Learning While Teaching: Meet SLC’s Japanese Language and Lit Professor

Professor Sayuri Oyama, or, as we call her in Japanese II, Oyama-sensei, holds up a picture of a chocolate cake and recites slowly: “Kono keiki wa oishisou desu.” The sentence almost means, “This cake is delicious.” Sensei repeats the relevant phrase: “oishisou.” Like oishii, delicious, but in a form that we, her students, have not heard before. She continues in Japanese that we know. “This cake is oishisou, but I don’t know. I will try it.” She mimes taking a bite, then scrunches up her face and says, “It does not taste good.” She repeats, looking at the picture and pointing from her eyes to the tasty-looking cake. “This cake is oishisou”—she takes another pretend bite and frowns again—“but it is not oishii.”

Most of us read the relevant section of the chapter before class, so we already know the logistics of the new grammar for how to say that something seems or looks a certain way. But a more effective way to learn language is visually, so our professor takes the time to act out this example for us.

Born in Santa Clara, CA, to ethnically Japanese parents, Sayuri Oyama actually didn’t learn Japanese properly until college. She spoke both Japanese and English at home when she was very young, but she stopped speaking Japanese when she entered kindergarten, and subsequently lost her ability to speak. She didn’t attempt learning again until her second semester of college.

Sayuri majored in philosophy at Yale, though she took Japanese language courses as well. After she graduated, she spent two years in Japan teaching English with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). She tried to get as much exposure to the language there as she could, using Japanese with her native coworkers and taking private lessons.

While she was there experiencing that new culture, she found herself growing more and more interested in it. “I was experiencing a lot of things that I didn’t understand,” she says. “I kept thinking if I knew more about Japanese history, or religion, or culture, or more in general, it would help me make more sense of what my actual experiences were.” That curiosity led her to apply to Asian Studies graduate programs back in the U.S. She went on to get a Master’s degree in Japanese Studies and a PhD in Japanese Literature, both at UC Berkeley.

When Sayuri started teaching at Sarah Lawrence in 2002, she was set on teaching both Japanese language and Japanese literature, despite that Japanese Literature graduate students are often trained to focus on literature as the primary subject. “What I really enjoy about teaching language is that students then have the opportunity to . . . go out and read Japanese texts or see films, and use their Japanese to learn something else.” Equally, she thinks that the interactive aspects of language instruction, like breaking discussions up into pairs, would be useful in the study of literature.

I ask Sayuri which subject she likes teaching more, language or literature, and she can’t decide. “I really like both,” she says, “in different ways.”

While her Japanese class is all about the language, Sayuri’s FYS in Japanese Literature course includes time for the first years’ academic and personal growth. I see this when I sit in on the class one Thursday morning.

Rather than just making announcements about scheduling, Sayuri comments on the class’s recent writing. Everyone is making progress and starting to pull things together, but certain aspects still need work. She also makes sure everyone knows about an upcoming open forum for discussing the sexual violence policy on campus, so her students know where to go if they want to voice their opinions about recent incidents.

They are discussing a collection of Japanese folk- and fairytales. Sayuri puts the students in control of their First Year Studies course, rather than letting them simply follow along with her. One student has brought the discussion questions. Students call on each other, whoever just spoke calling on the next speaker. Sayuri watches and listens, taking more notes than her students do. Once in a while, she steps in to make sure that students whose hands aren’t quite as high get called on anyway.

She calls on a student who has already lowered his hand. He says it’s too late, it’s not relevant anymore.

“It’s never too late,” Sayuri assures him.

Sayuri’s first experience with teaching was tutoring high school students early in her college career. The subject matter was a little out of her comfort zone, which would happen again several times throughout her early experiences with teaching.

On her first day, the high school told her what subject she would be tutoring. “Oh, you’re a Spanish tutor.”

“I’m what?”

She had taken Spanish in high school, but her understanding of it was very, very basic.

The position, however, was more about serving as a mentor figure than imparting intimate knowledge of the subject matter. It was a chance for the high school students to interact with an older college student, maybe start thinking about going on to college themselves. Just being present for the students was the most important part.

