Lost in translation

Friday, April 21st, 2006

One of my students is in Japan at the moment on an exchange visit (although I’m not sure we get anyone in actual exchange, so maybe they’re going to keep her? Who knows). Anyway, Sarah is keeping a blog, something I recommended she do but I think she was planning to anyway.

It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time and if she doesn’t make it as an illustrator she’ll surely be a great writer. Worth visiting and subscribing to the RSS feed.

Her description of her first lesson over there is fascinating. A mix of being lost in a country where no one speaks her language and she speaks none of theirs, and of being lost in a clearly different educational system.
What I find interesting about Sarah’s description is that I’ve interviewed quite a few British students over the years in different institutions and they report similar feelings of being lost not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, or what they’re supposed to be learning (to my shame, some of these students were my own). It’s not the language that’s the problem, but the transparency. There’s nothing in Sarah’s experience in Japan which wouldn’t be found in the UK.

I’m reading James Elkins’s “Why Art Cannot Be Taught” at the moment, which opens with a fascinating chapter on the history of teaching art, and the different techniques used over the centuries. The ‘draw animals using circles and lines’ exercise that Sarah describes seems to come from a long tradition in art education that suggests discipline is something that is learned through repetition. It’s an amusing challenge that, if described properly, could prove useful. But it seems to be an unnecessary imposition of someone else’s style of drawing which, like many teachers’ imposition of their style of teaching on students who learn differently from them, could have a negative effect. There are all sorts of similar practices in art education (drawing with negative space is a favourite) that are of little educational benefit but do serve to fill a bit of time, reinforce the idea that being an artist is hard, damn you, and allows the tutor to lord it over the servile students and talk bullshit for a couple of hours. I suspect other subjects have similar practices.

The exercise Sarah describes is a bit like me deciding I like Sudoku therefore I’m going to make all my students do it. Or taking in twenty jigsaws and spending a lesson assembling them. They’re amusing diversions, but do they possess an educational benefit?

Well the answer is ‘possibly’: Sudoku is an example of the patterns that can be formed by numbers and could be a useful introduction to an exploration of the images produced through pattern and then, maybe, chaos. The jigsaw exercise could also tie in to learning about how the brain recognises shape and colour, or even about teamwork. But to make such things useful they have to be planned and they have to lead somewhere, often very quickly (I’ve used the crossword clue ‘Pretty girl in crimson rose [6], to introduce a lecture on visual language and the ‘My friend and me’ exercise I described a few posts ago to develop the idea that immersion in a language often makes us ignorant of the structures that form it, something that is equally applicable to visual language – but both times I very quickly move on to the point).

Well on that point, have a read of Sarah’s post and, as I say, visit her very entertaining blog.

Lesson One:

My first lesson was with this crazy dude Professor Mizoguchi. Class started when he came into the room, talked in Japanese, pointed at a blackboard, and talked some more. I heard the word ‘Brighton’ and some approximation of my name. I pay some more attention. He gestures at me to stand up, so i do. He says something incomprehensible, then puts his hand to his ear and gestures for me to respond. I am so utterly lost. He repeats what he had said. I’m still lost. Then he says something again, which i think required me to answer ‘August’. He then talked some more, and after a while (when i hoped he was no longer talking about me) i sat down. He then carried on talking, shouted ‘discussion’ and walked out.

So i sat for a bit, thinking about what i had got myself into, and then approached this very sweet Korean girl, a fellow exchange student, who i had hoped would help me make sense of the world. She explained that the project was marketing, then typed something into this little hand held computer type thing she had and showed me the result- the definition of the word material. ‘Is the project about materials?’ I asked. No. She shook her head, and typed something else, this time revealing the definition for commerce. ‘Illustration for commerce’ she said. Now we were getting somewhere. I typed the word ‘subject’ into the little computer. ‘Subject free!’ she replied. Right. ‘So what is your subject?’ I learnt that my Korean friend had chosen to advertise hair pins. Yes she had chosen hair pins. Maybe she likes a challenge. Or is very dull.

Then this Mizoguchi character came back into the room, and summoned me to his desk. He then showed me some rank illustrations done for Sony of varying sizes and said ‘that is project.’ I sat down again, wanting to plan my escape. He then came over to me and handed me a sheet with different sizes written on it and said ‘subject free.’

Ok then, so project 1 is to advertise whatever i want and present ideas for 8 different sized formats. I sat for a while thinking about what i would advertise, then got my phrasebook out and tried to ask in my broken Japanese what my fellow students had chosen. I found out that one had chosen to advertise jam (as in the condiment) another had chosen a ‘textbook for homework’ and someone else My Little Pony. Interesting. So i sat some more (for about an hour) as this is technically a ‘class’ that lasted from 1pm till 4pm, and so i felt that my presence was required.

Then Mizoguchi came over with a note saying ‘you can go to library to collect for your idea in this teaching time too.’ I was pleased to be told this, but as i made my move to leave i was accosted again, and project 2 was explained to me. Project 2 is to draw 12 animals (from the Chinese calendar) but only using straight lines, circles and 4 colours. I think its a ridiculous exercise, but who cares what i think? I can’t even speak Japanese.

(Via fothblog.)

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