Listen: Descending the Mountain

[Part II of Becoming Human: Stories of a Comet, a series of reflections on university life.]

In which a comet develops better hearing, and descends from a mountain

Etched deeply in my mind is the lesson i learnt alone on the mountaintop, in a classroom.

I like climbing mountains – it’s something I have done with friends since my JC days, when I was part of the Catholic Junior College Outdoor Adventure Club (CJC ODAC). There is a deep, transcendental exhilaration in finally reaching the windswept summit after hours of exhausting uphill climbing; something wonderfully poetic about reaching the top.

Near the summit of Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia, June 2016
Near the summit of Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia, June 2016

Not for nothing did the great philosopher of the American wilderness, John Muir, exclaim that:

“The mountains are calling, and I must go”  | John Muir

In USP, however, I learnt that reaching the summit need not always be the primary objective. And of course, one must always come down the mountain eventually. But the descent had never been the highlight of any expedition. Not until I entered the university.

“Smoke and Egos”

USE2312: Nationalism and the Arts (Nat Arts), was a class I took in my second year in USP. For me, the module began as an extremely frustrating experience. Everyone had an opinion on what art was – and everyone (myself included) was so eager to answer the questions posed. Class time and the online IVLE forum especially was saturated by the (often lengthy, meandering, self-indulgent) opinions of several students. I remember being so exasperated that I typed this online:

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Nat Arts started out to me as a class full of “smoke and egos”, as I had typed impatiently on Facebook. I remember being very frustrated at how unsubstantial class discussions seemed to be, over theories that were so difficult to understand because of how dense the writing was. To a younger and more impatient me, the “smoke and egos” came from both my classmates and the theorists we had to read. It appeared as if everyone simply wanted to look smart, feel superior (satisfying their “ego”) by using lots of big words with no substance (thus, “smoke”).

My response (although I hadn’t realised it at the time), was to retaliate in equal measure, with as much “smoke and egos”. In effect, I think I was trying to fake it till I made it. For instance, this lengthy sentence which I used to open my very first Nat Arts Assignment (click the link to read the original essay in my portfolio):

“The incongruous juxtaposition of a gargantuan white rabbit with ostensibly familiar Singaporean surroundings challenges viewers to contemplate the oft-overlooked spaces Singaporeans pass through daily; it seeks to charge and reinvigorate these spaces in the minds of audiences with a renewed sense of wonder and surprise.”

I had simply been trying to say that Walter, an exhibit in the form of an huge inflatable bunny placed in the heartlands, made people see the spaces they passed through daily in a new light.

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Walter at Rochor Centre

Here’s Walter, at the colourful Rochor Centre Housing Estate. The juxtaposed effect I was trying to capture was quite self-evident, but I thought long sentences would make my case more convincing.

A few semesters on, the convoluted sentence I wrote reads more like it belongs to a tourist brochure trying to confound unwitting tourists than in a research paper. I had thought that using big words would help. Similarly, my essay concluded with this convoluted sentence:

“More than a cerebral, cognitive contemplation of Singaporean urban geographies, Ng’s work seeks to provoke an affective, emotional response in viewers by drawing on their sensory memories of the spaces portrayed, which they may pass through or live in, memories which likely tinged with emotional significance…By leveraging on the individual, yet shared, collective experiences of these common Singaporean spaces, Walter “establishes a present for itself” within which Walter, his surroundings and attendant themes are made tangible by being acknowledged, recognized, and anointed with emotional and intimate significance.”

With the benefit of hindsight -and several hundred more hours’ worth of experience in editing and writing essays – it is patently clear that I had been trying my best to bamboozle my audiences with big words. Much as I despised “smoke and egos”, I see now that I was just as guilty of that time-honoured crime of the frightened, pompous, insecure academic Arts student.

Olympianism

A/P Barbara Ryan, our instructor, described this affliction as  “Olympianism”. We were writing our essays as if we were some lofty, arrogant deities, dispensing our wisdom from some mountaintop Us with our big words and long sentences nobody could understand.

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“It can be lonely on the mountaintop,” Prof Ryan remarked. “Why don’t you try to come down from that mountain of yours?”

Throughout the course of the semester, Prof Ryan would continually make references to Olympianism. As a class, we struggled to figure out exactly what she meant, and what she wanted from us.

