Another year of new challenges. I think it would be a good year not because everything will be going great or as planned, but because, it is what I intend to make of it.
I realize that it has been about 4 months since I last blogged. I hope to have more interesting ideas to share this year, as I work through them.
Today, I was involved in two very different events on higher education: one was about how a creative art form can be used for building bridges, including bridges between disciplines and as a pedagogical tool. The other is about the state of higher education in Malaysia that has produced the higher-ed blueprint launched just this year. However, this post is not about re-iterating about the discussions that went on there, but rather, dig into the motivation for participation in such events: whether the participation is about reinforcing one’s unassailable beliefs or exploring an unknown territory and concede that one’s beliefs may be based on erroneous assumptions/faulty epistemics. Questioning such motivations is important to asking ourselves whether a discourse, whether creative or intellectual, when performed publicly, merely serves as a vehicle to reinforce our self-importance, or is meant to effect higher-level order thinking into any subject/field/area/topic one proposes as one’s intervention.
In the first event, which is on poetry slam as a performance art that is used to entertain while pushing the boundaries of how one communicates ideas, our trainer walked the participants through various exercises that are not about meeting expectations of participants, but shifting the framing of expectations. Many of these exercises indirectly force us to grapple with what we capture, reproduce, and even produce information – kinesthetic-to-verbal associations for remembering a list of names, and by extension, lines that a performer would recite, quick thinking on one’s feet, attentiveness and power of observation, and the freeing of oneself from self-imposed constraints (while learning not to be self-centered or insensitive). In the second event, which was a symposium on higher education that continued from previous symposia, the discussion is moderated rather than led by any single individual – there are slides but the slides are attempts at preventing conversations from going off-tangent. Nevertheless, in both instances, participants obviously already came in with their own sets of beliefs that are of importance to them, and which they may seek to explore or reinforce. When we say something is bad, why is it bad? Conversely, why would anything be good? How are our prejudices and ideologies shaping how we marshal arguments to achieve epistemic goals, or produce metrics of evaluations, or even of denouncements?
When the trainer for the spoken artform event speaks of the importance of audience, a crucial point was conveyed: do we respect the audience we purport to address? For example, when speaking on a difficult topic or subject, do you attempt to dilute or ‘reduce’ the topic/subject to make them more ‘palatable,’ or would one be courageous enough to convey the full difficulties of making precisely that simplification, unapologetically, while leaving open the potentiality for the audience, however unfamiliar they are of the subject, to grapple with that difficult and irreducible, and therefore, to grow on their own rather than be always dependent on a person as their guide, authority, or master? Likewise, when we voice our dissatisfaction with how the Malaysian government has engineered the higher education blueprint, how can we, as succinctly as possible, spell out the reasons underlying that dissatisfaction, while considering the epistemological, ideological, and philosophical frameworks that may shape our constitution of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – what are our objectives, and how do we go beyond tip-toeing around an idea to grabbing that idea and diving in? Diving into an idea, especially in full public view, takes courage – as it wakens the public to the potentiality that there is just too much that you, the presenter, probably do not know, and therefore, that you can be chastised and your arguments held in doubt (or worse, in contempt). Similarly, a public creative performance opens you up to harsh scrutiny and potential criticism, be it for the manner or content of one’s presentation. That is, if you are not surrounded by sycophants or those too in awe of your presence.
One has to question what language, or tool, has been chosen, to convey a critical intervention; whether by creative means or dry prose. At the end of the day, there can be no dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools, albeit, to say that one has a better reading, interpretation, or presentation on a topic, when one is rehashing the same principles (and even same tools), that went into the construction of the master’s house, and therefore, one’s choice of discourse.
