You become a teacher, and lecturer. That said, this does not mean everyone who becomes a teacher at schools or lecturer at a post-secondary level would be able to accomplish that, because, truth be told, it requires humility and the willingness to confront some of your own psychosis, and deep-set fears, to be able to get into the skin of another, and that includes, your students. A psychologist friend once told me that psychologists have to go through professional counseling to be able to decompress from the daily demands of their job. I think this applies to teachers and lecturers too, unless, perhaps, they think, it is just a job like any other.
Each generation is different, and each has their quirks and peculiarities. The generation before likes to complain about the generation that comes after. I suspect that part of the complain stems from the discomfort of having a latter generation reflecting back to the generation before, the former’s worst traits. Truly, it is in teaching, I find myself coming face-to-face with all manner of students, who remind me of my contemporaries, and even of the much older adults I know. It also reminded me of myself – as my students would point out, I had been a student myself (and that is true, since I only completed my full-time PhD last year) – of what had motivated me as an undergrad. I see microcosms of myself and of the people I knew, reflected in each 20-something, or late adolescent, I work with.
I came into teaching, and into academics, after a very contentious relationship with it in my early adult years – as I’d mentioned in my previous post, when I was in industry, I met people who had a distaste for academics, and I was one of those people even if I was, at the same time, enamored with the world of ideas. I came to teaching because I was no model student (in fact, I will come out to say that I had spent a part of my life as an academically low-achieving student that teachers/professors did not place much hope in). I hated exams with such a passion by the time I graduated college that I originally gave up on the idea of graduate school, which I was considering because I love research, learning, and making discoveries. I took up the MA that took me down the path I am in today because of a dare and an experiment, a curiosity to know what it was like on the other side of a pond (as I had been a science student all the way through college). Were I to fail in my endeavor, it wouldn’t be something I have not experienced, but I would never know until I try.
I thought, maybe teaching would give me a chance to make some a difference in the lives of those who trust us with their money and education, and those who nobody would give a rat-ass about. But in the end, I realize it is just as much about my own healing and coming to understanding of the self as it is about making a gentle ripple in the pond. To myself and them accountable as we learn and struggle through an education together.
P.S: From my vantage point and from the grapevine, I hear so much about mental health and learning disability issues affecting young adults in institutions of higher education in Malaysia that were not given sufficient attention. Oftentimes, a student’s lack of achievement can be as much about their inability to cope/manage the issues they are faced with as it is about attitude/aptitude. From my limited experience, I have seen how even the ‘worst’ student can improve tremendously when challenged the right way, as long as they are not allowing a poor attitude to get in the way.
I went to bed early-ish today as I developed a headache that made me thought I might have taken ill. As it is, whenever I go to bed at a certain time, I always find myself waking up at least twice at particular times, but would usually fall back to sleep within some minutes. This time is different, because someone decided that 2 am was a great time to get some fireworks going. Even when it all subsided and it was all quiet again (or as quiet as is possible when one lives in a part of town that never sleeps), I found myself lying awake – with thoughts of past and present mingling, jigging, and calming down as I tried to process through where I am now and my current aspirations, and how they reconciled (or not) with choices of my past.
I have been doing quite a bit of reflection ever since I returned to Malaysia last year, even if that was not always possible to do regularly since resettling (and the annoying bureaucracies involved) took up quite a bit of mental space. Moreover, I am currently employed in a demanding professional as a private university lecturer (though I will be a full-time postdoctoral researcher come September 2015) – this past year has been filled with transitions and changes at all front, and there is a lot that appears to bode well, even the things that did not seem to go according to one’s desire. It is important to reflect because, it is just about 3 months to the first anniversary of my return to Malaysia. Also, this July marks the first summer I had been back since 2012 – and that summer of 2012 was not a happy homecoming for me. But because I was in the thick of so many responsibilities and obligations, there were many issues I never properly dealt with until now. But as I was still trying to make sense of a country that is mine yet had become so alien to me, much of my inner resources had been channeled towards surviving, making sense, and making connections old and new. Obviously, I returned a very different person from the one who left in 2008.
