Theatre Studies Field Trip to Yogyakarta

As part of her coursework for TS4217 Cultural Performance in Asia, Theatre Studies major Phan Yi-Wen participated in a field trip to Yogyakarta which afforded her a first-hand glimpse of some theatre and performance practices in the region. Below she recounts highlights of her field trip:

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“Yogyakarta is a beautiful place and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to go there. This trip was crafted as part of the syllabus of TS4217 and aimed at giving students a first-hand experience at observing how ethnographic work may be conducted.

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This enriching 4-day 3-night journey began with a visit to Prambanan Temple, which is said to be the most beautiful Hindu temple in the world. At night, we watched Sendratari Ramayana, a ballet performance in an open-air theatre with the Prambanan Temple as a spectacular backdrop. The performance was magnificent so imagine my delight the very next day when we participated in a costumed dance workshop to learn a simplified movement sequence from the same show. Also, we partook in a gamelan workshop in which we tried to master a short sequence and performed it to an audience. It was definitely not as easy as it seemed and a troupe of talented, young gamelan performers put us to shame. That same night, I finally was able to see an actual Wayang Kulit performance by a professional troupe. Did you know that a Javanese Wayang Kulit performance may be up to 9 hours long? I did not but the performance ignited my interest towards the different puppets. Each and every single one of the puppets is a work of art, requiring skill, time and effort. At Gendeng village, a master puppet maker gave us a lesson on puppet-making. While we spent minutes struggling to cut a decent hole in a piece of scrap leather, the master did it perfectly and effortlessly within seconds. It was definitely not as easy as it seemed and one needs to personally attempt it to understand how difficult it really is. Lastly, we toured the Sultan’s palace, also known as Kraton, and enjoyed a free-and-easy afternoon to explore the rest of the city. For a few hours, I was stuck at the row of shops, busy looking for unique trinkets and batik prints while communicating with the locals with my broken Bahasa Indonesia language. For those who have never experience bargaining at a street market, this would definitely be a fun experience.

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All in all, this was a learning journey which allowed me a peek into the world of practice-based research. My final research may not be related to the cultures of Yogyakarta or Wayang Kulit but this experience has shown me the important difference between observing and doing. For example, if I had not actually attempted to learn the ‘Sendratari Ramayana’ dance, I would have failed to realise the unnoticeable twirling of fingers and tapping of feet that makes this beautiful piece. Watching a performance may be enough to recognise its value and beauty but practicing it first-hand allowed me to truly appreciate it.”

ASLE-ASEAN: Global in the Local

Elected Members of the ASLE-ASEAN Executive Council with Professor Scott Slovic, Founder-President of ASLE (second from right)
Elected Members of the ASLE-ASEAN Executive Council with Professor Scott Slovic, Founder-President of ASLE (second from right)

The founding of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment-Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASLE-ASEAN) was commemorated with an inaugural conference on Southeast Asian environmental literatures, titled Global in the Local. The event took place at the Shaw Foundation Building from 1-2 August 2016.

The conference was a grand success, with oral and poster presentations conducted by over thirty academic and non-academic environmental humanities specialists from various ASEAN nations. Participating nations this year included Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. The event was also graced by an international panel of plenary speakers: Professors Scott Slovic, Yuki Masami and Hannes Bergthaller, from ASLE-International, ASLE-Japan and ASLE-Europe respectively.

In addition to stimulating ecocritical dialogue and interconnectivity in the region, ASEAN nature writing was also showcased. The event featured a book launch, booths by two publishers, as well as three creative eco-readings by poets Edwin Thumboo and Madeleine Lee, and novelist Christine Suchen Lim. The conference proceedings concluded with an ecotour of Labrador Park which saw participants venturing out of their conference rooms and into the mangroves.

During this event, the ASEAN ecocritics collectively elected the first executive council for ASLE-ASEAN which features a diverse range of delegates from various ASEAN nations:

Treasurer (Singaporean) from The Nature Society of Singapore;

Two Secretaries (both from Thailand);

Two Vice Presidents (one from the Philippines, the other Malaysian);

The Founding President of ASLE-ASEAN (Singaporean)

The elected executive council also formally ratified the nomination of a student representative–a graduate student from the Department of English Language and Literature.

