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.

Update

I mentioned a post or two back that I’ve been busy and couldn’t really talk about it. Well, I’ve been busy because I got into a Ph.D. programme, and I didn’t want to talk about it until I gave notice at the office. Of course, after I gave notice I got so busy I didn’t have time to make a personal post – and really, y’all would rather hear about Inception anyway, right?

Blogging may be slow for the next month or so, as I’m packing up and moving across the country. With any luck, as I get farther and farther into my Ph.D. this blog will get more and more interesting. That’s the working theory, at any rate 🙂

Syllabi, continued

Sorry for the wait, I’m afraid that I got rather busy, then sick, then busy catching up from being sick… it’s been hectic. I’ve got a few things in progress on this blog, and the lack of recent progress on them is due entirely to the busy-sick-busy-ness of my recent life. I haven’t forgotten any of it, though, I promise.

To pick up on the theoretical syllabus for an anime course that I’ve been making, my thoughts have been running along the lines of “how would I organize the class?” I don’t mean in terms of class discussion versus lecture versus Blackboard postings, I mean how will I set up the course so that it builds to a conclusion in a natural manner. I could (easily) go into a classroom and lecture on Miyazaki one day, cyberpunk anime the next, production methods on day three and so on until three months pass and the students have learned a smattering of this and that but don’t have a coherent body of work to take with them in the future. That wouldn’t be very good use of anyone’s time though.

I’m leaning toward using the question “what do anime tell us about Japan?” as an organizing principle. Now, I’m a bit leery of that, for a number of reasons. But I think that it fits into the real world of college (i.e. department structure, diversity and other class requirements) very well, and I think it would let me tie together a number of disparate issues that I think ought to be covered.

I considered other organizational structures, but they feel off to me in various ways. For example, I could start with early animation and move my way up through time to today, looking at what issues were covered when and how alongside evolving production techniques. That has the benefit of giving students a better basis for judging whether a work is derivative or actually represents something new and interesting. However, that also limits discussion in a number of ways, and emphasizes technical aspects, like the CGI or hand-drawing debate, over the issues discussed in individual works.

So, back to the theoretical syllabus as it stands. Focused on seeing what anime tells us about Japan, we start reading a chapter of Peach Girl in class on the first day and then watching the first episode of the anime version. Right off the bat, we’re both problematizing the idea of judging anime without knowledge of the materials on which it was based (assuming it isn’t an original). Then we segue into talking about what the anime tells us about Japan/life in Japan. We can start with simple things – school uniforms, how people refer to each other. But that sets us up for the semester: What do we learn about Japan through anime? If its students wear uniforms, why is that? What does that tell us about the society? In turn, what do the things we learn about Japan tell us about the United States and our lives here?

Hopefully, that will get them thinking.

Syllabi

Inspired in part by talk at Dr. Crazy’s about syllabi (here and here), and challenged by a friend, I’ve been thinking about making a sample syllabus for a course for fun and practice recently. (Wild times at my house, my friends.) The challenge was for an intro contemporary Japanese literature course, but after giving it some thought I don’t feel ready to make a syllabus for that topic yet. Japanese literature isn’t my thing. I’m intending, should I ever make it into a Ph.D. program, to study it more, and I’ve been consciously reading much more of it (in both English and Japanese) recently, but I’m not at that level yet.

I actively avoided modern Japanese literature for a long time. I don’t like I-novels, and since I was such an immature scholar it wasn’t as though I lacked things to study. I’ve taken several courses now that either focused on or included decent chunks of premodern Japanese lit, so despite my contemporary pop culture interests I’m more comfortable with premodern than modern lit. After a lot of thought, I ended up deciding to try making a syllabus for an intro course on anime and manga.

I’m working on that now. I seem to think about syllabi a bit differently from my friend and Dr. Crazy. I can’t just come up with a list of things I want to cover, I have to organize them more. For example, I was thinking that if the class was longer (two or three hours) – which is the length of the pop culture courses I’ve taken in the past – a good way to deal with the first day would be to do all of the standard introductions, have them read the first chapter or two of Peach Girl and then show the first episode of the anime. If I were just making a list of stuff that I felt was important enough to cover, Peach Girl would never make it on there. But when I start thinking about what issues I want to cover, the relationship between anime and manga comes up. The first episode of Peach Girl stands out in my mind as a perfect example of taking each picture and word from the manga directly to the screen and animating the necessary bridging movements. Showing the students such a plain adaptation going in would, I hope, set them up to look for more complex adaptations in everything else we watch.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’ve got some ideas for themes and concepts that I would want to cover, but I have to figure out how to best get it all together. I think this project might take awhile, but I’m excited about it. After I get a syllabus done for this course, I think I might make one for a course on Japanese film. If the beginning of the anime course came to me quickly, the end of the film course is just early; naturally, Millennium Actress would be perfect last-day viewing.

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.