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Turns Out I Love Selected Topics, or Geeking out Over Geeking Out

Classes are clicking along here- we’ve hit the midpoint of our stay in Japan, and of my courses.  I have a medium-sized pile of midterm exams to grade, so what better time to write a blog post?

I continue to love all of my classes- IR because it’s my heart, Intro to US because the students absolutely slayed the Congressional Simulation (seriously, they were all amazing, and the Doshisha version of Markwayne Mullins and Elise Stefanik made me laugh out loud!), Human Rights because it’s a fascinating and challenging seminar that is pushing my brain in exciting ways, and Film because it is the most fun.  

I expected the politics of film class to be the most fun for me- I got to pick several of my favorite movies and craft a list of my favorite international relations and comparative politics topics to discuss with students- what is not to love?  These particular students are super sharp and engaging, which definitely helps, and their class presentations blew me away- Crazy Rich Asians and childhood poverty!  Godzilla and bureaucratic politics!  I hoped this class would be awesome, and it is certainly turning out that way.   

I did not, however, anticipate how much fun selecting the topics in this “selected topics” style of course would be.  I love teaching my introduction/survey classes- they are a good fit for students (the majority of whom are non-majors, taking the course to fulfill a requirement), so doing a general survey seems like the right move, not unlike (to torture a metaphor) getting students to eat and develop a taste for their vegetables before they jump into the dessert of more advanced political science .  But this is not a survey course- we’re jumping around to the greatest hits, drawing themes to explore in data and theory from the films, and making different connections between and among each week’s topics.  A very different approach than what I usually take in my intro to US and intro to IR classes (starting off with the Constitution and IR Theory respectively), because we need to eat our vegetables first.  On my better days, I like to think I make the vegetables tasty, but skipping right to the most delicious stuff this semester has been so much fun!  I mean, look at these slides- no one should be having as much fun as I am putting them together and then discussing them with a class.  

Power point slide with text that says "Always Another Enemy. . . " and a color photo of Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe saying "Fine, I'll do it myself"
Powerpoint slide with text that says "Who chooses the rules?
Who gets to reframe them?" and "Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has an excellent essay on Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s clothing choices."  along with a color photo of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a white gown that says "Tax the Rich" in red paint, and 4 stills from the film Captain Marvel:
1.  Man yells "Turn off the light show, and prove, prove to me, you can beat me with . . . "
2.  Woman blasts light from her arm
3.  Man lays, knocked down in the dirt.
4.  Woman looks down, with text that says "I have nothing to prove to you"
Power Point slide with a color photo of superheroes lining up from the film, Captain America Civil War and text that reads:
Selected IGOs: different skills and interests, like The Avengers!
ITU- International Telecommunications Union - oldest IGO
IWC- International Whaling Commission
INTERPOL- International Criminal Police Organization 
World Bank & IMF
The Commonwealth of Nations
BRICS- Brazil, Russia, India, China, & South Africa
IAEA- International Atomic Energy Agency
What Else?

And yet, here I am.  And because Japanese university classes do not have an expectation that students will read before the class, it is not necessarily so very different from teaching a class to first year students who are new to political science.  Somehow, we’ve managed to get into the guts of some complicated topics (gender pay gap, the history and evolution of the UN, bureaucratic politics) without building the base as I would in a survey course.  It’s making me really excited to shake up my intro courses when I teach back in KCC next fall, to maybe incorporate a little more of the exciting juicy bits.  Why not eat dessert along with our vegetables?  

Weeks 3 and 4 Teaching

Two weeks that were so busy I didn’t blog, so here’s quick catch up of some highlights.  The classroom continues to be a space of joy for me- I missed it so much, and I’m so glad to be back.  It’s also very tiring, so I’m grateful that I will have my spring semester to finally finish the book I’ve been working(ish) on since 2015.  I got speedily beaten at chess by one student while another (a former national master) looked on and tried not to laugh (I knew the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but we all had a good time).  I also got to discuss feminist IR, the evolution of the US role in Asia-Pacific affairs, and graduate school with a graduate student, sitting outside at a picnic table on a sunny quad.  I feel very lucky to be getting to enjoy academia and Doshisha.  

As for teaching, Intro to IR and Intro to US are my bread and butter.  I don’t need a lot of preparation for each week for these courses (that’s what teaching many sections every semester for many years will do for you- practice makes permanent!), but the courses continue to need minor tweaks to make them accessible to these students at this time.  IR was extra fun, thanks to Victor Asal’s Realism Rock, Paper, Scissors and Prisoner’s Dilemma games (both of which are explained in this awesome article)- I think having some games to play gave us a chance to gel as a class, making discussion and asking questions a bit easier; it also kept me from talking too much.  And I got to teach my favorite introduction to constructivism, where I show an image on the screen, and students write down their reactions, which we then share and compare.  I use a photo of a gun, then a pile of candy (actually, it’s a photo of Untitled: Ross in LA which I reveal/we discuss after their reactions), and then a clown- they all have different reactions to each image, and it’s a great reference point for how meaning is constructed not objective.  

