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.

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