What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

Philosophy is different things to different people. I’ll say that one thing common to all areas of philosophy is that it is a critical reflection on what we believe and what we do.

Within the purview of philosophy itself, we usually cover things like value theory that covers ethics (Why is X right/wrong? Or how do we know what is the right thing to do?) and aesthetics (Why do we derive pleasure from watching shows that make us miserable (e.g. horror/tragedies). We also cover areas like metaphysics that challenges you to rethink how you think about well… everything. Issues like why am I me. If I’m constantly changing through time, am I still the same person? Or things like how we think about time and space and our relation to it. We also do things like existentialism that deals with the meaning of life, or the lack of it, or how to make meaning if there isn’t any meaning to our existence.

We also do meta-level stuff, basically, anything that’s a critical reflection of the beliefs, assumptions, and methods we employ to do a variety of things.

Take the social sciences, for example. If you put into practice what you’ve learnt in the social sciences, you’re a practitioner. But when you begin reflecting on the methods used, or consider the limitations and drawbacks or even the problematic assumptions underlying the methods employed, then you are doing the philosophy of social science.

The same can be said about anything that is the philosophy of X. We are reflecting critically about the methods and assumptions employed. So we have the Philosophy of Science, the Philosophy of Social Science, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Literature, the Philosophy of Technology, the Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, the Philosophy of Economics, the Philosophy of Music, the Philosophy of Film, etc. The list goes on.

What I like about studying philosophy is the mental flexibility it gives me. It allows me to understand a belief thoroughly as if I’m a believer without necessarily having to subscribe to it. Furthermore, my training in academic philosophy has taught me how to unearth assumptions underlying the things people say and evaluate them. And when you couple that with the study of meta-level things that I have done, I am very aware of the kinds of disciplinary/cultural assumptions that are prevalent in daily discourse. All these helps me to be avoid being chained to the ignorance of my own assumptions as I try to reframe problems. As someone who has done philosophy and interacted with many people from all walks of life, I can tell you that a lot of people are enslaved by their own cultural/disciplinary assumptions without being aware of it, and their thinking is limited by their ignorance of the assumptions that hold them back.

My favourite thing about philosophy is the fact that I never stop getting mind blown. And a conversation with any philosopher will always make you walk away going wow. It has been the case since I was an undergraduate student, and it continues to be the case today. It’s a wonderful experience to have.

What would spur you to encourage a student to take the Honours track?

A student asked:

I’m currently in my Third Year of Study in the Arts and Social Sciences. Right now, it’s hard not to think about pursuing the Honours track.

I know asking if I should take the Honours track may be hard to answer because circumstances will vary, so I will phrase my question as such: As someone who has went through the system, what would spur you to encourage a student to take the honours track?

I’ll start by talking about who shouldn’t pursue Honours. If all these intellectual/academic stuff is not your cup of tea, then you shouldn’t pursue the Honours track. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that you’re not good enough for it or that you’re bad/lousy. No, not at all. We all have different strengths.

If academic pursuits is not your strength, you’re better off using the time developing something else that is your strength. We all have different interests and passions. Some enjoy reading, some hate reading. Some love spending hours researching in the library or connecting different ideas together, some others don’t enjoy it as much and try to avoid such conversations or tasks like that.

If you don’t like these kinds of intellectual pursuits, then don’t pursue the Honours track. You’re better off using your time to develop your strengths that lie in other areas. And that’s perfectly ok. We are all very different people, each with our own unique strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. We can do certain things better than other people. And many of these things don’t require Honours, nor does Honours add value to them.

What would spur me to encourage a student to do Honours? If I know the student has the potential to grow and develop further because of the challenge brought about by the Honours programme, I will insist that the student go through it. Because this would be a match of a person meant for such a programme, and the programme actually having an effect on that person. What kind of student would that be? Well, one who does have an inclination towards such academic/intellectual things. Not everyone can think critically or write profoundly. If a person can do that kind of stuff somewhat decently, I think they should not give up on the opportunity for Honours to shape and cultivate their minds further.

You know how we feel sad when a budding young athlete or musician can’t do sports/music because of an injury or disease? That sadness comes from the fact that we recognise that that potential to go so far in life can never be realised. I feel the same when I see high calibre students with a passion for intellectual/academic stuff not pursue Honours.