Intro to American is a bigger challenge- it’s my class here with the largest amount of students (though still much less than I’m used to at home), and I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate more discussion/less of me talking.  Streamlining what is usually 3-1 hour classes into one 1.5 hour class means prioritizing which content to cover, and has meant that some of the group activities I would ordinarily do have been reduced to links to articles for students to read if they are interested outside of class.  In addition to adding translations to parts of some slides, I’m working on really thinking through what is absolutely most important, and what is the best way to convey it.  I think this will help me refresh/update my approach back in the US as well.  

In “Geeking Out” we moved on to Harry Potter, which made me nervous- a brand new class that I’ve never taught before and I did not have any material to really build on.  But once I finally sat down and thought through what I wanted to do, boy was it fun!  We did a large discussion of identity politics (excerpts from THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE STATEMENT in English and Japanese served as a fruitful jumping off point), and I again got to put together slides I am way too pleased with.  I even used the cloak of invisibility as a metaphor for what identities were omitted from the films  (subtlety has never been my strongsuit), and what that might mean (which segued into a great conversation about the lack of LGBTQ characters in the extensive Hogwarts universe, and how that may be connected to the author’s personal anti-trans stances.)  Human rights in the potterverse is next up, and I’m extra excited (apologies in advance to the students in this class who have to deal with me geeking out so much).  

Screenshot of a powerpoint slide with the title "Race/Ethnicity".  Photos of the most famous Hogwarts students of color, along with photos of the girls' and boys' schools who came to visit in the fourth film/book.  Text at the bottom says "Every line said by a person of color in all 8 films fits in 6 minutes and 18 seconds."

For my human rights class, I adapted an exercise I use in my Introduction to IR class in the human rights section, which has students compare a list of rights with what is in the UDHR versus what is in the US Constitution.  For this class, focusing explicitly on human rights in the US and Japan, I added in the Japanese Constitution.  Despite the class having only two students (I’m still getting used to running a small seminar instead of the larger sections I’ve got more experience with, so it makes me nervous), the activity worked really well- great thoughts from the students, uncovering insights that helped us expand on the general human rights topics we’ve covered so far (the usual suspects in human rights:  origins, definitions, universality, critiques, alternative frameworks); student observations included the vagueness of language and definitions, the time and political context of the writing of each document, the question of how older documents can apply to the 21st century world, negative and positive rights, and the different protections for economic, social, and cultural rights as opposed to civil and political rights.  I’m hopeful that the experience of comparing the two countries for this assignment will help set the stage for the rest of the course, where we’ll look at more specific issues and the US and Japanese perspectives in greater detail.  

Because I liked it so much, and because I’ve benefitted greatly from the work of others I’ve found on Twitter and APSA Educate, I’ve decided to make a version for sharing.  You can get a copy of the worksheet on my website or directly here or on APSA Educate.  I think it would be easy to adapt for a variety of courses- you could change the case study countries (or have different students do different countries!), change the rights being looked at, or change the human rights source document (ICCPR and ICESCR instead of/in addition to UDHR maybe?).  I’ve done versions in person and online (synchronously), where we work for 8-10 minutes and then discuss, versions where students work as groups in person, and I’ve used it as a pure out-of-class/substitute-for-class assignment, with pretty positive results each time, so play around.  If you use it, I’d love if you could let me know (mostly so that I can learn from your adaptation and improve for my own classes ;o) 

How to Move 4 People for 5 Months

Getting to Japan has been a bit of a rollercoaster- applying and being accepted during a pandemic meant that we were not sure we were even going to be admitted into the country.  Nothing went according to the usual schedule (which is completely understandable- it was then and still is now a whole pandemic!).  Once it looked like we were actually going to get to come to Japan (visas obtained, tickets purchased, housing confirmed), I started trying to figure out the logistics of how to temporarily relocate the four of us.  I found a few neat things, which I’ll assemble here in case they might be helpful to anyone else (none of these are affiliate links- I’m not that fancy). 

First, do a quick health inventory of you (and your dependents, if you’re bringing any)- is everyone feeling good?  Are you (all) up-to-date on well-visits, maintenance visits (glasses and/or contact lenses!) and any required inoculations? You can check the CDC’s website to see if you need any vaccinations or boosters for your destination- we decided to get Japanese Encephalitis shots (the shots available in the US are a two-shot series, and painfully expensive, but given the extensive collection of bug bites we’ve gotten in our first month, I feel pretty good about the extra insurance).  I had to submit a medical clearance form for my fellowship, so I had recently had a physical, but I scheduled doctors’ and dentists’ appointments for my daughters (try to do this well in advance of your departure date, so that there’s time if anyone needs any follow ups, or say, 6 baby teeth extracted). 

If you take any daily medications, check with the country you’re going to see if they are allowed, confirm the process to bring a supply with you (how much you’re allowed to bring, what documentation you need, etc.).  It took me a few calls to my provider’s office and to the pharmacy to explain that yes, I want a 6 month supply and yes I know my insurance won’t cover it (I’m lucky in that my daily medication is very cheap, but if yours isn’t, it might be worth arguing with your insurance company to try to get them to cover what they should anyway!)  If you find that you are not able to bring a sufficient amount for your stay, make a plan early for how you will obtain a local prescription (many countries, including Japan, will not fill foreign prescriptions) and a local supply, so you don’t run out.  For Japan, the Ministry of Health’s website was extremely helpful- there are forms you need to fill out to bring in prescriptions or medical devices, as you will require a Yunyu Kakunin-sho.  (My experience of this was very positive- they provided samples so I could fill out the form correctly, and I received the import certificate in two days, but your mileage may vary, so again, start early.  

