Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Above the Law

Recently, I learned of the passing of a person who had generated lots of controversy because of his outlandish behavior. That individual was the former monarch of Malaysia and sultan of the country's southernmost state. 

As a former British colony, Malaysia -- even upon independence -- kept its tradition of ascribed hierarchies. For that reason, today there are 9 "royal" families. These family groups and their many members, numbering in the thousands, receive not only financial subsidies from the federal and state governments, but special privileges. In short, the common man pays tax dollars to support a system of collective imperial welfare. At the same time, the system makes specified allowances for behaviors from these royals that would not be deemed acceptable of others.

The late sultan, according to many well regarded sources, exceeded the typical limits of his office. In fact, many allege that he was so abusive of his position that his subjects' well being, and at times very lives, were at stake. The story is that he killed several unarmed people: one of his golf caddies for snickering at him after a missed shot and a trespasser who dared to walk too close to the sultan's helicopter.

Oddly, when the man died, the major newspapers of Malaysia responded as if a national hero had succumbed. In the obituaries it was universally stated that he had been loved by his people.

The absurdity of such eulogies hit home when my mother-in-law, a resident of said southernmost Malaysian state, was pressured to wear a black arm band to demonstrate her sadness about the late sultan's demise. Because of his reputation though, this was something she and, according to news sources, a large number of other citizens were loathe to do. This brought questions to my mind:

Where does liberty lie when a person, because of a traditionally ascribed status, stands not just above the law but above common decency? And what aspect of the much vaunted Asian values are on display when government-owned Malaysian newspapers as well as government officials and other members of the entrenched aristocracy treat the passing of such an individual as an event that should publicly mourned with grand respect?

I welcome your opinions. But be careful. According to a number of sources, the Malaysian authorities are on the look out for bloggers who get too nasty when writing about their wayward former king.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

She Bop

In a lecture that I attended today given by Professor Emeritus Sandra McKay, a sociolinguist from San Francisco State University, she discussed some of the implications that English becoming the paramount global language might have for teachers of English in places like Singapore. One focus of this discussion was on the sort of feedback that teachers should be giving developing student writers in light of contemporary " sociolinguistic theory" that posits that all varieties of English have legitimacy.

Generally, according to McKay, one important issue is this: It is easy to see that new lexical items (think new base verb forms, for instance, "to google" and "to sms") appear then quickly gain global acceptance and legitimacy. Similar innovations in grammar may develop, such as the way that people worldwide who use English as a second language (and the number of these far outnumbers that for whom it is the first language) often drop the "s" on simple present verb forms in the third person singular: she bops >>> she bop. However, acceptance of such a change in grammar is very slow to develop. In fact, many teachers would consider this an "error" and would make mention of it in feedback to the student.

The question sequence then is this: What should a writing teacher do when encountering such a "drop" of the "s"? Should he or she (we!) accept this drop, seeing it as legitimate, or not?

Let's add a very real context to this: What should I do if and when I encounter an occurrence like the following in a student's blog writing?

I write like this and she write like that. 

I can give McKay's view, but I'd like to hear yours first.  Please give me your opinion and explain why you feel that way.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Have a Green Day

Back in November when I first ordered the mosh pit tickets for the Green Day concert in Singapore, I didn't fully understand the ramifications. Sure, my daughter Billie's excitement about the gig announcement was clear. And certainly I am an admirer of the raucous band's hard-driving music, considering American Idiolyrically and musically one of the most important American cultural statements of the first decade of the 21st century. So I quickly got online and did the Sistic credit-card thing. But the mosh pit?

Should we get tickets for the mosh pit? I asked. Yes! was the response. Our fate was sealed.

Within a week the tickets arrived by mail. After opening the envelope, it suddenly came to me: I saw on each ticket the ominously printed section name: Pen A. Oh to feel like a soon-to-be caged (and slaughtered?) animal.

Months passed, the holidays came and went, and I had nearly forgotten about the concert and the mosh pit. Apparently, I had also overlooked Green Day's appeal, even here in Singapore. The day before the concert Billie asked me when I'd be home from work, in the same breath suggesting that we head to the stadium venue by mid afternoon in order to have a chance to get in early and get close to the stage.

What? Mid afternoon? I asked incredulously. Why?

I was remembering how two years earlier we'd gone to WOMAD Singapore at Fort Canning, and for the concert by Britain's Asian Dub Foundation, we'd waited to the last minute to go and still gotten choice spots alongside the stage. This would be different, I'd imagined.

I'd still balked, but I came home from school by 4pm so that we could leave the house by 4:30. When we arrived by taxi at the stadium grounds, I was surprised so few cars were in the lot. There ya go, I thought. No one here yet.

Right on one front, but generally wrong! What was true was that no one who could drive a car was there yet. After a detail of security dudes directed us to the line for Pen A, we discovered, hidden under the eaves of the stadium, at least a 150 fans sitting on cold concrete in a line cordoned off by a thick purple strand of theater rope. My guess at the average age: 18 or so.

Still, things were calm---it wasn't anything to worry about. So there we sat for nearly two hours, amidst the developing line and growing piles of burger wrappers. But that was just the beginning. As more fans arrived, the buzz became more palpable, and then just after 7, the doors were opened and through the turnstiles we quickly went. Unlike the fans in several of the stadium concerts I'd been to in the distant past -- seeing The Who in Cincinnati and the Stones (twice) in Cleveland come to mind -- these kids were amazingly well behaved.  In fact, once through security, I was one of only half a dozen people I saw running for the front!