I know some of us might feel fatigued and want to give up because it’s the middle of semester. That’s normal. Struggling is also normal. It’s something we do when we are growing and developing as persons. It’s normal to feel like it’s time to give up or graduate early.

So think about where your interests lies, and whether you actually like academic/intellectual pursuits. If you do, stay and do the Honours year so that you can realise your potential to go further in that direction. Otherwise, don’t waste your time. If you don’t like these things, the Honours programme won’t have much of an effect on you because you won’t really be investing as much time and energy as you should to grow and develop.

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

A student sent me this question:

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

If it’s something you really like and want to be good at, you need to be way more patient with yourself and kinder to yourself. It’s like learning the violin. It’s incredibly painful at the start because everything you do is wrong no matter what you try. But you just have to keep doing to retrain your muscles to learn now movements. Same thing with everything else. So we must be patient and forgiving towards ourselves with each and every failure.

There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results.

If something fails, it’s important to ask why did it fail and diagnose what precisely went wrong. Saying, “I am not good,” is not a diagnosis. Was there a lack of understanding on your part, or is there a flaw in the method?

These things must be evaluated so you know what not to do in the future. When you can do that, then failure isn’t just failure. Such failures become lessons on what not to do, so that you can do better. Of course, it does help to seek help online, whether it’s YouTube videos or posting on forums/Reddit. It can be difficult to identify the flaws. So we need other people to identify them for us.

For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

A student asked:

For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

Usually, people associate the term, “open book exam,” to mean that the exam is going to be very difficult.

Properly speaking, an open book exam has a different set of objectives compared to a closed book exam.

Closed book exams usually test your ability to recall information, and/or your ability to comprehend what you have learnt. Open book exams, on the other hand, usually test the higher-level thinking abilities like evaluation, analysis, application, and even creation.

These are things which books, lecture notes, and other resources don’t often contain since you are required to think about the information presented to you in order to generate your own views on the matter.

Making notes will be useful. But not so much for you to refer to during the exam (I mean, you could still refer to it if you needed it). But the process of note-making helps you to better internalise what you’ve been learning. Because, you see, higher-level thinking abilities are only possible AFTER you have internalised your learning of the concepts and ideas.

Most students only copy the form of things, where they will use something in class as a template for answering. But they don’t understand why they are doing that. Internalising means really understanding why the template was made that way, and recognising the shortcomings of that template in other situations AND THEN being able to freely adopt new forms to better answer those situations.

The best way to internalise your learning is to actively engage with what you’ve learnt. Talk and debate with your friends. That’s when your learning comes alive.

This also is my teaching strategy. Which is why students have to struggle in order to learn. Because through that struggle, you are not a passive learner, but instead you become actively engaged in the learning process, thereby helping you to internalise what you’re taught. In education, this is known as “productive struggle.”

How do I get motivated when my motivation normally rides on adrenaline?

A student asked:

How do I get motivated when my motivation normally rides on adrenaline?

I think for starters, we need to move away from the idea of doing things only when we’re motivated, to the idea that we need to instil the discipline within ourselves to do things – with or without motivation. I like to say that as adults, there are many things we have to do regardless of whether we like them or not, but because we have to.

I hate eating vegetables, but my freezer is stocked to the brim with frozen vegetables that I eat daily. Do I like it? No. But I eat it because I have to.

Now, the whole idea of living a life doing things that we have no feelings or motivation for sounds pretty sad. That’s not true. I don’t like eating vegetables, but that doesn’t stop me from figuring out how to cook it in a way that it’s so delicious that I enjoy eating it.

Similarly, with all other tasks that I have to do but lack the motivation, e.g. edit or produce lecture videos (it really is such a chore to do it as it takes about 8 hours to edit each video), I make it a point to have fun while I do it (like make funny songs or embed a really good joke into the video).

At least this way, I’m looking forward to the fun that I’ll be having rather than constantly dreading the task. This would explain all the fun and crazy things I do in my course. I’m constantly finding ways to make the onerous and painful work fun for myself that I am happy and motivated to work on it.

I’ve never been in a relationship and I’m scared that I have no experience and may not find anyone. Help!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m going to be 20 years old but I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They will only let me date after I’ve graduated and started working. But I’m scared because by the time I graduate, I would have no experience and I may not be able to find anyone. Help!

Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now. You’re not going to lose out on anything.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggages into subsequent relationships. And these emotional baggages can affect your ability to trust and love well. So this is the opposite of Pokemon – you don’t gotta catch them emotional baggages!

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that right now, many people your age are saying on social media that you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your partner or future spouse (i.e. that they will leave you if you cannot perform). This is utter rubbish!

You can learn to be better with your spouse over time. And it becomes a means for developing greater intimacy and closeness with each other because, in that very moment, you both are learning how to communicate about something so sensitive, and so very intimate with each other while being so very vulnerable.

In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at a more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or figure out how to pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve.

In fact, and contrary to popular belief, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with honest communication with their partners because it takes a lot of humility to accept that the techniques they’ve “mastered” may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over not having any experience. You will acquire all the experience you need when you finally get into a relationship.

In the meantime, the experiences you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn such things.

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

A student asked:

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

I have two advice to give:

(1) First, don’t rush into one because it’ll force you to settle on the first person who likes you, and you’ll rationalise and make exceptions on why you should stick to that person even if the person displays many red flags, or if you feel that you’re both incompatible. So please don’t do this to yourself. There are so many people who are unhappily married because they did just that.

(2) Secondly, there’s no such thing as a soul mate or a partner who’s perfect enough that there’s no need to put in effort to understand or be understood. Relationships are hard work, and the bulk of that hard work comes in the form of communicating each others’ expectations, needs, and wants; and learning how to manage differences.

Every problem and difference can be ironed out through open and calm communication. The hard part is learning how to communicate effectively with each other and to be patient with each other about it.

And you must never be complacent that you’ve figured out the art of communication. Why? Because people change over time. We’re not static. And so our needs, wants, and desires will also change with. So too will the the communicative needs and communicative methods change over time.

You know communication has broken down when one party says to the other in frustration, “You’ve become a different person.” They’ve failed to update each other’s idea of who they are through communication.

There is no issue that cannot be talked about or shouldn’t be talked about. So please learn to talk about difficult matters openly, honestly, patiently, and in a non-accusatory, non-aggressive method. This will help ensure the health of the relationship. And overall, you’ll learn to become a better human person as you know how best to effectively communicate with other people.

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

A student asked:

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

I would advise the girl to hold firm with her decision. Stick to the, “No,” and don’t budge.

You have every right to say “No,” to your boyfriend, even if you don’t have a reason. And if you don’t feel ready or comfortable, or if you feel that the relationship hasn’t progressed far enough for it, it is well within your right to say, “No.” It will not and should not affect the relationship in any way.

I’ve heard stories about guys who desperately want sex and will conjure all kinds of sad and even pathetic excuses to make their girlfriends give in to sex. It’s important to remember that no one has ever died from not having sex (conversely, people have died from having sex). So there is no valid reason that should change your mind.

The decision not to have sex is yours, and if the guy truly respects and loves you, he should back off from it. If he is persistent in constantly trying to pressure you into it, it is a red flag for more problems to come in the relationship. Such actions signal that he doesn’t respect your choice enough and thinks that he can eventually get his way with you. This is a very bad mindset and one that can and will eventually affect the relationship in other ways.

Sometimes, guys will use emotional blackmail techniques, like threatening to break-up, or threatening to see a prostitute or a one-night stand, or making accusations that you don’t love him enough.

If it comes to this, it’s a really huge red flag that the guy is toxic. Such threats are distressing. And the guy knows that he can put you under such mental duress to pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do. This is clearly an act of manipulation. A person who genuinely loves you will not manipulate you into doing things you don’t want to do.

If this does happen, I strongly recommend breaking-up with the guy. Because if he has no qualms applying such emotional blackmail techniques for one of the most intimate acts of love in a relationship, it means that he would have no qualms to emotionally manipulate you in other ways.

So the main point is this: don’t feel bad about saying, “No.” It’s your body and your choice, and people who truly love you will respect your decisions, even if it may disappoint them. But that’s what love is.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you or your choices, then you should reconsider the relationship. There are many wonderful people out there who will respect and love you, perhaps more so than the person you’re currently with. So don’t feel trapped thinking that you cannot find a better partner and that you have to settle with what you have. You deserve better.

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers?

A student asked:

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers? I always feel that in terms of academia, I’m not as strong as my friends. I can never keep my concentration as good as them and I always get distracted. They can study for hours on end and I barely make it thru one lecture.

