Hamsters on a wheel: the world’s cages are growing smaller as the powerful plague the powerless

12 10 2018

Driving to campus this morning, an East Coast Radio DJ mentioned that in Switzerland it is illegal to own a single hamster: one has to have at least two. Hamsters (and various other species of pet, including guinea pigs and parrots) are considered social species, and thus must have friends.

Intrigued, I checked it out. The Swiss animal rights code is pretty strict: on the third offence of being found to own a lonely hamster, one could serve jail time. And don’t dare flush your sickly goldfish down the loo – it must be euthanized with special chemicals. Anglers – those who catch fish with hooks – must attend a course on humane fishing. (Cats, however, don’t seem to have it so easy – apparently it is still legal in Switzerland to skin cats and sell their pelts).

I had a wonderful vision of Hamster Police, here in the rainbow nation, battering on front doors and demanding to check if one’s hamster wheel is in good working order, and whether Harry the Hamster has a Harriet to keep him company. Such first world problems seem incongruous in a South African situation, where many folk eat guinea pigs and would probably eat goldfish too, if the little fellows provided any sort of decent meal. Animal rights tend to take second place in countries which don’t have a particularly good record of human rights, or where poverty levels are high.

And hamsters have always reminded me of academics in many ways. The dear little furry creatures often bear a distinct resemblance to many academics (think long grey beards and moustaches, hairy legs and armpits, wild and wacky hairdos), and I firmly maintain that many academics have large cheek pouches not just for retaining food until the end of the month, but for stockpiling various anti-anxiety pills or varying quantities of alcohol.

Dr Google says that when adult male hamsters are kept together, they will become violent and attempt to kill each other, which in my experience, applies to the academic species as well. In addition, they are naturally nocturnal, another similarity to their human counterparts. They also have a relatively short lifespan, in particular the domestic variety raised in captivity. Academics are only as good as their last publication: get the picture?

Concerning habitats, hamsters “should occupy a secured home as they like to squeeze through spaces and escape for new ground”.  If one substitutes “office” for “home”, this is a definite description of the current South African academic, most of whom tend to scarper for the safety of off-campus whenever possible, and legions of whom occupy themselves with fantasies of saner campuses in outer Siberia.

Robert Black sums this up perfectly: “The problem with working, I mean not self-employed, is that you have to get up and routinely do something that you do not want to do, plus you get talked down to, ordered around by twats, you know you are better than. In reality, you are no better than a slave, no better than a hamster running on a wheel. You could say the hamster likes to run on the wheel, the hamster runs on the wheel by choice. But do not forget, the hamster is always in a cage, and will never be anything else, but a hamster running on a wheel inside a cage, unless it escapes the cage.”

The world’s cages are growing increasingly smaller, and the commodification of education is closing those bars on academic cages. Students are “clients” and the customer is always right, so we duck flying furniture as students walk out of a test because it’s “too hard” and then keep quiet about it so the media doesn’t get to hear of it and thus further degrade the reputation of the institution.

We tick boxes relentlessly and without complaint: we accept the ridiculous definitions of what “counts” as research and allow all creativity to be dismissed as second-rate. We allow our postgraduate students to be forced to produce without thinking, clambering onto the wheel and clinging to the back of a comatose hamster until they emerge on the other side with a doctorate.

Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology, and neurology and neurological sciences, argues that humans are intrinsically imperfect and their own worst enemy, with the powerful constantly plaguing the powerless.

“If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much. What that means is you’ve got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop.

“So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: they’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.”

All too depressing. Perhaps those in the academy should negotiate with management for their wheels to be swopped with hamster balls, for at least then we would have the illusion of freedom.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in October 2018.


I’m smoking!

9 10 2018

Hallo, my name is Nicola, and I’m a smoker. In fact, I am smoking right now, and when I have finished this column, I will read it back to myself while blowing smoke at the computer screen.

