“It’s a Dog’s Life” by Magdalen Ki

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Please allow me to introduce myself: my name is Golden, a dog by chance and a student by profession. Neither is my choice though, the first has much to do with fate, the second has something to do with the world I happen to live in. Given the number of certified professionals and the enthusiasm for higher qualifications these days, I thought it was a good thing to go to a fine institution and get some formal education, receive obedience training, and be a good dog. Some say this bespeaks a love of political correctness, others say it is nothing but conditioning, I suppose it depends on where your sympathies lie—left or right. As I have problems telling left from right, I go to class every day to explore the meaning of education. Ah, such were my young and innocent ways! After some years, I have interesting findings to report.

Take the last semester for example, one of my morning classes was taught by a small, bespectacled lady with a love of classics, romantic stories, murder mysteries, and films. Leaving this odd combination of academic interests aside, what I cannot condone was her propensity for dark clothing. Since I wear beautiful fur at all times, I consider her attire utterly shabby and inappropriate, showing a desperate lack of fashion sense. I made a mental note to complain about her dress code in the end-of-term evaluation exercise. I highly recommend it, it is a good opportunity to let the steam out of the system, and mention trivia such as noisy classmates, small rooms, bad air, or the library should have longer opening hours and the like. They used to call it T.E (why not E.T.—evaluate teacher?), but the name has been changed to an even more mind-boggling term called CFQ. Honestly, they are all one to me, if I don’t have time I don’t do these things. Teachers may ponder on the low response rate, but my time is gold! Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.

The first class meeting usually involved the distribution of course outlines. I saw a number of text boxes on the pages and my ears caught the distinctive words that said the document was drafted according to the ‘OBEY TAIL’ format. What a clever idea! At last! I wagged my tail vigorously to show my full support, if the tail was the key to success, I had no doubt I could be the top dog in no time. It was a bit deflating that my enthusiasm was followed by a strict correction. The tail turned out to be irrelevant, and the OBTL was a very complicated framework.

I sighed. In a big organisation, what is not complicated? The system is like a spiral. The bottom-up approach means that they like everybody’s input. The top-down approach means that all the ideas are then sent to the higher order to be reviewed by a team of very important people, and then re-reviewed by another team of even more important people, and then re-re-assessed by outsiders. I was told that there are more mysterious spirals that function at different levels—the long and the short of it is that everybody is always busy because of reports, revisions, follow-up review reports, and re-review reports. When the spiral is in full force, you can hardly tell the top from the bottom with all the revised documents and confusing emails circling around. And miscommunications can have big consequences.

From a student’s point of view, my job is to show up in the classroom, bright eyed and bushy tailed, giving a nod here and a bark there, showing some support and pity for the teacher. Being a teacher is tough these days, but it is not easy to be a student either: if you are over-eager your coursemates hate you; if you are under-motivated your instructor hates you. Long have I understood that ‘classroom performance’ has much to do with performativity. I am a good performer, if other bad actors have succeeded I am sure I can live in this dog-eat-dog world.

Let me give you one example: some years back, one instructor asked what was left behind by Cinderella when she had to go home in a hurry. It was a pre-school level question, so I deigned not to give an answer. After all, silence is golden! My Hong Kong coursemates mouthed the answer but were too shy to say anything. One of the exchange students quickly put up a hand and blurted out the word ‘sandals’—no doubt inspired by the fact that he was wearing sandals at that time. This event opened my eyes to the art of Q&A. The point is to raise a paw often, and occasionally utter something like ‘I agree with you’, or ‘my classmate has nailed it’ and then rephrase what others just mentioned. Plagiarism? I call it peer learning. Sharing is important, after all.

To earn a bit of money, sometimes I offer my service as a helper when classes are over. Big institutes like research conferences, and with all the money spent on flying people from all over the world, there is no reason not to hire me to shake paws with the guests, and guide ladies and gents to their seats. I was born with good instincts to be a guide dog.

I helped out at a conference on one occasion. As I did not know what research meant, so I looked for more challenging missions, only to find that none existed. A humanities conference is fairly old school, and presenters still prefer reading their papers on the spot to the more tech-savvy method. Once the speaker takes out a pile of paper and begins reading, you know the mind is free to roam. On that day, I curled up in a corner and soon dropped my ears, my tail, and my eyelids.

An alarming sound woke me up, and I saw Professor Shepherd (from Germany) quite red in the face, Dr Akita (from Japan) was pouting, Dr Pointer (from Great Britain) looked very frosty, and Professor Chow chow (from China) seemed upset. Professor Russell (who insisted that everybody calls him Jack, was from the US) tried to say something loud and funny, but to no avail. The aforementioned bespectacled lady quickly gave me a cue to get the tea things ready. Soon I trotted back to the room, barking mad about the readiness of a coffee break. The tension eased, and you could actually smell it in the air. Everybody restored their good manners and smiled, as they fetched their tea cups their small talk was music to my ears.

I was told that academics, like terriers, can have big egos. The bigger the name, the bigger the ego; they may talk of social justice and egalitarianism, but they always want extra service, special air tickets, and the best seats. If their requests are not met, they might snap any time. The big shots have first-world problems, but the third world is wrought with issues too. Perhaps food is the only way to lower the class, ideological and racial barriers? I have neither anecdotal nor statistical evidence to support my claim, but I have heard plenty of juicy gossip about that day. My friend Chi-hua-hua could hardly stop sharing the details.

After a day’s hard work, I was more than ready to rest in my basket and brood. Policy-makers shape education like an industry (with quality-controlled output and measurable results); but educators say they are all for the (purposeless) pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment (whatever that word means); students want good grades and a good time; and graduates want good money and good jobs. What shall I become? Am I trained to be another ruthless Madoff, or a low-paid underdog? Should I be a watchdog to watch the government, or an unthinking dog in the machine? Importantly, should I be a guard-dog of old values, or should I be a top-dog scientist who marries cats to rats? Should I work like a mad dog, or be a sleeping dog to sleep my way to the top? How to be a cunning employee in the market, a nice team-player in the company, and a critical individual who stays at the margin at the same time? Will I one day become a successful, enlightened hot dog?

Deep questions, all of them, so I decide to find the answer in my dream. My eyelids are heavy, then I remember the good book says ‘today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Matthew 6:34). If I can take things one day at a time, perhaps all will be well. Amen to that.

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Maddie KiMagdalen Ki is Associate Professor at the Department of English. [Click here to read all entries by Magdalen.]

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