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Campus Now

Midsummer Issue (Jul.)

A WASEDA Miscellany

Nicholas O. Jungheim

Does Time Really Tell Or Is It Only My Imagination?

Nicholas O. Jungheim, Ed.D.
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences
(School of Culture, Media and Society)

"Please write about how you came to be at Waseda University, your research interests, and your impressions of Waseda students in 800 words or less." This is a tall order, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on 38 years of living in Japan and 31 years of teaching at Japanese universities. In fact, all of these themes are intertwined, so it pays to start at the beginning all the way back when I was 19 years old.

At that time it was very important for young men in the United States to have some kind of military deferment to keep them out of the army and from becoming canon fodder for the Vietnam War. For various reasons I was unable to maintain one, and due to the draft, I was ordered to report for induction into the U.S. Army in August of 1969 just missing my chance to head for the Woodstock Festival. I had already been accepted as a conscientious objector but did not object to serving my country. This meant not being trained to use weapons to kill people but rather to receive training to become a medical corpsman and a major target on the battlefield with a red cross on the helmet for a target. Thanks to a quirk of fate, I was one of the few troops in my training company to escape Vietnam and be shipped off to Okinawa instead.

After a very uneventful stay in that tropical paradise, I returned to school to study Japanese and Chinese history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This was before the Japan boom, and my university did not have any Japanese language classes, my primary interest at the time. That led to my first encounter with Waseda University as a student of Japanese at the Institute for Language Teaching in a prefab classroom on the roof of Building 7 where you could watch the Chukakuha and Kakumaruha students fight it out below during the lunch break. Of course, this was 1972 before the Oil Shock or the lynching of a radical student by members of his group. Looking at the peaceful campus today, it is hard to imagine the kind of radical behavior exhibited on campus so many years ago.

After graduating from another private university in Tokyo and a five-year stint as an editor of an English language paper in Tokyo, I landed my first teaching position at an anonymous university well outside of the confines of Tokyo. By 1988, I found myself also teaching part-time to students of the Waseda University School of Letters Arts and Sciences. Things were still pretty noisy on campus with megaphones blaring and giant signboards protesting this or that.

At the same time I had a radio show on Bunkahosou as part of the daily English for Millions series. This proved to be the impetus for my current interest in the second language acquisition of gestures. I was asked by Obunsha to write an article for their magazine about 33 gestures that English learners should know. An outcome of that was my first classroom study of the acquisition of gestures, because I was curious if teaching these gestures would really lead to their acquisition. In short, it didn't, regardless of the teaching approach. In spite of this, I have continued studying gesture acquisition from various perspectives in language testing and in pragmatics.

Another link between students and my research involved a study of student attention. I was curious if Japanese learners of English paid attention to Japanese teachers of English and native speakers of English in the same way. Analyzing two equivalent periods of teacher-fronted activities in two classes, I found that there was no significant difference in the percentage of learners' gaze, or attention, in three directions: teacher, peer, and other. However, there was a significant difference in the frequency of gaze direction changes, and this was related to the native speaker asking more questions in English. Every time the native speaker asked a question students looked at the textbook, then at a friend, then at the teacher, and then repeated this sequence. This information could be useful to the teacher as feedback about the students' lack of understanding, or it could mean that the students are very engaged in the classroom. How should a teacher interpret such behavior, positively or negatively?

Some years ago I found myself misinterpreting a student's behavior, and discovering the truth was a real eye opener. A young lady in my required English class was frequently late or absent and tended to fall asleep when not working with other students. I was concerned that the class was not challenging enough, but she worked fine in groups and her written work was satisfactory. Only later did she tell me that she had low blood pressure, making it difficult to get up in the morning and to stay awake in class. There were various options for interpreting the student's behavior, and it turns out that the unexpected option was the correct one. We should be cautious not to jump to conclusions about how our students feel. We are often wrong.

All in all, though, I am very positive about Waseda students these days. I find them to be sociable and enthusiastic when given challenging things to do. We should be empowering our student to become autonomous learners. It is unfortunate that just when they should be developing their interests, they are also being pressured to start looking for jobs. I do not see this situation improving anytime soon.

In spite of my age, I like to think positively about students. There is a lot of hope for them, for Waseda, and for this great country of Japan. When things get me down, I just get out my banjo and pluck a few tunes. Everything becomes simpler, and I am ready to face another day.