With the hubris of the non-smoking brigade reaching hysterical proportions, I thought the whole issue of smoking should be examined. One cannot avoid the fact that smoking is unhealthy. I began smoking when I began to work. Work, for the most part (unless you are lucky enough to be a capitalist giant), is what you do for others (and consequently also mostly unhealthy). Smoking is what you do for yourself.

Thus I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never, as one notable wit pointed out, grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the South African workplace, “the only thing people have to call their own are the tumours they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them”.

In fact, I’ve bounced this idea off a number of colleagues, both smokers and non-smokers. Perhaps I smoke because it gives me a fleeting sense of self-autonomy in a grim environment. Perhaps I smoke because I know it teases, like the Duchess’s baby in Alice in Wonderland. Smoking is a wonderful excuse for extracting oneself from an uncomfortable or deadly boring meeting. And one builds a fantastic sense of camaraderie with other smokers: a group of outcasts, forced together by a dictatorial society, where one can relax and be completely honest without being confined by the company of mealy-mouthed do-gooders.

Consequently, I guess smoking does what great satire is supposed to do: it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  Seems to me that’s why so many poor folk smoke, anxious folk, and a great many academics and journalists among them.

Where journalists are concerned, Baker points out in the latest New York Review of Books that this is journalism’s age of melancholy. Glumness is the prevailing spirit here, and for good reason. Newspaper people, he says, once celebrated as founts of ribald humor and uncouth fun, have of late lost all their gaiety, not surprising, as they have discovered that their prime duty is no longer to maintain the republic in well-informed condition, but rather to serve the stock market with a good earnings report every three months.

“Yesteryear’s swashbuckling newspaper reporter has turned into today’s solemn young sobersides nursing a glass of watered white wine after a day of toiling over computer databases in a smoke-free, noise-free newsroom,” he says. Small wonder so many old journalists tucked around pavement corners still puff away.

Yet the good hate smoking. Hodgkinson says that liberal commentators point out the stink and unhealthiness and wonder why poor people continue to waste their money, without realizing that it actually makes life worth living. The oppressed love it. George Orwell, writing of the physical hardships of being Down and Out in Paris and London, said: “It was tobacco that made everything tolerable.”

One of the first leaders of the antismoking crusaders was King James I, who in 1604 published his diatribe against smoking, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, “a rare example of good writing coming from the pen of a moralist”. King James, who was the sort of bloke who loved torturing folk he considered wrong doers and burning witches at the stake, considered smoking a primitive custom: “what honour or policie can moove us to imitate the barbarous and beastly maners of the wilde, godlesse and slavish Indians, especially in so vile and stinking a custome?” Hodgkinson argues that King James saw tobacco as a revolt against so-called civilized values: property, money-worship and deference to a Christian God.

Nothing much has changed in over four centuries. King James’ conclusion that smoking is “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse” is so close to most anti-smoking diatribes, one can only conclude they read his treatise and put the whole essay through a synonym application.

That’s not to say, at all, that any of this isn’t true. Smoking is bad for you. My life has been ruled by good intentions of quitting, and actually stopping on occasion when necessary (pregnant and breastfeeding). I don’t smoke inside (because it smells). I look at Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking book at least once a fortnight.

But ludicrous anti-smoking legislation isn’t going to help. Here’s a potential scenario:

“Hallo – is this the police? My neighbor is smoking in her garden in the presence of a toddler, plus which said smoke is wafting over my wall. Please come and arrest her immediately.”

“Sorry – we’re currently dealing with calls of 17 housebreakings, five car thefts and two murders in your neighbourhood. Your complaint may have to wait a while.”

Bleating away about smoking while the real baddies run amok with guns and scissors and various other weapons of random destruction indiscriminately slaughtering vulnerable folk and nicking their stuff seems to me a complete waste of time, effort and money. Leave us smokers alone, and concentrate on the real problems.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in August 2018.


Violence against SA academics

9 10 2018

So here is the question: why are university academics increasingly becoming targets of student violence?

This weekend saw the tragic death by suicide of yet another South African academic, the University of Cape Town’s Dean of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, and UCT Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng directly linked student protests to his untimely passing.