Maybe it is the holidays, or that psychic mark on the calender, the caused certain memories to penetrate onto the surface of my consciousness. Some of my relationships to these memories were ambivalent, but I realize I must confront them so that I could understand why the me of the past did the things I did, made the choices I did, and even embroiled myself in some of the turmoil that would shadow me for periods of time. It is in making sense of that, that I could then make sense of myself, of my insecurities and motivations, and most importantly, of what had been most faithful and constant in my life regardless of the detours. And the one thing I finally recognized about myself, and which I believe, is important as I chart my way forward, is my lifelong relationship scholarship. I don’t mean academics – hell no. I mean scholarship, in all its purity and dedication to the betterment of the mind, soul, and body. A life of the mind that is not built upon the sandcastle dreams of academia, but one that is more akin to Virginia Woolf’s “A room of one’s Own” – where one has the freedom to think, experiment, and feel the world of ideas and knowledge free from the corrupting influence of ego, necessity, practicality, and commodification.
Since my twenties (and I am now in my thirties), the darkest period of my life (outside of the death of my loved ones) had been when I was separated from scholarship, as was what happened to me in 2007. Back then, and for many years, I thought I was unhappy because I was facing professional and personal crises – perhaps the crises were contributory factors, but I realize that much of these crises was exacerbated by the growing distance, and estrangement, I felt to that one thing that had been formative of my identity since I was a child (though I did not, obviously, knew it at the time) – that is my relationship with scholarship and the life of the mind, all because I was too engaged with firefighting, solving problems, and going after things that, in hindsight, were misguided, only because I refuse to listen to my inner voice.
I have been through periods when I felt like I am going nowhere or have felt bereft; but I realized, what had sustained me and kept me from going down the path of destructive behavior (even when faced with the temptation of doing so), had been the succor and comfort I found in scholarly work, even when nothing else seems to be going my way. When scholarship appears furthest from the minds of those fighting life battles, being able to continuously engage with scholarship, even if only minimally at certain times, had kept me going in a stronger path of understanding and enlightenment than any religion ever had. In a way, scholarship is like that abstract therapist (or psychoanalyst) through whom I find clarity in life’s problems. Scholarship had also weathered me through guilt, heart-breaks, disappointments, regrets, and uncertainties.
After completing my PhD, during which time I was effectively in a ‘long-term,’ yet somewhat dysfunctional, relationship with scholarship (in the form of ‘academia’), I had contemplated a complete separation from a professional engagement with scholarship – perhaps, the increasing disenchantment I felt with the academy and what I perceived as the self-serving tendencies of those who were supposed to uphold scholarly and intellectual ideals – was pushing me towards considering seriously to find a good paying job that will provide me with a balance life while doing scholarship on the side such as I had been doing in my twenties from the time I graduated college. Perhaps, that way, I could rekindle the fire I once had for scholarship.
During that crucial moment of decision-making, I was reminded of my foray into the commercial and corporate world in my twenties, during a time when I was teetering between becoming a professional scholar (read academic) and building my career so that I could be comfortable positioned by the time I was in my mid-thirties. I confess that being in academia was an afterthought, as I was not brought up in an environment that encourages one to choose academics as a possible career choice – in fact, during my time in the industry, I noted a distinct contempt for academia and academics by industry practitioners. But scholarship, which at that time I had not quite properly associated with academia – during my time in university, the forces around me were more concerned with making me employable for the industry than in helping me consider a potential career in academics; with the exception of a very few, many of my peers who did end up pursuing advanced degrees were doing so for non-academic career advancement.
