Teaching (about Japan)

Update Here is the final version

As is the tradition here at the Frog, I am posting an early draft of a syllabus, in hopes of getting some suggestions. This is my Modern Japan class, and the way I have designed it reflects how I have been changing my teaching of late in response to changes in technology.

The idea behind this class is that studying history is mostly about reading. This is even more true about topics like Modern Japan where I am less well informed, but in any class getting students to read, think about and talk about interesting writings by all sorts of people is the central point of it. The lecture format, of course, does not encourage that.

When I was an undergrad reading meant books. Books were easy to find, assign, and buy. Yes, you could make a course reader, but that was a pain and an expense. For students today articles on JSTOR or wherever are easy to find, and through things like ebrary or a PDF scanner you can also give them book chapters. You don’t even need to print out a course reader. Just tell them that all the readings are on the computer in the classroom and anyone with a thumb drive can come up and get them.1 So I could give them a whole graduate seminar of readings, but that would not work, in part because undergraduates mostly need the ‘lecture’ part of lecture-discussion: someone leading them through the major themes of the period rather than assuming they already know them.

The way I have been approaching this is giving them a set of “optional” readings. Each week they need to do whatever common readings we have, and also at least one of the optional readings, usually an article or a book chapter. The idea here is that they can tailor the class to their own interest. More interested in economics, or women? Then pick the optional readings that fit your interests.

Needless to say, if you don’t make them write about the readings (i.e. give them points for reading) not as many students will do them, so I have asked them to turn in a brief summary of the optional reading they have done 10 times in the semester, and a longer analysis of the readings five times in the semester. This semester, for the first time, I am requiring them to turn in a contract listing what readings they will be writing an analysis on at the beginning of the semester, in hopes that they will actually look over the list of possible readings and pick things that interest them, rather than procrastinating.

How well does this work? Well, I have tried things like this for a few semesters now. When it works it works pretty well. If you know what they have read ahead of time you can adjust your lectures or what you do in class accordingly. You can get good discussions pretty regularly.

Of course there are trade-offs. No time for a research paper, or book reviews. Allowing students lots of freedom also means that things can turn into quite a mess if they don’t do the reading or if they all put it off till the end.

Note that this is a draft syllabus. Both the 1912-1937 and the postwar period need to be re-organized somehow, but I wanted to put this up and see if I got any suggestions before I went final. I would love any suggestions from Japan people about specific readings, periodization, etc., but also more general comments about how my approach might work.I am stuck with the books, as I have already ordered them.

So, without further ado, the current version is here

  1. I used to burn readings to a disk, but this seems pointless now 

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