Things I wish somebody told me about university

With the release of the examination results (the eighth and final SMS that I will receive!), I was prompted to reflect deeply on the past four years. I realised that there are so many things that I wished someone would tell me when I was a year one student. These are the things I wish somebody told me about university:

Be patient: You will find your passion and it’s OK if your interests are not like the others.

It took me three years to truly discover what I enjoyed about politics. Unlike many of my peers, what fascinated me was not political parties, elections and international relations.  I was interested in philosophy and political thought, but I was never content to merely wade in realms of abstraction.

I loved images so I became a visual culture nerd. I tried to rethink what ‘politics’ entails and explore the political dimension of visuality. I delved into images of all sorts and tried to make sense of its meanings.

I wish someone told me earlier on that it was OK to not be interested in the conventional PS things. People would often ask me “How is that political science?” or “Isn’t that cultural geography or sociology?” And that was when I realised that the function of my major was not to constrict or limit my learning to a particular field, but set the parameters of which I framed my research. Fields are never neat, discrete blocs of knowledge. They overlap, overlay and interact.

Your growth and capacity for growth will be your biggest takeaway.

I clung most tightly to my grades in the first semester, and (ironically?) it was also the semester that I did the most poorly. Subsequently, I became less worried about how well I would do, and grew more concerned with how I was do-ing. I was still really nervous when I received my results, but less-than-ideal grades no longer affected me as much.

I wish someone would have told me that it is more important to really be present in classes, because with the ebb and flow of every semester, everything slips past us all too quickly – at the end you find yourself wishing that you savoured it all more. It is more important to take ownership of your work by choosing something you feel for, directing your own topic and engaging others/other materials to improve on your thoughts. If you don’t care about anything now, why would you care about something later? If you never cared about someone else’s perspectives on a matter now, why would you later on? These skills would translate to life skills where it is imperative to engage others and also, myself, in a process where we learn and develop and be open to healthy discursive spaces.

After all, this is what university should hone. Not just academic knowledge and technical skills, but also the capacity for mindful conversation that is so important for being a citizen. The capacity for empathy, openness, and willingness to grow.

[I often wondered, what does university reward in terms of grades? You can read the full post here.]

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Source: Somehoodlum

Men are not smarter or better by default.

I spent a great deal of my life under the impression that men were more well-read, more intelligent, and more competent. I cannot explain why or how I was conditioned into thinking so, but I know of several others that shared this same perception.

I realised that just because the men (sometimes) had louder voices in classes, it surely does not mean that they were more intelligent (if we can even have a metric for evaluating intelligence). Just because they (sometimes) interrupted me with articulate sentences, fancy jargon and name-drops, it does not make their point more valid than mine.

I remember there was once I had to present and defend my argument to the class and receive constructive criticism. Two other men had very similar research questions. One kept insisting that my position was indefensible without properly attacking my premises or qualifications. After the class, he came up to me with the other man and they both advised me to alter my position…to be the same as theirs. One said, “Trust him (referring to the other man). If he’s so smart and he can’t find a way to reconcile this, I think it’s very difficult. You should change your claim.” (BTW I didn’t. I worked on my argument, stuck to it, and did well for the paper.)

I realised it is important for us to recognise and be confident of our own strengths and merits – If we change, it should be because we genuinely believe it to be an improvement, not because we want to suit what others think.

Two disclaimers:1. I’m not saying that men are less intelligent. Sometimes I feel smaller just because someone presents themselves in a particular way. 2. My experience just happens to involve men, although I’m sure the same can be said for women!

We are all lost.

It took me four years to gradually figure out what kinds of jobs I wanted to do. Even though I’ve already started work, I am still finding my way.

I think too much pressure is placed on university students to know their path (“What do you want to do? Huh you still don’t know? You must think about it you know!”). I also feel that there is also a lot of unnecessary (unspoken, super paggro) peer pressure – to attend different seminars, a myriad of job fairs and interviews, a flurry of camps and overseas trips, exchange etc. (“Eh how many resumes did you drop off at the career fair?” “…I didn’t go for the career fair” / “Why didn’t you go for exchange? It’s really once-in-a-lifetime experience you know!”).

