When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences? I’m so annoyed!

Here is some advice that will give you the satisfaction of winning, but there is a high risk that you’ll get permanently banned from their homes and lives. If you happily desire this outcome, you can try this:

(1) Ask what he/she studied back in school.

(2) Next, ask why he/she isn’t even successful in life, or haven’t been promoted, or still stagnating at work, or haven’t made it rich, or haven’t made a difference in this world.

(3) Once he/she is stunned by the question, recite any one of the following quotable quotes:

  • “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, if you wish to cast upon them a sacred BUUUURRRN!!!)

    OR:
  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein, supposedly)

(4) Enjoy watching them catch fire. LOL :D

Otherwise, if you so desire to maintain harmonious relations with them, I recommend following the advice I wrote here:

What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant?

A student asked:

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant? It feels like many professors want students with prior research experience or at least some relevant experience. I’m not sure what I have to offer other than the same skills that every other student have.

It’s not always true that profs want students with prior research/relevant experience. What’s more important is that you are willing to work hard for it, and you are willing to learn. Minimally, you should have the following:

  • Good relations with the prof whom you wish to work with
  • Same interest in the prof’s area of research
  • Willing to learn new things beyond your existing skill sets
  • Willing to work very hard even if the tasks are boring (a lot of research tasks are boring mundane tasks)
  • And if you were the prof’s student, at least an A for that module.

Personally, I prefer working with people who are more proactive in updating me or finding additional things to do. Because I tend to be very busy with my own work, and don’t always have time to think about what work to assign. I believe many other professors also value this quality (it’s also a very good quality to have for the working world – your superiors will also be too busy with their work, so they would appreciate this kind of proactiveness).

If you believe you have these, go and talk to the prof about it. But be warned that not all profs have a budget to hire RAs. So even if you are good, and the prof wants you, he may not have the funds available to take you on board. In some cases, some students are sooooooo outstanding, the prof may be willing to recommend you to another prof to be an RA.

There are other research institutions outside NUS with profs from the arts and social sciences. Don’t be afraid to cast your net wider beyond NUS.

Is it normal to feel so lost when taking a new module?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Whenever I take a new module, I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know much about what is going on, whereas the people around me seem so relax that they’re constantly using their phones in class. Is it normal to feel so lost and have all these struggles when taking a new module?

If you have watched Japanese anime about school life, you might have come across one stereotypical character that pretends to be all relaxed and chill about studies (yet scores very highly for exams), but actually works incredibly hard at home. And then there’s another stereotypical character who’s quite slack in school, and quite slack at home. Statistically speaking, you will find these kinds of students regardless of what module you take.

I do suspect that many students are more like the first stereotypical anime student. Many students only start working on their modules very late at night. I know this because I was once a student. Night time is when everyone (pretends) to be asleep, and so you finally have the time and space to focus on things requiring high concentration. Also, my students typically message me for help after 10pm every night. So I know that most students only do work from that time onwards.

A typical undergraduate schedule looks pretty much like this:

Morning: Wake up; rush readings before class; attend classes

Afternoon: Meet friends; attend classes; chill out in a cafe; look at memes or watch videos instead of doing work

Evening: Eat dinner; play games; watch Netflix/YouTube; chit chat with friends; part-time work (if any)

Night (10pm – 2am): Actually doing school work

Go ahead. Ask your friends! Many will tell you their schedule is pretty similar to the one I described above. Haha!

Anyway, the point in highlighting this is that it’s because of students’ typical work habits that we sometimes feel that we’re the only one who’s lost and struggling in the module. That said, there are also other students who feel that way, but they have a very good poker face. Or sometimes, we’re just so deep in our anxieties that we don’t realise other people are also feeling just as lost as we are.

I want to assure you that it’s pretty normal. You’re not alone, and what you feel is very VERY normal. I used to feel that way too when I was an undergraduate student. And it was only when I started to befriend people in my lecture/tutorial and when we started to complain about our school work, did we realise that we weren’t struggling alone. And it’s nice to struggle together with friends. It’s what educators refer to as a “community of learning.”

Of course, it’s never good to remain lost and struggling for the entire semester. So there are some things you can do about it! You can write to your professors and ask them for the course reading list in advance. That way, you can begin your readings early. Or you could just go to the library and read several books related to the module you intend to take.

