Learning Languages for Life: the FLAS Fellowship

Sorry for not updating more recently – between midterms, getting sick, finals and what I’ll be writing about today, I haven’t had the time or energy to flesh out any of the things I’ve wanted to write about recently. With any luck, things will settle down soon and you’ll get a rash of posts on slightly old topics shortly. Today, however, I thought I’d write a bit about that which is currently consuming this grad student’s life: summer plans.

The vast majority of the people pursuing Ph.D.’s do so with the help of fellowships, a certain kind of scholarship. These come in a variety of forms, but the aspect that concerns me at the moment is the summer. Some fellowships cover an entire year, but some only cover the academic year. That can leave you scrambling, but it also opens up other opportunities. (To be honest, in practice most people seem to be more irritated at the scrambling than thankful for the flexibility.)

For an area studies scholar like myself, the government runs a program called FLAS, or Foreign Language and Area Studies. FLAS fellowships are designed to ensure that the United States has a pool of people trained in speaking various languages in case a need arises. The academic-year fellowship also have an area studies component, in addition to language classes. You can use a FLAS fellowship to study Arabic, Chinese, Korean and a number of other languages deemed both important to the United States and understudied by Americans. The fellowships are administered by various colleges and universities and come in 10-month and 2-month strains. In other words, a fellowship covers either an academic year or the summer. Each one has two parts: a set amount of money for tuition, and a set amount of money for you to live on. If you’re a grad student, your school may add in some extra money if it’s in a city with a high cost of living.

There are several tricks to the summer FLAS which complicate matters. First, summer classes have to be intensive – 120 hours is the minimum, and that’s only for advanced language learners. Then you have the double bind of the spirit versus the letter of the fellowship. For my own purposes, because it is best for me, I want to be as fluent as possible. The Program wants me to be as fluent as possible. Ditto everyone else on the FLAS. However, the best way to gain that fluency is often to travel to a nation where your language is actually spoken to take your intensive class – a $1,000+ cost that is not included in your fellowship. In addition, you most likely have carrying costs in America during this time – a year-long lease you can’t sublet, car insurance payments, cable/gas/electric bills – which you have to cover out of an already-small stipend.

It’s hard. Figuring out the details and trying to get additional funding so that I can do this right has occupied a lot of my time, a lot of my advisor’s time and a lot of our local FLAS administrator’s time. To some extent I’ve had to recover lost territory – I couldn’t buy plane tickets until getting the details of a certain kind of funding set, but by the time that was settled, a sale I had found was gone and tickets had gone up $500. I got $600 in another kind of funding explicitly for tickets around the same time, but now tickets are up $600 from when I first looked for them.

It’s complicated. It’s a bit unwieldy, as a system, since you have to apply for funding and programs separately, and can’t guarantee either until you’ve heard from both. This summer, lingering effects of the earthquake in Japan got several summer programs cancelled, and even more were considering until very close to the deadline by which the FLAS administrators needed to know where I was going. (Past, actually. They have been extremely understanding and helpful throughout.)

All that said, I’m going to attend the premier Japanese-language program in the world this summer, and I will be far more fluent in August than I am today. At this point in my career, I need a great honking shove in the patootie to get over that next major hump in learning Japanese. This is it.

Having this opportunity means that next year, if all goes as planned, I will be able to start learning Korean. Learning these languages helps me do my job, but it also helps the nation. We’ve seen what happens when we’re suddenly thrust into an engagement with a group whose language we hardly understand twice now. FLAS is intended to protect against that by ensuring that languages which people wouldn’t necessarily study on their own get studied and that people who might study a language a little bit in high school or college and then forget half of it are able to take the extra steps to become fluent for life.

Turning Japanese

One of the biggest hurdles in learning Japanese is taking that step from learning basic/intermediate Japanese in class to reading actual Japanese literature, whether that’s newspapers or the latest Harry Potter. For me, the problem is rarely grammar, but frequently kanji and vocabulary. I’m always working on that in some form or other, but recently I was told that Japanese Ph.D. students need to know 1,000 kanji on entering the program. Ouch. To see how far I have to go, I printed out a list of the kyouiku kanji, the 1,006 characters Japanese kids learn in elementary school*, and tested myself on their readings and meanings. Good news: I could come up with a fair bit for most of them even with no context for the characters, and I was able to get at least something for almost all of them. Bad news: most isn’t all, and even if I remember the meanings and readings of characters A and B I may not know the reading and meaning of the word AB. Worse news: I was surprisingly bad at getting all of the information for the “easiest” characters. What’s happening is that I learned a lot of characters way back when and never saw them again. Remember the character for bamboo? You probably do (I did), but when’s the last time you read anything with the word bamboo in it? It’s one of the first characters they teach because it’s simple and a simplified version of it is part of other kanji. A lot of the ones I’m forgetting are like that: easy, but I haven’t seen them in years.

