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Beyond Comfort, Into the Deep

September 5, 2015

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.

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