How to not sound Olympian? We even got marked down for the seemingly Olympian tone of our writing. As ambitious Singaporean students, it felt like an affront not to get an A for using big words – wasn’t that the whole Point of Academia? Writing like we knew our stuff?

I tried to modulate my tone, in case I sounded too much like a know-it-all. Clearly, these efforts weren’t always successful, as this pompous, cringe-worthy line in the final essay assignment for the class (trying to explain the importance of context), shows:

“Context will necessarily form the crucial substrate upon which the poem can be nourished, and realized in fuller affective depth.”

Why would you need to sound like you didn’t know your stuff, if you did? Why look stupid, if you are a learned academic?

 

The Writing Centre

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The USP Writing Centre, located at the Learn Lobe

The point, as I slowly learned, was to come down from my lonely mountaintop. The point was humility.

It was a realization that dawned slowly on me, as I took up mentoring positions across USP. The first and most memorable of these was as a Writing Assistant at the USP Writing Centre. Writing Assistants are trained to help student writers with their work: both in terms of their writing, and in the generation of their essay ideas. The role of a Writing Assistant has been an immensely satisfying one for me – i get to help frightened, confused students who think they cannot write essays, and help them to realize that they actually can.

One enduring takeaway from being a Writing Assistant (WA) was the importance of listening. Our job was to work with students, and help them to develop the essay they wanted to write. At times, we would need to step in to clarify their thinking and their essay structures, but our charter was to facilitate, not instruct. Once again, I learnt that we were not here as gods or sages, dispensing Commandments about Writing. We were here as guides in the vast National Parks of ability.

 

This meant that we had to listen actively to the ideas and troubles of student writers who came to the Centre. On paper, all of this looks pretty straightforward. But face-to-face with sleep-deprived, demoralized freshmen, being a Writing Assistant also required a high degree of emotional work: of empathy and of framing one’s comments, so that it didn’t cut too deeply.

Over time, I came to see that it was not about the essay, but the person who had written the essay. I began to see the ‘mistakes’ of these writers as issues more of inexperience than plain ineptitude.

When brainstorming for ideas with these writers, I began to ask them what they were interested in (besides the acculturated fear of the Impending Deadline). This genuine, direct question was often received first with puzzlement, then growing enthusiasm.

“You mean,” a freshman once asked me tentatively “I can write a paper about what I am curious about?”

Seeing her leap animatedly back into her essay after this epiphany was one of the most satisfying moments of my time as a Writing Assistant. Her essay was well-received – she had infused the writing with a personal spark, and the process consequently became far more enjoyable for her. That came from the realization that she had something worth saying.

Learning to Listen

My greatest takeaway from the Writing Centre was coming down from the mountain; I learnt to listen. In listening, I became more conscious of different ways of seeing and understanding the world. I learnt not to make my conclusions about a person and their writing so quickly. Often the most luminous ideas emerged when you gave the student writer the safe space to entertain their craziest or ostensibly ‘stupid’ ideas.

Prof Ryan’s call to be less Olympian took a while to sink in – but this was also precisely the point. Her teaching style necessitates mental turmoil; a personal, internal struggle on the part of the learner to find the answers for themselves. An answer (as opposed to ‘the’ answer) sometimes require some marinating, leavened by time, experiences and conversations.

What did it mean to be less Olympian?

Too often, we learn a few theories, read a few books, write a few essays, then believe that we know all there is to know about a subject. We think we can be called “historians” simply because we spent a few weeks in a few years reading a few pages from Collingwood, Carr, Andaya, Foucault or Braudel.

But believing that you are at the top also means there is no further to go.

Nat Arts scrambled my intellectual circuits: after a year emulating dense, ‘sophisticated’ writing, I was being told that sounding like an expert wasn’t the best way forward. Why? I realized that when you lower your walls and begin to listen, there can be many, many things you can learn from people you thought knew lesser than you. Coming down from the mountaintop meant keeping my mind open, and slowing down the conclusions I jumped too quickly to.

The distance from the Nat Arts classroom to the Writing Centre is literally less than five metres – the two are divided only by a common corridor in the Learn Lobe. But between the two spaces, I learnt to descend a desolate mountaintop , and come down to warmer fecund plains, alive with perspectives, potential and possibility.

I learnt to listen.

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Descending the mountain has its merits too: a picture from a clmbing expedition with friends in Gunung Merbabu, East Java, June 2013