In Pursuit of Possibilities – Five Years of Perspectives with Dr Catelijne Coopmans

This interview series at the five-year mark seeks to feature perspectives from students and fellows in Tembusu College, some of whom have just joined the college, and others who have been with it since its inception. This week, Dr Catelijne Coopmans shares with us how she perceives herself and Tembusu to have grown over these five years and some of her hopes for the College in the future.


Dr Catelijne Coopmans was educated at the University of Maastricht (undergraduate studies) and the University of Oxford (graduate studies) as a social scientist specializing in Science and Technology Studies. She is known at Tembusu College as the Director of Studies, the former residential fellow of Gaja House, a teacher of the Junior Seminar ‘Fakes’ and senior seminars ‘Biomedicine and Singapore Society’ and ‘Time and Life’. She is also a champion for a range of pursuits in the college, including personal development and coaching, gender/sexuality discourse and advocacy, classical music, and wildlife conservation. Dr Catelijne is on research leave during semester 2 of AY2015-2016.

How did you end up at Tembusu and what did you expect from this novel experience of being a part of an upcoming residential college?

I was already at NUS, in the sociology department. I knew Professor Clancey because he had been on my hiring committee when I came to NUS, and because we have this broad research interest in common, in Science, Technology and Society. So I was connected to him, and at one point he told me and a few other colleagues about this new college. We were talking about this for a while, and after thinking about it I decided that I wanted to be part of it from day one because I know that I like pioneering.

One of my expectations was that this would be fluid environment. We had a broad outline of what Tembusu was supposed to be, but a lot of it wasn’t established yet and we could work together to make it into something. That really attracted me. It was a blank canvas. Not entirely, because the university had put things in place for the curriculum, the nature of the modules, there was a framework for it, and there was a vision for the residential colleges as to what they were meant to deliver and how they were supposed to engage students. But then to put flesh on the bones, that’s something you have to do with people on the ground. I wanted to be one of those people on the ground.

Also, I was excited to be Director of Studies! I really like thinking about and developing curriculum, and I knew that this environment would be less ‘disciplinary’ than is typical for NUS departments. Here we could operate in an interdisciplinary way, with students from different schools and programmes and I thought: I’m going to like this. It’s a different kind of space where we could be very creative.

My main expectation I think was that we would build this place up together, the faculty, the staff, and also the students. But at the start I had not guessed how much students would be involved.

So since its conception, how do you think Tembusu has grown over the years?

One thing I just mentioned is that I had not anticipated to what extent Tembusu would become a product of student agency. I don’t know why I hadn’t imagined that, but the extent to which students have shaped the college is something that I find remarkable.

So what has Tembusu grown into? It’s quite a dynamic place, a place where a lot is happening. This is due to the students, faculty and staff doing so much. I would say that there is quite a rich and varied life at Tembusu, with different dimensions: social, intellectual, and exploratory in a broad sense. There are the houses, which are communities in and of their own. The classroom, which despite some views to the contrary I think remains at the heart of college life:  an important site for students and fellows to get to know each other and to develop shared interests around interdisciplinary topics. Then of course there are the interest groups, strategic projects and key events such as Open Day and Orientation which draw people together around a particular interest, area of concern, or contribution to the college. Now that we have all of this, I would hope that any student, and for that matter fellow, who comes to Tembusu can find some kind of path through it that is interesting and enjoyable to them, where they feel they can make connections, where they feel they can grow intellectually as well as personally.

And what I feel is a really, really nice development, what I’m really excited about, is students being increasingly involved in the academic or education side of college life. Students being very aware of and also taking active steps towards shaping what and how they want to learn. Things like ‘Tembusu Learns to Code’: entirely a student initiative where students put out something relevant for other students. It is fun because there is joy in this sharing of skills. And it’s interesting and helpful to people. I am happy that the college is a space that facilitates this kind of initiative.

And we also have students hosting Reading Pods and Teas, and now even some students working with us in developing a new module for next semester.[1] That’s just great, because here we’re talking about partnerships between students and fellows in all aspects of college life, including the academic programme. Of course I have a particular slant toward Tembusu, I feel very close to my Director of Studies portfolio so I really like it when we see students shape the way they and others in the community are learning. That I feel is one of the most important ways in which the college has grown.

You spoke about student agency in the college, about the students’ role being more than just residing and receiving education, so could you tell us more about how the involvement of students has changed over the years?

We had a pioneer batch of students who were very active. This was helped by the fact that the number of faculty and staff was limited and in a new college there are a lot of things to do. The students knew they had to take initiative and the faculty knew we had to rely on students to figure things out. There was a lot of work done through the College Students’ Committee and other avenues to set up an interest group system, to figure out Open Day and Orientation, how the houses would operate, and so on. A lot of initiative in this batch.

