Prof. Barbara Ryan


Hello, Prof. Ryan. Can you tell us more about your modules?

Let’s start with the modules I’m teaching now. When I came to Singapore, I brought a topic that I thought would be good for a Writing and Critical Thinking module. I taught it for a few years. But after living here a while, I realised that one way I could be valuable to the community would be to share some of my interests which hadn’t been brought forward topically by other modules. I considered topics that I wanted to help students think about, that are relevant to their lives. I came up with the idea of Nationalism, which is related to my training in teaching American literature and American studies – we talk about Nationalism in those fields, but the way we talk about it is different because there’s a different sense of what the nation is. I thought about things I had taught in the past and things I had wanted to teach but not had the chance to, and found myself on new conceptual terrain – which I like. In a job such as teaching in USP, you want to stretch yourself. Suddenly I was reading up on theories of nationalism, and then the course started to shape and grow so that it reflected my interests and things students had asked me about, while the new theories were pushing my thinking…all of which was putting a little pressure on me to rethink my WCT module too. I read an American studies journal that did a special issue on technology studies, and thought, “we don’t really have that in USP, how could we bring technology studies here?” OK, let’s take technology studies and let’s take Singapore and let’s take something my first book is about – homes and home-making … I just kept putting pieces together in different ways, and suddenly there was a new writing module, which is about how we home-make with help from things like computers and robots. To prepare this WCT, I explored journals I’ve never looked at before.  When you explore like that, it keeps things lively!

Since technology studies are almost as new to me as they are to my students, my students can be very free to explore. I’m not waiting for them, you see, and saying, “Okay, good, you figured out what hundreds have figured out before you.” I say, “Oh really, wow, you figured that out?” It’s exploratory for all of us; that’s really fun. All the while, the anchor for this WCT, for me, is ‘home’.  As I teach this topic from a new angle, technology studies, I see more and more in the main themes of that line of inquiry. USP is a great place to try out new ideas, to work with students who are really bright and inquiring, to push yourself.

Prof. Barbara Ryan’s Nationalism and the Arts class (AY2012/2013, Sem 2).

Another of my modules, ‘Historicising the Black Pacific’, comes out of a different experience when I came to live here. I went to dance performances and I saw a lot of ‘gangsta’, and I thought, why are Singaporean students dancing like this, and why is it strange to my eyes? What’s going on with their embrace of aspects of African-American culture? But really very few aspects, only a certain kind of African-American culture is wanted. Ok, let’s explore that’. I had read a book called The Black Atlantic, and I thought, it’s time for The Black Pacific. That module grew out of my pondering: “Here I am in Singapore, here’s what I am seeing, but not hearing anyone talk about.” Sometimes I present Black Pacific phenomena and students say, “How do you find that interesting, that’s just normal life, that’s just something for fun.” My interest in popular culture relates to the book I’m working on now: some things that we think (uncritically) are for fun, entertainment or leisure turn out to be quite indicative of who we are, what we value, and how we think about other people. ‘Black Pacific’ is a module that I look forward to, because the syllabus changes so fast based on what’s new in scholarship, who enrols each term, and what they bring – as the saying goes – to the party.

That’s true every term: the people change, and the interests change with them. I love that the teaching is always new. We’re lucky in USP because classes are so small, and you can let the group happen. That mood that we get to create, that dynamic, has pushed my teaching and affected the topics I’ve worked on.

You mentioned that you were in Taiwan for a while. Were you teaching there?

I was teaching English as a foreign language. After I completed my undergraduate studies, I travelled and worked in England and in Spain. I enjoyed that very much, but wondered what the next step would be. I tried various kinds of teaching in the U.S. – and again, of course I enjoyed it – but wondered if becoming a professor was a good idea for me. I wondered: what it’s like to go into the classroom every day, and be the teacher, and manage that kind of teacherly presence? I thought I wouldn’t go to grad school until I had tried it. Okay, where can I teach in a classroom? I could do that in the U.S. – and I had, I’d been a teacher in high school – but, you know, here’s my travel bug again.  So I thought, I’ll go overseas; where have I never ever been? Okay, Asia, where can I get a job in Asia, ah, Taiwan has jobs for EFL teachers, let’s go. So I went, and it was good practice in managing a classroom, and teaching people specified knowledge and skills, since at the end of the term, you want the students to gain familiarity with this grammar structure or that vocabulary set. I certainly liked Taichung and the students there. But there wasn’t much room to explore concepts.  After a while therefore I started thinking, “Mm, okay, let’s give grad school a go.”

Brain Food, a USP Reading Room initiative started by Prof. Ryan

As a child, did you see yourself becoming a professor?

I knew pretty early that I loved reading, and really only liked novels, poetry and drama. So right there, I was an English major in the making, and maybe a teacher. Then, in high school, I joined a tutoring group. We’d jump in a mini-van and go away from our nice suburban community to the inner city, and work with less privileged kids on their Math and Reading. Oh, I loved that. I just thought that was so worthwhile and growthful and fun, and very much me. When I went away to college, I had to stop that teaching. But at college I became a TA, and still felt that teacherly satisfaction of watching people ‘get it’. Then, I TA-ed overseas with my college.

But after that, I said, “Too much classroom time, too much similarity of people.” I remembered I was happy working with young people. So I started teaching outside the classroom by going into outdoor recreation. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this job. I would meet people who would say, “I can’t possibly kayak, this is too scary for me…” and I would reply, “let’s do it step by step, and we’ll get you going”. A lot of people who go into outdoor recreation are very sporty and fit; they jump up at 5 in the morning and go running; they leap in a kayak the first time, and are Eskimo-rolling in about five minutes. I’m not like that. So I felt, “I can help this person who’s a little scared of this endeavour, because I was also nervous about this endeavour when I first tried it.” I loved that kind of teaching. I started in England with the YMCA, and then went to work with a group in New Jersey, and finally one in Minnesota.

