Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

A meeting on decolonisation of pedagogy raises fierce debates among academics

A robust engagement around pedagogy in higher education institutions ensued on Friday, 30 October 2020, during the Transformation Managers' Forum (TMF) webinar. The session titled: Decolonisation - The Academic Project focused on how academics are rising to the challenge of decolonisation in their teaching and research.

Following presentations by Dr Jess Auerbach, Social Anthropology Senior Lecturer at North-West University and Mr Siseko Kumalo, Editor of the Journal of Decolonising Disciplines and an academic and researcher at the University of Pretoria, members of the audience fired intense questions. Both Auerbach and Kumalo have worked extensively to decolonise and democratise education in their respective disciplines. They each shared what they had done with their students and the results, thereof.

Leading the debate was Professor Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Director: Faculty of Teaching and Learning Support at North West University. Pointing out that the sector was continuously engaging in these conversations, he argued that it was time academics started sharing case studies to demonstrate the practicality of their approaches and move past theory.

In his presentation, Kumalo (right) had suggested that institutional competitiveness with VCs prioritising their universities as if the sector is uniformly constituted, is the harbinger for sectoral demise. The TMF Chairperson, Mr George Mvalo, asked Kumalo to expand on this point. In response, Kumalo conceded that even though there was some form of collaboration between institutions, it was still limited. Kumalo said he would appreciate seeing institutions feeding off one another's strengths more, for the benefit of the country.

Dr Auerbach, adding to Mr Kumalo's point, said South African universities could do better complementing than competing with one another. She said there should be far more co-supervision, interdisciplinary work and a focus on the excellence that comes from people's epistemic knowledge traditions. She said: "I think now, it is clear from all academic literature that diversity in teams, epistemologies, background and everything leads to better work. I would hope that at least part of the goal of the university is to produce good citizens and interesting knowledge. So, anything that undermines that is an unfortunate distraction in a broader purpose of higher education."

Siseko Kumalo

How are they decolonising and democratising teaching and learning?

Dr Auerbach (right) premised her talk on the importance of students being the producers of knowledge rather than consumers of it. Her stance was that in the 21st century, modern tools are a necessity in the classroom. As such, the introduction of digital literacy proved to empower her students and made teaching relatable. She discovered all of this from the time she was teaching at the Open University of Mauritius.

Her passion for new teaching methodologies came to the fore when she stated that each year, she prompts her first-year students to edit a Wikipedia page. She said students needed to learn how to use these technologies as producers of knowledge who can contribute and shape the way digital representation happens around the world. Moreover, Dr Auerbach said knowledge was becoming less about remembering and more about storytelling. Her use of the means that include YouTube, podcasts, blogs, etc. is to help students gain their voice and tell stories from their perspectives. She said this kind of teaching created a new feel for classroom engagement. To Dr Auerbach, this was another form of ensuring the democratisation of knowledge production.

Dr Jess Auerbach

Mr Kumalo, on the other hand, referred to his research paper titled: Justice Through Higher Education: Revisiting the White Paper of 1997.

He had penned this paper, looking widely at the higher education sector and how it can influence societal change. For Kumalo, the decolonisation of pedagogy is more about improving the connection between the universities and the social contexts in which they find themselves than on what happens in the confines of the university itself. "To deliver on justice entails responsiveness and accountability from the university towards its local community," he explained. "This accountability shifts from a vertical model to a horizontal one. The accountability framed as horizontal delivers on demand for social justice."

Kumalo said it was vital for scholars to check the effectiveness of their teachings in terms of responding to the local needs. For him, it is about cultivating well-rounded citizenship.

Indigenous languages as the key

Both scholars said they had introduced South African indigenous languages in their respective disciplines and institutions. Dr Auerbach went as far as stipulating that, in her classes, 10% of continuous assessment would be earned by learning another South African language. "I think if we can encourage our students to be continual language learners, something also shifts, as they may find themselves able to make friendships they might not have been able to make before," she said.

Concerned about possible push-back from students, an attendee, Dr Pauline Coetzee, English Literature Lecturer at Nelson Mandela University, asked how receptive students were of this mandatory requirement. Auerbach confidently responded that she was yet to have a student complain on the course evaluation about the language component even though they regularly complain in the first few weeks.

For Kumalo, the value of introducing other languages in higher education lay showing students that intellectual works were not limited to English.

At the height of this gathering, 50 people were in attendance. The transformation webinar series, that is interrogating various facets of transformation within public universities, continues every Friday until 11 December 2020.

Written by Nqobile Tembe, a writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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