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Review of Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’ Professional Identity
The book comprises eight chapters, the first four of which provide detailed background information on the study and methodology for data collection. The three chapters that come after present findings from three separate studies, offering readers a preview into Japanese tertiary education from three separate viewpoints. The final chapter summarizes the main findings of the three studies and deliberates on the pedagogical consequences resulting from these studies.
Chapter 1 provides introductory comments and the rationale for the study. It has been noted that many Japanese people are unable to speak simple English despite undergoing a minimum of six years learning the language in school and an additional four years at the tertiary level. University graduates’ inability to communicate in English has also drawn flack from the corporate community, who inevitably see the need to play an active role in improving the communication skills of their newly hired recruits. In 2002/2003, the Ministry of Education, Health, Science and Welfare (MEXT) in Japan revised its course of studies and directed an emphasis on spoken communication and the study of culture (Neustupny & Tanaka, 2004). For English language education, MEXT’s Action Plan included: introducing it in elementary schools; improving secondary school teachers’ pedagogy and communicative skills; increasing students’ motivation and language abilities; and creating alternative types of university entrance examinations (MEXT, 2003). Whilst these reforms seemed adequate, little attention was paid to English education at the tertiary level, besides addressing the topic of alternative university entrance examinations. Also, notably absent was mention of university English classes or the teachers teaching English at universities; however, there was a need to improve university teachers’ communicative and/or pedagogical skills and/or raise the quality of teacher education programs. This proved surprising, especially after ministries and business organizations called for measures to improve the communication of undergraduates’ English language (Apsinall, 2006). The purpose of this book is to draw attention to an under-researched, yet highly influential group of teachers who wield tremendous influence on English language education in Japan; the Japanese teachers of English in Japanese universities. The author says that the failure to bring tertiary English education into the official discourse of reforming English education in Japan may impede MEXT’s Action Plan aiming to create a nation of English speakers.
Chapter 2 places the study within the sociocultural context of Japan and focuses on a variety of issues that have shaped English language learning and language teaching in Japan. The start of the chapter provides a brief historical overview of English education and explanations for the lack of widespread English proficiency. The author then moves on to provide some background information on the complex relationship between educational backgrounds and positions in industry, which, she points out, tend to be gender biased. Whilst the number of Japanese female students in higher education has reached parity with male students, women’s professional opportunities are still limited as a result of a stratified educational system and gendered sociopolitical attitudes. In addition, women do not seem privy to an educational system that results in a profession, but rather, they choose universities depending on factors related to societal expectations. In addition, English is considered a ‘feminine subject,’ making it one of the most popular area of studies for women. The remainder of Chapter 2 provides interesting and important information on the Japanese world of academia, for example, the characterization of a ‘good’ Japanese professor, which Poole (2010) identifies as two competing discourses that reflect contrasting ideologies in the workplace – ‘uchimuki’ (i.e. facing inward) and ‘sotomuki’ (i.e. facing outward). Poole’s study provides useful insight on the way(s) teachers see themselves within the university and how others see them as professionals. Finally, the author provides informative data about the underrepresentation of female professors in all areas as well as their lagging behind male professors when it comes to promotions.
Chapter 3, ''Knowledge, Beliefs and Identity,'' reviews relevant literature that deals with the teacher’s knowledge, beliefs and identity, and introduces several key studies on professional identity development in non-native English speaking teachers in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) contexts and in the Japanese context. The studies in this chapter highlight the struggles of non-native speaker teachers in the areas of pedagogy and methodology; these could be attributed to culture differences, for example, the communicative language teaching method advocated by Western linguists may not be suitable for the less vocal, more self-conscious EFL learner (and non-native English speaking teacher). Chapter 3 concludes with a discussion of identity development in teachers in post-secondary and higher education.
In Chapter 4, the author introduces her research methods and participants, and outlines her data-collection process for the studies in Chapters 5-7, as well as her analytical approaches to the data. Since the purpose of the study is to investigate teachers’ professional lives, the author provides an impressive list of studies that make a case for narrative research as an appropriate methodological approach. She explains that this approach makes extensive use of the actual words that people use to tell their stories when describing their life experiences. In addition, narrative research has been found to be an ideal tool for analyzing the beliefs, knowledge, practice and identity of teachers in general education. Chapter 4 concludes with the author acknowledging that her own unique position within the study, both as an insider and outsider, is likely not only to have colored how she retells the participants’ interview data, but also how she approaches the research. Having lived and worked in Japan for more than 30 years, she considers herself an insider within the research context, whilst at the same time, an outsider who is a native speaker of English and who has had an educational background that differs from the participants. As Bell (2002: 210) argues, when interpreting data, personal, subjective interpretations will impose meaning on the participants’ life experiences.
The following three chapters comprise the analysis section of the book. The first segment, Chapter 5, ''Developing Professional Identity,'' provides details on how four teachers who are relatively new to their professions developed their professional identities as researchers and members of Japanese universities. The aim of the study in this chapter is to determine the principal work-related activities these teachers engage in and how they construct their identity as they familiarize themselves with their work. In order to analyze the teachers’ narratives, the author refers to Wenger’s (1998) Theory of Identity. The author states that this was an important group of teachers to research, as they had just begun to embark on a teaching career at a time when universities in Japan were undergoing changes. Poole (2003, 2010) describes some of these changes as ‘remarkable,’ as they challenged the autonomous role to which universities and professors had previously been privy, for example, an attitude of indifference towards teaching and a preference for conducting research. Today, Japanese university teachers are often required to participate in activities that result in less time for research.
