Archive for May, 2011

Last week when I was having my monthly meeting with one of my PhD students, we talked about how to stay on top of the vast literature she had to read, and in encouraging her to approach her reading more proactively, I mentioned the fact that I used to often fall asleep reading difficult books. My student laughed and said that she was surprised to hear that; she obviously felt guilty about doing the same when she was studying. Perhaps students think that their PhD supervisors are superhuman, and they never succumb to the same evil forces that cause students to procrastinate, avoid work, hit writer’s block, lose confidence, despair of ever finishing their work, or fall into depression.

Of course, we rarely share our horror stories with students—those weeks of tearing our hair out trying to understand the obscure writing of some theorists, months of struggling with a paper or book that seems to be going nowhere, moments of deep disappointment when our book manuscript is rejected by a publisher, or the times in our lives when all of our problems seem insurmountable.

When we moved from Toronto to Sydney over 25 years ago, our friends Richard and Diana gave us a cute little picture book as a farewell gift: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It was about a boy who woke up one morning to find that he had gum in his hair, his best friends had deserted him, and everything seemed to have gone wrong. The point of the gift was the punchline where Alexander decided that he was moving to Australia.

But of course those who moved to Australia do not always find a land of milk and honey. Our first years in Sydney were difficult and tumultuous. I missed our friends, the network of support we had, and the comfort of the familiar. In a shockingly short time, our 20-year relationship came to an end. And though we tried our best to protect our children against the pain and disappointment of a broken family, the wounds inflicted by the divorce took a long time to heal, and left behind a scar that may never disappear. Even so, life went on, and in time lots of good things happened, and we have all carved out a new life for ourselves. We even became Australian citizens.

It was about this time four years ago that I met up with Richard and Diana at their house in Toronto. They had just moved back from Oxford. I was so pleased to see them again after my visit to England, where on an impulse we went to see Cirque du Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall (and got the worst seats in the house). We had a lovely dinner that night and caught up with all the news about our families and our respective research projects. Even though Richard told me in an earlier email that he had to cancel his keynote speech at a British conference because of some ‘health issues’, I never asked him or Diana about them, thinking that they would have told me if they had wanted to. I said good-bye cheerfully, confident that we would all meet again as we had every few years since I left Canada.

Less than five months later I got the shocking news of Richard’s death. I found out too late that he had been suffering from a painful illness for a few years and it had taken its toll on him. Richard was my teacher, supervisor, mentor, colleague and friend. He was a truly great scholar and probably the world’s most generous supervisor. He was always extremely prolific and full of enthusiasm about ideas and new challenges. Though he had achieved more than anyone I know in both scholarly research and institution building, he was never going to rest on his laurels. That he ended his own life was something I would never have thought possible.

Perhaps like most students, I had always regarded Richard as superhuman; it had never occurred to me that he would need help, or that he would be vulnerable to the dark forces of depression. But what kind of social researcher was I that I never saw that he was struggling, never asked what was wrong, and never found out what happened in the previous years? What kind of friend was I that I waited for him and Diana to tell me?

Today, thanks to some brave public figures and concerned people who openly spoke about the depression they or their family members suffer, we are much more aware of how common and how debilitating it can be. Like Alexander, we sometimes have our ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’ and we often get over it, but we have very little sympathy for those who can’t. Successful people, especially, are expected to be able to ‘pull themselves together’ and ‘get used to it’. On the other hand, people with multiple problems such as poverty, illness, drug addiction and so on, are left to cope on their own with their endless stretches of very bad days.

Maybe the problem seems too big, too difficult for each of us to deal with, so we leave it to governments, the mental heath system, and the experts to take care of. But I am sure that as friends, family, or even strangers, we can learn to recognise the signs, to reach out, to show that we care, and it is just possible that we can make a small difference.


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This is a short introduction I gave at the UNSW Connections in Learning and Teaching Seminar ‘How do we help students to become global citizens’ on 10 May 2011.  

