Last semester (spring 2010) I taught at my university (National Taiwan Normal University) an M.A. level course called Popular Culture Seminar: Inter-Asia as a Method. Thanks to Hyunjoon Shin’s timely digital dissemination of the entire issue, I quickly integrated the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (IACS) Special Issue on Popular Music (Volume 10, Issue 4) into my course planning. In this post I wish to share a few things from the experience, which will hopefully provide some material for further discussion about the status and contribution of the special issue.
As each course has its own unique narrative, which meshes with the ongoing personal and professional narratives of its students and teacher, let me fist say a few things about this class. It was the sixth time I taught it, which, to any prospective participant, is basically the “popular culture” class. I have reinvented its subtitles and syllabi numerous times. The first year I taught it, I used Sarah Thornton’s The Subcultures Readers as the required text and the class didn’t have any “inter-Asia” component. Soon after this torturing experience, I realized I needed to make this class a playground for me to figure out what I was really doing with my life. Then it was “inter-Asia” all the way.
With the emerging material (published research) on inter-Asia popular culture, and with my own involvement in it, this class easily became my thing. Yet I was often confused about how to bridge my own affinity with “inter-Asia” and my students’ distance from “inter-Asia.” Added to this predicament was that I started to teach this class in English two years ago. The university throws in a bonus for anyone who wishes to teach in English. But there needs to be a reason to draw in the students. Despite the push for English learning in many societies where English is not the official language, passive resistance still works quite well. After some trial-and-error, I got to know what I didn’t want—I didn’t want my class to become a weekly English speaking contest (where few dominate) or a weekly reiteration of the assigned readings (where students “hide” behind somebody else’s ideas and words). One solution seemed to be to have the students do “their own thing” in the “Asian English” they invent.
Entered Spring 2010. The first thing I did was to get rid of “student reports on assigned readings”—which I suspect is a common mode of teaching and learning in Taiwan. I still assigned weekly readings to cover themes and issues in Inter-Asia popular culture, but I shifted the responsibility of picking out readings to my students. So, for instance, in Week 9, my agenda was to introduce the Inter-Asia Pop Music network to them. I assigned the introduction article from IACS 10.4—a three pager that no students could refuse—plus any two articles of their pick from the same special issue. Upon request, my students emailed me their reading choices a week in advance.
So, how did we carry on a conversation in class when people were reading different things? Let me just add that of the three hours that we met each week, only half of the class time was reserved for readings related discussion. The other half was used for “rolling presentations,” which consisted of five assignments over the course of the semester that have no necessary relationship with the readings. Specifically, I asked my students to (1) give a biography of themselves as a popular culture participant, (2) review one anthology in the area of popular culture in Asia, (3) develop a popular culture studies topic, (4) to figure out the “method” of an inter-Asia researcher, and (5) to “become” inter-Asian in their own topic.
Perhaps because everything was a little loose—such as the feeling that no reading was treated as canonical, or that the students were there to share their personal and academic engagement—this looseness encouraged mutual teaching. During the first half of the class, I asked each student to name a keyword or key phrase that would synthesize their reading experience. After I put their keywords on the white board, they realized they had some explaining to do since no one did exactly the same readings. At the end of the semester, several students told me that the “keyword” exercise helped them organize their ideas and encouraged peer teaching in their own words. One student asked me how I came up with the idea. To be honest, I was just trying to get out of the teacherly questioning that has become expected by everyone in class whether or not it is uttered, “So, what do you think (of the reading)?”
In this class I was constantly surprised by “unexpected sharing.” I mean, I would reveal thoughts and experiences that were not in my notes. Strictly limited edition! Actually, going into the classroom, my notes usually contained just five or six points or questions typed on one sheet of paper in very a large font for easy glancing in class. The rest is blank space for notetaking and on-the-spot responses. Compare this one-pager with my script-like lecture notes when I first started teaching. I have come a long way and I’m not feeling too bad about it. This class made me feel teaching is sharing meaningful hours and growing compassionate with certain individuals in real time.