I made a list of all of our recurring bills to confirm what was already set to automatically be billed and paid electronically, and what was not (I also manage my mom’s bill payments, so I did hers as well).  This not only helped me make sure everything would be covered and gave me time to sort out the bills that can’t be automated (our electric bill can’t be paid online, but luckily we live in a a very Stars Hollow-esque little village with its own power company, and Patty at village hall assured me we’d be fine with an estimated prepayment), but also helped me spot some areas where I could save (switching our ISPs to “vacation mode” was a significant savings for us).  If you’ll be gone a long time, you might consider cancelling services (Internet, water, electric, etc) but double-check if there are reconnection fees so you can see if it’s worth it for you.  

Speaking of bills, we had to figure out what to do about our mail.  We don’t really get anything important in mail, but we have a small apartment mailbox that was definitely not going to be able to hold 5 months’ worth, and we worried about the possibility that we might miss something important.  We thought about asking a friend to empty our mailbox periodically or forwarding our mail to a family member (and in fact, I forwarded my mother’s mail to my sister using a temporary vacation address forward) but 5 months is a big request.  As she often has, Dr. Patricia Stapleton had a great  idea that was super helpful- she suggested a virtual mail service might be a good solution.  6 weeks in, and Virtual Post Mail has been pretty good- we pay a small monthly fee, they scan the fronts of all of the mail we get, and we can request to have them open and scan anything that looks important (mail is shredded after 30 days, unless you request it to be shipped somewhere).  The set up is a bit of a process- you have to set up forwarding through the USPS, and submit a notarized form to VPM authorizing them to open your mail, so plan for a few days.  You also need to set up forwarding for each name (my husband and I have different last names, so I had to do two forms, and two forwards, and since I forgot to do one for the hyphenated names of our daughters, they’ve had a few cards returned to family members as undeliverable).  

But overall, it’s working pretty well, and we won’t come home to 5 months of mail to sort, which will be very nice.  And it means that when my husband received a jury duty summons, he was able to reply promptly (hilarious that he hasn’t gotten one in ten years, and then as soon as we land here, he gets one).  

Far more important to our daily lives than snail mail, we had to figure out phones.  I knew we’d need service in Japan, as I wanted to make sure our cell phones could work for maps, translating, and communicating with each other.  I also knew I wanted unlimited data, as that’s what we are used to in the US (it’s a luxury, and I know I’m very privileged to have it).  Our US cell phone carrier offered a very expensive roaming package we could use, but it wouldn’t be a Japanese number, so it would be useless as a phone number in Japan and also very expensive.  Japanese SIM cards are a little challenging- usually, you need a Japanese address and bank account to get one, and contracts are often for 1 year or more, but I did find one company that would work very well for our needs (specifically: reasonable price and unlimited data).  Mobal will ship you a SIM card in the US or have them waiting for you for pickup at the airport in Japan when you arrive.  The monthly service for our two phones with unlimited data is about the same as what we were paying in the US, so it seemed like a good deal to us.  Fair warning, if you want the SIM delivered to you, you will need to have them sent to an address on your government-issued identification, so plan ahead for shipping time (and time to pick up the package from where it gets sent if that’s not where you currently are).  We brought our SIMs with us to Japan, installed them using in-flight WiFi, and were fully operational upon landing (which saved us time in the extensive quarantine-monitoring-sign-up-process).  

That left me with the question of what to do about our US cell phone service.  It wouldn’t work in Japan, so I was inclined to cancel it and save the money, but my husband argued that we’d lose our numbers (which we’ve had for a very long time).  A week before we were supposed to leave, I happened to see a tweet from Anna Meier about porting a US cell phone number to google voice, and decided to try it.  The process was a little confusing (I had to call and get an account number from my carrier) but ultimately it worked, and for a one-time $20 fee for each number, anyone who calls or texts us on our US numbers rings through to us via the Google Voice app on our cell phones here.  This has saved my bacon several times- since Google Voice works on WiFi, while we were at the airport waiting to get checked in, our doctor’s office was able to call me at the number they have on file for me when they were trying to fix the clerical mistake they made on our COVID testing form.  My husband has been able to call our daughters’ school in New York, and get calls back from them when needed without needing to ask them to set up a Skype or Zoom.  We’ve gotten two-factor authorization texts from our American accounts without a problem.  And when we get back to the US, we can port our numbers back to a new cell carrier with ease, since we still have the numbers.  

Finally, think about what is very important to you that would be hard to get where you are going, and prioritize getting extra and bringing it with you.  That might be a specific lotion, toothpaste, or in our case, a folding piano, a bike pedal exerciser, and new shoes for everyone- we don’t have a car here, and are walking/taking mass transit everywhere, so I wanted everyone to have backup shoes.  This was especially important for my husband, whose size 14s are hard enough to come by in the US- I did not want to find out how to find them in Japan, where the usual maximum size in stores is 10.  On a completely related note, a small luggage scale is a worthwhile investment- you can use it to make sure you avoid fees both going and coming back. 

