Commencement 2015 — An English Language Senior Pens Her Thoughts on Her Graduation

July is the month of commencement ceremonies and the department has its share of seniors graduating from the English Language, English Literature and Theatre Studies programs.

Below, Gladys Sim, a senior graduating from the English Language program pens her thoughts on her graduation. In her honors thesis, Gladys studied advertisements for men’s skincare products and their role in constructing a new masculine identity. commencement

No Place I’d Rather Be . . .
“The quirks of being an English Language major are two-fold. One, that I probably spent half my time in NUS explaining to others that English Language is neither about English comprehension practices nor English cloze passages. Two, that English Language should not be confused with English Literature, and that not all English Language majors will be working as teachers when they graduate.

Contrary to popular belief, English Language is not about poring through English texts and being grammar Nazis, expanding our vocabulary knowledge, or writing great stories. English Language is way more sophisticated; it looks at the underlying concepts that explain and grapple with the ways language is used and maintained. It comprises many different research fields – Sociolinguistics that looks at issues like power, media, policies and gender; Psycholinguistics that analyses the very ability of the human brain that allows us to speak; Lexicology that is concerned with the signification and application of words; Phonology that studies sounds that form the bedrock of language; and Syntax that examines how grammar works.

Looking back on my four years as an undergraduate, I have amassed a trove of readings and lecture slides, and accumulated thousands and thousands of words in my entire storage of reports. I also remember many long nights of re-discussing, re-writing and re-editing concepts and arguments for both essays and presentations. It was not easy, and many times I had to make mistakes in order to learn what was better. The greatest takeaway for me was from writing my own Honours Thesis that was worth 15 MCs. I could not have done it without the intensive intellectual rigour that being an English Language major had put me through, my dedicated Professor who challenged my thoughts with her insights, and the fun-loving bunch of friends who shared the same passion for the English Language.

Now that I have graduated, it is partly a relief not to have to meet the incessant deadlines and the avalanche of assignments. Having said that, a part of my heart aches too knowing that the camaraderie with my fellow comrades forged in my undergraduate years will now take a different turn. It is a bittersweet feeling to stand between the academic sphere which I have to depart from, and the corporate world which I now need to learn to embrace. I had expected to experience this intangible bit of wistfulness, and I told myself early on to seize every moment in my undergraduate years. I am glad I did, and that I learnt to discard the rat-race mentality to look beyond simply achieving good grades, because in the end I received a lot more blessings than I had asked for.”

Unfinished Business: Conference on Krishen Jit’s Performance Practice and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre


9 students from the Theatre Studies programme attended a conference on Malaysian theatre practitioner and theorist Krishen Jit held on 9-11 January 2015 in Kuala Lumpur. Below is a write-up on the conference:

. . . . . . The ellipsis is a marker of an unfinished sentence that communicates unfinished thoughts and points towards hesitance. It could equally indicate a need to take a deliberate pause and, in some contexts, conjures a sense of longing. In many ways, Unfinished Business: Conference on Krishen Jit’s Performance Practice and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre can be seen as elliptical in its attempt, after ten years since his passing, to take a deliberate pause and incite conversation about Krishen Jit’s legacy and his impact on contemporary Malaysian theatre. It was organized by Five Arts Centre, which Krishen Jit had a hand in founding, and held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. The conference provided a rare opportunity for theatre practitioners, academics, students and long-time friends from both local and overseas communities to gather in order to commemorate and contemplate the current moment in relation to the legacy he left behind.

As elliptical as Krishen Jit, the conference in a similar vein resuscitated and provoked many conversations – all of which were left unfinished – in line with theme of the conference. A privileged group of 9 students from the Theatre Studies programme were given this unique opportunity of entering into this unfinished conversation about a theatre maker who had greatly influenced contemporary theatre making in Malaysia and Singapore.

