International faculty in Japanese university contexts: Understanding their belonging experiences through art

Belonging has long been recognized as a fundamental human motivation characterized by the need for emotional attachment, interpersonal connection, and feelings of safety. Over time, belonging has come to be taken for granted as a uniformly positive experience to be sought after and achieved. This generalization has prompted debate amongst theorists. One of the most prominent arguments is that belonging is vaguely defined in the literature and that it lacks the conceptual depth and nuance of other key constructs. In the university context, research has primarily focused on belonging’s impact on student achievement and well-being. At the same time, academic mobility and diversity in higher education institutions have increased the world over. This invites further investigation of how belonging is experienced not only by students but by members from across entire campus communities. This thesis seeks to understand how four international faculty members experience belonging in their Japanese higher education institutions. Data was gathered through a combination of semi-structured interviews and arts-based unstructured drawing elicitation. These methods resulted in eight transcripts and four participant-produced drawings. Reflexive thematic analysis of the data carried out through a fully qualitative interpretivist constructionist lens led to the generation of four themes. These themes explore belonging as not only a dynamic and relational process, but one that is deeply felt yet risky, uniquely spatial and material, and indicative of the desire for meaning and purpose. Recurring threads of power, identity, and agency were identified throughout these themes. These not only highlight the distinct nature of the Japanese university context but also echo wider debates in higher education literature at large. This analysis aligns with recent research problematizing dominant understandings of belonging as fixed, linear, or readily attainable. By rejecting such oversimplistic views, this study embraces complexity and draws attention to the multiple, messy, and nuanced ways belonging is experienced by international faculty in Japan. Additionally, this study demonstrates that arts-based research methods like drawing elicitation can be used to garner rich understandings of belonging together with participants. This thesis hopes not only to contribute to the literature on international faculty and the Japanese university context. It also seeks to encourage novel approaches to making sense of belonging. Most of all, this thesis hopes to underscore the importance of attending to belonging as an evolving construct critically and with care in higher education contexts.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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