Week 2: Teaching Thoughts

This week, I wrapped up week 2 of teaching in Kyoto, which is also our second week out of quarantine.  Living in a new country and trying to get along in a language that is not my first has been exciting, challenging, and tiring, even with the help of technology and the kind understanding of my students and pretty much everyone I have interacted with.  I have a considerable amount of worry and fear (of failure, of being rude) even for something as simple as getting lunch in the campus cafeteria; on the flip side, the joy and pride I feel when I am able to accomplish simple tasks in Japanese (buy groceries, pick up baseball tickets, successfully obtaining a ridiculously delicious lunch in the campus cafeteria) is almost immeasurable.  

Color photograph of an incredibly delicious bowl of noodle soup from the Doshisha University cafeteria
I do not have the words in any language to express how delicious these noodles and chicken were. From a college cafeteria!!!!

In this sense, I feel like I’m getting the tiniest taste of what so many of my CUNY students experience- as of 2019, 29% of KBCC students reported speaking a language other than English at home, and 35% of KBCC students were foreign-born (though it is important to note that this data doesn’t disaggregate between recent immigrants and those that have been living in the US for a long time).   If it’s nerve-wracking or tiring for me, even with all of the considerable benefits I have here as a tenured professor on a Fulbright fellowship (stable employment and a comfortable, reliable income), how exhausting must living in a country that does not speak your first language, while pursuing a whole college degree in a language that is not your first, be for students who lack those privileges?  This is yet another fact that I knew intellectually before I came to Kyoto, and tried to plan for in my classes (this is one of the many “stressors/challenges” students might face that make me favor flexible due dates and letting students choose between a variety of assignment options according to their interests), but the sympathy vs. empathy thing continues to teach this old dog new tricks.  

This week, I tried incorporating some basic Japanese words for specific terms (state, anarchy, sovereignty, civil liberties, etc) into my slides- as a way of connecting to students who might have trouble following all of the discussion in class.  Students seemed to appreciate it, even though I had to preface with “I’m sure these translations aren’t quite right.”  The student reactions made me think that it might be a useful thing to do back at KBCC.  Unlike at Doshisha, however, I cannot readily assume the language of a majority of my students at Kingsborough.  But that actually might be inspiration for a new assignment option when I go home.  I already share my slides with my students, and I have been offering a big “translate a chapter” option (but I’ve encouraged students not to take it on during the pandemic, and no one has so far).  Maybe fewer points for translating some words on slides might be worthwhile to students to do, and helpful to future students? 
Final observation for this week, once again, I learned how awesome blogs are for students to get comfortable with their writing, and for getting to know students and their interests more than I would in just class discussion. Blogs (and less formal writing) definitely hasn’t come naturally to me, but even I can’t argue with the results.  Because my students this semester are not CUNY students, they don’t have the option of setting up CUNY Academic Commons logins/sites, so I gave them the option of setting up a blog on the platform of their choice, or just setting up a google doc that is set to “Public- anyone with the link can comment.”  (yes, I know this is not technically a proper blog, but it is a way for students to quickly and easily create their own space for sharing their writing with our class, so it’s blog enough for me).  Some students have made their own WIX or Blogger sites, but many are choosing the google docs option, and it’s working well so far.  I like the idea that students retain complete control of their own work, and can include several layers of anonymization if they choose (using only their given/first name, or even using a pseudonym if they prefer, as long as they tell me who they are); they also retain complete control to delete their work at the end of the class if they so choose.  I will definitely be including this as a day 1 option for my KBCC students when I go back.  I had already been offering this option for students who had fallen behind or struggled to make a site (because of time or device challenges), but I’ll offer it from the start from now on.  And because I’ve so appreciated the “sample forms” available at many of the places I’ve had to deal with (the municipal ward office, the bank, campus IT),  I made a quick visual guide for how to set up a google doc for sharing as a faux blog, which I can reuse back at home.   

I taught! In a classroom! And it was AWESOME!!!!

This week, I had nerves like I haven’t had in years- back to school nerves!  I’ll be teaching four classes at Doshisha University this semester.  The course load is very similar to what I’m used to at home (the Fulbright representative I met in 2019 had said they were looking to expand their outreach to community college faculty for exactly this reason- we are very comfortable teaching a lot!).  In some ways, Doshisha is very different from my usual campus- it’s an elite private university, as opposed to my public community college, so I’m teaching 2 graduate seminars as well as 2 introductory level undergraduate classes, which I don’t often get to do at home (but boy do I love when I can).  Japanese universities in general, and Doshisha specifically, still tend towards the “professor lectures/high stakes midterm and final exams” model.  Between Doshisha’s status as a private (expensive by Japanese standards) institution and location in Japan, a rich country with a very high standard of living, the parts of my teaching approach that evolved to attempt to address basic needs insecurity are not really necessary here.*  

Yet, I am hopeful that the pedagogy I have been developing at CUNY will actually transfer quite well.  For one, a lot of the changes I’ve made to my classes, inspired by a pedagogy of care, of starting from a position of trusting students, and of adopting more open educational practices are beneficial not just to students facing basic needs security, but also to students who have complex lives (other courses, caring responsibilities, stress, disabilities, etc.) and need to be able to personalize their learning.  My Doshisha students might have been able to afford expensive American government textbooks, but they would have been blocked from easily using digital tools to translate that textbook (either because it was a paper book, or because of digital rights management from the publisher).  The openly licensed materials I am using this semester are available for free, are customized to our course, and are easier to plug in to whatever tools students may find helpful (digital translators, screen readers, etc).  

