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Back to the Future: History at NTU

Constellations, Issue 5

Catherine Chong and Zoe Deborah Tauro

Jun 30, 2020 | Articles

Questioning the value of History, engaging with the past to better understand the present, and finding new ways of approaching antiquity, are just a few of the pursuits undertaken by the innovative and dynamic group of scholars that make up the History department at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Over the past few weeks we have spoken to many of the talented professors in the department to ask them what inspired them to research and teach within this vibrant and varied field, and about their own diverse ongoing projects.

Associate Professor Hallam Stevens, the Head of the Department, is the first to note that History, as an academic subject, “suffers from an image problem”.

When we think of History, we often assume that we will simply memorise names and dates and note the repetitive mistakes that humans make. At JC, the study of History is often confined to a regurgitation of facts and a sample essay question may be: “How important was leadership in the development of the nationalist movements before World War II?” However, memorisation for the sake of standardised testing is far from the reality of the study of History at NTU.

Associate Professor Stevens’ primary aim is to run modules that incite the delighted response: “I didn’t know that was history!” Accordingly, the History department teaches a social history of ordinary people. He lists the history of food, religion, belief, and the moral world, as a few examples that he hopes undergraduate students will find familiar; this is not the study of grandiose figures, but of the local and recognisable.

The department constantly places history within the expanding field of knowledge at NTU, forging connections with other departments throughout the university. Recognising that NTU is an engineering institution at its heart, he outlines a vision “to connect history to business, science, environmental studies, engineering, and art, design, and media”, thereby fostering an interdisciplinary model of historical research that remains relevant to the changing environment experienced by students. This enthusiasm for innovation and fresh connections translates into a wide range of electives that cultivate an interest in historical areas that are not nation specific. Instead, the department offers modules that are transnational and global in scope; studies in world history permit a “cross practice synergy with other departments”.

Consequently, a block of applied history courses are currently being designed for undergraduates that offer specific skills in areas such as programming, mapping, and museum curatorship, and these will help provide an easier route into the world of work.

Associate Professor Park Hyung Wook echoes this vision when he describes history as “an open discipline” that has the capacity to “broaden our view of the world” and develop “expertise in critical thinking” thereby offering “flexibility to engage with a number of important jobs” such as teachers and curators. Assistant Professor Faizah Zakaria also mentions that History graduates find careers in public service positions, policy making, NGOs, the financial sector, social work, and journalism. These are viable career pathways that require the development of good writing skills and an ability “to see past polarisation to see how an argument is constructed”.

The improvement of students’ skillsets is essential for them to compete within today’s economy. Associate Professor Farish-Noor, who works in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, gives an example from contemporary historiography: “dates are becoming redundant; the emphasis is on interdisciplinary approaches – history is not canonical, it is more important how you interpret data”. He states that history is “more than facts and data”, but the framing of those facts which often problematise the past challenge the “truths” we previously accepted as fixed. He categorically states:

“There is nothing fixed about historical facts.”

Food

Within the department there are two courses on the history of food: History of Food in China which is taught by Assistant Professor Michael Stanley-Baker and Feasting and Fasting: Food and Drink in History by Prof. Stevens. History of Food in China allows students to study Chinese history through the lens of food and food practices from pre-Imperial China all the way to present day and to consider food in relation to culture, tradition, agriculture, technology, migration, and globalisation. Meanwhile Feasting and Fasting focuses on the economics of purchasing food, preparation, and the rituals associated with eating, and offers students the opportunity to investigate the evolution of table manners and cutlery!

The Climate crisis

During this period of climate change and environmental crisis, Prof. Farish’s research addresses the need for new models of engagement with the land to create sustainable practices of living.

Prof. Farish is interested in alternative energies in Southeast Asia and investigates why some countries in the region find it easier to switch to new, alternative, clean energy sources, while others still rely heavily on oil and gas production. He locates the answer in the Dutch and Spanish empires; the Dutch found oil supplies in Indonesia while the Spanish never located such resources in the Philippines. Creating a form of carbon lock-in, this legacy can still be seen within the Indonesian economy while the Philippines is currently utilising renewable energy sources such as hydropower, geothermal and solar energy, and wind power. In identifying “the long shadow of the 19th century”, Prof. Farish explains that we never truly leave the past behind, stating:

“All messes are engineered rather than ontologically given.”

He has two articles in Biblioasia, an NLB journal. One is an upcoming article called “Love In The Season Of Durians” and another titled “Don’t Mention The Corpses” which examines colonial literature produced by colonial bureaucrats, colony-builders, administrators, European travellers, as well as soldiers and military personnel in SE Asia from the 18th to the 19th century.

Language and History

History classes in Singapore typically respond to British colonial rule from 1819 to 1963.  Prof. Farish also investigates colonial history and notes that this “violent process” was combined with “epistemic and linguistic violence” that led to the redefinition of the language we communicate in – English. During colonial rule, prostitution was legalised and the “oriental woman” became legible as a symbol of both femininity and sex, a conflation that can be identified in gendered behaviours today in relation to the unpaid female labour of housework and childrearing. This gendered segregation is a clear framing of the other and hence, allows us to see that “bias lies in the way we discursively construct work”.

