The most memorable assignment during my undergrad studies was for the English Literature course. It was a group task where we had to rewrite a Shakespeare play of our choice and then performed it in front of our lecturer and our classmates. Our group's version of The Merchant of Venice required Antonio (a part that I had to play) to perform a soliloquy. I wrote a sonnet for him - just for fun.
For Each Passing Season
Shall I compare life to changing seasons
And man to the plants that conquer the earth?
For each passing season there are reasons
And the reasons define mere mortals worth.
In summer time, the reasons are budding
In spring they blossom, in autumn they fall
Then cold winter leads to reasons fading
Bitter snow buries the reasons and all.
Mere mortal I am, and my winter is
Fast approaching and fast coming to end
My reasons and my seasons and my bliss
My joy and my pain and the whole life I spend.
Final farewell my fellow friends for now
I'll bow to my vow, if you would allow.
Here's a recording on SoundCloud
Antonio recited this in prison when he learned that he was unable to pay moneylender Shylock the amount he had borrowed on behalf of his friend Bassanio because his merchant's ship was lost at sea. Shylock demanded to be compensated with "a pound of flesh," or in other words, he wanted to physically hurt Antonio - perhaps to kill him. So the sonnet was some sort of a farewell message. The way I interpreted it, Antonio was quite ready to die for the sake of his friend. He saw his imminent death as a "season," - it was sad, even tragic, but it was also certain and inevitable. Through his soliloquy, Antonio expressed a sincere desire to "bow to his vow," - to answer the call to honour life's natural precepts in the most respectable manner.
Writing the script and performing with my group members were fun, enjoyable times. English Lit was without a doubt one of my favourite courses. But not long after, something shocking and devastating happened which changed the way I wanted to look back at this memory. Just a few months before our graduation, we received news that JC Ng, the beloved lecturer whom we did the Shakespeare assignment for, had perished in a plane crash. She was 33. From being a piece created playfully to remind myself of the good old days, Antonio's sonnet suddenly transformed into something that reminds me of her tragic end, of the fragility of life, and of how brief our candles are - as Shakespeare himself would put it.
Flip sides of the same coin
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult was the first fiction I read this year. The story's main theme is death, though it also deals with questions about life and what-ifs, about love and forgiveness, and about human desires and the pursuit of dreams told through the subjects of Egyptology, quantum physics, multiverse, Irish superstitions, and the job of a death doula. It starts with the main character's brush with death when the plane she was on crashed unexpectedly.
A plane crash. Of all things.
Reading the book brings me back to my memory of the late Ms JC, to my Antonio's soliloquy, to my fear of flying, and also perhaps to my thoughts about death and dying which I've been entertaining since last year. I don't think I'm alone in this, though. I guess pandemic-ridden 2020 had forced a lot of people to think about life and death in ways they never did before.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: Am I afraid to die? Dawn, the book's main character, said that fear of death is a common thing - indeed all fear is a fear of death. Fear of flying is definitely a fear of dying in a plane crash. Fear of snakes is a fear of being bitten to death. Fear of height is a fear of falling to death.
Maybe I do fear my own death - but I guess I fear experiencing the death of my loved ones even more. I guess I'm not alone in this. A lot of married couples I know seem to prefer dying before their spouses do - it's easier to be the one who leaves than to be the one being left behind. I found an echo of this in the book, when it mentions how "every story is a love story," i.e. "love of a person, a country, a way of life." Hence, "all tragedies are about losing what you love" (p. 67). Picoult also writes:
I'm thankful to start 2021 with Daisy Christodoulou's new book, Teachers vs Tech? The case for an ed tech revolution, published in March 2020 by Oxford University Press. In this post, I like to share my personal notes and reflections on some of the important key points.
Christodoulou, who is the Director of Education at No More Marking and the author of Seven Myths of Education (2014) as well as Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment of Learning (2017) - is also an English language teacher. This has made the book all the more appealing to me. To deliver some of her arguments, she offers lots of examples and anecdotes from classroom experiences that resonate with my own. Of course, there are plenty of examples from other subjects like mathematics and science, too - but it is my belief that many English language teachers would find this aspect of the book helpful in so many ways.
