A Day in the Life of Assoc Prof Gregory Clancey

This interview series seeks to introduce fellows and students of Tembusu College to the wider community on a more personal level, and to create dialogue between these groups of people. This week, Master of the College Assoc Prof Gregory Clancey shares more about the initial formation of the college, the college cat Misty, and how he juggles his various commitments.

Assoc Prof Gregory Clancey is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, the Leader of the STS (Science, Technology, and Society) Cluster at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), and Master of Tembusu College at NUS. He formerly served NUS as Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and as Chairman of the General Education Steering Committee.

Receiving his PhD in the Historical and Social Study of Science and Technology from MIT, Assoc. Prof Clancey has also been a Fulbright Graduate Scholar at the University of Tokyo, a Lars Hierta Scholar at the Royal Institute of Technology (KtH) in Stockholm, and a Visiting Professor at Nagasaki University. He has won three NUS teaching awards. Assoc Prof Clancey’s research centers on the cultural history of science & technology, particularly in modern Japan and East Asia. His book Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2006) won the Sidney Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology in 2007; and was selected as one of the “11 Best Books about Science” for the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List in 2009.

Prof Clancey (1)

What does a typical day for you look like?

There’s no normal or typical day at a residential college. I come to work in the morning intending to do a certain number of things, but almost never get all the way through that list because things crop up in a community of 600 people. So I never know in the morning whether there is going to be something in my in-box I didn’t know about the night before (laughs). Real problems don’t occur that often though, this is a good college, and when I meet college masters from other countries and we compare notes, they seem to have a harder time.

On a typical day when there’s no crisis, I mostly have meetings. The college has to interact with every other part of the university, so I have meetings all over campus, representing us. I also meet with the other NUS college masters, and once a month, I have a lunch meeting with both they and the hall masters. I meet at least once every semester with almost every office in the university, including the International Relations Office, because we also deal with international students. These type of policy meetings affect the college in ways that students don’t see. When I don’t have meetings, I read and answer emails (laughs). I get more than 100 emails every day, and many of them ask me to respond immediately, though I usually can’t. I don’t get up into the tower or the classrooms as much given all these draws on my time, but I do try to attend as many college events as possible, many after hours.

You mentioned something about issues. What type of issues are you referring to?

The directors handle most of the issues that arise day to day, but sometimes they have to be surfaced to me, maybe because they are more serious or there are policy questions involved. If we had, let’s say, a petty theft, or if there is any major violation of the college code of ethics. But like I said, that doesn’t happen too often. Sometimes students are in distress, over one thing or another, and this will be surfaced to me. You are all in different faculties, and sometimes if you haven’t shown up for class recently, your teachers are worried about you. Its ultimately my responsibility to look out for you all.

I also understand you hold a joint position at the Asia Research Institute.

Yes, I do. That takes up theoretically 50% of my time, but it’s really more like two full-time positions. ARI is in the building next to the Central Library. I run a research cluster there, and and some of the academic staff there are jointly appointed as your teachers here. This makes it easier to manage, and allows their research to be brought into our classrooms. So basically I wear two hats, but deal with many of the same people in both jobs. There are other faculty at the college who have nothing to do with ARI, but there is enough of an overlap.

When you were detailing your job the master of a college, it already seemed fairly hefty, and we hadn’t even talked about your joint position yet. So how do you balance the two?

Like I said, by creating overlap. Managing two entirely different groups of people on a daily basis would be impossible. We were very lucky, when the college was set up back in 2010, I took over the leadership of the ARI research cluster at the same time, so we could build both at once. When we started, we also had a big research grant, so I actually had three things to do: conduct the grant-funded research, set up the college, and set up the (ARI cluster). The core group of people who helped me with all those things became the first fellows of the college, most of whom are still here. As an undergraduate college, we don’t have any research function, technically. We have a lot of people here who want to do research, however, so the Asia Research Institute provides a venue for that, and Tembusu for the teaching, so it’s compatible. Connor Graham, Margaret Tan, Catelijne Coopmans, Liz Chee, Eric Kerr, Celine Coderey and other people here divide their time in this manner.

I understand the college began as a pilot in Prince George’s Park Residences (PGPR). Was it very stressful then, and did you have a lot of free reign as to how the college would be designed?

It is always exciting to start something new, so it was stressful, but a good stress. We were very energetic, a small group deeply committed to making it work. We had a pilot in PGPR, but we also had a little office in the Old Administration Building, which is where ARI currently is. Just one room. Besides me it was Sara Kuek, Yee Han, Connor, Shamraz and a few others, including a couple people who have now left – just a few of us, and it was very intense, because we we had just a year to figure everything out before we moved here to UTown. The biggest worry at first was whether students would be interested enough to come. Now that’s not a problem of course, but the first year, we thought, “Why would students come to our college?” In Singapore, you can all live at home and commute, so would you really come? We didn’t know, we were nervous. It made us work really hard.

