhones.

Now, some of the stuff I've written here could get me in trouble, but I'm not going to post AC [Ed. Note: AC = "Anonymous Coward," which is to say: anonymously], because, actually, the university I am lucky enough to work at now isn't quite like this (although truancy is a problem). I've got a MicroGrade screen open now just full of red (red means "fail"), and most of those people I've only seen like once or twice in my life. I know that they will come whining to my office here in a few weeks when the semester starts winding down, but I'm lucky enough to work at a school that has no problem telling these people to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

Finally, let me address some of your other points, very quickly:

University is ... paid for entirely by the attendee

Nope, paid for entirely by their parents. And it's pretty damned affordable too, by US standards. No loans necessary. This also really contributes to an "I don't care" attitude among the students. They still live with their parents, have never had to pay any bills, and are personally/financially invested in exactly fuck-all. The campus culture is just very, very different from that of a US university. The level of maturity and seriousness is much, much lower. Don't get me wrong; there are still serious, brilliant students who really care; but I think they are fewer and farther between. This one little difference makes for a very different university culture.

... generally not started until one's about 18

I already touched on this above, but you're saying that as though that means these people are adults. No. Teaching first-year university classes in Japan is akin to teaching early high school in the US, maturity-wise. They are all laughing and goofing off and you actually have to trick them or con them or charm them or punish them into being quiet. This shouldn't come as a surprise, though, because their lifestyles are very similar to that of a US 15-year-old: They live with their parents; they've never driven a car; they don't have jobs; Mom makes their lunch (okay, I haven't had that since grade school); they just started at a new school and a new beginning in their lives... Add to that that this is the first time they've ever been able to wear their own clothes to school and you get a group of people who are just not very grown up.

There's absolutely no reason to make attendance part of the requirements for graduation, if you choose not to attend, that's completely up to you.

I'm right there with you within the US university system. I hated attendance policies as a student, and I refused to have them when I was teaching US university (in spite of departmental policies). I post due dates for papers and tests; if students can't get those right, then the hell to them, and if they can get good grades on them without coming to class, then they probably were coming in with background information and didn't need my help. If everyone can do it, then obviously my class is too easy or I'm a shitty teacher (luckily, I've never had the problem of my classes being too easy--frequently the other way, which is a lot easier to fix).

Last, even though this is out of order:

Unless it's different over there...

Yes, it's quite different over here! :-)

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