Conversations with Dr Er Yanbing

By Alyssa Yeo and Marisa Yeo

Dr Er Yanbing is an academic specialising in critical literary theory with a focus on feminist theory and philosophy, and the field of contemporary literature. She graduated in 2011 from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, before going on to pursue her Master’s and Doctorate of Philosophy in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom (UK). She returned home to Singapore for a brief teaching stint between 2016 and 2017 at the National University of Singapore (NUS) – during which she sat down for an exclusive interview with us – and has now gone on to America, as a Visiting Fellow at the Pembroke Centre, an interdisciplinary research centre at Brown University fostering critical scholarship on questions of gender and difference.

What is a typical working day like for an academic?

Dr Er: Well, I can’t really speak for all academics, but I will talk about what a typical day is like for me. It depends whether you’re teaching on that particular day, because typically we don’t teach every day. Academics teach about six to nine hours of university classes a week; that’s about two to three courses. We will spend some hours before class preparing for the lesson, and also some hours afterward seeing students as well. I think, for full time academics, there are additional administrative duties, including “bread-and-butter” department matters like managing undergraduate matters.

On top of teaching and administrative stuff, which is I guess what you see us doing on the frontlines, we have to do research. That’s the most important thing for an academic. And that’s difficult to explain, especially in a humanities context, because you don’t really work in a lab, unless you are working in a kind of historical context, then you would go to specific archives, for instance. But for me, I work in contemporary literature, as well as literary theory, so a lot of my work comes from just reading: reading what’s out there at the moment, what the academic discourse is at the present, positioning my work in relation to that, and then coming up with new ideas, and actually writing articles for journals.

These journal articles are our most tangible output and a lot of work that goes into that, because the process is a very long one. Anyone else will really only see the article once it has become a final product and gets published, but behind each article is probably years of work. It would have gone through the conception of ideas, and then the actual research, the writing of it, and then before it gets published as an article that people are allowed to read, it goes through several revision processes. This takes up quite a significant part of an academic’s time. But it’s something that is quite difficult to see tangibly because it’s very much behind the scenes. That’s what I would say is the most difficult work of an academic; but it’s also the most rewarding – and why most of us go into it in the first place. We’re driven by a passion, and a kind of singularity of vision towards new ideas, new research, and contributing to what’s already out there.

How did you decide at such a young age that you wanted to do a PhD and go into academia?

Dr Er: I’m not that young, actually – but thank you! To be honest, I don’t really think academia is something that strikes people as something they want to do when they’re young. It’s not like being a lawyer, or a doctor, because those professions are much more visible. And, like I said, for academia, nobody really knows what kind of research we do or how we conduct research in the first place. So, it might present an interesting position and seem compelling to the people who are drawn to it, but then, people don’t really know what it really entails. And a lot of the time people think it’s just a teaching position, which it isn’t, really.

So, in my case, my first major was in Literature and my second major was in Communication Studies. So, throughout my undergraduate days, I had actually been very set on going into journalism. It was only in my fourth year that I began writing my final year thesis — my Honours thesis — which really requires a kind of independence of thought, and is the part of undergraduate studies that is most consonant with the academic experience. I had a very good experience with that. I mean, there was obviously an interest in academic subjects in the first place.

And certain things did work out for me as well, like the scholarships. So, I think the practical aspects are no less important. Yes, the ideal of some pursuit of knowledge is very romantic, it’s very laudable, but at the same time you want to be sure you have the practical means to go about doing it. Certain opportunities were there for me as well, like funding. So, for me there was a very clear path into doing it.

There’s nothing better than doing something that you like, and being very good at it, as well. So, I would really encourage people to try and look for that. People will tell you “Passion, passion, passion”, and that’s very important, but if you’re bad at what you do, realistically speaking, you may not be successful. Passion is one thing, but you need to make sure you have that drive and the capacity to do it, and to do it with the means that are provided to you, so you don’t go broke trying to do it. To me, that isn’t worth it.