The event would not have been possible without the participation of all delegates but thanks also go out to administrative staff and graduate student chairs from the Department for their hard work and selfless contributions.

(Contributed by Lu Zhengwen)

Book Launch: The Banyan, Edwin Thumboo’s Poems in Tamil

On 15 June, the Department organised the launch of the book The Banyan, which is a collection of Edwin Thumboo’s poetry in Tamil. Thumboo’s poems were translated into Tamil by our colleague A/P Chitra Sankaran. The event was graced by DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. During the launch, second-year undergraduate Losheini Ravindran recited Thumboo’s poetry in both English and Tamil. Below Losheini recounts her experience at the event:

 

“I still remember the day I opened an email from A/P Chitra Sankaran; my joy knew no bounds! An opportunity to recite Professor Edwin Thumboo’s poetry! With a great feeling of elation, I went on to read, understand and practise the poem, “Gods Can Die”/”Devargal Marikkalaam.”

Professor Edwin Thumboo
Professor Edwin Thumboo

Finally, the day of the book launch arrived. After Professor John Richardson’s introductory speech on Professor Thumboo, A/P Sankaran went on to share about her experiences in playing a major role in the translation of The Banyan into Aalam (Tamil translation). As a bilingual Tamil speaking girl myself, I was able to relate to A/P Sankaran’s concerns in finding the most suitable words to render Thumboo’s poetry in Tamil without losing the essence of its poetic qualities. A/P Sankaran also shared about how Professor Thumboo had been her guru, guiding her in her new venture of accomplishing this challenging yet meaningful project.

DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Succeeding her speech came Professor Thumboo’s speech where, among other things, he shared how he witnessed the nation’s progress from the past to the present. “To find, to know, to unlock the radiance in compassion” was a line that captivated me during his recitation of his poem “The Banyan.” The poem was recited with such passion it would certainly have evoked and awakened a sense of unity and the desire for strong bonds among all Singaporeans seated in the auditorium. After being spellbound by Professor Thumboo’s magnificent rendition of his poem, our Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam went on to share how the strong sense of multiculturalism forms the crux of Thumboo’s poems. What amazed me was to see the poetic side of our Deputy Prime Minister as he shared his thoughts on the poem “Ulysses by the Merlion”; he said, “If Professor Thumboo is the unofficial Poet Laureate of Singapore, the ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is the epic poem.” Belonging to a younger generation, Mr Tharman’s speech and sharing made me realize how Professor Thumboo’s poem holds a significant meaning in reflecting upon how far our society has come in reaching the pinnacle of success by going against all odds as depicted by the allusion to the Greek legend.

The author with DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
The author with DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Finally my turn to recite Professor Thumboo’s poem came. To be honest, my heart was filled with apprehension. I was extremely nervous about whether I would be able to recite the poem well in both English and Tamil. At that moment, I recalled Professor Thumboo’s recitation of “The Banyan” during his speech; I gained inspiration and took off from there. The experience was very fulfilling and it certainly marked one of the most significant and blessed events of my life.

The author with A/P Sankaran (left) and members of the South Asian Studies department
The author with A/P Sankaran (left) and members of the South Asian Studies department

To sum it up all, this has been an event that has taught me about the beauty of poetry in depicting and exploring the shaping of a nation. Being a woman of both Indian and Chinese origin, I was able to relate to and appreciate the importance of multiculturalism and strength derived from racial harmony through literature.”

 

Graduate Student Walter Chan Presents at the Bridging Gaps Conference

Professor David Marshall and Walter
Professor David Marshall and Walter

In July 2016, a Masters student from the department, Walter Chan Mun Keet, attended the Bridging Gaps conference in Barcelona, organised by the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies. The conference, subtitled “What are the media, publicists, and celebrities selling?”, aims to discover solutions by investigating the link between celebrity status and activism. Here, taking on both roles of interviewer and interviewee, Walter interviews himself about his presentation and research interest areas.