One of the great joys of teaching at CUNY is the diversity in my classes each semester- the varied perspectives and experiences of students make every class a new adventure.  KCC has almost two hundred languages represented on campus among its student body, so I am very used to teaching students who are taking college classes in their second (or third, or fourth) language.  At KCC, I keep a full CUNY Academic Commons site for each of my classes with all of the information for the course, readings, and slides available for students to review as and when they need to, and I’ve done the same for my Doshisha classes (special thanks to the CUNY Academic Commons for being the absolute best!!!)  At KCC, I always incorporate in-class free-writing and small group discussions to build community and get students comfortable talking in class (or on their blogs), and I have been experimenting with Google Docs more and more as collaborative spaces to record our class thoughts.  These techniques have already been helpful in getting my Doshisha students comfortable talking (and stopping me from talking so much!).  Because most of the students are fluent in Japanese, I am encouraging them to do their in-class writing and small group discussions in whatever language (or combination of languages) that they are most comfortable in.  I asked students in my introduction to American Government class to share everything they knew or had heard about American Government to a Google Doc, which we will revisit throughout the semester.  I won’t share their responses because it’s not my work, but believe me when I say we’re going to have a great time.   

I am a little afraid going forward that I might default to lecturing- as a high school theatre geek, and graduate of  two decades of Catholic school, talking at a room comes very easily to me and it tends to be what I do if I get nervous.  I’m going to try to plan some discreet activities for each class session to prevent that default from poking out too much.  

But really, it was just SO good to get back in a classroom, live with students, and to feel safe doing it!!!**  I am so excited for Week 2!!!

* There are likely more unhoused CUNY students (on the 2018 CUNY #RealCollege Survey, 3% of respondents self-identified as homeless) than there are unhoused people in all of Japan (2020’s count was 3,992).  

** There is no way I would feel safe about teaching in Brooklyn this semester and then returning to my still-too-young-to-be-vaccinated children, but the safety precautions and infection numbers here are exponentially better. 

Policy Choices: COVID, Guns, and Trains, oh my!

I’ve only been here a few weeks, and the first two weeks were spent in strict quarantine, but already I can say, Japan is awesome.  Japan is awesome in and of itself, but as a comparative politics person, the differing policy decisions between Japan and the US are so very striking!  Since they’re both high income countries who have money to spend, it’s a matter of priorities- what does each country choose to spend money on?  First impressions:

  1. COVID is taken seriously here.  The 2 week quarantine was not fun, and less so because we could not get a hotel room large enough for our family to stay together, so after 18 months of constant togetherness, I was alone in a hotel room for 14 days.  But I was safe, and knew my family was safe, and that we were contributing to keeping the entire country safe.  We were video-called several times per day to verify our health and location.  Entry requirements to the US amount to “you need a negative test to get on the plane, let’s hope you’re not sick, smell you later.”  So far, everyone masks everywhere here, and it’s not a question or a big deal at all.  This is, to say the least, very different from the current status in the US, where a small but vocal minority prefers horse medication to a safe and free vaccination.  I tried to explain horse medicine, anti-mask protests, and vaccine avoidance to my students, who thought they must be misunderstanding the English words I was using.  But no, I reassured them, it doesn’t sound absolutely banana-pants because of a translation problem, it sounds bonkers because it is.
  2. It’s very safe here.  Young-children-ride-the-subway-alone safe.  Walk-around-alone-at-night-as-a-woman safe.  When I told a colleague at Doshisha that my daughter said, “The schools here probably don’t have lockdown drills” he assumed I was talking about COVID lockdowns.  Because the idea of school shootings with high capacity weapons is inconceivable here- you can’t buy that kind of stuff (or practically any guns) here (meanwhile, Texas has approved permitless carry for handguns, and while legislation has been introduced at the federal level to close the gun show loophole where unlicensed dealers can sell weapons to anyone without a background check, it’s unlikely to pass any time soon).  Japanese students practice for earthquakes (in schools which their governments have worked to make safer from quakes) while their American counterparts practice for school shootings (which have been drastically reduced in many other countries, while the US chooses again and again not to prioritize the safety of children). 
  3. Mass Transit!  Japan’s train system is, in my opinion, worthy of all of the hype it receives.  So far, we’ve travelled by bullet train, subway, light rail, and bus.  Transit is plentiful, clean, and reasonably priced, with a very simple IC card system that works with an easy tap on many different companies/lines (and at vending machines and convenience stores- my associates feel very grown up having their own quasi-debit card).  Bicycle, train, and bus travel is further incentivized by significant road tolls to encourage people to think many times before driving long distances.  So, pretty much the opposite of the US in every possible way when it comes to transit.  Again, the US could do any number of things to improve and expand its mass transit infrastructure, it just . . . hasn’t.  
color photo of a Model Gun & U.S. Surplus shop
In Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market, there is a store for those who wish to cosplay a particular kind of American
Color photo of a store that sells replicas of American guns
Only model guns are available, of course.

