The makings of a true academic

LET me pose this age-old question to you – How do you judge a book? Definitely by it’s cover, and it’s contents.  

Now let me ask you another question which is even simpler – How might you judge a true academic? By the research he does, of course! By “academics”, I am referring to the learned people – tutors, lecturers, associate professors, professors – one would find teaching (and learning) at any institution of higher learning. 

An academic is considered someone in the know, and is highly respected not just by his peers in the academic community, but also by the general public. He is a person who is highly knowledgeable, especially in his area or areas of expertise.  

The “academic” label is not just given to someone in the teaching profession at the tertiary level; more importantly it is an accolade for someone with expertise who is able to instruct others to become experts through his lectures. 

THE WAY FORWARD: At the City University of HongKong, there are 400 full-time research staff to ensure the institution is at the forefront of technological development. In order to be true experts in their fields of study, academics should never cease to acquire knowledge and skills.

It is on this principle that since last year, I have been driving about in my old beat-up car visiting institutions of higher learning in and around the state of Perak, to invite academics to come and present their research and papers at our Universiti Teknologi Mara campus in Seri Iskandar.  

It is the most natural thing to do as an academic, because you are not supposed to just deliver lectures and grade papers. But more importantly, because you are an academic, you must be learning at the same time! 

Learning for an academic is truly a lifelong process. In some Western countries, academics that are employed by higher education institutions must be able to show that they are continuously learning and gaining knowledge and expertise, in order for their contracts (or tenure) to be renewed. So, those tutors, lecturers and professors who just hide behind their teaching masks and are not involved in research and publication, might end up losing their jobs if they do not learn.  

This simple fact of life goes without saying for anyone who is capable of taking up a teaching position at a university or college. In between lectures, you need to do research even when no one is asking you to. This is what being an academic means. 

Later on, you may be invited to share what you have learned through your research efforts with your peers, and also to disseminate your research findings to the general public. The ultimate aim is to add to the sum of human knowledge. And anyone who dares to call himself an academic should take part in research efforts effortlessly.  

It's a simple task, or so I thought! Unbelievably, it's not an easy task to many. Most of the academics in the nearly 50 government and private higher education institutions that I visited, were clearly unaccustomed to the idea of doing research within academia.  

“Why should I present a paper? Will I get paid?”, was one of the responses I got from a head of department at a local college in the vicinity of Ipoh City. Some would simply tell me, “I am just paid to teach here; no one said that I have to do research.” 

I was left scratching my head.  

Somehow, strangely enough, doing research and learning as an academic has been intertwined with getting money in the Malaysian context. 

Indeed, one of the reasons why I always get into hot water is that I try to preach that doing research for the sake of learning and sharing knowledge is ultimately one of the unwritten responsibilities of a member of the academic community.  

Somehow, I think my voice gets lost in between those who say that they need monetary grants to even carry out simple research, and those people in administration who offer money to academics so that they would become more interested in doing research.  

If that is not enough, in several instances (again in the vicinity of Ipoh City), I was actually prevented from talking to the director of the institute by the receptionist, with remarks like, “We don’t want to join, we don’t work for the government!” to “Why have you come to disturb here? Why can’t you go talk to other colleges?”  

One wonders if this small effort to invite academics to do research is worthwhile. Thank God, I did not lose my cool and swear at these people. I can’t. I’m an academic, you see. 

Yet, all I am doing is inviting academics from various higher education institutions to become our research partners and to work with us towards one direction – to develop, share and disseminate new knowledge. 

An article some time back in StarEducation, talked about ways to develop an educated mind. Perhaps, it overlooked one fundamental problem – that changing the mindset of a person from the old mode to a new and more productive one, is not as simple as it seems.  

It is not just a question of reading a few books and becoming an intellectual, it is actually about changing the perceptions of some people and asking them to change their attitudes accordingly. In this case, asking all these people, who dare to call themselves academics, to start thinking and acting like real academics! 

On the other hand, many other academics that I met during my seemingly impossible mission were very open, quite curious and wanted to know more about doing research, writing papers, presenting and sharing them.  

At that point, life became more interesting and I could breathe much easier. All sorts of questions were asked: “Can I present my Master thesis?”, “Will people quote me?”, and a personal favourite, “Will I be famous like those Western professors?” We will get there, one day at a time. 

Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) which has just been upgraded from institute status, has always held internal academic seminars every semester. What we are doing is merely extending a hand to our higher education neighbours all over the state of Perak.  

Still, when I first joined UiTM in late 2001, I was told that getting academics within the university to do research, has been and might remain, an uphill task for some time to come.  

To change things within our walls and beyond, we decided to invite as many academics as possible to come share and present their research at our campus.  

Being the eager beaver that I am, I undertook this task with great gusto and enthusiasm, not knowing how difficult it would be to invite people-who-see-themselves-as-academics to do something that would be beneficial to them and the higher education institution they hail from, in terms of status or just for the sake of finding out new things. 

Whenever we talk about the Malaysian academic landscape, we are actually looking at an arid desert with few patches of luscious greenery (thanks to the efforts of research universities like Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia).  

The tragedy is, it would be an uphill task to convince all Malaysian academics that they should, must, and need to be actively involved in doing research and sharing their knowledge with others.  

This paradigm shift could benefit from a push, or perhaps a shove, from the powers-that-be. But be forewarned, some institutions might not be easily convinced. Perhaps we still put too much emphasis on teaching, and forget that new knowledge needs to be researched and discovered. You might also include the cool factor of using books or papers you have written during lectures: Please stand up then, and wait for a kowtow or two from your students! 

Then again, there is still that dangerous notion of “teaching universities/colleges'. It is dangerous because teaching should not be the main focus of higher educational institutions. 

Should we be satisfied with only teaching second-hand (to put it mildly) materials developed by some genius from a strange faraway land? Or should we start thinking about coming up with our own stuff, the stuff that dreams are made of? 

Doing research and developing new knowledge is actually the pursuit of dreamers and visionaries with a voice to be heard.  

Please will you join us, as we try to learn new things and start producing knowledge instead of just consuming it? Welcome, fellow dreamers! 



Universiti Teknologi Mara, Perak  

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