When we got the very first round of applications, we noticed it was top-heavy with men, because they were used to being away from home on military service. There were also a lot of foreign males (especially engineers as I recall) since they don’t have families here and needed someplace to live. But we needed an applicant pool that was 50-50 men-women, and spread between all the faculties, so we thought a lot about how to make this happen in the the first year. Women coming in as freshmen had in most instances never lived away from home, so we had to consider how to make the college an inclusive place. We wanted to project ourselves as nurturing, safe, intellectual, and open to a world of possibility. It’s one of the reasons why our crest is designed in the way it is: a person sitting under a tree, reading a book, with a globe in the background. No animals of prey with talons or claws. We would not foreground competition or aggression.

The image we were trying to cultivate was only one factor, but within a couple of years we had not only achieved gender parity but we had an overwhelming number of Singaporean applicants, and from every background. In the first year, we interviewed people one-on-one; now we do group interviews. We needed one-on-one interviews initially because we felt we had to sell the college, that students were interviewing us as much as we were interviewing them. I remember the first few students who signed up, I was so grateful that I was constantly saying or writing “Thank you so much for coming into the college!” I still feel that way, though I don’t have an opportunity to say it to each person as I did before. Within a couple of years, the numbers of applicants was so overwhelming that we had to move to group interviews, which I actually think are much better in gauging a student’s aptitude for college life.

I also had the benefit of working very closely in those years with Prof. Tan Tai Yong, who was Vice Provost for Residential Life. He’s just been appointed the new President of Yale-NUS College, and I’m delighted to have him there. At that time his job was to set up and manage University Town, including the colleges; we even informally called him “the Mayor of Utown”. Tembusu would not have been successful, nor even possible, without the vision and support of Tai Yong, and of Provost Tan Eng Chye, who also took a very close interest in us, which he still does. And of course having Prof. Koh accept the appointment as our Rector was a great gift.

Prof Clancey (2)

Were there any major issues when you first moved into University Town?

One of my unexpected headaches for the first couple of years was the building itself. This college was finished on time and on budget, which was a great accomplishment. But for the first couple of years, I spent as much as 30% of my time dealing with what we call “teething problems”. And some of these had real teeth. To give you an example, students would regularly come back from a weekend to find out that the air con had dumped water all over their desks. The reason for that ours was a water-cooled system – water is piped all the way from a central system into and through the building- which was a relatively new technology then. Where the pipe went into the aircon unit, there was a brass ring. The contractors were supposed to tighten the brass ring, but not too tightly. But many had been over-tightened and so had hairline cracks which you couldn’t see until they leaked. It was like having water balloons waiting to burst throughout the building. We eventually replaced all those brass rings.

My own apartment had the worst problems with water, ironically. The week we moved in, there were hardly any students in the building, just those from the pilot. My wife called me one day and said the sprinklers had gone off, so I raced back from a meeting to find water was pouring out of the ceiling. It wasn’t the sprinklers, it was water pipes above the ceiling. The water was simply looking for a space to escape, and found the sprinklers heads. My wife was moving furniture out into the hall, trying to salvage books especially; it was just a nightmare. A plumber finally came and tightened what was a loose valve in the kitchen ceiling. The water stopped flowing, and then we went out for dinner. Well, we came back at around 9 o’clock at night, and when approached the door of my apartment, water was just cascading out from under it (laughter). When I opened it, the whole apartment was much worse than before. There was an actual waterfall in our kitchen, just cascading down with a roar. What had happened was the plumber had tightened one valve, which had shifted the pressure and caused another one to burst. So I rolled up my pant legs and ran to the security post which used to be over at UTR (UTown Residence), past the Multi-Purpose Hall (MPH).

The original College Students’ Committee was having a meeting in the MPH, and they all saw me run past in a panic with my pants rolled up. As I came back, they asked if they could help, and I said, “Yes, please!” We had just unpacked our boxes, so we had all these flattened pieces of cardboard, and the students used these like shovels to push the water out of the apartment. Without the students to help, it would have been impossible. So ironically, that crisis provided our first opportunity for bonding in the new building,

Actually a number of other bonding experiences that first year were initiated by malfunctions. The fire alarm system would also go off for no reason, and that was usually water related as well. Whenever there was a big rain, it would inadvertently trigger the fire alarm. Sometimes in one semester we would have three fire alarms, all at night. There was frustration but also a lot of joking about it. It did help bond us in an unexpected way. Anyway, we have those “teething problems” worked out so you guys have a much easier time of it.

How do you spend your leisure time?

