Monday, March 29, 2010

Thoughts on Waseda - 6 Months In

Pre-post: Sorry this took a while. This is a mix of descriptions of Waseda stuff for those curious, either for pure interest or because they're going to Waseda at some point (I hope it might be that useful, anyway). It is rather complaint ridden, as I had a lot of complaints this year, so I apologize in advance.

I am now about halfway through my 11 month stint as an international student in Tokyo. I've had so many experiences, a plethora of frustrations preceeding ecstatic triumphs, that is is hard to believe I still have more to go. The emotional toll has just been so heavy, it is like the cliche where my mind has been on a roller coaster, and I can only now be thankful that the second hill is always smaller,...and ignore for the moment that we always would prefer it were bigger. For now, I want to focus on the source of a lot of my day-to-day stress: Waseda University.

I really don't talk about Waseda as much as I can, and it perhaps does not come through how big a role it has. I really only talk about the school when I feel something important or confusing happens. Yet, I am always thinking about it. Even during my break I am thinking about school, it's really just my nature. One of the reasons I enjoyed going home so much was how hard it was to think of Waseda -- I could just forget about it for a while. Let's now look at what exactly it is I was forgetting.

Classes at Waseda are at once familiar to me, as they take place in rather similar formats to those at American University. The major difference is that classes are all an hour and a half, with fifteen minute breaks between them, instead of an hour and fifteen with ten minute breaks. On paper, no big deal, even my high school courses were longer than my AU courses. Unfortunately, in practise, this is much harder to deal with and I pretty consistently felt class was over at least 30minutes before it actually was, nearly every class, about every day until the very end of the semester. Once you feel class should be over, it is impossible to regain full composure - it's just a nuisance. Add to this my morning Japanese course was three hours and took place nearly everyday I had any class whatsover, I was already warn down by the start of the day. Basically I would wake up and dread going to class solely due to the length of each individual class, except for on Fridays where I only had two courses, with significant time between the blocks. I guess the main problem I have with course length was that my Japanese course was so very long and everpresent. Yet, course length is meaningless next to course content. If you enjoy the course content, it really does not matter at all how long the course actually is, though it is also reliant on the professors, who are hit or miss anywhere. So I will take a quick moment and examine each course. I will put the department the course is in in ()s.

Japanese Language: Level 2 Core (CJL) -- there is absolutely no reason for this course to be three hours. It really is set-up so you learn from the books doing homework, so going to class feels like a pointless exercise. I would much prefer this course broken up into meeting 5 days a week, for one block each (the course has been reduced to 5 blocks instead of 6 this coming semester, but still meets in 3 day blocks). It would make focusing so much easier and force us to get at least some practise everyday! Really, I learned some grammar points and kanji with the help of this course, and did somewhat improve my reading aloud abilities, but I think it fell flat in helping me express myself in Japanese. Mostly I just felt like my language abilities were unsubstantial, and took a huge drain to my self-esteem day after day. I am willing to admit this is in part my own fault for transfering up a level, but I feel it is also Waseda's for not placing all of the students in the proper level to begin with -- a signficant amount of the students in my class could have been a level higher, but were advised not to because their level 2 abilities were not 100%. This kind of led to a situation where half the class felt the course was too slow/easy, and sped it up, and half the course feeling it was too fast and could not keep up...who were basically ignored. There was literally a time where our teacher asked a student the answer to a problem from a tape we were working on, the student said she did not understand at all, so the teacher promptly moved on to the next student -- and the next, and finally the fourth asked knew the answer. Then she moved on to the next problem as if nothing happened. There were two professors teaching this...I don't know either of their names.

Kanji Level 2 (CJL) -- again, the actual class was rather unnecessary considering the material. Basically we came in, took an exam, and then drew kanji with brush pens for an hour or so. There was some reading practise, and more review than in my core class, but the amount of useful work done in class could have been reduced to about 20-30 minutes. Thankfully, it was only once a week and the professor was really enjoyable, so I feel the pluses outweigh the minuses. The only way this could have been better is if the teacher dismissed us early all the time, which probably would have lost her her job. I do not remember the professor's name.

History of Russian; From Lenin to Putin and Medvedev (SILS) -- this course was fantastic. For the most part we covered a lot of history, the readings were interesting, and the professors lectures were interesting. The professor tried a few activities, that were rather hit-or-miss, but the course was pretty consistently enjoyable. This was basically the only course I consistently looked forward to twice a week. Taught by Prof. David Holley.

Movements in Japanese Intellectual History (SILS) -- this course was very interesting, but dreadfully long. I felt a lot of the information covered in class was rather dry and biographical, highlighted with interesting tidbits and some actual analysis spread out somewhat thin. The professor was pretty charming and delightful to talk to, and really knew his stuff, but was using way too much dry and uninteresting filler in his lectures. I dreaded going to class, for the most part, but it was not uncommon for me to enjoy being there once I was there. Basically I felt class only served to sporadically offer me new reading material to look into, as there was no required reading for the course itself. I think a large part of my dread in going was due to one of my classmates, though, who I would rather not publically belittle and so I won't. Taught by Prof. Adrian Pinnington.

