Are polytechnic graduates inferior to junior college graduates in University?

A student wrote to me:

I’m curious about your opinion of polytechnic graduates entering university. I am a student who came from poly and I have experienced (to quite a great extent) the discrimination towards undergrads who didn’t follow the cookie-cutter local education route. I even had a tutor who looked down on us in class. Are we really that inferior? Sometimes it feels like we are just tokens of inclusive education that the University tries to promote. And sometimes it feels like we need to try so much harder just to prove that we’re just as deserving or as good as the rest :(

I have the greatest respect for polytechnic graduates studying in University. In general, the students that amaze me most with their independent learning, boldness to try new things, and overall great people skills are the ones who come from poly. (That said, the impressive students from junior colleges amaze me in very different ways. The different educational routes have trained you to be good in very different things, and so the two are really incommensurable – not comparable at all.)

Let me address the real issue at heart here: Petty people exist anywhere and everywhere and they are driven by insecurity to want to make the minority look bad. They will find some arbitrary factor to class you as the “other” in their “us-versus-them” narrative, and so use that to look down on you. 

If you were surrounded by only polytechnic graduates, statistically, some of them will be petty people too, and they will use some other arbitrary factor, like secondary school, or the course of study in poly, or something lame as that, to use as a reason to put you down.

Don’t let them get to your heads. Every time you come across such petty people, remind yourself that you must strive to be better than them. Nothing pisses petty people off more than seeing their target victim unaffected by their words. So deny them that pleasure by being totally chill about it. If you can make a joke out of it and get them to laugh with you, you might win them over.

Anyway, because you didn’t go through the cookie-cutter route, you have so much to contribute and share with by virtue of your background. You have no idea how much of a difference you can make by sharing your experience and ideas. Just opening your mouth to let them hear a different perspective is itself very refreshing and eye-opening.

So don’t buy into that sad narrative that you’re just a token. No, don’t let them break you. You have so much to contribute and share with your peers. And the fact that you made it to Uni through the much tougher route makes you really incredible to have persevered and come this far. 

So stay amazing, stay awesome!

The Encounter with a Great Teacher and How It Influenced My Teaching

I find it really incredible how fast time flies. One year ago, I joined the Department of Philosophy, and I had been so incredibly busy creating lecture videos, assignments, and other educational resources, that I haven’t had much time to sit and reflect on my teaching, or even document the thought processes, insights, and challenges that arose along the way. 

I want to begin by discussing one significant event that shaped the way I teach my course. And it has to do with the book project that I worked on last year, where I helped to write “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,” with Captain Ho Weng Toh (who at this moment of writing, is now 100 years young and still very much active and alive).

Captain Ho fought against the Japanese in WW2 as a bomber pilot, and later came to Singapore as the first of four pioneer pilots for the then Malayan Airways, the precursor of Singapore International Airlines (SIA). You could call him the father, or even the grandfather of SIA because he trained the first 300 local pilots for the airline. 

While writing the book, I was struck by the fact that Captain Ho still keeps in touch with his students, even though he had retired 40 years ago in 1980. To say, “keep in touch” is quite an understatement. Because Captain Ho made it a point to become almost like a family friend to his students. He doesn’t just know them, he knows every member of their family – their parents, their spouses, their children. And in turn, these students of his have been introducing Captain Ho to many of the newer pilots who joined SIA since his retirement. It’s almost as if they are one big aviation family. 

I had to interview a few of his former students for the book, and I was particularly struck by one recurring comment: “Captain Ho is a great teacher.”

I couldn’t help but to ask them: “What makes Captain Ho such a great teacher?”

The answers surprised me because they had little to do with his teaching. Instead, it was all about the mundane things that make up our daily social interactions. It was the simple acts of kindness that made a deep impact on them. 

He was a father figure to his students. He made it a point to know them beyond superficial details, and he tried to be acquainted with their families and friends. He made the new cadets feel welcome and comfortable, and always assures them that they are doing ok (as they were nervous about crashing the aircraft). He regularly invited them for meals and he treated them as respectable equals, as friends. And he always pushed them to go further in life. And with patience and kindness, he kept encouraging them to go against their own perceived limits (for both work and personal matters) until they finally accomplished it. 