Academically, I knew all of these things before we arrived (in fact, they are big reasons why I applied for this specific fellowship!), but experiencing them directly adds a depth to that knowledge that just reading and thinking about it from New York did not.  I do realize I have only just arrived, and have much to learn and study about, so I’m not drawing any final conclusions.  But it is so very interesting, and I’m grateful for the experience.

APSA on Fire, or Why I’m Extra Weird at APSA

7 years ago, someone set several fires in the biggest hotel in Washington DC, causing a very difficult night for many political scientists, who had gathered for the annual meeting/end-of-summer-nerdfest of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  I have long suspected APSA was the worst-  a holiday weekend, right before school started in my neck of the woods, often overlapping with religious holidays for some folks- a terrible time to get away.  It was always extremely hot, always very expensive (and never enough funding), and the coffee shops were always too crowded.  Wars, hurricanes, and labor disputes have disrupted annual meetings before, and then someone started setting fires.  

The APSA fire was not fun, but it was actually not the worst part of my weekend.  When I finally made it home late the next day, I got the call that my dad died.  Totally unrelated to the fire, hundreds of miles away, and yet these two events are forever connected for me.  On the bright side, I had a full travel bag of summer season professional dark clothes already packed, so I was ready to hit the road again and do the whole “bury my dad thing” without any extra packing needed.  On the less bright side, everything else.  I can’t disassociate the two events. And since, as a tenure-track junior faculty member, I had to try to do APSA, I’ve been really weird at a bunch of them.  If we’ve met at APSA, trust me when I say I’m usually not that weird (I’m still very, very strange, just not quite that weird).  

In 2019, APSA returned to the scene of the crime, holding its meeting in DC again.  I booked a room at the hotel that did not go on fire, had a panic attack in the Wardman Park exhibition hall (the last time I ever talked to my dad was when I called to tell my parents that a publisher was interested in my book proposal, and he yelled hello from the other room while I talked to my mom), and decided that probably going forward, APSA was not for me.  I’d rather spend the money and time doing a writing retreat (okay, checking into a hotel with some awesome friends and writing during the day while taking breaks for fun, food, swimming in the pool, and hate-watching various HGTV-style shows- but what really is a writing retreat anyway?).  

Ironically, 2020 decided that in person conferences were not for anyone, at least for a while.  And APSA has finally moved the annual meeting later in the fall, so I won’t say I’ll never go again.  I do miss the chance to connect with scholars and friends, see interesting research, and get inspired by my fellow political science nerds.  But APSA is the reason I didn’t submit anything for this year; when I forced myself back to the exhibition hall before my last session in 2019 (to try to form new associations/work through my feelings) I chatted with a very nice lady from Fulbright about how they had a teaching-specific fellowship and had been trying to expand their outreach to scholars at community colleges.  I think my dad would be proud (though if he were alive, the idea that I’m taking his granddaughters to a different continent would probably not be his favorite thing). 

Doshisha Diary: T – 2 weeks

In two weeks, I’ll pack up my partner, kids, and many electronic devices to spend 5 months in Kyoto Japan as a Fulbright lecturer at Doshisha University.  This has been a long time coming, and I’m still not entirely sure it will all happen (it definitely should, and hopefully will, but it’s 2021, after 2020, so my fingers will stay crossed until we land in Tokyo!). We’ve begun our required daily temperature checks and recording, scheduled the specific COVID test required, and obtained enough Switch and iPad games to (hopefully) get us through the two week hotel quarantine.  I’ve also been finalizing my syllabi.  

Color photo of steps and orange gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto

Scared to try new things, going for it anyway

Getting ready for my courses has already been eye opening.  As a tenured, and now full professor, I have a degree of security and freedom in my job that is unimaginable for most in academia at the moment (given that as much as 75% of college faculty are off the tenure track, and that the conditions for contingent labor are abysmal).  I have spent the last several years, both before and during COVID, experimenting with open educational practices in my classroom, making major changes- moving from a traditional textbook to an OER, to an OER that I have edited and customized, to working with students to (slowly!) write a chapter.  I’ve moved from strict attendance and exam policies to self-grading and choose-your-own-adventure.  I’ve been so happy with all of these changes, and part of the reason for that is that I haven’t had to fear them.  Sure, I’ve been worried that things won’t work as planned (and some have been spectacular failures/in need of major revisions), but because of my full-time and then tenure protections, I haven’t had to fear for my job.  Now, as I prepare to be a lecturer at a new university, in a different country, in a system that may be very different from the one I know, I’m feeling all sorts of self-doubt:  “Can I do this?  Should I do this?  Is this appropriate?  What if the students hate it?  What if it doesn’t work?  What will my colleagues think?”  And while I’m forging ahead anyway with choose your own adventure and flexible due dates (Brandle’s gonna Brandle, after all), I want to remember this feeling.  As part of my open education work, I’ve gotten to give a few pedagogy sessions, and while I always include the usual disclaimers of “find what works for you” and “contingent faculty will have different pressures and time available,” actually feeling (a tiny bit, though not actually) contingent for the first time in many years is a visceral reminder I want to hold on to- most faculty workers do not have the kind of job security that I do, and any training or planning that is not based on this fundamental fact is not worth anyone’s time.  