What is your presentation about?
It’s basically about how we read media, in this case, social media. My focus is on finding alternative methods to read different sociologies of new media, through theory. On the one hand, I think social media has infiltrated our everyday activity to the point where we instinctively engage in the process without giving it much thought. And on the other hand, I think that social media has received flak (and rather unfairly so, in my opinion) for being a text too “shallow” or “banal” for analysis. Isn’t it the other way round? It’s this emergent technology at the forefront of our daily experience, and it keeps on changing at every single moment. In my opinion that qualifies it as an exciting new field of study, and I think we can all be enriched if we give it its due academic credit.

Ar the Bridging Gaps conference.
Ar the Bridging Gaps conference.

Okay, but if studying social media texts are as rewarding as you claim, how then would you analyse it? Give us one example of your method.
I think the one that really stuck with the people at the conference was the one about Kim Kardashian’s selfies. Yes, Kim Kardashian. The Queen of selfies. Anyway, if you think about why the selfie is such a common image on social media–doesn’t it have to do with the immediacy of the face? I think it performs a metonymic function–you instinctively recognise that there is another human being there, based on the face alone. And also, you can materially localise this sort of “instinct” within the brain–this particular portion in the fusiform gyrus is developed specially for facial perception.

So I try to read the selfie through one notable theory of the human face, by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For him, the face-to-face encounter is, at its very core, ethical. And this sort of ethics, for Levinas at least, precedes ontology–that means it is already in play even before our mental conception of such an encounter. In other words, we are beckoned (i.e. we have no choice in this matter) into a contractual responsibility for the other. And I try to place this ethical demand into the context of the selfie, to rationalise why people have such strong emotional reactions (from awe to joy to hate) to selfies in general.

I see. So you’re very theory-driven, then?
Oh, definitely. I think one of the reasons why I love doing critical theory is because it’s not just a topic, but also a method. It’s crazy how many ways you can make sense of things.

Indeed. And besides Levinas, there’s another line of argument that theorises the female selfie as re-appropriating the male gaze.

Absolutely! There are also potential threads from film and aesthetic theory that one can choose to tug at, for alternative perspectives on theorising the selfie. I think it’s great. People are starting to take notice of the value of earlier critical thoughts in the domain of new media, and this illuminates different ways of thinking media and thinking through media. This is one #throwback that refreshes the old anew–both past and present can learn much from each other, through the exercise of critical theory.

Whoa whoa, was that a hashtag in your reply?
Yes. Am I cool now?

No. Do you have a favourite theorist? Or theory?

Hmm . . . . I don’t think I’d want to pick favourites, I think all of them are exciting in their own sort of way. For this conference presentation I tackle Levinas, Badiou and Derrida. And for my Honours thesis earlier this year, under A/P John Phillips, I did some Derrida and Jameson on the topic of the female superhero. And on and off I’ve worked on many others: Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, Spivak, Bhabha, Bakhtin, Mulvey, Foucault, Butler, Irigaray, Althusser, Durkheim, Benjamin, McLuhan. All of them fascinate in their own way.

Hold up a second. Kim Kardashian, superheroes – you sure do pick some wacky examples for theoretical analysis.
Oh yes. Yes. Haha! I’m all about pop culture. I love watching films, I love graphic culture, I love listening to popular music, I love reading satirical social commentary. I guess that’s where my research interest lies–right smack at the intersection between pop culture and critical theory.

Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition Winner: Isaac Lim

The prize ceremony for this year’s Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition was held on 1 June. Dr Sylvia Goh was the guest-of-honour for the event, and she presented prizes to the winners. In the first of a two-part series, we speak to some of the winners of the Competition. Here we talk to Isaac Lim who won Second Prize for his play Whither Are We Going.

© NUS Eng Lit | Photography by Lionel Lin
Isaac Lim with guest-of-honour Dr Sylvia Goh

Q: Could you tell us what your play is about and what inspired its writing?

Whither Are We Going, put simply, is about identity. As much as I hate to say this, it involves globalization, and the millenials’ concept of language and their questioning of national identity and meritocracy. Sneaked within are two ambiguous relationships that never quite work out, and some sort of political commentary on Singapore and our neighbors.

Through this work, I hope to raise the issues of who we are as Singaporeans, our identity, and if we as a nation are perhaps too competitive (which is not for our own good). It questions Singaporean millenials’ position in the diverse world we live in today.

