Sunday, June 16, 2013

Living the (academic) high life

So right now I'm in the middle of a small suite at the Nanyang Executive House, and I'm surrounded by windows. It's quiet, and I love the fact that I can hear myself think. It's the third day of a four-day conference at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) called "Transcultural Imaginaries: Making New, Making Strange" and myself and two other friends are representing the University of the Philippines and presenting papers.

This also happens to be my first international academic conference.

I've never claimed to be an academic, really - certainly, I teach at the state university and I'm proud to be part of this institution that has always been a large part of my life even before I was born (my parents are both university professors, and damn good ones at that, too) but my training has always been that of a writer's craft, not an academic or a critic. So it still feels strange to me to have one foot in the culture of literary production, of storytelling, and another foot in attempts at critical discourse and analysis and meaning-making. I enjoy the act of telling stories, and I enjoy the act of critiquing various forms and structures and techniques, but I feel that I am more confident in the former than in the latter. There's still something inside of me that is deeply suspicious of literary criticism and its languages and hierarchies and the way it problematizes every nuance of every word in any language. There are times when I just want to say, "Let it go. It just is."

And yet at the same time, the rigors of academic theory and analyses are things that, when done right, absolutely blows my mind. I admire academics who can theorize but who seem to have a genuine love for the art and the artistry, who can talk about hegemonies and aesthetics in one breath, who search and talk about knowledge because deep down in their gut, they value knowledge and how it can transform a life. And aren't we all in the business of transforming lives?

I guess that it's easy to dismiss being an academic - to step away from the fancy words and the big ideas and wonder how to apply it to the man on the street, to people back home who live hand to mouth, to my students who might be wondering where they're going to get their next allowance or how much they have left in their pockets before their stipend comes in. And it's easy to feel the privilege of being part of this machinery that churns out monographs and books and publications that only a handful can read, and even fewer can digest. In this context, the question is: why do we keep on doing this?

And yet I am reminded by yesterday's opening address by the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences here in NTU, Professor Alan Chan, who talked about the value of the humanities in the formation of a society - that in the face of technology and material progress, the humanities become the unquantifiable soul of a people, where the discussion of who we are and where we're coming from and where we're going are important questions that need to be discussed, and that each discussion brings us one step closer to the answer we are looking for. And then I am reminded of my own university's dismissal of the arts and humanities and other "unquantifiable" disciplines, where we cannot produce results that can be measured and distilled in a beaker, and is therefore unworthy of support or encouragement from the self-same administration - after all, why pay money for what is invisible?

(And yet, to extend the thought, people donate money to a church where the object of worship is also invisible.)

But this is, I guess, the eternal struggle of the humanities in a world that has come to value the seen over the unseen, where the value of goods and service becomes more important than the value of a human life. Because isn't that the core of the humanities: the keen awareness of the human mind and body and spirit as something unique and worthy of study, of valuation and evaluation, and knowing that each of us has something important to say.

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