Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tsukuba University - The First Month

Its 'Golden Week' in Japan right now and finally we have a breather from the hectic schedule here.

How things have changed in the past few weeks! It was a chilly, sunny day when we arrived Tsukuba Centre in a bus from Narita airport. We had been told that an unexpected surge in the cold weather had delayed the onset of Hanami (the much awaited Cherry blossom viewing) season.

By the time we move from the 'Foreign Scholar's Residence' at Amakubo to Ichinoya Dorms, the trees had gradually started putting out their buds. And within the next couple of days, we had the pleasure of seeing a complete transformation of Tsukuba. Ordinary looking trees would suddenly burst forth flowers that lingered like clouds which had forgotten to float away.

My first surprise here were the "tutors". Each of us had been assigned a tutor and from the title, I had got the impression that these were faculty members who had been assigned as guides. Actually those are called "Academic Advisors" and we got to see the professors only a week after landing here.

The tutor's role was more to do with logistics and administration - 'to assist newly arrived international students with their academic and daily life' - as the guidebook says. Most of them were undergraduates from other departments, who were getting paid by the university about Yen 40,000 for the 90 hours/year job.

They received us when our bus arrived Tsukuba Centre, bundled our luggage into the available cars and took us to the campus, to the Foreign Scholar's Residence and then helped move us to Ichinoya Dormitories; they helped fill up the assorted forms for the numerous cards that followed (Univ Id, Library, ATM, Health Insurance, Alien Registration) and to the right places for buying food, clothes, bicycles and second-hand stuff.

The SOP's triggered by the forms we filled also resulted in each of us being given the keys to a study room, computer lab (both 24-hr access) at the College of International Studies (Building 3K), a photocopy card (2000 copies) and a TWINS card for online registration of the courses & electives.

We were told that the goal of the program was to 'guide' us towards a Master's Thesis that was worthy of the university and that we were required to earn at least 30 credits. We were encouraged to seek half the credits from courses offered by any other department/school in the university, so as to 'foster cross-functional exchange of ideas'.

What did they mean by any other school? Well, Tsukuba University has over 15,000 students in 9 schools and 23 colleges, studying subjects ranging from medicine and engineering sciences to humanities and sports. So, at least theoretically, I should be able to get a couple of credits by learning Judo, even though my specialization is International Public Policy!

When I got the photocopy card, I wondered what I would do with 2000 copies. The answer came as soon as the academic sessions started. The courses during the first trimester fall into three broad categories - the 'Introductory Courses', Seminars and Lectures. The intros include - Mathematics for Economics, Statistics, Econometrics, Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. You get no credits for the introductory courses but if you don't clear them, you're out of the program. The rules can't be simpler, I guess.

The lectures and seminars cover interesting subjects like 'International Relations', 'Politics of the Developing World', 'Culture & Development'. Preparations for each session requires downloading, copying and printing of so many discussion notes & papers that suddenly, within just one month, the photocopy quota looks grossly inadequate! (I'm already down to 1400)

The sessions are hugely interesting though. It is a great mix of quant and non-quant subjects and its a completely new experience to be studying in a class where almost everybody is from a different corner of the world. The Prof's themselves are reflect this plurality - of the eight courses I'm taking right now, only two are taught by Japanese professors (Econometrics & MicroEcon); for the others we have a colorful Spaniard (MacroE), a Brazilian (Math-Econ + Stats), a German (Intl Relations), a Dutch-Philippino (Politics), and a Canadian (Development).

For most of the professors, its a bit of a strain to be teaching basic stuff to mid-career professionals, many of whom (like me) have forgotten all about differential calculus and linear algebra a decade ago. In any case there are so many topics to cover that it is left to the Teaching Assistants (TA's) to hold Recitations that try to make up for the 'overhead transmissions'.

When we arrived a month ago, the university was ablaze with flowers and bright sunshine. A couple of minor earthquakes also added to the excitement of being in Japan.

Now it rains all day and life moves from one assignment deadline to another...