 

Q: You are currently also part of the undergraduate program in theatre in NUS. Does your academic studies in theatre have any influence on your creative writing?

I’ve actually just completed my BA (Hons) in Theatre Studies here at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in NUS, and the four years have taught me so much about theatre and performance. I am glad that I’ve been provoked to think of issues in very different ways, and am allowed to see things from various perspectives and angles.

There are two modules which I consider to have a big impact on my writing today–firstly “Introduction to Playwriting” and thereafter “Advanced Playwriting,” both of which are taught by Ms Faith Ng. The two modules exposed me to various play genres, and challenged me to attempt writing works that I would never have tried before. It is in these two modules that I learned playwriting skills. I also met a great group of classmates who are unselfish in sharing ideas and opinions as we do peer reading and reviews in each class session.

Another module that influenced me is “Singapore English Language Theatre,” taught by Dr Robin Loon. The module offers a comprehensive survey of the vast collection of original works churned out by Singaporean or Singapore-based playwrights over the years. The intensive course tasked us to read and understand the history of local theatre development, and opened my eyes to the fantastic world of Singapore literature. It aspired me to want to be part of the scene in the near future and to add to its library of creative texts.

 

Q: Could you share some of your thoughts on the theatre scene in Singapore today? What are some of your hopes for Singapore theatre?

I believe that the theatre scene is burgeoning even more today than a decade ago. More people are willing to be audiences to support original local works. The next three months alone, we get to see at least five local theatre-related festivals, from Peer Pleasure, a festival for school drama groups, to the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival which serves as a platform for young emerging writers. We also have the Singapore International Festival of Arts, which attracts a vast regional and international audience.

I myself watch a rather broad range of theatre shows, from headline productions to fresh, independent works. I am especially intrigued by the works of Chong Tze Chien, especially writings like Pan Island Expressway (1998) and Charged (2010). I am also inclined to favoring works by Natalie Hennedige whom I have had the pleasure of working with; Hennedige directed me in my Play Production module. Hennedige’s works are bold and provocative, and focus much on the craft of storytelling among other things.

The past year has been a good one for me as I “venture” into the professional theatre scene in Singapore. Post-graduation, I am open to working freelance as a theatre practitioner, and believe there are many more things to be learned. There is space for growth in the Singapore theatre scene, as emerging writers, actors and directors are slowly taking to the stage. My hope is that there will be more funding from the authorities to push for a more vibrant arts scene and that theatre can reach out to more audiences because there are many stories waiting to be told. Theatre always provides food for thought, and is always targeted at the masses. If Singaporeans do not support Singapore theatre, who will?

 

Q: What are your future plans? Are there further plays or productions in the pipeline?

I am currently looking for work opportunities, including teaching theatre and drama to young children. As mentioned earlier, I am also very ready to be a freelance theatre practitioner in Singapore. If there are opportunities for further studies in the near future, I would like to do research and learn about directing and dramaturgy.

This prize has been a great encouragement to me. I hope to further develop this piece–Whither Are We Going?–through the National Arts Council-Mentor Access Project. My aim is to complete the work into a full-length piece, and perhaps have it staged within the next 2 years.

With the prize money, I also seek to start a collaboration with my peers to put up the work on stage. Currently, Between Consciousness, an earlier play of mine, is being worked on and I am seeking people who have interest to come together to develop the writing into a stage production.

 

Alumnus Prasatt Arumugam Treks the Pacific Crest Trail in Support of the Children’s Cancer Foundation

 

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Come July, Prasatt Arumugam, a former English Literature major who graduated in January 2016, will be embarking on an immense expedition that will be a first for Singapore. He will trek the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which stretches 4,280km from Canada to Mexico, in a bid to be the first Singaporean to thru-hike the PCT. This arduous journey which takes more than 5 months to complete is a true test of the mind and body. It demands walking for 10 hours a day, with a backpack that can weigh up to 20kg, through a distance equivalent to walking from Singapore to China. He will also have to battle challenging terrain such as icy mountain passes and parched deserts. It is no wonder that more people have reached the summit of Mt Everest than completed the trail.

