Monday, November 18, 2013

Blue Lenses over Yellow Landscapes

Yesterday's drinking party, we had a "what was your biggest regret" moment going around and this morning, I was asking myself the same question. I figured this wasn't my regret per se, but something of a missed opportunity.

As much as I am critical of the scholarship schemes in Singapore, I do not deny the fact that it has provided opportunities to people who might not have them, to study overseas in subjects that are unavailable in Singapore. I suppose I wasn't one of the "chosen" ones, nor do I come from a rich family who could finance my studies in Geology at Imperial College London. I have moved on and this sparked a thought within something I struggle all my life.

I suck at math, but do very well in sciences.

What? How can you be good in science but not in math? Well, apparently it is possible to appreciate the theories and have the vision to imagine things that one can't see (I'm referring to Chemistry here), but not be able to do the complex calculations that accompany it. It's not that I can't do math, I just don't do it the way it is expected of me. What do I mean?

I approach math like I approach language, and vice versa. So I draw inferences and imagery from equations, as how I find rhythm and system in the use of languages. What I am always upset about, is that I have been graded as a failure for it. It is a struggle to always having to apologise to people and standards as to why you can't do something the way they want you to. Maybe their ruler is crooked instead of my brain.

All my academic life, I have been something of a (closet) hybrid. Granted that I am more well-versed in one area of study more than the other, however I do not find them mutually exclusive. I was just branded as one or another. I have equal passion for geology as I have for Foucault, and I do enjoy the complex systems of acid-base reactions as I do for creative research methods. Some might label people such as myself as "unfocused". They are probably right. Yet, I cannot help but feel that my interdisciplinary journey has helped me more than it hindered.My friend and I were discussing how it is still important to retain disciplinary boundaries because of the ways in which we are "trained" to see the world represents a unique perspective. By blurring boundaries, we belong to nowhere and everywhere, and as such lose our unique lenses of viewing the world. I agree with her, and I even go further and say that being in two worlds is impossible unless one makes a large personal sacrifice or risk being questioned for everything you do on both sides. However, there is something to be gained by putting blue lenses over yellow landscapes. The view might be greener after we combine our lenses.

I am currently at the crossroads of interdisciplinary work and I find myself being questioned - yet again - by both sides of the fence. I think I have tried my best to field off questions and convince them how and why what I am doing is important. However, there is something to be said about being able to do interdisciplinary work. It's a sexy idea, and like sex, it's overrated unless the two of you love each other very much. Many academics field the idea of interdisciplinary work and many geographers cite positive experiences. However I want to argue that being entrenched in both areas exposes an interesting sort of politics that have gone unmentioned - and it is important to acknowledge these set of politics or else it misleads the researcher into thinking that it is all a field of roses.

It's exhausting to have to be caught in the middle and given any alternative, I'm sure it would be more comfortable to do one thing and do it well - to specialise if you will. However, specialisation takes on many forms - one can also specialise at finding connections between topics, or specialise within the liminal spaces of two fields of study. It is possible to find synergy, where the combination of factors is larger than the sum of its parts. Like every good chemical equilibrium, any external energy source must come from somewhere else outside of the system in the form of external heat sources etc. Alas, good synergist interdisciplinary takes a lot out of the researcher, and to be entrenched in both fields, is like playing the advanced stages of Plant vs Zombies 2, you have to take care of multiple fields of possibilities at once.

It's hard work, a struggle uphill and I'm just starting out at the very beginning of what is a very long journey. Nevertheless, I'd rather be in this position than anywhere else and I'm grateful that I'm in a discipline that historically have always been about exploration. We all do geography in different ways, and I'm glad that pluralism is tolerated here. =)


  1. So... what was the missed opportunity?

    With regards to hybrids, I recall something I said during my last tutorial to my friends. It was a discussion tutorial, and the topic was on conservation biology. Seeing that it was the end of the module, I found it fitting to have a concluding statement to what we do as conservation biologist.

    I told them, "throughout history, whenever there is a plateau in the realm of knowledge and human innovation, old things always combined to give rise to new ideas and vision. We as conservation biologist, have to be the jack-of-all-trades given what we want to achieve, and that places us in the position of being the facilitators in hybridizing whatever that is available in the world to make it a better place, as we have always envisioned. So don't see our need to reconcile different ideas, philosophies and faculties as a burden, but rather as the very thing that we do that gives us the power and strength to accomplish our noble ideas. We are pretty awesome."

    I think in short what I'm trying to say is that, being able to have the inclinations to see beauty in more than just one area of life, its a blessing and advantage in anything that we do.

    1. HAHA the missed opportunity was that I wasn't selected for an overseas scholarship to do geography in ICL, and thereafter, despite having partial funding from Lee Foundation, I didn't have enough in my family assets to go....and the rest is history.

      I admire your analogies from conservational biology, and your positive outlook =) So often, I find myself being negative and cynical, self critical about my own area of studies, that it is easy to forget why I started out on this path at all. But yes, thanks for reminding me!