A Resolution for a Better City

5 August 2013

by Mark Teh

The PopDigital / #BetterCities geng invited me to yak at the last-ever Poskod Talks in December 2012. Sub-themed ‘Farewell and Here’s to the Future’, the idea was to map out the many projects & pilots over the past few years, and present 3-minute resolutions for 2013.  I’m involved very peripherally these days, and I never make resolutions.  Here’s what I presented:


This may be useful or relevant to you only in a sideways shuffling kind of way.  Apologies for being more personal & mundane than the previous presentations.

Mohan Ambikaipaker, one of the best teachers I’ve had, once said that everyone should teach for a period of time at least once in your life.  He said that you will learn a lot about learning – how others learn, how you learn, how people learn differently.

Teaching is probably the most political thing I’ve ever done – it’s about facilitating ways of seeing and thinking, and what could be more political than that? Writing a syllabus or a course outline is not dissimilar to writing a manifesto.

A question for all of you.  If you had to teach a subject every week for 14 weeks – which is how long a semester is – what would you teach?  What would you include, or exclude from your syllabus?  What would be your recommended readings, and what would you definitely leave off the list?  What assignments would you set?  How would you assess the students?  These are political questions – they are questions related to power and knowledge production.

To make this more directly relavent to the questions Poskod and #BetterCities are asking, a question I’ve been thinking about is how to use the city as a classroom? How to use the sites, stories, communities, cultures & contradictions of the city as a body of knowledge?  How to get students to go into and learn from the city?

On the flip side, how to organize the classroom so it functions more like a city?  To work with a sense of organized chaos, to encourage the organic, to make different spaces exist, and to move in different directions at the same time?

The teacher-student relationship is somewhat like the relationship between urban planning and urbanism – which is how people actually use the city in spite of urban planning.  How to encourage self-organisation in the classroom?  How to get students to take responsibility for their own learning?  How to get students to learn from, and yes, teach each other?  Oftentimes, learning happens in spite of, rather than because of, the teacher.  Some of the best experiences I’ve had in classes this year – I had very little to do with them

To extend the relationship between the classroom and the city a bit more, how to encourage students to take an idea, concept, or even just a hunch for a walk?  Take your idea for a walk, and let it come back sweaty, smelly, banged-up, bruised and bullied and see what has changed.  The gap between knowledge and your experiencing of that knowledge – that’s where learning happens.  That’s where each student’s solitary walk takes place – each walks and learns differently.  How to create situations for self-discovery for students?

I teach theatre – theory, practical.  Theatre is about making temporary things – characters, times, spaces, a performance that hopefully a larger group of people want to watch.  How to teach young people to make the thing, and make sense of the thing, at the same time?  As a performer, how to embody, and yet, remain analytical?  As an audience member, how to learn empathy, and yet maintain critical distance?  How to watch yourself, watching something?

How to encourage risk-taking and productive failure as a teacher?  How to turn the tables on problems, to look at them upside down, and try to make the problem productive, rather than just problematic?

How to teach not just as a teacher, but as an artist?  How to get young people to understand that they can’t just be students – they’re learning to be artists?

How to work with assholes?  Because some assholes are students too.  And how to not be an asshole as a teacher?  Because some assholes are teachers too!

As I get older, the question of ‘how’, rather than ‘what’ has become more important.  What you are teaching is important, but perhaps a bit more important right now for me is the question of how to teach?  Questions of methodology.

How to be present and absent as a teacher?

How to learn?  How to unlearn?  How to teach?  How to unteach?

How to ask better questions as a teacher?

My resolution for 2013, if it’s not already deadly apparent, is to build more platforms with students, and to get better at teaching.

Mark Teh is a researcher, educator, organiser and performance director whose diverse, collaborative projects are particularly concerned with the issues of Malaysian history, memory and participation.