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Drop that Mask – Know and Tell!

Every term, before the first week of class, I ask my students to write a short self-introduction on a slide with a recent photograph so I can get to know them better as human beings, and not just a number to assign a grade to.

The new photograph helps me learn names because the matriculation card photo that I have from eLearn was taken when you were your naïve, pre-freshman-orientation day selves. Even one term at SMU is enough to mature a fresh(wo)man into an almost unrecognizable, wiser, more street-smart self!

I ask them to write something about themselves that I wouldn’t find out in the course of interacting with them in my role as instructor: what gives you a “high” and “low” in life, what your hobbies are, what troubles you…the answers vary from one-line responses to three-page essays.

Credits: Unseen Studio on Unsplash.

What is uniform across the longer essays are remarkable revelations of really interesting personalities, lovely turns of phrases, self-deprecating humour and sometimes startling insights into their own lives at SMU, and life outside of school. Among you, there are national level sportswomen and men, bakers, avid readers, Korean drama bingers, nature lovers, dog enthusiasts, baristas, dancers, devout believers. Everyone has something interesting and unique about his or her take on life. Many express cheem angsty ruminations about life and what lies ahead. All this to a stranger whom they have not even met at the time. Perhaps there is something freeing about an opportunity to “diary” into the wild?

And yet in class, as soon as its 8:15am, noon, 3:30pm or 6:45pm, it is like Cinderella at midnight – the vast majority of students turn into robotic kan cheong grade-maximizers, merging into some amorphous student body, competing with one other for some point atop a magical grade curve.

I see little of those interesting personalities that were revealed behind the mask before the course began; that metaphorical mask which many wear and hide behind, as though playing a role in some drama of life - a mask that hides the human inside you, as though you are not quite sure you are willing to bare that self, as you barely know it yourself!

These four years of college are really the best years of your life to know and to tell; to get to know yourself, and to tell. And to be confident in expressing that self to all around you – to professors, fellow students, CCA playmates, SMU staff, or the food court operator, pretty much to anyone. Also to not be embarrassed about your vulnerabilities, to understand your weaknesses and to shore them up (not to shy away from courses and events that might possibly expose them). You should know that some of your fellow students who appear to be so self-confident, secure and high-achieving are sometimes just as human and vulnerable as you are, or even more so (I know because I have read their pre-course surveys, and have heard a thousand confessions in heart-to-heart talks after course end!).

Credits: Tamara Gak on Unsplash.

Indeed, so are your professors behind their masks too. Yes, they usually have a higher degree, and are accepted authority figures at SMU, but there are real human beings (I am generalizing wildly here!) inside the role that they are playing too. They too have anxieties about life ahead, about work and family pressures, and sometimes existential questions (look up “impostor syndrome”). Faculty members are graded too: every term by students, every paper of theirs by journal reviewers (some of whom are pure evil, by the way!) and editors, and every year by Deans and senior management.

The minute we both, faculty and students, drop those masks and interact as humans who are in class together to pursue knowledge, to discover something about the world as we know it today, in the hope that it will help us all live a better tomorrow, to try to answer big questions (and not just in the Big Questions course), we will all be better off in that journey, even if we never reach that ultimate destination of self-realization.

Seminar rooms in SMU. Credits: Singapore Management University.

It is alright to share your experiences openly in class as it relates to class discussion, to attempt to answer questions that are raised, even if it seems your insight is not that insightful. Not just for the class participation points, but because you have a chance to engage with people around you. Each engagement with the world will help you get to know yourself better, and will give you confidence to show the world who you are.

It is especially alright to chat up a student sitting next to you right before class, or during the break, or in the benches strewn around campus – not just the exchange student who looks lost and friendless (but yes, please do engage with them – that is why they made that long trip) but pretty much any other fellow traveller at SMU. Learn to start that conversation with strangers – ask about their CCAs. Ask about what the toughest course they are taking this term is. What they did last weekend. What Netflix or Prime show they are bingeing on currently. What their favourite lunch spot is on campus. Some will just appear a little shocked by your kaypohness, but I bet enough will reciprocate – and will smile and drop that mask. And that is perhaps a little start to just dropping masks all around.

Photo by Rama.

And some day, that may give you the courage to talk to a stranger in the food court seated across you, who is intently staring into some screen to avoid the world. Some will just gather their stuff and shift to the next table, or just mutter “I’m busy” and turn back to their oh-so-busy life, or tweet “Some crazy SMUgger tried to chat me up just now!” but that’s their loss! You can tweet too “I think I just scared a SMUgger.”

And then at the bus stop, in line outside the 4D or food court queue, and pretty soon you will be unstoppable – knowing and telling.

Okay, so not everyone of us is capable of becoming that all-at-ease person who is completely comfortable in his or her own skin and letting it all hang out all the time. But I bet every one of us will have a slightly more interesting life, will be a little surer of who we are, will develop much better connections with people around us, and ultimately be a little happier than we are currently – if we just tried a bit harder to be human in face-to-face interactions, not just hiding behind screens.

Speaking for myself, every time I want to avoid doing something social because there is a chance that I will embarrass myself, I just do it. And sometimes I do embarrass myself, but it has also helped push me to do things I never thought myself capable of doing. And it has always taught me a bit about myself – and that is the ultimate test of aging I think, when you think you still have something to learn about yourself. I’m the same age as Singapore, and I’m inspired by Singapore’s constant quest for introspection and self-improvement - I hope you will be inspired too. If you see me around campus, drop that mask, stop and say “hi, Rama!”


This article was contributed by Professor Seshan "Rama"swami, Marketing Faculty, Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

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