As some of you know, I often spend a good chunk of my summer surrounded by rice paddies at the International University of Japan in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture. There I have been privileged to work with a wonderful team of fellow visiting faculty and a most diverse and enjoyable group of students from all over Asia, many sponsored by the International Monetary Fund in preparation for their master’s programs. The quad and main classroom buildings at IUJ looks like this in the height of the very hot and very humid Japanese summer:
While appearing tad austere, the campus actually has provided the palette for some intense learning experiences balanced with all manner of fun and merriment, some a bit rowdy, to be honest. But it is always a bright bold adventure.
This year I had planned to take the summer off and enjoy life and warm breezes from my balcony in Berlin. But such was not to be the case. In early June I received a frantic SOS from the IUJ program administration requesting my assistance to deliver our four-week intensive writing program…remotely….for the very first time and with very very little time to prepare. After some serious soul-searching – I have *really been trying to avoid this type of activity* – I agreed to join the “pioneer caravan.”
But before we laid eyes on our students, oh my what a scramble. First of all, the personnel involved….were global. I am, of course, in Berlin. My teaching colleagues A and B are in the US – California and Kansas, respectively. Our boss T was in Japan, and the students were physically located anywhere from Kazakhstan to Indonesia and many points in between. For the four members of the teaching team and boss to actually meet at the same time, we had to ask A to drink coffee with us at 8:00 am, B to have her second cup with us at 10:00 am, me to join with my signature G&T at 5:00 pm….and the boss T to chime in at midnight. Quite the temporal circus.
Here’s the intrepid Team ABC in one of our many lesson planning meetings:
Secondly, just to make things work and to deliver as much of the program as humanly possible, we were allowed to acquire a variety of technical equipment (much of which I did not end up using), but which had to be ordered through a laborious and multilevel multi-organizational approval process involving, shall we say, a lot of chefs:
And, third, naturally, when all this equipment met up with the required range of different computer systems, teaching software, Zoom connections, program materials, administrative spreadsheets, and whatever else, the technical and technological interconnectively challenges were seemingly endless. Here is the most patient IUJ tech support guru, for whom all the chocolate in the world is not enough, on one her of several emergency visits with me:
Here’s what my “classroom” (aka kitchen table) actually looked like for about five weeks:
Note the outdated map taped to the wall in an effort to look vaguely school-like. The cat normally occupied the little slot beside the computer shelf – you’ll see this later.
And here’s what we were trying to accomplish in four weeks, four days a week (the fifth day was tutorials) and three hours a day:
In addition to Zoom and email, we also used portions of the Google Suite called “Drive” for the faculty, (basically an online library space where we could upload and edit documents and materials) before sharing them with the students in “Classroom.” Here’s what my students saw in preparation for the first week in our classroom:
Once I got the hang of it – the method of posting is rather clunky – the interface itself is pretty cool. Students can access the materials either online or print them out, and *there’s no way the dog can eat your homework.* The contemporary version of that excuse is that the internet is down, so same result in the end, I guess.
Because of the time differences and the fact that the university administration wanted all the classes to run at the same time IN JAPAN, I was initially asked to teach from 5:00 am to 8:00 am. If you know me at all well, you know this is tantamount to bamboo shoots under my fingernails while sitting on sharpened thumbtacks. After my heart started pumping again, I was able to take comfort in the RULE of German quiet hours which in my building translates to being able to make noise only starting at 7:00 am. So I got a reprieve, at least this year, and 7:00 am to 10:00 am were my teaching hours. Ahem.
Computer, cat, and coffee…good morning class…
Once I got over the initial shock of how to manage ten screens, admit people, create breakout groups, share screens, and use chat, it actually started to feel almost normal. Almost. Here’s a shot of the chat window, where your students can keep you honest:
This is a really handy feature where you can send a message to the whole group OR just to one individual person. Budi, listed above, lives in Indonesia near a mosque. The call to prayer was a regular feature of our classroom.
And finally, here’s my class – the brave and patient group of stellar individuals who had to stifle their expectations of a summer in Japan and substitute several months of sitting in their bedrooms for multiple hours a day interacting with faculty who were themselves just learning how to manage this medium. It’s been a year of massive adjustments, to be sure, and IMHO, this group managed it as well or better than most.
This lovely group of folks hails, listing top left to bottom right, from Myanmar, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mongolia (again), Bangladesh (again) and Kyrgyzstan. They certainly brought me their best game and I did my very best to give them the same in return. And truth be told, I think I am the better teacher for it. Live long and prosper, y’all.