My what time? (Laughs)

Is it a foreign concept to you? (Laughs)

Well, it’s not totally foreign. I do generally destress at the end of every day, so usually I pop up a bunch of windows on my computer, besides email, and play some music, check the news, etc. Checking the Google Newsfeed is probably the quickest way I can take a break. I also walk over to Starbucks sometimes, pick up the New York Times, spread it out and read it over coffee. I watch Netflix or Youtube sometimes at night. . .

Any shows in particular?

I’m a historian, so I’m attracted to historical documentaries. I also like old movies, by which I mean black and white ones. Unfortunately Netflix doesn’t have many of these, but YouTube does. I also occasionally check in with American TV series. I’ve been away from my country for 18 years, so when my countrymen talk about popular culture these days I’m often out of the loop. So when Netflix arrived in Singapore, I got to watch a few shows I’d heard references to but never saw, like ‘Breaking Bad’. Others, like ‘The Americans’ or ‘The Sopranos’ I’ve just seen snippets of on YouTube.

How have your interactions with students been?

I unfortunately can’t get to know every student, since there are almost 600 of you, and 200-250 freshmen coming in every year. I guess when we started back in 2010 and 2011, I knew more students from that first batch because the work wasn’t as much then; there weren’t as many programmes or even classes. Now my responsibilities have increased. I regret that I can’t hang out more with students. I try to come down to functions, but there’s so many going on at the same time, I can’t go to every one. But I do look for opportunities to attend events like Fellow’s Teas, Elephant in the Room sessions, etc. That’s one way I interact.

Of course I do Master’s Teas on a regular basis, with 25 to 30 students in the room each time. We have tea, eat at the back of the room after the formal Q&A session, and chat. It’s at the Master’s Teas in which I get to interact the most with you all, but there’s also a prominent guest each time, so I try to stay a little bit at the background. The point is for the guests to be the centre of attention.

Prof Koh sometimes has Rector’s dinners, which I attend as well. Also, the College Students’ Committee, also sometimes meets with me. We had a meeting the other day regarding the Inter-College Games. So those are some ways we interact. When I get in the elevator, I usually try to chat with students. Some students are quite shy though – when I walk in, they start looking at the posters. But I don’t think I’m too scary. At least I hope not.

Speaking of Master’s Teas, we are quite curious, as a student body, about how the guests are selected. What is your approach to selecting them?

We have had more than 70 guests at this point, and they’ve come from all locations and backgrounds. Sometimes they are introduced to us by Prof Koh. Margaret Tan, our Director of Programmes who is responsible for setting up the teas, also sources many people herself. She has a lot of contacts in the community and keeps an eye out for interesting people. We’ve sometimes asked students who they would prefer, and Prof Koh has called prominent people up based on student suggestions. That’s how Hossan Leong came here. It’s all quite serendipitous actually, but we do aim for variety. And not too many professors, as you get enough of us in the classroom.

About getting in the elevator, were there any interesting conversations that occurred just spontaneously in the elevator or elsewhere?

The elevator doesn’t give you a lot of time! (Laughs). Especially because I live on the third floor. Usually the conversation will be about something happening soon, spurred by some new poster on the wall. Actually, my cat Misty, too, helps my interaction with students, because some come down and play with him, or photograph him, and I sometimes talk with them as well. Misty loves students, though he’s slowing down with age. When he was a younger cat, he would be outside the MCL all the time. He would just come back home to eat, and go right back out again, like a teenager. We would say ‘hello?’ and he would just ignore us. He thought he was a student too, and preferred hanging with you guys.

He has his own unique engagements! (laughs)

Yeah, but now he’s becoming older, so he’s more mellow and likes to sleep more. But he’s still a friendly cat.

Where did the name Misty come from? Was it coined by you or a student?

I don’t know where he was born. The Humane society had him and they went to IKEA to try to promote the adoption of cats. Being such a good-looking cat, they brought him to IKEA to be their ‘show cat’ to promote their cause. So, a friend of mine saw him there and adopted him. They were told by the Humane Society that his name was Misty, so he’s likely always had that name. Once adopted from IKEA he lived in Holland Village with seven other cats, in the house of an elderly man, a retired Singaporean disc jockey. The man had to vacate his house when his landlord, the Jurong Town Corporation, raised the rents. He asked me if I could take one of the cats, and Misty was the calmest, so I took him. The other cats, all found homes eventually but for awhile after he moved out they stayed around their old house and he kept coming back to feed them daily. It was quite moving. Misty had to give up the company of the other cats, but he got a whole floor here at the college, and 600 new human friends.

Have you ever considered getting him another companion?

I don’t think he would like that, no… (Laughs) He’s too much the king of the third floor, He’s quite happy to be among loving humans!

So how did he actually come here? Was he already with you before you came here?

We were already here, and my wife was not initially enthusiastic about adopting him. She was a dog person and had never had a cat. But I argued that we’re a college, and if you go to Cambridge and Oxford, you’ll see all the colleges have college cats. It’s a tradition, so I convinced her. Now of course she completely adores him and she would never give him up.

