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Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vance Schaefer

Lieber Memorial Teaching Associate Award

Vance Schaefer image

Vance Schaefer

Print-Quality Photo

Master's Student in East Asian Languages and Cultures
Indiana University Bloomington
B.A., Northwestern University, 1986
M.A., Kobe University, 1996

"I do not have a teaching philosophy," declares Vance Schaefer in the first sentence of his teaching philosophy. "I have a learning philosophy." In other hands, such a statement might seem ironic or even cheeky. But for Schaefer, who has been a student and teacher of languages for more than 20 years, the subtext can only be read as empathetic.

Schaefer's love of languages began with an Indiana University German exchange program at his high school in Evansville, Indiana — a geographical origin that might surprise some of his Japanese language students, like Zachary Everson, who applauds Schaefer's eagerness to "share his native culture" with his introductory Japanese classes.

Schaefer's mother is Japanese, and he lived a few years in Japan as a child. "I consider myself American, but my mother's influence is strong," he says. "I suppose my love of the Japanese language and language in general comes from her and from my grandfather on my father's side, who would often talk to me in German."

After high school, Schaefer started moving east, physically and linguistically. He took Japanese language and culture courses at Northwestern University and in 1984, traveled to Tokyo to study at Waseda University. In the years that followed his bachelor's in linguistics and concentration in teaching English as a second language (TESOL) from Northwestern, he taught English in Utsunomiya, Japan, and in Casablanca, Morocco. He then returned to Japan to teach, learn, and work as a translator in Yonago, Kobe — where he earned a master's in international cooperation studies — and Osaka. In 1999, he moved the teaching to Taipei, Taiwan, and in 2001, Bangkok, Thailand. He returned to the States in 2003 and enrolled in the master's program in East Asian Languages and Cultures and the TESOL and Applied Linguistics Program at Indiana University Bloomington. He has been admitted to the doctoral program for TESOL and Applied Linguistics.

"When he came to IU, he already had had extensive teaching experiences," says Yasuko Ito Watt, associate professor and coordinator of the Japanese Language Program in which Schaefer has worked as an associate instructor in second- and third-year Japanese language courses. "While experience is good, I wondered how flexible Vance might be as a teacher. However, Vance is a very humble learner. He is always looking for the best way to teach the material."

Part of his humility as learner and sensitivity as a teacher comes from the quantity and quality of time Schaefer has spent on the receiving end of the language instruction. To date, Schaefer has studied no fewer than seven languages: German, French, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Mongolian, and, of course, Japanese. In his literary and culture classes, Schaefer's contributions are consistently described as "impeccable," "exemplary," "diligent," and "comically modest."

"But he is more than simply an academically gifted student," says Edith Sarra, associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures. "He seems to have an instinctual knowledge of how to gauge his audience and how to pitch what he knows in a way that makes its way home with the greatest impact and effectiveness."

Where manga, anime, samurai, and other Japanese cultural and technological imports effectively sell the culture to students, keeping those students interested in learning the language isn't always easy. Distanced from English by its vocabulary, syntax, and orthography, Japanese can be difficult.

Students must study for years before they reach a level of proficiency that allows them to freely express themselves. Often, that translates to visible signs of frustration, boredom, and loss of confidence in the classroom.

But not in Schaefer's classroom. With meticulous lessons, his characteristic and well-documented energy and enthusiasm, and his insistence to speak only Japanese in and out of class — a habit that has made students wonder if he can speak English at all — Schaefer plans his lessons far out of reach of those issues. Students describe his classes as "worth getting up for," "full-speed without any lulls," and "energetic and fun." Rebecca Gabriel, a former student, sums it up: "I think it's really clear that not only does Schaefer sensei excel at teaching, he truly loves it."

It wasn't always that way, Schaefer admits. During his first few years of teaching, his goals were "to survive and get through classes and have the students enjoy class, so I would not feel bad." Today, though, he takes pride in his teaching. "I began to think that I must help those who really wish to learn and motivate those who do not want to learn. I must know students' needs and help them to fill them. This has become my philosophy."