Now that I have been back 10 months, and worked at a private institution of higher learning where I am exposed to all that is trending among the youths (while also witnessing cultural trends that have become the ‘newer’ research interests of the Malaysian humanistic and social science academe), my observation remains unchanged. Certainly, the strength of pop-cultural imports from Asia have created new competition in the market place of product placements and celebrity icons. Since I was teaching media, one of my challenges had been trying to keep up with seemingly ‘novel’ consumer trends in social media (that include the monetization and commercialization of certain accounts from sponsored blogs to Instagram), in the not-that-new-but-still-new forms of broadcast media such as Youtube (and probably, in the not too distant future, Google Hangout and Periscope, if that is not already happening now) that changes the meaning of ‘reality tv’ and ‘celebrity,’ and trying to understand the sort of media-cultural addictions that afflict not only youngsters, but also the middle-aged and retirees in this age of information overload that makes slow-thinking difficult. I have experimented on myself by consuming a cross-section of some of these platforms and content found online and on satellite TV; they leave a disturbing sense of alienation that comes from the feeling that one has spent hours consuming ‘information emptied of significance,’ thus bringing new meaning to the work ‘bingeing’ and ‘escapism.’ The relief of switching to a research only position is delectable. It also makes me realize that I will never be very much of a good day-to-day pop-cultural studies researcher; my relationship to pop-cultural developments is even more extreme than that of a bulimic to food – long periods of starvation followed by bingeing where I try to make sense of all the things I had missed, or was never interested in before. But hey, there are others who are passionate about prodding into socio-economic and consumer-media-and-the-arts-cultural trends consistently and for the longer term, so I may as well just read and ‘borrow’ their observations should the need arises. Of course, looking up such stuff is also an exercise in procrastination for me.
Among the things I have been grappling with, upon my return to Malaysia, is in making sense of all the changes that had taken place in my more than two-years of extended absence (as I had not returned since the mid-summer of 2012). However, much of my observations could only be made from my hometown in Perak, as I had not had time to go anywhere much (other than a day-trip to KL with my family). But, thanks to the combination of Astro satellite TV (which became my best friend for the first time since the turn of the century), my rather limited internet access, and newspapers passed on by others (I refrain from buying local magazines for the time being), and also in talking with random people around, I was able to obtain a cultural snapshot of all that had been happening in my absence. It also allows me to see how the exceptionalism of North America has blinded those of us living in it to the capital ascendancy of Asia (though it is up to the reader to decide on what counts as ‘ascendancy’); glimpses of that could be observed while I was in Europe while the American media is almost blind to much that takes place in Asia. A summary of my observations can be seen here, though you would have to read it in Malay or plug it onto Google Translate.
One thing about Asia, and Malaysia in particular, is the lack of any clearinghouse of information (though that is changing, albeit extremely slowly, as the newer generation are beginning to put more things onto the Internet) that you can go to for catching up on trends, regardless of your field of interest. As someone who had years (such as almost 15 years) of experience in the research industry (both in the academics and beyond) in Malaysia and elsewhere, I can attest to how the concept of the archive is not within the purview of Malaysia, though as I said, that is changing with the more digitally literate generation coming to fore. China, on the other hand, is trying to make up for its cultural misdeeds, so to speak, by going full-force to document every area of knowledge, historical and current, that it could get its hands on (even if the country has not changed too much in its stance with regard to informational democracy or the rights of its citizens). Here, it is still very much dependent on the grapevine, your contacts, and being part of an insider information group – the oral tradition of handing down information still operates through much of the knowledge economy of Malaysia, and probably much of other South East Asian countries (even if Singapore is becoming more sophisticated in its archival and informational database practices). Therefore, much of the information you would want to collect has to come through a keen sense of observational practice, informational interviews, and random conversations with members of communities. Further, much of the published information of the world are locked up in very expensive databases monopolized by wealthy publishing conglomerates, and not always available even to universities and other bigger research organizations in the country, let alone to an independent or freelance researcher.