History of Mathematics (SILS) -- I felt I learned a lot in this course, and really enjoyed it. I kind of had a mixture of dread and joy in waiting to go to class, as it is out of my field, but very interesting. It was a little tough, but not too tough. Taught by Prof. Nathan Sidolli.

Here I should also address a common complaint - that the courses at Waseda are too easy. This, for the most part, is true. Although I typically put a lot into the work I do, I found an overwhelming lack of outlets to put this effort. In the cases where I held back on putting my full work ethic in, I was rewarded more or less as well as if I had given it my all. Granted this is avoidable with a luck and research in choosing classes, it seems rather guaranteed that some courses will feel like you were short-changed in expectactions. Dissappointing as it is, it gives us international students an easier time in getting the most out of Tokyo, so I would feel hypocritical if I complained too much.

Another large aspect of Waseda is how it connects back to your home university. Here was another mixed bag. Everything I take transfers back to AU, as is (exception: A+ becomes an A), credit for credit, with the virtue of an easier grading scale (a C at Waseda would be a D at AU, so the range for an A becomes 80+ which is amazingly sweet). The downside is that what courses are actually offerred are rather odd and not necessarily useful (referring to SILS). This is kind of worsened by the fact that SILS  is a majorless system, so there is not really any need to offer any particular courses at any particular time. For someone like me, who is trying to graduate a double-major, this should make things easier but often doesn't. Basically I find I need to take rather particular classes to count for my majors back home, giving me an extremely limited selection as opposed to studying back at AU, and leaves me forgoing a lot of really intersting courses. This is in part due to an incomplete planning on my part, but is also due to some incompatabilities between schools - they are just trying to do different things.

This leads to another aspect that is important - the Japanese school year starts in the spring, rather than the fall. This has caused a few things to be rather inconvenient or uncomfortable. Most signifiicantly, (most) clubs do not give a crap about recruiting new members. As a fresh student, you need to try and join clubs that are not in anyway advertising themselves, join the clubs that are catering to you (in my experience: they just run really expensive events and outings), or go without. I have basically chosen to go without, though I will look into it more next semester. The other issue this has presented is that they decided to change aspects of the system...which means that things will be done differently this second semester when compared to the first. This is a blessing and a curse. A curse because we are guinea pigs and the system still has some faults, a blessing because it means I will see the result of a lot of complaining my group and previous groups have lobbied at the school. Most prominently, course selection has switched from paper only to digital only. This is kind of nice, but the system still has some issues. An example is that when you register for courses, if too many apply for the same course you will be put in a lotto and either enter the course or be declined. This is normal. What is not, is that you get no notification if you are declined entrance -- this means there is no explanation for why you are not in that course. The way to find out whether or not you got entry is to search for the course on the syllabus, if it does not show up it is filled. This happened to me, and was magnified due to the results of registration coming in early -- on a day where a different registration result was supposed to come in. Likely this would not have been a big deal if it had been properly done by their own system, the problem is that we have to use a buggy new system.

As for the old system, I feel there is little reason to criticize it now that it's gone. It was a hassle to have a tiny window of registration, and to have to do it on campus. The system still provides a tiny window, but at least now there is improved freedom with add/drop. Really the only dissappointing aspect is that paper registration is completely gone, which is probably for the best anyway.

The next aspect of life at Waseda worth talking about is the campus itself. It is a really weird mix of design, parts of it are utterly gorgeous, other parts are exceptionally gross. most of the buildings are kind of not designed-well, functionally. I will explain. Most of the buildings are really plain, brick buildings set to a sort of grid -- it is like walking through some sort of factory or warehouse complex. The exceptions to this are without a doubt the clocktower and the library, both of which are gorgeos, and perhaps the cafeteria...which is kind of a hidden glass building. The library and clocktower are both gorgeous brick buildings, that kind of have the charm of older european towers and such. They also really well placed, they kind of glow when the sun rises or sets. They both are pretty inside, too, with library being enormous and modern, the clock tower being a big auditorium (ok, not too gorgeous but it is functional and nice). Other buildings do not have such pretty insides, such as building 11 - where I take my SILS courses. There is a large stair case going from the first to second floor, but half of it is blocked by a wall. Those two floors, and every other floor, is then only connected by really tiny escalators -- causing huge traffic jams between classes. The first floor is kind of pretty, but the rest is kind of plain. There are also elevators, but you can only use them if you are going to the professor's offices -- on the 9th floor and above. There is a sister building set up the same way, and then all the other buildings have similar eccentricies. Building 22, where I take my Japanese courses, is has a very pretty lobby, and at least has stairs and a few elevators between every floor, but is filled with really plain looking hallways and rooms (which is completely fine). The the other aspect effecting the campus's aesthetics are these kind of wooded areas and grassy areas, which greatly improve the look of the parts of campus where we do not have class buildings. They are gorgeous to walk through to and from campus, but you don't really see them going from building to building (at least not 11 and 22, which is where I am normally going). Kind of unfortunate. There are also less pretty set-ups, like this big dirt field, but it is kind of out of the way, surrounded by trees, and normally only used when it is set up for a festival -- in which case it is covered in tents/booths. The only part of campus I feel deserves particular criticism is the main quad, between buildings 11 and I think 12 or 14 -- it is a very small, steep hill with some dying grass on it. Maybe it will look better during the spring, but it is just kind of sad as the only real grass on campus. That does not make it any less fun to sit or lay on, but it is kind of a hassle to get to. It does look really pretty, in the right sun, and it is fun to look down from the top, or at some of the large towers, but when I see it from the bottom it is typically just sad.