One thing I like to do is I like to read a lot of secondary literature about the topic, instead of merely reading the primary literature about it (which tends to be the assigned readings in classes). I usually grapple with interpreting the primary literature, and so sometimes I doubt my own reading of it. You can find major interpretations of the topic in the secondary literature and debates about the topic itself, which I find very eye opening.

If you are willing, it helps to start a conversation with your professors about the subject itself and ask for recommendations on things to read (or watch or do).

Anyway, having to struggle with yourself is a normal experience in University. The struggle exists because you are being challenged to grow and develop in your thinking. If you aren’t struggling, you are doing something wrong. But if you find yourself struggling far more than you can handle (mentally/emotionally/physically), then you should talk to someone about it.

Anyway, I think I’m getting long-winded about this. The point really is that your experience is very normal. The key message is this: you’re not alone. A lot of people go through what you experienced (myself included), so reach out to them and make more friends along the way. :)

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

Oh, there are so many things I wish to say in response to this question, but I’ll just focus on one major point.

Many undergraduates don’t understand the point of a university education. The degree is not meant to train you to work for in a specific job or a class of jobs. And when you think about it, isn’t it absurd that people expect you to know what you want to do with your life as such a young age? You haven’t even acquired enough information or experience to make a well-informed decision about the matter!

The truth is that most of us will graduate and work in jobs that have almost zero relevance to what we studied. And you won’t be disappointing your professors – we know this to be a fact of life.

Why? Because, as I said earlier, the whole point of a university education is not to train you to work in a specific job (or class of jobs). Rather, the point of a university education is to develop you holistically as a matured and responsible adult, one with ideals and vision so that you can lead and manage other people to make the world a better place.

It’s sad that many students don’t understand this lofty vision of university education and instead see it as training to become just a mundane worker in someone’s organisation, another cog in the corporate machine, so to speak. That’s sad!

So you must be wondering, what are universities doing to develop you into that amazing person?

(1) Your programme is designed to teach you a set of problem-solving skills. Different disciplines will analyse problems different, and conceptualise solutions very differently too. This is something that is often taught and reinforced by subtly in the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate studies. We often don’t realise this until we talk to people from different disciplines and discover that the way we think about problems is very different. That’s the result of the education you received.

(2) Your programme is designed to broaden your perspective so that you appreciate not only the endless possibilities that exists, but to try and connect ideas that seem so separate and unrelated to create new ideas and innovations. You cannot create something out of nothing. Those 3 or 4 years of undergraduate life is meant to fill you with all kinds of interesting and amazing ideas – maybe even ideas that excite you – and you are often encouraged to critique and even synthesise these ideas. The reason is that the training is meant to prepare you for the future where you can then synthesise these ideas to create exciting new possibilities for yourself and other people. Beyond academic studies, this also includes other programmes like exchange programmes, internships, living/working on campus, and other initiatives. Just being exposed to a variety of situations is already perspective-broadening in itself.

(3) You are also being trained to challenge the status quo and to defend your own position in a rational and systematic manner. This is not just in the form of written assignments, but also in the form of presentations and seminar discussions. Take the discourses you find online. A lot of them may attempt to challenge the status quo, but the discourse is often unproductive (and maybe even toxic). We cannot advance or make a real change in society if we employ such unenlightened methods at work, or on a societal level. A university education trains you to do this well according to how your discipline does it best, and again, in a very subtle way that most students don’t realise is happening.

(4) To get anywhere and to make real change in this world, we must know how to interact and work with other people. This is where the University creates a multitude of opportunities for you to explore and acquire the critical people skills to do this. Whether it is in the form of group projects, clubs and societies, residential college/hall life, or other student-led initiatives. Unlike secondary school or JC, you are given lots of free time to hang around on campus with other students. Because the informal kinds of interactions, like chatting with friends about studies or work or life, or just getting together to play – these are all essential to your development and growth as a team leader and team player. You learn to manage people from diverse backgrounds in the process.

There’s more to say, but I wish to highlight these four areas. I find that because many students don’t understand the point of their university education, they take these aspects of their student life for granted. If you want to grow up to be a highly respected and influential leader, then you must know how to take advantage of the opportunities that a university education presents you to help you develop these aspects of your being. Otherwise, these will be missed opportunities for your own personal and professional development.

Does a second major bolster my standing for employment?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I’m an English Literature major. I very much like my major & I enjoy interdisciplinary approaches to things. As much as I enjoy my major, I grow worrisome thinking about my employment prospects. I know that there are vast opportunities for FASS majors given how ‘general’ our majors can be, but it worries me so much so I’m taking a more ‘employable’ second major to bolster my standing. Does it matter? Any advice? I have no idea what I want to do post-graduation and it scares me so much.