Nervous about language, happy about digital affordances of OER for translation

Teaching in a classroom where a multitude of languages is spoken is very normal to me – #CUNYProud – and the ethnic, racial, national, and linguistic diversity on my campus is actually one of my favorite parts of teaching at my home campus.  I teach mostly American government, but I’m an International Relations and Comparative Politics person at my core, so when everyone brings their different perspective and knowledge of other government systems into the class, we get to make Intro to American very comparative, which is more interesting for all of us.  Students have also shown me ways that they make their course materials easier to access- closed captions that come in different languages for videos, web translators for digital materials, etc, and this is yet one more reason to love OER- since the materials I use are born digital and free to access, I don’t have to worry whether they’ll be DRM-ed in a different country- I’m free to share and redistribute them anywhere!  And my students have easier access to use the materials in a way that works best for them.  At Doshisha, I will be teaching in English, but the primary language of instruction for most students is Japanese (though Japanese is not necessarily the first language of all Doshisha students).  So in choosing readings, I’m looking especially for materials (such as UN treaties and government constitutions) that have Japanese translations already prepared, and including those along with the English versions.  

Stoked to plan new classes

For the last 8 years, I’ve been privileged to teach at a community college, which means all first and second year courses.  And I LOVE it- I know my content very well by this point, and I have the time to experiment with improving my pedagogy, because I’m not dealing with new preps all of the time.  But it is really nice to do other things sometimes and in addition to teaching my constant companion, Introduction to American Government and my once-a-semester treat, Introduction to International Relations, I’ll be teaching two new (to me) upper level courses that I proposed- a human rights seminar using an explicit comparison between Japanese and American interpretations/policies of international human rights frameworks, and Geeking Out- Special Topics in Political Science through sci-fi/fantasy films- The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I didn’t find any syllabi on exactly these courses (though definite shout out to Bethany Barratt’s The Politics of Harry Potter and Ruane and James’ International Relations of Middle Earth, and to the CUNY library system, who had e-copies of both books, since I’ve already turned off our mail delivery) so I’ll share my syllabi  once I’ve finalized the readings.  

LOVING the CUNY Academic Commons

The nice people at CUNY Academic Commons are very open to CUNY faculty, staff, and students using the Commons in lots of ways, so I’m creating my course websites on it.  This means I can have an open site up and running before the start of class.  And I don’t have to get signed in to whatever LMS Doshisha uses just to have a home for my class; in my adjuncting days, that could sometimes take weeks, and who wants to wait that long to have a home for your class?  

I’m hoping to blog through the experience, so I can reflect on what is likely to be one heck of an adventure:   temporarily moving my family to a new continent, to a country I have never been to, to teach somewhere completely new and different, still in a pandemic.  So watch this space if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. 

Half and Half and Crazy 8’s

I’m not a numerologist by any means, but halves and the  number 8 are really hitting me these days, giving me some rather Proustian vibes.  In April, I hit a big milestone birthday which is a multiple of 8, and June contains the 16th anniversary of marrying this guy; we’ve been more than friends for exactly half of our lives now, which is wild- half of our lives before we were an us, half (and hopefully lots more to come) as a team. I’ve just finished my 8th semester as a tenure track/tenured professor.   In the spirit of 9 months in/9months out photos, I realized I’m now equidistant from graduating from my PhD in spring of 2013 as I was at graduation from my start in the fall of 2005- 8 years in, 8 years out.  

Color photo of two people on their wedding day.
1,000 years ago, these two had very little idea of what they were getting themselves into: Graduate School! (Photo Credit: Ken Frank, all rights reserved)

Because we got married the summer before I started grad school, the first octade (octet?) of our marriage was linked to and defined by me being in graduate school in many ways, with the second being defined by my hustling and trying to get established in my profession (which felt a lot like catching up, since I only started my “real” job at 32).  At many points, it’s felt like a big  gamble- it would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t for so many folks (Allison Harbin called it a pyramid scheme, #accurate), and we wouldn’t know whether it would for a long while.  In the meanwhile, there were diapers to change, classes to teach, papers to write, and all of the highs and lows of life if you’re lucky, which I have very much been.  

8 years is the longest I’ve been anywhere professionally- having earned tenure last year, it feels good to know that I’ve got a professional home, that I’m getting established enough at to help make some small changes.  This is the bookend/echo of the joyful feeling of getting a tenure-track position while finishing my PhD, which felt amazing after 8 years of adjuncting and stitching 1-year fellowships together.   And I’ve just found out that I have been promoted to Full Professor, which is flip-flapping wild.  So our gamble paid off.  

