The Good Professor

« Les professeurs sont irremplaçables : ils vous apprennent à apprendre. »

– Julien Green

So this afternoon I was reading Nico Lang’s article ’21 Things Students Shouldn’t Do When Sending A Professional Email’ on Thought Catalog. My initial reaction was that 95% of me actually agreed with what he was saying: never list your accomplishments from Elementary or Middle School on your resumé, never list your mom as a reference (except if you also share a professional relationship with her), never ask the professor what a cover letter is, never leave your subject line blank, never ask the professor to do the work for you, never use 8th grade capitalization, never leave off the periods, never be a douche (although what a ‘douche’ means could be open to interpretation)… I mean, all of this is pretty common sense, really.

In his list Mr. Lang (as the author specifically prefers to be called by his students) also forbids his students to do the following: “Never leave off your last name on the e-mail signature, never refer to me by my first name only, never refer to me by anything that isn’t my name, my job title, or “Sir” (especially not by the following words: dude, friend, man, compadre, comrade, bro, broseph, brosephilus, or The Holy Broman Empire), never talk to me like I’m your peer.” But then as I reflected on the relationship I had with my professors at the University of Western Australia it struck me that this article was actually quite ethnocentric, in the sense that Mr. Lang wrote it based on his conceptions of how a professor-student relationship should be like, which, to put it simply, is far from universal.

I thought Mr. Lang sounded exactly like the typical Malaysian professor, who would stress on putting excessive emphasis on the ‘Professor’ and/or ‘Doctor’ part of his title rather than on his actual expertise in his field, which is in itself very questionable if you read their lamentable journal articles with so many grammatical errors that the meager task of reading them literally felt like trying to cross a field with land mines all over it. The huge disparity between the prestige a professor enjoys which supposedly comes from their academic expertise and the low-quality works they produce was initially a huge mystery to me, until I later found out that some of our local professors have a bad habit of plagiarizing their students’ works — very appalling considering it is usually the other way around.

Here’s how things sometimes go down in our local so-called ‘academic institutions’: The professor pays his Masters or PhD students to become his research assistants, a job which apparently entails doing the research as well as the write-up of the data, usually to be published in some sort of academic journal. The professor’s job involves only two things: enjoying the grant money and also to add his name — “Professor Datuk Doktor XYZ” — as the author of the article, which was in truth entirely researched and written by his students/research assistants.

I remember reading what I now think must have been one such article (written in English) from a local journal, which was published by a group of professors all with fancy titles preceding their names: Professor Datuk Doctor X, Professor Madya Y, Professor This, Professor That. The article sadly had no objectives, no argument of substantive nature, no clear structure, but it does have this: many, many, many grammatical errors. I even found the word ‘poligamy’ (or perhaps it was ‘polygami’) in it.

I, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the production or the publication of the article, felt so ashamed to be reading this piece of shit our local educators felt worthy enough to be deemed as a ‘legit academic piece of work’ publishable in an academic journal that I simply couldn’t finish it; I put it down, and pondered for a moment what kind of future peers my age studying in local institutions would have if they were gaining knowledge from pitiful works as mentioned above. I knew this couldn’t be the work of professors, and if it was then I seriously wonder how they all managed to pass their PhDs and earn the title of ‘Doctor’, which certainly puts their social and academic credibility on the guillotine.

This contemptible species of human being has been vehemently condemned by the more serious academics we are privileged to have in our academic scene today such as Professor Zainiy Uthman, whose talk I’ve had the pleasure of attending a couple of months ago, and Professor DiRaja (Regius Professor) Ungku Abdul Aziz, who was the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya from 1968 to 1988. Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz even bestowed a most decorous title to these pitiful professors: professor kangkung. The professor kangkung is, as described above, all talk and no action, ridiculously pompous and self-centric, and would step on other people to get to the top. To them the university or academic institution is a battlefield where respect, power, and prestige are to be won, not a garden where the youth are watered and nurtured with wisdom and knowledge. The title of ‘Professor’ or ‘Doctor’ that they so proudly carry with them is in truth not at all a reflection of their academic prowess, and the respect and prestige they enjoy is unearned, and is probably something conjured entirely out of their own imagination and fed by their students who worship them to earn favors and to get a four-flat CGPA every semester.

In Malay culture and also in Islam we have been taught to respect our educators, who are among our most important sources of knowledge in this world. Indeed, our educators from the past couple of generations were highly respected by society, a respect which I believe comes from parents who show much gratitude to the teachers for educating their children. My paternal grandparents were both teachers, and long after they have retired and even passed away, they were still referred to by their friends and our family members with the title ‘Cikgu’, which means ‘Teacher’ in our language. My mother also taught Mathematics and Economics in secondary school too for a few years, a job which she did not actually enjoy much and was glad to leave just before our first move to Colombo, Sri Lanka. However, a couple of times when we went to the optometrist’s in Batu Pahat to make a new pair of spectacles, she met her past students who still remembered her and her classes and still called her ‘Cikgu’.

I too have always been taught by my parents to respect my teachers, a crucial ingredient for success because without it we students will never get baraqah — blessing — from the knowledge that they have bestowed upon us. You can only imagine my disappointment when I discovered that there is this suspicious new breed of professors growing in our local institutions which could potentially jeopardize the integrity of our local education system and also the future of our graduates.

I am, without a single doubt, blessed to have had the opportunity to study under the tutelage of a team of very experienced, highly respected, yet also laid-back professors both at the primary institution where I did my Bachelor’s, UWA, and also my exchange university in Paris, l’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (also known as Sciences Po for short). At both universities I referred to my professors by their first name, often dropped by their offices unannounced and would still be welcomed very warmly, signed off my e-mails with just my first name and never my last name, went up to them many times for a short discussion on any topic or to ask any question and they would always listen attentively and respond in a way that made me feel as if all that heart-pounding waiting episode was totally worth it.