Anyone is free to disagree with me but I think there is a positivity in struggling to do something, but you need to temper that with a sense of pragmatism as well. So, if all these factors are working for you — like in my case — then just go for it. I never really sat down and took a lot of time to consider these things, I just saw an opportunity and went for it.

You had initially intended to go into journalism, have you ever had second thoughts about not going into journalism in the end? 

Dr Er: No, because I had done internships at media companies before. What I would also recommend to undergraduates is to do as many internships as possible in the area you’re interested in, so if you’re interested in journalism then do an internship at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) or Mediacorp. Or do it with media companies or advertising companies; you know, extend that reach. I’d also get into the Ministry of Education (MOE), so you’d get teaching experience there. I think once you spend two to three months in a certain industry, then you will have a clearer idea of whether or not you want to go into it.

I’m not sure I would say I have “regrets” about not going into journalism, in fact I’d say probably not, but I think I may be the exception in that I can’t imagine myself doing anything else right now. I don’t think many people can say that, so I think I occupy a very privileged space. I don’t think many people find themselves in my position.

And yes, I had to wait for my PhD, but once you’ve invested so much time into it, many people are quite reluctant to leave the academic sort of “institution”. That’s another difficulty that faces academics — if you’ve already spent ten years in university, then a lot of your emotional and financial investment has already gone into the pursuit of a certain thing. So, at the same time it takes a very brave person to say “I’ve had enough of this, I’m going back to something else”. But that can be done as well. It really depends on how you feel once you’re done and you’ve started to work, as I am doing now.

What made you decide to pursue your Master’s and PhD overseas?

Dr Er: For me, it’s that Singapore’s a very small place. It’s not that our institutions are not good. It’s just that the opportunities you receive overseas are quite incomparable. So, it’s not only academic opportunities, insofar as there are a bigger concentration of academics working in the region that you can tap into. The expertise of the person you’re working with is very important.

Secondly, there is oftentimes a bigger research community overseas, that I think really helps in those formative years when you’re training to be a researcher. For me, I think it was very important to expand my perspectives and go overseas. I also think that it’s important in general for people to go overseas. Not just academically speaking but in terms of just widening your horizons and learning to live on your own. There’s a kind of independence to living overseas that I think really makes you establish yourself as a person, especially if you’re living overseas for a number of years, not just a six-month exchange or something. I think people should opt to do that if they can afford it. When you live overseas, you just establish a completely different network of friends, for instance.

If you are in a university like I was, these friends can come from every corner of the world. Being in Singapore is nice because it’s safe and it feels familiar, but I think it’s really important to make yourself unsettled in that way as well, to expose yourself to change — even though I hate change. So, because I hate change, I find it very difficult to leave for somewhere completely different and basically build a new life there, because you literally don’t know anybody over there. But it’s very rewarding. Not just personally speaking but especially as an academic. In an academic context, the networks that you build overseas are just so important, because you will carry them with you throughout your entire career.

In fact, I’m actually planning to go overseas again, for maybe one or two more years. I am planning to go to America, because that is a different region altogether, and that really speaks to an academic perspective because you want that difference in geographical location to benefit you as an academic. So, if you’ve already spent four years in the UK, you want your training now to happen somewhere else, especially because I’m not yet a full-fledged academic – I’ve just started. I just need to build all these academic connections, and right now it makes most professional sense to go to the US.

Having said that, I still think that I will probably come back after that, so there is that sense that Singapore is still the place I can contribute to the most and the place where my contributions can be seen as most visible, just because I connect most immediately to the people here. I would have to be overseas for about five years before I really feel connected to a place. But here, it’s almost immediate. It’s just easier to connect because I think students oftentimes see themselves reflected in their teachers, so that’s one way in which I think I can contribute back to the system, and that’s important for me because, like I said, research is solitary and isolating and I love it, but I also need that other stuff. I will probably be leaving for a while first actually, and then coming back if there’s a job.