Spiritual Anthropocentrism

Prof. Zakaria’s current book project entitled, Spiritual Anthropocene: Ecology of Conversion in Maritime Southeast Asian Uplands, investigates the conversion from animism to Islam within the Southeast Asia region during the nineteenth century and the ways in which this shift directly affected perceptions of nature. By charting the shift from agrarian to industrial societies, her work foregrounds the figure of the elephant, both as an animal that characterised the charisma of kings as they captured and tamed them and as a mode of transportation. Amidst the transformation into an industrial society, human interactions with the landscape changed; the creation of roads and highways excluded elephants and altered perceptions of them from one of respect to one in which they became a nuisance.

Prof. Zakaria’s work asks how we might learn from the relationship between humans and elephants through mutual connections to the spirit world in order to find kinder ways of living in harmony with the planet.

Magic

While talking to Prof. Zakaria, we also had the opportunity to discuss magic and its role in the history of Indonesia. She shared with us details of rituals designed to calm volcanoes and revealed the support and opposition these rituals receive. We were fascinated to hear about her interest in the forest faiths of indigenous groups and the revival in animistic faith. The latter refers to the belief that all objects, places, and creatures have a spirit, and this is still practiced in Indonesia today.

Prof. Zakaria also won the Golden Point Award in 2017 for her short stories written in Malay that express history in non-academic prose in order to “access the truth of it”. History as a subject lends itself very well to other creative forms of expression, especially writing, since it enables the reader to find a different way in to another time and place – to another past and back to another future.

Material History

Prof. Farish also has an interest in material history; this is the study of objects and the stories that are connected to them. The mass production of glass, for instance, complicated the boundaries of the home as the private and public spaces became less distinct; the private gaze was permitted to leave the realm of the home and survey the public space beyond while the public gaze could pass through the glass to view the private interior.

Histories of Ageing

We also met Prof. Park whose ongoing research challenges conventional ideas about ageing and questions what it means to age successfully. He describes how the normal process of ageing was defined by medical scientists who used highly educated, middle class, Caucasian individuals as the default, placing ageing into conversation with class and race. His research acknowledges the problematic consequences of this conception; in deciding what is desirable within the ageing process, medical scientists also determined what was undesirable too. This project aims to relocate and reframe normative ideas around ageing to be more inclusive so that we don’t operate on a one-size-fits-all type of approach.

Prof. Park’s current project is titled Aging and Immunity: A Historical Research on Gerontology and Immunology in the United States and the United Kingdom, 1900-1960 and he currently teaches on the History of Science and Technology (HH1004), History Of The Body (HH3019), Health and Illness In History (HH2007), and History Of Biomedicine (HH2027) modules.

Performing Spaces

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman draws on the language of theatre to understand social interactions. This connection between performance and behaviour underpins Prof. Stevens’ current work which studies scientific spaces such as Biopolis in Singapore and BGI in Shenzhen. He asks how Biopolis is performing as a building? How is the costume of the lab capable of changing our social presentation? How does it perform for an implied audience? How can something like DNA sequencing be read as a choreographed series of actions? Building on Goffman’s theories, Prof. Stevens’ research investigates the presentation of the self within daily life, how we take on different roles within forms of social interaction. We rarely think of scientists performing in the theatrical sense, however, Prof. Stevens’ research invites us to consider the multiplicity inherent within the socially presented self.

He currently teaches modules on History of Information Technology (HH2017), Science and War (HH2020), Biotechnology and Society (HH3010), and Science, Technology and Science Fiction (HH4020)!

Materia Medica

Materia medica are Latin words that mean matter and medical, literally defined as medicine and substances used within healing, Prof. Michael Stanley-Baker leads a Digital Humanities project entitled Materia Medica in early Imperial China which examines the movement of drug knowledge across Buddhist, Daoist, and other pre-modern Chinese medical texts. By carrying out word searches across vast selections of texts he and his team are able to study the migration of drug knowledge across languages, regions, and time to see which healing practices are being performed in different parts of China. They are even able to see where texts were found in relation to the herbs they reference, demonstrating how plants were being traded and transported across the land.

Besides teaching modules on food, Prof. Stanley-Baker also runs modules on Science, Technology and Medicine in Modern East Asia (HH3002), History of Chinese Medicine (HH3040), and Biopolitics and East Asian History (HH2015). He also teaches medical humanities courses at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

With these varied and exciting approaches to researching our past, there are many opportunities for further discoveries as our understanding of history evolves. Prof. Stevens’ describes the History faculty as “a diverse group of young scholars within 10 years of their PhD, all going in new directions”. This vitality and energy empowers students to pursue their own interests across many areas of study. Singapore is a crossroads for both people and ideas.; it is a diverse island where the histories of various Asian cultures have been carved into the fabric of the past. Studying in Singapore offers unique perspectives on what it means to be a global citizen. You can experience the effects of Asian history on the people around you, from local, regional and international perspectives.

Why not leave your mark in History by studying with us at NTU?

The present is in your hands, you can accomplish anything.