This month, we sat down to chat with Dr. Patrick Daly, who teaches the USP modules ‘Politics of Heritage’, ‘Disasters and Responses’, and ‘Creating Reality’.
Can you tell us about the modules that you’re teaching, and how you designed them?
With ‘Politics of Heritage’, I wanted to deal with students who are predominantly Singaporeans and are very forward-focused. In the last decade in Singapore, there’ve been millions of dollars put into culture and heritage – not just for preservation, but also as part of a broader development agenda: to create a knowledge economy, a creative atmosphere that will be stimulating for everyone. That’s an interesting mix and use of heritage, but it can also be problematic. I think it’s important for students to think about the past and how it’s used to suit these contemporary agendas in Singapore, as well as in the region. One of the reasons why we go to Cambodia is to look at issues we don’t see in Singapore; like the impact of tourism on local economies, how we deal with post-conflict situations, and how we memorialise them.
‘Disasters and Responses’ came about largely because of my own research – I work extensively in post-disaster situations, so it’s a subject that’s close to my heart. A high percentage of USP students go to countries in the region and do development projects like teaching English or building libraries; and some are also involved in various social enterprises here in Singapore as well. I think this is superb; it’s a great experience for many students, and I’m very inspired by that motivation. But I’m also concerned by the lack of formality, and I take intervention very seriously – it’s a big step to go to someone else’s country, to their communities, and to try and change their lives. What I’ve seen here is that these processes tend to not be very critical – people think they’re doing a good thing, and that’s their justification for going. What I do in ‘Disasters and Responses’ is to encourage students to be more critically reflective about who they are, what their qualifications are, and what are the ethics and rights of intervening in other societies.
With ‘Creating Reality’, I wanted to do something that was very different. In my non-academic life, I’ve been involved in film-making for the last decade, and I’ve worked on a number of documentaries and narrative films; so I was thinking about a way to bring that side of my life into USP. I thought it’d be fun to work with USP students on a creative project that focused on studying real issues in Singapore using a creative medium. As its title suggests, it’s a way of using the creation of non-fiction films to explore notions of objectivity and subjectivity, of truth, of veracity. Last summer, we had 9 students and produced 3 films over the course of 6 weeks. I was very impressed by the calibre of the films. It really allowed the students, I hope, to think a lot about the construction of reality, to start questioning in a more critical way the media that they’re presented with; especially media that is ostensibly ‘real’. It was the most intense class I’ve taught in USP – we had a lot of long days and late nights in the office.
You mentioned that filmmaking is a big part of your non-academic life. Can you tell us more about that?
When I work on film sets, I usually write and direct. I’m interested in storytelling, and my academic work is in a way another form of storytelling, it’s a form of narrative. As a little boy, I was really into National Geographic and used to love documentaries about nature and culture; and I still do, I watch a lot of documentaries. In 2002-2003, I was doing some work in the Middle East, and I was rooming with a young American filmmaker named James Adolphus, who taught a class on documentary filmmaking. We became good friends, and I worked with him in the field while he was there. At the end of that, he was very encouraging and said, “Hey, why don’t you get more involved in filmmaking?” He was involved in the first film projects that I worked on, and he was my entrance point into the world of film.
My first feature-length documentary was called ‘Needle Through Brick’ – it’s a film about traditional martial arts in Asia. This was very much about positioning traditional culture within modern Asia, and I use martial arts as the vehicle to talk about that story. We shot that in 2005 in Sarawak, Borneo, and that was quite a lot of fun. It went theatrical and now it’s online, so a lot of people have watched it on Hulu, Netflix and iTunes. My last feature film,‘David’, was a film that we shot in Brooklyn two years ago, and it’s about a young Muslim boy in a Muslim neighbourhood in New York that spends the summer hanging out with a group of Orthodox Jewish boys. It’s a coming-of-age story, but it also deals with serious themes about religious tolerance, isolation, and immigration, racism, issues that America has been struggling with for quite some time, especially post-9/11. It’s been quite touching to see how well that film has been received – we’ve had a lot of school showings, and is being shown theatrically, at about a hundred film festivals around the world for the last few years and a half. The next film that I’m helping to produce is by a very talented young filmmaker named Sean Dunne – it’s his first feature film called ‘Oxyana’, and it’s a fairly hard-hitting, gritty film about prescription drug abuse in America. My final film deals with some broader themes about migration in Singapore, and that’s TBA (to be announced)!
