Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

Here’s a question that students have asked me from time to time:

I struggle so much with writing that I dislike it. Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

I feel you. I don’t like academic writing either (I still struggle with it even today). I used to struggle so much as an undergraduate that I thought I was not cut out for academia. But after graduation, I met some prolific writers and academics in the course of my work. I asked them whether they struggled with writing. Their reply was quite surprising to me. They still find writing painful and difficult (even if it is their rice bowl, or something they’ve done for decades), and yes, they still struggle with it even after so many years!

It was very eye-opening (and liberating) to discover that struggling to write doesn’t mean that you’re bad at it.

So then the question we must ask ourselves is: why is writing painful?

I think it’s important to recognise that this is kind of growing pain. It is a good “pain” that stems from constantly reviewing and thinking about what we want to say. When we write, we are committing our thoughts into words on paper or on screen. This forces us to constantly review whether or not that is the thing we wish to say. We don’t encounter such problems when it comes to speaking because we are not immediately confronted with the words that leave our lips. But this is the case with writing.

The “pain” comes from that constant review and re-evaluation of what we want to commit to. There is a lot of growth and maturity when we confront the difficulties and take the writing exercise seriously. Academic writing is THE exercise that leads to a mature mind. It is THE activity that cultivates critical thinking. Because we are constantly being made to review our thoughts.

I have since come to terms with the struggle. And one thing I have also learnt is how writing is itself a journey of discovery. Sometimes we just don’t know what our thoughts are on a particular matter. The exercise of writing forces us to review and reflect on our own positions not only helps us to identify flaws in our thoughts, but it also helps us find connections between separate ideas that had been floating in our heads for so long. Writing is like a spring-cleaning exercise for the mind, where you made to sort the ideas into something coherent that you can present to yourself and to other people.

I have discovered a lot about myself through writing. I have grown tremendously, both intellectually and as a person because of the struggles of writing. So, embrace writing. Embrace the struggle as a challenge. By the time you graduate from university and look back, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve grown as a person, by how much you have matured intellectually because of it.

Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Can I ask what’s your CAP when you were an undergrad if you don’t mind sharing? I want to pursue an academic life but I don’t know if I am smart enough. My CAP currently stands at the bare minimum for a first class honours. Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

Hello, I don’t mind sharing. Here’s how my CAP evolved from start to end as an undergrad:

Year 1 Sem 1: 3.88
Year 1 Sem 2: 3.89
Year 2 Sem 1: 4.11
Year 2 Sem 2: 4.29
Year 3 Sem 1: 4.31
Year 3 Sem 2: 4.41
Year 3 Sem 3: 4.43 (Special Term)
Year 4 Sem 1: 4.45
Year 4 Sem 2: 4.52

I succeeded in getting First Class Honours in my final semester. And as you can see, every semester has been a constant process of improvement.

In general, most people enter academia with either First Class Honours or Second Upper, i.e. CAP ≥ 4.0). (FYI: Once you get your postgraduate degree, people don’t really care much about what you did in undergrad. They will look more at what you did for your postgraduate studies instead.)

CAP is not necessarily a measure of your intellect. In fact, I am very wary of people boasting First Class or Second Upper CAP. The reason being that there are many students able to secure a high CAP because they are so scared of screwing their CAP that they take “safe” modules or modules that are “easy to score.” So these people have effectively screwed up their chance at a real education. Without that challenge, they graduate no different from the person they were when they first matriculated, both in terms of intellect, and also in terms of mental and emotional maturity.

I know this sounds harsh. But the reason why I wrote this is because if you want to do well in academia (or the working world, for that matter), you must be willing to challenge yourself, you must be willing to take risks (and of course, know how to mitigate these risks as well).

The kinds of people who score high CAPs because of “safe” decisions cannot make it in academia (or the professional world for that matter). I say this because of people I personally know. They scored First Class Honours because they wrote “safe” paper topics for “safe” modules. Their mentality is one driven by fear: “I am afraid to try other things because I don’t want my CAP to suffer.”