Credit: Christopher Parwani
Credit: Christopher Parwani

But for Prasatt, this endeavor is fueled by a cause larger than himself. This campaign is dedicated to the brave children whom he volunteers with at the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF). His journey with CCF began after his aunt passed away from cancer. She was like a mother to him and her loss was a particularly hard blow for him. This eventually prompted Prasatt to want to reach out to others suffering from cancer like his aunt did. Combined with his love for children, CCF became the logical choice.

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Prasatt currently volunteers as a play personnel at the CCF Playroom in the National University Hospital. He engages in distraction play therapy, to help take the minds of the children off the pain and discomfort of treatments and check-ups. This allows them not to associate the hospital as merely a place of sadness and pain, but also as a place where they can meet friends and do things they love.  In his time there, he has met many young ones afflicted with cancer. Despite their youth, they face their immense battle with cancer with such courage and grace that Prasatt feels they deserve every possible chance of success in their fight. This is why he has decided to embark on TrekInvicta – a social initiative in support of CCF.

Through his own arduous journey, he aims to present a tangible parallel to the struggles that these children of CCF face on their long road to recovery. In doing so, he hopes to draw greater awareness to their cause and raise $26,660 – $10 for every mile – for CCF to continue its good work. 100% of all gross proceeds will go to CCF and donations above $50 are eligible for a 2.5x tax deduction. The funds raised are put to good use. According to CCF’s 2014 Annual Report, about 92% of CCF’s funds are channeled directly to aid its beneficiaries in the form of programs such as financial assistance, casework and counselling, and CCF’s learning centre, Place for Academic Learning and Support (PALS).

Prasatt hopes that readers of this blogpost can lend their support to these children to let them know that they are not alone in their fight. You can contribute to the campaign by heading to http://tinyurl.com/give2trekinvicta. No amount is too small, and every dollar makes a difference in the lives of these children! To learn more about the campaign, please head to http://trekinvicta.com. Should you require any further information, Prasatt can be contacted at trekinvicta@gmail.com. Let us stand together with one of our own to stand in solidarity with children afflicted with cancer.

Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo Receives Distinguished Alumnus Award

© NUS FASS | Photography by Lionel Lin

On 15 April, our Emeritus Professor, Edwin Thumboo, received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from FASS.

The award was recognition of a career and a life, in which Prof Thumboo (affectionately known simply as “Prof”) has been a poet, scholar, academic leader and champion of Singapore writing. A sentence like that is often qualified with the term “variously,” but that would be misleading here. Prof has not variously performed these roles—usually he has performed them all at once.

He became Dean of FASS in 1980, and remained in that position for 11 years. During his tenure, he oversaw a number of important reforms of what the faculty offered. FASS grew, and English Language, Japanese Studies, Psychology, Linguistics, European Studies and Mass Communications all came into being as Majors in his time. Other notable achievements included the founding of the Centre for Advanced Studies and the Centre for the Arts.  He also instituted Singapore Writers Week (renamed the Singapore Writers Festival in 1991), the journal Singa: Literature & the Arts (1980-2000) and the annual 5-day Residential Creative Arts Programme.

After giving up the Deanship, he became Director of the Centre for the Arts, where he was able to pursue another of his lifelong passions, the encouragement of the creative arts in Singapore. Many student groups established themselves with his encouragement, including NUS Dance Synergy, NUS Jazz Band, NUS Lion Dance, NUS Dance Blast, NUS Chinese Drama, nu(STUDIOS) Film Production, NUS Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble, Kent Ridge Ensemble and the NUS Arts Festival. He also played an instrumental role in the establishment of the University Cultural Centre. Facts like these can document individual achievements, but perhaps they fail to identify the most substantial achievement. As Director, Prof made the arts a central part of NUS’s life and identity.