The story changed a little with the next few batches of students that arrived. I’ve often heard that they felt the strong presence of the pioneer batch, a bit like ‘these students have laid down the law on how it’s going to be, they have put a lot of things in place, and we’ll just have to go with that’. I think the reality is more nuanced: many in the pioneer batch were very encouraging towards the next generations to be active in a similar way as they had been, and we’ve certainly seen many aspects of college life being shaped by subsequent batches. But I suppose, when you arrive and other people have put things in place, it can sometimes be hard to know how to relate to that.

One thing new students have done, often quite productively, is to analyse the college, to pinpoint things they like and don’t like, and then to do something about that. For example, when some students felt that the range of guests invited for Master’s and Fellows’ Teas did not cater enough to their interests, they started to invite their own guests for Student’s Tea. So the agency has changed in the sense that students who have joined us more recently don’t enjoy as much of a blank slate, but they define their contributions in relation to what’s already there.

And so when I hear disgruntlement, for example about interest groups being hard to sustain, about a culture of low commitment, I feel that that’s not optimal, but I also think it’s good that we are a work-in-progress. I’m happy with students who come and feel that things are not as good as they can be, because it gives them an opening, something to talk to others about and take initiative around.

Something I also want to add, on the topic of student involvement, is that from the start I’ve been so impressed by how students undertake projects. It’s amazing, I don’t know how you do it! Things like Lipdub, Open House, Halloween and Freshmen Orientation are very student-led, and we are talking about projects with many different aspects that call for a range of talents: organizational skill, creativity, a knack for logistics, public speaking, and so on. The quality of these projects has been astounding!

On your earlier point, do you think that the critical analysis that has developed, especially in later generations, has become part of the DNA of what makes a Tembusu student?

I hope it is, because one thing that doesn’t work so well here is the consumer point of view. As Tembusu gains in reputation, students might come here and think, oh so it is like that and you must give me that… This college is never going to be a perfect, polished ‘product’. I think that the critique we’ve been talking about is not about whether you like the product or service but about developing the ability to take charge of what this college is. There will always be things to critique and complain about, but I hope that people will see these things, get a bit frustrated and ultimately feel that maybe they can contribute something to make it better.

I don’t think that we can ever say to prospective students: ‘oh, come here and you are going to be magically transformed by the amazing environment we have here’. Sure, I hope you would want to benefit from what the college offers, you should enjoy what’s here and what’s good – and there’s a lot of it: I feel there is much to celebrate in what we’ve done together in these short five years. I am just wary of Tembusu being seen as this ‘fixed thing’, a package we must deliver over and over again. So I feel that student agency, in every batch, is incredibly important, and that the way forward for this college is more of it rather than less of it. Tembusu is a great place; it’s also a place where you will see things that frustrate you or are not happy with or that are not yet very well done or well developed, but these are opportunities too.

Through the five years you’ve been here, what do you feel has changed for you and what are currently your key areas of interest, as an educator, as an individual, or as a learner yourself?

A job like the one I have here can have many different facets and does not have a tightly defined job scope. Over the years, I’ve had a chance to experiment and discover where my strengths lie, what I am comfortable and less comfortable with, and where I want to put most of my effort and heart.

I lived here for four years before I moved out of the building at the end of May last year, and I’ve worked with different hats on, on different aspects of the college. I think that I’ve had my moments with all of them, and the bonds that they’ve allowed me to develop with colleagues and students are very dear to me. What I am most interested in now is, number one, working on the curriculum with colleagues, and I really like it that students are now also involved in this. Module development and pedagogy are an enduring interest of mine, something I’ve learnt much about in the time that I have been here and still want to learn more about. This works on different levels: I still really like the modules I’ve been teaching – ‘Fakes’, ‘Biomedicine and Singapore Society’, and ‘Time and Life’ – and I keep seeing ways to enhance them and make them better. At the college level, I have learnt a lot from colleagues about the different ways in which the interdisciplinary seminar format can be made to work well, and I also think we can benefit from more dialogue about teaching and learning with each other and with students.

Number two, and this did not exist when we started, is cultivating reflection, self-awareness, and life coaching skills as part of college life. I do this through the Third Year Experience (TYE) workshop programme I run with Kelvin, Yee Han, Shamraz and Mavis, and also in my fourth-year mentoring. It came about because I have a personal interest in these things, and also because being at the college and interacting with students made me realize that this could be helpful to people. It’s good if our community can be about development in a holistic sense.

