Dr Susan Ang, who teaches literature, was conferred the Outstanding Educator Award (OEA) at this year’s University Awards. The OEA is the University’s highest teaching award and is given out annually to a faculty member who has been truly exemplary in his or her role as an educator. Among other subjects, Dr Ang has taught modules on Romantic literature, tragedy, science fiction and modern poetry. She shares a part of her teaching philosophy below where, for a while, she envisions herself as a “tiger mom”:
On Tiger Moms and Cubs
A few months ago I was a little taken aback (not to mention mildly dismayed) when one of the graduating class said cheerfully to me, “Student X said that as a lecturer, you were a Tiger Mom.” It wasn’t meant insultingly and, indeed, was even meant as a backhanded compliment of a sort. But the phrase connotes a certain aggressiveness, ruthlessness and pushiness, all of which I think of as alien to the way I do things, and it was only when another student said, “Tiger Moms train up competent cubs who are properly equipped to survive,” that I began to appreciate the comment a bit more.
When one teaches, one teaches to the whole, or integrated, person, not just the part of the student engaged in learning the skills on one’s modules. If the objective of teaching is the training up of competence, I would like to train the students–or cubs–to be “competent,” not only in our shared discipline, but in larger, more general, ways that will affect not just their “survival” in the university but also in the wider world after they graduate.
A specific example of something that I do try to “teach” that has ramifications both for competence in the discipline, and also in a more extended sense, is dealing with difficulty. I would like to show students how to manage difficulty rather than avoid it, gravitating towards the former practice partly in memory of my own experience as an A-level student when I wanted to drop Maths, which my parents permitted (albeit unhappily). Finding that I could not manage Economics either (I thought that being unable to differentiate the x-axis from the y-axis was good evidence for this), I asked to drop Economics as well and substitute Music, but my father, despite the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, refused to allow this: “If I say yes, you’ll get the idea that the way to deal with things you find tough or boring is to drop them. There will be plenty of things in life that you find tough and/or boring. You can’t drop them all. So learn to cope with it.” So both the principles of “stickability” (“stick with it”) and “learning to cope with difficulty” became something both to be internalized as part of my own teaching philosophy, and to be passed on, in turn, to my students. This represents a significant part of the “competence” I seek to inculcate and is less praxis than a whole attitude of mind.
The point, however, is not to throw “difficulty” at students and leave it at that. The point is to teach them how to manage it, the intention being that there should be mastery of higher-order material as well as the pedagogical acquisition of methods for dealing with the complex/difficult but also, equally importantly, that they should learn to be courageous about facing things that are intransigent and hard. That is an attitude of mind that will equip them to survive in the wider world beyond the university.
The English Literature Class of 2014 celebrated their graduation with a dinner party at the Shaw Alumni House on 3 July 2014. The event was sponsored by the English Language and Literature Department, Office of Alumni Relations, and Shaw Foundation Alumni House. Once strangers, the class of seniors now found themselves gathered as friends under one roof–feasting and drinking to the fond memories of studying in one of the finest departments in the nation. Even as the reveries came to a gradual end, they saluted and cheered one another on, looking to the future with the resonant lines of a novel by James Joyce: “Welcome, O life! We go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge within the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our race.”
One of the graduating seniors, Yip Guanhui, reflects on his years as an English Literature major:
“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
C. S. Lewis An Experiment in Criticism
I entered the university and came into encounter with great literature and writers. I took a wide range of modules, not just in literature but in other disciplines such as Financial Accounting and Real Estate. I came to learn that a serious literature major is one who is able to view the world (and its many disciplines) in a nuanced and coherent manner. All readings are possible; but not all readings are helpful.
I am not ashamed to say that for the greater part of four years, I spent my time reading. Reading as widely, as deeply, and as thoughtfully as possible. I learnt to look past my preconceived notions and to adopt critical thinking as a way of life. “It is the mark of an educated mind,” as Aristotle says, “to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
I have come to see that the value of a literature education lies not in the number of books read, nor in the quantity or quality of essays submitted—though it is certainly true that both are helpful: the books one imbibes, come to dye one’s soul and thoughts, while the numerous essays written, hone one’s grasp of the written language. The true value of a literature education ultimately lies in the quality of one’s mind and heart–shaped and honed through their numerous interactions with lecturers, fellow students and, indeed, the boundless imaginative worlds of literary works. As I leave NUS, it may be that I forget many aspects of the formal academic curriculum I experienced–but a critical mind and an empathetic heart will follow me for the rest of my life.
A week later on 11 July, English Language Seniors also held a graduation party.