© NUS FASS | Photography by Lionel Lin

A scholar of English literature, Prof is also a well known poet, indeed, in some ways he can be considered the father of Singapore poetry. His main publications are Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), A Third Map (1993) and Still Travelling (2008). For works such as these he has been recognised with the 1978, 1980 and 1994 National Book Development Council of Singapore awards for poetry in English, the 1979 Southeast Asia Write Award, the 1980 Cultural Medallion, the 1987 ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature, the 1981 Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) and the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1991, the 2002 Raja Rao Award and the 2006 Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

But Prof was never content simply to write and publish his own poetry. More perhaps than anyone else, he has worked to encourage and promote other Singaporean writers. Even as an undergraduate and a member of the Youth Poetry Circle, he organised readings and later anthologies The Flowering Tree (1970), Seven Poets (1973), The Second Tongue (1979), The Poetry of Singapore (1985) The Fiction of Singapore (1990), &WORDS: Poems Singapore and Beyond (2010).

Prof is still writing and still working for poetry here. Last year, he founded the  Singapore National Poetry Festival, a multilingual, multicultural organization that develops and promotes Singaporean poetry holistically.  He also initiated the Singapore Chapter of the ASEAN Young Writers Award.  He has a number of current projects. One of these is for poetry walls at NUS, public spaces in which poetry will be displayed. Another is for a Tamil translation of his poems to be launched in June.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award was well deserved. We congratulate Prof on this recognition for a lifetime of work for the humanities and the arts.  (Contributed by Professor John Richardson and Mdm Angeline Ang.)

Graduate Student Raymund Vitorio Wins the GSTA

We would like to congratulate Mr Raymund Victor Morales Vitorio, our graduate student in English Language, for winning the Graduate Student Teaching Award (GSTA) for teaching done in Semester 2 of 2014/2015.

Below Mr Vitorio explains his methods and ideals in teaching sociolinguistics to undergraduates.

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“One of the biggest challenges in teaching sociolinguistic courses is the need to sufficiently address both the ‘socio’ and ‘linguistics’ branches of the field. As a teaching assistant, I always try to expose students to the great potential of using an interdisciplinary lens in viewing linguistic phenomena.

My training as a sociolinguist has influenced my view of teaching. I believe that the unique and influential position of the teacher in the classroom opens up opportunities for the simultaneous development of knowledge and critical stances. Hence, I have always striven to adopt transformative pedagogy in my teaching. I see the classroom as an opportunity to constantly question the positions of the students and the teacher, and to develop a sense of criticality of both. I aspire to make students develop critical thinking that would allow them to see that they are not just mere passive learners; rather, they are active agents who can realize concrete scholarly and social pursuits. This transformative approach also requires me to be self-aware and self-critical. Moreover, I highlight the inextricable connection between language and society in my teaching strategies. Given that language is one of the most important facets of humanity and society, I believe that there is a compelling need to teach students the technical aspects of linguistics in relation to their social repercussions. With this teaching philosophy, I aim to train my students as independent, critical, and responsible researchers.

While my position as a teaching assistant is rather constrained in terms of the formulation of the class topics and requirements, I always try to include ‘new’ yet relevant things in my tutorials. I always tell my students that the goal of tutorials is not to merely answer the discussion questions—rather, it is to come up with an intelligent discussion based on the given guiding questions. I encourage students to go beyond the discussion questions by interrogating larger issues of language and society, which includes critiquing the questions, applying the concepts in their own contexts/linguistic backgrounds, and suggesting good ways of conducting future studies. In this case, I can capitalize on my role as a teaching assistant as being someone who can make students transform knowledge for their self-improvement. Moreover, I require my students to ask good questions, and to address those questions made by their peers. This makes teaching more collaborative, and makes the tutorial an experience shared by everyone. In my experience in teaching various linguistics courses at NUS for the past four years, I have helped students appreciate the value of learning discrete features of language on a more personal level—which makes them see the role of linguistics in their everyday lives.”

 

Meet Our Pulitzer Prize Winning Alumna Mei Fong and Her New Book “One Child”

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Mei Fong graduated from NUS with a Bachelors of Arts (Hons.) in English Literature in 1997. She began her career as a journalist at The New Paper, then pursued a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University before joining the Wall Street Journal as a correspondent in 2001. Her work as a correspondent at the Journal won her various accolades including a shared Pulitzer for her stories on China’s transformation ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After leaving the China bureau, she was on faculty at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and is currently a fellow at the thinktank New America. Mei Fong was recently in town in December to promote her new book “One Child,” an account of China’s failed attempt at social engineering and its pervasive effects on the Chinese people.