Here’s my reply:

Hello! Taking a second major doesn’t really bolster your standing in any way. On paper, you’re just doing two “general” majors. Are you enjoying the second major? If not, don’t kill yourself over it.

Here are the things that will actually “bolster” your standing:
(1) Have done stuff that shows you can learn fast and independently and are ready to embrace new challenges outside your comfort zone without supervision (employers really love this quality the most because you give them confidence that you won’t be a problem hire that will pester your superior regularly or sit cluelessly at table not knowing what to do how to do something you’ve never done before).

(2) Have done stuff to show that you have initiative to start new projects on your own (employers love this a lot too, because they know they are getting value for money when someone is happy to start new projects without being asked).

(3) Have done stuff that shows that you are a team player and/or have leadership qualities (one thing employers worry about is having to bring on someone who’s a trouble-maker rather than a team-player).

Because at the end of the day, you will be fighting with other people who have single/double majors and a high CAP. There are far too many people out there with bad work attitude and poor people skills (but they have high CAP and single/double majors/degrees). So employers want someone who not only won’t give them a headache, but preferably someone who sparks joy in their organisation (you have no idea how rare these people are).

What will make you stand out are the three qualities I listed above. It’s really people skills that make you more desirable as a potential employee.

I don’t have any friends in my major. Is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Is it okay to spend the rest of my school days lonely, studying, and taking classes alone? I saw your previous answer on loneliness, and yes, I see why you will be more or less “lonely” because you’re taking on various challenges and more of them are research work/publishing books.

However, for me, I’m still a student in NUS. And I still have a few more years to go. Yet, I don’t have any friends in my major. (I do have friends in FASS, just none in my major) I really don’t have anyone to go to when I need help (I go to profs instead) is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

Here’s my reply:

Hello, I think it’s not healthy to spend the rest of your school days lonely and taking classes alone. It’s not good for your mental/emotional health.

It’s very important to recognise that learning is a social activity. A lot of learning takes place when you’re talking to your friends about the stuff you’re learning outside the classroom (and that is the whole point of university – to give you all that time and space to do that).

I’m usually the quiet kid who sits at the corner all the way at the back in class. I didn’t make friends until my second year when I finally decided to just say hello to the people sitting on my left and right at lectures. Was it awkward? Yeah! It was so freaking awkward! But you know what? We had lots of fun, and we started hanging out a lot more. Many of us are still in contact with each other after graduation.

It’s important to remember that everyone around you wants to make friends but are just as shy to do it. If you read the stuff that’s on Reddit/NUSWhispers, you’d realise how many people are in your shoes, lonely and have no friends. So be the brave one and say hi. They’d appreciate this kind gesture.

The friendship you make in university will last for a long time, and many of these friendships will prove useful when you go out to work.

My recommendation is to make friends with people of all ages, and not just people in your age group. Make sure you have at least one friend in each age group. The multiple perspectives will help you easily identify the bullshit that circulates within our own age group. (E.g. if you don’t do X, you will not me employable, etc…) To quote a friend: “Humans are vessels of experience.” That’s her reason for wanting to befriend everyone.

For some strange reason, I have a number of people I regard as friends from age 70-100. It’s very fun talking to them, learning the kinds of insights that they have, and of course, having them as important role models. Somehow, our generation doesn’t give these bunch of people enough credence. There is so much to learn from their stories, from their successes, to their failures, to their (mis)adventures in life.

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

A student wrote to me:

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

Here’s my answer!

It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between A+, A, and A-. So I’ll just make a distinction between A+/A and the rest. From my observations in teaching GET1050 for one year, I can say that IN GENERAL (remember: this is just a generalisation based on my observations) A+/A students in FASS exhibit very distinct personal qualities and work attitude/habits that are a class apart from the the others.

Here’s a list of some common traits that stand out to me (this list is not exhaustive – also, if you want to improve in your grades and as a person, it’s good to adopt some of these traits):

(1) They pay attention to detail. They carefully read every word that written by their profs/tutors and they are not afraid to ask and clarify when in doubt.

(2) They make it a point to actively engage with the content they are learning. They aren’t just blindly following examples laid out in lectures/tutorials. They are actually trying to understand and internalise what they are learning.

(3) And because they are actively trying to understand and internalise their learning, they are able to ask very high level questions that take their learning even further.

