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Community-based Pedagogies in the Japanese Program: A Report on the Archive Project

JPN461 “Introduction to Classical Japanese” has been receiving attention due to the innovative course assignments developed by Prof. Pier-Carlo Tommasi.

Students attending Tommasi’s class in Fall 2022 had the chance to familiarize themselves not only with premodern Japanese grammar and vocabulary but also with paleography and material culture. In September, the class visited the Hamilton Library to gain first-hand experience of traditional book formats through original materials from the Japan Special Collection.

‘Speed-dating’ with ancient Japanese artifacts in UH class

The initiative continued with the exploration of other important Japanese antiques at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA). In early October, the class went on a field trip to the museum; and shortly thereafter, HoMA research associate Kiyoe Minami came to Moore Hall to prepare the students to contribute to the cataloging of the Lane Collection, one of the finest set of woodblock prints and manuscripts on the island.

Japanese literature students prepare to catalog rare book collection

Students were each assigned a rare book to digitally browse and analyze. Under Tommasi’s guidance, they read excerpts written in the difficult cursive style, and after collecting information on the book’s contents and historical background, they discussed their findings in a class presentation. Finally, they submitted a written report along with an English translation of the title to be added to the HoMA database. 

Talking about this student-centered cataloging process, Professor Tommasi explained: “I called it the Archive Project. To borrow Ward & Wisnicki’s expression, I see the archive as a ‘site of futurity’ (Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, p. 202). In other words, library and museum collections can become the matrix of change by bringing instructors, librarians, resource specialists, curators, and students together for a common cause, and ideally have the larger public partake in the same educational journey. I knew the stakes were high because this project took the most difficult linguistic components of my course and put them into one assignment, with more research on top of it, but the students rose admirably to the challenge. The ultimate goal was to generate new opportunities for community-based learning and to demystify the practice of academic research by making it accessible to undergraduate students.”

“I thought the final Archive Project was valuable since it was a ‘real’ project rather than a project just for the sake of doing a project,” said a JPN461 student. “It helped to do something that might actually be useful in the archives of HoMA as well as deepen our understanding and passion for premodern texts. I for one really enjoyed getting to know my text in such depth and being able to test my knowledge on something real.”

To add a creative twist to the curriculum, Tommasi wrapped up the semester with an Intercollegiate Classical Japanese Poetry Contest co-organized with other professors on the mainland. This experiment was the first of its kind in bringing together multiple communities of students and scholars to enjoy the creative potential of the classical language. 

Classical Japanese poetry contest inspires UH Mānoa students

Commenting on the students’ artistic output, Professor Tommasi said: “I was genuinely surprised by their hard work and imagination. For instance, one poem brilliantly actualized the trope of unrequited love by transforming a silent smartphone (nakanu sumaho 鳴かぬスマホ) into a post-modern bird whose ‘song’ only can bring solace to the broken heart. Another poet used the Hawaiian words for ‘mountain’ (mauka マウカ) and ‘sea’ (makai マカイ), making them fit within the traditional 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. Indeed, a clever move that captured the audience’s attention. Given its success, my colleagues and I are now discussing the possibility of future events like this, hopefully with more schools involved.”

These new pedagogies underscore the importance of learning as a shared, connected, and more enjoyable experience. By contributing to and interacting with organizations outside of the classroom, they also reflect UH Mānoa’s mission and values with regard to a sense of place, reinforcing a meaningful commitment to the Native Hawaiian Place of Learning in its translocal dimensions.