I find it so incredible that simple gestures like this can form long-lasting bonds with one’s students, to the extent that these bonds have remained for 50, 60, 70 years even! And even though some of his former students have passed on before him, Captain Ho still makes it a point to catch up with their families, visiting them, or even having meals with them. It’s just so incredible.

I was very struck by all these and I counted myself lucky that I got to learn about his way of teaching while I was setting up a brand new course. I told myself that I want to emulate the greatness of this man: I want to be as great a teacher as he is, and I want to have the same kinds of friendships with my students (and their families perhaps) that endure for decades.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet such a great teacher, and he taught me to put a personal touch in my interactions with my students, even though much of the learning takes place online for my course. This is why I am so happy to invest a lot of effort in interacting with my students both online and offline.

In fact, it was learning about the importance of simple gestures and extending little acts of kindness whenever possible, and how all that made a big difference in students’ learning, that I found the courage to make myself available on instant messaging (Telegram) to 800 students each semester. I was originally quite afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume. 

It is tiring work, but I do find it incredibly rewarding knowing that I could be touching lives and making a big difference to my students’ lives through simple gestures like a text message. 

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

A student wrote to me, asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impending Deadline

I’ve not been updating this blog for a while. I’ve been quite busy writing my Honours dissertation.

I’m just happy to say that it’s almost done. All it needs is several rounds of editing before I can declare it as the greatest accomplishment of my life.

Anyway, there’s four days left before the submission deadline. I hope to get over and done with this as soon as possible because I still have exams to study for.

Here are the books that are currently stacked up next to me:

This is only half of my final bibliography. The rest of the books are in the library. I don’t drive, so it’s very difficult to carry huge heaps of books in my bag pack.

The dissertation is currently 45 pages long. My current word count is 13,147 words. I need to keep everything below 12,000 words. That’s the word limit. It’s a strict limit, so I don’t have the luxury of exceeding it a little. I’ll need to find some ways to shave off those excess words without affecting the presentation of the paper.

Yup! That’s how life has been thus far. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping that I can finish this by tonight.

Wish me luck!

Research, research, research…

The second week of school has just ended, but it has already been quite an intensive week for me.

I’ll be officially starting on my honours thesis next semester. However, my supervising professor will be away for a while during that time, and it would be quite inconvenient to attempt a thesis under such conditions. So, I figured it’s better that I begin my research now while the hell of assignments hasn’t yet been unleashed onto me. I hope to finish as much research now, so that I have the luxury of time to write and do more stuff when I begin my thesis officially.

This was how my table at the library looked over the past few days:

img_3508

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One of these books has Chinese words! I’m researching on an ancient Chinese text known as the Chung-yung (中庸, famously known as the “Doctrine of the Mean” or more accurately as “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony”). It’s written in classical Chinese.

What I’ve been doing the past week, was simply reading through the entire book in its original text, and comparing the various translations that I could get my hands on. Classical Chinese is a unique language in that it has a lot of ambiguities (it’s a unique feature of the language that allows the author to do a lot of amazing things, e.g. embed several different meanings onto the one same phrase). The problem with translations is that authors will have their own subjective biases, which affect the interpretation and thus, the translation of the text. In each translation, you’ll have different things missing while the translator focuses on one interpretive key. Hence, the importance of comparing translations along with the original text.

I’m glad I’ve made quite an effort over the holidays to work on my Chinese. I used to fail Chinese (or just barely pass it) back in secondary school and junior college. Now – I’m quite surprised at myself – I am able to read the entire text in Classical Chinese. That’s quite a marked improvement.

Well, with the week over, I’m more or less done with one little portion of research. Reading the original text and its translations is just the first step. More books and journals to read in the coming days. I expect my usual table at the library to be stacked with even more books.

READ ALL THE BOOKS!!!