Student violence directed at lecturers, including emotional and psychological violence and blackmail, is a global phenomenon and can be hard to understand. Sometimes the attacks are politically motivated; other times they are not. However, all attacks threaten the dignity and safety of staff, and negatively impact on both the academic profession and the learning process. Moreover, experts say that all incidents, personal or political, tend to share one characteristic:  they are not random, but usually the end result of an understandable and often discernable process of thinking and behavior.

Looking at this in the South African context, there are roughly three categories of “violence”: the individual who takes violent action, the triggering conditions that lead students to see violence as a solution, and/or the institutional setting that facilitates or permits the violence to unfold (or does not do anything to stop it from happening). And the “targets” tend to be selected based on two factors: student motives, and the target’s accessibility – with those most vulnerable obviously at the most risk.

The United States is pushing Behavioural Threat Assessment as a preventative measure. For cash-strapped South African universities, I don’t consider that this would be particularly helpful. We all know what students need, and what they want, ranging from decent bridging programmes (getting many school leavers equipped for university), through decolonized curricula, to increased financial aid and not having to pay fees. We know exactly what times of year to expect mass student protests, with many universities’ security staff being able to tell them in advance more or less when to expect trouble.

Personally, I have been told quite categorically that my individual safety cannot be ensured by university security during any student protest. Consequently, a quandary arises when during a protest and class disruption, one is ordered by executive leadership to stay teaching as normal. Being thrown out of a lecture is potentially dangerous and extremely undignified, and not something for which any sane individual would willingly set themselves up.

The individual threats are not so easy to deal with. For many of the small private “universities”, simply being strict in class and being soundly disliked by your students is enough to get you fired. Most of these academics are on contract, and can be instantly dismissed if a class or student (who are, after all, considered as “clients” in such bums-on-seats environments) lodges a complaint – too strict, too condescending, too unkind. The list is endless.

In mainstream universities, administrations tend to turn a blind eye to lecturers being threatened. Even insisting on an armed guard while you’re lecturing doesn’t appear to cause any concern, and either one is dismissed as “change resistant” or thrown South African education’s newest rhetorical phrase: restorative justice.

The purpose of restorative justice is to move the focus from violence or damage caused, to “repairing the harm that has been committed against the victim/s and community”. Offenders are supposed to take responsibility for their actions and commit to a plan to mitigate the damage they have caused (Gon, 2018). Evans (2017) describes the concept as having three central priorities: relationship-building, repairing harm and creating more equitable environments.

UCT recently tried restorative justice. Eight students found guilty of serious misconduct in 2016 – including transporting containers of petrol and tyres onto campus; defacing, removing and burning artworks from three buildings; illegally entering residences, threatening staff and stealing food; barricading roads; occupying the university’s administration and preventing staff from working; committing assault; and defacing university properly – were awarded amnesty.

The UCT story is a long one. Suffice to say, I think that administration is creating problems for the future. I don’t think there has been sufficient dialogue or redress, or apology for hurt. Frankly, what restoration can be offered when someone is dead? I worry that a whole new generation of students now has a precedent for behaving in a violent and/or criminal manner. And, worse, some colleagues at that institution are increasingly anxious about what they can say and how they say it during lectures, let alone their personal safety.

Prof Phakeng said the late Prof Mayosi was badly affected by the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests, and had taken three months’ leave earlier this year to deal with depression. She said the occupation of his faculty during protests had “hit him hard”.

“It’s a pity that we as an institution didn’t listen to him then…draw on his strength, make sure he is happy.”

She said Prof Mayosi had experienced pressure from staff and from students, and emphasised “black students”.

Prof Phakeng stated that she is aware that many of her staff are depressed and anxious, have survived heart attacks, are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and are still in their jobs. “Things are tough,” she said.

That is probably the understatement of the year.

South African universities tend to call in the police and employ private security companies once a protest and/or security situation gets out of control. This ceding of responsibility to external law enforcement to address the risks posed to students and staff is a form of disaster management, creates bad feeling for both staff and students, and in the long run doesn’t really help. Universities need to address the fundamental issues at play, including an overwhelming and misguided sense of entitlement among students.

