Professor on a Mission….It’s Serious

Bye-bye, so long, farewell
Bye-bye, so long, sayonara
Bye-bye, au revoir, auf wiedersehen…

    Cheap Trick (1978)

I am honored to write the concluding blog entry for the 2013 Tokyo Planning and Urbanism course. My time in Japan this year was spent with an exceptional group of talented, inspired, and curious young minds from a variety of planning-related fields, all of whom I found to be passionate and serious about their studies. The group included planners, environmentalists, historic preservationists and four outstanding students from the undergraduate architecture program. I could not have asked for a more dedicated and talented group of students to accompany me to Tokyo, one of the world’s most exciting cities.

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During our time in Japan I was fortunate enough to get to know my students far better than ever I thought possible. As time went by my initial “professorial” worries evaporated bringing clarity, warmth and definition to my experience in Japan. Seemingly minor concerns such as would students be able to keep up the pace, would the demanding schedule cause their curiosity (and smiles) to fade, would they be able to appreciate the great city before them even after walking all day (and sometimes well into the evening), and would they make it back to the hotel safely each night…all of these concerns disappeared as time went by. (In truth, the last concern never faded, I have to admit.)

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At our “disorientation” dinner in Tokyo on the 52nd floor of the Sumitomo Building overlooking the brill lights of Shinjuku, Jessica spoke eloquently and kindly on behalf of her classmates when she said that, in addition to being a professor for the course, I was also sometimes a bit of a “dad.” To this I plead happily, guilty as charged. But as our time in Japan passed (all too quickly, I think) something happened that I imagine all “dads” hope to experience one day: my paternal worries blossomed into reassurance and confidence, pride and respect, and eventually deserved admiration for my students. They became my colleagues and collaborators, urban aficionados and fellow flanuers, and ultimately a source of inspiration and perspective. This is a very special group of young men and women, and I learned tremendously from each and every one of them this year.

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There is no better illustration of this than the commitment they exhibited toward their research projects. Well before we departed for Tokyo, I challenged students to assist me in researching Japanese urban planning and public space. Students worked in groups to develop research protocols in three broad areas of interest: 1) the social use of public space, 2) the formal design of public space, and 3) the regulatory environment governing public space. Students self-selected their groups and collaboratively developed topics of personal interest under these three main headings. For my role, I helped students develop research protocols before we departed and during our time in-country. As a professor, I found working with this group of students to be gratifying at many levels, and one of the most memorable experiences of my academic career occurred during this very course in Japan. It happened at about eight o’clock in the evening on Sunday, June 2 when, despite all of us being absolutely, thoroughly exhausted from two stimulating days of running and biking around Kyoto and Nara, we “held class” at 170 mph on the Hikari Shinkansen (bullet train) as we made our progress back to Tokyo. What kind of students would willingly agree to this kind of madness, you might ask. I can answer that unequivocally by saying “only the best.” I will leave it you, however, to decide what kind of professor would even suggest this madness in the first place.

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As a bit of background on the research project, the objective of the students’ coursework this summer is to provide additional baseline data for a book I wish to write on Japanese planning and urbanism. The book’s concept developed from my own curiosities about Tokyo and the urban complexities I encountered when I first visited Japan more than a decade ago. What I needed then but couldn’t find was a book, a written companion, to guide my walks through Tokyo. I wanted some kind of touchstone to explain the city’s basic urban structure, tell me how planning, zoning and development occur in Japan, explain the roles of government and citizenry in these endeavors, and most importantly help me decode Tokyo’s frenetic aesthetics. More than all this (because it’s not enough to simply read about a place), I wanted a book to point out and teach me these things as I experienced the streets and “villages” of Tokyo. And so now, many years later, this summer, this is what the students and I worked on together: we began to set the foundations for the book I needed so long ago. And, if enthusiasm is any indication, as expressed by everyone to whom I’ve mentioned the project, including my students and Japanese colleagues, it is a book that is still needed today.

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In all honesty, I don’t know how many students understood all of this when they signed up for the course (they just wanted to go to Japan, I think), or whether they had any idea of how much effort this would take. But I do remember a point halfway through my first lecture when everyone began to realize that this wasn’t going to be a standard “show and tell,” sightseeing course. I imagine that it was also at this point when some students may have wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. “Who is this guy,” I can imagine them thinking “and why are his shoes so polished? That can’t be a good sign, can it?” Nonetheless, as their professor, I can say confidently that everyone more than rose to the occasion, and I am looking forward to reading all their good work at the end of the summer. I am not joking when I say that I know that each of my students has something valuable to contribute to this project, something that others (beyond me) want to know about Japan, and something that only my students can see through their bright eyes and minds.

