When he received the Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising from Tufts this spring, professor of Japanese Charles Shirō Inouye recalled the legacy of his father’s lessons in agriculture—and how they apply to a life in the classroom.—Ed.
When I think about teaching, I think about my father, Charles Ichirō Inouye. He was a farmer, and a busy one at that. When people called to talk with him on the phone, my mother would tell them, “Charlie’s out standing in his field.” Joking aside, he actually was an outstanding agriculturalist, appearing on the covers of such farming magazines as Utah Farmer and Sugar Beet Grower. He was successful at growing forage and row crops in a windy, salty valley in central Utah.
My parents were fond of saying that the best crops they raised were not potatoes or sugar beets but children—two daughters and four sons. They taught us how to work hard and effectively. They didn’t plan to be farmers. Maybe for that reason, they encouraged us to read and to be ambitious. They expected us to go to college and become doctors and lawyers and professors. At the same time, we always knew that they quietly hoped that at least one of us would stick around and take over the family business.
I thought about doing that. I actually liked to farm. In high school I was heavily involved in the Future Farmers of America organization, and I went off to college thinking that someday I would return to the family farm in Gunnison, Utah.
But things change, as we all know. When I got to college I was challenged intellectually for the first time, and that was when I discovered something I loved even more than working outdoors. Sometime during my freshman year, I told my father that I would rather read books and write papers than grow alfalfa and barley. That discovery broke his heart.
In the end, it was the right decision for me. But I also knew that it was hard for my father, and for my mother, to farm alone. As a result, to win something like Tufts’ Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising means something very specific for me. It’s a way of apologizing to a man who continued to work on the farm until he was 85, without my help. When I look at the plaque and its inscription, I think about those cold autumn days when my parents struggled to get the crops in before the winter storms arrived.
As with farming, much of what I know about teaching are things I learned from my father. He was not what you would call “a natural teacher.” By that I mean to say that he was not particularly good at explaining things. He was temperamental and impatient. Still, he was a man of great passion, energy and intelligence, and thus eloquent by way of example.
He often talked about his lack of verbal ability—how too little intellectual conversation had made his mind dull over the years. (He graduated from Stanford in 1931 with a degree in social science.) This did not stop him from holding forth, however, during our commute from farm to home after work each night. Above the roar of the truck engine, he would talk about this and that—how life was complicated, how the modernization of Africa would be bloody, how the United States abandoned Chiang Kai-shek.
He rarely spoke about the War and the Relocation. On one rare occasion, however, as he was delivering his nightly pickup-truck lecture to me, the discussion turned to how he lost his brokerage business in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. As with most of the Japanese living on the West Coast, both my father’s and mother’s families lost everything they owned when the U.S. government sent them to live in concentration camps in the American wastelands. Fortunately for me, my father and mother ended up in the same place, in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. That’s where they met and married.
I normally said very little while my father talked. But that night I couldn’t help but ask, as a teenage boy might, “Who could have done that to you?”
As we live our lives, perhaps the sought-for moment of full preparation never arrives. Maybe trial and error can’t be avoided. At some point, you just dive in and do what you can.
His answer to this question delivered a lesson I never forgot. I remember he backed off the gas pedal a little and said, “Well, people like the Coates, and the Malmgrens and the Hyatts.” He simply named all of our neighbors, all the people I had grown up with, all those people I thought were my friends. Then he added, “When times are good, that’s one thing. But when times get hard, those people you thought were your neighbors? They’ll all turn on you.”
As with other lessons, I had to test the truth of this for myself. It’s the same way for my students at Tufts. Most of the things I teach them have to be learned slowly. They are ideas and emotions that have to be revisited again and again, mastered a little at a time. Thus the Analects of Confucius begins, “Is it not joy when an old friend visits from afar?” The lessons we learn in our youth become these old friends. We encounter them again and again, and each time they visit we understand how much we have changed, because they have not.
Setting the Water
My father was wise enough to let time and experience deepen my understanding of what he was trying to teach me. Yet there were also those moments when he expected me to grasp something immediately. Most of the skills I mastered on the farm—irrigation, the operation of machinery, arc welding and cutting metal with an acetylene torch—were learned over many years, and by paying close attention to his example. Nevertheless, time and again, at some point in the learning process he would put me and my brothers on the spot, forcing us to take action even if we thought we were unprepared to do so.
As we live our lives, perhaps the sought-for moment of full preparation never arrives. Maybe trial and error can’t be avoided. At some point, you just dive in and do what you can. Writing a haiku is like that. So is falling in love, getting married, having children, running a business, writing a book. You’re never really ready to do the things that come along.
