Posts Tagged ‘research’

Moving Back to Tokyo

The iconic Akamon, or red gate, entrance to the University of Tokyo.

I should have posted this months ago, but I strangely felt I didn’t have that much to say on the topic, I guess. And perhaps more to the point, things just got very busy, hectic, and so here we are, almost at the end of four months since I moved here to Tokyo, and I’m finally posting this now. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. Even though I guess I’m not saying all that much of substance here, still I wanted to get it down, for posterity if for nothing else.

I’ve started my new job in Tokyo, and things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that happened in the previous few months. 

The Tokyo skyline as seen from high above Ichigaya.

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not moreso, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest.
But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again.

Getting some work done at the Aoyama Flower Market Teahouse.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō Kōyō 維新史料綱要, a collection of some 30,000 entries summarizing in a day-by-day fashion the key events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of the entries. Whenever it does go live, a few years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what events are pertinent to your search terms. For example, search the name of a shogunate official such as Ido Satohiro and you can trace his key activities, promotions, reassignments, and so forth across the period. Search for a placename, such as Shimoda or Yokohama, or Ryûkyû, Tsushima, or Matsumae, and you can see a listing of the progression of events pertaining to that place across the period.

Copies of the Tsûkô ichiran, a compilation of Edo period diplomatic records.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research. I guess I’ve been sidetracked the last couple of months, thinking, reading, and writing about Shuri castle, but I suppose that counts as “my own research” too. I’ll get back to thinking about Ryukyuan embassies, diplomatic ritual, and so forth soon.

In the meantime, everyone at the Hensanjo has been really quite kind and supportive, encouraging me to take time to do my own research, that that’s included in the position and counts as part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. It’s a real pleasure.

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Somehow, despite going to the Metropolitan Museum basically all my life, I never realized before that they have a research library. Walk in through the main entrance, make like you’re going to go up the big main staircase, and then instead go left, and boom, there it is, the Thomas J. Watson Library. It’s a non-browsing library, meaning you have to request the books you want through a request system; there are minimal shelves to walk along and browse to just sort of see what you find. Though, if you’d like to do that, there’s the Nolen Library, on the ground level, accessible via the Education Entrance (over on the left side of the building, not up the big steps on the outside).

The entrance to the Watson Library, in the Spanish courtyard/patio room to the left of the main staircase. Photo from Art Library Crawl.

Most museums, you might be surprised to learn, do in fact maintain libraries. Some are more accessible to the public than others, and some are distributed throughout the museum’s curatorial departments rather than stored in a single place. The Freer-Sackler’s library is collected in one place, for example, but I know the Asian Art library books at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are held within the offices of the Asian Art department, and there’s no librarian or reference desk or anything like that within those offices – just the shelves, directly accessible by the staff. If there is a single central library of the MFA, I’m not sure where it is (turns out it’s down the street, at a completely separate building). I gather the Met has departmental libraries like this as well, but, in any case, the Watson Library is a nice, centralized place where researchers – not just museum staff, but anyone above college-age who registers and is there to do serious research – can make use of books from any of the Met’s libraries.

And what a library it is.

Some of the new sections of the American Wing have computer terminals where visitors can search through the collections, and the libraries. Poking around in there one day, I discovered that the Metropolitan’s libraries have a surprising number of relatively obscure books that I thought I should like to take a look at – mainly stuff about Okinawan painting, which kind of surprised me given how limited the Met’s own collection of Okinawan works, and how limited their history of doing exhibitions about Okinawa. And, I discovered at that time how easy it is to register to use the library, and to make requests for books. I went home and browsed more seriously, went through the online registration process, and electronically requested several books. Within a few days, I had emails telling me my books were ready.

I walked into the library, and spoke first with a librarian at the entrance, who helped me finish the registration process and get oriented with the library. She could not have been kinder, more friendly, more welcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of the museum, at all, but as soon as I stepped into the library, it was like a whole different world, where suddenly I was no longer just one of a gazillion faceless visitors, but was now a respected, valued, researcher. All of the staff I spoke to were just unbelievably kind and friendly, beyond any other library, even, that I’ve ever used.