(4) They regularly doubt themselves and this provides them with a self-checking mechanism to identify when they might be wrong about their understanding or about their methods. These students can at least zoom in on their doubts. This is distinct from “kiasu” students who consult their profs/tutors because they want to “check” that their work is ok because they have a vague sense of uncertainty.

(5) They are very independent learners and will search for answers themselves. Another key distinction is that they aren’t just seeking answers to assessment questions just to get the marks. They are seeking answer to their doubts!

(6) These students are willing to work very hard and pour in additional hours of hard work just to make sure they get things right because they take pride in their work. One key difference that makes them stand out from the other students is that they are working smart as they work hard, they’re not just blindly wasting hours away in an unstrategic manner.

(7) They don’t shy away from a challenge, in fact, many of them enjoy a good challenge.

(8) Essentially, they have a very positive working attitude that has led them to develop these good work habits. They take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

A+/A students stand out from as early as Week 2 of the semester. It’s because they spend so many hours thinking about what they learnt, that they are able to ask questions that are a class apart from the kinds of questions other students ask. And you can tell that they spent many hours thinking about the issues because many of the things they consult me on cannot be easily arrived at just by watching the lecture videos alone: these question came from their reflections, experimentations, or attempts to apply their learning to other things.

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs?

A student asked:

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs? Over the past 2 years, I’ve realised that many things (internship, planning of mods, exchange, thesis) seem to require talking to a prof in your own department. Ideally, the student should have good rapport with the prof. However, I was thinking then what if I’m a super introverted person? Wouldn’t the student have no one to look for? Wanted to know this because it feels like I’m the only one who can’t find a prof from my dept to seek advice for when I need it and I really struggle a lot with this

So here’s what I wrote:

It’s actually not a norm here in Singapore (but it is very common everywhere else in the world). I think it’s important to see this as a challenge to develop yourself socially and professionally, even as an introvert. Because the unfortunate reality is that we live in an extrovert-dominant world, and we introverts have to learn how to adapt. It’s difficult for sure, but it’s essential to our learning and growth because like it or not, you’ll have to do stuff like this in the future when you work. Now, the good news is that a lot of profs are also very introverted, so they’ll be quite at home with you and your way of interaction. So don’t fret about it.

I highly recommend the book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain (https://www.amazon.sg/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352153). It’s very empowering for introverts like us. Don’t see your introversion as a weakness, but as something unique and powerful to offer to this heavily extroverted world. :)

What are some tips to do well in exams?

A student asked:

What are some tips to do well in exams?

Here’s my reply:

If your exam is essay-based, then my advice will be the same when it comes to writing term papers: if you aren’t consistently getting As for your essays, go learn from your profs what’s missing in your writing.

From my observations, the common mistakes FASS students typically make are:

(1) Didn’t make a clear argument to prove your point (a lot of students don’t even know how to argue/justify, they just throw points out as if they mean something without actually making the effort to demonstrate how it proves your point). And please, don’t write using the GP writing style that you learnt in JC. Most GP teachers teach students how to score for GP at A levels, not how to write properly.

(2) Didn’t show that you exercised critical thinking in your own writing. You might have done the work behind the scenes, but you need to show it if you want to be graded for it. The key is: you should consider how you might be wrong and demonstrate why that’s not the case. Very few students actually even consider that they could be wrong, so they don’t do that.

(3) Oversimplification of concepts or situations. The key about being an arts and social science major is all about being able to appreciate and identify the different subtle varieties of things. for example, the subtle differences in how different states conceive of democracy. A lot of students fail to see these subtleties and discuss these issues with gross oversimplifications. If you make this mistake, you would have shown the grader that you totally missed the learning objectives of the course completely.

One more comment… In general, students don’t get the grades they want because they neglect tutorial participation. In most modules, that’s like 10-20% of the total grade. That can make a huge difference from a B to an A! And students throw that away by staying silent or not participating fully in the activities, or skipping classes without a valid excuse or bothering to do a make-up class.

Hope that helps!

What advice would you give to your students? (About Studies)

One of my former students recently asked:

What advice would you give to your students?

I have plenty of advice that I’d like to give. But to keep it short, I’ll just state two advice that relates to one’s studies:

1. Learn from your mistakes in order to improve

Many students have the wrong idea that the more effort you put in, the better your grades. That is not true. Correlation is not causation. Grades are a measure of how well you have met the learning objectives of the course. In FASS, one of the underlying objectives is the ability to think critically (whatever that means for each discipline). If you are consistently not scoring an A for your assignments, it means that you are consistently doing something wrong with your assignments.

