Published by The Malay Mail Online on 18th November 2016
NOVEMBER 18 — When Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah asked me in 2013 to come on board as a trustee of his eponymous foundation which owns and governs the Sunway Education Group, I replied that it would be an honour to be involved, but that I lacked the vast experience held by other trustees, and I had little on-the-ground experience of what it is like to be on campus, having only been an occasional visitor to Sunway University for student events.
I was therefore excited when the university asked me (after their usual vetting procedures) to be an Honourary Senior Teaching Fellow from 2014-2016, and give some guest classes in the American Degree Transfer Programme every semester.Last week, I taught my final class in this capacity, and looking back, it has been a great learning experience for me.
The first hurdle was getting over the nerves of facing the students. It is quite different from addressing mature adult audiences at conferences where people expect you to disseminate your opinions to which disagreement is normal; in the classroom, the audience expects you to transmit knowledge (with a sufficient degree of confidence and a cheery disposition) which they can then apply towards academic success. In particular, there is an expectation from the audience that you possess more knowledge than they do, which (as I discovered long ago as a student) is not necessarily the case. Indeed, I did have one student who robustly challenged me in every class, but I am certain that her inquisitiveness and boldness will take her far.
The second issue was in finding the right compromise between following the material demanded by the course and following interesting intellectual tangents, which happened often because of the nature of the subject matter.
Thus, there were debates on topics such as the use of nuclear weapons or of geopolitical rivalry in South-east Asia, which took me back to my own university days at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where class debates were free-for-all, no-holds-barred, with tutors only intervening to throw in aspects which participants had not yet considered.
The objective is to get students to tackle intellectual — and even moral — problems by processing all the available evidence and a variety of viewpoints.
If such exciting discussions as the ones I oversaw at Sunway University occur in other Malaysian institutions of higher learning then I would be very encouraged that the next generation of citizens will be able to think critically and sympathetically on key contemporary issues.
The final difficulty was in being dispassionate in assessing student performance according to the marking guidelines. Although written assignments can be anonymised, the reality is that with small student numbers you can guess which student wrote which paper, while no such option exists for class presentations (which can become quite emotional when they draw from personal experience).
It requires great discipline to be not influenced by previous interactions with the students; and it is painful seeing an otherwise brilliant student not performing well when it really matters.
You also have to deal with the consequences of awarding a low mark which might affect their overall academic standing, and negotiate pleas to give higher marks (accompanied by attempted bribes of cake). Naturally, saying goodbye to the students at the end of the year is also tough as you hope that somehow, you’ve made a relevant contribution to their lives.
Of course, I have also witnessed other aspects that should be heeded, from the pragmatic to the more serious, such as the extreme competitiveness felt by students to perform well; but overall, the experience has greatly informed my role as trustee of the foundation.
When I was a young student I did not universally like my teachers: the best were those who truly inspired me and got me thinking about the subject matter outside the classroom.
A few days ago at the Alice Smith School 70th anniversary gala dinner I met Mrs Chew who taught me geography. Her classes contributed greatly to my enthusiasm in wanting to understand how humans interact with the world around them, and I would be happy if my former students one day remembered me in a similar light.
While I count myself very lucky to be often invited to classrooms and school halls for guest lectures and convocations, being able to build a relationship with young citizens representing the next generation has been a singular honour.
Thank you Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, Vice-Chancellor Professor Graeme Wilkinson and my colleague Sunita Arthur Selvaraj who did much to teach me how to teach.