At many libraries, you have to go up to a desk and give them your name and they’ll provide you with the books you requested. Nothing wrong with that. But here, there are a series of shelves, organized alphabetically, and you just pick up your own books. There’s an openness to this approach that implies, I feel, a degree of respect, and of belonging, and of access, that you’re not someone we need to protect the books from, or protect the library from, but rather that you’re someone we trust, and welcome. Just as if I were a regular, or as if I were staff or something. Walk in as if I know what I’m doing, find my name, take down my books, as if I’ve done this a hundred times. There were a number of small side-rooms, and I’m not sure what all of them contain, but one seemed to be the main reading room, with maybe 16 or so nice big wooden tables for you to sit and do your work. There are outlets, free wifi, and access to a wide range of electronic resources, such as JSTOR. This last bit is especially wonderful, as I know that many other museums do not spring for JSTOR or other such resources for their staff, let alone for visitors. It can be very expensive, of course, to maintain subscriptions to such services, and with such a relatively small staff (tens of curators, maybe, at a large museum? Far less, of course, at a much smaller institution), there is a compelling argument to be made that it’s not really worth it, especially when each department, or each staff member, requests or requires various additional databases or resources for their specialty area… There is a certain logic to it, especially when it comes to the financial bottom line, but at the same time, I cannot help but think it bordering on the absurd that museum directors, department chairs, and curators prominent in their field, who need to do research in order to write catalog entries, gallery labels, etc., need to ask their interns & volunteers – college kids with access to JSTOR, etc., through their schools – to get articles and such for them. So, it’s really great that the Met provides this resource not only to its own staff, but to visiting researchers. Anyone who works at any museum in the city that doesn’t provide such resources for its own staff can come to the Met and get access.

Finally, the scanners at the Watson Library are incredible. For me, personally, scanners are so crucial. I do not know yet what I’ll have access to at the UCSB libraries when I start my PhD there next month, but especially when it comes to journals and other non-circulating materials, I love to skip out on paying for photocopies, and scan (for free, and in color) anything and everything I want or need, to be used later. The Univ. of Hawaii Hamilton Library has some pretty nice flatbed scanners over in the Science Wing (aka the Hamilton Addition), which have easy-to-use software that allows you to scan to PDF and create whole PDF documents instead of folders full of JPEGs. But, the scanners at the Watson Library are easily the best, most incredible scanners I’ve ever seen. They use some kind of overhead camera or scanner, so that you place the book open, facing up, which puts a lot less stress on the spine and the pages than squashing it face-down against a sheet of glass. The camera uses a laser-finder to determine the focus, and scans it very quickly, digitally determining how to divide the scanned image into left and right page, and arranging them into a PDF. The system sometimes has difficulty, when the book isn’t centered properly, when it’s too big, or when you’re not holding the pages down flat enough, but otherwise I have never seen an easier-to-use system. One giant button that says Scan, and another giant button that says “Save to USB or Email”, with smaller buttons nearby with an array of easy-to-understand and easy-to-use settings options.

When I had some difficulties with the machines, I asked one of the librarians, “oh, excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but..” and she could not have been more friendly and polite about it. There was not the slightest indication that I was in fact interrupting or bothering her – she was so helpful, so accommodating.

All in all, I was blown away by my brief experience with the Watson Library. It is such a wonderful, welcoming, friendly place to work. If only I were more permanently/regularly based in New York, now that I know about it, I would make use of this library all the time. For any of you looking to do any kind of art history research, I very much recommend that if you find yourself in New York, you take some time to check out not just the NYPL or Columbia or whatever other resources you might normally think of first, but to also give the Metropolitan a try. Given how difficult it can be to get into Columbia’s libraries, to request things from off-site at NYPL, or to wait and wait to get things from ILL at your own home institution, the Watson Library can be a beautiful, wonderful resource. And such a nice, relaxing space, too, to feel welcomed and to get your work done.