Mayosi was gentle, kind and brilliant.

So to answer the question, why are South African university academics increasingly becoming targets of student violence? Because it is so damn easy, that is why.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in July 2018.


The joys of academic tourism

9 10 2018

Academic tourism is a well-known phenomenon in this world. In brief, it means the short days before and after academic conferences in strange countries around the world, which academics would never be able to afford by any other means.

Mine is the fortune of being in Rome for a few days, en route to a conference in Florence, Italy. Rome is a crazy, beautiful city, and a few salient observations follow.

Romans appear obsessed with penises. Or to be a little more specific, David’s penis. This is reproduced (yes, just that part) on fridge magnets, aprons, cigarette lighters, shot glasses and postcards, to name just a few. Liqueur bottles in the shape of a penis and balls proliferate. Cartoon statues of David (with a large nodding head) are found on every street corner. (These are usually accompanied by cartoon statues of Jesus, Trump, the Pope and Messi, all nodding, which I think says quite a lot about the political situation, let alone the national culture, of the country. But I digress).

Seems this obsession isn’t new. In the ancient city of Pompeii, the penis also played a large part. Large penises carved in stone, or carved penises on street stones, point the way to the local brothels. As Anna the tour guide smirked, after volunteering much information about “pornographic artifacts” excavated in the city and a tour of a brothel or two, folk in these regions always enjoyed and valued sex, “until the Christians came along and spoiled the fun”. (Much disgruntled muttering among the group ensued).

We got there on a tour from Rome in a bus with a very excitable driver. Most drivers in Italy appear crazy. They hoot all the time, swerve all over the place, drive with their mobile phones clutched in one hand, with the other gesticulating wildly, and thus constantly narrowly miss pedestrians. Seasickness in a vehicle is a real problem.

Luckily we Sarf Effricans are a tough bunch. My favourite question has been asking Italian folk, “Do tell me: how is Italy doing in the soccer World Cup?” This usually works on beggars as well as street vendors – their eyes glaze over and they disappear, pretending they didn’t hear. For Americans who won’t keep quiet, I’ve asked: “So, did you vote for Trump?” This has worked like a charm.

When one announces one’s country of origin here (ie, Sarf Effrica), the response is “Wow! How long did it take you to get here?” Italians never ask Americans this question: it’s as if Sarffers are some strange species emanating from a country which was part of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, filled with wild animals (used in the Colosseum in ancient times) and inhabited by bone-gnashing barbarians.

Seeing as the next paper in my academic adventure is the deliverance of a paper in the United Kingdom about the ethics of researching anthropophagy, and having visited the Capuchin Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria delle Concezione dei Cappuccini, I’m beginning to believe that no other country in the world has the right to accuse play bone houses with Africa. The Capuchin Crypt contains the skeletal remains of nearly 4000 Capuchin monks, whose skeletons were dismantled and the bones used to decorate the Crypt. This began in the mid-1600s, and was (not surprisingly) admired by the Marquis de Sade.

As monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly reclaimed bones were added to the decorations. They reckon it took about 30 years for new bones to be ready. The Catholic Order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a reminder of our own mortality and the swift passage of life on Earth. The first “room” in the Crypt has a child’s skeleton (whole) pinned to the roof, with a scale in one hand and a death sickle in the other. Shades of heebie jeebies. Roses, shelves, the pelvis room, the scapula room, candelabras, and so on. And a handful of supine whole skeletons in their monk robes. Some might think it hauntingly beautiful.

In any case, using South African rands in Rome could lead to one becoming a sack of bones by the time one leaves, because it is really expensive. The best thing to do is stop working out how much you would be spending in rands, and try to look for street food (not in tourist areas!).

Great things about Rome: it is so safe that you can stroll around at 2am unafraid. There are also drinking fountains all over the place where you can drink and refill your water bottle – clean spring water. The latter, however, are probably necessary, as the old city is designed to keep folk staggering around in circles attempting to find tourist attractions, and it saves many euros being able to fill up your bottle all the time.