I have been trying to figure out what it is that allows people to trust each other and share information and ideas. Sharing should not be taken for granted. That very first assignment—to give a presentation on oneself as a popular culture participant—might have been significant. My original intent was to use the assignment to break ice. After all, to speak in one’s non-native language in front of an audience can still be intimidating. And I wanted to hear something from the heart than from the academic jargon clouds. My students talked about the music, sports, books, images, video, film, fashion, and brands that mattered to them. They recounted the circumstances of various cultural encounters, which inevitably revealed bits and pieces of their personal history. They consume popular culture voraciously and ordinarily, but they do more than consuming. One student is a guitar player in an indie band. Another student is involved in running an art and performance space and magazine. One girl dresses consciously to negotiate gender and generational tension. Another girl always seems to be involved in some miraculous moments in baseball games and concerts aided by fan activities. Pretty soon, like facebook and through facebook, the students were busy making their own connections. And I was busy taking notes and looking up bands, musicians, movies, and books they mentioned in class.
In hindsight, I felt the first assignment was a little cruel. What right does the teacher have to “require” the students to reveal their private passion, cultural investment and personal experiences? But my students had such openness about cultural knowledge and engagement that it easily stripped away my worries about cultural judgment. From my past experience, it didn’t always work that way. People were guarded about how their tastes might be judged.
I am not sure this class can be repeated, and it is because I will not have the same group of students. This was the most diverse class I have had. Students from my M.A program in communication constituted less than half of the class. The others were exchange undergraduate student, nontraditional student between employment and schooling, and students from other universities and other departments.
There may be another reason why this class could not be repeated, and it has something to do with popular music. It just so happened that my students this time were passionate about popular music. Yes, they are well-versed about sports, movies, art, fandom, so on and so forth, but popular music was the strongest link that facilitated the meeting of social, personal, private, visual, historical, practical, and theoretical energies.
So, some of my students were a little disappointed to find out that when it was time to do their second presentation—a review of an English-language anthology about Asian popular culture. They could not locate an edited volume on popular music in Inter-Asia. Of course, there are single-authored books, numerous journal articles, and special issues in this area. In the week that I wanted to suggest collaboration as a possible route to “become Inter-Asian,” I assigned “Translation of ‘America’ During the Early Cold War Period: A Comparative Study on the History of Popular Music in South Korea and Taiwan (Shin and Ho 2009) and “Asianizing K-Pop: Production, Consumption and Identification Patterns Among Thai Youth” (Siriyuvasak and Shin 2007).
Still, IACS 10.4 was critical for me as a teacher and researcher (Sorry to the authors in IACS 11.1 because it was not published yet when I planned my class). I recommended Yiu Fai Chow’s “Me and the Dragon: A Lyrical Engagement with the Politics of Chineseness” to my student with the band. He had been trying to articulate the politics behind his music writing and performance. I recommended Yoshitaka Mori’s “J-Pop: From the Ideology of Creativity to DiY Culture” to the student running the art/performance space. The group she is associated with—Jia Wen Qing, or FLAT (Fake Literary and Artistic Teenagers)—seems to have something in common with the freeters in Japan. Read together in the special issue, Hyunjoon Shin’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain? And Who Will Stop the Rain? The Globalizing Project of Korean Pop” and Tung-hung Ho’s “Taike Rock and Its Discontent” brought out the problematic of scale when doing comparative cultural industry analyses in the region.
I am grateful that the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Special Issue on Popular Music was published. I am grateful to the students who took my class this time. Could an anthology be planned to meet the experiences and demands of our students in different places? I don’t know. Ideally, any publishing project should meet the initiators’ and contributors’ desire all the way. Right now, for my selfish purpose, would anybody like to visit my class next year to explain their “method of researching popular music in the Inter-Asia context?” Because that assignment (presentation 4) really confused my students…
p.s. Please write me if you are interested in the syllabus: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chow, Yiu Fai. “Me and the Dragon; A Lyrical Engagement with the Politics of Chineseness.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10.4 (2009): 544-564.
Ho, Tung-Hung. “Taike Rock and Its Discontent.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10.4 (2009): 565-584.
Mori, Yoshitaka. “J-Pop: From the Ideology of Creativity to DiY Music Culture” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10.4 (2009): 474-488.
Shin, Hyunjoon. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain? And Who’ll Stop the Rain?: The Globalizing Project of Korean Pop (K-Pop). Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10.4 (2009): 507-523.
Shin, Hyunjoon and Tung-Hung Ho. “Translation of ‘America’ During the Early Cold War Period: A Comparative Study on the History of Popular Music in South Korea and Taiwan.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10.1 (2009): 83-102.
Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat and Hyunjoon Shin. “Asianizing K-Pop: Production, Consumption and Identification Patterns Among Thai Youth.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8.1 (2007): 109-136.