I’m now doing all sorts of stuff both to remember that which time has left in the dust and to learn new kanji. But this is a common problem, everyone who studies Japanese faces it at some point. So I thought I would post mini-reviews of some of the best resources I’ve found for pushing yourself from intermediate/advanced into advanced/fluent.

Japanese Cultural Episodes for Speed Reading is pretty much what it says it is. It’s not intended to teach grammar (or vocabulary, really). Instead, it has 74 roughly one page-long essays on simple cultural questions like “Do you greet people you don’t know in the apartment elevator?” featuring various fake characters. There are eight or twelve questions after each reading to ensure that you understood it, followed by a short vocab list.

I have to admit, I love this book. I’ve only just started using it, but it’s wonderful. The vocab list is nice, but it’s also clearly meant to be cumulative: どうりょう is defined (“colleague”) in episode one, but when it shows up again in episode four you’re expected to remember it. And they go out of their way to ensure that words like that pop up again, so you get to see useful words multiple times (repetition is key for remembering that stuff). They give you furigana in the readings for names (a sticking point for most Japanese-learners), but nothing else, so you don’t use it as a crutch. If I get to a word and look at its meaning only to find that it’s incredibly simple, I know immediately that I need to study. In works with tons of furigana, sometimes I catch the furigana out of the corner of my eye and read that before even noticing the actual kanji. That doesn’t help me practice.

Final verdict: This book rocks. It’s an easy read, but it incorporates a variety of words that you’re likely to hear (unlike those textbooks that teach you words you may hear once in a blue moon), and it supports both reviewing kanji you know and learning those you don’t. It’s a great way to keep your hand in, if you’re worried about forgetting what you’ve learned.

*Apparently they’re reviewing and expanding this list this spring. That kind of depresses me.

Boning up on the literature

Normally I dump most of my Christmas money in savings, but this year I decided to try a new sort of investment: books. I used a large part of my Christmas funds to buy academic books on yokai, anime and postmodern Japan, as well as the newest issue of Mechademia. I also got some books to read for fun, and the second volume in a fantasy series by a successful female Japanese author who I’m rather fond of. At the same time, I something like ten new video games. Meanwhile, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to drag through that list of anime that I really ought to have seen, but haven’t managed to get to yet, and those new series that I ought to know about. And I’m trying to clear out those books that have been haunting my shelves for years unread. (All that doesn’t even include the basic reading in Japanese that I need to do for a class I’m taking/to keep up with kanji.)

It’s a lot to do.

So I’m wondering about order, now. What should I do first? In the past, I’ve read several books at once without trouble. But many of these are academic books, which really need sustained, undivided attention. All the same, I can’t help but feel the draw of new books in the house. The anime are relatively easy – new series I watch as they come out, old series I tackle one at a time in depth. (At the moment, I’m working on Peacemaker Kurogane, at roughly two episodes per night.)

Video games are a bit different. I got a new Wii for Christmas, so many of the new games are doubling as exercise (Wii Tennis, for example). I can’t start all the games at once, though. I just can’t pick up new configurations of keyboards/controllers that quickly. At the moment, I’m doing the exercise-style games the most, to negate the extra eggnog/cookies of the past month or so.

What seems to be working is making a schedule. I made one for anime and it’s progressing relatively smoothly. I’m hoping my second book order will be in when I get home today. If it is, I’ll set down all of the books currently available and order them as well. With any luck, I should expand my knowledge of the relevant scholarship a lot over the next few months. However, I think it will go more like this: with book schedule in hand, I am inspired by New Idea for research. New Idea is related to a field which is not reflected in my new book stash, so new books get set aside for… probably more new books. And then I have even more old books that were bought but never read!

I don’t think this problem is specific to me. Have you had it? How do you deal with it?

Academics and fans: never the twain shall meet?

One of my perpetual irritations as a scholar of anime and manga is the disdain that some academics hold for fans. I’m not talking about those scholars who just think all popular culture is trash. No, I’m talking about a subtler form of disrespect. I’ve been reading some old issues of the Journal of Asian Studies – going through the book reviews for things I ought to have read – and came across a review of Japan Pop! that brought it to mind. I should note that the author of the review isn’t blatantly disdainful, it’s just that the introduction to the review brought it to mind. She tries to briefly summarize the reason why Japan Pop! was put together (to bring together fans and academics) by casting fans as pleasure-seeking consumers and academics as critical analysts. This is a false dichotomy.

