Refections on the Second Week- Christie Herbert, Academic Director

Academic Director Update

We all arrived in Kyoto fairly well acclimated to the basics of Japan: the time, the food, the money, the transportation—all of the myriad systems that at first seemed so foreign. Students now routinely bow, say “sumimasen,” and get up to give their seats to elders. They are comfortable moving around and exploring on their own. We all joke that we often order or eat food without knowing what we are getting, or find we are on buses or trains or streets going the wrong way and need to turn around or get off. What strikes me most about these experiences is how open the students are to all of this, and how good they are getting at navigating, problem-solving, and waiting. Waiting becomes an opportunity to study the life around us—the people, the vending machines, the train schedules, life.

Just before we left for Kyoto, I told the group that we were at that dangerous point in the trip where the first honeymoon phase was over, and people were tired and could easily lapse into irritability, impatience, etc. What Ruth and I stressed was how important it was for them to learn how to be patient, how to take care of each other, how to accept their bouts of anxiety or anger, and move together as a group. We joked that each person was allowed one unfortunate moment per day. In short, we wanted them to experience a kind of Japanese way of moving together as a group. They have done this beautifully, to a student.

It’s an interesting challenge to facilitate a curriculum while moving around as we are. I view Kyoto as a time for students to engage in new ways of looking, reflecting, and connecting what they understand about Japanese culture with its pervasive aesthetic and design ethos. Some are finding it easier to capture their experiences visually than verbally, but I push them to do both. I want them to train a zoom lens, both literally and figuratively, onto the details in the art and design all around them, from modern graphics in a restaurant to the tile on the end of a temple roof. And then they can zoom back out and think about how everything is making sense to them, emotionally and intellectually—particularly given the comfortable lodgings we are currently in. The juxtaposition of so many historic and preserved places amid the din and roar of a modern city creates a kind of dialectic of movement and stillness, dark and light, quiet and buzzing, green and neon, ancient and new, reverential and slurping noodles, etc. I am working hard to avoid teaching to a clichéd view of Japan, and have talked with students about such things as Japan’s dubious environmental record, and some of the darker aspects of WWII. Today we heard about the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and had a discussion about this over breakfast.

It is exciting to talk with students and find out all the ways they are learning and growing from this experience. Tomorrow we return to Tokyo to the Olympic Village and our now beloved little village of Sangubashi. We will spend Monday morning in the classroom pulling all of our Kyoto experiences together to write/produce the second project. Hard to believe we’ll be on a plane heading for the U.S. at this time in one week!

– and just a few of the hundreds of photos Christie has been taking….

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