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Student Spotlight Interview: Ross Henderson

March 18, 2019

Please introduce yourself.

I’m a doctoral student in Asian Languages and Literature, focusing on pre-modern Japanese literature. I’m a Seattle native and am deeply devoted to my two cats, Bocchan and Robespierre.

Why did you choose to study Japan/Japanese?

I was lucky enough to grow up in the Seattle Public Schools, where Japanese is taught as a foreign language just like French or Spanish. Like a lot of people my age I played Japanese video games and watched Japanese cartoons when I was young, and over time that naturally developed into a broad curiosity about Japanese culture and history. I started college wanting to be an English major and kept studying Japanese on the side, but after a certain point I thought, “why not do both?”

Would you say that you have changed (intellectually, personally, etc.) as a result of your involvement in Japan Studies/AL&L at UW?

Absolutely. I came into the program with only the vaguest idea of what my real interests were and the seminars I’ve taken have not only given better definition to my studies, in a sense narrowing my focus, but also introduced me to new areas of knowledge that I hadn’t even considered before.

Please describe your current roles as teacher and graduate student.

This year I’m teaching the whole pre-modern Japanese literature curriculum. In the Fall I taught Japanese Literature I, which is the Greatest Hits of Japanese literature from earliest times to 1868. We cover over a millennium of literature in ten weeks which is as exciting as it is challenging. In Winter and Spring quarters I’m teaching Classical Japanese I and II. These are probably my favorite classes to teach. Students go from zero (or, from just three years of modern Japanese) to being able to make their way through texts written centuries ago in complex and often highly allusive language. I am also a graduate student. 

What is the focus of your current research?

My dissertation research will focus on a field called Gozan bungaku, or “Literature of the Five Mountains.” This body of work is mostly poetry, written mostly in Classical Chinese, by monks in the government-sponsered network of Zen temples, primarily in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

What are your plans after graduation, and how do you see your time in the program assisting you in the future?

Generally, you don’t get a PhD in Japanese literature—let alone Classical Japanese literature—if you don’t want to teach it. I think that our program prepares students very well for the academic job market.

What advice would you give prospective students interested in studying about Japan/Japanese?

I usually give my students two pieces of advice when they start studying the Japanese language, but I think it applies equally well to studying about Japan more broadly:
1. JAPANESE IS HARD: If it feels difficult, that’s because it is. But don’t get discouraged: it’s difficult for everyone, and there’s no magic bullet. All it takes is sustained effort. The corollary to this is that
2. JAPANESE IS NOT THAT HARD: Just put in the work and get as much exposure as you can. Consider keeping a diary in Japanese. Not only is this good daily writing practice, but you can look back and see how much you’ve been improving, even if it feels like you’ve plateaued.