(Professor of the Year)

Kobayashi photo
Senior Lecturer in Japanese Hisae Kobayashi is known for her strict classroom rules, including: No English allowed. But she also promises her students that if they put in the work, they will learn Japanese. "My ultimate goal is to help them become independent learners - not dependent," she says.

Reactions from near and far

Learning Japanese is one thing; using it, another. When the Carnegie/CASE award was announced, congratulatory notes — and stories — flowed in from around the world. One former student, Andras Molnar ’09, who is majoring in applied linguistics at Columbia University Teachers College, shared an update. He had applied for a position doing Japanese translation work for Columbia’s Eastern Studies Department — a position typically given to a native speaker. “I was really surprised I got the job. It’s difficult, but I know I can do it, partly from the confidence that comes from Professor Kobayashi.”

Kobayashi also heard from Andrea Mendoza ’13, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell in Asian literature, religion and culture. “Congratulations — and, above all, thank you — to Kobayashi  (sensei)!” she wrote. “Without her enormous influence, none of what I’m doing right now would be possible.”

From Jack Lichten ’10, who is living in Tokyo after finishing his master’s degree at Sophia University: “My undergraduate Japanese language professor was named one of the best in the country. Congratulations!”

They kept coming. Dozens of other joyful, congratulatory and news-filled missives flooded her email, her mailbox and the College’s Facebook page.

From clueless to confident 

Passing between many Japanese students and alumni are legendary stories of those who walked into their first “Introductory Japanese” class in the history-laden Woodworth House and felt certain they had entered an alternate universe. 

When Donglin Li ’17 settled in on his first day of Japanese class last year, he heard only Japanese. Kobayashi had invited upperclassmen to sit in, and they were chattering away. “I expected some English,” Li remembers. He sat there, worried thoughts racing through his head. 

Was he supposed to already know Japanese? He turned to a fellow student and whispered, “Are we in the right class?”

His classmate nodded.

Now he chats effortlessly in Japanese with fellow students and Kobayashi. “I didn’t expect the level of intensity,” he says. “I didn’t expect to study this hard. Professor Kobayashi has a distinct style of teaching — it’s this constant pressure.”

It is a pressure Kobayashi also places on herself. “Since I challenge students, I think it’s only fair for me to be challenged,” she says. In keeping with that philosophy, she recently took up ballroom dancing, a physically and mentally rigorous activity that, like Japanese, requires flawless precision. “I felt like the instructor did to me what I do to my students,” Kobayashi says. “It’s good — good for me to be the student.”

At the end of the fall semester of classes this academic year, the College hosted a reception to honor Kobayashi. As colleagues, College staff, and current and former students congratulated the professor, Dean of the Faculty Abigail Van Slyck stood up to say a few words. Van Slyck noted that Professor of the Year recipients “are not just excellent teachers, but they go a step beyond excellence in terms of their dedication, commitment and skill at getting the very best out of their students.” 

To illustrate her point, Van Slyck, a professor of architectural history, told a story about a student, Daniel De Sousa ’07, whom she and Kobayashi had both taught. 

“I knew Hisae as a colleague, as a wonderfully warm person,” Van Slyck said. “Daniel told me what she was like in class — and it scared me a little. She is very demanding, very strict — and he couldn’t get enough of it. I find it a very good sign that one of our very toughest teachers has also been recognized as one of our very best.”

Even after her students have graduated, they seek her counsel. When a tsunami and earthquake struck Japan in March 2011, leveling the rural town of Yamamoto, where her former student Molnar was teaching, he evacuated to Tokyo and assessed his options. His family and friends in the United States demanded he return home, particularly because Yamamoto was close to an endangered nuclear power plant.

He called Kobayashi instead. “She said to me, ‘Take a moment to look at all the roads in front of you, and make a decision that will end in having the least amount of regrets. Then don’t look back,’” Molnar remembers. “The conversation gave me confidence and direction. I chose to go back to the town and live with whatever fate came with it, and if I had gone home, the experience would have been very different emotionally for me. I was so very glad she talked to me about it.”

Is there a secret?

Whenever Assistant Professor of Japanese Takeshi Watanabe arrives at the East Asian Languages and Cultures offices at Woodworth House — morning, noon, or night — he finds his colleague toiling away in an office crammed with files, books, pictures, posters and thank-you notes from students.

“She is absolutely dedicated to her work — to Japanese studies,” says Watanabe. “I really respect her for challenging herself constantly, and for expecting her students to do the same.”

Over time, as America has become an increasingly visual culture reliant on technology, Kobayashi has seen students go from struggling with learning a difficult language to struggling to communicate in any language at all. 

“I am teaching today’s students Japanese, but also how to communicate,” she says. 

She assigns students a daily conversation for them to memorize and grades them each day on their performance. “Speaking Japanese will improve reading skills, but the reverse is not true,” she tells her students. To help improve their speaking skills, she requires they work with audio files.

Her “Intensive Elementary Japanese” class meets five times a week for 75-minute sessions, and she demands attendance. But showing up is not enough; students must be prepared. “I don’t care if you are a good student or a weak student. I like a student who studies,” she says. Preparation is a must; she does not wait for raised hands, but rather calls on students randomly. 

She embraces the process of learning — the road to the end rather than the end itself. Before midterms and final exams, she tells her students, “I want you to go through frustration and negative emotions to find the answers. Unless you go through the process, the information will not stay in your brain. Technology advances daily, but human beings have not changed at all. There is no easy way to learn.”


Kobayashi Books

May 17, 2015