No.079 - Interview with Former Liberal Arts Communicator NIINAGA Yuto, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hirosaki University <Part 2>
NIINAGA Yuto, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hirosaki University
We have interviewed Dr. NIINAGA who became an associate professor at Hirosaki University from a liberal arts communicator. His interview Part 2 is divided into three topics: educational and research activities under COVID-19, skills developed as a liberal arts communicator that can be utilized in the current position, and a message to future liberal arts communicators.
Changes prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic
Undergraduates who were freshmen and sophomores two years ago when I came to Hirosaki University have gotten used to the pandemic, and, by now, having to attend classes online is nearly a matter of course. I do feel sorry for them having been deprived of the chance to fully experience the possibilities and fun that university life could have offered them, had the health crisis not occurred.
My research on Aomori dialects continues. I request the cooperation of native people in Hirosaki with in-person interviews and request students from the Tsugaru region to speak in their local vernacular. Slowly and surely I am gathering data.
My main research site is Amami Ōshima Island, Kagoshima but I have not been able to visit there for the past two years. This has been frustrating, to tell the truth. With the Omicron variant raging since around July 2022, I had to give up a plan to conduct research over the summer holidays, as my person-to-person interview approach entails a high risk of infection. The older people I want to interview tend to be unfamiliar with digital devices, so conducting interviews online is basically impossible. It would take considerable effort, but I might be able to organize support from close relatives of my research subjects (especially younger family members) and arrange virtual interviews. But that still is a departure from my usual “abductive” method, in which I prefer to cycle through the process of re-examining my questions and visiting the interview subjects in person whenever a research topic comes to mind. I thus have to adopt a completely different type of research approach, which would drastically change what I am trying to achieve. The struggle I am experiencing is almost like having to switch the field of specialization.
Cherry blossoms blooming on the Hirosaki University campus
Skills I have been able to utilize as a university professor among those I developed as a liberal arts communicator
None of the students in my university courses are professional linguists, so I draw heavily on the skills I acquired as a liberal arts communicator to make myself understood by non-experts. These techniques have proven to be extremely useful in public relations too, such as guest lectures at local high schools and online university classes (through which people can view online videos of model lectures offered by Hirosaki University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences).
What influenced me most in acquiring skills in communicating with non-experts was the experience I gained in the Science Communicator Practical Training Program at the National Museum of Nature and Science after I became a liberal arts communicator. Participants were required to prepare a ten-minute “Discovery Talk” presentation they would give at the end of the program to share their research projects with museum visitors. As we prepared for our gallery talks, our fellow trainees would give us candid feedback. In addition to highlighting the points others found interesting or hard to understand, this interaction—as I saw before my eyes how our presentations improved, including my own—left me impressed with how quickly we can grow and improve.
Another valuable experience I had as a liberal arts communicator was the development of a hands-on “dialect-themed escape game.” I created this in collaboration with Igengo Lab.—an interlingual content-creating collective consisting of Deaf people and hearing people. Handling the administrative duties for this project, ranging from coordinating the communication among members, and preparing copyright-related documents, to managing the budget, helped me in undertaking new tasks when I started working at Hirosaki University. A specific example is a suggestion I made about adding subtitles to the virtual video courses offered by Hirosaki University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for people who are Deaf, have acquired hearing loss, or are hard of hearing. After obtaining a green light for the idea, I compared cost estimates of various closed-caption services, sought part-time student staff, secured a budget, and negotiated with the persons concerned. In all these tasks, my experience in dealing with companies and corporations as a liberal arts communicator proved valuable. Coming up with interesting ideas for one’s research is critical, but I am grateful to have had the opportunities to undertake miscellaneous funding- and communication-related errands that were necessary for realizing the ideas.
I would also add that liberal arts communicators become better at communicating with others since they meet many different types of people. Making a good impression through the improvement of communication skills can directly affect how a person comes across in a job interview. Even with an impressive curriculum vitae, the impression a person makes is critical because it significantly influences the interviewers’ willingness to accept an applicant as a potential colleague. Person-to-person communication skills come naturally to liberal arts communicators as they perform their jobs, helping them further along in their career paths.
