USP Lecture Series: The Accidental Philosopher

Edited by: Victoria Chang

Photos by: Ong Yong Jia

Written by: Vanessa Nah

Cold rain and winds on a dark and stormy night were no deterrence to the 50 attendees of the semester’s first session of NTU-USP Lecture Series: The Accidental Philosopher, organised by the NTU-USP Club’s Academic & General Affairs (AGA) committee. In this series, we nominate a NTU-USP faculty member to deliver a short one-hour lecture to NTU-USP students. The catch? Our invited speakers aren’t meant to teach our students. Professors are to imagine the lecture were their last, a hypothetical “final talk” that shares about anything and everything they hold most important in their lives.

A few weeks ago, NTU-USP students from Year 1 to Year 4 went down to Theatre@The Nest to listen to Prof Christina Chuang talk about her life story thus far and her passion for Philosophy. Dressed in a casual navy blue tank top and ripped jeans, Prof. Christina greeted everyone with a bright hello and a big grin, her sparkling personality instantly putting all attendees at ease. She began with explaining how she became interested in Philosophy. A theme running through her entire talk was, true to the title she chose for her lecture, a sense of accidentalness and almost haphazard “planning”, if one could even call it that. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Prof. Christina moved to Canada, back to Taiwan, and then finally California in the USA – a life as fast-paced and exciting as the delightful professor herself. On the topic of how she went to university, she explained to a laughing audience: “I had to borrow money from my parents…and you know what that means right, it means you don’t pay them back!”

Interestingly, Prof Christina entered the University of California as a physics major. After taking a philosophy course in her second year, she found the latter was her true calling. “Philosophy is like physics…” she mused. “You talk about time, you talk about space, you talk about being…but you don’t have to do the mathematics!” More chuckles were garnered, and possibly feelings of relief and kinship too – not all of us have our lives figured out, and Prof. Christina was no exception. As Year 1 USPian Zachary Chin shared, “her life story was very relatable to me […] I admire and truly respect her for living her dreams and making interesting/unconventional life choices.”

Unconventional is certainly a word that was on everyone’s minds during the session. In fact, even after completing her undergraduate studies, Prof. Christina remained unsure of her direction in life. She didn’t really intend to go to grad school, she shared. It was an almost whimsical decision, borne partly out of the fact that after only two years of Philosophy, she felt she hadn’t enough. ”Well, that and the fact that I just didn’t wanna start looking for jobs!” Half-joking and half-serious, the Philosophy professor continued to hold her audience’s rapt attention with her humorous anecdotes throughout the session.

The road to her PhD was not an easy one for Prof. Christina. She received a lot of harsh feedback and criticism from her professors, so much so that at one point, every time she tried to write she would start crying. She shared about how one particular professor (whom she declared rather “neurotic”) told her to start her paper over when she was 70% done – that is over a hundred pages of blood, sweat and tears in writing already. Irate and impulsive, she marched into her supervisor’s office and boldly told her she was fired! “Only after I got another prof to agree to take me on though,” Prof. Christina said sheepishly, reminding us (not for the first time that night) not to be like her. “Mind you, this was six months before graduation. I thought I wouldn’t graduate!”

But graduate she did, and things were smoother sailing for Prof. Christina after that. She heard of a job opening in Singapore and in fact only applied to that one position in NTU. “I got lucky!” she laughed, on how she got the job. She was told she would be teaching Writing and Reasoning to the USP students at NTU.

All in all, Prof. Christina landed the job and has been happily living in Singapore and teaching Philosophy in NTU ever since. In the second part of her lecture, she shared about her research interests and what philosophy means to her – the pursuit of self-knowledge. “It’s not just knowing something, but about being able to know what is in your head.” Concepts of autonomy and alienation also surfaced, as did the link between another passion of hers, yoga, and Philosophy. Prof. Christina shared about how yoga is a branch of Philosophy in Indian tradition, and how she is particularly interested in Samkhya-Yoga and Indian Philosophy, including study of the Bhagavad Gita. She named Rousseau as one of her favourite philosophers, and shared about how she has lately been working on self-deception, in which the deceived and the deceiver are the same person. This brings about a paradox in philosophy because you know p and you don’t know p at the same time – a fascinating absurdity that she managed to explain and pique everyone’s interest with in a matter of seconds. As Year 3 NTU-USP undergraduate Kwang Yi Jing shared, despite “having taken Professor Christina Chuang’s Writing & Reasoning Class over two years ago […] I do recall that those seminars were remarkable because of Professor Christina’s ability to explore and illuminate abstract concepts with uncommon clarity.”

Anyone who has heard her speak can tell Prof. Christina is someone who loves her work. “Some days I go home and realize oh my, I didn’t speak to anyone today except maybe ‘kopi-C’ to the canteen auntie!” Prof. Christina laughed at her own engrossment in her work. This perhaps played a part in prompting a question from the audience: How do you actually do research in philosophy? “Well…I sit in my office?” our speaker joked. “Seriously though, most philosophy professors do standard analytic philosophy, which basically means that they sit there and think. You talk about how other people are wrong,” she summarized.

Another question that was asked during the Q&A was with regards to how she became a vegetarian. Her vegetarianism started about 10 years ago, but not as a result of yoga. Because, in her own words, “that would be kinda lame. I didn’t really do it because I watched or read anything. It might sound like all my other decisions, but literally I woke up one day and I couldn’t eat meat because all I could see was a dead animal!” Always full of surprises, Prof. Christina is someone who always has unorthodox and interesting perspectives, be it on studying, research and even vegetarianism. People think vegetarianism is a cult, she shared, but it isn’t. That is why she doesn’t talk about it or preach it – “It’s just a genuine feeling!”

Nearing the end of the session, Prof. Christina surprised us all by thanking us for being brilliant students from whom she has learnt a lot. “Sometimes, I learn more from USP students than my own philosophy major students,” she admitted. “I tell my colleagues who don’t get to teach the USP, you’re missing out!”

 

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