The Challenge of the Year Abroad

I know this is a postgraduate blog, and postgrad degrees don't tend to have a compulsory period abroad (our MCS Master of Chinese Studies is of course an exception to this rule).  But a great deal of us will have been on a compulsory year abroad at some point and then, once back at our home institutions, been required to complete an independent research project.  I remember this experience well, and not for the best of reasons.  So bear with me and if when you’ve finished reading you have any ideas, please do get in touch.
 
How can we make the best use of our time in Japan as researchers?  This is a quite the tricky proposition.  Why?  Because quite frankly Japan is profoundly distracting.  The food is too good, the cities at night are too good, the beer is just far too good to be spending time in libraries and/or archives with notepad and pencil, deciphering yet another blurry kanji compound or trying to work out how the photocopying system works (I’m looking at you National Diet Library).
 
For students tasked on their year abroad with becoming fluent in Japanese the challenge is even greater.  The reasons are obvious and completely understandable: new country, new culture, new institution, new people and a host of new obstacles to be overcome.  So research tends to drop off the bottom of the list of priorities.  
 
But there is no getting away from the fact that research must be done.  Dissertations won't write themselves.  And let’s face it, dissertations without primary data are not much good.  So what can Area Studies departments do to help?
 
Enter the Japan Foundation!  The JF have invited year abroad coordinators from a across the country to London in November for a discussion of the year abroad and all the opportunities and problems it presents.  I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about making the most of the year for dissertation preparation, something I have been pondering since I became a year abroad coordinator myself back in 2012.

The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

So I have been thinking about this question for a while now.  And one thing I am certain of is that there is no easy fix.  But I do think that expecting students to suddenly become active researchers in third year is unrealistic and a bit unfair.  My feeling is that by then it’s too late.   If the dissertation is an afterthought, or something to happen in the future then even with the best intentions in the world, as soon as Japan hits, research will drop off the agenda.  And if we don’t give our students the tools to do research before they go, how can we expect them to get research done?
 
As such I think the only way for research to happen in the third year is to get students thinking about dissertation from the off — from first year or at the very least second year.  If a culture of research is encouraged — embedded, reinforced and practiced — from day one, then when students get to Japan in third year the idea of research will hopefully be second nature.
 
Degree programme design should therefore take this goal of embedding a culture of research as a central organising principle.  We need to start early with research training, data gathering, and independent research projects.  
 
For example, in week one of his second year research training course my colleague Mark McLeister in Chinese Studies asks students to leave the classroom and bring back an object that helps us understand Chinese communities in Edinburgh.  The classroom melts away and the city becomes a field for research.  I think it’s this sort of exercise that will equip students as researchers for their experience abroad, be it in Japan, China or Korea, and make the best of this invaluable opportunity.
 
I am very much looking forward to discussing these ideas with colleagues in a month’s time, and wish to thank the JF for this wonderful initiative.  As I said at the start of this post, if you have any comments or ideas, please do get in touch!

Chris Perkins is Head of Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Programme Director of the MSc in Japanese Society and Culture.