The book's Foreword is written by Paul Kirschner. He ponders on the fact that despite all the hypes that surround it, ed tech doesn't seem to be successful in revamping education in the same ways that previous revolutions like the printing press and the blackboard (or the chalkboard) did. At least not yet. In Kirschner's words:
In my working life as an educational psychologist and instructional designer (at the time of writing, over 40 years). I've had to suffer the prophecies and predictions of trend watchers, trend matchers, futurologists, corporations, educational gurus, and eduquacks telling me how information and communication technologies were the next revolution in education. Up until now, these technologies have been little more than expansions of the first two real revolutions.
The questions that we need to ask
The introduction chapter opens with a quote by Thomas Edison from 1913 where he predicted that books will be obsolete and that everything will be taught with "motion picture" in ten years. Echoing Kirschner's sentiment in the Foreword, Christodoulou points at how education today has remained almost similar to how it had been in Edison's time. She writes: "Compared to the change and disruption that technology has brought to practically every other part of our society, education is an outlier" (p. 14).
Christodoulou argues that if education does indeed need to change, these are the two fundamental questions that we need to ask: 1) how do humans learn? and 2) what causes learning to happen? The main theme of the book is to find out "the gap between what we know about human cognition, and what often gets recommended in education technology" (p. 22). According to Christodoulou:
If we can reconnect both education and technology with the research underpinning them both, there is enormous promise for a genuinely successful revolution.
On the last day of 2020, my social media feeds were lined from top to bottom with people reflecting on their 2020 highlights and biggest achievements of the year.
A friend urged me to share what I would consider my biggest achievement. She thought it necessary to celebrate every single achievement, no matter how small, to make 2020 (which undoubtedly had been the hardest year for many) worthy of celebration. I racked my brain, but I couldn't find anything worth sharing. I didn't think I had achieved anything - I had been spending too much of my 2020 on finding healing and trying to survive.
But I posted this on Facebook, nevertheless:
I guess my friend wasn't too impressed with that - but I honestly believed that that was my biggest achievement of the year. I had procrastinated doing that for too long, so to be able to enter the new year with an organised closet was a magical feeling.
But skimming through my friends' posts on my feed got me thinking. Is this what a brand new year is supposed to be about? Collecting trophies and achievements? Well, there's nothing wrong with that of course; it's never a bad thing to have goals and ambitions. But what if I don't want to have any achievement to brag about at the end of the year? What does "achievement" really mean?
I asked a dear friend of mine what she thought was her biggest achievement of the year. This was her reply:
"My biggest achievement is remaining a Christian till the end of 2020. And not running away from God when things became hard."
She also wrote:
"This was God's grace in an ultimate sense, but it also felt like a major achievement somehow."
But aren't all achievements God's grace? I don't think I would ever be able to lift my lazy bones to clean that poor closet of mine if it wasn't for God's grace.
I'm just a book
In addition to overwhelming posts about successes and achievements (which I enjoyed reading - they were like refreshing oasis in the midst of what seemed to be a parched year), I was also bombarded with newsletters about books that had impacted the world in 2020. I love books, and I always welcome these newsletters as they give me ideas on what to put in my reading list for the following year. The books that shaped 2020 from Penguin is one of my favourites, as well as the Best Books 2020 from Goodreads and Most Anticipated Books of 2021 from Times.
As I tried to decide which books to include in my list, I did more than just reading the reviews and synopsis. I also tried to learn as much as I could about the authors. The authors, to me, are always as important as (if not more important than) the books.
I pondered upon it this morning, and this thought came to me:
People can't enjoy a book without appreciating the author.
People can't celebrate a person without glorifying the Creator.
I was reminded then that I'm just a book. Without my Author, I'm nothing.
In the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote:
"Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. "Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest "well pleased." "
When I celebrate my achievements and blessings, I should be giving Him glory. He's the Creator who made this book. He's the Author who writes my story.
