Monthly Archives: April 2014

Madonna and Child Waterfall


Students: Teaching in context, part 2

Everything we discussed in the workshop kept coming back to the NMMU students. Since the context a lecturer can have an immediate impact is the classroom. If the classrooms are empty, who would you teach? Once o the presenters did mention that she’d had a professor who would give the lecture even if no one attended class that day but most people would not do that. The student body and individual students need to be considered when thinking about teaching at NMMU.
When asked about their students the lecturers were able to create a long list of attributes which make NMMU students unique in their diversity. First, multiracial/multicultural, the person who listed this attribute only said multiracial but here you always have to follow with multicultural. There are black South Africans who are Xhosa, Zulu, or one of the other distinct cultures still thriving within the boarders of this country.  There was some discussion around the language policy, which states that students have the right to receive instruction in their dominate language.  The provided the facilitator to provide resources to the lectures for how they can get support fulfilling this requirement.

Next, they talked about the life experiences students bring to the classroom.  Students come to NMMU from rural communities and urban areas.  This was one of the aspects of diversity that was talked about during our orientation.  We were cautioned against thinking that as international students we were the only ones going through culture shock.  Rather to be kind to our South African classmates because they could be going through culture shock as well.  I couldn’t help but think of SCSU when we were told about the urban/rural divide because we have students who go through culture shock coming from tiny towns but I’m not sure how the SCSU addresses it.

Another aspect to NMMU students follows the larger context of the South African university system as a whole.  When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and the Apartheid government was officially over, suddenly the majority of students had access to the higher educational system.  The transition was overnight, not in the least bit gradual.  Universities are still coping or trying to cope with this paradigm shift.  According to the Department of Education 70% of South African university students are the first in their families to enroll in higher education.  Of the students who enroll in higher education programs 50% of them do not complete their program.  Dropout rate for first-year students is 30%, while 20% dropout within year 2 or 3 (it takes 3 years to get your bachelors and a 4th year is called honors). Only 15% of South African university students complete their program of study on-time.

The lecturers said that students come to their first-year classes unprepared to learn, not knowing how to take notes or summarize.  The facilitator encouraged the lecturers to take a few minutes and teach the students how to take notes for their class.  Alternatively, they could bring in a representative from Academic Resources to hold a workshop.  However, I did pipe up at this point and said that a lot of students don’t know how to take notes their freshman year in the States either because taking notes for high school and university is a different skill set.  The conversation took a slightly different turn because the facilitator then talked about how jarring it is for students to come from primary school into university where everything is so different.  Textbooks transition from only having facts to having theories and arguments.  She urged the lecturers to understand the difficulty of just this much of the transition for their students along with everything else their students are dealing with.

In the United States we talk about university students struggling because of their multiple commitments.  Many students are juggling work, school, and family commitments.  However, in South Africa 1/5 of all children live in orphan headed households.  This means that an older sibling is taking care of the younger siblings because their parents have died.  So, these students are not struggling to support their own children but rather their brothers and sisters.  These children lack a support network from extended family, even if they have a family member who may intermittently check on them.  They did not get support from a family structure to develop natural coping skills because they had to take on the responsibility of raising their siblings.

Listing these circumstances off and calling the classroom diverse seems to be a dramatic understatement.  The lecturers still have the pressure to research and publish like professors back in the states in order to get promotions and tenure.  In the workshop she encouraged the lecturers to set expectations for each term on the first day of class.  Structure what they expected from students and what the consequences would be if those expectations were not met.  She encouraged the lecturers to be explicit about this procedure and treat the students like adults who were entering into a contract.  She also suggested that they could help students learn by sharing their vulnerabilities.  If they admit, for example, that they are unsure on how to use a piece of technology then ask for help from the students.  She used the example of a calculator and the students were excited to show her how to use it and she was getting that all important buy-in at the same time.

Honestly, I still find it overwhelming. But they are making progress one lecturer at a time.


This is Africa

This morning I went to the gym and the power was out, to the whole building. This isn’t a rickety little gym but a rather high-end name brand gym. I went in and it was quite dark and I gave the workers behind the front desk a puzzled look. They said the gym was still open but the power was out, they weren’t sure why. It had been out all morning, they’d placed the requisite phone calls but no response. One if the employees made the joke that since it was a national holiday, everyone had the day off. I still got an excellent workout in and there were only a few people who came in and left while I was there. Most people just gave a shrug and figured out how to work around the issue.

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It was a little dark in this cardio area, everyone who wasn’t swimming was upstairs where the big windows and a couple battery powered lights made it bright enough.

Gotta be flexible. This is Africa.


Making Sense of My View

This clipping in the newspaper helps me make sense if the view I see,from my window, of the harbor.

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Out of sync

When I first got here I tried to stay in sync with life back home (school, family and friends) but now, I am completely on South African time…if I miss something because of this I’m sorry-it is not intentional. Living life abroad is more than just time difference on a clock.