Many students don’t realise this because they keep thinking that they are victims of the bell-curve. That’s usually not the case, and that is really a very unproductive mindset. Because as long as you keep seeing yourself as a victim, you don’t see a need to improve.

So if you want to know what you are doing wrong despite your best efforts, talk to your profs and ask them to explain how you can do better. In my undergraduate days, I started out as a B+ student. In my second year, I had the courage to finally ask one of my professors what was missing in my essays. And he patiently explained what I wasn’t showing, and what I needed to do. After that consult, I scored As consistently for all my essays. That conversation brought to light that what I thought was critical thinking was not critical enough.

2. Good Work Attitude and Good Work Habits are Important

Our attitudes influence our habits, and vice versa. Some students like to think that school is school, work is work, and life is life. But that’s not true. The work habits you develop now in University will be the same work habits you have after you graduate, and these work habits will affect your relationships with coworkers and your marriage/family.

In my 3.5 years of teaching in NUS, I’ve observed many students short-changing themselves (and their grades) by not doing simple things like carefully reading e-mails, or actively checking up information on IVLE/Luminus. I once had a student complain bitterly about missing a deadline. When I asked her why she didn’t read my e-mail reminders, she replied that she would just delete e-mails that come from me. She didn’t think anything I wrote was important anyway. (WTH right?!)

This is an extreme case, but a vast majority of students lose marks unnecessarily here and there because of things like this. They didn’t read the question properly, they didn’t follow instructions carefully, or they didn’t read the rubrics on how they are graded for tutorials or for specific assignments.

Anyway, small things like not reading things properly, or not actively checking up things on your own – they do leave a bad impression on others, and will continue to undermine your career in the future. The habits we develop now will last even when we go on to work.

Habits don’t just come from nowhere. They come from our attitudes. We all value work differently. But if we have a very negative perception about work, then that influences us to be negligent in the things we do (and that becomes a habit).

So try your best to see work more positively. Work, even school work, is an opportunity for you to leave an imprint – a mark – of yourself on the people and things around you. Work is transformative. And if you’re doing the work with a positive mindset and reflectively, it changes you for the better.

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

A student asked:

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

Here’s my advice:

I think it helps to plan for the worst case scenario, that perhaps lockdown conditions may continue for the next 1-2 years. The shock of such lockdowns is changing the way we learn and work. And a lot of what we are doing now during this lockdown may very well continue for a long time.

Firstly, assuming that e-learning is going to be around for a lot longer than we’d like, it’s best to develop good e-learning hygiene and discipline. Form learning communities with friends and strangers for each module. At least this way, you all can work together and panic together. Because motivation is a huge problem with e-learning – isolation means you can’t see movement, and so you lose track of time. A learning community will help you to regain that motivation.

Secondly, save money and spend less on bubble tea and other non-essentials. Because waves of retrenchments will be coming soon. Your family members may be affected. Use the time now to learn and pick up a variety of skills, both technical and soft, and try developing a portfolio so that you can take on more interesting part-time jobs that can develop you professionally in the future.

Thirdly, I strongly recommend taking modules in the humanities (I’m saying this because most of my students reading this are from the social sciences, hence I’m making this point). I know people like to shit on the humanities as “useless” majors, but this is an incredibly narrow minded perspective. Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, wrote about the “Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Basically, useful knowledge is useful because it has a known purpose and use. Useless knowledge is useless because its use is yet to be known. But useless knowledge is always useful because useful knowledge will one day become useless, and some other useless knowledge will become useful.

When I was an undergrad, life science was the fad. A lot of people said that you have to study life science if you want to make money or be guaranteed a job. So a lot of my peers went to pursue life science. (By the way, computing then was seen as the dumping ground. Everyone who barely qualified for university went there.) Fast forward to now, a life science degree is seen as not very useful. The Government’s attempt at developing flourishing life science industry failed spectacularly. And now computing is the fad. The market for computing people is too oversaturated right now. And if you talk to people in senior management (or watch YouTube videos), they are saying: we need people from the humanities. Why? Because we need them to question the way tech is designed and implemented, so that we can put the human and humane back into the equation.

