No Midterm Murder Mystery this Year

I didn’t have many positive things to say about classes at Nanzan last time I spoke about them, but that doesn’t mean my whole school experience here is miserable. The semester started with great disappointment and a little bit of regret, which tinted my view of everything: people, classes, activities, etc. Getting into the midterm season one would only expect my stress to increase and resentment of Nanzan’s shortcomings to deepen, but surprisingly, I was able to tackle the two weeks of midterms as a well-adjusted international student. Little to no stress. Plenty of sleep. A moderately happy person.

I had a test almost every day during the two week midterm period, ranging from reading comprehension tests, listening tests, writing tests, kanji tests, and a speaking test alongside a presentation of a 7 minute skit we wrote with group members. This was just for the Japanese language classes. It sounds like a lot (okay, maybe not compared to the Yale courseload) but everything was drawn from materials covered in depth during class time. If you paid attention in class and did the homework, there was no way to completely bomb. So many methods of examination could only allow for a more holistic view of students’ progress with Japanese. I hate speaking and presentations and am naturally more comfortable with reading and listening, so I feel the written tests went better than the other examinations, but I didn’t want to completely gut myself after the speaking test, basically. That’s a victory for me.

I’m not saying my Japanese has gotten any better, per se, but I am more comfortable with writing essays and speeches. TV is starting to make more sense, and the Japanese around me sounds less and less like noise and more like language. Slowly but surely, more kanji come to mind when writing by hand. Whether I felt like it or not, the tests say I have been learning something over these past weeks. It’s a pleasant surprise.

As far as my other classes go (Japanese Religions, Japanese Syntax, and Japanese language and Culture), things are progressing slowly. We only meet once per week and discuss one topic per class, so you would think that the teaching must be very in depth and satisfying, but this isn’t always the case. For Japanese Religions (by far my favorite) each class is dynamic: the professor is engaging and really knows his stuff, answering any question people throw at him and giving interesting asides about his own travels and experience in training at temples. Plus the subject is super interesting stuff: religious syncretism, little rituals or habits we see everyday in Japanese life that have religious origins; I’m beginning to understand the history and importance of temples and shrines across the country. I really could talk about this class and all we’ve discussed thus far, but I’ll spare you the details (for now).

Japanese syntax is lacks the depth of a regular syntax class to give more attention to the differences in Japanese and English grammar structures. While this may be fine for people who have an understanding of syntax already, it is very confusing for those who have never taken a linguistics class before. The professor will throw linguistics jargon without explaining it or ask people to construct trees without teaching tests for determining syntactic constituents. I am only able to follow his explanations because I know the long versions of them. While some parts of syntax may seem intuitive (we do these things every second of every day, after all) analyzing why the sentence is grammatical/ungrammatical and uncovering the hidden structures in our heads is often counter-intuitive. If your reasonings aren’t backed up by some tests or logical thinking, then it will definitely never hold when trying to understand how another language works. I understand my classmates’ frustration, but for me this class isn’t particularly challenging. I’m using it as an opportunity to study Japanese from a linguistics standpoint which is easier than from the standpoint of a language learner because I am somehow more removed. (And no speaking necessary!)

I was most excited about the Japanese language and culture class when I signed up for it, but it is slowly lowering me into the grave week after week. I’m totally into the topics on the syllabus because they’re things I’ve always wanted to know about: why Japanese women have high-pitched voices, Japanese women’s language, how politeness in Japanese ties into the cultural aspect of 建前(tatemae) and 本音(honne), sexism in Japanese language, etc. While the readings do a great job of answering my questions, class lectures leave me feeling irritated at best. The professor is super sweet, but sometimes her lectures have nothing to do with the readings; I think she’s too nice to really get into the meat of the matters like the papers and articles do. This isn’t entirely her fault though. You have to adopt a type of sensitivity when talking about such controversial subjects in a room full of people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. She works to include everybody, but my classmates also feel a little awkward voicing their real opinions in such a divided classroom. Yes, it’s good to be sensitive to other people, but staying completely quiet isn’t productive. (and you know how I feel about not being productive….) Whenever the teacher tries to engage the students with a question, the classroom steadily dissolves into an uncomfortable silence where people want to speak and some might even start and then stop. The classroom atmosphere is just all wrong, if you ask me. But it’s just the right atmosphere for researching other things, like cognitive science experiments and finding sociolinguistics textbook PDFs online…

Though I’m a little disappointed by slow pacing in some of my classes, perhaps it is one reason why this midterm season went so well. The annual midterm murder mystery never occurred. There’s no reason to wonder who/what did it– Was it the Linguistics final that killed the student? the English paper? the week of all-nighters? the weight of the world and uncertainties of the future slowly crushing her bones into dust? Don’t worry! This student was not murdered by midterms this year! Yippee!