Q: How did your undergraduate education in NUS influence you as a writer or journalist?

I think the honours year really helped me blossom as a writer by teaching me to read and write critically, and not just on Shakespeare or Joyce but also on popular culture. There was a great class Tim White taught on film critique I enjoyed immensely, and I also remember classes by professors Barnard Turner, Yong Li Lan, Robbie Goh and Susan Ang vividly. Professors Goh and Ang in particular were influential because they encouraged my admittedly middle-brow tastes by lending me books on everything from science-fiction to Umberto Eco’s piece on James Bond. I knew I neither had the ability nor interest to write an epic canto, but their encouragement and examples showed me that it was possible–and indeed, necessary, to write intelligently about anything, even so-called “fluffy” topics.

Q: You have come a long way from being the 16-year old who was inspired by a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II to become a journalist and writer. Has there been a defining moment in your career thus far that you could share with us?

Lots of them! One was getting into a program to encourage creative writing that was sponsored by the Ministry of Education, when I was at Raffles Junior College. The program paired us up with mentors, and my mentor was the neurosurgeon and writer Gopal Baratham, who was a kindly influence. Gopal used to invite us mentees to the Tanglin Club for tea, and was generous about introducing us to the movers and shakers of Singaporean literary society. Imagine being a scrubby teenager and meeting folks like David Marshall and Catherine Lim. All these encounters inspired me, made me think there’s more to life than a 9-9 existence as an office peon.

one child

Q: What inspired the writing of “One Child”?

I’d been reporting on China for several years, and the one-child policy was one of the most interesting and fascinating policies that really shaped Chinese society. At first, as a city dweller, it seemed as if the policy really only affected those in rural areas, who were more subject to its excesses, like forced abortions and sterilizations. Such things didn’t happen to educated women in cities. But over time, I came to realize it really shaped a lot of things for everyday Chinese, things like who you date, the jobs you choose, and how you die. But the key for me came when I was reporting on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China’s biggest natural disaster in three decades. A lot of the children killed in the earthquake were only children, because the area near the earthquake’s epicenter had actually been a test pilot program for the one-child policy, before they launched it nationwide in 1980. Because of the coming Olympics, Beijing moved in ruthlessly to suppress dissent and parental concerns over the nature of these deaths–many in poorly built, “tofu” schools–and so, the earthquake became not just an illustration of the damaging effects of a natural disaster, but also exposed the great hurts inflicted by that unnatural disaster, the one child policy. While I was in the midst of reporting on all this, including taking a physically taxing journey with migrant workers, I discovered I was pregnant. I subsequently had a miscarriage. That brush with parenthood, and the pain of the loss, was a trigger for me to examine some of the issues raised in the book. Why do we want to have children? What happens when that desire is thwarted by nature or government fiat?

Q: Who should read “One Child” and why?

Anyone who’s interested in China, in the kind of dystopian worlds envisioned by Orwell and Huxley, anyone who’s interested in journalism, anyone contemplating the costs of parenthood, anyone with a uterus.

Q: Finally, do you have any advice for our undergraduates?

My advice is to those contemplating creative careers, in the arts, in writing, in journalism, filmmaking–all the so called “unsafe” jobs that your parents are horrified by. There are a million obstacles, but if you really want to do this, then YOU can’t be the first obstacle, you’ll never get anywhere. To those who want to go into it, I say, Find a Way.

And for those who’ve had some success in these fields, I say, Make a Way.

For a more comprehensive Q&A with Mei Fong, head to http://www.meifong.org/author-qa/ where she responds to questions about “One Child” in greater depth.

(Interview conducted by undergraduate Nigel Choo.)

 

2015 Winners of the Faculty Teaching Excellence Award

This year, seven faculty members of the department won the Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for their teaching done in 2014/2015. Below we invite two of the winners–Dr Graham Wolfe and A/P Mie Hiramoto–to share their thoughts on teaching and education.

