Living the Life of Pi with Joe Tomei

JtomeiIf you aren’t familiar with Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, or the movie version by Ang Lee, let me give you a quick summary. A Indian boy living in France, who takes the name π, through a series of strange turns of fate, ends up, after the freighter he and his family and his family’s zoo sinks in a storm in the middle of the Atlantic, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger. At first, the tiger tries to eat him, but eventually, they realize that they have to depend on each other for survival.


Change ‘Atlantic ocean’ to ‘an ocean of handouts, prints, meeting minutes and other stuff from dead trees’, and you might actually have a pretty good description of the life of a foreign teacher in Japan. Or at least this one.

This mediation is about taking arms against a sea of prints, handouts, minutes, etc etc. Some tiny steps are being made by universities. My university agreed to put the gakusei binran, a doorstop of a book that explains what students are actually supposed to do, but is more often than not ignored, online. Our risshu todoke guides have been moved to the university portal. Still, while dealing with students, some rationalization has occurred, it has not yet seeped into the faculty meeting. Of course, when you have teachers who refuse to use a computer, it kind of puts a kibosh on sending the documents as attached files.

So you are going to be swamped with paper. So the first thing that every foreign teacher should have is a document scanner that allows you to feed stacks of papers. I’m quite fond of the Fujitsu Scansnap, though a few colleagues have suggested the Canon ImageFormula as being as good. These scanners have improved remarkably over the past few years, so you take a few minutes during the kyoujukai to remove the staples and pull out the folded B4 pages (though the snapscan has a special carrier sheet that lets you fold the page in half and then puts the images side by side) and get them into a pdf.

One problem with scanners is that if you update your operating system software, your scanner doesn’t work. Or you end up with Japanese software and incomprehensible error messages. Don’t despair. Search the manufacturer’s sites overseas for drivers that will work with your computer. I’ve been using a Scansnap S510M and when I moved up to Mac OS 10.8, the scanner software wouldn’t work. However, some searching came up with some drivers from the Australia site that have it working even better than before.

Of course, scanning is only part of the solution. When I first got my scannner, I scanned everything willy-nilly and figured I would sort it out later. My first system was ok, I labeled faculty meetings with a reverse date, so May 6, 2009 would be 09.05.06 so the files would automatically be listed in chronological order. However, if I had made the pdf and then made some notes, or identified some keywords, it probably would have been a lot more useful.

Getting use to your pdf program (most people will use Adobe, but Mac’s Preview offers most of the functionality you need) will let you rearrange, notate and combine pdf files.


While the OCR (Optical Character Recogntion) is not quite there yet, it has advanced quite a bit and if you have a very clean print, you can almost scan something, cut and paste it and put it an email. Or google translate, even.

However, you may end up, like I do, with hard drives full of old pdfs sitting around your office. One thing to do is to use a combination of gmail, google drive and dropbox, to keep those documents that you are going to actually use, in arms’ reach. For example, one document given at the faculty meeting was the schedule which presented in a calendar form when each class day fell. I thought that not only would this help the part time teachers, it is something that I might need to refer to from time to time. So, pdf it with scansnap and then attach it to a gmail to the part time teachers and voila! (or as students have written, wallah!) I’ve got the document as long as I have a connection to the internet.

PDFs aren’t just for Japanese you really don’t want to read. If you get Microsoft word documents from students, turn on the “track changes” and make corrections. When you finish, choose print and on the left, you should see a pdf button. Choose ‘save as pdf’ (PDFとして保存…) and you will have a pdf with your changes marked. Key points? Students can’t cut and paste the changes, they have to type them into the original, and you can mail them their corrections. Now, it is more a challenge getting my colleagues to send me the abstracts they want to proofread as attached files than it is to get them from students.

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