When Donglin Li ’17 settled in on his first day of Japanese class as a first-year student, he heard only Japanese. His professor, Hisae Kobayashi, had invited juniors and seniors to sit in, and they were chattering away in a language Li had yet to learn. “I expected some English,” he remembers. He finally turned to a fellow student and whispered, “Are we in the right class?”
He was. And now, proud of the progress he has made in just one year, he chats effortlessly in Japanese with fellow students and Kobayashi. “I have not had a teacher like this teacher,” he says. “I didn’t expect this level of intensity. I didn’t expect to study this hard. She has a very distinct style of teaching.”
It’s a style that works. Dozens of recent graduates are attending graduate school or pursuing careers in Japan, now fluent in the language and comfortably immersed in a culture they first learned from Kobayashi, a senior lecturer in Japanese.
Today, Kobayashi was recognized for her rigorous methods of teaching and dedication to undergraduate education with an award that honors the nation’s best undergraduate professors. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) have named her the 2014 Connecticut Professor of the Year.
The award honors those professors who excel as educators and influence the lives and careers of their students. Nominees are judged on their impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contribution to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former undergraduates.
“Hisae Kobayashi is an extraordinary language teacher who exemplifies the innovative teaching and highest standards of excellence that are characteristic of our Connecticut College faculty,” said President Katherine Bergeron.
Kobayashi teaches beginner- and intermediate-level Japanese, as well as upper-level courses in Japanese discourse and Japanese spoken and written narrative. She also advises students who are conducting independent study in Japanese. All of her courses share one common trait: There is no English allowed.
“Students cannot just learn about a language, they must learn to perform in a conversational setting,” says Kobayashi. “My primary goal is to enable my students to acquire a higher command of Japanese to communicate effectively with Japanese native speakers in a culturally and socially appropriate manner.”
Conversation, then, becomes the essential element in all of Kobayashi’s interactions with students. She approaches these verbal dances as an art form to be practiced and perfected. In the classroom, she leads students through discussions of everyday topics, such as asking for directions, complimenting a friend on his or her attire or inviting a friend to dinner. In the international dining hall, she regularly lunches with her students at the Japanese language table, discussing everything from everyday college life to current events from around the world. And when she takes her students to Japan, on two- to three-week College-sponsored trips, she orchestrates many opportunities for her students to practice the art of conversation with native speakers, from business people on the train to wait staff in restaurants to young families in shopping centers.
“Her tireless efforts and attention to individual students helped me achieve my own fluency in the language, and witnessing firsthand the impact a dedicated role model can have on individual students encouraged me to pursue a career in education,” said John Andras Molnar ’09, who taught English in Japan following graduation from Connecticut College and is currently enrolled in an applied linguistics master’s program at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Soft-spoken, kind, yet insistent, Kobayashi is a fearless teacher who won’t stop until her students are conversant in the highly contextualized, character-based language of Japanese. She also wants them to understand the intricacies of the culture, one with which she has a deep personal connection.
A newly minted ballroom dancer, a swimmer, and a lover of the arts, she descends from a long line of Japanese calligraphers, oil painters, floral artists and even an opera singer. She was born and raised in Setagaya-ku, a Tokyo suburb, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature at Tsuda College, Tokyo, where she was a teacher of English at both Tokyo Metropolitan Setagaya Technical High School and Tokyo Metropolitan Kinuta Technical High School before coming to the United States in 1992. She trained to teach Japanese as a foreign language at the Bryn Mawr College Summer Institute in Pennsylvania. In 1994, she received a master of arts degree in continuing studies at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
A visiting lecturer in Japanese at Williams College for five years before joining Connecticut College in 1999, Kobayashi is a dedicated and demanding professor. Her students often describe her classes as the hardest they have ever taken. They also describe her as their favorite teacher. Her strict rules (including no coffee in class) and requirements are designed to maximize her students’ success.
“Hisae is the kind of teacher we all aspire to be – the kind who actually makes a positive, lasting difference in the lives of her students,” said Amy Dooling, associate professor of Chinese and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Connecticut College.
In 2008, Kobayashi was awarded the John S. King Memorial Award, the College’s highest teaching award, which recognizes teacher-scholars with the highest standards of teaching excellence and concern for students.
Kobayashi is the fourth Connecticut College professor to be recognized by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE as a Professor of the Year. Prior honorees were Stephen Loomis, the Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Biology, in 2000; Eugene Gallagher, the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies, in 2003; and Marc Zimmer, dean of studies and the Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Chemistry, in 2007.