As a child, did you see yourself becoming an anthropologist in the future?
I never wanted to be an academic, actually. I had no desire to go to college when I was 18 years old; I was a scruffy, skateboarding political punk rocker in New York. For several years, I used to tour-manage small punk bands and drive all over America and Europe, play punk shows and have political rallies and protests, and that was what I was pretty happy about. Then I was told by my father that if I didn’t go to college, I had to either go to the military or leave the house, so I figured I could just go to college, where I didn’t necessarily have to do any work, and I could continue to be a punk rocker. (laughs) So I went to college, hung out, had a few token classes to justify being there, and mainly just skateboarded and played music. But in my second year in college, I ended up doing a work-study job for an anthropology professor, who went on to become a rather influential figure in my life. For me, the job was about making some extra money on the side, because I was paying my own tuition. But as a second-year undergraduate, my professor immediately put me in a position of overseeing a lab there and sent me to several trips in the world doing projects. One thing led to another, and I developed a liking for it. What really captivated me about it was the opportunity to travel. I grew up in a fairly poor family, so for me, leaving New York was a big deal – I didn’t get on my first airplane till I was 19 or 20 years old. The idea of getting other people to pay for me to travel was pretty impressive, so between touring with punk bands and working on anthropology projects, that was how I found a way to see the world on someone’s dime. Then things just kind of took a momentum of their own – I got to the end of my undergrad years and got more serious about school. I had a few publications come out when I was an undergrad, and my mentor said, “You should think about doing a Ph.D”. At that point, I wasn’t really thinking one way or another about my future as a professor, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to apply. I got accepted to a number of good programs, and I chose to do a Ph.D in Oxford. Once again, I chose to leave the States partly because of this urge to explore and travel; which, when I was in Oxford, I was able to fortunately do quite a lot of.
Can you tell us more about your time as a professor in Palestine?
I was in Oxford for about four years; it was a wonderful place to be in, but I was getting a little restless, and felt a little disconnected from my activist past. I had several offers to stay in England, but I’d been interested in the Middle East for many years, and I was particularly interested in the Palestinian situation. When I finished my Ph.D, I was offered a position as a Visiting Professor at An-Najah National University, which is in the city of Nablus in the West Bank, so I took the job against the advice of everyone in the world. From a career perspective it wasn’t a smart idea, but I wasn’t really that concerned about that – I went out there because it was something that was personally important for me.
I was in the West Bank for almost two years, one of which was spent teaching. It was difficult because I was right in the middle of the uprising, and Nablus was the hardest city to live in at that time. Every day there were violent confrontations between Israeli soldiers and various Palestinian factions, there was shooting all the time, and we had students who were killed, which was really a difficult experience for us as faculty (I had colleagues who were killed as well). I remember one student in particular – he was a media student and in one of my classes. We were listening to him doing a broadcast on the radio, and he was shot on the air. When we got to the hospital, he had just passed away, and we carried him to the refugee camp he lived in. It turned into a big funeral procession, with 5000 people marching through the streets. We carried him into the grave and 3 hours later he was in the ground. I learnt a lot from those sorts of experiences; it was definitely a very powerful and emotional experience to be in such a situation.
I also learnt a lot about myself, and in some ways it really helped me as a teacher. When I showed up there, I showed up in a place that had no resources; we didn’t have an Internet connection, and there was no real library. I was asked to teach 4-5 classes a semester, to students that could barely speak English; and my Arabic was not that good, so it was not an easy position. But I learnt that my students would get up at 4am to spend 3 hours at checkpoints so they could come to class. We have classes at 8am on Saturdays, and my students spent 4 hours to get to the university, standing out in the cold. That was something that I took away in terms of my own preparation and focus on teaching, and that’s something I still do today. I take teaching seriously because it’s a big commitment for those students to come here. I know that for you guys it’s not quite the same, but if you’re going to make the effort to be in my classroom, it’s my responsibility to do the best I can and deliver the goods. That was a big lesson I learnt there – I felt very strongly that I couldn’t go half-baked, I couldn’t take time off; these students deserve the best I can give them, and that’s something that was really formative to me. At a broader level, Palestine got me thinking in more detail about broader humanitarian issues. I think my interest in post-conflict and post-disaster situations was really formed by my experiences there.
What would you do if you knew that the world would end tomorrow?
I’d go skateboarding with my son. That would be how I’d spend my final day – take him for skateboarding for a day, just hanging out and eating ice-cream.