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NCC Guide

The North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources (NCC) has published a new version of its online “Guide to Research Access in Japan’s major Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLAs) with links to their key Websites.”

There’s tons of stuff in here, and I’m sure that in my random poking around I’ve missed some things that might be of particular usefulness or importance, but the site includes:

*A brief guide to visiting Japanese institutions, including how to plan for your visit, how to find which institutions have the materials you’re looking for, and reminding us to look into whether a letter of introduction is necessary, as well as discussing briefly how to obtain longer-term official affiliation with a Japanese institution.

*A rather extensive list of research resources, including Cultural Organizations, sources of Funding, and Discussion Groups

*A list of institutions in Japan, from Aoyama Gakuin to Waseda.

*A wonderful guide to requesting image use permissions from Japanese institutions, complete with fillable templates for letters or forms asking for permission.

I know this blog post right here doesn’t look all that impressive or anything, but I promise, this NCC website is a majorly useful resource. Go take a look, and add it to your bookmarks. I’ve certainly added it to mine.

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I have just read a thought-provoking article which was published in the NY Times today. Susan Engel’s report documents an experiment, or a project, undertaken this past Fall semester at a high school in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, where a small number of students were allowed to essentially create their own curricula, their own schedules, their own assignments; to research the content of the courses themselves and teach each other, and then to give one another evaluations – no letter or number grades – all with consultation and guidance from teachers.

The concept, as presented in the article, is compelling, and Ms Engels makes some excellent points about the ways in which our educational norms as practiced today fail to prepare kids for the so-called “real world.”

…our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.

We want young people to become independent and capable, yet we structure their days to the minute and give them few opportunities to do anything but answer multiple-choice questions, follow instructions and memorize information. We cast social interaction as an impediment to learning, yet all evidence points to the huge role it plays in their psychological development.

I agree with this whole-heartedly. Still, I am skeptical of a project such as this, especially if it were to be extended to an entire school, or proposed as a model for what high school should be (something this article is not explicitly suggesting, but…).

The idea of letting kids define their own curricula, teach themselves, etc. fails on one major point – namely, that I think the vast majority of high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them in terms of their education, just like some of them may not have grown out of hating vegetables yet.

Much of the point of high school is that there is a certain body of knowledge that is essential for being a productive member of society, educated adult, and responsible citizen. (There are of course other aspects, too, which plenty of studies have argued, such as the function of public schooling to instill a sense of national identity and patriotism, but let’s put that aside.) … I have profound issues with the high school English class canon of literature, but that also aside, I think it profoundly important that students at the high school level not simply study what they want to study, but that they actually get a solid foundation in chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, US history, “world” history (that’s a whole other can of worms, there, but nevermind), critical writing skills, etc.

And of course there’s the argument that high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them, which I have to say I agree with. Sure, there are those who are responsible young adults, looking forward to their adult lives and thinking in a mature manner about the value of school, but there are many more who are of the “I’m never going to use this in my real life” school of thought, not recognizing or appreciating the value of a well-rounded education, or of the ways in which social studies, foreign language, math and science do show up in everyday life in the adult world.

But getting to my point, I found this article especially thought-provoking for me, as it relates to my thoughts on the grad school experience. Graduate school is meant to prepare us for careers as professional academics (or, the credentials can be applied to any number of other career paths, but as you know if you’ve been through grad school in the humanities, for the most part it is funneling you towards that one destination) – it is meant to teach us how to be independent researchers. Yet, we are still quite restricted. We read what is assigned to us, we study the subjects that are offered as courses, we are limited in our research & writing by schedules and deadlines (how many times have I felt I could do a much better job on a paper if only I had more time?), and even when we are working on our thesis or dissertation, there are numerous restrictions as to the kind of research that is expected of us, the format it should be in, the language that should be used. What constitutes “good” research or “proper” academic writing seems, sometimes, more restrictive than it needs to be.

I have had professors get upset with me that I have not taken fuller advantage of the resources here on campus; people I know online, on forums and such, who are not in grad school, get upset with me when I post about something without taking advantage of the extensive resources on campus to research it properly first.

