Ideas for a radically different Tembusu

In three years’ time, our college will be celebrating our first decade in existence. In the earlier years of the college, many practices and policies were in flux as the management and students tried to decide which of them would best suit the college. Over the years, certain practices have begun to settle, and we now have sacred cows in Tembusu. Sacred cows are basically practices and policies we begin to take for granted as non-negotiable fundamental tenets of our college structure and identity.

In this piece, I want to bring to light some of these sacred cows and offer alternatives to them. But, I should first make a caveat before people come after me. I am not doing this because I think that these sacred cows are invalid – far from it! In fact, I am a staunch believer that these practices and policies are not sacred cows without good reason – they have been proven to work and be instrumental in the achievement of key college objectives. Neither am I doing this because I seriously think we should have a radically different Tembusu College at this point in time.

I write this for two main reasons. Firstly, I am doing this because it’s an important and healthy exercise to have. If the sacred cows we have in Tembusu are truly the best and most suitable for our context, they should stand the test of alternative ideas. We should have reasons why we persist with our current practices and policies even in the face of compelling alternatives. Rather, it would be worrying if there was no one offering an alternative, because that would mean that we risk being stuck within a big bubble. Secondly, the context in which Tembusu operates in is always changing, and if we do not factor that and adapt our policies and practices accordingly, then we risk becoming an increasingly irrelevant residential college.

So, having set these parameters, here we go.

1) Replace the levels-based House system with an interest-based House system

Today, our houses are organized by the levels we stay in. The strength of this system is that you get a chance to meet a diversity of people. The less envied aspect of this system is that House identity must be constructed and maintained consistently, without any deeper thread connecting everyone in the house. This is not exactly a downside, but it does shift, quite disproportionately, the responsibility from house members to house committees in the task of bonding the houses.

What if we had an interest-based House system instead? When everyone first enters Tembusu College, they have the chance to pick between 4 different clusters – Science, Technology, Society and Conservation. These clusters can be debated and could well be something else, but that is not the main point for the moment. Each house will then consist of students who have adopted the same cluster. In this way, each house is connected not by a painstakingly constructed identity, but something that students have a greater personal investment in. We could have Science house coming together for House events related to Science or organize college events around the theme of Science. We could have a collaboration between Technology and Conservation houses to create a project that saves wildlife using technology.

A potential downside to this is that we might miss out on taking advantage of the proximity of living together. If we still wish to capitalize on that, we can always have level I/Cs or a mini level committee. Alternatively, we can group the levels students live in based on the aforementioned clusters.

2) Replace a directly elected CSC with a CSC comprising 2 elected members of each House

Our CSC today plays an important role in overseeing many aspects of student life in our college. When there is a competition for roles, candidates are elected by the student body. Nonetheless, despite its importance, the CSC is seen to be the broader ‘overseer’ of student life, while House committees are the local, ground units. House captains will work closely with the CSC to give them a sensing of the ground in each house. Where possible, the CSC will also hold open meetings with Tembusians directly, often using delicious food to incentivize attendance.

But as with any other organizational hierarchy, information flow is usually filtered and disrupted in profound ways before it reaches the top. I’m not sure if any CSC member would, hand to heart, say that they believe that the feedback they are receiving from the House captains, and the open consultations, truly reflects what is happening on the ground. Or, that even what their friends and immediate circles tell them paints a sufficient picture of the ground.

The CSC still plays an important role, but could the electoral process be restructured to address this divide? What if instead, we had each house elect 2 nominees, separate from the house committee, to form part of the CSC? Thus, the CSC would comprise of, assuming there are 4 houses according to idea 1, 8 members. Would this better reconcile the local-overseer divide? Would this be beneficial? That would make the CSC more grounded that it already is.

3) Make it compulsory for everyone to declare a single ‘home’ interest group, and provide recognition to those who meet a minimum contribution requirement

This is potentially the most controversial of alternatives but do hear me out. I know the word ‘compulsory’ will straightaway cause some people to groan, especially considering the culture of our college.

First, consider this. Some of the things we have grown to appreciate about Tembusu College are actually compulsory. For example, meal conversations in dining hall are facilitated by the fact that everyone must purchase a dining hall meal plan to stay in this college. Or, the classroom-based learning that many of us enjoy are of course, compulsory. If either of these were optional, I’m not sure if the take-up rate would have been sufficient for the kind of experiences we are getting now.

Next, interest groups today suffer from the very thing that makes them thrive. Interest groups are based completely on voluntary interest. So, when people are truly interested, they make the groups work and fun to be part of. But at the same time, interest groups decline quickly because there is no institutional obligation to maintain them, beyond voluntary interest.

Relatedly, I think all of us will agree that interest groups are integral to the experience of our college. Remove interest groups and the college will be an extremely different place. Some of us who have led interest groups would probably also agree that it is not easy to sustain one because the commitment levels are very volatile, since participation is voluntary. Now, how do we reconcile that desire to ensure interest group participation is still driven by voluntary interest with the fact that we should consciously preserve, continue, maintain and develop this domain of the college?

