Back in December, I was asked if I might be able to teach Japanese Civilization. This was not to be an art history or visual culture course, but a class positioned squarely within the discipline of history. In addition, the course would be taught at “winter interim” speed, which translates to meeting 5 days a week, for 2 hours each day, for four weeks. As of Friday, we have completed 50% of the class in a quick and steady two-week march from the Jomon to the Muromachi. Tomorrow, we get into the sengoku jidai, or the Warring States period. It has been intense! I feel like my hand is constantly on the fast forward button…
I must say that teaching a course that is so deeply related to my own discipline, and yet different methodologically, has been an enlightening experience. I see my work as interdisciplinary, and I’m intimately aware of how historians do from my time affiliated with the History Department at Hokkaido University. But knowing this also makes me sensitive to how my own approaches to teaching and scholarship do not always “fit” concretely within that disciplinary framework. Designing and teaching a history course has given me a new appreciation for the analysis of primary texts, but it has also been self-affirming in a variety of ways. More than ever, I see the importance of using visual culture to help concretize our understanding of a period.
Other professors have commented on the challenges and rewards of venturing outside one’s own discipline in teaching. Adam Kotsko wrote an essay titled “The Courage to be Ignorant,” where he describes his own experiments with the transition from text-based courses to one that explored art/music/architecture in the liberal arts. I agree with Kotsko in that becoming a version of Jacques Ranciere’s “ignorant schoolmaster” causes us to facilitate the classroom differently. I find myself exploring material with a more open mind alongside the first-time readers in the course. The definitive meaning and relevance of certain primary texts have not yet firmly settled. The process reminds me to remain open to interpretation, since the academic “mastery” of content that we cultivate through graduate school and beyond can occasionally shut down and obscure alternative approaches and possibilities.
I surely have my challenges ahead, especially with effectively managing time as the grading picks up, but I’m having a lot of fun with the class. I already know that the lessons learned are going to help me to take a fresh look at my approach to Arts of Japan this spring.
(As just an aside, I have also had a few crucial realizations… One is that different disciplines tend to compress space and time in different ways at the survey level. As a simple example, several readings that I vetted for Japan’s pre-history tended to deemphasize the long Jōmon period to discuss the Yayoi in more depth, using it to frame later Kofun developments as described in Chinese dynastic texts. But in Art History, the pottery and architecture of the Yayoi is usually a brief mention between the fantastic flame pots and dogū of the Jōmon and the haniwa of later kofun tombs. Quite a difference there!)