Have a blessed 2021.
~ccj, Duvanson, 9.54am
I've never heard of Claude Shannon, till I came across this article about him on Quanta Magazine. Shannon was a genius - a scientist, an electrical engineer, and a mathematician - whose groundbreaking work on communication made possible the Information Age as we know it today.
I know I should read up more about him, about his life, and about his work (and I do intend to, soon) before I should dream about writing a post about him - but I need to make note of how much this article has inspired me. The author David Tse described Shannon as a "lone genius" who "invented the future." I'm not an engineer or a mathematician, and although I'm interested in Information Technology, it's quite unlikely that I would ever have to refer to any of Shannon's writings for my own research in social science (at least for now). But I'm drawn to his approach to the pursuit of knowledge. In this post, I'd like to list down lessons I learned from Shannon's scholarly life as described by Tse in his article. These are lessons that I hope to emulate in my own academic journey, and also in my life in general.
Lesson 1: Aim big
The article revealed how Shannon's work had been impactful since the very beginning. Upon graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and mathematics, Shannon wrote a thesis for his Master's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work ended up being transformative - one that "is now considered to have been the starting point of digital circuit design."
Shannon was clearly ahead of his time. But after achieving a success of this magnitude, he didn't stop there. He moved on to a bigger goal, which was to transform the way humans communicate.
Lesson 2: Look for a unifying point (this might take some time, but it's okay)
Before Shannon published his seminal work A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 (which took him a decade to complete), communication systems had always been about "specific sources" and "physical medium."
Shannon was not satisfied with complying with the way things were. He was brave enough to think out of the box, to ask a question that no one in the field seemed to have asked before. He was looking for "a grand unified theory for communication," - and he found it.
I learned that this philosophy is applicable not only in academic, but also in life. I'm stating this because this lesson resonates with me in more ways than one. Recently, I've been reflecting on the value of finding a unifying point that would harmonise the different aspects of my life, as opposed to treating them as disparate entities. Modern advice seems to advocate compartmentalisation, and for a long time, this is an ideal I've been subscribing to. The pandemic, the lockdowns, having to work from home while simultaneously juggling the needs of my family have made compartmentalising very difficult - almost impossible, actually. Have I been doing it wrong all these whiles? Life consists of different aspects - yes. But these different aspects are so overlapping and intricately intertwined; I can't do one without the other. Maybe compartmentalising, drawing boundaries, and separating different aspects of life as if they're totally unconnected aren't the best ways to go. Maybe harmonising everything through one unifying point is something that I should consider doing more seriously from now on.
The unifying point might be different from person to person. I have decided that my unifying point should be my faith. I hope to write more about this in a future post.
Lesson 3: Simplicity is key
Tse wrote, "The heart of his theory is a simple but very general model of communication." Then Tse went on to describe how despite its simplicity, Shannon's theory captures some very key insights which are crucial in addressing the main issues in communication systems.
A work doesn't have to be complicated to be groundbreaking. I often think (and have been advised to think) that in order to make a contribution in my field, I need to come up with something that's not there yet. In other words, I need to create something new. But Shannon showed that sometimes what's needed is simply to point people towards the right direction. In Shannon's case, it isn't about creating something new. It's about highlighting the obvious stuffs that have gone under the radar because people have been focusing on something else that's more aligned to general intuitions of the day.
Tse commented: "Shannon’s general theory of communication is so natural that it’s as if he discovered the universe’s laws of communication, rather than inventing them."
How did Shannon do it? Through investing all his time and energy on things that he believes matter. Tse offers that Shannon had focused "relentlessly on the essential feature of a problem while ignoring all other aspects." I've been allowing too many stuffs to clutter my mind in my quest towards contributing something that I hope would be valuable. It's time to declutter my life and make things more simple so I can focus on what matters.
