Susan Kubota

How did Susan from a little Florida town—named Gainesville—become Kubota-sensei, a teacher of Japanese? The origin story is one I myself find very appealing: at the age of 15, she read Lady Murasaki’s thousand-year-old novel The Tale of Genji. Like today’s students who discover manga on the internet, she was inspired to learn Japanese. Of course, Japanese was not offered at Gainesville High School, or the Missouri college where she matriculated when she was 17, or UF itself when she returned as a junior to finish her BA (double major in English and Religion, with some good doses of Biology). But “where there’s a will there’s a way”: she found her own resources and studied the language on her own. She did well enough that she was accepted in a graduate program for Japanese literature at the University of Michigan.

This accounts for part of the story: why Japanese? The other part is: why teaching? The answer is more obvious: Susan’s grandfather and great-aunt had been professors at UF, and an aunt was also a college teacher. Teaching held no terrors for her, and after getting her MA she signed a 3-year contract to teach English at a private liberal arts college in Sapporo, on Hokkaido, Japan’s big northern island.

At the end of her contract, she was tempted to renew it; she enjoyed her work and loved life in Sapporo. However, friends suggested that an American MBA would be the perfect credential to work in Japan—these were the boom years there. Again Susan came back to Gainesville, to enroll in UF’s School of Business this time.  She continued to teach language, this time as a TA in Japanese, and to make friends among Japanese visiting faculty here. One of these connections led her back to Japan, this time teaching Medical English in a brand-new national medical university on Kyushu, in the south. “Teaching was my calling,” she had realized.

The abandoned MBA has been very useful to Susan, though. She works now with the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) in the Warrington College of Business at UF. Since 2007 she has been teaching a Japanese Business Culture course.

Susan might still be teaching English to Japanese doctors. However, after about three years, she returned to Gainesville to marry Hide Kubota, whom she had known since Sapporo days; he had been studying linguistics at UF. Shortly after their twin sons were born, a call came for Susan from the department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures, which was then only a few years old. She was offered a two-year appointment as a visiting lecturer in Japanese. That was in 1986, and Susan has been active in the Japanese language program at UF ever since. When a program for promoting lecturers was introduced, with the encouragement of her chairs, Professors Wehmeyer and Watt, she attained the ranks of Senior and Master Lecturer.

Susan began, then, by teaching English to Japanese students. The Sapporo program was highly structured and she quickly adapted to the basics, and began to find her own style—which turns out to involve understanding her students’ individual learning styles. The challenge she enjoys is “to find the best learning environment” for each person in her class. She was glad to see the end of the emphasis on grammar—“the communicative method is so much more fun.” Her achievements have been rewarded under the State of Florida’s Teaching Improvement Program in the 1990s and also by being honored three times as an Outstanding Faculty member by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Anderson Scholars. Susan has attended many conferences and workshops on language pedagogy and linguistics, and is particularly focused on their confluence in pragmatics.

Susan and I were laughing at one of the questions on my list: “what countries have you traveled in or visited?” She had just been examining with intent the lab’s Norwegian materials and discussing her plans to visit Norway—or maybe Turkey–this summer, and she has had adventures in Paris and Italian hill towns as well as in Osaka. Her favorite place in the world, though, might be the “very beautiful old castle town” her husband comes from. “You can find the heart and soul of Japan in places like that today.”