Professor Spotlight: Asian Studies’ Jan Leuchtenberger

For this entry in the Professor Spotlight series, I spoke with Associate Professor of Japanese Jan Leuchtenberger who returned from sabbatical this past spring, about her personal history, how she came to teach Japanese literature and how she spends her time outside the classroom.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Massachusetts, but I never lived anywhere longer than six years till I came here. I have also lived on Long Island, Lema, Peru, then back to New England and Japan. But being here has been nice because I can finally say I have been somewhere longer than six years.

How long have you been at Puget Sound?

This is my eighth year.

What drew you here?

In academia, when you want a teaching position you go where the job is, especially when you are doing Japanese literature, where there is not a whole lot of positions out there. The year that I was looking, I was lucky because there were a couple of offered, but this was the best.

I did my undergrad at a small, liberal arts college, so I saw myself ideally teaching in a similar environment. This is a beautiful place to live: if I can’t live in New England, this is a close substitute! It is also a great place if you want to travel to Asia.

How did you come to focus your life’s work on Asian History and Literature?

That was accidental. I did my undergraduate work in Spanish and Communication Arts, because Spanish was my language from when I lived in Peru as a child. But then I had a friend who wanted to go teach in Japan, and so I said okay!

So I did not even start learning Japanese till after undergrad. I tell my first year students, “I was older then you when I started Japanese!”

Was there ever a plan B?

I wanted to be a translator of Spanish and English, and I ended up pursuing that ultimately. I was in Japan for a little while, then studied Spanish translation in Spain, but then ended up going back to Japan and adding Japanese as a third language.

Then I got my masters in Translation and Interpretation, at the Monterey Institute, and worked as a translator in both languages for a few years before going back for my PhD.

Do you prefer one language over the other?

I will tell you they are like picking parts of your personality. The way that you speak in those two languages are on opposite ends of the spectrum. So when I speak Spanish, I get emotional and expressive, but when I speak Japanese, very delicately, because that is how a woman speaks in Japanese. It is like acting.

What is your favorite class to teach?

First year Japanese. Students usually do not take Japanese unless they are really interested. You do not get students causally fulfilling their language requirement with Japanese.

People come very enthusiastic, but also a little scared. We teach 52 characters within the first few weeks, and within a few weeks you are functionally reading. There is that moment in the third week, when they have just taken their first test, and I can hold it up to them after they are done and say, “Three weeks ago you had no idea what any of this said, and now you do.” There is a wonderful excitement in their eyes.

Is there a class that you would like to teach in the future that you have not had the opportunity to thus far?

It is not really possible at the undergraduate level but I would like to have a seminar where we read some classical Japanese literature, like the Tale of Genji and really picked it apart.

In any of the character-based languages, it takes so many hours to master the characters alone that reading, as a student would at a college level in another language, is really only done at the graduate level. In the fourth year, we definitely read texts, but not whole books, and not at the rate you can read other languages. You need 2,000 distinct characters just to read a newspaper in Japanese, and we average about 100-200 characters a semester. It just takes more time.

Biggest pet peeve in the classroom?

Students leaving in the middle of class. If it is an hour in a discussion-based class, you can hold on. If I can do it, you can do it! Students are always quite respectful of that rule when I ask them at the beginning of the semester, though. I come from a generation, though, where no one ever left in the middle of class, so I am always surprised when I have to ask.

Are you working on any scholarship at the moment?

I just finished a big project, so I am in the early stages of starting another. The one I just completed looked at how Westerners were portrayed in popular literature in Japan in the 17th through 19th centuries. In the course of doing research for that piece I had to do a lot with what was written by those Westerners that were in Japan, primarily Jesuit missionaries,  and so now I am turning the lens the other way, and looking at the earliest impressions of the Japanese, through the eyes of the Jesuits.

I actually spent three weeks in Rome in May, reading the original letters and reports that the Jesuits wrote back in the 16th century, which contain their first impressions of what the Japanese people and the Japanese culture were like.

How do you spend your free time?

I have a three-year-old daughter, so my time outside of the classroom is her time. That’s all I do, that and research of course!

This kind of job swells to fill your time, so if you think you have free time, then you think you should be spending that time on the next lecture or the next text. I wish I had more free time, I would love to read more. It is the great irony of my profession: Once you become an academic in the world of literature, you no longer have time to read.

As an extension of that, what did you do during your sabbatical last spring?

I worked at home every day. A lot of professors who have family at home come to campus and work in the library, or in their office if it is not in use. I did revisions for my book, I prepared a paper, presented it, researched for my trip to Rome, went, came back, prepared my notes from my research there and then prepared for a new class I am teaching this semester. It is always very busy.

What’s one thing your students don’t know about you?

I am an avid New England Patriots fan. My daughter calls football, “Go! Go! Go!” because that is what I yell at the television when I watch.