Here is a fact that is true now as it was true during my time as a student: many students are just putting up a front before other people as if they are coping well or staying on top of everything, because to admit struggle seems embarrassing, especially in a competitive environment.

From the mid-course survey that I did in AY2020/2021 Semester 1, I can tell you that 70-80% of the cohort admitted that they are struggling to cope with the semester and online learning.

If it helps, I am happy to admit that I struggle a lot with online teaching and this 100% online semester. It’s exhausting to teach online tutorials, and even more exhausting and frustrating to have to sit through many online meetings. I actually need like an hour to “decompress” after each Zoom session. So I’m extra unproductive this semester.

Do I feel inadequate, or even embarrassed about this? No. I just know that’s how I am when I use Zoom. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. My weakness is that I can’t handle Zoom tutorials well. It’s not easy. No need to feel bad about it. It just is.

As for feelings of inadequacy, I used to get it a lot as an undergraduate student. I used to compare myself with people scoring A+s and wondered why I could never be like them, and then I tortured myself constantly by thinking that I’m not good enough.

But if you noticed, saying that you’re “good enough” requires a context. Good enough… for what? If you don’t know yet what you want to be good in, you will never be good enough for anything because there is no context for “good enough” to make sense. So of course, without that clearly defined context, it’s logically impossible to be “good enough” for anything. As it is, you’re probably already good at some things, but the abstract nature of “good enough” lacks a frame of reference, so we will always fall short of “good enough.”

So of course, when we’re young and clueless, we’ll just find anything and everything that we can compare. And we often torture ourselves by finding things that we’re not good at and then comparing ourselves with people who are good at those things. We don’t give ourselves enough recognition that we are good or in fact better than some/most people in other things.

How did I get over my feelings of inadequacy? By recognising my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made my peace when I came to the conclusion that I am not as talented to be an excellent research. I will always be a mediocre researcher , and that’s ok. I’m perfectly happy with that because I don’t enjoy research neither do I want to spend the rest of my life doing that. Other people can and will do better at me in research and I’m happy for them. I can live with this.

What do I enjoy doing and what are my strengths? Writing and teaching. I love doing these two things and so I’m very happy that I can do them well. Are there people better than me? Yes. Do I feel inadequate? No, because I recognise I am still a work-in-progress. And I can use the time to gain more experiences and learn along the way.

And I think we forget that there’s a time factor when it comes to being good at something. Some people are great at what they do because they are willing to pour hours and hours and hours of work into it. Should you feel inadequate comparing yourselves to these people? No. They made the decision to dedicate so much time and energy to it. And if you want to be as great as them, then you have to be willing to work hard and struggle for it.

With teaching, I’m willing to do that. And I’m actually very excited that there are people better than me whom I can learn from. With research, not so much. Hence I am quite happy even though I’m not as good as others when it comes to research. It’s just not my cup of tea, it’s just not something I wish to torture myself over.

I sometimes find it annoying that people think they need to be the best in everything, or the most excellent person about a particular thing. Why the need for that? The harsh fact of life is that there will always be people better than us in every aspect of our existence. And just because they are better than us doesn’t mean that we will lose. This isn’t some sick battle royale game where we have to keep eliminating others in order to stay alive. The world isn’t like that.

Focusing on our inadequacy is really just a distraction from the more important things like learning how to be better. The fact that there are people better than us means that there are opportunities for us to learn to improve ourselves. Why are they better than us, how can we up our game to be better than them? These are the more important questions.

Do grades matter after graduation?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do grades really matter after graduation? How do I not get too hung up on not getting As?

You need to ask yourself what are the grades for? We do not exist merely to score As, nor do grades grant us happiness or salvation. In other words, grades are not an end to itself. They serve another purpose. And we have to be clear what purpose we want it to serve.

If you say you want to pursue academia or graduate school, then for obvious reasons, the grades matter because it signals that you have what it takes to endure the rigours of grad school if you get accepted into a programme.

If you want to join the civil service here in Singapore, unfortunately the people who do the hiring are very obsessed about grades. It is used as a proxy measure for how hard you are willing to work and/or how brilliant you are. It is doubtful how accurate grades are to signal brilliant one may be, but certainly some organisations want to hire people who are willing and able to work very hard and be able to produce results. So this is something grades do indicate, and this is something the bureaucratic machinery of government requires.