Did you have any expectations when going into academia, and has academia met those expectations or has it been different from what you expected?

Dr Er: Again, I am very pragmatic and realistic about the industry. It is a very competitive industry. People are always going to be better than you and smarter than you, no matter how hard you work. Academia is built on the kind of excellence that everyone’s out to get. Yes, you’re smart, but everyone else is also smart. So, what distinguishes you from everyone else? I had very realistic conceptions of what academia would entail. It is not sitting there, and shaking your leg in your office — in an ivory tower. That does not exist anymore. Maybe like fifty years ago, but not right now.

So, the practicalities of academia; I was very aware of them before I went into it. So, it has in many ways met these expectations of mine, in that I had no romantic ideas of what it would entail. It is a lot of hard work, self-discipline and good time management. I think that if you are really willing to do that and you have to drive to succeed, then things will open up for you. I think it has been very rewarding in that aspect, but at the same time what I would advise people to do before even going in is to speak to as many people as possible who are in this profession, people like me, people who are older than me, and finding out exactly what the job entails and how difficult it is. Because it is a very difficult job to do. So, go in with your eyes open, don’t make assumptions about what it’s going to be like.

And, of course, it’s not as pessimistic as I’m making it out to be; it’s a very rewarding career path. But be very aware of the realities of that career choice, as in whatever else career choice you might make. I think people have quite a few misconceptions about what academia is like. Like I always say, when I come into class, it often seems like I am just saying things effortlessly and I’m just really smart, but there’s hours and hours of preparation behind even that. So, yeah, just be very smart about approaching it in the first place, as you would any other job. Then you’ll find that your expectations will probably chime with what you find in academia. It has been extremely rewarding as well in terms of research, because I’m always being pushed — firstly, I’m never bored in academia, and I’m always being stretched to do something better because work is never really complete. When you work with people who are better than you, or who are more established or experienced than you, then they are always pushing you to become a better researcher. That in itself has met a lot of expectations; meeting people who have helped me to do that along the way.

 What kind of traits do you think it takes for someone to pursue or enter academia?

Dr Er: I suppose firstly what is required of academia is not just being smart, because a lot of people are already smart, especially when you’re doing postgraduate studies, for instance. What distinguishes you from another person is drive, as well as discipline. Discipline because, once you’re doing your PhD, especially overseas, there is virtually no schedule which you have to follow. So, you are entirely in charge of your own path during those three years. I mean, obviously, you have to teach and stuff but it’s not like your supervisors will tell you, “You have to hand in your PhD at this point in time”. You’re on your own. If you’re given this great expanse of time, it is really up to you to organise it to the best of your abilities. A lot of the PhD is chipping away slowly at it, so it’s like perseverance, really.

I’m not sure if a certain person would be drawn to academia naturally, because these are attributes – especially discipline – that you realise that you have to have during the process itself. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m very self-disciplined, so let me go into academia”. No, it doesn’t really work that way! I think people are drawn to academia because they are very curious, they are very interested, so inquisitive. In a lot of ways, I think they would be drawn to academia. But then, when you’re actually doing it, there are certain other aspects of your personality I think you need to nurture. And just as important as your interest in the subject is, again, that practical approach to doing things, which I think people don’t really see as well. It’s hard to see that.

Is there anything you would tell a student who interested in a career in academia? What should they be aware of?

Dr Er: Yes. They should be aware of the fact that academia values academic success and excellence, so work as hard as possible towards getting First-Class Honours at the undergraduate level. I say that not because I think that makes you a better person, because I mean, there’s probably no real difference between someone with a First-Class Honours and someone else as people. These are arbitrary numerical differences in many ways. But academia values that just because it’s academia, and it’s the only industry that gets to value that above all else. It’s excusable because it’s academia, so that’s kind of the whole point. Practically speaking, that affects things like scholarships. Because it’s so competitive, once you’re a First-Class Honours, then you set yourself apart from other people from the get-go.