I remember one particularly traumatic moment of diving in. One morning my father took me to a field, handed me a shovel and told me to “set the water.” I must have been about 13 or 14.
By “set the water,” he meant I was supposed to spread a stream of water over a certain area of the field. In an arid place like Utah, irrigation is the essence of farming. Because it rarely rains, we draw the snow melt from the mountains, store it in reservoirs and transport it to the fields via long canals. There is no aspect of desert farming that is more crucial, or more difficult to master. Until that morning, it was something I had never done on my own. This time, my father gave me no choice.
I panicked. I remember being frightened at the sight of the water as it flowed down the ditch toward me. There would be no stopping it. I somehow managed to control that stream, beginning a process I would repeat hundreds of times. Over the years, I actually became a good irrigator. But to be honest, a fear of water still haunts me—even as I ply the bays and rivers of Massachusetts in my kayak.
The Irrigator’s View of Teaching
Water seeks the lowest possible place. Its power to erode and destroy is impressive. A small leak eventually becomes a big leak. A weak dam will eventually give way. Give water a chance, and it will find a weakness, always doing the damage that it threatens to do. I remember the day, for instance, when my neighbor Bert Jensen’s brother, a famous drunk called Bottle John, fell into Palisade Reservoir with his waders on. The water immediately filled his boots, and he sank straight to the bottom.
Irrigation is all about giving form to something large, amorphous and threatening. It is the art of establishing the structures that divide a big stream into smaller and smaller flows, until a powerful rush of water has been reduced again and again to become a hundred gentle trickles that quietly run down each furrow, soaking into the soil and giving life to whatever has been planted there.
As it turns out, engaging chaos and giving it form by supplying just the right amount of structure is also what teaching is about. In essence, the lessons I learned by way of those many years of working on the ditch bank have helped me tremendously as a professor of Japanese literature and visual culture.
An irrigator’s view of teaching goes something like this:
○ A good teacher will do as little as possible. See what the water does naturally, and only then make adjustments. Students, like water, should not be forced. If you understand their natural inclinations, then the minimum amount of structure gets them learning the most.
○ Those structures are always being tested because that is the nature and power of water, and of young people. Certain structures erode faster than others. The best ones are rock solid, yet moveable and adjustable. If water is given no place to go, or if the outlet does not match what flows in, a stream will overrun any ditch bank or drain or dam that attempts to contain it.
○ This is what makes teaching such a frightening and challenging occupation. If you design a course the wrong way, the results are always disastrous. Nothing is worse than not fitting a student’s needs. That is why a good teacher is always guessing, checking and making the necessary adjustments. A good teacher works with, not against, the insistent chaos of a young student’s intellectual ability as it grows.
The kind of irrigation that I grew up doing is almost a lost art. Dirt ditches have been replaced with concrete waterways, plastic pipes and aluminum tubing. Giant sprinklers move automatically over the land, covering huge circles of the earth’s surface with a mist of artificial rainwater. Less water is wasted this way, and labor costs are reduced drastically. But the huge outlays of capital that make this kind of mechanized irrigation possible have taken the guesswork away, so that what once was an art is now a managed practice. While the plants themselves get what they need either way, the intuitive skill of the irrigator has been lost. So has much of the mystery of agriculture, which was, and continues to be, the first and most fundamental kind of culture we have.
If we are not careful, education might move in this same direction. With machines delivering the day’s lessons to larger numbers of people in an increasingly efficient fashion, we run the danger of losing sight of the larger purpose of learning. When learning is reduced to the acquisition of information, and education’s only purpose is to build a resume and get a job, then something critical is lost. We often forget that the most important skills to master—whether for a career or for a life—are the ones that make us understanding and compassionate.
To gain wisdom, there simply is no replacement for the intense intellectual and emotional interactions that occur during a well-taught class or a mentoring session between teacher and student. There is also no substitute for the personal encounters with diversity that are the hallmark of a residential liberal arts education, such as those you find at a place like Tufts.
I’m honored to receive this award. This moment of recognition will soon pass, but on this quiet morning as I write these words, I take a deep breath and reflect on the path I’ve been on for the past 30 or so years. The greatest prize is not recognition from colleagues, but knowing that I was so warmly supported by my students who have left Tufts and are now scattered to the four corners of the world.
For me, being able to make so many lasting friendships has been a bounteous compensation for having had to disappoint my father many years ago. He taught me to follow my passion. That’s what I did, despite the price I’ve had to pay. That’s what I hope I’m still teaching you—that you need to follow your passion to wherever it takes you.
Charles Shirō Inouye is a professor of Japanese in the School of Arts and Sciences.