That said, exceptions are made for exceptional people, but we usually only show case or exceptionality many years after graduation.

But the private sector is a different story. Most companies don’t care too much how you do in school. Why? Because academic grades are a measure of only one ability out of an infinite number of abilities out there that can add value to the organisation. Salesmanship, the ability to connect people, manage risks, and a whole host of people skills and street smart skills cannot be assessed in a university. And if you can demonstrate that you can add value to their organisation in these ways beyond grades, many private companies are willing to take you on and pay you handsomely for that added value.

If you don’t want to get too hung up on grades, focus on developing a backup plan or a few contingencies that you can tap on to help you get employed even if you don’t have fantastic grades. These are people skills, negotiation skills, marketing skills, public speaking skills, etc. These make you very marketable and you can always fall back on them to give you an edge when you try to seek employment. So if you don’t have the grades to impress, you have a set of skills that are highly sought after by many companies.

This is a common tactic employed in a field called: risk mitigation. Don’t bet your entire life on just grades. If you do, of course the pressure will be high. You’ll have a do or die mentality because it feels like you must succeed otherwise you’ll fail in life. But you can hedge your risks by developing many possible paths for success, and that also reduces the anxieties over failure. If one doesn’t work, oh that’s always that other backup plan.

I do want to emphasise the need to develop people skills and other talents. Many students have trained themselves to become excellent at studying, but they’re inept at everything else. Their high grades won’t save them or help them do well in the working world. And it saddens me that all that talent cannot be fully realised because they don’t know how. So it’s important to use the time now as a student to explore and develop a variety of skills while you still.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the big picture. A few years after you graduate, after you’ve worked your first job (maybe after your second job), no one’s going to ask how well you did in school after you’ve built a portfolio of your professional achievements which is your CV, and the array of talents, skills, and experience you’ve acquired over the years.

These are things that are way more long-lasting and worth the effort beyond just mere grades.

What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?


I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was: 

Tell me the differences between conducting physical classes and online classes. What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?

My lectures are all online in the form of pre-recorded videos. But one thing the COVID-19 pandemic did was that it forced me to shift my physical tutorials onto Zoom. I experimented a little with conducting Zoom tutorials last semester (AY2019/2020 Sem II), and I have to personally admit that it was quite a traumatising experience due to a variety of problems: (1) technical problems where students got disconnected and I had to manually add them back into the breakout room (something which I could not do if I was too busy attending to a particular breakout room; (2) students learn and complete various learning activities at vastly different speeds; and then there’s the problem where (3) students didn’t dare or didn’t want to interact with each other online, thereby resulting in getting very little done.

These three problems made a huge impact on me last semester, and I spent the entire summer break re-thinking my whole approach to conducting tutorials.

The first major revamp that I did was to change the tutorial participation grading rubric. Tutorial participation this semester is not graded based on how much you contribute to the discussion, but on how much you help your fellow group mates or seek help from your fellow group mates. From my traumatic experience of Zoom tutorials last semester, I realised that this was necessary otherwise the fast learners would complete all the learning exercises on their own and not try to engage in any discussion with their group mates. So this new grading rubric for tutorial participation would motivate them to apply their learning in the process of peer teaching. And at the same time, incentivise weaker students or struggling students to actively seek help from their group members since they can also score marks in that way.

And we require each group to record their breakout room discussion and upload it to Luminus where we would quickly review the videos after class to see who’s been helping or seeking help. The reason for recording the discussions was motivated by my undergraduate Teaching Assistants, many of whom complained that in their own experience with Zoom tutorials, their discussions groups would return to silence the moment the lecturer or tutor left the breakout room. So this was done to ensure that students would actively help or seek help from each other regardless of whether or not the tutor was present in the breakout room.

And since many local students tend to be shy in speaking up, we always begin the discussion group activities with an ice-breaker warm up, just to get them talking about their week and form a connection, a bond, with one another. This helps to warm them up enough to engage each other cordially for the rest of the discussions.

The second major revamp was to create a very detailed and structured Google Docs worksheet for every discussion group, laying out every single task that they had to do, whether it was a technical task, or an open-ended discussion about the ethics of a certain decision. This allows each group to progress in the various learning activities at their own pace without requiring the tutor to round up the entire class to brief them on the next task, which was the format we used in physical tutorials. And of course, for the fastest groups, we always have an additional question to provoke them to think further about the issue at hand. This is meant to keep them engaged throughout tutorial time, and to match their level of learning with something more challenging for them. In a certain, each discussion group gets a very customised learning experience within their breakout rooms.