This particular dichotomy pops up a lot, so I’ll unpack it a bit. The review’s author does note that some academics are fans, but says that even so they want to analyze. The problem is that “analysis” is a very vague term that suggests intelligent/thoughtful action. If you sit down and think for a second, you can probably remember sitting down with someone at some point and going over a character’s motivations; that’s analysis! People do it every day. Pop culture fans in particular are known for incessantly going over what character did what in what series, why, what things in the real world might have nudged an artist toward making this, that or the other creative decision… Given the zounds of hard-core fans (to say nothing of casual movie-goers) out there and the relative paucity of culture-focused academics, fans analyze popular culture far more than academics.

Well, hey, now, how many fans reference Foucault, you might be thinking. I will grant not a ton, but more than you might think. How many students try to write papers on their favorite movie or TV show for their Intro Whatever course? In my experience, rather a lot. (And that’s not even counting all the other aspects of pop culture.) However, let’s leave aside how often – and critically – fans think about series. What about the academics?

This is where the disdain issue bugs me. Okay, irritates the heck out of me. One of the earliest academic books about anime is often favorably mentioned to me by academics who don’t really know their popular culture. (I won’t mention it, but if you know anime you most likely know the one I’m talking about.) Now, this book has gotten rather good reviews from various academics, and is looked down on by fans. Some of these academics know that fans look down on the book and take that to mean that the fans are silly widgins who just don’t care about critical thinking.

The book in question is full of factual inaccuracies. I’m talking everything from getting references wrong to getting plot/character details wrong. Admittedly, messing up a reference happens to everyone at some point, but this book is a particularly egregious example. The plot issue, however, undermines the whole book for me. A lot of the author’s arguments are based on the plots and characters of a handful of main anime – and s/he gets them wrong! Throughout the book!

I’ve heard academics who purport to study anime and manga argue that getting those plot details wrong doesn’t really matter. Really? Getting the facts that you’re basing your argument on wrong doesn’t undermine your argument? Seriously?

Let’s be honest: if I wrote a book about women in the Tale of Genji and I confused all of Genji’s paramours I would get jumped on faster than lightning. I would probably never get a job in academia again.

I’m not writing this to say that ye random anime of the week is of equal quality and academic interest to the first novel ever written. The thing is, anyone who is seriously trying to study popular culture needs to treat it with the same respect that other academics treat whatever they focus on.

Back to the fans=fun-loving lack of thought, academics=Serious Inquiry dichotomy, when a fan reads an academic book on their topic, they may not know the obscure scholar whose works are briefly mentioned on page 13 (and yes, most of the scholars referenced in academic work are obscure). They will know the series under discussion, and possibly have extensive knowledge of production details, including things like whether the studio pushed for sex scenes that the director never wanted, whether the series had to be ended early because the magazine it was published in was folding, assertions of plagiarism and so on. All of this affects the final product, and fans know it. Academics writing on popular culture are talking to a well informed audience – that happens not to know as much about critical theory as we do. Sloppy research will be caught quickly, and why would fans respect an academic who proves, on every page, that s/he does not know what s/he is talking about?

I’ll give another, similar example. Japan Pop! is a bit different than the unnamed book above. It’s meant to bring together academics and fans, and it came from a conference aimed at the same. It ends up being a bit uneven as some of the authors focus more on fans or more on academics, but that’s to be expected. Still, I remember wondering why a Canadian girl’s Sailor Moon doujinshi was included. Fans already know about doujinshi, and if the idea was to show academics who didn’t know anything about Japanese popular culture about the vibrancy of the doujinshi industry, why not include a Japanese one? Another article in the book argued that a shoujo manga showed great gender equality in Japanese culture – but looked at that one manga alone, without comparing to a sea of cookie-cutter manga that all show female characters being almost – but not quite – as smart as the boys. Taken as a group, the issues become clear, but the author missed the larger themes.

When I write, I try to assume what I’ll call a high level of uninformed intelligence. My imaginary reader may not have seen the movie or book in question and may not have learned the theories I’m using, but she has the ability to understand all of the above. That approach has, generally, worked for me. Even if an author assumes that I know five series and seventeen theories that I’ve never heard of, though, it’s fine with me so long as it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about. When you are blatantly uninformed about the topic that you chose to write about, however, I will have little interest in your work.