Lesson 4: Uncertainty is to be embraced
Shannon was the first in his field to observe that "the key to communication is uncertainty." Tse pointed out that this observation "shifted the communication problem from the physical to the abstract." Uncertainty allowed Shannon to use probability to draw up his theory of communication, which is at the same time a theory of how "information is produced and transferred - an information theory." As a result of this theory, Shannon is known as the "father of information theory."
I'm aware that this article refers to "uncertainty" and "probability" as engineering / mathematical terms in relation to communication / information systems. But at philosophical level, this truth still holds. Transferring the lesson to my own personal pursuit of knowledge, I'm reminded of instances where some things tend to be generally perceived as concrete, physical, and tangible. Treating these things as being abstract and uncertain might invite raised eyebrows. Being the amateur that I am, I often retract despite knowing that I might find something useful if I press on. It would be far from groundbreaking or world-changing, but what I would discover might be helpful in my pursuit of understanding. And this, I believe, is the main reason why I embark on this journey.
Lesson 5: Don't be afraid to be different
The article describes how Shannon's theory has led to "counterintuitive" and "unexpected" conclusions. As a result, he was deemed esoteric by fellow engineers of his time. But if it wasn't for his courage to be different, we might not know communication and information systems as we know them today. Tse pointed out that "Shannon's theory has now become the standard framework underlying all modern-day communication systems." Shannon discovered his landmark theory 70 years ago. He passed away in 2001, but his legacy lives on in the technology that surrounds us today and for many more years to come.
Familiarity gives me a safe place, a feeling of security, a sense of belonging. It takes a lot of courage to do something that no one else is doing, to be alone, to be perceived as a weirdo. But as evidenced through Shannon's life (and the lives of many other prominent scholars and inspiring people who have changed the world), taking the road less taken is not only worthwhile; it is necessary sometimes.
Pruning the Tree versus Adding my Twigs
I'll end this post with Tse's concluding paragraphs:
"When I started graduate school, my adviser told me that the best work would prune the tree of knowledge, rather than grow it. I didn’t know what to make of this message then; I always thought my job as a researcher was to add my own twigs. But over my career, as I had the opportunity to apply this philosophy in my own work, I began to understand."
"When Shannon began studying communication, engineers already had a large collection of techniques. It was his unifying work that pruned all these twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree — one that’s borne fruit for generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers."
Pruning the twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree. That should be the aim.
~ccj, Duvanson, 10.57pm
Tse, David (December 22, 2020). How Claude Shannon's Information Theory Invented the Future. Quanta Magazine. Link
I know this statement is so ubiquitous that it has become almost a cliche, but I still want to write it down because it's so important to me. Here we go: COVID-19 has exposed the reality of digital divide in unprecedented ways.
Sabah, my beloved home state, is not spared. Earlier this year, a video of an 18-year old girl staying overnight on top of a tree in the middle of a jungle so she can take her online examination went viral. Her story even made it to the BBC. But we know that this girl’s experience is not exclusive. In resource-scarce areas where Internet access is more a luxury than an everyday necessity, millions of children are falling behind in their studies. A recent UNICEF-ITU report pointed out that this is true even before 'pandemic' becomes a household word. For many years, hundreds of children in Sabah and Malaysia have had to endure unimaginable things for access to education. It's sad to think that it took a viral video of a girl studying on a makeshift treehouse for local politicians to finally take notice.
Scholars such as Warschauer contended that digital divide is more than an issue of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Digital divide is clearly a sociological problem, and technocentric solutions are not the best answers. The question that I've been pondering upon is this: what will I discover if I try to understand digital divide by making sense of the realities within the social spaces that occupy it?
Bourdieu describes these realities as struggles between an evolving set of roles and relationships in a social domain. I have to embody these struggles in my years of service as a teacher in Sabah rural schools. In this social space, I've tried my best to address learning inequity by utilising digital resources at my disposal to the fullest. I have to learn how to manage the interplay between my knowledge of technology, pedagogy, and the curriculum content. I have to be ingenuous in adopting classroom approaches that make full use of 'anachronistic' digital equipment and snail-y Internet connections.