This has many benefits. First, it lightens the burden of the tutor from having to brief and explain many things to the class. Each group can read the instructions on their own, and if they are unsure, they can clarify amongst themselves (which would give them marks for tutorial participation for helping each other). And only when they realise that they are still unsure, can they then seek the help of the tutor. What this does is that it allows the tutor more space to handle students with technical problems (without worrying about holding up the class), and it also gives the tutor peace of mind to attend to the weaker groups.

Furthermore, each tutorial class has its own Telegram chat group. This functions as the back channel for tutorials. In the event a student has Internet problems, the student can notify us through that group chat. And we can send the student a landline telephone number to call to connect to the Zoom server and thus join our discussions. It also allows us to send tutorial materials that students can easily check back any time during and after the tutorial. And if the tutor is in a breakout room, students from other breakout rooms can post specific questions to the tutor who will then decide whether to visit that breakout room or if it’s a simple question, answer it via text on Telegram.

These two revamps are massive, and they have been highly effective in overcoming the challenges of teaching online.

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

How do I deal with loneliness?

A student asked:

How do I deal with loneliness? I wish I had a significant other to just chat about anything and everything.

I think for starters, it helps to recognise that negative feelings, like loneliness, are just feelings. It’s one of the many feelings that we experience, like joy and sadness. It’s because feelings like loneliness don’t feel so nice that we get alarmed by it. And when we focus our concentration on trying to get rid of it, what happens is that our minds lock on to the feeling and it becomes harder to let it go.

But there really isn’t a need to be alarmed when you experience such negative feelings like loneliness. They come and go like clouds in the sky. My advice is to treat such feelings like white noise. If you pay a lot of attention to white noise, you’ll hear it, and it becomes louder. And if you busy yourself with other things, it’ll fade away from your attention.

The reason why having a partner feels like a solution to loneliness is because you have someone you can help turn your attention away from that loneliness. But the feeling of loneliness will still creep up on you from time to time. It’s important to recognise that feelings of loneliness will exist regardless of whether you are in a relationship or single. A partner won’t solve the problem of loneliness, neither will having lots of close friends. It is, as I said just now, a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes without reason.

I sometimes find that we are our own enemies, and that our hearts and minds play tricks on us by giving us virtual problems that feel far too real. Perhaps it’s due to that existential emptiness, that void that lurks at the back of our minds and hearts. Sometimes it manifests itself as loneliness, sometimes it manifests itself as a sense of meaninglessness of life.

It is upsetting, for sure, and the feelings are very real. But as I’ve said, it’s the white noise of existence. And it comes and goes. And the more idle our minds are, the more it’ll surface to our attention. So please learn to not give it too much weight and attention when it comes. We don’t always have to run away from bad feelings. It’s just yet another feeling that we experience in the rich tapestry of life.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

A student wrote to me with this heartfelt question:

I grew up in an abusive childhood. My father has been abusive towards every member of my family. My mothers is the sole breadwinner of the family (my father doesn’t work).

I have told my mother countless times to get a divorce, but she refuses to do so. And she constantly makes excuses for him saying that “he has improved compared to the past.”

I know it has been incredibly difficult for my mother, especially since she has to tolerate my father while working to support the family. But sometimes I can’t help but feel so angry. I blame her for not protecting my sisters and I when we were children. Sometimes I feel that I hate her and it would be accompanied by a feeling of guilt that I’m such a bad ungrateful daughter.

Now as I start to emerge into adulthood , I realised I have internal conflicts that I didn’t know I had. I have difficulties trusting others, and even myself. I’m fearful that I would let someone toxic into my life, and not find the courage within me to leave. I’m fearful that I would be just like either of my parents. After all, they made me.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

Thank you for sharing, and I just want you to know that I feel your pain.

For starters, it will help to understand that it’s not easy for your mum to get a divorce. She probably comes from a generation where there’s a lot of stigma attached to divorce. So it’s not just an issue of leaving your father, but societal shame and all that. Also, divorces can get very ugly and expensive. One can lose a lot, including the house. Given how your father doesn’t work, the divorce could go south where you mother has to pay him a monthly alimony to financially support him even after separation. So it’s not an easy option. It might have come across her mind many times, but I’m sure she knows all the difficulties she has to face if she proceeds with one.