Chapter 6, ''It’s a Man’s World,'' investigates the impact gender has on the professional identity of seven female teachers, ranging in age from their early 30s to early 60s, using Gee’s (2000) conceptualization of identity, which he defines as ‘being a certain type of person in a given context’ (p. 99). Gee offers four perspectives to view how people see themselves: identity formed by nature; identity that is bestowed from institutions; identity that develops through interactions with others; and identity that occurs when one is affiliated with a group or system.
Finally, Chapter 7,''‘Teaching Is What I ‘Do’, Not Who I Am’,'' presents an in-depth study of one of the female participants, Miwa. The aim of this study is to unearth how pedagogical practices in the classroom reflect both personal and professional identity. The participant is found to have conflicting identities and feelings, as she sees herself as a literature scholar, having spent more than a decade training in this field, yet her professional responsibilities require her to teach the English language, which she does not particularly deem to be an important aspect of her work.
Chapter 8 completes the book by re-examining the findings of each of the studies presented in Chapters 5-7. The author also includes considerations for future research directions and provides some tangible pedagogical suggestions for English language education within the Japanese tertiary context.
‘Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’ Professional Identity’ is the product of a study that has its origins in formal academia, yet it is written and presented in a reader-friendly format that makes it accessible, not only to the research community and English language teachers, but also to just about anyone interested in teaching and learning about higher education in Japan.
On page 1, the author clearly identifies the purpose of the book, i.e., to draw attention to a group of Japanese teachers that seem to have been passed over whilst the whole of Japan’s education system underwent reforms. This oversight comes as a surprise, considering that while the inability to speak English has proven to be an area of concern, especially from potential employers who question these graduates’ language abilities, little is known about the teachers who play an imminent role in the wide-reaching influence of English language education in Japan. This absence of understanding is addressed by the author, who provides a ‘thick’ ethnographic account of how these teachers develop a professional identity as they become part of the community of practice of English language teachers at the tertiary level in Japan. The presentation of the teachers’ identities makes for complex and complicating outcomes, as the author has to take into consideration both professional and personal domains. Without coming across as discriminating or biased towards any particular country’s system, the findings are constructively and systematically analyzed and cover a range of important issues that shape English education in Japan; for example, the issue of gender marginalization and the construct of a good university professor, which are influenced by cultural, professional and societal expectations.
As a whole, the chapters are organized methodically to provide readers with background information, spanning from historical to present day events that have shaped Japanese education, particularly, English language education at the tertiary level. Another interesting section of the book is the detailed information on Japanese professors and how socio-political contexts are intertwined with professional contexts and expectations, which gives readers an understanding of the ‘inner’ workings of tertiary education, all of which are relatable to the second part of the book. This second part, focusing on Japanese teachers’ cognition and identity, is where the author individually examines teachers using the narrative methodological approach. Teachers, like all other human beings, are storytellers who individually and socially lead storied lives (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) and their stories provide a narrative thread that teachers draw upon to make sense of their experience and themselves (Connelly and Clandinin, 1999). Beijaard, Meijer & Verloop (2004) point out, ‘through storytelling, teachers engage in narrative ‘theorizing’ and, based on that, teachers may further discover and shape their professional identity resulting in new or different stories’ (p. 121). In this study, the author adopts the narrative research perspective, which is considered especially appropriate for studying careers (Cohen, 2006), as it postulates two fundamental questions: firstly, what does the narrative or story reveal about the person and world from which it came; and secondly, how can this narrative be interpreted so that it provides an understanding and illuminates the life and culture that created it? (Patton, 2002:115). In order to understand how the participants make sense of events and actions that intersect between their personal and working lives which, in turn, enables the construction of ‘a sense of their professional identity’ (Nagatomo, 2012), the author relies on two main forms of data collection: verbatim accounts; and class observations of the teacher who participants considered as important sources for discovering life stories (Atkinson, 1998, 2001). As such, the author’s adoption of the narrative research perspective is justified, as it provides an effective way to undertake the ‘systematic study of personal experiences and meaning: how active subjects have constructed events’ (Reissman, 1993: 78).
This book is of obvious interest to different groups of readers; firstly, policy makers must be aware of the relevance of understanding teachers’ Funds of Knowledge, which, according to Gonzalez and Moll (2002: 625), acknowledges that people are competent and have knowledge, and that their life experiences have given them that knowledge. As such, it is necessary to have a good understanding of a person’s (in this case, the teachers’) knowledge, life experiences and strengths before making calls for reforms and addressing deficiencies. Scholars of language study, particularly, teacher trainers, will find this book invaluable, as the reflections of the participants show that a one-size-fits-all type of pedagogical training may not be effective, and that consideration of the trainee’s sociocultural, political and personal contexts needs to be considered in order to yield best practices. Researchers intending to study teachers’ identity and beliefs will find the research methodology useful and easily replicated. Finally, this book will prove extremely useful to anyone intending to consider a teaching position in Japan. From the ‘backpacker’ (Thornbury, 2002) teacher to university teachers and researchers, this book is a must-read, as it gives a better understanding of the inner workings of the Japanese education system, in particular, the workplace culture. As a language teacher, I used to wonder why young Japanese undergraduates seemed to display an air of indifference in English classes when Japanese society in general is known to be polite and respectful. After reading this book, I now understand these juxtaposed attitudes. I truly enjoyed reading ‘Exploring Japanese University Teachers’ Professional Identity’ from the perspective of a language scholar, teacher educator and English teacher.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jennifer Tan has taught English and Applied Linguistics courses at the tertiary level in Malaysia, Singapore and neighboring South East Asian countries. She has also worked at SEAMEO-RELC, training and supervising teachers around the ASEAN region. Presently, she is senior lecturer at the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Some of her research interests and on-going projects are relate to reflective practices in teaching and learning and the concepts of self-efficacy, identity, beliefs and collaboration. Future research projects, which consider the Funds of Knowledge Framework, include best practices in teaching and learning, and classroom discourse.