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Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Japanese Materials: Christopher M. Mayo

Posted by on Thursday, November 2, 2017 in Resource.

A blog series by Bryan Lowe,
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies,

Religious Traditions of Japan and Korea



At the Association of Asian Studies Annual meeting this past March, I organized a roundtable entitled: “Digital Pedagogy for the Analog Past: Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Japanese Materials.” The idea was to have four specialists of premodern Japanese studies from four different disciplines (art history, literature, history, and religious studies) share digital tools they use in the classroom for teaching about premodern Japan.

The presenters teach on three continents in diverse institutional settings. They introduced a range of projects including digital note taking, problem sets, timelines, and a collaborative web page. Since the goal of the panel was in part to share some our experiences and the tools themselves, we also decided to publish short summaries of our findings with links to the relevant materials.

Although the panel was designed by Japanese studies specialists, the tools and findings are relevant for the humanities more generally. Below are summaries and links for the four panelists. In addition to these presentations, audience members and our discussant, Haruko Wakabayashi, also shared a variety of exciting digital projects such as ReEnvisioning Japan and The Heian Bibliography Project.

In this series, I’ll share summaries from each of the panelists. This first of four blog posts features a summary from Christopher M. Mayo at Kōgakkan University.

Analogging Premodern Japanese Sources to Build a Personal Database

Christopher M. Mayo メイヨー・クリストファー
Kōgakkan University 皇學館大学

My presentation dealt with teaching students how to build and use personal databases for use with premodern Japanese sources. I focused on improving student retention of course content with the aim of demonstrating that it is possible, and even desirable to spend time in your classes training students how to effectively take notes and use flashcards. I began by briefly addressing some theoretical considerations and providing an overview of research on the “analog” study techniques I recommended. Then, I outlined some use cases for flashcards (handwritten, text, audio, and visual) and handwritten notes that combine “analog” and “digital” elements.

  • There are several benefits to blending analog and digital workflows for teachers and students:
  • Everything I discussed can be easily incorporated into classes for a relatively low cost.
  • They do not require students to have computers.
  • The data is available to students 24/7 in their pockets on their smartphones.
  • Instead of playing games to pass the time, it is possible for them to spend their free time with their flashcards (usually only a minute or two each time you run through a deck using the “Leitner” method), organize and make connections among their notes, or snap a few photos of handouts and notes to further expand and refine their databases.

Whether students do take full advantage of these techniques is up to them, but the more I have incorporated these workflows into classes, the better the response seems to have been. I stressed that it is possible over time for each student to come to see that their personal database is a kind of collaborator in their work, surfacing serendipitous insights the more they interact with it. The image of students building a database of their own, establishing a kind of relationship with it (see Niklas Luhmann’s “zettelkasten”), and actually remembering what they learned in my classes is the ideal. It may rarely be realized but, at the very least, the workflows offer hope that the notes and class materials on premodern Japan will have a life beyond the course in the students’ “meat” and “silicon” brains — that lifelong relevance alone might be worth the effort of incorporating some of these ideas.

Personal Databases and Flashcards

For personal databases, I recommended two organizational models. One is an index card organizational method called a “zettelkasten” by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), who invented the system. Another is the digital product designer Ryder Carrol’s “bullet journal,” a kind of task management system crossed with an early-modern European “commonplace” book (this hybrid possibility is something I introduce in class, though it isn’t mentioned on the bullet journal website). The software I prefer for this is:

  • Evernote (any platform — convenient for students and teachers to collaborate)
  • DEVONthink (iOS and OSX — the best database solution I have found for my research and teaching, but students may not have the Apple hardware needed for it)
  • Byword (iOS — plain text app that syncs through Dropbox with nvALT)
  • nvALT (OSX — plain text app that syncs through Dropbox with Byword)

Most of my talk focused on flashcards, which are one part of the personal databases I build with students, because I realized that flashcards are a significant part of the workflow as well; they are one of the ways we can use our “silicon” brains to help train our “meat” brains. Recommended resources included:

All too often, I think digital humanities is overly data driven, with an emphasis on shiny, new applications in our “silicon” brains, and we neglect to train our “meat” brains. My working assumption has been that mastery of fundamental content, especially if acquired in “terakoya” 寺子屋 ways similar to how the authors of our premodern sources would have studied, can lead to powerful insights in higher level assignments that foster the ability to make connections and develop critical opinions on topics.

Bibliography (Selected Works)

Bui, Dung C., Joel Myerson, Joel, and Sandra Hale. “Note-taking with Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105, no. 2 (May 2013): 299–309.

Davis, Richard C., James Lin, Jason A. Brotherton, James A. Landay, Morgan N. Price, and Bill N. Schilit. “A Framework for Sharing Handwritten Notes.” UIST ‘98: Proceedings of the 11th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (1998): 119–120.

Fried, Carrie B. “In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning.” Computers and Education 50, Issue 3 (April 2008): 906–914.

Godwin-Jones, Robert. “Emerging Technologies: From Memory Palaces to Spacing Algorithms: Approaches to Second-Language Vocabulary Learning.” Language Learning and Technology 14, no. 2 (June 2010): 4–11.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Communication with Index Card Systems. An Empirical Account or Communication with Slip Boxes.” Translated by Manfred Kuehn. Dates unknown.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellog. “Cognitive Effort during Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology19, Issue 3 (April 2005): 291–312.

Sana, Faria, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda. “Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers.” Computers and Education 62 (March 2013): 24–31.

Smoker, Timothy J., Carrie E. Murphy, and Alison K. Rockwell. “Comparing Memory for Handwriting versus Typing.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 53, Issue 22 (2009): 1744 – 1747.

Read more from this blog series.

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