So do understand that her hands are tied in the matter. Getting angry with her and hating on her would make her feel more alone in facing the daily ordeals of her life. She already has it pretty bad. So do try to be more understanding of her situation. She’s really not the enemy, but someone who doesn’t know a way out of a difficult spot.

It’s good that you are aware of your internal conflicts and inability to trust others. If you start living on your own, you might also discover that you display traits in your parents that you despise. It was quite a horrifying realisation on my part when I started living on my own how I exhibited certain qualities I disliked in my own parents.

Awareness is an important step towards improvement. The fact that you are painfully aware means that you can take steps to avoid falling into it. For most people, the tragedy is that they completely unaware of the toxic qualities they’ve acquired from their parents and they repeat the errors in their own lives, never realising that the problem is them. So in many ways, you are in a better place. It doesn’t feel good to have knowledge of the awareness, but it’s valuable. Because now you have to remind yourself constantly not to be that sort of toxic person.

It will help you a lot not to rush into a relationship. So that way, you have time to regularly reflect on yourself and how you respond to people.

While I did not have a background like yours, I and a few other friends with dysfunctional parents made it a point to always be better than our parents. It takes a lot of constant reminders, and perhaps even some painful experiences with other people to learn some lessons. But always tell yourself, “I will be better than them.” And you use them as benchmarks on what never to do in your life. Always take a step back to reflect on your experiences with people, as that will help you evaluate what you’re doing right/wrong. But at the same time, be gentle and kind to yourself because we will always be our harshest critic.

I do recommend seeing a counsellor. Because they can journey with you and coach you every step of the way. The best I can do is to give you general advice that may or may not work, as I don’t know the full story, nor do I have the expertise to help you all the way to a life of happiness.

I wish you all the best, and do know that you if you need someone to talk to, I am happy to lend a listening ear. :)

I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a partner after graduation because I have no experience in dating!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m already going to be 20 years old and I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They said that I can only date after I have graduated and started working. But I’m afraid that because I have no experience, I may not be able to find anyone after graduation. Help!

I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. You’re still so young. Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggage into subsequent relationships.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that some people say you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your future spouse. This is utter rubbish. You can learn to be better in bed with your spouse over time. And it becomes more intimate that way because you learn how to communicate about something so intimate. In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at the more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or learn how to figure out pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve. In fact, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with such communication because it takes humility to accept that the techniques they’ve learnt may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over this lack of experience.

The experience you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn those things.

How do I deal with imposter syndrome?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I deal with imposter syndrome? I’ve been doing pretty well in many aspects of my life recently (this wasn’t the case in the past). I just feel that I’m actually not worthy of all this or soon I’ll just stop being successful. I know i’m putting in more effort now which could be why I’m doing well but at the same time I’m just feeling very insecure nowadays.

I think this experience is very common, and it’s something we will encounter every time we step into a new role or responsibility. I feel that way each time I take on a new task, and my Teaching Assistants (TAs) can attest that they feel that way too when they first became TAs.

There are two issues I do wish to address:

(1) Firstly, when we’re new to something, we don’t identify ourselves as one of “them,” as one of the pros who have been around for longer and who seem to do better than us. It’s good to model yourself after them, but they’re really not the right benchmarks for us to compare with. I say this because you don’t have the same level of experience as they do. So if you keep benchmarking yourself against them, you will always feel that you’re not good enough, and it becomes harder for you to see yourself as one of “them,” thereby prolonging the feeling that you are an imposter.

What’s more important is to learn to settle into your role and take credit for all your successes, big and small, and especially the small ones. Aim to be excellent in the tasks and responsibilities given to you. As you do this well, your team mates or colleagues will begin to rely on you more. This will make you feel more integrated into the team, and you’ll soon feel like you have become one of them.

(2) Of course, everything I said above can be undermined if you have a low self-esteem or are unnecessarily harsh on yourself. Truly, we are our worst enemies. We work so hard to get so far, and once we’ve made it, we start to tell ourselves we are not good enough. That’s really not a nice thing to do to yourself.

I want to share with you an advice a friend shared with me the other day: “You are your own friend. So, don’t say things to yourself that you would never say to your friends.”

