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Please give the titles and authors of five books.

JAPAN | Thursday, 18 February 2016 | Views [276]

A semi-significant part of Japanese class has been working on our projects. I’ve been ignoring that on the blog for the main reason that I’ve been doing ignoring it whenever possible. On Wednesday, that ceased to be possible. So here’s a recap of the past few weeks of “work” on the project.

So, very first day of class Yamaguchi-sensei hands out the syllabus for the class, then the syllabus for our projects. And I’m scanning it over, and it doesn’t look so bad. We need to have 3 ideas for next Friday’s class, but that’s plenty of time. According to the general description, since we’re third-year students we should be doing a comparative project, comparing either different places in Japan or Japan to the US or something like that. I like literature, I like languages, I like math. Those are three different topics, and I’m sure I can come up with guiding questions and see which one goes over best.

“So, what are you planning on doing for the project?”

To be clear, there is no time-skip here. It is still the first day of class, we have for the first time seen a detailed description of what the project expects from us, and we’re supposed to have ideas. Worse, both my classmates do. Brian has notes written out about use of honorific language for talking with customers and everything. Dan doesn’t have notes, and maybe he only came up with his idea in the time that Brian was explaining his, but he still launches into a decent explanation of why he’s interested in Japanese spirituality and what he hopes to learn about it. And then it’s my turn and all I can say is “I like languages and literature.”

Yamaguchi-sensei makes a disappointed face and tells me to narrow it down to one topic, and she wants written proposals for next week.

I’d just finished reading the syllabus. Which clearly said that for our assignment next week we were allowed to bring three topics if we couldn’t decide on one. But no. I need to have committed to a single topic by next week. Bear in mind that at that point I was still finishing up a project from last semester.

That’s a bad start, and from the time I decide my topic (what kind of books do they read in high school?) I’m already pretty unenthused about it. I mean, I liked the topic. Having spent significant amounts of time in high school familiarizing myself with what was common literature knowledge for high schoolers to have, I was curious about how that compared to Japan. But we kept having homework assignment due before the relevant class session.

So before we knew what exactly we’d be doing for the project, we were supposed to have thought of ideas. Our first draft of the proposal was due the class before we got an outline for everything the proposal was supposed to contain. Our assignment going into the third week was to rewrite our proposal to fit those standards and to come up with survey and interview questions. The third week explained what good survey and interview questions looked like.

In retrospect, I recognize that my frustration with the project had almost nothing to do with the topic I had chosen. It had to do with this rush to give us work before we knew what to expect that led to things constantly needing to be corrected. And that made it feel like I’d chosen a bad topic. Because the proposal needed to be completely rewritten, none of the questions were in the right format, and I didn’t even know what were good questions to be asking. And at the time, it seemed like I must have chosen a bad project, and that’s why I was having these issues.

I put that into the past tense, because fortunately things did change. We spent several weeks just working on improving our questions. At that point, I felt locked into a topic and the questions I’d come up with first drafts of, and I didn’t like any of them.

Wednesday, we took our surveys up a floor to a room where a dozen or so volunteers had come just for the purpose of letting us ask them questions. So I sat down in front of my first volunteer and handed over a survey about what kind of books he’d read in high school. When he finished that, I asked him a few questions, making notes of his response. And then I thanked him and moved on.

It wasn’t instantaneous, but during the hour I spent getting responses, my interest in the project rekindled. Earlier, I’d questioned the importance of my topic, and felt that any response I got wouldn’t be deep enough. It’s not like I was exploring spirituality or sexism or Japan’s population growth problem. But, as I was asking the questions, I grew to appreciate the lightness of the topic. I didn’t need to ask people “what do you think happens after death?” or “are you planning on having kids? Why or why not?” I might not be making any ground-breaking discoveries, but honestly, no one is. The timing and expected sample size doesn’t allow for that. So I get to keep conversations light and on a topic I am in fact interested in. So that was a start.

It didn’t help my confidence in Japanese, especially when I’d end up interviewing someone next to a fifth-year student. They’d be chatting away with their interviewee, and I’d be sitting there trying to express myself. “Umm… Umm..  Can you give a title?” because although my last question technically asked “what kind of books do you want to make high schoolers read,” what I really meant was “what one book?” And I lacked the word specifically. But it did help my Japanese to work through that and other similar problems, and the very last person I interviewed gave me the translation for specifically. So it was probably useful.

I think the biggest boost my enthusiasm for the survey got was when I realized I had the beginnings of a conclusion. The last question on my survey listed 8 books that I felt were most commonly read in high schools in the US and asked them to check any that they’d read. (For anyone who is curious: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, 1984, The Odyssey) The clear winner was Mark Twain. I would never have guessed that.

Meaning already the project is teaching me something that I find rather interesting. I guess it’s not so bad after all.

Tags: interview, japanese, literature, project, survey

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