I never managed to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain because there were too many tourists in the way, but I will try to return nevertheless. Florence and the first academic conference are next on the agenda, aptly concerning decolonising education. I hope the train driver isn’t as crazy as the average taxi owner.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.


Fleshing out free speech

9 10 2018

Towards the end of last year, a man walked into a police station in Estcourt and said‚ “I’m tired of eating human flesh.”

Arrests and international headlines followed, including allegations that hundreds of folk were engaged in light social cannibalism. The whole furore died down in a week or so, although the trial is still ongoing. South Africans tended to be awkward and pretty silent, considering, as we invariably are when a taboo topic takes centre stage.

Columnist Tom Easton, in a satirical masterpiece, wrote at the time: “But I also wonder if the muted reaction of the commentary machine reflects a fear of treading on toes in a morally relativistic world. Of course cannibalism is abhorrent (we tell ourselves) but‚ wait‚ is it? What’s the current consensus on Twitter? What if those people had a religious or cultural motive? Is it discriminatory to object to religious cannibalism? I mean‚ Christians pretend to do it every Sunday‚ so is the problem the idea or just the execution? Isn’t this just some sort of extreme Banting?”

I thought his article was hilarious. Others were deeply offended, both from religious and cultural perspectives.

And therein lies the rub. What to do when someone says or writes something some people consider offensive? Or, heaven forbid, thinks something offensive?

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille also offended some people last year when she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure etc.”

In a report released on Monday, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said that Zille’s conduct was tantamount to improper conduct in terms of the Constitution, as well as violating the Executive Ethics Code. Zille, she pronounced, did not show concern and respect for those who were victims of apartheid and colonialism, and the tweet had impacted negatively on certain people’s dignity.

It occurred to me that we seem to be spending far more time discussing how to restrict free speech at the moment, than how to defend and extend it.

In his book Trigger Warning, journalist Mick Hume argues that the fear of being offensive is killing free speech across the world. He argues that free speech is under siege from three main enemies in the modern age: official censors in government and the courts, unofficial censors (whom he describes as “the witch-hunting Twitter mobs and online petitioners pursuing and trying to silence everybody whose views are not to their taste”), and self-censorship.

One expects censorship from government and politicians. They have to keep in power somehow and shutting up opponents is a superb way of keeping people from thinking. But when ordinary members of society turn into Speech Police, then we have a problem, and when folk begin to be too frightened to say anything in case they get in trouble, then we have a crisis.

Hume argues that universities, for example, should be citadels of open-minded inquiry and freedom of speech, but campuses have become major new fronts in the war on free speech: “What beggars belief is that it is now students and academics themselves who are joining campus authorities in trying to impose new limits on free speech and free thinking…far from being ivory-towered bastions of freedom, our Universities have come to see themselves more as a womb-like fortress to protect young people from dangerous words and ideas”.

It’s a dangerous trend, these overly protective pinions. We can’t have this person talking to us – they don’t conform to the accepted trend of thought about this issue. We can’t have that comedian performing – they’re far too offensive. This creeping crusade for conformism in thought and speech is permeating the world, and increasingly across the globe people are fined and/or imprisoned for speaking a word someone else finds offensive. Things have reached a point in this country where a single word that may never have been intended to offend in the first place, becomes a national issue of political controversy, wasting time and money that could be far better used elsewhere.

And all is condoned by the spineless self-censorship of intellectual invertebrates.

Free speech is one of the pillars of any democracy. As Hume points out, the terrible truth about free speech is not a question of endorsing whatever objectionable or stupid things might be said or written. Nor is it a question of being a doormat and suffering somebody else’s nonsense in silence. Free speech means we all get access to free speech: we must defend it for all, or not at all.

Instead we constantly emphasise the limits to free speech, the exceptions. We forget that “offence” is a subjective standard, and instead censor or ban people not for threatening public order or inciting people to violence, but instead for hurting someone’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable. We are punishing for words, not deeds.