However, to have more than a partial view of Malaysia requires one to have a good grasp of the different languages available, which is also what makes doing research in Malaysia both exciting and challenging. One might refer to only resources in languages you are most comfortable with, but that would mean that your knowledge is always partial. In fact, even knowing all languages does not guarantee full access unless one can consider that which is not said. Let’s consider the media for instance: due to stringent control through the Printing and Publications Act, and also Sedition Act, among others, much of media published in English and Malay could afford you only the blandest view of politics. On the other hand, the Chinese newspapers, that are illegible to the majority group of Malaysia, could get away with more and therefore, are able to publish political news sanctioned from most other newspapers. That had been the case until the advent of alternative presses, but even then, one will still get different perspectives. Of course, one would always have to differentiate sensationalism from information, but the history of newspapers in Malaysia, and the multiplicity of languages in which its newspapers come in, is a subject for much interesting research, as one can find in the unpublished master and PhD theses of the universities (unfortunately, I don’t think the idea of a digital thesis has made its ways here yet). That said, in the field I am interested in exploring further, which is intellectual history in relation to the history of science, being able to communicate with more members of the community would assure one the ability to access materials not available in every language, while also building hitherto unobserved connections. This is at least what I am trying to do to understand, for example, the history of alternative medical treatments and therapies in Malaysia that are derived from various cultures and even from centuries old traditions that are beyond the shores of the country.
As far as trends of consumption, I see not much change in that area. Having recently emerged out of the university system (though I might be returning to one soon again) for so long, it still comes as a shock (even if not a surprise), to see how much money that members of the public pay to attend particular talks and seminars, except for political talks, obviously. Some major universities in the country organize talks, but given the fact of the bigger public universities are disproportionately located in one state (Selangor), and that most private universities and colleges are more about providing ‘job and vocational training’ rather than intellectual advancement, there is not a whole lot of edifying forum for public to engage with ideas. Most of the expensive talks and seminars are related to capital gain (targeted at, corporations, business professionals, or potential customers) and are more about marketing a particular service or product. For certain, there there is unabashed commercialism, that the most interesting public spaces are the shopping malls, even in smaller towns such as my hometown. In fact, for the smaller towns, the taste of cosmopolitanism can only be had at shopping malls; not even at libraries, bookstores or cultural places such as museums and galleries. About almost a decade ago, I had reviewed a book about the importance of studying shopping malls as a sociological critique in Singapore.
Then, there is the entertainment industry. I do not claim to ever have been an acute observer of any forms of pop-culture (social media has been my savior in finding out things, as is the monetized version of Youtube), though my short stint in market research some months prior to commencing my PhD studies opened up my eyes to the importance of cultural critique in all areas of consumer research. The same holds true for understanding the rise and fall of particular pop cultures, such as the ones in Asia. As of now, I was informed that K-pop is all the riot (that has impacted some members of my extended family as well). However, with the rise of technicolor and sharp images afforded by the HD technology and an increase in the deployment of animated special effects in cinematography (often to offset a not very great script or plot) in the Chinese movie industry, and of course, the increasing robustness of entertainment in, once again, China, we see the advent of C-dramas, especially costumed period dramas, into the overseas market, most particularly in South East Asia. With a few exceptions, it appears that most of the C-dramas that made it into the general channels of the television, such as the Malaysian satellite TV Astro, are kinds that support the status quo rather than ruffle feathers. The same can be said about the local (largely Malay) channels (though I have not spent time looking into the channels catered to Indian-dialect speakers) .That stands in contradistinction to some, though not all, of the American TV dramas that are accessible through the regular behemoths (Fox, HBO etc). There is much that can be said about the onslaught of global celebrity cultures upon the average consumer of entertainment, but I will let scholars or critiques who study such phenomena do the honors instead.
I have only been around for a month, but am looking forward to seeing what new things will I discover, and where my intellectual and research interests will be able to find its niche. At this time, on top of my regular ‘work,’ I am also spending time reading up on Malaysiana and other Asian materials that I had no time to explore while doing the PhD. For sure, understanding cultural implications and affectivity are important to understanding the movement of trends from a qualitative perspective. I welcome further suggestions and recommendations by anyone reading this.
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 misspent a part of my later adolescence and early adulthood, disenchanted with academics). 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. 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 not being given sufficient attention. Oftentimes, a student’s lack of achievement is as much about their inability to cope/manage the issues they face 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 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 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 calendar, that 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 the death of loved ones) had been separation 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 refused to acknowledge 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 balanced 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 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-after-form fillinh. 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.