The final juicy piece I want to talk about is campus life. I live in an International Student House, which I was not expecting when I was applying to the program. My major problem is actually that -- a lot of the information AU has and Waseda provides is out-dated or not meant for SP3 (study plan 3 -- one year/semester abroad) students like me. Basically the information we were fed was that we would be in buildings up to an hour - hour and a half from campus, no visitors allowed, curfew set, but that they would be guaranteed singles, a tad cheaper, and breakfast and dinner would be provided. Now, I think other schools had more up to date information, but this is only the case for full on Waseda Students -- Japanese or SP2 (international, not abroad). What we get are International Dorms, which are much more conveniently located, and tend to have nicer rules...though 2 of the 3 have rules against outsiders, at least now (I think they all used to have freer access). My main issue moving in was that I did not have free meals. Daily life in the dorms is alright, often I feel it barely tolerable. My dorm is rather dirty, it is often cleaned poorly or not at all. It is hard to complain too much about the old state of the building as it just now is undergoing rennovations, but first semester was pretty tough. I guess my biggest problems now are in regards to the water. Each room has a private bathroom (toilet and sink), but the sink is only cold water...which is apparently pretty common in Japanese households, but really uncomfortable. I would use the public toilet for its warm water sink, but it is always locked. The other issue is the showers -- our dorm and our dorm only has this kind of lever shower, that I have complained about before. Basically you push the lever down, and get about 5 to 10 seconds of water. If you keep it pressed you get a continuous stream, it is rather uncomfortable. On top of that, the water pressure on most is either extremely powerful or extremely weak. There are showers with a longer water flow time, but they all either have weak pressure or fluctuating pressure, and all have fluctuating temperatures (they are also underground so are way colder in the morning). I feel kind of spoiled complaining about all this, but it makes for rather uncomfortable day to day life, which messes with the nerves and adds stress. Kind of a problem, though I think most other people are better at dealing with it than me.

Other than this, there's not much to say. Tokyo life is city life, pretty isolated from other people -- you really don't need to speak a lot of Japanese, or any, to get by. I find Waseda life rather unpleasant a lot of the time, but I came into it in general upset about leaving AU and the US when I did, and just generally sad at the prospect of being in Japan for a year. Despite that, I still feel I have had a rather good and pleasant experience overall, I have met some really cool people, done some really cool things, and just generally been having a good time when I let myself. I think I am in a better state of mind for this second semester, and expect it to paint a better picture. I am interacting a bit more, likely to have some sort of tutoring job (that I may or may not want anymore), I may join a club, and, after all is said and done, I come back home for good pretty soon (not to mention I have finally had my break and trip back home, though I would have felt more refreshed if I did my trip before I went home -- still feeling pretty good). Basically my hopes for this coming semester is to be a little less neurotic and just enjoy it more than I have been. I'd say expect a lot less complaints in future posts, but it is kind of my nature to complain and poke fun at negative things that bug me. We'll see how it goes!

Actually, that is not a very satisfying description of the future. I have picked my courses for next semester -- for Japanese I am taking a core, which should prove the same as the previous one (though it is dependent on the professor), an expression of basic grammar course - which I hope will aid my expression and my grammar skills, and a novel reading course - which I hope will improve my reading. I feel kind of odd not taking a Kanji course, but they aren't that useful, really. As for clubs, my hope is to find and join the fencing club, but at the same time I don't want to find them as my lack of equipment here could keep me from being eligible. On the other hand, I have started interacting with some of my classmates more, and may end up joining this "Sempai-Project" organization, aimed at helping integrate younger classmates (Sempai are basically older students). All of my SILS courses should count for something back at AU, and I basically have my next semester there planned out, so I am much less concerned about all of that than I was last semester. Housing is still proving tricky, but I haven't pulled out all the stops to find a place. Finally...I can't do much to make my dorm more pleasant, but I am in a single, which is a significant start. I am buying more variety in groceries, and able to store most of it here in the room with me, which is pleasant, and I have been willing to replace various necessities that do not necessarily need to be replaced, but generally make life here easier and more pleasant (I got a new bowl, some more containers, a bigger cup, etc). I also may decorate the room a bit, maybe get a plant or hang up one of these "Noren" (the cloth you put in front of a room) I got as gifts for people. Basically, I am at a state where I recognize there are a lot of problems with Tokyo and Waseda, but I instead of just whining about it, I hope to turn it around and see those areas that can be improved upon, and counting the rest as less big a deal. And, again, worst case scenerio -- I can count the days 'till I'm home and full-time complaining about AU again!

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