In this issue of Teaching Assistance, a recently hired teaching assistant from China shares his trials and tribulations coping with large classes and unfamiliar lectures material at a private university in Japan.
When I first entered graduate school in Japan, I planned to focus on writing a research paper and defending my thesis during presentations and examinations. However, because I had chosen to major in English education, instructors soon started asking me to observe and take part in undergraduate classes during my first semester. I was hesitant to accept a part-time job as a teaching assistant (TA), but I became intrigued by a job advertisement at my university. The salary was good, the work location was on campus, and the job offer was calling for graduate students who were conversant in English for various 15-week courses including: Overseas Internship, Business English, and Japanology. Interestingly, the Japanology course comprised three lessons of haiku in English. I signed up for all three.
I thought the work would be limited to easy-to-accomplish responsibilities, such as unlocking the classroom doors, setting up the ICT equipment, taking attendance and handing out textbooks. The Overseas Internship class was challenging because it was not offered for three years due to pandemic restrictions on travel. The cohort included twenty students, who all wanted to intern at hotels and travel agencies in Taiwan. The travel and hospitality industries have changed quite a bit. There has been a tremendous turnover of staff. Travel agencies and hotels have gone bankrupt, or been sold to new owners. Regional airports that used to have international terminals are currently offering only domestic flights. New online booking technology has replaced conventional methods for making reservations, so I had to research new flight schedules and discover whether hotels were still in operation. I prepared new handout materials and updated PowerPoint slides. There were fifty students in the Business English class, so I was kept busy with attendance and handing out worksheets. Additionally, I began providing translations for ten Chinese students who were struggling with both English and Japanese languages. Based on the needs of the students, I found myself giving short speeches about pronunciation and debating skills to all the undergraduate students. The Japanology class was even more challenging. I knew poetry from my high school days in China, but I had never encountered haiku before coming to Japan.
To prepare for the first lecture on haiku in the Japanology course, I searched online for the meanings of keywords that the professor would likely be using in class. Japanology is the study of Japan, its language, culture, and history. Haiku in English is a poem written in the form of a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world. Nonetheless, my first TA class went terribly wrong. I did not realize that the classroom would be packed with 180 attendees (Figure 1).
It was my first time speaking in front of so many people, so I was very nervous at that time and my brain went blank, and I lost my ability to talk for a moment. I struggled to use a microphone to explain the meaning of keywords and to recite a traditional Chinese poem by the poet Li Bai about the moon that I had memorized as an elementary school student. When the class ended, every student handed in a written daily journal (Figure 2). Despite having the option to use electronic software for reports and grading for online classes at the university, the head instructor felt that during face-to-face lessons, getting hand-written notes was more efficient and enhanced communication between students, the teaching assistant, and the head teacher. I was amazed to find that almost every one of the 180 students had written a haiku in English as well as comments about what I had said in the class during the lesson (Figure 3).
To better prepare for the second class, I checked online education journals. According to McCarty (2008), haiku is literature, and it is critiqued in literary journals around the world, such as TESOL Journal, JALT Journal, and TLT. Chen (2013) was a teaching assistant who also wanted to read haiku and learn how to write haiku in English. She suggested teaching assistants turn to a page in Higginson’s (1992) The Haiku Handbook in which he wrote, “The primary purpose of reading and writing haiku is sharing moments of our lives that have moved us” (p. 7).
To find a more recent source, I visited the research office of the professor of the class. David McMurray (2022) has written many books on haiku in English, including Teaching and Learning Haiku in English (Figure 4). I was informed that I would be called upon to introduce a haiku in the second Japanology class, so I got a copy of his book from the library. I needed to learn how to create a haiku, but I also wanted to learn new writing techniques in the field of literature. The book contains ample sketches, illustrations, and 10 pages of color photographs. I leafed through the chapter on how to teach haiku, with sections for elementary school teachers, for junior high school teachers, for high school teachers, for university teachers, and for company staff, and the chapter on teaching and learning haiku through technology. The book includes plenty of examples of haiku, including:
the red maple leaf
returned to the library
on page 69
On page 69, there is a waxed and pressed maple leaf. According to McLuhan (1964), who is considered to be a prophet of the modern media age, “[I]f you turn to page 69 of any book, read it[,] and like the page, you should buy the book or borrow it from a public library” (p. 8). Based on this prophetic discovery, I decided that this would be the haiku I would read aloud during my second class as a TA.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was reading a series of collaborative haiku in my third class. Below are four haiku excerpts from pages 85 to 88 that I was asked to read aloud to the class, one penned for each season and perfectly arranged in a 5-7-5 syllabic structure in both English and Japanese:
mountains of blossoms basking in morning sunlight the pagoda’s tip
相輪に 朝日を浴びて 花の山 (sourin ni asahi wo abite hananoyama)
restless to begin the skipper unfurls the sail hazy morning sun
そそくさと 船長帆あげる 朝曇 (sosokusa to senchou ho ageru asagumori)
first autumn morning sunlight shines bright on the plane wings destined to soar
今朝の秋 機は陽光に 翼ゆだね (kesa no aki ki wa youkou ni yoku yudane)
birds the first to see skyscrapers appear through clouds this winter morning
冬の朝 先ず鳥が見る 摩天楼 (fuyu no asa mazu tori ga miru matenrou)
To help exchange her opinions with her instructor, Chen (2013) kept herself informed on developments in the international haiku community by reading newspapers that regularly printed articles on haiku in English, such as the Asahi Shimbun, the Mainichi, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The English versions of the Japanese newspapers are no longer in print, so I turned to newspaper websites, such as the Asahi Digital (https://www.asahi.com/ajw/special/haiku/) and the Mainichi Interactive (mainichi.jp/english/english/features/haiku).
In conclusion, I would like to recommend that graduate students who are thinking about becoming teaching assistants in Japan prepare a lot before entering their first classroom. It helped me to read and understand the content of the lecture the instructor in charge would give. Although there are several approaches to conducting research (e.g., searching for information, paying attention to details, taking notes, etc.), communicating the research results in an easy-to-understand way for undergraduate students is the goal for any teaching assistant. Time management is an essential skill for teachers, especially for lessons in Japan that are only 90-minutes long. Instructors of large classes can easily use up most of that time, so when given the chance to elucidate a key point or to provide a translation, the TA has to think and respond quickly. That can be stressful—Being nervous in front of a classroom is normal, but overcoming the stress of public speaking is the most important thing for TAs. The need to answer students’ questions while maintaining a cool and confident composure should not be taken for granted. Communicating with all the students in the class through the use of written daily journals as well as exchanging opinions with the instructor in charge keeps everyone motivated. As a TA, I have learned and expanded my views on advanced levels of study: It is enjoyable to learn new things that I never knew before, such as haiku.
Chen, S. (2013). Learning haiku in English by way of the heart. The Language Teacher 37(1), 48–50. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT37.1
Higginson, W. J. (1992). The haiku handbook: How to write, share, and teach haiku. Kodansha.
McCarty, S. (2008). Internationalizing the essence of haiku poetry. Taj Mahal Review: An International Literary Journal, 7(2), 61–65.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. The MIT Press.
McMurray, D. (2022). Teaching and Learning Haiku in English. The International University of Kagoshima.