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Culture and Education

Teaching of Academic Writing at University in Japan

Saori Sadoshima
Associate Professor, Center for International Education

This paper discusses teaching of academic writing at university in Japan, and shows Waseda University's approach to it.

Generally at university in Japan, students are not taught academic writing in the freshman year though they are required to write reports and graduation theses. They are expected to learn how to write from their seniors who attend the same seminar or the "back" of their professor. In short, it has been believed each faculty office is responsible for teaching academic writing because of the fact that establishment of university in Japan was based on elite education in university of Germany. As the percentage of students going on to universities has increased, however, university in Japan is getting more popular educational institute like in the U.S.

Under this circumstance, it begins to be thought that teaching of academic writing should be regarded as part of cultivation of basic academic ability. Considering academic writing has been taught since the 70's in the U.S., Japan has just caught up.

Originally in Japan, academic writing was not systematically taught even in elementary schools, and junior and senior high schools. Besides, its teaching itself is difficult to do. Classes tend to focus on rote learning with the aim of passing high school or university entrance examination. A 40-student classroom is too big to teach writing. Japanese teachers are much busier than Western teachers with many tasks including supervision of school lunch, cleanup and club activities. Consequently, Japanese teachers cannot teach writing even if they want to do.

As a result, Japanese students are forced to start academic study without basic knowledge of academic writing. Many students have inadequate knowledge on academic writing. Here is an example from my own class.

In the class intended for sophomore and junior students, I showed four writing styles as below, and asked the students which writing style is adequate when you express your opinion while introducing a specific part of a book in your own text.

  1. (1) Translating the description of the book into your own words and writing them [ part of your idea ]
  2. (2) Translating the description of the book into your own words and writing them while [ clarifying they are based on the idea of another person ]
  3. (3) Translating the description of the book into your own words and indicating the source
  4. (4)Quoting the description of the book and indicating the source

The half of the students in the classroom selected (3), while 20% of them selected (2) and (4) respectively. Further there are even some students selecting (1).

This shows many of the students think it unnecessary to indicate the source when using reference. One of the students selecting (2) said "I was taught so in the private preparatory school." Some students selected (1), which might be regarded as plagiarism, simply because they have always adopted this writing style. Also one of the students selecting (3) rather than (4) said "I was afraid my text seems childish because quotation means just copying."

Though writing is associated with expression, it is closely connected with attitude toward learning. Students do not recognize the most basic and important point in the academic field. That is, we have to build up new knowledge on the wisdom accumulated by our predecessors while protecting their intellectual property. In actuality, however, students, who will start job-hunting and prepare for graduation theses soon, attend classes at university with such improper recognition. Whatever have I taught at university without teaching attitude toward learning? I cannot help reflecting on the job in which I have been engaged.

Besides quotation and source issues, documents submitted to me often show various problems that would be able to be avoided if proper instruction was provided. For example, presentation materials without viewpoints clarified, reports that often contain too long sentences and the "twisted" subject-verb relationship, opinions mainly based on abstract discussion, reports in which key concepts are changed in the middle, and graduation theses of which research intention we cannot understand until the end.

Now, step-by-step teaching system for academic writing is required. When I visited a nearby elementary school during my study abroad in the graduate school in the U.S., I was surprised to find children in the second grade are instructed to indicate the source. In the class named "Library", they wrote materials just like picture books as source at the end of their texts.

Recently in the business field in Japan, necessity for "logical thinking" and "understandable presentation" are receiving attention. If academic writing were taught at elementary schools, junior and senior high schools, and university, people would feel no difficulty in writing business documents.

Then Waseda University has just started two programs: online academic writing learning for freshmen and a writing center. In online learning, each student is requested to take a computer delivered lesson and submit a report of 400-character text every week. At the same time, some dozens of instructors are cultivated for reviewing student reports, which facilitates feedback at a standardized level. The writing center is support facility after regular classes in which students can bring their "writing results" to receive individual tutoring from specially trained tutors. Tutors include undergraduate students with outstanding academic excellence, and master and doctor course students in various faculty offices within the university. Since tutoring is available either in Japanese or English, this facility is the first bilingual writing center in the world. To develop an "independent writer", both programs focus their efforts on teaching readers' response, and review and elaboration of texts rather than actually correcting texts.

I intend to expand these approaches for development of academic writing teaching. At Waseda University, which accepts a lot of overseas students, we are planning to cooperate with other Asian countries to cultivate the human resource that have potential for international achievement from the aspect of writing.

Saori Sadoshima
Associate Professor, Center for International Education

The author acquired Ph.D. at Illinois University in 1998. Through the assistant researcher at the National Institute for Japanese Language, she became a visiting lecturer in School of International Liberal Studies, Graduate School of Asia and Pacific Studies at Waseda University in 2002, and has been an associate professor at Center for International Education since 2008. Her specialty is language education.