Context for my outrage—teaching and learning after graduation

By Michael Pronko

“Outrage” was never a word that came up in my graduate school courses. It doesn’t come up in any of the books I read on pedagogy or the purpose of university, on literature or liberal arts. It’s not even a word that I use very often. But my students showed me what it meant by what they went through after they graduated—the women especially. As much as those academic books, my students’ stories pushed me to rethink my teaching.

Aya’s story

Aya got a job with a travel company, which seemed to fit her well. Her English was good and she was a hard worker, but not ambitious, or seemingly not. We met with a few other students at a wine bar. She said she’d come to love wine after going to Oregon on a wine tour, a perk of her job. Tourist agencies in America invited Japanese agents to see the tours, so she’d been to America many times since graduation.

We talked a lot that night, all the students sharing their stories about work and twenty-something life. As the wine soaked in a bit more, the students, predictably, talked a bit more. Aya said she really didn’t like her tourist agency because she did all the work.

All the work? I asked. Yes, I run the office, she said, and the other students, all women, laughed. Her boss was nice, she explained, but didn’t do much. I said, don’t tell me, “___ University?” “No, ___ (equally famous) University.” We all laughed.

She explained that her boss, a man only a couple years older, just sat there all day saying yes or no to whatever she took to him. Tourist agencies in America would call with promotional opportunities, and she would talk with them, having to explain that her boss—the head of the North America tour section for a large travel bureau—could not speak English.

She started to understand that this guy from a prestigious university—or someone like him—was going to be in charge forever. She was doing his work for him with him getting the credit, and a higher salary. She knew that because she did some of the accounts as well.  

She, apparently, was in the right job, but he was not. But the system was set up that way, so she put up with it for several years, because she was improving her English and going on great tours all over America. Those places were running out, though, along with her patience. I felt impatient just listening to her. I felt irritated at her situation, and irritated she wasn’t more irritated, though I knew she didn’t know how to even articulate her frustration.

Yuka’s story

Yuka was one of the best students I’ve ever taught. She was one of those students you don’t really teach—you just step aside and wave them forward. She received four A+ grades from me in one semester. The demanding classes all in English didn’t bother her. She relished the challenge. I was disappointed when she ended up in the personnel department of a mid-sized, traditional company, but she seemed OK with it.

She sent messages about everything she was doing, and it sounded like she was coming out of her shell. As a shy student, giving presentations at schools and conducting interviews with prospective employees gave her newfound confidence. She didn’t use English, but she was learning new skills. Plus, she told me, the company was expanding overseas, and she could maybe work in America.

It turned out the expansion wasn’t for everyone. The male employees hired at the same time–or after her—started getting sent abroad. The men weren’t sent to work, they were sent to study English. And yet, Yuka’s English didn’t need any brushing up. Why, she asked her boss, were they getting sent abroad, but not her?

He didn’t say directly, but the reason was clear. She was the only woman in the personnel section. Then, things got worse.

The male employees sent abroad to study had to write essays in English. Only, they couldn’t. So, they sent those assignments back to the section chief, who assigned the essays to Yuka. Stuck in Tokyo, with no chance to work abroad, she had to write the essays for the men who were sent abroad!

The final insult happened one day when she was talking with a section chief about the qualifications for a new position. She took down his requirements and noted there were always many women at the recruitment fairs. “Josei dame!” the section chief shouted. “Women, no way!” At that moment, her future at that company became obvious.

I could only listen. This marvelous student, so full of promise and so accomplished at English was given dull work in a constrained environment, and treated unfairly. She couldn’t complain because she was in human resources—the place to complain to.

I felt angrier than she did. That section chief, in fact, her whole company’s outlook, was not just insulting her as a woman and as an individual. He was insulting the entire set of values, the whole four years of study that was my work. She had worked so hard on her English, studied abroad and done everything right. She had excelled at school, but was held back at work. It was outrageous.

Mika’s story

Mika sent me an email asking if she could stop by my office. For several years, she’d been a shakaijin, that strange Japanese term for people working in society, but she was thinking of going back to graduate school. When she came to my office, we went over application procedures, standardized tests, and how to craft a good application essay. She wanted to do translation studies.

That seemed perfect for her because after graduation, she’d been working in a commodity company that made purchases in real time—in English. It was a dream job for most English majors, so I asked her why she wanted to change. She explained the excitement of working in English with brokers all over the world, but she needed a change. We got on with the process of applying. She pulled the materials into order and we emailed back and forth about the application.

Finally, she was accepted into several translation programs in the UK. It was success on success. But, somehow, she didn’t seem so pleased. Then the real reason for quitting came out.

Mika told me she was quitting because her boss wouldn’t stop sending her messages and making comments. What kind of comments? I asked. About sex, she said. Ah, I said, my hackles raised.

