Professors reflect on time spent at Yale-NUS
Yale Daily News
Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore is coming to an end, bringing with it the island nation’s only liberal arts program. On the other side of the world, Yale professors remember their stays in Singapore with a mixture of sorrow and tenderness.
With the announcement of Yale-NUS disaffiliation from Yale and the aftermath decision that the replacement, tentatively named NUS College, will not retain its core liberal arts curriculum or requirements, it is likely that the school’s tradition of hosting various US-based Yale faculties will eventually come to an end.
“It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done or will ever do,” said astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who served as the first dean of the Yale-NUS faculty. “I made a wider range of friends and had more interesting and surprising conversations in three years at Yale-NUS than in thirty years at Yale.”
The News spoke to six professors who have either taught as visiting professors or lectured at Yale-NUS since its inception in 2011. All said they were initially surprised at the dissolution of the partnership, and several praised the school’s strong foundation in the liberal arts. Many have said they would like to return as visitors before 2025, when Yale-NUS officially merges with the National University of Singapore, or NUS, Scholars Program.
Partnership with Yale
A steady flow between New Haven and Singapore was part of the partnership’s founding vision, with visiting professors playing an especially crucial role during the school’s early years as Yale-NUS developed its own faculty ranks.
Throughout the pandemic, Singapore’s strict entry quarantine laws have made visits nearly impossible. Philip Gorski, chair of sociology and director of Yale-NUS’ New Haven-based office, said arrangements were being made for faculty visits to resume next fall. Three Yale-NUS professors are currently taking sabbaticals to study at Yale, he added.
“One thing that we’re really committed to is, through 2025, to keep the ‘Yale’ in the Yale-NUS experience, and part of that is to keep travel open in both directions,” Gorski said. . “We will do everything we can to keep the partnership vital.”
Faculty said Yale-NUS students were as engaged in liberal arts education, if not more so, than Yale students. Gorski describes his students as “voracious” readers. Tina Lu, principal of Pauli Murray College and a professor of East Asian languages and literature who visited Singapore in 2015, said her students were “filled with a pioneering spirit”, noting that many of them had chosen the nascent school rather than the best universities in Asia.
A sense of community
“Yale-NUS is a much tighter community than Yale, both among students and faculty/staff,” Bailyn wrote in an email. “I think that stems both from its relatively small size and because it’s somewhat beleaguered within society – there’s a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ even when people aren’t disagree.”
Yale-NUS students, many of whom come from Singapore as well as other Asian countries, arrive with a different collective knowledge base than their American counterparts, several professors said. Gorski, who taught the sociology of religion, noted that the students were more familiar with the intricacies of Buddhism and Islam than American students at Yale, for example.
Many visiting professors teach courses as part of the College’s core curriculum, although some also create adapted versions of their offerings at Yale. Lu, for example, taught an undergraduate version of his college-level seminar on Chinese novels.
life in singapore
For several professors, the cosmopolitan and multiracial culture of Singapore was a major asset. Yale-NUS arranges for visiting professors to live in apartments in Kent Vale, a de facto expatriate enclave located just off campus in the heart of Singapore’s Clementi district. Most sights are within walking distance, and the island’s sprawling public transit system makes getting around the city relatively simple. Singapore is also particularly suited to short-term faculty visits, many noted, as English is universally spoken.
Teachers sometimes visit alone, although the school also welcomes spouses and children. Bailyn moved to Singapore for three years with her family when the college officially opened in 2013.
When Lu traveled to Singapore to teach a semester-long course in Chinese literature, she brought her husband and five children. Lu fondly recalls her family’s time, noting that the experience gave her children a special sense of independence.
“It was great to travel, to go abroad because [my children] got to see their parents jump on the wrong bus, be the clumsy incompetents that they are, get used to a new country,” Lu said. a great experience for adults and children.”
Singaporean cuisine was also a “highlight” for Lu, who remembered queuing early in the morning outside food stalls for fish congee and laksa. “It’s almost like you can’t find bad food,” she said.
Short-term faculty visits
Family life and administrative appointments in New Haven can make it difficult for interested professors to commit to semester visits to Singapore. Some, however, make the nearly twenty-hour trip for just a few weeks, often just before the start of Yale’s fall semester. During this time, they may conduct short-term research in conjunction with Yale-NUS faculty, or give lectures or university teas similar to those held in New Haven.
Shawkat Toorawa, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations who grew up in Singapore, jumped at the first opportunity he had to visit his home country after arriving at Yale in 2017. His mini-course of two weeks on medieval Baghdad, he said, was “fabulous”. Although taking his course amounts to an intensive course added to the regular semester courses, enrollment was surprisingly high, he said. The students seemed “hungry” for knowledge to a degree that he felt would not have been cultivated in other environments.
Scott Holley, Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale, was invited by Yale-NUS in March 2019 to give a talk and attend a tea. Holley visited both Yale-NUS and NUS, where he visited a laboratory specializing in a new microscopy technique.
The future of partnership
The six professors said they were disappointed with the dissolution of the Yale-NUS partnership. Several added that they were surprised by the announcement; Gorski recalled that, by many parameters, the partnership was developing quite well with a growing group of quality teachers. He lamented that entering into the partnership would complicate the exchange of faculty between Yale and NUS and also expressed sadness at NUS’s decision to ultimately move away from a liberal arts education.
Several teachers, including Toorawa, have indicated they will try to return before the school closes in 2025, although those in administrative positions like Lu may find it more difficult to leave New Haven for extended periods.
The benefits of the exchange could have gone either way, Gorski added. Students and faculty crafted the philosophical and literary canon differently from their American counterparts, adding more Asian and global influences to typical Shakespearean curricula.
“If the college had stayed open, maybe that would have started to have an effect on Yale,” Gorski said. “They were rethinking the canons, the lines between the different disciplines that would accommodate a truly global community and perspective.”
Elihu Rubin, associate professor of urban planning at the Yale School of Architecture, echoed Gorski’s sentiments. Rubin taught a week-long “short course” on American architecture and urban planning at Yale-NUS and said he was “saddened” by the closure of Yale-NUS, particularly because it cut short the partnership growing between Yale and Yale-NUS’ Urban Studies Programs.
Bailyn agreed, noting that dissolving the partnership could eliminate opportunities for future Yale-NUS students.
“I think it’s very sad that future generations of students and faculty don’t have the opportunities we’ve had over the past decade to experience what I think is a remarkable institution,” Bailyn said. .
As of this month, there have been nearly 50 visiting professors from Yale at Yale-NUS, according to the Yale-NUS website.