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.

Results of the Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition 2015 – Drama

We are very pleased to announce the results of the Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition 2015 – Drama. Congratulations to the prize winners!

2nd Prize ($6,000):  Isaac Lim Jue Hao for “Whither Are We Going?

Joint 3rd Prizes ($4,000):  Pooja Pandey for “Under The Mango Tree” and Barney Gopalakrishnen for “Cycle of Morality”

Special Commendation:  Eugene Koh Wen Jun for “Baofa”

The judges decided not to award a first prize this year, as most of the entries feel unfinished or at best, works-in-progress. None of this year’s entries stands out as a piece of work quite worthy of a first prize.

Many of the entries are strong in terms of their writing but the judges were a little disappointed by the limited range of issues the writers chose to engage. A majority of the entries deal with the personal and the domestic, which in themselves are worthy subjects, but many entries focus on these at the expense of the larger and wider implications for humanity and its politics.

Having said this, the second prize winner, Whither Are We Going, is strong. The judges were impressed by its use of language and its dramatic and theatrical flair. The entry is overly didactic in parts, but is worth further development and the judges strongly recommend that the writer continues to work on it. The first of the joint third prize winners, Under The Mango Tree, has good strong characterization and a sound plotline but is over-written, and notwithstanding that feels unfinished. The second joint third prize winner, Cycle of Morality, innovatively uses devices from allegory and symbolist drama but needs to go further than its appropriating of literary and theatrical forms. The judges also felt strongly about Baofa. Although this entry does not quite make the grade, they felt that its story-telling and its conviction are worthy of a special commendation.

The judges congratulate all four writers on their work and look forward to their future contributions to play-writing in Singapore.

The biennial Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Prize was established by Dr Sylvia Goh with an endowed gift to the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore in memory and recognition of her late husband, Goh Sin Tub, who was one of Singapore’s best-known local writers.

Goh Sin Tub and Dr Sylvia Goh are both alumni of the University of Malaya (UM), one of NUS’ predecessor institutions. The Prize commemorates Goh Sin Tub’s life, achievements and support for education.

The genre for this Competition is drama. Subsequent competitions will feature other literary genres. The competition is open to all members of the NUS community at the time of submission of entry.

The closing date for the competition was 30 August 2015. Twenty-three qualifying entries were received.

Judging Panels

The judges for the first round of adjudication were Assoc Prof Ismail Talib and Dr Robin Loon from the Department of English Language and Literature, NUS; and Mr Lu Zhengwen, currently a Masters by Research student in English Literature at NUS.

The judges for the second round of adjudication were Assoc Prof Ismail Talib and Dr Robin Loon from the Department of English Language and Literature, NUS.

Workshops by the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards

The Theatre Studies programme has just hosted the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards.

Grotowski was a major twentieth-century theatre practitioner and theorist. Although he directed written plays when he was young, he quickly moved into what he called “bricolage” of text and physical actions. His approach (he rejected the word “method”) is far from being a way of producing imitative sounds and actions. Rather, it challenges participants to confront themselves, and to discover new ways of perceiving and of articulating perception.

The Workcenter has continued and developed Grotowski’s practice since his death in 1999. Thomas Richards, the Center’s Director, took an audience through his own connection with Grotowski and the Center’s work in a public lecture on 8 November. The lecture featured clips of the Center’s work in which performers explore songs and movement with remarkable, concentrated discipline. They work on each piece for years, searching through repetition and analysis for the resonance of each song for each performer.

Before the lecture, Richards had led Theatre Studies students in a two-day workshop. The Workcenter described the encounter as striving “to unearth the creative potential of each participant through two lines of exploration.” The students worked on a song and an “acting proposition” – a short performance of about three minutes.

One of the participants, Lara Tay, described the workshop as “an eyeopening experience, to say the very least.”

“Not only did we learn how ‘alive’ songs from the past can be,” she went on, “but we also learnt a lot about ourselves. One by one, we performed our acting propositions. And one by one, we learnt more about our past-selves, present-selves, and future-selves. We confronted issues that we either neglected or never even knew about –all of which we learnt can be used in our art.

