Thoughts upon ending Trimester One

Sat for my second and last – for now – exam today.

I actually had fun writing about asymmetric warfare between guerillas versus conventional armies. It’s been a long time since I sat for an exam, but I really enjoyed doing the question, not so much because I had brilliant, earth-shattering ideas, but because it gave me a chance to think through the ideas, instead of being all frazzled sweating the details. I even got the chance to choose my phrasing for rhetorical effect, as opposed to the madness of writing down as much as you can remember or understand. And yes, my handwriting has gotten REALLY bad. So I do empathize a little with my charges. Even though it’s been fifteen years since my last written exam.

Even though it was grueling, I can safely say I survived these 12 weeks. So what are my takeaways from this experience?

Firstly, I’m thankful for good lecturers who make time and try to make learning as meaningful as possible, given the constraints of adult education and all. Of course there were hiccups, but good people at the helm make you want to do your best as a student.

Next, I’m thankful for good classmates, especially those in my syndicate, who were a tightly knit bunch and came through always when needed. Whether it was sharing stuff on Dropbox, or giving me a ride to the MRT after class, or just saying hi in the library or along the corridors, it was good to feel solidarity with the people you’re learning new things with, because in one way or another, everyone grapples with the same issues, and it was good to feel you’re not in your own boat suffering alone. Especially important since you can’t really talk about stuff to people at work, who aren’t in the frame, so to speak, although working while studying meant I was always rushing and couldn’t spend more time just chilling with my classmates. I look forward to getting to know more people next trimester, now that I’m finally going to be a full-time student, and more fun times doing group assignments and projects together.

Thirdly, I learnt that we need to do the smart things, not just the right things. I should have prioritised getting started on the term papers sooner, instead of obsessing about getting through the weekly reading load. Rookie mistake, and no matter what people said to me, I suppose it was my way of trying to get a handle on things, what with having to juggle work as well. I realised it’s so important to reflect and not just read read read, that we need to devote some time to actually think about and think through the ideas, the concepts, and the context behind all of them. That’s why I don’t agree with the idea of high-stake exams at the Masters level, because what kind of reflection, synthesis or consolidation can we do with a ticking clock over our heads?

Anyway, I felt I really learned things after sharing views with others, in class and outside, and thinking and reflecting about things. The point is not to get an appreciation of the evolution of strategic thought over thirteen weeks, but to get started on appreciating it, long after the module is over. Similarly, I’m glad I started developing an appreciation for the analysis of defense and security policies over those weeks, especially when my initial impression was that the module was too operational and too utilitarian to be meaningful. I’m glad I got the opportunity to change my mind.

And that said, I’m glad I’m starting to not get obsessed over grades anymore. Of course, it would be nice to ace modules, but at this stage of my life, it’s more important chasing knowledge than As, because you can never catch the totality of knowledge even if you catch As. I personally feel I don’t deserve the grades I got for my term papers, because I really should have disciplined myself to use my time more productively and turn in a much higher quality of work. I want to earn the grades I get, not be the fortunate beneficiary of some bell curve policy. So I hope I will do better next trimester, not necessarily in terms of grades, but in terms of being more academically disciplined. I feel that’s the best way I can be a role model for my charges, since I won’t have any next year.

And finally, I’m glad I had my charges alongside me at the start of this journey. Although it was really difficult having to teach and study at the same time, in the end I benefited most from having to fulfill responsibilities at both ends. Having the privilege and luxury of learning again, of being at the back of the class again after such a long time being off the books, made me all the more resolute to do my best when it came time for me to be at the front of the class. I will definitely miss my charges, and while I will not have the privilege of leading them on the charge over the GP hill next year, I think I have done enough to pass the torch on to better hands.

So what happens now? Most immediately, it’s back to wind down work and then back to school for a brand new Trimester Two starting 5 November. The timetable is already out, and course details and reading lists will follow tomorrow, and before we know it, results will be out next month. So I suppose there’s not much time to catch a breath, literally, but it’s important to take time out to pen these things, so that it stands as a record and reflection of what happened when I made the small decision of going back to school this July.

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