Easy as pie. I got right up to the chest-high metal barricade separating the mosh pit area from the stage. And that's where we stood as the arena filled. And filled. And filled some more. And the more it filled, the tighter our space became. Finally, just before the opening band got on stage (a rather dull and pompous glam rock group named Prima Donna), I realized that yes indeed we were penned against the barricade. The only way out would have been via "life flight" care of the muscular bouncers who stood just opposite us, smiling in their own spacious comfort zone.

Then came the moment we'd all been waiting for, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool running on stage, and the audience sway became a tidal wave.  It seemed that everyone behind us, from little Malay dudes in colored hair to Indian girls with nose rings, wanted to enhance his or her position so as to see these musical heroes. With hundreds of cellphones and video cameras held high, with sharpened elbows plying for the perfect screen shot, the impassioned fans heaved into a collective mass of humanity. Luckily, I was able to hold my own in the fray (and protect Billie), but smaller characters, including a skinny 15-year-old Chinese kid Billie had befriended back in the initial line, now fought for a breath as they were squeezed more and more. From the rhythmic force of the first bars of the first song, a power surge ensued, and the crowd's moans and bellows followed.  Within our immediate view, at least a dozen kids soon were begging the bouncers to be plucked out of the maddening throng. (After being lifted over the barricade, they were escorted out of the front of the arena to the back, from where they could still watch.)

Up on stage it was all a 21st Century Breakdown. What excites fans about Green Day is the high energy level and great execution. These guys play with a maniacal conviction. No one hits the drums (or loses drumsticks) like Tre Cool. No one pinches the bass strings (or his brow) like Mike Dirnt. And then there is Billie Joe, a bit of a Charlie Chaplin character: one part poetic genius, one part circus clown, and three parts masterful communicator/lead singer/rhythm guitarist of one of the hottest bands on the planet. The band's three more anonymous sidekicks are all heady musicians as well.

In action, Billie Joe and Mike run from one end of the stage to the other, they jump, they slide---all the while kicking out song after song after song. They also interact with the audience in a manner that I've never witnessed, Billie Joe going so far as to invite the entire audience to sing along as he did with "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," or asking volunteers from the crowd to come up to strut their own stuff and to not just sing along but to hold court---king or queen for a moment in the evening. One young Malay dude with green hair was just such a lucky invitee. Though his vocals were mediocre, he used his chance under the hot lights to imitate Billie Joe with quite a bit of finesse, much to the band's obvious satisfaction. After his singalong through "Longview," he and Billie Joe embraced, then Billie Joe slipped a fat envelope into his back pocket: money or back stage pass?

Back in the mosh pit, life had become a bit more civilized. Yes, personal space was lacking. Yes, the breath of the tall Chinese kid beside me was repugnant. Yes, my neighbors' hand-held cameras occasionally slipped too far into my view and I was forced to push them away. But we were all in it for the music, and in that way, we bonded, even if only momentarily, chanting along: ole ole ole ole, or hey oh, I say, hey oh!

The music went on non-stop for two and a half hours, the musicians showing not just a great talent for reproducing the gems from their albums but also very serious athleticism. When Billie Joe finally bid us good night and then completed his introductions of fellow band members, no one was fooled. We knew an encore would follow in the form of the classic songs, "American Idiot" and "Jesus of Suburbia." What none of us might have suspected though was that a medley of three more songs would follow --- "Last Night on Earth," "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "Time of Your Life"--- all played  commandingly in acoustic solo fashion by the singer-songwriter himself.

By the time the last stroke of Billie Joe's clangy guitar faded into the rafters, the mosh pit had become as meaningful as a giant womb, with each of us finding a sort of collective calm in a cultural experience of accelerated worth. No regrets, I then thought to myself. Not on this day.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bricks in the Wall, or What?

In much of the educational process throughout our lives, we as students want to be taught. In fact, we expect that our teachers/lecturers/professors "give" us knowledge, we see ourselves as receptacles for a particular content, and we submit ourselves to this process often without questioning its linear fashion, assuming that the educator knows best and that he or she has our best interests in mind.

Here are two quotes that for me throw a different light on the educational process. I would like to know how you view either one of these statements (or both) in the context of your own study.

Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.

Booker T. Washington


A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them.

Mahatma Gandhi

If I said that these two statements reflect to a large extent my own philosophy of education and my expectations for not just teacher-student interactions in the courses I "teach" but even the way I structure my classes, how might you the student respond? Would you want to reconsider your decision to join my sessions -- and perhaps even withdraw immediately -- or might your curiosity be stimulated?

I look forward to reading responses to thoughts on these issues.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Science and Art of Effective Problem Solving

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Multicultural Critical Theory. At B School?," author Lane Wallace describes how, in light of the recent worldwide financial crisis, a large number of prominent American university business schools are rethinking their curricular offerings to include a greater focus on what was once seen as the cornerstone of not a business education but a liberal arts one: critical thinking. One aspect of such thinking that Wallace mentions is “problem framing,” whereby students are asked in their studies to "think more broadly, question assumptions, view problems through multiple lenses and learn from history.

Do students at NUS think critically? Do the modules they take require them to "think outside the box" and explore alternatives that might be shaped by a deep understanding of historical precedent or radical perspectives?

Further, do students think through complicated issues while taking into consideration any moral imperatives?

If you are an NUS student, I'd like to know what you think of your university education in the context of how this education has already facilitated your development of critical thinking skills.

To read the Wallace article, go here.