When she rebuffed him, he started blaming her for small things and gave her more work. She was already doing most of the work, since her boss didn’t speak English, either. In a few years, she had learned how to buy, sell, import and export commodities, but always needed his OK in Japanese for even the smallest trade. He harassed her that way, too.  

She told me that after applying to graduate school, she fell apart one day at work. Her boss’s harassment, which she’d failed to even mention to me, became too much. One morning, she ran into a toilet stall and could not stop crying. The human resources people rescued her and in a conference room, she spilled the entire story.

The HR people sent her home for a few days’ rest, and in the meantime, started talking to other women who had transferred out of that section. They told similar stories. So, in the time it took for her to get into graduate school, her boss had been fired.

Great, I said, as she both laughed and cried in my office. You were tough, I told her, but inside I was seething. I was disgusted with Japanese workplaces and angry at the horrible situation she’d been in. Was this the government’s so-called womenomics?

My story

What could I have done to make things better for these students? How could I, as a male teacher teaching female students, have wised them up to what awaited after graduation? As a teacher, were the forces outside the university too strong to be countered? Or was that just how things were—unfair and unjust?

In some ways, of course, it’s not really my responsibility. I could shuck it off and not worry about anything beyond the walls of the classroom. I could leave all thought of students’ private lives at the gate to the university. I could take a graduation photo with them and get back to focusing on “my job,” “my research,” and “my writing.” After all, a couple weeks after graduation, new students would arrive, and the cycle would start again.

But somehow, hearing their experiences changed my view of what teaching literature and film in English was all about. The disconnect between literature study, which is supposed to be about life, and actual life—the students’ lives—was a chasm I hadn’t yet bridged, as a teacher, a mentor, a writer, or as a person.

Or maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. If they had not studied literature, maybe they would have been even worse off. Maybe literature presented conflicts and resolution in ways that helped them find similar patterns in their lives. I started wondering if studying characters in conflict, the engine of stories, in fact energized them to take action themselves.

More than false hope, I thought, they had developed a sense of irony. Seeing a problem with steely irony is one step towards action. A sense of irony provides a needed distance from which to view events and another dimension with which to handle them. I wondered how I could teach that better.

I give my students lists of questions to help them negotiate the reading, thinking and discussing of stories, but I want them to see that themes, symbols, characters, conflicts and point of view are not just in-school games, not just blanks to fill in. They are the very patterns in which people and the world exist. Was I failing at that, or was it trickier than I imagined?

Understanding stories is practice for understanding themselves inside their own story, but it’s also more than that. It’s a step towards finding equilibrium in the face of frustrating, unfair realities. It’s a grounded space to develop the mindset and abilities to change, leave or fight back.

Talking with students about their post-graduation life pushed my teaching into a larger context. I started to understand that the frame around what I was doing in the classroom had been too confined by the university’s boundaries. It was missing lived experience.

If I couldn’t figure out how to coax literature closer to life, it wouldn’t ever be much help tangling with practical issues of survival, growth and threat. If literature didn’t expand my viewing frame, it wouldn’t expand theirs. It wasn’t them that was too narrow; it was me.

What struck me most about their stories was how intensely they felt about what happened. And that was what was missing from my class. It was as if sharp, intense emotion—the presence, analysis and understanding of it—had been banned from my classroom, repressed in the curriculum, kept hidden in our hearts as we sat around the classroom desks discussing stories. And yet, feeling was more than just a missing element of the class; it was what students, and myself, needed most. It was what literature most had to give.

So, the first immediate challenge to expand my teaching frame was handling emotion—the ingredient most often left out of most academic courses. It’s easy to teach bloodlessly, without any feeling. It makes things go smoothly. It keeps things neat and tidy. But it’s a disservice to students not to be able to at least somewhat predict the tangle of complex emotions and painful situations they will certainly encounter.

That prediction—that saying before—is a basic purpose of literature. All serious conflicts are emotional and all serious literature works with emotional conflict. If my class was to be serious, it would have to undertake that same work.

Of course, everyone who works has emotional conflicts and not everything fits into a meaningful narrative. Other students have told me unbelievable tales of ending up in jobs where they were required to clean the office toilet every morning or never given lunch breaks. Overtime is a given. Others ended up in disastrous retail positions with lazy, or maniacal, bosses. Others worked until they collapsed and had to quit to recover.

Their tales paint a grim picture of Japanese working society. Literature alone could not provide enough emotional armor, self-awareness, people skills, or humor to handle all that. But I started to feel more deeply that it would help.

In the end, after her harassing boss was fired, Mika waited it out at her company and finally got posted abroad to the same position, but in London. Yuka quit her company and found a position at a consulate in Europe, where her English is needed every day. Aya quit her travel agency and went to graduate school in Canada to get a degree in business.

I’d like to see where their male bosses end up after ten or twenty years, compared to what my students will achieve. I know how their stories will turn out, even if I don’t know the exact ending. Literature, after all, is good about endings. In literature as in life, outrage doesn’t last forever.