In his own words: Life as a sensei

Associate Professor of Communications Glenn Scott is on leave this year to serve as a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Japan. In this column, he shares some of his experiences as he (re)adjusts to life overseas.

Here is the concept that so far has the students in my “American Culture & Society” course most perplexed: informality. They understand the idea. Surely, they’ve been around enough Americans here on the Japanese island of Okinawa – and they’ve seen enough Hollywood movies – to agree that we Americans are rather unconcerned about the urgencies of hierarchy.

But that doesn’t make it easier to grasp how, as I’ve explained to students here at the University of the Ryukyus, some of my Elon students in America can feel comfortable calling me by my first name. To my face. Like it’s nothing.

“Ehhhhh?” they ask, the inflection rising. “They call you . . . (pause) . . . Glenn?”

So desu yo. Not even Glenn Sensei, as if they’ve forgotten whether it’s my first or last name. Just plain Glenn. And these tend to be the students with whom I’ve worked regularly. Social hierarchies do exist in America, I assure my students. They’re just not as sharply defined or required as in Japan. (I haven’t dived into economic hierarchies, but it’s coming.)

My delightful students here in Okinawa get the point about informal Americans, but of course they don’t live in America, and neither do I at this moment. I’m here for a school year on a Fulbright lecture grant sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In a big way, I’m also sponsored by Elon, which made my year possible. I’ve lived and worked in Japan previously, but I’m still a student of the cultural concepts here, such as the rules of formality. All of this leads to some interesting choreography when, for instance, I approach a crowded doorway on campus and the students around me just sort of recede to allow the sensei to pass first – something they’ve done all their lives. Being out of my league at this, I too often forget what I’m doing and yield to the students in front of me, bungling the whole deal so no one can pass.

The lesson: when in Okinawa, act like a sensei, a teacher. Play the role and blow through the door first. Moves the traffic along.

The sunrise as seen from Scott’s balcony.

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It’s mid-October, and fall classes have been in session for two weeks. Tree leaves aren’t changing, but occasional sunrises have been splendid. Universities in Japan run on a different schedule. The year begins in April and the first semester ends with exams in early August. My wife, Misako, son, Kevin, and I arrived in Okinawa just as students were taking off for the steamy-hot summer break through September, which also coincided with the last part of typhoon season. This fall semester runs into winter and ends in early February, when the temperatures will plummet to around 55 degrees.

The students here at the daigaku, which means university, are full of life and energy. They initiated the semester with a huge student festival with smoky food booths and a moderate level of chaos. Outside the stricter practices of the classroom lecture, the students are funny, hurried and usually surrounded by pals. Many of my students are enrolled in 10 or 11 unique two-credit courses. This is normal. Most also work part-time jobs, often in convenience stores or cafes. I have a couple of baristas because, yes, Starbucks is here, too.

The weekly rhythm is not like Elon’s. Each course meets once a week for 90 minutes. Professors do issue homework assignments but they tend to require fewer weekly projects and papers than we do. Bigger papers are typically due at the end of the 16-week semester. It’s an exceptional exercise in time management for these students to handle the details of 10 courses, and the profs are always rushing somewhere, too, like another faculty meeting. I’m curious to watch and record some of this, and I hope to report back to colleagues and students at Elon in some depth on how the system works.

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The Fulbright program calls for us to teach in English. Some of my students are English majors – it’s a foreign language here – and most are so far handling my presentations with charity. In a first-day questionnaire, one student reassured me that “it’s easy to hear your English because you speak slowly to us.” Several have studied in places like Texas, California and British Columbia. Only one has visited North Carolina, and all I could get her to admit is that we have a lot of trees there. She probably knows more, but knowing and talking in class are two distinct processes. Japanese students don’t say much formally in class, though they like to smile and be entertained just like some other students we know.

I have to teach myself not to instinctively finish a lecture by asking, “Well, do you have questions?” Made that mistake about five times now. Hasn’t been a question yet. Other professors advise me there won’t be questions, no matter how often I resort to American techniques. Here is why: To ask a question is to imply one or more embarrassing concessions. It can mean the student wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Or didn’t do the homework well enough. Or isn’t sharp enough to “read the air” and deduce the answer.

But being a casual American who believes that we learn from mistakes, I’m wondering if I can introduce a tad of subversive thinking to prod my students to rethink the value of speaking up. We all ought to toy with a few “odd” social practices. Life in another place should teach us that.

That said, here’s another lesson I hope to learn here: I’d love to discover from my new colleagues how to persuade some of my casual and informal Elon students to pause and consider the implications before raising a hand in class to volunteer that, um, what was the question again?

To follow Scott’s blog about teaching and living in Okinawa, go to