Soaring High with My Feet on the Ground

A Reflection on the Soul of Academia

As the final assignment for the BC4DCP course, we were challenged by Prof. Ts. Rose Alinda Alias to share our reflection and plans in regards to the topic of the talk, which is the Soul of Academia. The following is my submission for the task. I don’t know if I will be able to live up to my words, but I hope that this will be a good reminder for me in the future.

The soul of academia. Honestly, I would not have given such an issue any thought had it not been for Professor Dr. Rose’s talk on the topic. There is stress involved in any job, but I have never thought too deeply about why some lecturers seem to live and breathe their work, while others are very concerned about going home on time and not putting any extra hours on the weekend. As my father is a professor himself, I have had the opportunity to observe lecturers since I was young. My father was the former type of lecturer, and he still is, after retirement, but the young me simply thought he was a workaholic. Maybe he is. Yet there are so many factors that can drive people to be so career driven.

After the talk by Prof. Dr. Rose, I can say with certainty that my father is passionate and enjoys his job immensely. He is obsessed with his projects and has gone the extra mile to ensure his students can finish their education countless times. I have also seen other lecturers who are great researchers and amazing educators (and of course, many who are not). Yet many of them may not be cut out to be great academic leaders. While they excel at what they do — teaching, research, and consultancy — they lack the qualities of an academic leader. Some of them do not have a vision for the university, or even the department, and some do not have the people skills required to motivate others to work together. 

On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to have met very successful people in the academic world. Ones who have held important positions within their respective universities, whose names start with lofty titles I can only dream of ever possessing. These people are great, exemplary leaders. Which is unsurprising, because they would have not received opportunities to shoulder such exalted responsibilities for their institutions otherwise. Yet now I wonder, do these people have the soul of academia?

It is hard to say with certainty because the soul resides within oneself. However, sometimes one may be able to hedge a guess by observing their behaviour. For example, if one has a clear vision and direction for the institution, but also misuses grant money to purchase personal items unrelated to research, does that person have the soul of an academia? If he is efficient and is innovative enough to lead multidisciplinary projects, yet heavily favours one student over his other students, is his soul truly in the right place?

Pondering these things made me realise that this ‘job’ as a lecturer is not as simple as fulfilling the key performance indicators (although even just that is daunting enough). In order for all that we do as lecturers to have a deeper meaning beyond just a job that pays the bill every month, we must have our souls in the right place. Everything starts with my intention (niat). Then I will slowly go from there to figure out my place in this world of academics. With the right intentions identified from early on and reviewed over time, I will be able to use them as my motivation and they will keep me from going afloat when I am presented with challenges in any form. 

Several personality tests were mentioned in the talk. One of them is the test from I took a personality test from this site a long time ago, but I have completely forgotten it. However, the result I got from the test I did recently is thought-provoking. I feel that many of the descriptions of an advocate (INFJ-T) on the website struck a chord with me. According to the site, advocates “have a deep sense of idealism and integrity, but they aren’t idle dreamers – they take concrete steps to realise their goals and make a lasting impact.” While I do have the tendency to strive for the ideal solution, I am realistic enough to know that this often is not possible. The site also says that advocates tend to step in to help others who are experiencing difficulties. Even though I am unsure that I have such noble tendencies, I have been warned by colleagues not to take too much on myself as some people may take advantage of me. So perhaps it is true in a sense. Oftentimes people close to us can see us better than we can see ourselves. 

This brings me to the first and one of the most important aspects I feel I should have for a successful career; surrounding myself with people who genuinely care about myself, the university, and the community. These people can be family or friends, but colleagues will play a vital part in ensuring that my career is on the right path to success, while making sure that my feet are firmly planted on the ground. Regardless of my position, I should never forget to be humble. There is always something I can learn from someone else, even if their education level is lower or their lives seem very different from mine. It is important to have people who have my best interests at heart and are unafraid of telling me what they think and feel. If I ever lose sight of myself, these people will be the ones to offer honest, constructive criticism. 

As a lecturer in one of Malaysia’s research universities, research is an integral part of my career. The important thing to keep in mind is that doing research that is purely for the sake of research may just be me being full of myself. For the research to be meaningful, it has to be beneficial. Not just beneficial for my career, or for a promotion, but it must be for the good of the community. Therefore, all my research needs to be centred around solving real world problems. This will be another motivation to push myself forward in bringing all my research to fruition — so that the community can directly benefit from the research that they have also paid for in the form of taxes. On that note, it is important to engage the stakeholders, the alumni, the industry, and the community nationally and internationally to ensure sustainability.

In terms of leadership, there is a lot for me to reflect upon. Looking back to my student days when I had to work in groups until now, I think that I can be both a good follower and a capable leader. The best situation for me is having a superior who is efficient while remaining open-minded, since I do not shy away from offering my opinions and ideas. Which is why I feel blessed to have Associate Professor Dr. Mazura as my mentor. She has been helpful beyond words and does everything impeccably. Although she is great at every task, she treats me with respect and always takes what I say seriously. Therefore, I feel reassured that the task is being done well while I feel that I am being heard. This does not mean that I cannot lead, however. In situations where no one is willing to step up and lead, or if the leader prefers not to do anything, I have always been able to take the reins and lead the group. This may be the part of me who ideally wants things to be done properly and efficiently. However, this tendency may have negative repercussions when a very short time limit is given. I noticed this during the BC4DCP course. When I was in a group where someone stepped up as a leader, I was happy to sit back and simply do my part as a team member. However, most of the time no one wanted to lead, and thus I had to take charge. The time limit is usually quite short, and I found myself barrelling along — asking my teammates if they agree with doing something like deleting similar comments, and after getting their consent, doing it without checking each time in the interest of completing the task within the time limit. This is something that I really need to reflect upon and take as a lesson, because just because someone has consented once, that does not mean that they will consent to it again later.

Therefore, if I am deemed good enough to be offered a position of leadership, I may have to re-evaluate a lot of things. As a leader, I must have a clear vision and mission for the organisation, and no longer solely work towards a personal vision and mission. Furthermore, I need to be resourceful and innovative in guiding others to achieve the same vision and mission, using and integrating their diverse knowledge and skills to the fullest. Everyone should never forget that we are working for the greater good, not personal gain, and it is the responsibility of a leader to keep this in everyone’s minds. To accomplish that, I need to become a people-centric leader that influences through good examples. Always remember that everything needs to be done with integrity. The core principles that I have established for myself and for the group should stand at the forefront of any decision and should not waver. After all, if leaders do not act as they preach, how can they expect others to do as they say? Thus, as a leader, I need to remember to always treat others with respect, empathy, and fairness. In the interest of the university and the community, I also need to appreciate people and their capabilities, and help them draw out their potential to achieve synergy and sustainability.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, no matter what position I am in, I will never stop thirsting for knowledge and working to better my skills, be it in educating, research, management, or leadership. The quest in search for knowledge is a never-ending one, and one that has always been close to my heart. I hope this will keep me grounded if I am successful in my career.

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