The conference was well-balanced with keynote speeches, panel presentations, theatrical performances, story dialogues and workshops, which crystallized Krishen Jit’s work, not only as a theatre-maker but also as an academic. He possessed an insatiable hunger for the rigorous development of both theatre practice and theory in the region, where his voracious appetite extended far beyond the art towards the dining table. The conference reiterated Krishen Jit’s delicate obsession with food, which was fondly remembered by friends and colleagues alike. As such, the conference started off with an impressive performance by the Singapore-based Malaysian artists Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong titled Carrot/Pantun/Dance: The Show of a Post-Show Dialogue recounting how Krishen Jit taught them to “cook” caramelized carrots, of course, amongst many other important things in life.


Foregrounded by this hilarious yet thought-provoking start, the second day of the conference saw various speakers interrogating contemporary performance in the region – art historian T. K. Sabapathy spoke about “Krishen Jit and the Contemporary in Southeast Asia”; a group of artists including Ong Keng Sen, Leow Puay Tin and Ray Langenbach presented papers along the theme of “Contemporary Business: Construction, Reconstruction, Deconstruction”; members of Five Arts Centre Marion D’Cruz and Chee Sek Thim shared about “Practicing… De/Re/Constructions”; theatre veterans Joe Hasham, Faridah Merican, Kee Thuan Chye and Chin San Sooi spoke about “Collaborating with Krishen.” As the conference unfolded, it became very apparent that Krishen Jit had left much unfinished discussion, work and relationships behind. The speakers spoke fondly of their intimate collaborations with him and related how this had impacted contemporary theatre practice in Singapore and Malaysia. They spoke of his unfinished experimentation with form and content in the 80s and 90s that had laid the foundations for the deeper questioning of tradition, culture and history. Tying in the complex postmodern and postcolonial experience that is coupled with our current epoch of intensifying globalisation and cosmopolitanism, the subject of negotiating cultures and relationships in theatre practice and the development of the Arts in East and Southeast Asia was broached with much academic rigour and purpose. The day ended with performances by Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng, which were both based on the productions they had created with Krishen Jit. Embodying the notions of deconstruction and reconstruction of identity, Ivan Heng treated the audience to a sterling restaging of Emily on Emerald Hill, dressed in a suit as opposed to his 1999 debut, which was directed by Jit.

The third and final day opened up conversations about traditional-contemporary discourse as well as the process of experimentation and intercultural collaboration. The speakers included Japanese theatre director and Jit’s long time collaborator Makoto Sato who spoke about “Traditionalising the Contemporary and Contemporarizing the Traditional Arts”. Mohd Anis Md Nor, Soon Choon Mee, Tan Sooi Beng likewise gave presentations that were related to the theme, “Experimental Business: Interdisciplinary, Intercultural, Interconnection.” Following which, Janet Pillai and Mark Teh of Five Arts Centre dealt with “Practicing Intersections” whilst Malaysian artists Jillian Ooi, Anne James, Nam Ron and Zahim Albakri covered “Experimenting with Krishen . . . .” These discussions and dialogues surfaced the intricacies and complexities of collaboration across different fields, cultures and art forms. In many ways, Krishen Jit was very much ahead of his time in using theatre to experiment. In essence, his body of work traversed new frontiers and pushed boundaries. Yet, with any pioneer, delving into unchartered territories brings its fair share of success and failure and we, as younger students and practitioners, are left with Krishen Jit’s unfinished art. His bold attempts to engage in interracial casting and cross-disciplinary performances in Family: A Visual Performance Event (1998) and Monkey Bussiness (2005) were but the heralds of deeper explorations of hybridity and interactions that are the conditions of our postmodern ere. Krishen Jit’s work remains unfinished simply because we can only continue to unroot, unravel and understand it and hence when the conference drew to a close, the important question of “what is next?” was raised. Issues ranging from democratizing the rehearsal space, to censorship in the arts, to development of the younger generation were articulated with passion and gusto, but without resolution or conclusion. This inconclusive ending of the dialogue was a stark reminder of the amount of unfinished business that Krishen Jit left behind. It was also a call to introspection for the theatre practitioner, academic and younger generation to take up the issues and business that have been left unfinished. (Contributed by Ken Takiguchi.)

Dr Susan Ang wins the Outstanding Educator Award (OEA)

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”:

News 1 Dr Susan Ang


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 Graduation Party

News 2 (photo English Literature graduation party)

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.


English Language Party


 A week later on 11 July, English Language Seniors also held a graduation party.