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But, if you will allow me one small confession: I never intended this to be a typical overseas “academic” experience. While our long days and nights of marching all over Tokyo seeing all the “right things” may have lent us a bit of “street cred” with our Japanese collaborators, that had nothing to do with why I structured the course as I did. The real reason I set such an ambitious itinerary was because I wanted my students to experience Tokyo on foot as I first did many years ago. I wanted to capture and share with them all the incredible wonder, undeniable excitement, and seductive foreign-ness that I experienced on my first visit to Japan in 2003. Jet lagged and delirious, I remember (being much younger and) walking and wandering Tokyo’s streets and neighborhoods, seeing and learning more than I ever expected. It was a glorious experience for a young planner/architect and urban designer, and that’s the experience I was after again this summer for my students. I don’t know if I succeeded in doing all this (except for maybe the walking part), but that’s for my students to decide. Whatever their judgment, I was admittedly, unabashedly a “professor-on-a-mission” this summer trying to share all I know (or could remember) about Tokyo and Japan.

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Another confession (last one): I’m smiling at this moment as I write, grinning in embarrassment really, because the old Smiths’ song Girlfriend in a Coma just popped into my head minus the irony, of course, and with different (better?) words sung to the same tune…”Professor on a mission, I know, I know…it’s serious.” This cuts a bit too close to the quick for me because I know I’m often more than a little serious in my efforts to teach, and that my courses have, how shall I say?…a bit of a reputation. This was a serious course (again!), but thankfully the students played along took it seriously as well. And, while I am not apologizing for any of this, I want my students to know that I spent many hours thinking about how best to structure the course and wondering whether students would prefer a more traditional sightseeing experience in Japan. I know that would have been a whole lot less work for all of us. But at the end of the day, I came to a realization (a belief, really) that students would become bored with a standard “show and tell” format, seeing yet another shrine or temple, streetscape or building, without being challenged, informed, and encouraged to develop the skills that would allow them to make better sense of everything they were experiencing. Research project or not, I hope I was right in this line of thinking.

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I hope students will find some comfort in these words and accept this last blog entry (and confession!) as a reasonable explanation for why things were as they were this summer. I also hope that everyone found some educational utility in my “walking to learn – research as you go” teaching style, and that each will take something exceptional from this exceptional experience into their future academic and professional careers. We saw Tokyo as very few short term visitors ever will, and through all this, what made this course such a pleasure to teach was seeing everyone smile for 17 days straight (as the photos clearly testify). It was also a great pleasure to see everyone working so well together: planners, architects, environmentalists, and historic preservationists alike. This collegial multi-disciplinary approach is something we must all nurture as professionals if we hope to build a brighter future, a better world for ourselves and for those we love.

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In closing, I would like to thank all those who contributed to making this course a success. That’s everyone, of course, but many students took on jobs above and beyond their classwork and so I’d just like to mention a few names. This blog would not have been possible or remained current without each of you writing your entries (more or less) on schedule, or without James’ tireless commitment to the blog during our time in Japan. And so I tip my hat to James in appreciation for hard work well done. Jessica, thank you for being “photo mistress” (what a title!) [and also my co-president in the Pocari Sweat Consumers Union], I know this took extra time in the field, so thanks. Claire thank you for heading up the “gift brigade” with Alejandra, Lynn, Hande, Pebel, and Mariana: I can’t believe you all shopped (for such excellent New Yawk merchandise), transported, wrapped and presented so many “omiyage” for our Japanese friends. That very logistically complicated part of the course went exceptionally well this year. Kat, thank you for being our official “tour photographer:” You were so amazing that I wanted to give you a press pass! Did you really carry that tripod all over Tokyo? Heroic! Last but not least, I want to thank the many of you who took so warmly to my family, especially to my children. I have never seen Mio as excited as she was for the “disorientation” dinner because she was going to “play with my students.” “Dada,” she asked so many times that day, “can I play with your students at the party tonight?” “Yes, they are looking forward to seeing you” I’d reply and in seeing her reaction to these words could literally see what a big little girl she is becoming. And Yuto, my beautiful boy who’s never to be outdone, just kept echoing a very fine and steady “me too, me too” every time he heard our exchange. They truly enjoyed your company this summer as did both Nami and I. Thank you all for a wonderful experience in Japan.

Sayonara from Tokyo,

Jonathan

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