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.
Here’s a transcript of a public presentation I gave last Saturday (4 July 2020) at the SGUnited Skills Programme Presentation by NUS at Kampong Admiralty Career Fair organised by e2i
Hello! My name is Jonathan Sim, and I am an Instructor from the Department of Philosophy. I’m very happy to share with you more about the Professional Certificate in Human and Automated Managerial Skills, under the Human and Managerial Literacies Pillar.
This professional certificate is a collaboration between the Department of Social Work and the Department of Philosophy.
Eh? I know some of you may have raised eyebrows, and at this point you might be thinking: How is this relevant to me? Let me explain.
This professional certificate is meant to impart to you the soft skills of problem-solving. Just because a solution works doesn’t mean that it works well. And this is especially so when we have to work with digital tools, whether it’s tools for data analysis or coding, or anything involving a computer. The computer will always throw out an answer. Just because it works, just because it gives you an answer, doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. The solution may not be effective!
It could be that we’re solving the wrong problem, or we might be solving the right problem, but in a way that creates more problems. These days, we are managing people in an automated way. And it’s easy to forget that behind every figure in your data is a real human being. What if the solution is problematic? At a click of a button, lives are affected! Scary, isn’t it?
So that’s why we want to impart to you the soft skills to think critically about the solutions we create.
Social Work is about the heart, and Philosophy is about the mind. We want to develop both your heart and your mind; and we want to equip you with the essential skills to lead people with an impact, and in a way that inspires others to follow you. We want you to have the skills to strategise effectively and efficiently when managing both people and resources.
So let me briefly explain how the 3 courses in the Professional Certificate will help you to achieve all these, alright?
The first programme is called, “Beyond Resilience: Growth and Personal Leadership During Challenging Times.” Here, you’ll learn how to tap on your rich experience in life, your success, your failings, your strengths, and your weaknesses, so that you can develop greater resilience amidst difficult and uncertain times. And more importantly, so that you can use your experiences and strengths to discover your own mission; your own purpose; your own direction. Only in this way can you lead yourself to accomplish this.
This is known as personal leadership: knowing how to lead yourself with purpose and conviction. And only when you are able to lead yourself will you then be able to inspire and lead others with an impact. This a very critical leadership skill that we want to impart to you.
The second programme is called, “How to Critically Reason with Data on Microsoft Excel.” As the name suggests, we will teach you some basic foundational concepts in data analysis and how to use Microsoft Excel to carry out the basics of data analysis.
If you’ve never done any of these things before then this course is for you! Because we want to empower you, make you confident in the basics. So that you can take your learning of data analysis further on your own or in one of the other professional certificate programmes on offer.
The essential skill we want to teach you is how to reason critically. Data doesn’t lie. If the data said X happened on this day, it happened! But we can form flawed interpretations from the data. And in this vast and uncertain world where you don’t know the answer, I don’t know the answer, your boss doesn’t know the answer, how do we know that we have attained the right answer, or the right interpretation? You’ll learn how to be more aware of your own assumptions, identify and challenge other people’s assumptions, and of course, justify your own interpretation with strong support from the data. This is a great soft skill to learn because you will know how to investigate and identify the right problem to solve.
So how then do we solve the problem well?
Ah, this brings me to the third programmed, called, “The Basic Fundamentals of Algorithm Design and How to Critically Evaluate Algorithms to Identify Embedded Politics.” Algorithms are more than just codes on a computer. Policies, Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs, even decision on who gets shortlisted for an interview, or who gets promoted – managerial level decisions. All these are algorithms, whether or not they are executed by a machine or a human!
We want to develop your mind, so that you acquire the skills to break a complex problem down, simplify it, and come up with clear step-by-step instructions to solve it. It’s a skill that will give you great clarity of thought when solving problems.
Now, this is not a coding course. If you’ve never done coding before! Wonderful! Because we’ll empower you with the foundational concepts essential to coding, so that you can learn coding on your own or in one of the other profession certificate programmes.
Of course, it’s not enough to know how to create algorithms. We must also know how to evaluate them. You see, algorithms are reflections of their creators. We can and we do in fact embed our assumptions about people and the world from time to time. And this can discriminate against certain classes of people, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
So we want to develop your heart and mind in order to recognise that you aren’t just looking at numbers. You are managing real people whose lives can be affected at a click of a button. And so we’ll develop in you the skills to critically assess algorithms for these kinds of discrimination, or what we call “embedded politics,” and we’ll teach you how you can work to improve these solutions.
With all these, you’ll acquire an array of skills to lead and manage people, whether manually or automatically.
Even though last semester ended in May, I’m still receiving many personal messages and letters from students thanking me for teaching them GET1050 Computational Reasoning. I thought it’ll be good to archive some of them here as a memento of the amazing time I had teaching the AY2019/2020 Sem II cohort. (They’re the best cohort I’ve taught thus far)
Relevance of GET1050 to Internship and Work
It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn’t imagine that I’ll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I’m currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it’ll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I’d prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation exercises we went through in the module. I’d like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.
Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions
Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn’t too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!
hey prof!! how has this cb (circuit breaker/lockdown) been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min, my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)
I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.
GET1050 is Empowering!
hi mr sim, hope you’re doing well! just wanted to let you know that i’ve taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they’re teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it’s taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!
However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it’s only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I’m alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn’t expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I’ve been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)
Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven’t taken intro to Philo but I would love to learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.
GET1050 is Awesome!
Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)
Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:”)) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :”)) Rest well!!!!
I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can’t wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!
hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))
Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor.
Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.
Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health
The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.
Here’s what she wrote:
“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.
I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.
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.
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.
After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!
Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.
My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)
The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.
Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.
That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:
It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.
With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.
But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.
Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.
But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).
Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.
Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).
Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.
Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!
The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.
It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!
The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.
WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…
Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.
The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!
Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:
Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):
You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.
But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.
So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”
But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.
It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.
The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.
I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.
But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.
It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.