The humanities is a lot resilient to the rise and fall of these hiring fads. Because through the humanities, you gain important soft skills that will allow you to easily pick up any skill, even if its technical. And historically, humanities has always been the training of the elites. Because to manage and lead others – to be a boss – you must know what it means to be human, and how we humans perceive, interpret, and evaluate the people and the world around us. It means gaining insights into the ideas that drive us (philosophy); understanding the passions and desires, the ambitions and insecurities that compel people to act (literature); and the lessons of human success and failings (history), so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

People regard the humanities as “useless” because it’s so broad and unspecific, but that’s only because these people are limited in their imagination on the universal applications of a humanities training.

I believe that these three recommendations will help you gain a certain resilience and flexibility to adapt well to any situation, especially when the going gets tough.

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

A student sent me this question:

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

Here’s my reply:

I will always recommend taking thesis. It’s hard work, but it is worth it on so many levels. It’s always important to remember that when it comes to thesis, YOU are the end-product, and not the thesis. The thesis you write is just a means to transform and mature your thinking and resilience. It’s hard work. You’ll burn a lot of weekends, and often times feel guilty for taking time off to relax, and even feel lonely because no one else is working on that topic, so you find it hard to talk to anyone about your work. BUT, it is very worthwhile, because you learn to deal with hardship on a whole new level. You’ll learn to think and process copious amount of readings and research. You’ll be challenged like never before. And you’ll come out a better, more critical person at the end of it all.

You won’t grow much if you just take modules for your Honours.

Also, you’ll have more options and prospects if you pursued Honours Thesis, because you will learn solid research methods that will come in handy when you work, or if you decide later on that you want to do grad school. If you only take modules (what we call coursework), then you close many doors. It’s difficult to go into a research Masters or do a PhD in the future if you didn’t do thesis. A friend of mine didn’t do Honours Thesis, and he wanted to do a research masters in HK. They rejected his application and he ended up doing a coursework masters. A bit of an early death to his academic aspirations because he realised he could not pursue a PhD with the coursework masters on the basis that he didn’t have any prior research experience.

Furthermore, what you do for your Thesis can open doors for your career. Don’t just research on a topic you like. Use the thesis as a way to demonstrate specific skills. For example, in my Honours Thesis, I wanted to show that I can read and translate Classical Chinese texts, that I could do textual analysis, and anthropological work. It was my thesis that landed me a job producing online videos on Confucianism (and do all kinds of fun exciting stuff with academics and policymakers from all over the world). Similarly, I wanted my Masters Thesis to show that I can do computer simulations, textual analysis, and juggle interdisciplinary stuff. That played a huge role in allowing me to teach GET1050 here in NUS.

So go do a thesis! You won’t regret it. :)

Tips on Writing

I just came out from a really awesome tutorial about how to improve on one’s writing. Many of the points were familiar, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget them. In fact, when I was reminded about them today, I realised that I have committed a lot of mistakes which I should not have in the first place.

So, for the benefit of all who may need to write non-fiction, here’s a series of important lessons in writing that I’ve picked up over the years. Practice them and you will be on the path to awesomeness! Haha… I’m still not that awesome yet, but I do know that when I follow these pointers, my writing improves in its clarity. I hope that you’ll learn and benefit greatly as I have from this. =) One thing I know is that if you practice this regularly, it helps to clarify your own thinking as well. =)

 

#1: Define the problem.

Good writing is focused. It does not try to cover too many things. No. It focuses on just one thing, and one thing alone. But how do you ensure that your writing is focused? Phrase your problem as a question. If your question is vague, clarify it further. Is your question clear? If not, refine the question by narrowing what it is that you are asking.

Another good way to determine if your scope is sufficiently focused is to say what you want to prove in just ONE short sentence. No, long sentences filled with a myriad of punctuations are not allowed here. If you cannot phrase what you want to do in one short sentence, i.e. you have several sentences or just a long sentence, it’s an indicator that you are trying to say more than one thing. The general rule is that a single idea is best expressed in the form of one sentence. Long, or multiple sentences are indicators that you have too many ideas running around in your head. In this case, it’s an indicator that you’ll need to re-articulate the problem with a much narrower scope.

 

#2: Introduction.

An introduction states clearly what it is that you want to achieve in your paper/article. It provides a brief introduction into the matter, the problem, your solution, and how you will demonstrate it.

Avoid writing fancifully as it can be a distraction. Not everybody is a literature major. Few will therefore be able to understand what it is that you are trying to say if you were to do that.

