Atami and Teaching during COVID-19

Ever since COVID-19 became an issue, those of us at universities have had to make a number of adjustments to the way we work, particularly the way we teach. Much of my summer, rather than being spent on research as it would normally would be, has been spent thinking, planning and preparing teaching for the up-coming academic year. Over the last six months, I’ve read lots of useful pages on the Internet, received lots of advice, and many directives. As I read and hear much of this, the word that kept popping into my head was ‘Atami’.

To those unfamiliar with Atami, it’s a city in Japan, south-west of Tokyo and Yokohama, not far from Mount Fuji and at the head of the Izu Peninsula.

Atami is located in the centre of the map, on the edge of Sagami Bay

Atami is easy to access – being served by trains from Tokyo by JR East, and on the shinkansen by JR Central. With no passing lines and a relatively low speed limit here, it’s possible to get photographs of passing shinkansen at the station (Shin-Kobe is similar although all trains tend to stop there).

As for Atami itself, the image below is probably one fits with most people’s idea of the city, albeit probably from the other side (the station side). The key feature, as well as building hugging the coast, is the castle. I believe that the castle itself was part of the inspiration for a site in the original novel of You Only Live Twice, but it never became part of the film, although another castle, Himeji, did.

So how does Atami become related to teaching in a COVID-19 world? Part of the answer to that relates to the relatively low quality of the above photo and also the angle from which the photograph was taken. This photograph was taken when I stayed at a hotel in Atami while in Japan on the JET Programme. I was based in Seto, Aichi prefecture, but in January 1994, all of the JETs from the Chubu region met in Atami for a mid-block training seminar.

There are two things I remember from this stay in Atami.

First, by chance, Akebono, the sumo yokozuna, was staying at the same hotel. He briefly walked into one of the large meetings we were having, leading to much excitement. The only photograph (largely as this was the 1990s and so we didn’t carry around cameras or have phones for selfies as we would do now) I managed to get was when he was leaving the hotel and he got on his own bus. Again, the picture isn’t very clear, but in it you may just be able to make him out bracing his muscles, seemingly splitting his T-shirt as he did so. This moment has inspired a scene in my third novel, FOUR. Although I wouldn’t say that Akebono was my favourite rikishi, there was no doubt that he was a true yokozuna and seeing him came at a time when my love of sumo was at a particular high. Indeed, I was putting together my application to do a PhD at this time and had considered doing something related to sumo. Coincidentally, the first asageiko (morning training) I went to see, in 2018, was at Akebono’s old stable.

My other memory of the visit to Atami, and the relevant part to thinking about teaching now, is how so many JETs seem to have over-dosed on ‘Dead Poet’s Society‘. The movie itself had come out in 1989, at a time when most of us on JET were starting out at university probably.

I actually cannot remember much about the film now, having not seen it again since I saw it the first time. I remember it being good and inspirational in its own way. But for some on the JET Programme, it seemed to have become a mantra for how they should teach. Listening to other JETs, you would have been mistaken for thinking that the answer to the problem of how to get the children we were teaching to improve their English, was to jump up on desks and recite exiting texts (or vice-versa). While this would make a change from standing at the front of the classroom as a ‘human tape-recorder’, their suggestions were laced with optimism and simplicity (let alone selectively ignoring how bad things worked out for the protagonists of the film, from what I remember) and divorced from the reality of what can be done in the class or what the students (or the Japanese Teacher of English) would want or be prepared to do.

And that is the link to now.

I have seen, read and heard too much about what we should be doing in lectures (and teaching as a whole at university) that sounds, to be blunt, gimmicky and unrealistic. Now is not the time for lecturers to be turning our backs on years of experience to do something alien to what we are used to doing, and which itself may not fit with what the students themselves want. Yes, online lectures can be tough. But so can in-class ones. We could record shorter lectures, but students could also watch longer videos, pausing them when they need to. We could create lots of online quizzes and discussion boards – but some of us have tried this in the past, only to find that many students don’t actually engage with them. This may be as much about what they think about engaging with a particular lecturer in this way as about the students themselves… but if that is the case, I don’t see that online teaching in a COVID-19 world is going to change the scenario much.

I have done ‘flipped teaching’ in the past. I stopped because there was a noticeable drop off in how much students were learning. This year I will have to do a form of flipped teaching. My expectations are relatively low. I will do my best to encourage the students to engage with it. COVID-19 and the lack of live lectures or face-to-face teaching will hopefully ensure that students approach their learning in a way that is more conducive to using recordings. But, ‘O Captain, My Captain’, we need to temper our expectations about what can be achieved, how it should be done, and not reject teaching more closely based on traditional lecturing styles.

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