December

I am writing my year-end updates in midst of packing for the second phase of my DPhil fieldwork. Tomorrow I will make the journey to settle down for a number of months in a rural community here in Malaysia, where the more intensive, ethnographic component of my research will begin. Currently experiencing some pre-fieldwork jitters. They mirror the kind of nervous energy that often blankets the trip back to the boarding school dormitory of my adolescent years. But more on ethnographic feelings later, from the field!

I wanted to write a little bit about this past year–and more broadly this past decade–before 2020 rears its futuristic head. 2019 is my first full year as a DPhil student. It is a year filled with a lot of thinking, reading, writing (which you can find here in this blog*) and learning about the ways of academia.

* I have tried to stay engaged with issues in Malaysian education by writing letters and op-eds in newspapers. In doing so, I attempted to bring the theories & framings I have picked up along the way into the public sphere. Going forward, writing in Malay seems increasingly urgent for my own intellectual development and also my intended audience.

In January, I took a short trip home to present my MSc research at a conference and also to participate in a workshop by the National Committee for Review of Education Policy (Jawatankuasa Kajian Dasar Pendidikan Negara, JKDPN) on STEM education. A manuscript based on my MSc dissertation is currently under review for a journal (after 2 desk rejections elsewhere!). I am learning that the path of academic publishing is a winding one indeed with many moving parts and elements beyond one’s control. To demonstrate, an article I co-authored with my supervisor which we submitted in September 2018 has only just been published a week ago, after more than 1 year. My first book review was also published around the same time with a shorter turnaround, having received the book in March and submitted a review in May this year.

The true material of knowledge is meaning. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give our lives. – Maria Popova

This year, while preparing for the first milestone of the DPhil, the Transfer of Status (ToS), I had the opportunity to work on a book chapter on postcolonialism in comparative and international education with two fellow DPhils in my department, Arzhia and Olga. We’re currently awaiting further feedback from reviewers on the edits following the round of editorial feedback a few months ago. It is a privilege indeed to have thinking partners during this academic apprenticeship. This sense of fellow feeling and an eagerness to build community has blossomed into the Critical Perspectives in Education Collective (CPEC). We organised the collective in the department to bring together like-minded people interested in reflecting on critical theories and perspectives tied to education. The internal journey of the DPhil can at times be an isolating and confusing one. Having a community of friends walking–and to walk–alongside has been indispensable in my experience.

Attending a summer school, a few conferences and being active on Twitter throughout this year have also enriched the DPhil experience, and provided glimpses of the ebb and flow of academia. Unlike previous degrees, the learning that takes place in a DPhil is less confined to the traditional classroom setup of education. At once, it is inward in the deep acts of reflection that it demands (I’ve had my share of sleepless nights), and expansive in that every interaction both within and outside the university has potential matter and material for the DPhil, and for life’s learnings writ large. This expansive dimension can at times be overwhelming, taking over other aspects of life–sometimes it is difficult to ‘switch off’. So I have to admit I am (still) learning to pace myself, to take breaks and engage in non-academic pursuits, to breathe and enjoy being away from the DPhil when I need to.

At the start of this decade (2009), I was in my third year of undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of New South Wales. But around this time back then, I had already plotted a different path for myself outside of engineering, which led me to Teachers College (TC), Columbia University in 2012. I was then fortunate to spend 4 years in corporate philanthropy in Malaysia, working on education projects and learning so much about my homeland. An elective in comparative education back in TC, and a yearning to make sense of my professional experience led me to Oxford, first for an MSc, followed by the beginnings of the DPhil, which will close this 10-year epoch. It has been a decade of much learning both in and out of the academy, and countless opportunities and kind people enabling such learning. I am grateful.

The new year brings with it plenty of new opportunities for learning (in the field and beyond), a few writing projects (with looming deadlines) and the continual development of the academic identity. Heading into the new year, I carry with me the following reminder from Malaysia’s National Laureate Usman Awang about the role of the intellectual:

Peranan intelektuil ialah mengenal masharakat dengan sistimnya dengan sedalam2nya, melihat dengan sikap kritis segala sebab dan akibat. Jadi pergi ke desa, (bukan sebagai ‘tourist’ menyedut udara bersih dan menikmati pandangan alam atau menchari buah2an dimusim durian dan rambutan), tetapi menyoroti desa dan kampung sehingga ke dasar lumpur sawah, ke balik tungku dan dapur yang dingin, ke dasar belanga sumbing, periuk kosong dan pembuluh2 darah anak2 yang berisi kuman malaria. Untuk ini hanya ada suatu jalan saja, yaitu mengintegrasikan diri dengan kehidupan rakyat itu sendiri, mengenal harapan dan chita2nya, menyerapkan duka laranya dan bernafas degan nafas rakyat.

Here’s to 2020!

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