“We’ve learnt to be inspired by our very own stories. We’ve all walked away from this experience with a greater understanding of ourselves, as well as the kind of art we may create in the future. It’s truly made me fall in love with theatre all over again. Our only wish is that we could have more time with the genius that is Thomas Richards.”

The Workcenter held the workshop as part of a larger Singapore schedule, jointly organised by Theatre Studies and the National Arts Council, facilitated and administered by Cheekeng Lee, who is currently working with the Theatre Studies program. John Phillips, the Deputy Head for Theatre Studies, explained that it was one of a series of workshops the program has organised over the past year.

“The workshops contribute to the program’s desire to further integrate performance practice into its teaching and research profiles,” he said. “Earlier this year we’ve had visits from a British academic and performance theorist, Simon Jones, on practice-as-research, and from the intercultural TASAT theatre group (popularly known as The Nanyang Sisters), on aspects of migrant theatre making. On this occasion, Thomas Richards ran three two-day workshops, two for professional practitioners and one for our students, introducing them to, or reacquainting them with, the current practice of Grotowski’s revolutionary theatre techniques. The programme intends to develop a longer-term relationship with the Workcenter, once we have overcome some practical difficulties. We would very much like to have them back in future to work with our students in a more sustained way than was possible on this visit.” (Contributed by Cheekeng Lee.)

2015 Writer-in-Residence: Ong Szu Yoong

The Singapore literary scene has certainly blossomed in the recent few decades, growing from a small but robust group to a diverse, multi-genre collection of writers. Prominent figures in the literary scene include established writers like our very own Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo, even as the literary landscape is expanding to include newer writers.

This has also resulted in the development of many programmes for writers to develop and hone their skills as well as to nurture a new generation of writers. The Singapore Creative Writing Residency is one such programme. Jointly organised by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) University Scholars’ Programme (USP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), and The Arts House (TAH), the programme offers time and space for writers to complete their work as well as provide opportunities for student writers to learn from the writers-in-residence.

In 2015, USP and FASS welcomed its new writer-in-residence, Ong Szu Yoong. In an interview with him, he discussed his thoughts on writing poetry, his thoughts on his favourite poets and poems, and imparted some advice for new writers.

Q: What prompted you to start writing poetry?
A: Reading Kafka as a 13-year-old.

Q: What do you think is the hardest part of writing?
A: Everything else.

Q: How important do you think is accessibility of meaning? (How important is it that the reader has to work hard to understand the poem?)
A: A poem has no meaning that it hides or hides behind. To quote Barthes: There is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armoury of meaning.

Q: What do you think makes a poem “good”?
A: A good poem is what it is. That is to say, it refuses to be anything else.

Q: Who are some of your favourite poets, and what are some of your favourite poems? What is it about these poems that draw you to them?
A: Off the top of my head: Anne Carson, Arthur Yap, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Bishop. I like complex and pathetic poems whose complexity and pathos are inextricable. My favourite Carson, Yap, and Armantrout poems are like that. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, which I’ve just finished re-reading, is like that as well. Bishop belongs to another category – I admire her for her discipline, and her attention to objects as they are.

Q: Which of your poems do you think is your favourite, and why?
A: The one I’m working on.

Q: What advice would you give young poets and budding writers?
A: Read as much as possible. Write as much as is necessary. Sometimes it is necessary not to write. Most of all, don’t take just anyone’s advice. Nothing works for everyone.

Ong Szu Yoong will be staying at USP’s Cinnamon College and working as a writer-in-residence until the end of January next year. He is currently conducting creative writing seminars with interested students, hoping for the participants to “come out of it with a better idea of how they want to write and what poetry is for them–a better sense of their own poetics.” These sessions will be held weekly, and participating students can look forward to presenting their work at the conclusion of the series of seminars. (Contributed by undergraduate Deanna Lim)

Alumnus Joel Tan Launches Play Collection

Lucas Ho, Joel Tan, Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman
Lucas Ho, Joel Tan, Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman
On Friday 14 August, our department alumnus, Joel Tan, launched his first volume of plays at the National Library. The volume features seven plays, the earliest of which were written when Joel was a student with us. In the speech he gave at the end of the launch he explained that he had come to playwriting through the two classes taught here by local playwright, Huzir Sulaiman.