Humans have the right to choose what they listen to or read, and that is the flipside of freedom of speech. Zille never forced anyone to read her tweet – they chose to do so.

May we always be free enough to think what we like, and say what we think.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.

The Dangerous Academy

9 10 2018

Not even Jo’Anna could give South African academics much hope at the moment. Four South African professors and colleagues have died within a month of each other already this year. One was gunned down in what appears to be a professional hit outside his home, and three passed away with the whisper of prematurity.

The Americans haven’t fared any better. At least 10 colleagues there have died in more or less the same time period. And none of these have been “old age” passings. Colleagues across the world are found dead in their offices, found dead at home, drowned in ponds and swimming pools, struck down by “short illnesses” or mysteriously shot or stabbed. One Prof was killed crossing a freeway at 3am.

These are just the folk I am aware of – there could be plenty more. The sad part is that this isn’t really “newsworthy” (except where it involves “interesting” violence), and no one apart from family and friends really care much, even though recent British research proved that more than half of British academics show signs of psychological distress. Idle talk at any academic conference, national or international, kindles stories about drink, depression and insomnia. So what is going on?

Academic communities in South Africa are relatively small, and one tends to know a fair amount about what happens at different universities in the country. It seems to me there isn’t a single institution in the country who doesn’t have academic staff showing signs of psychological distress, and with the caveats of my own experience and those of colleagues with whom I’ve worked or otherwise interacted with around the world,  I’ve given a bit of thought to our national context.

Shared with our global colleagues, growing stress levels are prompted by heavy workloads, a “long hours” culture and conflicting management demands. The commodification of education and the tendency to run a university as a business have seen most universities cut staff radically, with those left expecting to take on that work – and much more. While staff numbers drop, student numbers increase exponentially. When a crisis hits, a “contract” staff member or a postgraduate student is pulled in to help, aggravating the pressures of job insecurity and staff exploitation.

Lecturers are caught up in bureaucracy and increasing demands for “product” (graduated students, also known as throughput) and “productivity” (the amount of published research books and articles they can generate). Many work 14 hour days, seven days a week. And for many folk, this results in increasing levels of anxiety, stress, depression and what some therapists call perfectionism – meaning when someone is aiming for and constantly expecting really high standards, even when there is a positive outcome, they feel they have fallen short. After all, you’re only as good as your research rating or as good as your ability to bring in funding for research.

In a nutshell, instead of one’s internal aspirations helping them do well, it actually hinders them.

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, also blames “demands for increased product and productivity” for rising levels of mental health problems among academics. He emphasises that most academics are stressed rather than mentally unwell: “They are thinking about their work and the consequences of not being as good as they should be; they’re having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they’re not working seven days a week.”

And a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) echoes these arguments. This study used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 20,000 university employees, to reveal that academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population.

Prof Gail Kinman who led the research highlights poor work-life balance as a key factor, with academics putting in increasing hours as they attempt to respond to high levels of internal and external scrutiny, a fast pace of change and the notion of students as customers – leading to demands such as 24-hour limit for responses to student queries.

So globally, here in South Africa we fit right in, but with the added pressures of pretty regular and often violent student protest action, and also organisational political manoeuvring, not to mention battling with ill-equipped undergraduates and various other contextual teaching pressures. It’s not fun having to try and rescue equipment, for example, with bullets raining down on the roof and petrol bombs flying through the windows.

Every single academic colleague in SA with whom I am friends, battles anxiety, isolation and/or a really poor life-work balance, and are not receiving the institutional support they need.

Add to this that the sixth most natural underlying cause of death in South Africa is “hypertensive diseases” accounting for 4.4% of deaths in the period from 2014 to 2016 (with Tuberculosis topping the list at 6.5% and Diabetes close behind at 5.5%), and you start to wonder how much damage stress is doing to our academic population: high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks are not uncommon.