When I moved to a new social space as a district supervisor, my roles and relationships changed. My struggles in this new space consisted of assisting other teachers to manage the interplay between the three knowledge domains. These struggles inspired my study on ESL teachers TPACK mobilisation and enactment which I did as part of my MPhil. Through the findings, I learned that even teachers who had to teach in the most challenging situations thrived when their knowledge appropriation was properly facilitated.
McKinsey’s report which states (among others) that the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers may have been a bit over-quoted (and have also sparked some debates - here's an example, and here's another one). But I think it accurately highlights teachers' true 'location' in this social dimension. It shows that teachers are at the centre of this sociological melee - whether we like it or not.
I truly hope this project can serve as a small first step towards understanding this better.
Will write more soon.
~ccj, Duvanson, 3.41pm
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.
Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. The MIT Press.
In this post, I like to write about something I learned from my 4-year-old niece Jodi, on the connection between the act of giving and making sacrifices for others.
So, my mum bought a new red dress for Jodi, which she hoped Jodi would wear on Christmas day. For some reasons, Jodi didn't like the dress. She said, "It's too big." But it's not. It's just the right size for her. She also said, "I don't think it's me" - which is very odd for a 4-year old to say. Hmm. I have a precocious niece.
So, to cut a long story short - Jodi did finally wear that dress. It happened after a long conversation with me in my room. It began with me desperately trying to persuade her - by pointing out how beautiful the dress is, how gorgeous the colour, how it would suit the theme of Christmas. "See, Creamer is wearing a red dress, too," I said, referring to myself. Jodi shrugged, told me that's great, and continued to bang mindlessly on my Yamaha keyboard on full volume.
It seemed like it was going to be a miserably unsuccessful attempt, till I felt moved to pray about it in my heart. I asked God if this can be an opportunity for Jodi to learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. I had absolutely no idea what I was praying for at that time, and hadn't a single clue why I said what I said. But right after saying Amen, I felt inspired to tell Jodi about how Moing (that's what Jodi calls her grandma) went to the mall to get that dress for her, despite her difficulty to walk. I told her that Moing paid for that dress with money (Jodi was just learning about how money works). That got Jodi's attention. She stopped playing on the keyboard and asked, "So, Moing has no more money?" I replied, "Well, she still has a little bit." Then I said, "You received lots of presents for Christmas, didn't you?" Jodi nodded. "Did you give anyone a present?" Jodi said no. "How about wearing this dress as a present for Moing?" Jodi said Yes. It wasn't an easy Yes, I could see it on her face. She had tears in her eyes when she uttered that Yes. But it was a most sincere, heartfelt Yes. Jodi really meant that Yes, and she followed it up with her actions. She allowed me to take off the old shabby green dress she had on (it was her favourite dress), and to help her put on the new red dress that Moing had spent her money on, because she loves Jodi so much.
I could still see Jodi's face as I put the dress on her - how she struggled to fight back tears. She didn't even want to look at her reflection in the mirror when I told her how great she looked. It wasn't easy for her, I know. I hugged her and told her she has the most beautiful heart ever, and that I'm very, very proud of her. Then we headed to the living room to see Moing.
How Moing's face brightened at the sight of Jodi in that red dress! Jodi gave Moing a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas. Then she skipped towards the middle of the living room, and - in typical Jodi's fashion - started to twirl around and around and pretended that she's a ballerina.
I think Jodi has decided that the red dress isn't so bad after all.
Sometimes it's okay to wear a dress that I think is too big, or that's just "not me," or that I don't want to wear because I like my old one better. Especially if it makes other people happy. And especially when it's Christmas.
And getting someone a present doesn't always have to involve giving something away. Lovingly accepting a gift - no matter how I feel about it - is akin to giving the giver a present, too.
~ccj, Duvanson, 9.57am
I used to write on my old blog. If you come here from there - welcome to my new home! If you're a new visitor - hello and nice meeting you.
Nothing much here yet, but I'll be writing more soon.
Thanks for dropping by!
~ccj, Duvanson, 4.17 a.m.