It is also useful to define terms, and to discuss certain limitations which you are unable to handle in the paper/article. Sometimes, we are constrained by a word limit, and very little can therefore be accomplished. Sometimes, covering a related topic will make the paper lose its focus, and so it is better not to talk about it.

 

#3: Presenting Other People’s Claims.

Sometimes, you may need to say what so-and-so has said. It is always important to ensure that you have provided a very faithful account of what the other has said. If the person’s points sounds ridiculous, the problem is usually not with that person, but with you. It should be an indicator that somehow, there has been some misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

The best rule of thumb is to always provide the best interpretation possible. Especially in philosophy, do the opponent a favour by giving him/her the strongest interpretation possible, without distortion. This way, you (and the reader) will know that you are not doing injustice by presenting a straw-man argument, that is, a caricature of the actual claims.

 

#4: Refuting an Argument.

Before talking about how to refute an argument, it is important to understand how an argument works. An argument is not an explanation. Explanations assume that X is true, and provides an account of it. Arguments make no assumptions, but instead attempt to prove the conclusion.

Arguments are made up of premises that lead to the conclusion.

Here is a standard example of an argument:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: THEREFORE, Socrates is mortal.

When ALL premises are true, the conclusion is NECESSARILY true. This is how our reasoning operates. We believe certain things to be so because they are supported by other facts/premises which we know to be true.

When refuting an argument, arguing against the conclusion does absolutely nothing. Let us assume that our imaginary friend, Bob, has the following argument:

Premise 1: A [True]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, true]

Arguing against C, i.e. not-C, will have no effect against Bob. Why? Bob still believes in the truth of premises 1 and 2, and therefore he is compelled to believe in the conclusion, C.

The first move is to weaken the argument, by introducing doubt about the certainty of such an argument. This can be done by showing that one of the premises is false. For example, I could argue that Premise 1 is false. When you do this, this is what happens to Bob’s thinking:

Premise 1: A [False]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, not certain about the truth of C]

By proving one of the premises false, your opponent will not be compelled by his argument to believe that his conclusion is 100% true (unless he/she becomes emotional, in which case, there’s no point proceeding).

Once you have introduced uncertainty into the true-ness of the conclusion, you can now proceed to prove the conclusion false, i.e. not-C. You will need to supply your own argument, not merely assert that C is false.

There are other strategies in arguing against the opponent, but I will not cover them here. Nonetheless, the main point of this advice is this – you do not refute your opponent just by arguing that his/her conclusion is false. You need to first weaken the argument by showing a problem in one of the premises.

 

#5: Examples.

One important rule when it comes to examples: NEVER USE EXAMPLES TO DO THE JOB OF ARGUING. Examples are meant to support your arguments, to give it greater strength. This includes raising thought experiments. These things show something, but they do not prove anything. In fact, examples are always open to interpretation. And therefore, you must contextualise your examples by arguing your point, and proceed to show how the example strengthens your claim.

It’s also important to note that stating a list of facts does not constitute a valid argument. Facts are always open to interpretation. Telling me that everyone in this room has black hair doesn’t say anything. People can interpret it in many ways – “There are many Chinese in the room”; or “Everyone in the room has dyed their hair.” One must say what’s significant about these things to make a valid point.

 

#6: Sentences.

Here’s a simple rule for writing – express only one idea in a sentence. If your sentence is too long, it’s because you have too many ideas. And when you try to cramp too many ideas into one sentence, it becomes confusing. If your sentence is longer than 3 lines, you should seriously consider rephrasing them for clarity.

 

#7: Planning the Body.

In #1, I mentioned how one way to focus your writing is to phrase it into a very specific question. This question is like your final destination. But before you can reach the destination, you will need stepping stones to cross the river to get to the other side. You can do this by specifying mini-questions that will act as guides to lead to answer your specific question. Here’s an example:

Specific question: How is X useful in the field of Y?

Mini-question 1: What is X?
Mini-question 2: What is Y?
Mini-question 3: How is X related to Y?
Mini-question 4: In what way is X useful to Y in that relation?
Mini-question 5: How useful is X in that regard?

These mini-questions form the stepping stones that will lead you and the reader to the final destination.

 

#8: Body Paragraphs.

Body paragraphs should contain only ONE idea, expressed in ONE sentence, to answer ONE mini-question. If you cannot state your answer in one sentence, that means you have more than one idea. In this case, you might want to redefine you mini-question(s), and even the specific question accordingly.