And I’ve seen them continue that trend in postgraduate studies. In the end, they didn’t make it because their work is so “safe” that it is uninspiring (boring) and doesn’t make much of a difference to the world (because it was written not to challenge one’s self or anyone for that matter, and so it had no potential to change anything).

So if you are willing to challenge yourself to constantly improve rather than take safe options just to maintain a high CAP, then I’ll say you have the personal qualities to do well in academia, and you’ll go very far for that matter. :)

What can students learn from Philosophy?

A student asked:

What can students learn from Philosophy? It seems like a really interesting topic but many students outside that major will say things like: “They ask questions about why is the sky blue? Why does god exist?” Are these speculations true? Is it possible to give a brief overview on what does NUS Philosophy teach? I’m genuinely very curious and interested to know more about this!

Here’s my reply:

It’s important to understand the history of academia. Philosophy is the mother of all subjects. Before you had the natural and social sciences, there was only philosophy. So the people who explored the workings of the world were also the same people who explored ideas and concepts. Hence you had questions like, “Why is the sky blue?”, which in our modern context would be regarded more of a science question.

Questions like “Why does god exists?” are important to philosophers because of the implications if a god exists. Here’s a simple scenario: If god exists, then perhaps there is meaning and purpose independent of my own decisions, and thus I have to discover what those are. But if god doesn’t exist, then meaning and purpose do not come from outside me, but are chosen by me. In which case, it is not about discovery, but making a resolution about what matters. There are what we call, normative implications, i.e. it affects how we should live.

Philosophy is the love of (philo) wisdom (sophia). But what is wisdom? It’s the ability to make right judgements for yourself. Academic philosophy doesn’t train you in wisdom, but gives you a lot of resources to develop wisdom yourself. What do I mean? Well, for starters, you learn how to think and justify in a sound, logical manner. Sadly, not everyone who can think can actually think in a sound logical way. And I can tell you, from grading so many assignments, that a lot of our FASS students cannot reason in a sound logical way. And if you can’t do that well, you are way more prone to making mistakes in your thinking, in your own judgement and evaluation of yourself, people, and things.

I personally think the value of philosophy is in its ability to liberate your mind by exposing you to possibilities you never even thought possible about things (e.g. multiple opposing but valid schools of thinking about what is right and wrong, or thinking about what makes something scientific or not-scientific). And for that matter, liberation of your mind by thinking about higher-order things (e.g. the philosophy of social science will talk about meta-level problems in the social sciences). These things will not only blow your mind, but give you very profound insights into issues that few people in those areas think about. It gives you an edge because you get a perspective that makes you painfully aware that everything is premised on conceptual flaws, and so you learn to assess things more critically. The methods you acquire along the way will also teach you how to reframe problems. Reframing is only possible with higher-order (meta-level) thinking.

You may not appreciate it now, but a lot of issues that senior-management have to deal with are philosophical problems. I know this because I used to interact (in my previous job) with top academics in the sciences and ambassadors/policy-makers/economists from around the world. The problems become very philosophical in nature because you need to define the problems before you can work out the objectives and the corresponding strategies that help to address the problem. At a senior level, the problems are conceptual in nature (e.g. If you are Provost or Dean – What is the purpose of the university?; or if you are the Minister of Health – What is the purpose of healthcare?)

It feels like we all can be philosophers and engage in such deep discussions, but I can tell you that there’s a stark difference between amateurs who like philosophy versus people trained in philosophy. These amateurs only know how to regurgitate ideas by philosophers or have superficial discussions about those ideas. But they don’t know how to even begin with dissecting these ideas or creating new ones (or even seeing the subtle nuances between different but similar ideas). A training in philosophy will teach you the fundamentals to do all that.

I know it can be scary since it’s probably alien to you, but we can’t always live in fear. Give it a try and challenge yourself. My journey in philosophy has been amazing, and I am sure it will be just as incredible for you too. :)

2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).

I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.

It’s amazing!

In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.

(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)

 

A Gap Year of Exploration

At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.

I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.

Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)

So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.

That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.

Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:

Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).

That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.

Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.

I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.

It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.

The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.

This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.

(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.

These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.

With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.

For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.

There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.

In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.

With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.

It has been a good year.