Presenting was… hectic. We had some technical difficulties, though we were able to wrap them up during my presentation. Still, I think it went well. Some tips for people prepping their first presentations:

*Read your presentation out loud to yourself repeatedly. Time it. One of the big problems that other presenters had was simply going over time. A little more careful prep work would have totally removed that worry. Because of our technical issue, I was really worried about time, too, but I got a compliment on my calm demeanor in the face of techie adversity and I wasn’t noticeably late, so it’s all good.
*Take a watch up to the podium with you. I meant to, was startled by tech issue, forgot and regretted it.
*Make eye contact as much as possible.
*When you practice your presentation, figure out just what works, not just for you, but for that presentation. Be rigorously, brutally honest. For example, I usually create an outline, make a Powerpoint that follows the draft and then practice out loud a few times. This time, however, my presentation was full of theory, my responses to those theories, others’ responses to those theories, my responses to the responses… NOT the kind of thing that one can reliably get right each and every time off the cuff. So I read from a written paper. A friend presented an interesting topic without a written outline and ended up giving a bit too much weight to a minor point at the end by accident – which she then got some pointed questions about. She told me later that she wished she had written something down. On the other hand, other presentations less based in critical theory were successfully delivered informally, and at least one presenter that I went to see read a paper in such a quiet, accented, mumbly voice that I barely caught anything. It varies.
*Use criticism/questions constructively. I mean that in the sense of “not destructively. If people ask you a critical question that you have trouble answering, all it means is that they have thought of an angle or weakness you didn’t. An angle you can now follow in your research, a weakness you can correct before you publish. And really, presenting a paper with a weakness is nothing. Presented papers are often “in progress”, meaning at varying states of research. I’ve always assumed that there ought to be a weakness in a presented paper.
*When answering questions, answer quickly. If the answer is, by the nature of the question, extensive, offer to go over it in detail later. You’ll be presenting with other people, and it’s generally polite for everyone to get at least one question. Don’t take up all the Q&A time.

So, how did it go for me? I got a few compliments (yay!), a pair of interesting questions (yay!) and a suggestion for how to expand my paper (should I use it for my dissertation) with the concomitant suggestion that if I did expand it, a certain journal might be interested in publishing it (double yay!). All in all, a successful hour and a half.

Aside from the actual presentation, I was able to go to a great party (that I’m not, in retrospect, sure I was actually invited to), hang out with friends I haven’t seen in awhile and visit Grad School town, which was all sorts of fun.

What next?

I’m graduating with a Master’s this summer, but I have no idea what will come next. Oh, I know where I will be staying (parents) and what I will be doing (looking for work), but there is no clear path from here to a Ph.D. program. If I was completely fluent in Japanese then I could try to get a job as a researcher or a Japanese archivist, either of which would add to my appeal as a potential grad student. But my Japanese isn’t good enough for that.

The obvious thing to do seems to be to go to Japan to learn Japanese, right? There are a few problems with that. JET, the most common way that grad students have gone to Japan, has weird timing for U.S. applicants. If I apply (and I most likely will), I will still need a job to keep me occupied for several months beforehand. Aside from JET, I could just go as a regular assistant English teacher. But the programs that I have looked at seem to have hilariously low pay. To be fair, they tend to throw in free/reduced housing, some form of health insurance and whatever taxes are applicable. Even considering that, I’m looking at very low salaries – most likely too low to live on. The assumption seems to be that one will take some unofficial tutoring jobs on the side, but I’m leery of accepting a job where I will be financially required to take on another job, which may or may not exist. And a second job would take away time that I might spend studying Japanese.

So, Japan is a last resort. What is there in America? Moreover, what is there in the eastern half of America? There are a fair number of opportunities in politics and economics, but I do culture, and those jobs have nothing to do with teaching. I could try to get a job as an English or Japanese teacher, but apparently an advanced degree with a strong focus on Japanese literature in translation does not qualify one to teach high school students basic literature according to the No Child Left Behind Act. There aren’t any open Japanese teaching positions that I could apply for, and even if there were I would be limited to those aimed at lower-level courses because of my abilities. (I’m not bad at Japanese; I’m actually quite good at it. Just not fluent.)

In theory I could try for a more culture-focused job on the West Coast, but then I would be in the position of possibly moving across the nation for a short period of time, not being near my family or friends, and having limited options for interviewing for the job in the first place.

All of which boils down to, finding a job is hard work. No news there. I just thought that by this point in my life I would have a better handle on my career.