Category Archives: Internship

Feedback is a gift

feedbagIs it?

I can still see the poster neatly hung on the wall of my manager’s cubicle at American Express.  It was in full color and showed a single daisy in a terracotta pot.  However, my understanding of feedback has stayed rooted in corporate America’s space.  In my mind thinking of feedback as a gift always felt as genuine as those uber motivational posters every business major had in their dorm rooms in the 1990s. Feedback in work never felt like a gift but rather it always felt judgmental and punitive.  Feedback was given with performance reviews where you were told if you were going to get a raise or explained why you were not receiving one.  Feedback in school is generally tied to a grade and also feels punitive.  The feedback is an explanation of what you did wrong.  I’ll also say that receiving feedback in school had its own problematic roots that I’ve already delved into a bit. So, neither experience (work or school) had positive roots for me when it came to receiving feedback as a gift.  Until recently.  Over the past five semesters I have worked in a writing center, four semesters at SCSU’s The Write Place and one semester here at NMMU’s Writing Centre.  Through my immersion in the writing center culture, pedagogy, and practices I realized that feedback can be a gift.  I asked two of the people I’m working with this semester at NMMU to read through my thesis chapters and give me feedback on what I had written.  When they returned them to me with detailed comments I felt like I had been given a gift.  I read through the comments carefully taking in what they had to say.  They were deliberative and inquisitive and I processed each one individually.  I have now been both a manager and a consultant in the writing center where I gave feedback to employees and students.  I hope that as I move into the classroom I can help my students understand how to receive feedback but more importantly, I hope I can model a healthy manor to give feedback as an instructor.



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.

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.

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.

A semester isn’t long enough!

Yes, I have come to peace with the fact that I am going to miss something from my well-crafted South African Bucket List. But I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride with my internship and I’ve reached the half-way tipping point of my trip. However, just now I’m feeling like I have built a rapport with my colleagues, know how to work with the students in this academic environment, and feel my skill level being raised by my experience.  Students in classes have a built-in structure to their experience (syllabus and timetable). But having a new internship position I have been learning along with my supervisors how I can be the most productive.  While I was in my first semester in the Write Place at SCSU I had ENGL 654 where I learned the pedagogy of US writing center’s and The WP specifically through our conversations.  Along with my internship here in South Africa, I have been doing a LOT of reading!  I ordered an ebook version of Changing Spaces, which is about the unique roll of writing centers in South Africa’s university system.  At the same time I am also trying to understand the distinct educational system in South Africa with the mix of students within the system.  I feel like my time here is a long snapshot because 6 months is not a very long time but it is longer than the Spring Break experience I had in 2013.

Why aren't you petting me?

Why aren’t you petting me?

Creating Better Assignments (Workshop)


Today, Linda from the Academic Literacies: Writing (ex-Writing Center) held a workshop on Creating Better Assignments.  The workshop gave me a better for for the work being done by the Writing Center staff with the faculty at NMMU.  The lecturers that attended the workshop were all graduate students who are finishing their degrees.  The students said that they were hired as “temporary lectures”. Is this the equivalent of  a graduate assistantship?  I don’t know exactly, but that is my best guess.  Two of the students who attended the workshops were teaching subjects that are not their specialty area.  One student lecturer was a double major in History and Literature as an undergraduate but getting his masters in Literature. While the other student majored in Political Science and both of these graduate students are currently teaching history.  I spoke with one of the students after the workshop and he lamented that it seems no one is really interested in South African history.  Departments have been cut almost to the point of elimination.  Of course academia in the United States has been suffering from the same sort of effects as government funding turns towards Business schools and STEM majors.

Anyway…back to the workshop…

I thought the demographics of the workshop were interesting because we get quite a bit of training before graduate assistants teach and then throughout the semester while we are teaching.  I felt bad for these graduate students who just seem to be tossed into the classroom.

As you can see from the above graphic the workshop focused on a scaffolding approach in hopes that the instructors would transition the students through a series of assignments during the term. She emphasized that deep learning depends less on the amount of writing a student does and more on the design of the writing assignment.  Her mantra?

“Quality over quantity!”

Linda also urged the instructors to think about different types of assignments for different levels (first year, second year, and so on).  Therefore the instructor can work students up to a large assignment through a series of smaller assignments.  Sometimes I think it can be difficult, as a grad student, to remember what it was like as a first year student.  Where as if you have been teaching for a few years, you have had exposure to more first year students and so, you may not have a clear first-hand knowledge of being a freshmen but you’ve been around it more than some grad students.

Then Linda spoke about teaching with “empathy and diversity” but not as we normally think about diversity in America.  In the States we normally talk about diversity issues and what we mean are racial, religious, gender, and sexual orientation.  In this case she was referring to gaps in background knowledge and situational diversity of the students sitting before you.  She cautioned the instructors to be empathetic to students’ diverse needs.

  • Are your students hungry?
  • Are they struggling at home with an abusive situation?
  • Are they struggling financially?
  • Or in other ways that may not be apparent just by looking at them.

These struggles may show themselves by a student frequently missing class because they only have one class that day and cannot afford the 3 taxis to school and then 3 taxis again to get back home.  She also urged the teachers to be flexible on how assignments can be turned in.  For example, allowing students to turn in a digital copy of an assignment, which saves them the cost and hassle of printing is another way to be empathetic.  This part of the workshop struck me as both something we could talk about more in the US but also it seemed very South African of her to mention it (ubuntu).  While, we do have students that struggle I think sometimes we expect people to enter the classroom and be the same as students no matter their background(bootstrap mentality). This is where I feel fortunate to be in the writing center culture because I think we deal with students who are marginalized on a more regular basis.