It is good to have a plan, to think about the direction we wish to head in and to go out and experience things. However, if you don’t want to do all these things your peers are doing, that doesn’t make your future less bright. Doing all these just because you don’t want to lose out is disorienting at best, disillusioning at worst.

We will always remain explorers and navigators of life, regardless of our stage of life. Just because we ‘grow up’ and ‘embark on a career’, it doesn’t mean we are any more ‘found’. Learning never really stops and we are always in a process of discovery.

We are all lost, just different degrees of adrift.

What does university reward in terms of grades?

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Image credit: Hayley Powers via The Artidote

At the end of my first semester in university, I had a less than satisfactory cumulative average point (CAP). I was really disappointed because I was expecting to do better (first world problem I know– I’d completely missed out on the fact that I was currently receiving a university education in one of the top institutions in Asia).

At some point, I stopped clinging so tightly to the end-result and tried to focus on learning as much as I could, for every class. It was also perhaps most ironically, that I started to do really well once I stopped expecting much. That was when I questioned: What is it that university rewards in terms of grades?

Was it the amount of content you could spew within a span of two hours during the exam? Was it the number of empirical examples provided to substantiate your point? Could it perhaps be the originality of your argument?

For secondary school and JC, it was mostly rote learning and regurgitation of certain essay ‘templates’ that would guarantee good scores. I think in some senses, university does privilege candidates with such a background. I say this because I believe content and empirical examples to be a necessary but insufficient condition for doing well.

Why insufficient?

Because university grades also (attempt to) measure curiosity, independent thought-development, and synthesis. At least in my opinion.

One thing I disagree with for the university grading system (especially for FASS), is timed exams. I believe that timed, closed-book exams aren’t really useful in determining curiosity of the student, nor the ability of the student to formulate good questions and develop sound solutions with the help of research. Timed exams are less about independent research and arguments, but more about how much content you can reproduce.

Sure, the ability to respond under pressure and time constraints is a practical skill. However,in most practical situations, we are required to first, identify a problem, research on a matter, and sometimes even consult with others before formulating a solution. To that end, I believe that research papers and projects are a better way to evaluate a student in a more holistic fashion. I also believe that research papers were where I was more likely to do well.

Through a research project or paper, I could synthesize what was taught with what I independently researched and thought about. I realised that the more I was passionate about the topics I was studying, the more I was willing to read and research about them. I wanted to develop my ideas, speak to people about it and get feedback. I also tried to explore unconventional angles to frame creative research questions or to approach the same topic with a different lens. All these contributed to me not only having a decent (and clear!) grasp of the content and having necessary examples/cases to support my argument, but also enabled me to construct original arguments. I was rewarded for displaying all these in my papers.

I have suggested what I think is the reason for me doing well in school, but I don’t claim that this is the golden formula. It has worked for me, but there are so many other factors at play in determining one’s grades.

For instance, I am aware that I have been extremely fortunate and privileged to 1. Have been given the opportunity to be in school and 2. Have a very supportive family that ensured I could concentrate on getting my degree without having to worry about family finances during this time. I did not have to juggle work and school just so I could help support my family. In other words, I had the luxury of time to concentrate on school. Many people do not have this opportunity.

Secondly, I know of many deeply curious and intellectual individuals who seemingly ‘do not do well’ in school. It just so happens that my intellectual development and how I presented these developments also coincided with the testing system. People learn and grow in different ways, and this doesn’t necessarily manifest in the current modes of testing.

In conclusion, while I have somehow figured out the ‘sweet-spot’ for doing well in university, these operate on certain crucial premises that do not apply equally to everyone. It doesn’t mean that they have not learned or developed as much as individuals who received good grades. Yet, society still privileges (to different extents) paper qualifications and first class honours – the holy grail of CAPs.

Perhaps we should also be asking: If grades are an imperfect indicator that operate on certain assumptions, what else can we use as indicators of an individual’s skills and thought-processes?

Image credit: From The Marquette Educator