But I rarely feel that I actually have the time to be doing that kind of on-the-side research. I’m constantly doing homework or readings or papers for class, and I do indeed often wonder when it is that I will have the time to go and take fuller advantage of the resources here on campus, to research whatever topics I feel like, rather than the topics directly related to my proposed thesis topic, or the topics directly related to whichever classes I happen to be taking that term. And I’m not talking about squeezing in time here and there in between classwork or thesis research; I’m not talking about side projects. I’m talking about having the full-on free time, no other responsibilities, the opportunity to make the side projects the main focus, and to have fully free days, or weeks, to go to the library and study whatever scattered different topics may appeal to you at that moment, and to write about them.

I can’t remember the last time that I felt like I had the free time, and the freedom more generally speaking, to go and fully delve into a topic totally unrelated to classes, to my thesis, to my stated choice of field or specialty, and to do so without having to cleave to the strictures of what my professors might judge to be “proper academic writing” or “quality scholarship.” Well, actually, I can: the dramaturgy efforts I have been doing for our upcoming kabuki play here on campus fit that description quite nicely. No pressure to write it up as a proper full paper with deep thorough analysis and evidencing the requisite degree of engagement with theory, but the freedom to just investigate whatever aspects of the play I want, to keep jumping from one point of interest to another, to in the end, ideally, come up with something that in aggregate can be collected together to form a body of knowledge about this play, its setting, and the cultural and historical context within which it is set (and the context within which it was written and originally produced).

I love taking classes. I am not one of those people who just can’t wait to be done with classes so that I can move on to the dissertation. In fact, the thesis, or dissertation, terrifies me. And, I suppose I can’t really complain about any lack of freedom in choosing which classes to take – my program is far looser than most, in terms of having any kind of stepped mandated set of required pre-requisites to take as your singular defined path through the program. I don’t have to take intro, then micro and macro, then X Y or Z like Econ students, for example. I love taking classes, learning from experts, learning from presentations and discussions and not solely from books. I love being exposed to different subjects, and having professors get you interested in things you would not otherwise have been interested in, or known to look for, or thought to look into. But, at the end of the day, there is a strong feeling of strictures that make the whole grad school experience for me far less like the academic community of independent researchers it could/should be, and far more like merely an extension of undergrad, which is in its own ways merely an extension of high school. I cannot count the times that a class has gotten me interested in investigating a certain topic, but then I couldn’t do so because term papers were coming up, and I’d already picked a different topic, and I had to focus on that, and had no time for side-projects.

As I sit here, I have a 200-page book on my desk that I have to read for class, a pile of books about kabuki that I want to read but can’t right now because I have to read that 200-page book for class, and because these kabuki books not only have nothing to do with my official coursework assignments this term, but also have nothing to do with my chosen thesis topic. And I can forget about going to the library to go research anything else, such as the Mongol invasions of Ryukyu or anything about the Hachisuka clan of Awa province – I have a 200-page book to read, and a paper to write on 1930s neo-traditional painting in Republican China. … And then, next year, I’ll be devoting myself to my chosen thesis topic of depictions of Okinawa and Okinawans in (mainland) Japanese art, 1600s-1930s, sticking closely to the requirements and expectations of my advisor and of the academic community at large, with little time or freedom to go off on a tangent and investigate the painter Yamamoto Hosui, who apparently was sent to Okinawa in the 1890s by the Meiji Emperor himself as part of some kind of secret mission.

