“Quite simply, it was probably my daughter who sparked my interest in Japan,” said DePauw University professor Vanessa Dickerson. “One of the things I loved about the language, as I saw my daughter studying it in school, was its complexity.”
Over the next few years, one thing led to another, pulling her closer to Japan. Dickerson took up Japanese language study, began to connect her research interests to the country and its culture, and traveled there three times. Now, she’s preparing to spend the 2015-16 academic year in Tokyo as Resident Director of the Japan Study program.
The program, based at Earlham College, was established more than 50 years ago and links member colleges of ACM and the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) with Waseda University, one of Japan’s top institutions. Faculty from ACM and GLCA colleges are eligible to apply for the Resident Director position and the program draws students from both consortia.
Students take content courses and intensive Japanese language study at Waseda, live with host families, get involved in university clubs and activities, and have opportunities for community engagement during a four to six-week cultural internship. While Japan Study emphasizes the full academic year program because of the strength of the immersion experience, the program offers semester-length calendar options as well.
As Resident Director, Dickerson will teach two courses at Waseda’s Global Education Center. She also will be closely involved in advising the students and facilitating their orientation and adjustment to living and studying in Japan.
“I’m looking forward to working with the students, because we’re going to be learning at the same time, [with] the whole immersion experience and the challenge of the language,” she said. “Living abroad in a culture that is so very, very different — and yet connected — as Japanese culture is, should be a stretching experience.”
Students and staff at the Japan Study spring retreat in Tokyo.
Dickerson joined DePauw’s faculty in 1997, where she teaches in the English department and the Black Studies program. Prior to that, she taught at Rhodes College and the University of Virginia. She’s author of two books, Dark Victorians and Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, has edited and contributed to several collections, and has written numerous articles. In 2006, she was appointed University Professor at DePauw in recognition of sustained excellence in teaching, service, and professional accomplishments.
“I’m very much interested in trans-cultural studies and international relations between cultures,” Dickerson said, and in Dark Victorians she investigated relations between white Britons and African Americans during the Victorian Age. With her budding interest in Japan, she began to explore the connections between African Americans and the Japanese, two groups that appeared to be worlds apart.
“Because literature is my forte, that’s one of the first places I started,” she said. “What have Japanese authors written, especially in translation, that includes some kind of African American character, some kind of Black characterization? And what have Black writers said about the Japanese?”
Dickerson took her first trip to Japan to do research at Waseda in 2009. Although that inaugural trip didn’t yield the trove of texts she was hoping for, Dickerson took the opportunity to see what she could find by simply walking around Tokyo and observing. “I found a lot of evidence of the Black influence [in Japan],” she said. “What else does the U.S. export but African American culture? That’s what we export in a big way.”
She returned to Japan in 2012, spending two months as a research scholar at Keio University’s Shonan-Fujisawa Campus. That time, though, she took a different approach to her research by conducting interviews with African American ex-pats living in Japan to learn about their lives.
Japan Study students learn about traditional Japanese cooking during their cultural internships.
“It was a learning experience for me because I’ve never conducted field research before … I am a literary person,” Dickerson noted. “I believe that what education equips you to do is to learn and to continue to learn.”
She has proposed a pair of courses to teach at Waseda that draw on her research. In one of those, titled From Kool-Aid to Maccha: African Americans and the Japanese, Dickerson plans to lead the class in examining intercultural connections between the two groups.
After opening with a brief historical overview for context, the course will look at film, literature, documentaries, music, commercials, anime, and food. “We think about literature being one of the signatures of a nation — certainly one of the things you need for nation-building — but another thing, I think, is food,” she said. “Food helps define a people, a culture.”
In the other course, called Shorts: The Art of the Short Form, Dickerson has proposed continuing with the trans-national theme while focusing on short stories and novellas, plays, films, and poems.
“I’m going to weave back and forth between African American and Japanese texts,” she said. The Catch, Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe’s novella about the capture of an African American soldier by the residents of a small Japanese town, will likely be on the syllabus. Another possibility is “Geese,” a story with a Japanese theme by African American author ZZ Packer, along with other works Dickerson has found that are not so well known. “I am very excited about getting to share this with the students, to see how they react, and find out what I can learn from them,” she said.
Although Dickerson has often traveled internationally, this will be her first time living abroad for a year. She’s looking forward to having a chance to do that, especially in Japan.
“I really fell in love with Japan when I went over [for the first time],” she said. “It’s a wonderfully inspiriting place to be. My main reason for being there, of course, will be the students, and I’m hoping that we will learn about Japan, about this wonderful culture, together.”