The view from the backyard of Prof. Ryan’s home in Missouri in early spring.

In Minnesota, working with mentally handicapped people, was when I asked myself: “Am I going to keep doing this? If I am, I’d like to get training to do it better. Or am I going to go toward that part of me that loves reading?” My job in Minnesota included lodging; I lived alone in a cabin in the woods. So of course I read a lot: it’s a long winter there! But the next day there would be nobody to talk to about my reading because my colleagues were into different activities. I decided to try classroom teaching, as I mentioned earlier, as a step in the decision-making process about getting a Ph.D. All this said, if that job came up again in Minnesota, I can see myself teaching outdoor rec again, after being a professor, because I liked outdoor rec so much. It doesn’t take that much fitness, you know, it isn’t like one has to be amazingly athletic. It is just about sharing the pleasures, and happiness, of outdoor activities. There is fullness to life. I think for me the fullness has come with willingness to “try this direction, try that direction”, to try to keep different interests alive so that I don’t get too narrow

How has your experience in Singapore been?

This is the start of my 10th year in Singapore – the longest I’ve lived overseas. I feel very familiar and at home, yet it’s still unfamiliar. My husband and I just moved in to an HDB, which we like a lot. When I lived in faculty housing, I knew it was not quite the same, but I still thought, “I live in Singapore.” Now we’re in an HDB and it’s significantly different. For instance, right now it’s ghost month. We saw ghost month activities in Taiwan too. But what I never saw there were the ceremonies like one outside my flat last week. Someone had a really loud microphone and for about 5-6 hours on a Saturday night they had a performance. I don’t really know what they were doing, it wasn’t opera, but something was going on. In faculty housing, I might have heard all that at a distance. But now, it’s right below my favourite armchair. So that’s a new part of life. I’m also much closer to the MRT than I used to be, which I really like, and we’ve got around 15 bus lines quite close to us. I feel more in the heart of things. I like that so many of my neighbours are Singaporeans instead of all expats. Much as I love my expat neighbours from faculty housing, I feel happy about this move and what it is teaching me.

But that’s just one part of life. Another is USP. When you’re a university teacher, you watch people at an amazing time in their life. You see some go from scared and shy and quiet to poised and mature and ready. Of course the change isn’t that revolutionary, for all students. Many students though do exhibit a big change in terms of realising, “I have something to offer, I am good to go.” After living here so long, I occasionally bump into former students downtown, or I’m on a bus and they’re on the sidewalk and you wave at each other and have a chance to remember all that you shared.  You see former students at alumni parties, and get invited to weddings… After 10 years there’s quite a bit of that.

Prof. Ryan’s Technologies of Home Class of ’10.

What do you do in your spare time?

I play tennis. I’ve gotten better at tennis since we came here, and I feel a kind of happiness that goes beyond words – just love to play, just love to get out there and feel like I’ve whacked the ball for a while.

Additionally, as you would expect, I like going out with friends. It can be tough on my schedule, but there are a few people that you just have to make time for, and they make time for you. I like to check in with my buddies, some of whom are professors and some of whom aren’t.

I go to MacRitchie sometimes, on Sunday mornings. I like the Treetop Walk over Kent Ridge too; that’s pleasant. I like to take long walks. If I get a nice rainy afternoon in Singapore, I feel I’m lucky if I’m far from home and can walk all the way back. If I can be up at Cluny Court, say, and it’s rainy and wet and I can walk home, I enjoy that. If it’s a hot bright day, not so much!

Hiking is something else I enjoy. On holidays, I often like to go with friends and hike in different countries. I had a great hike in Spain a few years ago, in the Canary Islands; and another fantastic hike in New Zealand’s South Island two years ago; can’t wait to get back. There was one day we hiked steadily up from the town for about two hours. The further we went the quieter it got, and when we got to the top – I’ve never been anywhere so quiet. There was one chap already there who obviously didn’t want to talk to us, which is exactly what we wanted, too – we didn’t want to talk to each other, even. We sat looking out at a wonderful lake, you couldn’t hear a bird, you couldn’t hear a creature, nobody was talking. Silence. That, was, great. A plane went by far away, you could hear just a little tiny sound, and then it was gone, and you just looked out at utter stillness. The lake was beautiful and the hills were beautiful, and we just sat there and agreed silently: “don’t speak, words are useless right now.” After a while I felt like I’d really cleaned out much stress and bother…it’s gorgeous. So I think of getting back there sometime. In the meantime, long walks in Singapore are relaxing. As long as you wear sensible shoes most days, you can grab your chance.

Is there anybody in the world that you would love to meet?

Michelle Obama! The First Lady of the United States has such an astonishing presence, such grace. She shows us what it is to live not a superhero life, but just a life of good family training, solid self-belief, grounded values – nobody was training her, as a youngster, for the White House. Yet she is handling that complex role beautifully. Where do people like her come from?! You can tell that she is kind, yet in no way soft – kindness is part of her strength. She is somebody I admire. Yay, Michelle! Though if Barack Obama came in and wanted to join our conversation, I would be fine with that too. (laughs) Let’s have more people like Michelle Obama. I don’t care if they’re American or Singaporean, let’s have more people in the world who are helping us go forward.


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