I suggest that we make it compulsory for everyone to declare a ‘home’ interest group from the very start, and if a student can meet a minimum participation level in the interest group (what this minimum is can be subjectively negotiated), then the college should recognize him or her in some way (perhaps via a certificate at the end of the 2 years). In this way, we have a gentle incentive and obligation for us to take ownership of at least 1 interest group, rather than have participation in Tembusu Interest groups completely subjected to individual priorities.

4) Within the fellows’ Key Performance Indicators, include “Having a meal with students in the dining hall at least once a Semester”

Another practice is that informal meals between Fellows and students are completely optional, and dependent on whether the Fellow wishes to do so or not. Now, I know this suggestion will not go down well with some Fellows, and I can already hear some complaints about this self-entitled student who does not empathise with how professors are human beings with busy schedules and other important commitments.

But, I contend that dinners with students and professors will be in both parties’ interests. Students can glean insights from someone who is experienced in his or her field. Professors too, should not underestimate the valuable insights that students can provide – from giving feedback about how we prefer our modules to be taught, how young people are thinking about issues today, and even our own knowledge from our fields of study. I acknowledge that this sounds idealistic, but that’s precisely it: I don’t want this to be an ideal. I want such cross-germination and sharing of ideas between professors and students to become a reality in our dining hall. Would it not push professors and students to understand each other better, and reconcile the, sometimes unhealthy, divide between teacher and students in our seminars as well? Our learning culture would be markedly better off.

5) Have a civic affairs council

I’m not going to pretend that this point isn’t motivated by my own interest and experience. In the recent years, we can see the rise of interest groups doing work related to civic affairs. Consider Polity, ‘Disrupted by conflict’ series and Millegram as examples. You also have other groups like Treehouse and T-Debates already in existence.

Yet so far, we only have a Tembusu Arts Council and Teambusu (the sports equivalent) that try to unite and synergize the arts and sports groups respectively, because there is a need and potential for that to happen. From my knowledge, Teambusu’s scope of work is qualitatively different from Arts Council. They mainly unite the IGs during the IHG and THG seasons, while arts council takes a much more proactive role throughout the year. The key question then is: do these civic affairs interest groups have a potential to come together in the way that the arts groups and sports groups have, and of what nature should this collaboration be?

My position is that there is a lot of potential for greater synergy between the civic affairs interest groups. Right now, each group operates very separately, and sometimes, unintentionally cannibalize each other. The potential overlapping areas of each of these groups are great but are not being tapped on for bigger purposes. For example, imagine if T-Debates collaborated with Polity for an inaugural Tembusu event to organize a public debate and dialogue on the hot issue of the day between 2 public intellectuals, and Treehouse comes in to produce a post-event publication. In fact, you already see semblances of these collaborations happening, but on a much smaller scale, such as when Treehouse writers express their responses to Polity dialogues. We could make our civic affairs based events much more impactful, and of a larger scale, if we had a council that spearheaded such a synergizing process.

The college already has a significant number of people interested in civic affairs, and I would say that a civic affairs week, if done carefully, can have as much impact as an arts week. Of course, I think might not happen in the near future because there is no such council at the moment, but it is worth a thought.

6) Extend the EWG’s jurisdiction to become a live module-review committee

One of the most important yet unaddressed disconnections between student expectations and Professor expectations lies in our seminar classes. Early on in our seminar classes, students usually have a lot of feedback with regards to what they feel about how the module is being taught and structured. Professors too, or at least those under whom I have been taught, would like to garner such feedback to improve their modules while it is ongoing, rather than wait till the end of the semester. Yet, students will not always share their most honest thoughts because they believe, quite understandably, that doing so might jeopardize relationships, and by extension, grades.

How do we address this disjunct? I suggest that we can look to an existing group – the Education Working Group – as a potential answer. Right now, they usually work closely with Professors and students to be the bridge for module feedback, or consultation, or explanation long before or after the module. Perhaps, they can now take up a greater role – be a live module-review committee.

Within the first two weeks of seminars, they could conduct closed door sessions to get the most honest and brutal feedback about the module. They can anonymize the feedback and provide it to professors who are interested. In this way, we can better address the disconnection. I would sound a word of caution here, though. This does not resolve everything. Students can potentially make use of the committee to convey ideas because they don’t have to be personally accountable for it, and they do not have to justify them (because they will not be questioned). But my position is that having this extra data point, whether relied on fully or not by professors, will be a valuable addition for the live improvement of module teaching.

As mentioned in my introduction, I did not write all of this because I viewed our sacred cows as fundamentally dysfunctional. On the contrary, I think that every policy and practice must make certain trade-offs to achieve another goal. I am not naïve enough to think that these 6 ideas do not have, in themselves, trade-offs. But the important thing is this: which trade-offs should we make? Which goals should we prioritize? If you have seriously read these 6 alternatives, and you have good grounds for rejecting them based on certain priorities and objectives you can justify, fair enough. In fact, I would be heartened because I know that our sacred cows are not sacred just by virtue of the passage of time. Rather, they are sacred due to careful thought and pondering as to why they exist in the first place.


Pictures from the Treehouse Archive.

About the Author

Yang Long has a deep interest in the social world. He believes that the events in our lives are the result of a confluence of larger social forces. He also enjoys guiding young children to ensure that they have as best a start in life as possible. In his free time, he reads and writes. He hopes to work in the humanitarian field one day.