Further, I had given such a big part of my youth to my studies that I am professionally far behind those in my age group, and even those younger than myself (you will find this familiar refrain if you have been reading the ‘quit lit’ or laments of those deciding on a #altac, #postac, or #whatchacallitac careers) and had not gone on to do a PhD for six years or more (or even those who decided very early on that their life-calling has always been academics, but with the precarious situation of academia now, such a calling is losing is luster). While others are already gaining professional standing and recognition, and have become rather established in their chosen fields, I am but an ‘early career’ researcher, who gave up whatever little professional credentials I was beginning to gain (and be recognized for), when I decided to take up the PhD, though I never regretted doing the PhD, which had enriched my life so thoroughly. Yet, I also realized that many of my professional decisions, including when I thought academics was not my calling, had always been driven by the need for me to make time for research, writing, and thinking (even when I did not think to refer to these activities as scholarly pursuits).
Finally, I ended up in academia – largely because, upon my return to Malaysia and through the informational interviews I’d conducted with various individuals, I realized that, to continue to do the scholarship I love, I need academic affiliations. I pursue a position in academia so as to be able to engage continuously with the life of the mind in a land that appears rich in some ways, but sterile when it comes to accommodations and facilities for an independent scholar. Of course, being in academia (especially the kinds one finds in Malaysia) is a hell lot of drudge work, hack work, and form filling. If there is anyway to kill your love for academia, all one has to do is work in the private education sector (though, as many would tell me, things are no rosier in the public sector). For one, those with the most control in dictating the direction of a university/institution of higher learning academia have no love for scholarship or the intellectual life – for them, scholarship is a ‘necessary evil’ that must be accomplished for reaping profits and recognition (and branding) through university rankings. Even many of those they hire as cogs in the machinery (including the ‘academics’) are there for reasons that have little to do with scholarship.
I had asked myself then, many times, as to why I am willing to work for such crappy salary in an industry that is exploitative and often unrewarding (and honestly speaking, I still ask myself that). It was then that I remember what scholarship had done for me, and what it had meant to me through all these years. I realize that what kept me going had my ongoing dedication to my scholarly work (even when there seems to be almost no time to engage in that) and the happiness/satisfaction I find in both the engagement and dissemination. Scholarship takes both the form of researching into new ideas as well as talking about them with my students and peers. Perhaps I will not stay in academia for ever, or I might have to find another path to fulfill my goals and dreams. But whatever may happen in the end, scholarship will always remain my first and true love.
Readings for Contemporary English Literature in Asia, Second Year Undergraduate Core Class in English
I have not firmed up the readings but here are the literary texts. I may change or replace some of them, as I am looking for more contemporary stuff to replace some of the well-worn/taught texts, ESPECIALLY when it comes to Malaysian writers/poets. Theme is “The Problem of Categories”
Plays (2 weeks)
Emily of Emerald Hill by Stella Kon
Anike by Wong Phui Nam
2 short stories per week, 4 per 2 weeks
Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (1880 – 1932)
Blessed are the Hungry by Victor Fernando R Ocampo
Paper Women by Catherine Lim
The Omega Project by Kim Marquez
Poetry, 2 weeks
Collection of short poems by Hilary Tham, “Woman, by Any Name”
Nissim Ezekiel “The Patriot”
Muhammad Haji Salleh
Lee Tzu Pheng
Bryan Thao Worra
Mary Soon Lee
Ee Tiang Hong
Novella/Short novels (6 weeks)
Novella: Distances by Vandana Singh (1.5 weeks)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (1.5 weeks) (can be bought on Amazon Kindle)
Saman by Ayu Utami (1.5 weeks) (can be bought on Amazon Kindle)
Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki (1.5 week) (can be bought on Amazon Kindle)
Trying to get Behind the Red Mist but this will be a challenge in Malaysia because…it is an old book so here begins the hunt in bookstores, libraries, and among friends.
Graphic Novels (1 week)
Ghost in the Shell volume 1
Here is the schedule, which I am told is not completely final, but almost so. I speak on Sat, March 7, at 3 pm. The title in the schedule is in Malay Teori Spekulatif: Ilmu Mantik dalam Interpretasi Teori Kuantum di Anjang Timur-
Barat but in English it is Speculative Theory: the logics of thought in quantum theoretical interpretation at the intersection of ‘East’ and ‘West’
That said, watch out for this space as I announce the public lecture I will be giving at UCSI University, Kuala Lumpur, on “History of the Book in the English Language: An Overview” on March 13, starting at 12:30 pm, at the auditorium on the third floor of Block C of the university. Mark your calenders if interested.
