Interview with Academics #2: Chong-Ming Lim

[ID: a photo of Chong-Ming Lim]

Chong-Ming LimDPhil in Philosophy (2020). Equality and Diversity Graduate Representative, and Minorities and Philosophy Officer (2019-2020). Upcoming appointment (from September 2020): Postdoctoral Fellow, Stanford University, McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Website: www.cmlim.info

  1. How did you come to philosophy & your particular specialisations and/or interests?

One of my teachers had informally introduced me to some philosophy (some genealogy and some Kierkegaard) while I was preparing for my ‘A’ levels. It was not a subject that was taught in school then. It was also far removed from what I was preparing myself to do – I was taking Special Papers in biology and chemistry, in the hopes of being a biochemist! But I soon found that I loved reading philosophy more than I did the other subjects and decided to read philosophy in university. In a slogan: genealogy over gluconeogenesis! I’ve not been thinking very much about genealogy nowadays, though.

I’ve settled on my research topics in a somewhat haphazard way. Most of the time the process goes like this: I’d hear someone talk about something, and if I didn’t really understand it, I’d start obsessing over it. Sometimes, I manage to settle on a view of my own. I’d then write it up. I’ve published papers on the “best interests” standard in medical decision making, the nature of disability and the justice claims of the disabled, the recommendations of the effective altruism movement, and political vandalism. The paper on political vandalism is part of my DPhil thesis; in it, I offer a qualified defence of vandalising some statues (check it out here). I decided to write about political resistance for my DPhil thesis partly in response to what I was seeing on the news every day, and partly in an attempt to defend some political resistors against what intuitively seemed to be unfair dismissals of their actions.

I used to be fairly embarrassed about settling on research topics in such a haphazard way. Many of my colleagues have systematic research plans that seem to stretch into the indefinite future, each step of which would bring them closer to articulating a complete system of thought. I’d feel like I wasn’t genuinely invested in the topic compared to them. But I’m slowly disabusing myself of these feelings.

The topics I’ve been working on are in some sense “practical”. This is partly connected to the conversations I have with my friends, many of whom are not philosophers, and for whom these are the topics that are the most alive or pressing. I like these conversations and would like to continue having them.

  1. What have you learned about philosophy that you might not have initially expected?

I’m a cliché on this – I think the biggest lesson for me is how complex things are and how little I know! Socrates would be proud.

  1. What would you want to share about your experience studying for graduate degrees away from your other countries where you’ve studied, worked, and/or lived?

I’ve found that graduate study in philosophy is often lonely, and especially so in what seems to be an alien place. I’ve been lucky to have made friends who have been incredibly supportive, but some of my peers have been less fortunate. While some loneliness is to be expected, we should try not to let it be the defining experience of graduate study. While your friends can’t (and probably shouldn’t) write your papers for you, they can struggle with you as you try to clarify and organise your thoughts.

  1. What motivates you to stay in academia (or at least pursue further degrees)? If you have encountered obstacles, what supports have you found, would you recommend, and how did you manage to persevere?

I like teaching. While this is not restricted to academia, I find that teaching at the university level is more intellectually rewarding than it is at the secondary or post-secondary levels (I’ve taught at several secondary schools in Singapore). In the abstract, I also find having a job which allows me to spend much of my time thinking and writing to be very attractive. On the issue of staying in academia, I think the main obstacles for me (as it must be for many others) aren’t just about my motivations, but about structural issues. There just aren’t enough jobs to go around, and many of the jobs that exist are underpaid and their holders overworked; and we’ve not even started on the inequalities in who gets to be hired in the first place. I was lucky to have been offered a fellowship immediately after my DPhil, and moreover one which allows me a lot of time to think and write. I’ll have to see how things unfold in the future.

In trying to persevere, I’ve also been lucky to have received help from other academics. In addition to my supervisors, I’ve also received a lot of helpful advice from other academics in informal settings. I am sometimes conflicted about informal networks. While I have benefitted from being in them, I also recognise that they may (and often do) further the entrenchment of a certain class of people who come from, or whose paths intersect with, those from certain “elite” institutions. I’m sometimes pessimistic about the possibility of a principled way out of this conflict, if the broader structural issues aren’t resolved.

  1. Who are your favourite philosophers?

I’ve especially enjoyed reading Stanley Cavell, Margaret Urban Walker, Michael Walzer, (the later) Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bernard Williams.