I guess even Jo’Anna wouldn’t want to fund research into whether or not being a university lecturer is proving to be an increasingly dangerous occupation. She really wouldn’t want to hear the answer.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.


UKZN’s Old Main Building and the importance of the Humanities

9 10 2018

Here’s a question: should all university courses that don’t directly guide students into a professional career be abandoned?

This came up at an humanities meeting I attended recently, and all academics there, myself included, were suitably horrified. I’ve always believed that practical, career-orientated skills are essential, but if you can’t think critically about what you are doing and why you are doing it, you will never reach your full potential.

And that’s what university, especially the humanities, should be about. The languages, the arts, philosophy and sociology, media and politics – all these disciplines and many more help students analyse the world and distill issues into abstractions that resonate with ordinary people. They help students “express our fundamental humanity – our creativity, ingenuity and compassion” – in short, they teach students to think critically and creatively.

Take that away, and you remove all passion from tertiary education, and leave students with the belief that the only thing that matters is getting a job and making enough filthy lucre to afford the newest iPhone or Rolex. All the beauty and mystery of the world we live in disappears.

I work and teach in a beautiful and mysterious building. The Old Main Building on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus was completed in 1912, and is a Heritage (protected) building. Red brick with a clock tower, wooden floors and stone staircases, it also contains a wonderful central hall (for decades the main meeting space for our campus and the stage for theatrical productions), an almost hidden wooden spiral staircase reminiscent of Hogwarts, and two enclosed brick courtyards.

The bricks ooze history. During my undergraduate years, I remember some chaps during Rag climbing up the outside of the clock tower and hoisting a mountain club flag from the pinnacle. On another occasion, someone nicked a garden gnome from a random garden. The owners of the gnome sent home postcards for nearly a year from all over the world, and then eventually ended up on top of the clock tower as well (I am not sure the gnome ever made it home, but it certainly had an interesting life. Neither am I sure who removed all these things once they reached those exalted heights).

Old Main was used as a military hospital during World War I. If you scramble up the ladders inside the clock tower, you can still see some of the names and messages scribbled there by recovering soldiers, as well as students over the centuries. And adding to all this is the fact that the “dungeons” (below ground level in the front of the building) were used as a morgue.

Myths about the building about, not least that it is haunted. I have to admit that I won’t go there alone at night – once was enough. Doors in an entirely locked building slam, and I’ve heard footsteps when I’m there alone often enough to rattle me. One colleague told me he had heard crying, and trolley wheels, but he also had a tendency for a whiskey of an evening, so I’ve never been sure whether that was just the blarney speaking!

If only those walls could speak! Old Main has watched the birth of brilliance and the death of apartheid, with rebellious academics and students holding “secret” meetings to bring down the former government. It has sheltered the homeless and nurtured the ill. It has been the location for a number of student films, just one example being “Rosebud and the Chamber of Secrets” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POnMpX9mRpw). It has closeted dozens of illicit romantic liaisons as well, not least on the spiral staircase, which became so frequented by student lovers at one stage that one academic posted a notice: “These stairs are for perambulation, circumnavigation and peregrination, NOT copulation”. (It didn’t help much).

All these stories aren’t necessarily very useful if you want to be a millionaire someday, but they all, in some way, make students think. Narratives remind us who we are, where we come from, and where we might want to go. They are part of what makes us human.

My course outlines all contain explanations of how, although I teach skills alongside theory, one of the main aims is for students to learn how to think creatively and critically. I’m not interested in churning out good little robots: I want to unleash independent thinkers on the world, who fight for what they believe is right, and can create a logical argument if they disagree with something.

Universities are globally cash-strapped, and the first casualties are always the humanities, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics always the privileged and protected. As Hamilton argues, this is an unsustainable and dangerous model: a society that repeatedly undermines the humanities will not only eventually preside over its death as a vibrant and important locus of research and innovation, but will also be a society that presides over its own dissolution.

“As many studies the world over have shown, a healthy humanities sector is necessary for a healthy society and, in extremis, its very preservation.”

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in May 2018.


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