The Astrolabe: Its History and Application Workshop by the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science, and Civilization (CASIS) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (25 & 26 Feb, 2015)
UPDATE: Rather comprehensive, though certainly not exhaustive, bibliography of scientific instruments published in 1997, that also included the role of gender. It would be interesting to know more about the position of women in Eastern civilizations in relation to these instruments, given the centuries of an educated woman’s role as helpmeet to their men who ‘produce’ the sciences (http://iuhps.org/bibliography/oldbibs/classified%20bibliography.pdf).
Astrolabes from the Museum of Boerhave at Leiden https://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/epact/catalogue.php?ENumber=83635 and http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/epact/catalogue.php?ENumber=20052. A full resource page on the astrolabes from the same site.
MIT page containing links to catalogs, archives, and galleries of scientific instruments, including astrolabes.
So, I’d attended my first history of science workshop in Malaysia, which was exciting for me, since it brought me into connection with a community of people interested in different aspects of the history of physical sciences. Unfortunately, I was the only non-Muslim Malaysian attending the workshop, though there were a number of participants from Indonesia and elseshwere. Given how such workshops are entirely lacking around here, it would be great to have more of them around here, and even at the regional level. That said, I have had good fun as I not only learned how to use an astrolabe at a very basic level; I also learned how to analyze cosmographic texts produced in language cultures alien to me just by learning how to interpret clues that are provided while also learning how to read Arabic numerals, despite having minimum knowledge of the Arabic script, on manuscripts containing mathematical tables (that included trigonometric tables). While I hope to write a more nuanced post on this issue at a later date, for now, I just want to post my most immediate reaction in the aftermath of attending the workshop.
I actually missed much of the first day since I could not take time off from my teaching obligations then, so I missed the introductory lecture by Dr Robert H. Van Gent on the origisn and mathematical background of the astrolabe, though the reader (and myself) get a sense of what he was talking about from his earlier writing on the topic, which was incidentally reproduced in Malay by CASIS, in their program book. I also missed a potentially interesting talk by Dr Salim Ayduz on the relation between Astronomy and the Ottoman empire (though I found an article of his on a similar topic here that is targeted at a more general audience) and another on eclipses in al Biruni’s Treatise VII on al-Qanun al-Mas’udi (though in this case, I was given a handout of the lecture, which I plan to take time to digest over the weekend and give a summary of later). I caught the tail-end of Dr Tatiana Denisova‘s talk on orientation, navigation and seafaring within Malay historiography between the 14th and 19th century (the tail end of her talk I caught is focused on the circulation and importation of scientific knowledge among seafarers from within and without the Malay world, her analysis is derived from textual analysis of available primary sources concerning maritime practices in the Malay world. My intention is speak to her more about her work a little later, once I have time to take everything in). Dr Muhammad Zainiy Uthman gave a presentation on the ‘Batu Bersurat Terengganu’ which is connected to a book he recently edited “Batu Bersurat of Terengganu: Its Correct Date, Religio-Cultural and Scientific Dimension,” where he was identifying astrological (and elements of ilmu falak) inscribed within the royal edicts carved on the stones, as well as the confusion that one gets sometimes from paleographic analysis.
It appears that astrological and astronomical practices are long conflated in the practices of early Malay cosmology and knowledge; even then, one might consider the existence of such traces evidence of intellectual exchanges that were going on within Southeast with other parts of the world. That said, I hear that the centre intend to publish the proceedings of the talks later this year, so we will see what we will get. Based on my still rather limited knowledge of how area studies on SEA is conducted within Malaysia, one can see a divide between those who concentrate on SEA studies largely from the confines of post-war Malaya/Malaysia (including those working in areas of literature, cultural studies, film studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology, economics, policy studies, development studies etc) and those more interested in older historiographical knowledge (whether through textual or artefactual analysis) that encompasses not very new fields of the contestable ‘ethno’ science/mathematics and recently, the archaeology of a particular science.