Dr Graham Wolfe teaches theatre
Dr Graham Wolfe teaches theatre

Interview with Dr Graham Wolfe

1. Firstly, what are some modules you teach and what do they cover?

At the moment I teach three modules: “The Theatre Experience” (GEK1055), “Major Playwrights of the 20th Century” (TS2239), and “Theatre and Postmodernism” (TS4218). “Major Playwrights” is a module that I always love doing because it’s focused on an era of theatre that I never get tired of learning more about. We look at some well-known 20th-century playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Caryl Churchill, but we also investigate some lesser-known but influential theatre movements. In “Theatre and Postmodernism”, we look at some very daring and innovative playwrights like Tom Stoppard and Alfian Sa’at, as well as some contemporary films and music videos, and we explore how different kinds of philosophy and theoretical writing can be applied to performance.

2. How do you hope your modules will impact students? What’s the value of your modules?

I’ll comment mostly on my GEK module, “The Theatre Experience”, which any student at NUS could take, even if they have no background in theatre. I often have students in the class who have never seen a play or gone to the theatre before, and I’m glad to have them. The module is intended to be very accessible, but I also try to make it appealing and challenging for students who do have background in theatre and are hoping to learn more. It’s focused on the roles that theatre plays in the world today, and it asks questions like, what are the attractions of theatre and what features make it different from film or TV? How can going to theatre enrich our understanding of society and human cultures? We explore different theatrical styles and forms, and we examine how cultures influence each other through theatre, and how theatre can provoke change in society.

3. Can you share some thoughts on how you approach your teaching?

As an instructor I often work with students intent on a career in theatre and drama, and I consider it my job to help provide these students with the skills that can help them actualize their goals. In many cases, however, the students in my classes are studying theatre and drama while on the road to a career of a different kind. In either situation, my aim is to help promote a life-long interest in the subject, encouraging students to look on theatre as an ongoing and vital means of exploring and appreciating the complexities of our lives, and of confronting questions and challenges that face us. I strive to find methods of presenting module material that are engaging for the specific group of students that I’m working with. I accentuate its relevance to contemporary experience and make frequent connections with issues and artworks that my students are familiar with. My aim is to promote what I call “intertextual” modes of thinking and seeing. I think that some of the best kinds of learning can happen when students are watching a TV show in the evening and start making connections of their own with the plays, theories, or ideas that they’ve been exploring in class.

4. Do you have any advice for a young person today who is presently undergoing his or her undergraduate education?

I think my main advice would be: you still have lots of time to get good at something that you don’t think you’re good at right now. For instance, I often come across students who warn me that they’re “no good” at writing and never will be. In so many cases, these students could be excellent writers if they worked on a few key things. I was a pretty bad writer as an undergrad student and I didn’t get better at it until later. Sadly, I think students often come out of high school with a pretty rigid conception of what they can and can’t do, but I think that people can develop themselves massively in their twenties and beyond. Incidentally, the same goes for acting. Students often tell me that they’re the “worst actor in the world”, but they end up delivering great performances later in the term.

 

A/P Mie Hiramoto
A/P Mie Hiramoto teaches sociolinguistics

Interview with A/P Mie Hiramoto

1. Firstly, what are some modules you teach and what do they cover?

I teach sociolinguistics under the English Language and Literature Department in FASS, currently teaching EL3211 Language in Contact and EL4253 Language, Gender, and Text (AY 14/15 Semester 1). The former is a study of the phenomena of language contact which explores the linguistic properties of contact languages such as Chinese Pidgin English and Singapore Colloquial English, as well as the theoretical issues of language emergence. The latter is critical analysis of the relationships between language, gender, and social practices. It aims to challenge students to think beyond stereotypes and question issues related to gender and sexuality for a more critical understanding of the political and intellectual issues at hand.

2. How do you hope your modules will impact students?

My hope is for my students to take away valuable analytical skills that enable them to engage with pertinent social issues in a critical manner that can impact change in society. Challenging students to tackle difficult social issues head on in classes opens up a space for discussion where perspectives and minds can be broadened.

3. Can you share some of your ideas about teaching?

I believe that teaching is a two-way street. Teaching is learning to me, and I have to keep my mind open to new ideas that students bring to the classes. I am always learning together with them.

4. Do you have any advice for a young person today who is presently undergoing his or her undergraduate education?

Don’t take everything your teachers say to be the only truth. It is good to question and challenge ideas.