This has nothing to do with being intellectually dishonest, where one changes the hypothesis to suit the data. Usually, the problem is that we have failed to narrow our specific question enough. This exercise reveals the ambiguity in our thoughts, and makes us aware of just how far away we are from writing a clear, concise, and focused paper.

Each paragraph contains one sentence which answers the mini-question. And in the subsequent sentences, you will proceed to prove why your mini-answer is true. Examples are used to support the claim. But remember, they must never be used to do the job of proving your point.

 

#9: A Fair, Balanced View.

A fair, balanced view does not mean sitting on the fence. It means that you have considered the other perspective, and yet found that their arguments are problematic. How do you present a fair, balanced view in your paper? You can do this by raising objections against your own points, or defences for the opponent which you have attacked. After which, you should proceed to defend your position.

Once again, this can only be effectively proven by considering a non-trivial objection to your position. This demonstrates to the reader that you have not cheated by constructing a straw man argument.

 

#10: Conclusion.

A good conclusion makes no new points. Instead, it reiterates the points made thus far as a short one-paragraph summary.

This is optional, but sometimes, people find it useful to mention what else could have been discussed had the article not been limited by its scope or word limit. This can be useful in showing the broad application of your arguments in other circumstances. But be careful not to make new arguments at this point. You should only raise matters that are worth discussing, but could not have been done in the paper/article.

 

#11: Sign-posting.

This is a very useful strategy. Sign-posting is the use of certain words to make your important points visible to the reader. Sometimes, the main point does not appear as clearly as you would like it to be. So it helps to put a huge literary sign board there which says: “HEY! LOOK HERE! THIS IS THE POINT THAT I WAS TRYING TO PROVE IN THIS PARAGRAPH!!!”

For example, if you wanted to show that Bob had contradicted himself, you could say: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X.” But this might not occur to the reader that a contradiction has taken place.

So, for greater clarity, you can put a sign-post there: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X, BUT THIS CONTRADICTS WITH WHAT HE HAD SAID.” The meaning of the statement doesn’t change, but the point that you wanted to make becomes clearer.

 

#12: The Evils of Passive Voice.

Passive voice are sentences where the subject is on the receiving end of the action (verb).

Here are examples of passive voice (The active voice is indicated in brackets):

Bob was murdered by Tim. (Active: Tim murdered Bob)
The dog was bitten by the man. (Active: The man bit the dog)
The cake was eaten by somebody. (Active: Somebody ate the cake)

Passive voice is evil! Do not use passive voice unless necessary.

There is a disadvantage in using the passive voice. Active voice is easier to comprehend. Passive voice, however, usually involves more words and more prepositions, which can lead to confusion, and even a slower rate of comprehension.

The bigger problem with passive voice is that the actor of the statement can be ambiguous. I can say: “The cake was eaten.” But who ate the cake? When sentences are expressed in the passive voice, we make the assumption that the reader knows who the actor is. This can introduce unnecessary ambiguity into the paper, as the reader is left unsure of who did the deed.

But this can also confuse the writer, as it makes it easier for the writer to take for granted that he/she knows who is doing the deed. One should therefore avoid this ambiguity by refraining from using passive voice as much as possible.

 

#13: Making Comparisons.

Comparisons should always be about two things that are as similar as possible. You’ll need to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges. You cannot simply choose two things that have merely one common feature to do a comparison – there is no clear focus on what is being compared.

Furthermore, the two cases used must be justified. Anyone can simply pick two things out of the list of infinite possibilities. At the very least, you’ll need to justify why you have chosen to compare these two things instead of other things. This gives greater weight to the comparison made, and makes for a more credible argument.

There’s probably a lot more that can be said, but I think this short guide is already sufficient for the writing of a clear, focused, and awesome paper/article/essay. Hope you found it useful!

Accomplished Day

I feel that I have accomplished a lot today.

Armed with a book stand, a laptop, and a cup of tea, I managed to go through more than FIFTY books on Chinese culture, language and philosophy! (It’s all part of the job)

It started off with just a few books around me (as seen in the photo above). But eventually, I ended up raisinng a “Great Wall” of Books, since I didn’t want to move around too much once comfortably seated.

It turns out that journals are really fun to read because of the many gems that are hidden in them. For about every five issues, there will be a really interesting article, sometimes packed with humour too!

Right now, I’m just exhausted. There’s about another 20-30 more books left to cover tomorrow. And by then, I should be done with the current task that I’ve been assigned to do.

GAMBATTE!!!