If not now, as an MA student, then when do I get to really be free to take full advantage of the resources here, and to be fully free to pursue my own research? I imagine it’s not going to be much different as a PhD student – you still have to pick one single topic for your dissertation, on which to focus for 3-5 years, and to stick to the forms and styles and modes demanded by your advisor. Is there time, and leeway, to research other topics? … Do you get to do that as a professor? Is that the time that you get to be finally free to research whatever you want, on whatever time schedule you want? Somehow I doubt it…

So, in short, I am wondering if it might not be advantageous to have a similar experiment at the graduate school level, allowing students, once they’ve taken their foundational courses and “theories and methodology” requirements, to set their own schedules, to go out and do whatever research they want. And to have discussion sections that aren’t about the professor making sure that you “got it” or making sure that you’re contributing properly, but rather discussions that are truly engaging, and that have that engagement as their primary chief goal. I had some excellent discussions with visiting grad students at a conference here recently, as we sat around and drank beers after a day of sessions, switching from topic to topic, not being controlled by any professor nor sticking to any one set of assigned readings, but just talking, and having a more engaging conversation about Japanese history than any I’ve had on this campus before or since. Isn’t *that* what grad school is supposed to be about?

I want to be free to read the books that interest me – not just those related to one set topic I’ve proposed for my thesis. I want to write papers based on those books on my own time, on my own schedule, of whatever length and style and form and content as I feel the subject – and my thoughts on the subject – demand. I don’t want to be nailed down to a single topic, even a topic of my choosing, for a year or three or five. And I don’t want to limited by the expectations of my advisor or of the academic community as to how much theory I have to use, or how I have to argue it, or whathaveyou.

… I guess, maybe if I really really devoted myself to such things, and didn’t spend time blogging, or on Facebook, or on these kinds of kinds, I suppose I could in theory find the time to do more side research. Is that how it has to be done? That the real work, the real independent research, has to be done in those rare scraps of time in between assigned readings, term papers, attending class, thesis research, and other official responsibilities? Is that how it has to be done, that the real discussions only happen outside of class, over coffee or beer, when you put aside your other responsibilities?

From the outside looking in, I imagine it feels like grad students are independent, initiative-taking, scholars working on their own independent projects. But let me tell you, from the inside, as a grad student, I feel constantly overwhelmed by responsibilities and obligations, to my classes, to projects I have officially taken on, to my thesis, and I do not feel that I ever am free to act independently on that initiative, to be the independent scholar I want to be. No matter what I am researching or working on, there are always other things that intrigue me, that pull at my attention, and which I feel I am forbidden from pursuing, due to time pressures or other expectations, obligations, and restrictions.

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I’ve been taking a course on research methods in Japanese sources this term. It’s amazing the resources out there that one would never otherwise know about…

(1) Union Catalogue of Early Japanese Books (日本古典総合目録)

I never suspected that such a database existed, so accessible and easily searchable. Looking for a kabuki play? a samurai clan’s records? records of the trade at Nagasaki? an Edo period novel? You can search for it here, and find out which libraries have handwritten manuscript copies (写本), and which compilations or anthologies contain a modern typed up (活字) copy.

It’s pretty incredible. All these things which I never thought I’d ever be able to find, suddenly available (almost, not quite) at my fingertips.

I searched for Gosannen Ôshû Gunki, a kabuki play composed in 1879 for the special occasion of a visit by former US president Ulysses S Grant to Japan. Performed only once, so far as I knew, I assumed that there was no written record of the script – kabuki, so far as I was told, never tended to keep scripts, the plays being pretty fluid, changing a bit every time they are performed. But, search for it I did, and there it was: original (woodblock?) printed copies in numerous libraries, including Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Waseda University, Geidai (aka Tokyo Univ of the Arts), the National Diet Library, and the collection of Shôchiku (the kabuki production company). And! a typed version of the document available in an anthology called 続帝国文庫並木宗輔浄瑠璃集 (zoku teikoku bunko Namiki Sôsuke jôruri-shû; Collection of Jôruri plays by Namiki Sôsuke, Imperial Archives, continued). Finding that anthology might not be the easiest thing to do, but, for a document I suspected never even existed to begin with, that’s really something.

(2) Want to read a certain Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if an English translation exists, what it’s called, or who it’s translated by? Want to translate and seek to publish a Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if someone’s beaten you to it?

日本文学翻訳書誌検索 (Japanese Literature in Translation Search), powered by the Japan Foundation, is another very interesting and useful database.

You can choose from a great many languages, not just English, and search by Japanese author, title, publication year and/or keywords, and find whether the book in question has been published in translation.

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