Every so often, I feel like a complete fraud.  I’ve published (much!!!) less than many of my colleagues at other institutions.   When I do manage to publish, my methods and research topics are not considered prestigious.  But with age comes a little wisdom:  meritocracy is a myth, and comparison is the thief of joy.  I am proud of my work, and that (plus my paycheck and health benefits) is more than enough.  I really love teaching and my students, and with a little more luck, I’ll get to do that for a very long time.  I’ve found ways to thrive in the corner I’ve carved out in my very specific context, and been really, really lucky.  More than that, I’m really excited for what the next octet brings- tenure and promotion are an immense privilege, which I intend to use to improve my institution, for students and for colleagues.  I’m beyond excited to see what the next 8 years will bring, starting with sabbatical- a Fulbright to teach at Doshisha University, and time to finish my next book (which has been languishing for way, way too long).  

There are probably 800 people who I need to thank, as none of the last 8 years would have been possible without the support of my family, colleagues, co-authors, friends, collaborators, and twitter folks, and this post has already gotten too long.  So then I’ll spend the next 8 years trying to thank those folks, and trying to be that person for the next round coming up the lane. 

Digital Pedagogy 2: Too OER, Too Curious*

So, this past semester, I had the great privilege of teaching a class in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Humanities MA Program.  Not only that, but I got to design the whole thing, from top to bottom, with no example or prior syllabus to go on.  It was my first time teaching at the graduate level, developing a seminar, and teaching a class about teaching or OER- lots of firsts.  




Color photo of word bubble that has the word "Awesome" written in it.
“Awesome” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We decided as a group that our class website and discussions would be a walled garden, just for us, so I won’t tell you about how A-MAZ-ING these students were or the awesome work they did.  If they ever choose to share it publicly, I’ll be first in line to amplify, but that day may never come, and that’s okay.  I was incredibly privileged to see such awesome work develop, and for that I will be forever grateful to the students and to the DH Program for having me.  You can, however, see (and copy/adapt) the syllabus here if you’re interested.  

When I got the gig, I was extremely nervous, having never taught a grad class, and having been out of graduate school for quite some time.  The last time I took a formal class on teaching was during the first George W. Bush administration; the class covered none of what I know and value about teaching now and none of the educational technologies I regularly use existed then (with the notable exception of Blackboard, which worked then about the same as it does now, which is to say, worked-ish).  

Screenshot of a Blackboard interface from 2007.
“Integration of Webfuse and Blackboard” by David T Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 If you can believe it, my first BB experience was several years before this. And not all that different from the BB I was working in an hour ago.

Given that it was a graduate class with a much smaller size than I am used to, I took it as a chance to really put my open pedagogy where my mouth was.  I planned readings for most of the weeks, but left three as TBD, which we voted on as a class.  We co-created our own loose “rules of the game” document, for what our expectations for class behavior and interactions should be.  The final project was completely open and each student developed their own, leading to more interesting and creative work than I could ever have planned out myself.  

As a class on OER, it seemed only right to have all of the readings be open.  There was so much good stuff to consider that I actually put too much on the syllabus.  Spring 2021 was very much still a pandemic semester- still meeting only by zoom and not online by choice, still everyone stressed by the ongoing pandemic, etc.  Exhaustion and burn out came up frequently in our discussions, and I tried to lighten the reading load as much as possible (I failed in several places, but luckily my students were able to tell me that I needed to scale it back.  The “suggested readings” section for each week is my new favorite spot- all of the things that we should read, if we could read, but we can’t, so come back to it when you can if you like.  It is a bit funny to me that having too much reading became an issue, as not finding enough reading or the right reading was my primary worry as I designed the syllabus- classic first-time-with-a-new-prep stuff, which I responded to with the equally classic assign-way-too-much-reading.  

In a future semester, I would move up multimedia OER, and add a “Convert-A-Thing (Course/Assignment/Module) to OER” workshop where we work hands-on together to do OER, as a bit of doing-OER would have clarified a lot of the reading-and-talking-about-OER work we did.  I should also add more podcasts to the possible readings/viewings/listenings- there are so many good ones!  The focus on text-based materials really shows my own biases (I have a thing about talk radio and podcasts- I may be the only academic you’ve ever met who doesn’t listen to NPR.  This is all probably linked to a childhood of involuntary exposure to blaring sports talk radio, but I digress).  

While I greatly enjoyed the experience of teaching and learning with graduate students, I want to reiterate that I do not believe that graduate students are any smarter or better than community college students; they’re just different, and benefit from a different approach, as they’ve had more experience in academia than the first and second year students it is my usual joy to learn with.  Having a class that was ⅓ of my usual section was arguably a much bigger difference than the level of the class- it’s amazing how much easier it is to build community with 10-14 people than it is with 30 or 45, especially online.  Moving forward, I’ll definitely be fighting to decrease class sizes on my home campus.  Many of the things that made teaching this grad class fun- treating my students like adults with complex lives, valuing the interesting perspectives and experiences they bring to the class, making space for students to do the thinking and talking in class and out of it, allowing students to choice the work that is most useful to them- are all things I’ve been trying to incorporate in my introductory level classes.  The grad class experience was a nice reminder to keep going and do more.  

*I wanted to call the class DigPed2: OER Boogaloo, as an homage to the classic film, but since these jerks have coopted the word, I had to settle for a reference to a slightly less dance-y franchise