Please don’t call me ‘Prof’

I can never get used to the word ‘Prof/Dr’ to be prefixed in front of my name.

Every time when I meet a resident in my college, they would politely call me out with a big smile ‘Good morning, Prof’. While my heart is warmed by their kind gesture both online and face-to-face, the word ‘Prof/Dr’ always invokes a very strange feeling in me. I don’t really know how to describe it. Sometimes it feels like a sense of pride. The kind of pride like when you have endured lot of pains to try to meet a difficult goal and achieving it. Sometimes it feels embarrassing. The kind of embarrassment like when you are being praised beyond the level that you know that you don’t deserve it.

I have largely treated this feeling as nothing too serious in my life. Like water steaming through a river, I let it pass without really examining it deeply.

Ever since joining Residential College 4 in June 2016, the interactions between residents and me have increased. Consequently, the frequency of which I am being addressed as ‘Prof/Dr’ increased and in tandem, the occurrences of this strange feeling in me. Only this time, no matter how hard I try to let it pass, it simply wouldn’t go away. Like a nagging mother, this thought to figure out why I am feeling this way keeps circling in and out my mind relentlessly for weeks. So it gives me little choice but to stop my day-to-day living to examine it more intently.

After weeks of reflecting upon my feelings, clarity emerges and this blog will try to capture the essence of my reflection.

At first glance into my mind, I thought the cause of me feeling this way is inferiority. I am not an academic who the society deemed as a great source of knowledge. My publications in top-tier peer-reviewed journals are few and certainly considered as too little when compared to many established academic. My teaching is not as good as I want it to be and certainly not among the top teachers. Perhaps inferiority can explain this feeling of embarrassment when someone called me ‘Prof/Dr’.

But how about pride?

Perhaps it may be that I am proud of my tenacity attitude to life. I am known for doing a lot of crazy stuff in my life. One of which is to take up a PhD part-time. Juggling between my work and study had not been easy. I persevered and managed to graduate with good publication records in several top-tier journal and conferences. And as if it is not challenging enough, I trained and ran a full marathon during my PhD candidacy. That may explain why I feel a sense of pride when someone addresses me as ‘Prof/Dr’. It is hard-earned after all. Is this really the reason?

Despite deep examination of these thoughts, I am still not sure about the cause. And so this process of constant reflection continues.

And then one day, the eureka moment happened. It happened while I was having my routine early morning walk with my wife. I was sharing with her that I met Yingda (a resident) the night before and shared with him my reflections about life. Among them was this strange feeling about being called ‘Prof/Dr’ by others. And suddenly the knowledge that had been hidden in my mind emerged.

I came to the conclusion, to my relief, that the cause of this strange feeling that I have had when people called me ‘Prof/Dr’ lies in my deep belief on life equality. I am having a cognitive dissonance every time when people called me ‘Prof/Dr’. On one hand, I am conditioned by the society to look at everything around me in ‘hierarchy’. Isn’t it so? We studied through a hierarchy of education stages. We accumulated wealth, status, and fame and defined our progression in life based on the amount we managed to accumulate. We have job scale or career ladder to define why a senior management is of more importance and higher in status than a cleaner. On the other hand, my firm belief in Buddhism advocates that every species in the world is connected as one. That we are no difference from an animal or human being. There is no hierarchy. There is only unity. This conflicting thought collided within me every single time someone called me ‘Prof/Dr’ because residues of the societal influence in my mind forced me to think in hierarchy and my Buddhist belief went the other way. And so I realized how deeply entrenched I am into this ‘hierarchy’ thought pattern.

There is an added pedagogical reason why I am experiencing this cognitive dissonance too. I have wanted people especially my residents to break away from the conditioning of society that ‘rank’ people along a hierarchy. In Singapore, we called it meritocracy. When someone addressed me as ‘Prof/Dr’, I feel that it has reinforced this ‘ranking’ in their minds. In its worst case, it may plant a seed in them to want to move up this invisible societal hierarchy. I do not want this to happen to them. As an aspiring teacher, I have wanted them to realize that learning can and is already happening everywhere around us. Sources of knowledge can come from anything or anyone. A cleaner can teach us great insights about living if we listen intently enough. Nature has millions of hidden life lessons awaiting our discovery if we look at and reflect upon it frequent enough. If we think in hierarchy, we conditioned our minds to think that the only important life lessons worthwhile of learning are drawn from people higher up in the hierarchy.

Thinking in hierarchy also feeds our ego and constrains our life experiences. For instance, imagine that you are a fish in a large lake. You are the king of the lake having been through many battles. None of the fishes in the lake is stronger than you. That is until you are released into the ocean. Suddenly, you realized that you are just a small fish in the ocean. And so the cycle to fight your way up the hierarchy continues. All during this time of pursuit, you have chosen to ignore the existence of a forest. There are ants in it that can do amazing things and can teach you a thing or two about life. But you are blinded. You see only the hierarchy in your environment. Isn’t this how our society has evolved into? Our education is in large part responsible for that. And so I strive hard every day to educate our future generation to break out of this loop of ‘hierarchy’ thinking.

There is no such thing as a hierarchy in life. Only human being defined such hierarchy so that we give meaning to our life pursuit. If you see life as a series of hierarchies to climb, you have missed the point about living. Like to share with you this video dedicated to the words of Alan Watts (a famous British philosopher who unfortunately died three months after I was born).

To live is to be playful. Playful about experiencing life in its full diversity. You come empty-handed into this world, and regardless of what hierarchy that you may choose to climb and how high you managed to climb, you will always leave this world empty-handed.  So be playful. Take a chance out of your comfort zone. Meet an ‘ant in the forest’ if you are a ‘fish in a lake’ or vice versus. Experience life from their perspective. And if you open your mind to that, you will discover that miracles are happening all around us every single second.

So next time when you see me and you want to address me as ‘Prof/Dr’, remind yourself of this hierarchy that we are conditioned to believe in and choose to break free from it.

And just address me as Jenson.



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