I even called one of my professors at Sciences Po by the wrong name in an e-mail once (I called her ‘Céline’ instead of ‘Cécile’, which must have been because I was writing an essay about Louis-Ferdinand Céline for another unit at that time), but she just brushed it off and was completely cool about it. At the end of my semester at Sciences Po, one of my professors invited the class for drinks at a pub somewhere in the 19e arrondissement. I joined solely for the conversations of course, and it was amusing to see my professor down one glass of beer after the other. By the time I bid adieu to everyone at ten P.M. (at sunset), my professor was virtually half-drunk already, but still had the graciousness to offer me advice for postgrad studies should I be in need of it. At my second graduation ceremony last March, I met my supervisor and his wife and introduced both of them to my family, took photos with them, and just generally had a great time.

During my last trip to Perth, my supervisor, M, invited me for coffee at the University Club, which was such a nice treat considering the Club is unofficially off-limits to us undergrads. Over his flat-white and my hot chocolate, we talked about everything that never had the time to come up during the many meetings we’ve had while working on my Honours research last year. He told me that his father worked in forestry, and that he initially did his Bachelor’s in Architecture. He was drawn into Anthropology after working on a project which looked into housing for the Aboriginals, which led him to do further research on the slums of Southeast Asia. He is now a highly-respected expert on the Philippines. I talked about my family, my brothers, my nomadic childhood, but I didn’t tell him the price of the life we’ve led.

And then we talked about my future in Cambridge, which seemed surreal then and still does now. M had been one of my three referees who supported my application back in December. My application was a rushed last-minute job completed in six days. I harbored no prior thoughts, dreams, or fantasies of applying to Oxbridge, but just two weeks after my assessments for Honours officially ended, I looked up what postgraduate programs were offered at these universities (I swear, just for fun and out of pure curiosity) and found that the application deadline for Cambridge was in less than a week, on December 4th. This threw me in a panic for some reason, perhaps because I didn’t expect it to be so soon. I looked at the application process, which required a comprehensive research proposal, at least two references and, of course, at least a First Class Honours for admission into the PhD program — all of which I didn’t yet have at that time.

In the following five days I managed to complete my research proposal, got two of my professors to write a reference for me, but the third one was still MIA (but I managed to track her down when she returned to Perth soon after that, thank GOD). M submitted his reference just a few hours before the deadline, which he said he did right after he finished marking his exam papers. I was so relieved! I remember checking my e-mail at three in the morning and just feeling overwhelmed at the fact that my supervisor would write a reference to support my application on top of the existing pile of work in his plate , even if it meant doing it at two A.M. I am forever grateful to you, M.

When M brought up Cambridge over coffee that day, I said the offer was completely unexpected, as my whole application was done last minute (by this I meant my research proposal above all, which I wasn’t sure contained anything of substantive nature). I think M must have thought that I was referring to his last-minute reference submission, as he replied (in his typical light-hearted manner of course), “Well, I wrote you a great reference, that’s why you got in!” Sometimes I still cringe at the thought of how grateful I must (or might) have sounded that afternoon, which was not at all my intention and would have been unpardonable considering all that he has done for me.

I was, and still am, very nervous about this whole Cambridge thing, but M was extremely excited about it. He said the most surprising thing I’d heard from him that afternoon: “I quite envy you, you’re going off to Cambridge for your PhD! I wish I could do my PhD all over again!” His frankness threw me off guard, but at that moment I finally understood how youth and this rare academic opportunity is truly a privilege, and whatever obstacles that may come in the next few years, these too shall pass and I will look back on that time very fondly as I do now with my undergraduate years.

M has been fully supportive of me to this day, and I think his support has been one of the things, besides my mother and brothers, that have kept me going last year. If I’d been enrolled in a local institution, there is a high probability that I might not be blessed with an equally supportive professor. I’ve heard of some really amazing stories of our local professors, but I’m still quite suspicious, as I’ve personally met a couple of professors at my brother’s university who wouldn’t give students the time of day, even if it’s just to sign a couple of papers. Nevertheless, I have also met a couple of our professors who exude discipline, academic rigor and commitment, as well as personal integrity; needless to say, most of these professors were educated overseas and were also in disagreement with the devious ways in which the professor kangkungs out there operate.

I have always believed that selfish and unhelpful people aren’t fit to be educators because it requires an enormous amount of selflessness to educate and impart your knowledge with others. The teachers and professors I have met have all fortunately been just that — selfless — and there wasn’t a single time in my undergrad when I felt like they didn’t want me to succeed. Back then I never felt like I was ‘forced’ to go to a lecture as some of my friends did; I went because I was the one who should show gratitude that the professor was going to come in that day and give a lecture, even if it is his or her job and he or she was paid to do it. We would be fools not to grab this opportunity.

I am not a rock, standing strong and steady against the face of the wind on my own; I am more of a house, built gradually over the years with the knowledge and guidance from the many educators in the many institutions I have attended and perfected by the many errors and failures I have committed in this life. Sometimes cracks may show on the walls and the pain may look weathered after a while, but there will always be someone ready to show me how to fix me, and I am always grateful for their presence.  

I wrote this post to celebrate all the good professors in this world out there, in particular M who has made a huge difference in my life. Thank you for the countless hours you’ve sacrificed for, and invested in us. Thank you. 

[This post was written partially in response to Daily Post’s ‘I Am A Rock’ and ‘We Can Be Taught!’ challenge.]

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3 thoughts on “The Good Professor

  1. Pingback: I can’t do this by myself | Natasha's Memory Garden

  2. Pingback: Over Due | litadoolan

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