The Concept of ‘Global Citizenship’

According to handout of the seminar, global citizenship involves words such as:

  • Being culturally aware
  • Respecting diversity
  • Acting in socially just/responsible ways.

For me, to be global is to escape the provincial, the narrow vision of our own world, our own interests, our own culture. Both socially and intellectually, to be global is to go beyond the particular, the familiar and the comfort of being accepted. To be global is to push boundaries, to question assumptions, to be curious about what lies beyond, and to take actions that broaden our knowledge and experience.

Citizenship implies a set of rights and responsibilities. To be a global citizen is to see the world as ours to nurture, to preserve, and to keep safe. We have a duty to speak out when human rights are violated, to assist when people are suffering—from man-made conflicts as well as natural disasters, and to respect the sovereignty, values and traditions of all peoples.

How do we engender global citizenship among our students?

There are no easy answers. Students come to university primarily to seek knowledge, to build intellectual capacity, and to secure credentials for future employment. Global citizenship is best developed through courses and activities that aim to achieve the following:

  1. Develop among students a strong awareness of their own identity and place in their community;
  2. Provide a tool-kit for critical and creative thinking, both within their own disciplinary expertise and (eventually) beyond—in other words, a capacity to analyse and innovate;
  3. Encourage an attitude of openness and curiosity about the world and how differences are to be understood and valued;
  4. Develop the skills to communicate to a wide range of people—this may include verbal and written communication, technological knowhow, knowledge of how organisations work, linguistic competencies, cultural awareness and leadership capabilities;
  5. Encourage and nurture participation in activities that broaden experience, strengthen inter-group understanding and connection, deepen commitment to the betterment of society, empower students to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, train students to undertake advocacy roles, and mentor them through projects that require flexibility, innovation and resilience.

How do we know that our graduates have these capabilities?

We may never know, but we can get some idea of this from a number of sources:

  • Self-assessment by students – what changes have they observed in themselves, what skills/knowledge have they learned, what insights have they gained from the courses/activities?
  • Peer-assessment by other students
  • Process and outcome assessments in courses/activities
  • Assessment by employers, third parties
  • Students’ employment (and leadership positions) after graduation and their career path
  • Self-assessment by alumni years after graduation

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This is my first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. I can’t help thinking about how things have changed since my mother’s time and wondering what things will be like for my granddaughter.

Mother was lucky enough to have two grandchildren before she died. My brother married young and his children gave her some of the happiest times of her life.  But mother had died of cancer well before she reached my current age.

Yes, life expectancy was lower in mother’s generation, but she was more at risk than others even among that generation. She was born of a poor peasant family in China. Her father became an opium addict and would have sold her for money had she not escaped from home. Since the age of nine she had worked—doing odd jobs, cleaning, and then as an amah (servant) in Hong Kong. She never went to school but somehow got by, even learning enough English to work for ‘foreigners’. She married a carpenter and had seven children—one boy and six girls, I was the youngest. My father also became an opium addict and was a burden rather than a help. He died shortly after I was born. With the death of two daughters from malaria and one daughter given up for adoption during the war, mother single-handedly brought up the remaining four of us. She worked as a servant for almost 50 years. Poverty meant she had few choices. But somehow she always knew that my life would be better.

Fast forward to today—as a woman of good health, I am expected to live to over 90 years of age. Thanks to my sister and a Canadian family who supported me after mother’s death, I’ve had the kind of education mother could only dream of. With education and hard work, I’ve worked in jobs that pay me a hundred times more than what mother got through hard work alone. With access to childcare and school education, my ex-husband and I were able to bring up two wonderful children. Living in Australia with a healthy economy, a stable political system, and access to one of the world’s best health and social security services, I’ve had a great deal of opportunities and freedoms not available to mother and most women of her generation in developing countries. In my case, education had made all the difference.

