15 Nov 2013, 8:32am
op-ed university


The Infantilization of University Students

I had a bit of a meltdown yesterday.


I’ve been under a bit of stress at work recently (admin issues I am not going to go into), which probably contributed to my reaction to my first period class yesterday morning.

Ten students were late, drifting in during the first five minutes of the class (another three turned up later).

For my class, I ask students to collect the work I return to them before the bell and make sure they are ready to start on time (I make sure I am there ten to fifteen minutes early to set up). We then normally finish five to ten minutes early.

Yesterday, I let the late students take their papers and sit down. I didn’t say anything for a minute or so.

Then I let them know I was annoyed. In a mixture of Japanese and English (I rarely speak Japanese in class, and only do so to make a point), I explained the following in a firm way without shouting 🙂

  1. The class starts when the chime goes at 8:50
  2. I expect them to be ready to start at that time
  3. For this many people to be casually late is completely unacceptable
  4. From next week, if you are late I am just going to send you home
  5. If you can’t come on time, don’t come

After which I switched back to my usual relaxed self and conducted the rest of the class normally.

The incident got me thinking though. I always end up thinking about things I do differently, especially when they are unplanned as this was.

I think it will work, with my students, at my university. They are good students, I’m not asking anything unreasonably, and the university pretty much lets teachers lay down the law.

The thing is, I would never have done anything like that with a class of adults, in any setting. And my students are adults, at least in the UK. Most of the second-year class yesterday are also legally adults in Japan. But I treated them like a junior high school class.

I often hear colleagues refer to university students as ‘kids’, and I used to make a point of not doing so myself. Recently, though, I have noticed the word creeping into my own conversations too.

I wonder if we are infantilizing university students? After all, universities in Japan are basically an extension of high school, with the same packed schedule, the same lecture-style teaching approach, and the same focus on tests, tests, tests.

Do the students behave childishly because they are childish or because we treat them like children?

I don’t have the answer to this, but I wonder about it sometimes…

Anyone else teach at a Japanese university? Would changing institutional and teacher expectations improve things?

15 Nov 2013, 9:00am
by Rob Dickey


I teach in Korea. Really, same circumstances. But I take the perfectly opposite tack. I tell them from day one – you are now adults. I will treat you as adults. You have a life. If you need to be late, you are late. If you need to go outside to answer the phone, do that. Quietly. And come back. Uou don’t need permission. If you need to be absent, I don’t need to know why. I’m not interested in notes from the hospital to confirm you went there for your cold. Unless you are sleeping in the hospital or your father is, you should be in class. You get two free absences (no minus piints) because I don’t accept excuses. Your future boss will be the same. By the time the semester is over, most have figured it out.

Hi Rob

That is mostly the line I take. This Thursday class was a bit of an outlier…

Hi Ben – you’ve touched on an issue I struggle with almost every day, especially with lower ability level/motivation classes.

When I started teaching at university level in Japan, I initially adopted the approach my university teachers had taken with me: you are an adult, you’re responsible for your own learning. You will no longer be “hand held” as you were perhaps at high school or elementary school.

If a student was sleeping, I wouldn’t waste my time waking them up. If a student was late, I would expect them to enter the classroom discreetly, apologise, and find out what the current task was from another student (without unduly disturbing them). If a student was absent, I would expect them to find out what they had missed, from the syllabus I diligently prepare each semester, or from a classmate, and catch up. I would expect students to listen when I was talking, and to study quietly when asked to do so.

After my first few weeks teaching at university level, I realized none of these expectations were being met, even after being explained clearly to the students in their L1.

Furthermore, I discovered quickly that my “treat them as adults” approach was not one endorsed by the university administration.

Instructions coming down from above required us to give students chance after chance after chance to complete missing assignments or exams. They forbade us from sending disruptive students out of class. They required passing grades for students who have put nothing but the absolute bare amount of effort into completing a task.

It was made clear that student failure was viewed as teacher failure, even where the causes of failure were factors beyond the teachers control.