  1. How have your expectations about what you want to and are able to study in academia changed over time?

I’ve been pretty obstinate about reading and writing about whatever I’ve wanted to ever since I started graduate study. I’ve also not been particularly bothered by those who claim that some topics are “fringe” or “not philosophical” or “aren’t publishable”, and therefore not worth spending time thinking about. Perhaps this stubbornness can only be sustained in the context of graduate studies (or perhaps, even more grimly, in the context of graduate studies in an institution regarded as elite) – which is still somewhat (though increasingly less) sheltered from the pressures on professional philosophers. I hope not; but perhaps I’ll have to change my ways at some point.  

  1. How do you wish philosophy had been taught or communicated differently during your studies?

“Construction” or building-related metaphors are commonplace in philosophical discussions. “Positions” and “structures” are “built” or “erected” which aspire to be “stable”. These structures are “undermined” by problems and are sometimes “torn down”. The “gaps” or “holes” then need to be “patched up”. (I set aside, for now, problems that arise from “hard”, “harder”, “hardest” or “deep” problems that “penetrate” the structures that are “erected”).

In classrooms or at conferences, a philosopher typically develops a position on her own and defends it against assailants who seek to tear it down. I hope that philosophers take these construction metaphors more seriously (including making sure that they update how classrooms and conferences are often run). No one really constructs buildings on their own – it’s often (if not always) a collaborative effort. There is some value in being more “constructive”, especially when we encounter those who are at the very first stages of construction. Also, buildings hardly ever collapse upon the removal of a single stone. Those pieces that remain may succeed in holding it in place. Stable and beautiful buildings also come in different shapes and sizes and can be built with a variety of materials.

  1. What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are either/both minorities hoping to pursue philosophy further or/and interested to study philosophical topics less commonly recognised as philosophy by the establishment we encounter not only at Oxford but at many philosophy departments in the Euro-American universities and beyond?

Find and join various interests/reading/discussion groups or create them if don’t exist. Organise and try to push for the inclusion of these topics in the syllabus. Sorry, I know these general claims obscure the many different “local” difficulties that are bound to arise when we try to put these plans into action. But tactics will likely have to be tailored to the specific contexts.

At Oxford, there are several groups to look out for – Minorities and Philosophy, Oxford Public Philosophy, Philiminality, people for womxn in philosophy, among others.

  1. What advice would you give to undergraduates trying to find where they want to go?

At the undergraduate level, I think it’s probably best to go with what you’re interested in! What are the kinds of issues that you find yourself thinking most frequently about? What kinds of conversations are you most interested in having? I think the situation is slightly different for graduate students, who have to consider the pressures related to the job market. But undergraduate life is thankfully somewhat sheltered from these pressures.

  1. Could you tell us more about some of your favourite developments or moments in your current studies? 

One moment is precious to me. When I began to read authors beyond those typically regarded as philosophers, I discovered entire new worlds and new ways of seeing. That there are these incredibly thoughtful and empathetic people out there who are also struggling to grapple with the messiness of the world and its horrors (and sometimes beauty), was eye-opening and humbling for me given (what I now recognise as) my narrow diet.

  1. Could you tell us a bit about your plans for after your PhD – what are you hoping to study as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford University McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society (from September 2020)? What attracted you to this position and what was the searching process like? Do you have a long-term goal or vision?

In the coming year, I’m hoping to spend my time thinking a little more about political resistance. The Center for Ethics at Stanford University was among my top choices for postdoctoral fellowships (so I’ve been incredibly lucky, again!), because of its commitment to interdisciplinary work centred on public issues. Of course, and among other things, being in California is also a big attraction.

As with many other applications, the process is somewhat standard (I think). Prepare a research proposal, provide supporting documents, convince people to write recommendation letters for you, submit everything, and hope fervently to get interviewed and then offered a job.

To date, I haven’t had much of a long-term goal or vision, if by that you refer to something substantive that stretches on for at least a few years into the future. I’ll spend some time thinking about this too.

  1. How would you recommend students navigate balancing passing their degree and finding the time and resources to learn beyond their curriculum about liminal or totally silenced topics?

One thing which worked for me was to write my essays on topics that were not really covered in the syllabi, but which were at least somewhat connected to them. I’m not sure if this could be a general recommendation, though. Among other things, it’d have to depend on how amenable one’s tutors are to such attempts.

I’ve also found it helpful to attend reading groups on a variety of topics, and also lectures or classes in different departments. But this may not be always sustainable given the many commitments students have to juggle.

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