Sayuri knew while she was at Yale that she wanted to at least try teaching, and that interest was one of the things that led her to Japan with the JET Program. Run by the Japanese government to foster international exchange in Japan, the program appoints foreigners in local communities to teach English or work with town offices toward multi-cultural pursuits.

As an assistant English teacher, Sayuri did team teaching with local teachers. She spent one year based in a single high school; she spent the next year as a “one shot,” teaching at a junior high school once or twice, then moving to a different one. Over her two years, she worked with a large number of teachers, and saw many different teaching styles, philosophies, and attitudes. “That was a real education for me,” Sayuri says, noting that observing other teachers was more important than doing it herself in terms insightful experience. “I was really, really inspired by some of the teachers that I worked with, and I was really, really disappointed and upset by others.”

Sayuri held several TA positions in graduate school. She brought up one experience assistant teaching an Asian studies survey course, which included several areas of Asia that she knew very little about. She describes it as, “one of the worst teaching—either the worst or best. It’s very memorable when you have these disasters.” She had to help and support the students when she herself knew little more than they did. Once, while discussing pre-modern India, a student asked her, “Who are the Mughals?” The only reply she could give was, “Who do you think the Mughals are?” Her students were unhappy with the situation, and so was she.

“But I did the best that I could under those circumstances,” she says, “and even in spite of those experiences, I just thought teaching is one of those things where you’re never perfect, you know? But you have to feel like it’s something that you care enough about that you always want to try to get better. And it can be better.” That challenge is what drew her to teaching as a long term career.

I ask her if she ever feels similar inadequacies now that she’s a full-fledged professor.

“Oh, absolutely! Like every class!” she replies.

“There’s always something new to learn,” Sayuri says. Even an expert on a subject will encounter a question every once in a while about something very basic, and realize she doesn’t have the answer. The teaching experience that Sayuri has accumulated has made her more prepared for that. She has the confidence to admit she doesn’t have the answer, and she knows how to get back to a student with a better answer later.

Sayuri likes it when students chip in with their own knowledge. She sometimes lets the Chinese students in our Japanese class step in when dealing with the Chinese-origin characters that make up most of the Japanese writing system.

Sayuri stresses that even though knowledge of the subject is crucial to being a good teacher, it’s not the only important thing. Learning is interesting when you’re trying to figure out what the good questions are. There will be times when there is no teacher there to ask, she points out. “And if you know what to do, if you know how to go about figuring out the answers on your own, then that’s fantastic. That’s the best thing.” She feels that if she can help students do this, she has done her job.

While Sayuri is quick to say that she does not have all the answers, it is clear that she knows her Japanese literature and history inside out. She brings up cultural examples in our conversation on other topics, using a folktale to describe her father’s idiosyncratic Japanese ability. She is currently doing research examining discrimination in modern literature, a project that grew out of her dissertation work.

Sayuri’s study focuses on representations of a historical outcast group, called the hisabetsu burakumin. The only thing that distinguishes this ethnically Japanese group from the rest of Japanese people is the former status of their ancestors.

Sayuri is looking at representations of the group and discrimination through the works of four authors. Shimazaki Tōson and Nakagami Kenji include burakumin characters and issues in their work. In the work of Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki, Sayuri has found issues of discrimination that are more general but also very serious. Sayuri intends to eventually publish the study as a book. “It’s been a long going project,” she says with a laugh. She was able to devote a lot of time to her research during her recent year in Japan, where had a post-doctoral fellowship at Waseda University. Back at Sarah Lawrence, however, she spends most of her time teaching.

I sit next to Sayuri at Japanese conversation table in Bates a couple days after her FYS. She asks me what I thought of the class. I tell her it was interesting to spend a whole class focused on the teacher rather than the subject matter, so she asks me what I thought about her teaching.

“You’re a good teacher,” I say, in the practical but inarticulate Japanese of a beginning language student.

“Oh, you don’t have to grind the sesame seeds,” she replies, then explains because I have no idea what she said. The expression means giving needless praise or sucking up to someone.

“I try to be aware of my teaching,” she continues in English, “but I can’t watch myself while I’m doing it.” She asks me if I have any suggestions, and listens to my response.

June Jungreis is a first year whose favorite activities include learning Japanese, writing fiction, and playing pop music.

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