27 2 14 Designing assignment instructions (3)LATEST

Previous Writing Center Post…Next week I will write about the writing respondent training.

Is it wrong to have favorites?

Today, my favorite regular appointment brought a writing assignment, due next Friday, so we could outline it together.  The topic he is to write about?  The effects of globalization on Africa.  Oye, these professors and their broad topics slay me.  After talking for a couple of minutes he narrowed the topic down a bit to “The effects of globalization on West Africa”.  He was thinking about Nigeria and Ghana but mainly his home country of Nigeria.  The outline went as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Political Globalization

The United Nations

  • Economic Globalization

World Trade Organization

  • Cultural Globalization


  • Technology

He was going to think about a subtopic

  • Conclusion

Opinion-Is it more positive or negative?
Can it be changed?

All this in a 10 page paper!  That’s a lot to talk about but he felt good about his outline.  He said he was going to go home and continue mapping the subtopics for his paper.  This was the same student that at our first meeting he got excited about writing and left early (I love that!).  We briefly discussed BRICS and MINT countries, he was surprised that I knew about the Nigerian economy.  (Thank you BBC Radio Documentaries!) I also knew about Africa’s Richest Man, Aliko Dangote who is from Nigeria.  Honestly, I love the learning that takes place in and around the writing center culture.  I have been reading about Nigeria because of the students I work with and I think it pays off in dividends.

imageAs we talked about his paper and what he was interested in, he asked me my opinion about globalization and Africa.  Back at SCSU I would have totally shied away from giving my (always strong) opinion because I would not want to sway the student or I might have the feeling they were trying to get me to do some of the work on their paper for them.  However, in Mr. Samuel’s case I just felt like he was testing me a bit.  I think he wanted to see who he is working with.  Still, I was taken a back by him actually wanting my opinion and I double checked, “You want my thoughts on the effects globalization has had on the continent of Africa?” He replied that yes, he did.  I told him that it is difficult to measure the effects because globalization hit Africa 400-500 years ago.  How can we measure the impact that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had on Africa?  We can see how normal projections of population growth has hit those countries especially hard but the people themselves being gone impacted the area.  What if Booker T. Washington’s genius was applied to problems in Africa instead of the United States?  What if Frederick Douglas’s brilliance was railing against colonial domination in Africa instead of abolishing slavery in the United States?  How might the continent have developed if the human capital had remained in place?  Then I mentioned the economic devastation that was Apartheid in South Africa.  How can people regain the economic power they once possessed before they were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses as they were relocated to townships?  All of these single events had devastating impacts on the whole continent.  Now, there are companies from the EU, America, and China who come into African countries offering short-term financial benefits, which may not be in the best long-term interests of the country but who can blame them.  They are still trying to modernize and reap some benefit for each of their countries.

When i finished, he had a big smile and he said that he agreed with me.  I felt like he trusted me more after this little exchange.

He went back to the concept of globalization’s effect on culture, this is the area he is most concerned about.  He talked about food, language, and clothes.  How those have all changed in Nigeria because of the European influence.  I mentioned that in the US accents are flattening out and everyone wants to sound like a news presenter.  Also, with the growth of chain grocery stores we are all getting the same food, which flattens out choice and regionalism.  He told me that here in Port Elizabeth he hardly ever eats out because he does not like the food here.  However, there is a Nigerian food market where he can get ingredients to make the types of dishes he likes.  I then introduced the concept of “comfort food”.  He’s never heard this term before and I explained that it is food that feeds your heart and soul.  Therefore, comfort food is different to each person because it depends on the foods you grew up with.

We are meeting next Wednesday to review his draft.  Hopefully by then he will have his other grade back.  I’m still on pins and needles waiting to see what grade he received.

Starting out with questions

As I started my internship these were just a few of the questions I had at the end of my first week.  Shena, the writing center staff member on 2nd Ave. campus, was kind enough to answer the following questions:
How are the students Reference-stylesreferred to the writing center for services?
Various ways – orientation sessions, via lecturers, peer tutors but probably mostly word of mouth from friends.
Is there ever any interaction between the writing center and the instructors?
By instructors do you mean lecturers?  If so, yes we aim to agree a writing development strategy for the year with lecturers before working with a class
Are the writing center services open to any student at the university?
In theory yes, but since we are now concentrating on getting lecturers to include writing development practices in their curricula, we discourage drop ins.  This is only in the last year and it’s awkward as we don’t like to turn students away.  What I do with drops ins is to help the student but I also contact the lecturer to plan a strategy for the rest of the class. 
Is there a limit for how often students can come?
No set rule as some students need more help than others but much depends on our capacity in the moment and how effectively the student is implementing our suggestions.  It also depends on whether we are working with a specific strategy for the class or not.
How are the respondents chosen?  
We advertise, check CVs and references and interview.  We try to appoint post-grads who work in specific disciplines.  Often candidates approach us.
How many hours per week do they work?
Usually 5 hours a week.  Currently, 2nd Ave. Campus has 3 writing respondents at 2 hours/week each and South Campus has 2 respondents at 5 hours/week.
Do they only work with students electronically? 
No not only – we include them in classroom work whenever we can, especially when we are working in big classes.
Upcoming posts on the Writing Center…will include information about the reorganization and writing respondent training! Stay tuned 🙂

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