Nevertheless, the real fun for me began on the second day, which was when the actual workshop took place (the first day saw more of presentation of works by various individuals as I’d mentioned). The workshop was conducted by Dr Robert H Van Gent (a historian of science) and Wilfrid de Graaf, the latter being a mathematics lecturer who happens to be interested interested in history of mathematics and astronomy in Islamic thought and civilization, particularly in Iran.
In the second workshop, we were shown how we can also determine the direction the qiblah should face through both approximate measure on a two-dimensional map and through the use of trigonometric spherical calculations that also involve using a string to find the shortest distance between Mecca and one’s local position. It is like revisiting old high school geography and geometry combined – and got me thinking how much more interesting school geography lessons would have been if they have demonstrated the relevance of cartography to both geometry and cultural practices, rather than merely focusing on physical and economic geography (though I do appreciate the geography teacher who coerced us into drawing world maps from memory).
In the third workshop, we finally got down to the business of analyzing cosmographical texts that involve knowing how to interpret symbolisms, icons, and also available knowledge models represented by the cosmographic charts. The process reminded me of my even more intensive training at the Rare Book School in the course Scientific Illustration up to the 18th Century, where we concentrated on looking at known Western textual sources (you can find posts on this in the archives of July and August 2013). The first was Seyyed Loqman Ashuri’s Zubdat al_Tawrikh. The one we looked at is
Though, if you look visit this page by Prof G’nsel Renda from Ankara on the miniature paintings found in the compendium, you will find description of other pages in the volume. We also look at the birth chart of the grandson of the great Mongol conqueror (Tamerlane). The same knowledge we obtained from determining the zodiac position based on one’s birth chart and alignment to constellations (obtained through direct observations) is then used to understand how everything is aligned in this birth chart, though we did not get any training on how one makes predictions out of these alignments, but that is another workshop in itself.
And the Wall Cloth by Hossein Fakhari depicting late nineteenth century Persian understanding of developments in astronomy (one thing I find very interesting is the use of various mythical figures, which one finds conflated from multiple cultures of the ‘East’ and ‘West’, to represent constellations and planets.
Then, there is the “Adjāyeb al-makhlouqāt wa gharāyeb al-mawdjoudāt” by Zakariya Qazwimi that can be found online at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and also, the Ottoman reproduction of his work can be found here.
The final workshop concerns understanding how Arabic numerals are written in the Arabic script, and how one can decipher them. Below are the two tables we used for this exercise, as well as a reproduction of a print of a manuscript with lists of Arabic numerals. The exercise was easier on my Muslim colleagues than me, given that most have learned the script through having to read the Quran, among other things. That said, thanks to the patient explanation of one of my group members, I finally understood how the alphabets and stringed together, as well as how their formulation change, depending on how you write them and what word you desire to formulate.
Finally, I bought a book while at the workshop, which I am curious to read more about, as it seems potentially interesting and also contentious. I was introduced to this book by Dr Wan Suhaimi Wan Abdullah from CASIS.
The past quarter have been a series of letting go (more like tying up loose ends) of old stuff that kept annoying, and preparing myself for exciting new projects to come. I have been moving around quite a bit, but am happy to finally have my own place in the big city of KL (though I am ambivalent about returning to a big city and its high density population after enjoying the idyllic life of a small town). I am also starting out a faculty role in an intensive teaching university, and will have to begin applying for research grants, help in curriculum development and supervise research students. On top of that, I have decided it is time to start a teaching portfolio section, now that I am teaching a lot more! Will be back with more updates.
Here to a bigger and better 2015.
UPDATE 3: An article I wrote for Malaysiakini on this issue. It is less the story of Ebola than what it tells us. Also, sometimes, I think we need footnotes in more ‘general’ pieces to aid those who are less subtle readers.