Holistic development was, in some sense, always a part of the residential college vision, but I now feel as though I have a better idea of what that means than I did five years ago. The assumption was that students will grow both intellectually and personally simply through being in the college, through the classes, out-of-classroom interactions, friendships, projects, and so on. I think that is probably largely true, but I also feel that with some room and encouragement for reflection and introspection this growth can be deeper and more authentic. Having the chance to be listened to in a non-judgemental way is a big part of it. So, we work on listening, questioning, trying to support the conversations people can have with each other, the way they make decisions, and how they understand what is important to them. These things, I feel, are quite important for living a good life.

Part of how I myself have grown is in being more open and more personal with people. I’ve become used to sharing more about my life, my choices and my convictions than I used to – through TYE, mentoring, through informal interactions, etcetera. I think it’s helpful to share these things and hear these things from others, especially in a spirit of non-judgemental curiosity. Students sometimes talk about their fear of not fitting in, of being judged by others or themselves in terms of ‘how do I rank in relation to other people’. This is what they are used to and I think that if we can go beyond that a bit, if we can relax that a bit, it would be a very good thing. I’m trying to contribute to a culture in the college that is better at supporting that. This is something I didn’t really think about before I came to Tembusu or in my early years, but I think about it a lot lately.

What improvements do you think could be made to Tembusu in terms of its culture?

Less fear, less judgement, and less cliquey-ness!

I feel that there are subtle and, sometimes not so subtle, ways in which people curtail each other and themselves. There is a sense of a norm, do I fit in? People police that for themselves and for others, and I wish there were a bit less of that and that we would just let go more, let be, and accept that people are different and make different choices. One example is the idea of ‘phantoms’, people who are ‘invisible’ in the houses. I know that it is often said with good intentions, ‘oh let’s engage phantoms, and let’s make them more active,’ but it does at the same time cast a judgement. The fact that someone isn’t visible in the house does not necessarily mean they are not an engaged student in some other way. And even if they aren’t, there may be good reasons and things may change over time.

I remember when the Tembusu Psychological Wellbeing Committee[2] came up with an initiative to have students anonymously share stories about challenges and problems they had faced. Reading these stories had a big impact on me. What especially got to me were the stories from students who said they felt inferior. They looked around the college and saw everyone being so active, so talented, and they felt that there was something wrong with them, that they didn’t deserve to be here. I think that, if we have a kind of culture that is preoccupied with ‘doing things’, with showing that you’re ‘doing things’, then we are also stimulating those kinds of feelings, which miss the basic premise that everybody who got in here belongs here. I think we can trust that people will grow or shine in their own way, instead of saying that a person is lost because she or he does not do x, y, z.

What is it that you foresee in the next five years for Tembusu?

Ups and downs. I think that’s normal. We’re starting to feel ‘no longer new’ and that means we’re moving into a different phase of our existence. With Prof Clancey and others I am thinking about how we can distill lessons learnt, how we can talk about the college and what we’ve achieved, and how we might present this to different audiences, both within the university and outside. Finding good answers to those questions is an interesting process in a college that has so many different voices and where diversity is such an important value. Can you tell one story about such a place? Probably not.

Formulating my thoughts in an interview like this is challenging precisely because I am aware of how much I am inevitably leaving out and not doing justice to – simply because it’s not popping into my head right now! So this will be something for us to work on in the next five years: what stories do we want to tell about the college? How do we want to talk about ‘what this is’, and what it is good for? Increasingly, the university will ask us for such accounts: “you are no longer new, so tell us, what is this college set-up doing for the students?”

In the next five years, I also see a greater role for alumni. Recently, in the ‘Time and Life’ module, an alumnus who graduated from Tembusu came back to teach a lesson. Earlier we spoke about student agency; this is another perfect example. His readiness to do that, his enthusiasm, his expertise, the way he went about it – it spoke of inner confidence and was very engaging because he knows the setting and cares for his audience. We have also seen some great events focusing on particular careers, such as an informal session where students could meet alumni who are entrepreneurs.  I feel that these things are very important and I think we’re going to see more of them in the future.

So you see, I am optimistic. I also expect to ride a wave, that’s why I’m saying there will be ups and downs.

Finally, Tembusu is…?

I like our tagline you know! Home of Possibilities. I think it is that for me, for students, and also for colleagues. We’ve chosen a particular way to enact that, with a lot of fluidity and a continuous sense of experiment. I like that path, I want to continue working on that.



[1] This interview was conducted in Semester 1, in AY15/16; the module that Dr Catelijne refers to, ‘Intelligence and Singapore Society’, is ongoing in this semester. In December 2015, a new Education Working Group involving fellows and students also got off the ground.

[2] The Tembusu Psychological Wellbeing Committee has since been renamed ‘Tembusu Is Supporting yoU at Every Step’ (TIsSUES).

This interview was conducted by Nisha Sanjay Verma, with photography by Ong Kah Jing.