Huzir is the Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, where Joel is an Associate Artist. Two of the four other Associate Artists, Faith Ng and Lucas Ho, are also former members of Huzir’s class, as well as alumni of our department. Lucas edited the collection, his third volume with Checkpoint.

The launch featured readings from the plays in the volume, and demonstrated the range of Joel’s writing. Some excerpts were very funny, containing acerbic insights into modern urban life in Singapore, while others were gentler and more touching. The extract from The Way We Go, for instance, with which the readings ended, featured an ageing couple struggling against their own habits and ingrained characters to communicate and be close. It was movingly read by Huzir and his fellow Artistic Director, Claire Wong.

Joel Tan speaking at the end of the launch.
Joel Tan speaking at the end of the launch.
In his speech at the end, Joel reflected on the role of the playwright, and on the etymology of that peculiar word. A playwright is a maker, he explained, and makes plays in collaboration with a host of other people. All the plays in the volume had benefitted enormously from the people involved in them.

Huzir is no longer teaching in the department, but his classes are now being taught by Faith, who is fast establishing herself as one of Singapore’s best young playwrights alongside Joel. Her work like his brings a sharp dramatic intelligence to bear on life in modern Singapore. Joel ends the interview that accompanies the plays in the volume by talking about the “brief glimmer of truth” that a play performance can provide. Certainly, the readings at the launch provided many such glimmers. (Photos courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Ken Cheong.)

NUS Literary Society Orientation Camp

untitled3Ice-breakers, an Amazing Race and some sort of finale performance have become part of the regular repertoire of activities during orientation season at NUS. This year, the NUS Literary Society borrowed these elements and added our own literary twist to create a truly one-of-a-kind introduction to NUS—A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-themed food trail around campus.

The NUS Literary Society is a close-knit community that consists primarily of English Literature majors but is open to bibliophiles from any discipline of study. As a society we host programs such as readings and movie screenings (often with free pizza), and annual events like the Creative Writing Competition and the Evening of Poetry and Music. The latter is a star-studded showcase of musical and literary talents from around campus. One of the biggest events on our calendar is the annual Literary Society Orientation Camp to welcome potential English Literature majors to student life at NUS.

This year, we decided to marry the Singaporean penchant for food with the traditional “Amazing Race” game, which resulted in a food trail spanning eateries around both FASS and parts of UTown. Both the freshmen and orientation group leaders were kept gastronomically full and content as they ventured around NUS sampling some of the most-loved foods on campus from the salted-caramel ice cream at Book Haven to the Japanese bento sets at The Deck. Staying true to our inner geeky bookworms, the games that the campers played at each pit stop of the food trail made use of quirky, literary elements. Whacko played with book titles and Virginia-Woolf- inspired station games lent a unique flavor to old camp staples. After eating our fill, playing literary-inspired games and exploring the campus, we headed to Town Green for the finale event of the day. Each team was tasked to come up with poems using words from a random-word generator. This was certainly no easy task given the obscurity of some of the words on the list! Fortunately, the freshmen were up to the challenge and came up with some bold and light-hearted stuff. The final challenge was to perform the poetry in front of their peers and teacher-in-charge Dr. Gilbert Yeoh. That was how Town Green became the stage for an impromptu poetry slam, a memorable ending to a one-of-a-kind orientation camp. Before we parted though, there was one last order of business for the day: goodie bags. As our camp was themed after the childhood favorite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it was only fitting that each camper walked away with a personalized bag full of Mars Bars, Marshmallows, Snickers and Hershey’s kisses. I think Willy Wonka would have been proud.

To find out more about the NUS Literary Society and how you can join us, do like our Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/pages/NUS-Literary-Society-Events/813085828704542?fref=ts or email nusliterarysociety@gmail.com (Contributed by undergraduate Alisa Maya Ravindran)