UPDATE 2: The Hewletts, who did in-depth study into the anthropology of the Ebola, confirm my own uninformed intuition. http://www.mo.be/en/interview/mistakes-fighting-ebola-repeated-all-over-again-says-pioneer. I am trying to get a copy of their book to read!
UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, here is a link to an article that looks at Ebola from a medical anthropological perspective
Between moving and traveling, I had not always been the most up-to-date with what was going on the world beyond what was most pressing to my immediate circumstance. When I first heard about the Ebola break-out going out in Sierra Leone, then in Guinea and Liberia, there was then a belief that the situation was not that bad because they appeared confined to the poorest African countries, and they appeared to be contained. However, things started to change when the virus was brought onto the shores of the United States, and as the virus circulates, a sense of near hysteria turned it into an international crisis. The same thing had happened with AIDs in the 1980s even if the epidemiology of that disease is different, with a less obvious and visible symptoms due to a longer incubation period.
Of course, Ebola is an international crisis. It is rare for an outbreak to be contained when there does not yet exist a systemic structure for containment (not even if you make it difficult for those from the poorest nations to enter your land of promise). Moreover, we do know that devastation at the health level also means devastation at multiple levels. History has multiple narratives and recollections of the various recorded plagues known to mankind, and their implications in the aftermath. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen more than its share of epidemic, from the SARs to avian flus. Steven Sonderbergh’s Contagion (2011) almost seems like an eerie premonition of what is to come.
But as everyone knows/suspects by now (even Bloomberg has been alternating its news concerning decelerating stocks with tactical concerns surrounding the issues of Ebola), Ebola is not just a healthcare crisis but perhaps a crisis at the level of the anthropoce and humanitarian. Injecting funds and facilities and expertise helps, but as we know, an insular approach has not been helpful and could potentially be the impediment to finding a solution. However much experience and knowledgeable medical expertise can contribute to combating the disease, the only way to do something different than before is to also engage the interdisciplinary expertise that include not only economists, communication experts, and strategists; but also sociologists and historians of medicine (and perhaps even philosophers of science), as well as cultural geographers, who had made it their business to study the implications of healthcare and medical practices not just within the presentist regime, but across different lifetimes, to lend insights and even provide recommendations that would have escaped the purview of those very much focused specifically on contingencies. Even scientists working in other non-medical areas could use the models and knowledge base they have developed to aid greater understanding of the system surrounding the epidemic, and it is a systemic problem in itself.
However, pure scientism is not going to give the needed holistic view needed to deal with the problem beyond the fire-fighting level. After all, even those tasked with dealing with the problem are still humans, and we need to understand how to create solutions that work with human nature and predisposition, as well as with cultural and infrastructural conditions. In fact, if interdisciplinary knowledge and application is ever needed, this is the time when it is in greatest dire need, and not merely at a sophistical or rhetorical level. Interdisciplinarity is also needed to break out of the provincialism that inhabits the practices of scientific disciplines, given that localized assumptions about epistemic practices are what can contribute to communication breakdowns
One of the problems with the whole approach to dealing with this outbreak at the policy level is the lack of engagement with the people who study both the sociology and history of infectious diseases, and the lack of ability of the people making policy decisions at the highest level in knowing how to work collaboratively on the issue (or to know how to assemble different cells of expertise) – this probably stems too from a shallow understanding of the meaning of expertise and the lack of epistemic trading between various specialists who are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers. It does not help of course that having in-depth knowledge of a disease without the accompanying ability to compare across different facets of the system of which the disease is a constituent produces half-baked attempts at arriving at any resolutions. Decision makers need to include humanists and social scientists who study the organic/human conditions in relation to the sciences that desire to palliate and alleviate the negative conditions.
That said, there is no easy way to deal with the problem, and that an interdisciplinary approach brings with it new challenges as one has to be willing to take the time to shifts one’s mental framework at a time of high duress and great difficulties. But it also the ripe time to begin forming interdisciplinary teams that would produce recommendations and alternatives through their analyses of whatever information and data there are