My children both have university degrees and are secure financially. They’ve had a relatively privileged life with access to many educational and recreational opportunities. They’ve been supported by networks of friends and extended families. They, like me, have never experienced wars or catastrophes, except through watching the news or reading fiction. But unlike my generation, they are not as hung up about building careers or job security. They are technologically savvy and socially connected. They are creative and adaptive to the challenges of a knowledge economy.

My daughter is a talented writer who shares my passion for creativity. She is now looking after her daughter full time. She is a loving mother, extremely knowledgeable about child rearing theories and practices, and infinitely devoted to her daughter’s wellbeing and development. Though exhausted and sleep-deprived from eight months of broken sleep and on-demand breastfeeding, she has kept up her writing, albeit in a more modest way than before. Her blogs document the ups and downs of her life’s journey, both before and after motherhood. Her Twitter messages not only give regular updates of her daughter’s routines (eg 5 am feed, though she spares us the nappy changes), but also link readers to interesting news and commentaries about recent events. I never tire of looking at the archive of photos and videos of the baby through her Flickr site, and find the new Path app a great delight. Motherhood has never been so rich and so richly documented.

On this Mother’s Day I feel a special connection to my daughter as a mother. I am very grateful that she has made it possible for my partner and me to spend time with my granddaughter every week. As I flipped through the photos and videos of my granddaughter on my iPhone, I relived the joyful moments many years ago of watching my own children learn to sit, to crawl, to walk, to talk… Also rising from the depth of the dusty archive of my memory were forgotten moments of the comfort of my mother’s hand—the world might have been scary, the future uncertain, but for those moments I felt secure knowing that my mother was close by.

Though I often worry about what the world would be like for my grandchildren, I know that what will always propel them towards hope and happiness is this unforgettable and inexhaustible fountain of their mother’s love. That is the mother’s way.

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This is an occasional address I gave at the UNSW graduation ceremony on 1 April 2011. 

Pro-Chancellor, Deans, colleagues, distinguished guests, and new graduates – I am truly honoured to be invited to speak at this graduation ceremony. This is a wonderful occasion to celebrate your achievements—many of you have worked hard for years to get to where you are and I congratulate you wholeheartedly on your success.

But while we’re focusing on success today, I’d like to spend a few minutes to talk about failure and our culture’s fear of failure.

Earlier this year you may have heard about an American professor Amy Chua and her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book is about Chua’s extreme parenting method which she thinks is responsible for her children’s success. I haven’t read the book and I’m sure that it’s a caricature about how a Chinese mother brings up children.

For example, to quote from an excerpt of the book, ‘the Chinese mother believes that …(1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public…’ and, get this, ‘(6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold’.

When I first heard of this, I thought it was bizarre. But then I suddenly remembered this young Chinese Canadian mother I used to know in the 1980s who banned her children from watching The Simpsons. The reason? She doesn’t want them to grow up to be like Bart Simpson—an underachiever and proud of it! That would be every Chinese mother’s nightmare.

So here I am, a Chinese Australian and a mother, telling you that on this wonderful occasion celebrating success, we should talk about failure.  You must be thinking right now that I must be out of my mind.

But what I’m saying is not just a reaction to our cultural obsession with success. I really believe that, at a time of success, we should remember the benefits of failures. Most successful careers come out of successful failures—scientists make path-breaking discoveries after years of failed experiments; engineers design wonderful machines after discarding many unworkable models; authors go through dozens of drafts before finding the right words for their novels.

Let’s not denigrate failures—let’s give thanks to failures, because they are our best teachers. It is through going down the wrong alleys that we find our path to success.

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Business/Higher Education Summit about what new skills will be needed in 2020 and beyond. My paper was about ‘The Necessity of Creativity’. In that paper I argued that learning to be creative is not a luxury, but a necessity, for individuals as well as organisations. This is because the world is changing faster than ever. Computer technologies have transformed how we work and how we communicate. The global financial crisis has destabilised economies. Environmental and security concerns are affecting our everyday lives. Very few people and organisations can afford to stand still, and yet most of us and our institutions are not well equipped to meet the challenge of a changing world.