Secondly, I would encourage you to always be interested in more than what your tutor or professor tells you. If they’re going to drop a quote in your tutorial, then go to that quote – I mean, obviously not every single one, because that’s just impossible – but to find what you’re interested in, to never stop at just what is covered in a class or in a tutorial. So read a lot on your own. Do a lot of independent reading. Read books; read journals. It sounds very cheesy, but never stop learning, because that’s how academia is as well. You’re always in pursuit of something that you can never really get enough of. As an undergraduate it’s very good to nurture these skills already.

Um, what else? Be nice to your professors. Seriously! This is an important thing. I’m not saying like, “Hang out at their office every day”, but nurture a good working relationship with your tutors and professors, because they are literally living that life that you possibly want, right? So, they would have unique insight into what that entails, and therefore they can share it with you, and it becomes then important as well, when – practically speaking – you want references for scholarship applications or whatever else. Obviously, it shouldn’t be that you establish this relationship because of self-centred gains, or whatever, but there’s always a bit of that in any kind of relationship, I think. Get to know your professors more. Speak to them after class, and don’t be irritating, obviously. But, speak to them; ask them more questions. They’re not as scary as you think they are. I don’t think I’m scary!

Okay, academic excellence as well comes with taking your work very seriously. Don’t do last-minute work. It doesn’t help you. It’s not a judgment on people, but you’ll find that as you progress on to higher levels it becomes more and more difficult to pull off something good in a night, because the complexity of ideas is more demanding. What I always tell my students is, “You may think that your first draft (which is what you’ve written in the middle of the night or whatever) is a good one, but your second draft will always be better.” Like, I don’t care how good your first draft is. If you have the power of retrospect to go back and revisit your ideas, then each progressive draft is always going to be better. So, try not to do last-minute work. If you’re realistically speaking to an undergrad, obviously there will be last-minute work that is being done. Just temper that with that kind of expectation, I guess. And still try to have a social life!

Try not to be so singularly focused on achieving an academic career as well, because I think it’s important as an undergraduate – and I’ve told this to a lot of people, actually – to explore a lot of different things. Maybe it is for you, but maybe you will also find something better. Or something that you find more enjoyable. Try as much as possible not to confine yourself to a certain ideal of an occupation. If you do that, then oftentimes the occupation is going to disappoint you, unfortunately, because you’ve just built it up to some kind of shrine in your head, right? But then if you don’t get it, firstly, then you’ll be crushed. Or if you get it but it doesn’t meet what you envisioned it to be like, then you will also be disappointed in many ways.

Having experienced a Ministry of Education  (MOE) teaching internship at a junior college (JC), how does teaching differ between junior college and university for you?

Dr Er: So, I taught General Paper (GP), and I like teaching GP actually. It’s a very rigorous subject and it’s a very strange subject because it requires that kind of rigour in answering specific questions, but it also requires that breadth of knowledge that you will need that for your essays. It’s a very different ball-game from that of Literature.

In a JC at least, you get so many more hours with your students, like ten hours a week or something, right? So, you constantly develop their skills in doing something. You get to see their progression very distinctively. But then in a university, it’s like, I only see students for one hour or forty-five minutes of class-time a week. There’s only so much I can tell you during that forty-five minutes of class every week. And it’s difficult fitting in ideas during these forty-five minutes as well. There’s always no time. But it’s not unique to any university, it’s like that everywhere. The contact time you get is always not enough in university. That’s what students always complain about.

When I plan a JC class versus an undergraduate class, I would provide a lot more conceptual structuring to what I’m doing in a JC class; in an undergraduate class, I’ll provide more broad ideas that university students can expand on themselves. I can provide a point of departure but they have to follow it through themselves – there’s a lot less handholding. So, it’s quite different in the skills that each way of teaching demands. Some people might prefer the pedagogical demands of MOE-teaching and some others might prefer the style of university-teaching – which I do because I feel I can better see and appreciate the independence of thought of my students.