Meanwhile, disciplinary procedures (for ensuring students attend lessons on time, stay awake, hand in assignments on time) are never made clear and remain in that infamous grey area of Japanese “aimai”. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

The problem stems from private Japanese universities being run like businesses, which they are. And with the number of “customers” decreasing every year, entry requirements are continuously lowered, as is the amount of work required to receive a passing grade for any given class.

And with university teaching being the source of our livelihoods, what more can we do than grumble and get on with it?

Infantilization applies to all aspects of Japanese society (“cutesy” illustrations plastered everywhere, constant and unnecessary health and safety announcements), and if the norm is to treat 18 and 19 years olds as children, it seems we have little choice but to go along with it.

Hi Paul

I feel your pain! If the institution won’t back you up, there is only so much you can do with your personality and magnetism (or in my case, nothing I can do…)

I’m somewhat similar to Rob, though take it in a slightly different direction. I also start off the semester by talking to the students about how they are adults now and I will treat them in my class differently than they were treated in high school. (I taught Japanese high school for five years.) I don’t scold them if they are late, but I do teach them the English to use (“Sorry I’m late.”), which they have to tell me and the class when they arrive. It would be similar if they arrived to a work meeting late. I’ve found this cut down on the number of tardies considerably, with those who do come late now showing visible signs of not being happy about it. (Mostly in a good way.)

One difference for me in comparison to Rob is that I do expect them to email me before class if they are going to be absent. I’m not so concerned with the reason–though they always tell me–but with them proactively communicating with me about being gone. They would hopefully never miss a work meeting or day without communicating about the fact ahead of time. If they email me about their absence ahead of time, I will allow them to turn in any homework or take any quizzes the next week. If they do not, then they lose those homework or quiz points. This is all made clear on the first day and I seldom have to mention it again. While I haven’t calculated, I would guess about 60% of students inform me of their absences ahead of time. Those that don’t must accept the consequences to their grade of not having done so. This system seems to be working well for me.

Hey Ryan

I have been considering doing what my karate teacher used to do: if you are late, you wait unobtrusively until there is a break in the class and the teacher acknowledges you. Then you can join the class.

For me the biggest issue is the big difference between a lecture (where I couldn’t care less if students come or not, or when) and a class where being late inconveniences all your classmates.

Maybe next year 🙂

Like Ryan, I get lots of emails – actually, more often SMS or kakao (in Japan you prefer Lime). I have never asked for them, but always send back a thank you that they have done so. Still, it doesn’t “excuse” the absence. Oh – yeah – also, night students (my univ has) are far more likely to miss class for business reasons (boss announces a drinking party at 5:45pm), and of course I do accept those absences, since the students really have no choice in the matter. Again, Korea is like Japan.

I think context matters a lot, but for full-time university students I expect them to put their studies first.

Don’t get me started on the ski club who seem to think it’s okay to ask their members to miss four of my classes 😉

15 Nov 2013, 5:43pm
by Rob Waring


Sometimes they are late for real reasons but 10 at once is not right. I’ve found that the nicer you are to students they more tolerant you will be. 99% I’m mr nice guy but they know about the 1%. I usually joke about lateness. ‘Tell your boyfriend to drive faster”, “Congratulations you are the Absent Champion” . They get the meaning.

Hi Rob

I do make a point of asking them ‘do you have a reason to be late?’ before going full mental on them 😉

Of course, next week, if anyone is late, I will have to send them away…

I’m planning to tell them to go and read in the library (it is an ER class after all).

Thanks for your comments on my site, Ben. I agree this article seems like a companion piece to the one I just wrote: http://japaneseruleof7.com/are-japanese-people-retarded/. There seem to be some common experiences among university instructors here in Japan.

My pleasure! Been a fan for a while now 😀

Thanks for returning the favour.

I am very aware of how my university experience (national uni, mostly great students, complete pedagogic and class management freedom) is a bit of an outlier though. Some of the classes I taught at other universities (and interactions with the administration) when I was working part-time induce shudders now…


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