Many of our workplaces tend to over-emphasise productivity at the expense of creativity and innovation. As the renowned physicist David Bohm wrote many years ago, in order to be creative and original, a person must be able to try something new without being afraid of making mistakes (Bohm 1996:5). Researchers have highlighted the importance of organisational culture for engendering creativity. They suggest that freedom to experiment and constant encouragement are two factors that can make a difference to an organisation’s creativity (Jarvie 1981).

As a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 15 years studying police and police culture. It is well known that in spite of many attempts at reform, police forces are still predominantly punitive bureaucracies. Mistakes are covered up because those who make mistakes are punished.

The organisational theorist Edwin Schein (1985) has written about two different ways of learning in organisations the first is problem solving learning and the second is anxiety avoidance learning.

Problem solving learning is positive and rewarding; it encourages exploration, imagination, and experimentation, but anxiety avoidance learning is negative and defensive; it is ‘one-trial learning’, as long as something works, you repeat it indefinitely rather than try out something new. Most police officers are socialised into a culture that fears mistakes – they know that with literally hundreds of rules in the rule book, the ‘boss’ can get at them at every turn. So, many officers have worked out that the best strategy to survive is to keep your head down, don’t make waves, do as little as possible, and above all, cover your arse.

Sadly, an organisation that punishes mistakes also discourages innovation.

Imagine if this fear of errors were to be shared by other professions. Artists would stop sketching if every mark they make must be perfect.  Authors would be terrified of writing if every word has to be right the first time. Scientists would think twice before conducting an experiment if each trial has to be successful. This is plainly absurd. Surely it’s not failures or mistakes that we need to worry about, it is how we learn from them and get over them that matters.

And yet, we live in a culture where success is paramount: the only losers we celebrate are those who have lost kilograms of fat.

Ironically, management theorists are now recognising the importance of ‘play’ at work for individual as well as organisational performance (Dodgson 2011). Playing involves being free, having fun and stepping outside of real life. Real play is not about making profit, impressing your boss, or producing an outcome. It does not worry about mistakes. The only failure in play is not fully engaging in its playfulness. To include play in work seems to make no sense – and yet, for organisations that strive for new ideas and innovations, play in the form of exploration, modelling, prototyping, experimentation, or just plain tinkering is precisely what is needed to stimulate creativity and produce innovative products.  Not every workplace can be like Google, but wouldn’t it be great if they were?

So as you walk out of this university, as you enter the wonderful world of work, I want you to remember what one of my art teachers told me many years ago: make your first 10,000 mistakes as soon as you can and learn from them!

Your university education has given you new eyes to see the world, new words to describe the world, and new tools to change the world. It has given you a reference point, a framework, a solid base, to further explore problems and issues that intrigue you. From here on, you may find your dream job, or you may not. You may enter an exciting new venture, or you may spend a lot of time doing unexciting things. There is no guarantee that you will always succeed, but if you lose the fear of failures, if you appreciate the benefits of mistakes, if you allow yourself the freedom of play, you will always be a winner.

Bohm, D (2004) On Creativity. London and New York: Routledge.
Jarvie, I C (1981) ‘The rationality of creativity’ in D Dutton and M Krausz (eds) The concept of creativity in science and art.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Schein, E (1985) Organizational Culture and Leadership.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dodgson, Mark (2011) ‘Creativity and Innovation Management: Play’s the Thing’ in Leon Mann and Janet Chan (eds) Creativity and Innovation in Business and Beyond: Social science perspectives and policy implications.  New York: Routledge.

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Welcome to my blog. There are many ways to think about our world, our history, our biographies. I see a lot of anger, sadness, cynicism around me and yet there is also a great deal of kindness, generosity and optimism in the world. Some of us have more control over our life chances than others. We can’t always change the world, but let’s do what we can to make this a better place for our children and their children.

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