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Teaching in Context

20140426-121105.jpgYesterday I attended a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Certificate (SoTLC) workshop. These workshops are conducted by the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Media (CTLM), which is where the former Writing Centre is now housed. The SoTLC workshops are conducted throughout the academic year and if a lecturer completes 7 of the 9 they will receive a certificate at the end. The certificate helps build their teaching portfolio and bolster their chance for tenure. This was the first workshop I attended and the topic was “Being a university teacher: the higher education context and practices.” The facilitators spent a lot of time in the workshop talking about and getting the participants to puzzle through the context in which they teach. First they discussed the context of their classroom. Then their disipline. The discussion moved next to the university, but each of these contexts offer multiple layers for analysis and reflection.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.” Henry Adams

First, the university context. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) is a unique institution. It is a new institution even though the campus and the buildings have been there for a while. The university’s formation happened in 2005 when 5 universities combined into one entity. Prior to 2005 the South Campus university was known as Univeristy of Port Elizabeth which was founded in 1964. The 5 campuses still exist with the George campus approximately 4.5 hours away. One of the presenters called it “a hybrid structure where there are universities with in the university.” NMMU became a comprehensive university in the South African sense of the term. South Africa has five comprehensive universities and they are:

  • University of Johannesburg
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
  • University of South Africa
  • University of Venda
  • Walter Sisulu University

The University of Johannesburg was also formed by merging other institutions into one university system. The main institution that became UofJ was founded in 1967 as Rand Afrikaans University.

NMMU Mission:
Developing a distinct institutional ethos and culture as a merged African institution.

NMMU Vision:
To be a dynamic African university recognized for its leadership in generating cutting-edge knowledge or a sustainable future

I was surprised by the conversation that came from placing the mission and vision statements on the power point. Being African or calling one’s self African is still a controversial subject here in South Africa. One of the presenters was a Xhosa woman and the other presenter was an Afrikaans woman. Participants in the workshop were mixed between black, colored (they still used Apartheid era distinctions as part of their rhetoric around race), and white. The first comment someone made about the mission statement was that “Do they know Africa is the contenent?” She was laughing when she said this and making a bit of a joke. The Afrikaans presenter however made the statement some people do not think she should call herself African but she is also African. This discussion didn’t really have legs (I think because it is too controversial) and we moved onto the mission statement.
Again, there was some laughter and the first thing said, by a different lecturer, was “being a ‘dynamic African university’ was in direct conflict with ‘cutting-edge knowledge.'” I struggled to not say anything because my roll as an intern and not a teacher at the institution, I felt was to listen and observe. I was furiously making notes. I spoke to the presenters after everyone else had left and asked them about that particular section of the discussion. It was my opinion that the professors were still struggling with an internalized colonial mindset of Africa or African being a synonym for something of lesser quality. I’m struck daily by the rich cultural environment of South Africa and how it is easily fertile ground for “cutting-edge knowledge.” Innovation for new teaching styles, language feels very fluid here, and I see a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurship here but it could be done in an African way not a western way. Agreeing with me she said that it was difficult for her to bring up the things I was saying because of her status as an Afrikaaner. All of that mix though is also what makes an African context challenging and unique.


Understand why you came this way


Oh, South Africa

ImageAs soon as the barista saw me this morning he said, “I’ve got bad news.”  My heart sank because I thought for sure the espresso machine was broken.  “Really, what is it?”

“We’re out of milk.”

My face fell and then he told me, “But he’s bringing some from South Campus.”

In my mind I thought, is he bringing it or going to bring it.  So I asked him if it was actually on its way.

He replied, “Yes, he’s on his way now with the milk.”

Wait, I know this usage…is he on his way now? Now, now? or just now?

He said, “My manager said that he is on his way.” Then with a sly smile, “I hope you aren’t in a hurry.”


Meeting students where they are

I met with my regularly scheduled appointments.  Each time I meet with these students I come away with questions on how to better serve them and how they are functioning at the university, in general.  The International Office connected these particular students because they are having a difficult time with their classes.  Some of them were almost kicked out of the university for not passing enough credits.  However, working with them on particular writing assignments is not always what I’m asked about when they come to meet with me.  This week George (not his real name) brought a friend along to his appointment.  They both had questions about basic study skills.   The questions weren’t just “how do I study?” No, rather these questions were along the lines of “I get up at 3am to study.  Then I go to class and I’m falling asleep but when I lay down to sleep I’m wide awake.  What should I do?”  My first thought was one of “This isn’t what I’m here for.  I’m not an expert on this.”  But how can I deny them some sort of help when they are trying and reaching out?

Then I recalled so much of what I’ve learned about what it means to be the first in your family to attend university. They are here without a personal safety-net.  The type of support many of us take for granted.  If you aren’t the first in your family (village) to attend university, if you run into a snag you can call home and one of your parents or even an older sibling can help you work through the issue.  Even if they don’t have the answer they know enough about how a university functions and the systems in place they can direct you how best to find the help you need.  These particular students do not have that resource and bring with them a different set of disadvantages than the South African students.  I don’t want to say worse because to each student their set of disadvantages are their own personal struggle and I do not like getting into “my suffering is worse than yours” arguments.  Since I’m coming from the outside I also do not want to put qualifiers because it can get too close to judgement for my liking.

While they lack a personal safety-net of family or community, they are here as a group.  They help support each other through the difficulties they have had getting assimilated into South Africa’s university system.  Each time I work with George and the other Nigerian students I always have it in the back of my mind how limited my time is here.  Empowering them with off-line tools for improving their academic writing because they do not have internet at home and computer labs are difficult to access here on campus.  Often when I was at the Write Place and working with English 190 students I would give students links to online resources, it became second nature.  I especially like giving students links to EngVid videos because then students can easily watch it over at their own pace to better understand the topic.  George told me that he has tried to watch the links I sent him in the library but that sometimes the computers in the library are too slow to view them properly.

So, we had a conversation about study habits.


The Slave Lodge, Cape Town


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