Then and NowProf Clancey remembering he was once a college student.

So, when you are reflecting back on this big endeavour that you embarked on, is it what you expected?

It’s even better. From the very beginning till now, the college has been a great experience for me. I’ve worked for 11 years before I came here as a lecturer in the History Department, and I was also in the FASS Dean’s Office. And I’ve never have had as good a job as this one. It’s a real community here. A department is also a community, but it works differently. Living with students as opposed to just teaching them for a few hours each week is much more fun and enjoyable. There’s always something going on all the time, people are enthusiastic about things, and we have the freedom to experiment and do things it would be difficult to do in a more formal setting.

I wouldn’t trade this job for anything else on campus. Some of the faculty members I meet who are not college fellows think that college fellowship is just managing problems, but it isn’t. Yes, the occasional problems happen, but they’re counterbalanced by all the fascinating and constructive things. There are more interesting events going on in the College in a typical week than anywhere else in the campus. The Forums that Prof Koh convenes, and the Teas that the fellows and I do, bring so many interesting people here, I don’t have to leave the college to meet anyone! (Laughs) That’s actually one of the “happy problems” I face: too rarely having the time or even reason to leave UTown! I don’t have a car, and we have a supermarket within walking distance, as well as restaurants, and all the coffee I can drink at Starbucks. I sometimes do months without a trip to Orchard Road, or even Clementi.

Shifting gears a little bit, what do you think is the most commonly misunderstood trait about you?

I’ve no idea what ‘traits’ I’m associated with! (Laughter) Singaporeans are too polite to tell me (chuckles). Occasionally I’ve had to put my foot down in the past, but I don’t do that very often, so I hope student don’t see me as too authoritarian. I try and honour the term ‘Home of Possibilities’ which was coined by students. I have always told my staff to say ‘Yes’ most of the time, or at least ‘Maybe’, and ‘No’ only if it’s a matter of protecting students, individually or as a community.

If students want to do something progressive, I like to think I’m encouraging. I’m usually behind the scenes though, as most of my job is dealing with staff members who are in turn dealing with all of you more directly than I can.

Just to end off, what question might you want to ask a student who might be interviewed for this series?

Well I’ve asked the fellows enough questions so (laughs) for the students… If I were to gather a group of students together to talk about the college, I’d be interested to know whether we living up to your expectations? We say we are the home of possibilities, so are we providing them that? One thing I’ve noticed is that, because we are the home of possibilities, we have a lot of activities that come and go, the IGs turn over quite a lot from year to year. That’s probably a function of our encouraging student initiative.

When you consider the Oxford or Cambridge colleges, you think ‘tradition’, but we seldom hear that term here. Sometimes, as a Master, I wonder if there a point at which we should have ‘traditions’, but given our motto, another part wonders whether one of our distinct characteristics should be that we downplay tradition-making. Traditions can sometimes bind you, particularly if you have incoming students full of new ideas you want to try out. So, are we comfortable and willing to embrace constant change, or do we think as a community that there is a place for tradition? For example, we could have said from the beginning, “Well, there are five sports, here is what they are”, not over 20, or however many we have right now. Likewise, we could say to freshmen that we have a debate team, and seven or eight other activities, and we fund only those, so please choose one or two only. I know the halls have a tradition of yearly performances, and we also had had a big successful musical a few years ago, but we’ve not had one since because students decided to shift their energies elsewhere, such as to the play we’re about to put on this month. Likewise we had a lip dub in the first year, but we haven’t done that since. Changing interests are reflected more rapidly here than in colleges or halls which use tradition as a guide.

One student actually left us, writing before she went that she preferred hall culture because there were fewer groups and thus a deeper commitment to continuity on the part of their leaders. Also, I notice some alumni have been disappointed that groups they formed did not outlast their time here. But again, I think this is the trade-off when you bill yourself as “the home of possibilities”.

I guess that’s what makes colleges different from halls. I understand halls do have long standing traditions and that’s what some students join them for. That’s why I joined Tembusu, because it’s different and that’s what makes us a college.

Yes, we didn’t set out to be totally different from halls, but we have evolved in somewhat different ways, and there’s also the fact that we have a programmed curriculum here. Another thing I would ask students would be what have you gotten out of the classes we offer? Fellows tell me how you benefit from them and I do get the feedback you put online every semester, which is very positive. But I’d ask what about the classes do you find most useful, and also whether the third year experience has been useful – basically questions about our academic program, which is the core of the college experience. Of course, you may not understand their value until later in life. That was my experience. I think only know, late in life and with time to look back, to I really appreciate my own college experience and how it invited me to a life of learning.


This interview was conducted by Ryan Quek and Ong Kah Jing, with photos by Jarratt Ong and from Assoc Prof Clancey’s personal collection.