On May 18, 2023, I recieved an Alumni CUNY Award from the CUNY Graduate Center. While I certainly don’t feel like I’ve done enough to receive this award (especially compared to prior winners like the incredible Professor Dána-Ain Davis), I was proud to accept it. Winners were permitted to make a short speech, and the text of mine is below.
I am stunned and honored to be receiving this award. To make sure I don’t forget, I want to thank my family who are watching from home, and without whom life would be absolutely no fun.
So, I’ve been a proud member of the CUNYverse since 2004, and have taught or taken a class at 11 of the 25 CUNY schools in 4 out of the 5 boroughs (sorry, CSI). I’m also the second CUNY generation in my family- my father graduated from Baruch so long ago that it was still called Downtown City College, and my father in law graduated from Hunter shortly after it became co-ed.
Two me, CUNY is two things- acronyms and people. First the acronyms- it’s like a secret code, and it’s definitely not known outside of the system: I’ve gotten to explain what CUNY is at several locations in the US as well as in Paris, Delft, and Kyoto, which is an honor and responsibility I do not take lightly. Everybody pronounced CUNY wrong, and they get absolutely lost with the rest of the acronyms. Like, tonight, we’re here at the GC and I usually teach at KCC, where I teach PS (sometimes IR, but mostly US) and I do a bunch of OER. When I was at the GC, I was a GTF, an RA, an NTA, a WF, and a TF. I worked at the RBI and the PSS. Since graduating from the GC, I’ve completed fellowships with FFPP, CAC, CPCP, TLH, and BRESI. I’ve been funded by the RF & PSC-CUNY. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the TLC and the DH program, both of which were starting as I was leaving the GC. My CV is a veritable alphabet soup, and if you’re in CUNY, I bet yours is too. It is certainly confusing, but it also bonds us together- if you know, you know, and we definitely know.
The other thing about CUNY is the people. I could go on about the world class faculty, which were great. Or the amazing students I’ve gotten to meet over the last two decades. But tonight, I’m thinking about the people I met at the GC- the staff and other students, thinkers and fellow travelers, several of whom have became colleagues- shoutout to Dr. Corby, Dr. Aroosi, Dr. Steffy and so many other GC friends who are sprinkled across the CUNYverse! The GC has given me lifelong collaborators and dear friends, and for that I’m eternally grateful. One more acronym- our DWG, the dissertation writing group that met at Pinkberry on 32nd street. They are the only reason I managed to finish and defend my dissertation- And because DWG is forever, the other members are here tonight- Dr. Stapleton accepting her GOLD award, and Dr. Janet Reilly cheering us both on. I would not have made it without the people, and so would not have been able to do even a fraction of the scholarship, teaching, and service I have been lucky enough to get to do across CUNY.
I hope to continue to work in CUNY for a long time to come, and will treasure this award. Thank you very much.
Waiting for the last of the semester’s assignments to come in before my real feedback marathon begins, I’ve finally completed my part of Cohort 4, Group 2’s public knowledge project for the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Fellowship I was lucky enough to hold this fall. The fellowship was extremely cool- we got a big stack of inspiring books (that I’m still working through!), were invited to workshops and lectures from the authors of those inspiring books, who were somehow even more amazing in (virtual) person than on their pages, and participated in fellowship workshops that modelled different tools and practices we could then use in our own classes. I am super excited to play with padlet for in-class collaboration, especially in online classes (I had used it previously in face-to-face classes, but moved away- now it may be time to explore it again). The different tactics to achieve 100% participation were especially appealing- I expect I’ll be using the write-read-tag in all of my classes going forward. The fellowship was a brightspot in a very challenging semester, and I’m extremely grateful to have been involved.
I’m extremely proud of my group’s public knowledge project, Writing the World. We decided to create a Manifold project to share some of what we each do in our classes, along with student samples. Although I have some experience working in Manifold and probably could’ve done the ingest alone, group members Kate Culkin (BCC) and Yan Yang (BMCC) were interested in learning the platform, so we did a collaborative ingest over zoom. Kate was more successful than I have ever been at getting a YAML file to work beautifully the first time! It was very meta to create a project using a process where we focused on building our skills since that was such a focus of discussions during the fellowship and in each of our chapters.
While I’ve given workshops and talks about aspects of my slightly peculiar pedagogy before (at CUNY Teaching Matters and Open Ed 2022), this is the first time I’ve sat down and wrote it all out in once place. I am happy to have it to refer students and colleagues to, and to be able to look back at it after a few years, so see how I evolve in the time to come. Though I wish I had made more time to work on my chapter, and there are already many revisions I’d love to make to my own writing, I’m incredibly proud to be in a collection with my awesome group members, Kate, Yan, and Dino Sossi (SPS). The project is worth checking out for their class projects alone, so do head over and have a look!
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.
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?
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.