We can be really mean to ourselves and say very discouraging and even hateful things. That’s not healthy, and it’s important that we learn to be kind and patient with ourselves in the same way that we are kind and patient to our friends. Once we do this, we can begin to appreciate the good that we’ve achieved by our own effort.

So tell yourself what I say to you: Well done! I’m proud of you. Keep up what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll continue to do well. :)

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one?

A student asked:

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one? When I think of my dad it feels like he left us because he didn’t want to burden our family emotionally, financially, mentally, physically. And then it hurts.

Hello, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. My deepest condolences. I know now is not an easy time at all.

Do give yourself the time and space to grieve. It’s understandable to feel a wide range of emotions. Some days you’ll feel numb, some days sorrow, some days guilt.

From what you have said, I’m guessing that you must probably feel overwhelmed with guilt. With the passing of a loved one, it’s very normal for one’s mind to consider many what-if scenarios in your head — what if I had done X; or what if I didn’t do Y. I think that’s natural. But do be careful not to get sucked in on all these possibilities.

I think one way to cope better with the loss is to try to move beyond feelings of guilt towards that of gratitude, thanking your father for the life he gave you, for his love and care for you, for his wisdom and guidance, and for all the memories happy and sad that have shaped you to become who you are today.

As you look around the house and notice his absence, think of the memories and thank him for them. As you see things that remind you of him, thank him for those experiences and those memories.

Look on his passing with gratitude for all that he has been and all that he has done. This will help you cope better with the loss. You will still have the feels, and it will last for a while. It’s normal. But remember to exercise gratefulness to celebrate his life and the sharing of his life with you, and all the good that he has done for you and your family.

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

A student asked:

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

They do!

The first semester I taught as a lecturer, I got burnt really badly not just by desperate students, but by very self-entitled (and desperate) ones. Some wrote nasty e-mails or came to my office to bang table over grading matters (over 1% of the total grade!). Some banged tables all the way until senior management got their attention. And it’s very frightful to be contacted by the people upstairs only to discover how a trivial matter got blown way out of proportion.

Also, this semester (AY2020/2021 Sem 1), I received anonymous threats and hate messages from a student who disliked the fact that I’m going the extra mile to make the module engaging. It’s so bizarre.

It’s things like this that made me realise why some lecturers are unwilling to move a finger to help students. They’ve been burnt by bad experiences in the past. There are many awful cases, some of which I am not allowed to share (lecturers had to lodge police reports). In one publicly known incident, many students went online to bitterly complain about a lecturer. Those comments were so vile that he broke down during lecture and cried in front of his students. It’s not easy to teach university students, especially very self-entitled desperate ones.

I can tell you from my years of teaching that every bad experience from bad students impacts me, and it’s very tempting to put up a barrier or care less about them just to avoid more of these awful (and hurtful) experiences.

But the truth is this: Students behave awfully not because they are evil. Rather, it’s because they allow themselves to be overrun by fear and anxiety. And as an educator, I have to remind myself every single day that I have to be better than that. I cannot and I must not succumb to my own fears and anxieties. Otherwise, I’ll be no different from those educators who have lost their passion in teaching and have made learning a chore for other students, or worse, an unhealthy learning environment that just increases fear and anxiety amongst students.

Toxicity breeds more toxicity. So it’s important that we do our best not to succumb to our insecurities and irrationalities, or reciprocate pettiness with more pettiness. We must break the cycle of toxicity by having a bigger heart.

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together?

A student asked me:

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together? Would it become boring after awhile where projects are always done together and every minute of school is spent with that person?

Boredom isn’t the real problem that these couples should be worried about. While the idea of spending a lot of time together seems good, it’s actually not healthy for both individuals. It’s important to remember that a relationship comprises two unique individuals coming together to enrich each other as individuals. It’s not two individuals merging into a single hive mind as if The Singularity had taken place.

If you are already studying together or going out on dates, do you really need to spend even more time together?

While it is important to spend time together, it is just as important learning how to spend time away from each other so that each can continue developing their own individual selves, whether it is professionally, intellectually, or even socially as they meet new people or old friends.

Spending too much time together by taking the same classes would mean a loss of opportunities for each person in the relationship to explore new things on their own or to make new friends. It may feel really good now, but in the future you will look back and regret not making new friends or gaining new experiences on your own.