Message for aspiring liberal arts communicators
As mentioned earlier, be forewarned that, unlike science communicators in the natural sciences, very few job posts and no tenured posts are available to liberal arts communicators. Further, although one university offers liberal arts communication courses, no institution has systematic and specialized programs that holistically cover the profession. That makes it difficult to hold up as a goal or potential occupation. Whereas other professions present specific goals and help people envision who they want to be, aspiring liberal arts communicators end up ruminating over what they truly want to become by securing a communicator post. Underlying this is a problem in the current availability (and lack thereof) of professional liberal arts communicator positions and the systems that should support this line of work.
Imparting specialized knowledge to non-experts is an endeavor that humans have maintained over the course of time, be it in the humanities or the natural sciences. Access to the body of knowledge obtained in these fields should not be confined to limited members of a privileged minority, but instead, be accessible to people in all walks of life. I therefore suppose that all scholars in the humanities should be communicators of the liberal arts.
Moreover, liberal arts communicator positions are limited-term jobs, although they are good stepping stones in the transition to the next step in a career. Consequently, the ultimate goal is to secure a permanent position (at a university or research institute, for instance) in the field of one’s specialty. Improving specialized knowledge and polishing skill at conveying it to non-experts are the two major accomplishments to be attained as a liberal arts communicator. But note that whereas the evidence of the first accomplishment on a CV will be duly noted when applying for a university faculty or academic staff position, anything one has to show for the second will not be accorded much attention. The hiring team focuses on what is attained in terms of specialized knowledge; communication efforts and skills are incidental.
Consequently, those who become liberal arts communicators must actively deepen their specialized knowledge in addition to sharing it with non-professionals (without broadening one’s knowledge, there would be nothing worth imparting anyway). This should be clear not only to the communicators but also to the institutes that hire them. If the employers mistakenly consider that conveying knowledge is the sole job of a liberal arts communicator, they may ignore people’s career plans and assign adjunct public relations tasks and different projects, or miscellaneous one-off jobs. Fortunately, the supervisors and colleagues I had were very understanding. Initially, there were some problems—the liberal arts communicator program was still in its infancy then—but midway through my three-year term, I received permission to go to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa as a visiting scholar through the National Institutes for the Humanities’ Program for Young Researcher Overseas Visits. Near the end of my contract, I even had the privilege of focusing on the “dialect-themed escape game” project that I mentioned earlier. Again, I urge both aspiring liberal arts communicators and the institutes that employ them to work on and assign tasks considering not only the communications aspect but also the knowledge-advancement responsibilities that the post entails. This should be naturally attainable if both parties recognize that liberal arts communicators currently are in transition to permanent jobs in their field.
Finally, some people may find it difficult to understand how liberal arts communication in the narrow sense—sharing specialized knowledge with non-experts—would specifically contribute to their research. But such communication efforts can highlight subconscious preconceptions and the fundamental elements that had been missing from our understanding of certain topics. “Amateurs” often make astute observations. They make us realize that another layer exists before what we “specialists” considered to be the foundation of our discussions; they point out things we may have overlooked, and they help us deepen understanding of our research. In that regard, conveying knowledge to non-specialists should be an indivisible part of our research, rather than an activity to be undertaken as a side job.
One reason I enjoy teaching at universities and elsewhere instead of just conducting research is that through the endeavor of teaching it to students, I can better understand a certain subject. Of course, we must be mindful that, although enhancing our foundational knowledge is a prerequisite for good research, it alone does not take us to the next career level; we have to advance new research projects at the same time. If we can balance both—pursuing new research and enhancing ongoing research by sharing specialized knowledge with non-specialists—then I would say the experience gained as a liberal arts communicator would greatly benefit one’s research and ensuing career.
(Interviewer: OHBA Go, Researcher, Center for Innovative Research, National Institutes for the Humanities)
NIINAGA Yuto Japanese Linguistics Seminar, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Associate Professor, Hirosaki University
NIINAGA obtained a doctoral degree in literature from the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, the University of Tokyo in 2014. After serving as a part-time lecturer at Seijo University and other universities, he assumed his present position in April 2020. He worked as a NIHU liberal arts communicator from 2017 to 2020. His research interests are descriptive linguistics and Northern Ryūkyū dialects (especially the Yuwan dialect of Amami-Ōshima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture and the dialect of Kudaka Island, Okinawa Prefecture).