Unsettling paradigms; the quest for inclusive and democratised knowledge

She revolutionised the teaching of Instrumental Music Studies at Rhodes University by substituting western musical instruments for indigenous African performance practice. In just three years, enrolment on this programme has tripled from 27 to 94 – a living testimony to the value of responsive, relevant and empowering teaching in higher education.

The force behind this revolution is Dr Boudina McConnachie, an African musical arts (AMA) activist with a particular interest in musical arts pedagogy. McConnachie (PhD) is a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Rhodes University, and one of 30 scholars in Humanities and Social Sciences, who are participating in Universities South Africa's Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa project.

Dr McConnachie is one of the four scholars who presented at last week's Unsettling Paradigms Colloquium that was organised by Universities South Africa's Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG). The Colloquium was an opportunity to share insights emerging from on-going research projects investigating what to change, how to change it, why, for whom and to what outcomes. These scholarly enquiries are part of a five-year project that started in 2017 at eight research-intensive universities, driven by USAf's TLSG and co-ordinated from the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Humanities.

Dr Boudina McConnachi, a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Rhodes University, aspires to produce teachers who will engage rigorously with African musics through their own teaching, learning and appreciation.
Dr Boudina McConnachie
Dr Boudina McConnachi, a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Rhodes University, aspires to produce teachers who will engage rigorously with African musics through their own teaching, learning and appreciation.

Delivering his welcome remarks at the virtual Colloquium on 7 September, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of the TLSG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, said the purpose of that gathering was to stimulate debates in the higher education sector. He told the assembly of academics, students and higher education policy makers that these interventions were meant to transform teaching and learning, over time, at South Africa's institutions. "Today we focus on insights from the inclusive and participative research going on at our institutions to strengthen humanities and social sciences capacity to engage with these dialogues." This, as the Unsettling Paradigms research project reaches mid-term.

Talking About Indigenous Music – Rhodes University

In her quest to develop a new generation of future teachers, cultural ambassadors and music lovers with a deeper understanding and passion for indigenous African music, Dr McConnachie abandoned pianos, violins and flutes and, in their place, introduced uhadi, endingidi and Nyanga pipes. She aspires to produce teachers who will engage rigorously with African musics through their own teaching, learning and appreciation.

She told the 160-strong audience at the Unsettling Paradigms that, by engaging in these three methodologies:

  • embodied learning, that is, using the body to understand the theory;
  • experiential learning, meaning learning through reflection on doing or experimenting with knowledge, first-hand, and also in
  • connective aesthetic,, which refers to finding a tangible connecting force for students to create knowledge together,

student interest in her course had soared significantly. In a space of three years from 2017 to date, enrolment in Instrumental Music Studies has tripled from 27 to 94 – accounting for ¾ of the total number of students reading Music Studies at Rhodes University.

Students' feedback speaks for itself

indigenous musical instruments
indigenous musical instruments
Nyonganyonga mbira from Mozambique
Students in Instrumental Music Studies at Rhodes University have embraced the change in focus to indigenous musical instruments, as their testimonies, further below, reveal.

What this development means to the course recipients is captured in the feedback below:

  • "Before I joined this course I knew nothing about African music and as an African female, this has just re-connected me with my culture and has given me an understanding of the creativity of my ancestors," says a 2nd year Bachelor of Social Science student of mixed Sotho and Xhosa descent.
  • "This is a much needed alternative course offered at Rhodes. I hope it grows because it is necessary for a grounded liberal arts education," says a Bachelor of Arts student and black South African.
  • "My confidence has grown substantially; performing has now become a breeze, not only in IMS but in other sectors of my life too." – 1st year Journalism student; a Xhosa who grew up in urban East London.
  • "I didn't realise how much colonisers take credit for instruments that were natively African," a BA Law, Xhosa student also commented.

Integrating traditional and modern forms of knowledge in teaching is feasible

Dr McConnachie said pedagogically, using embodied ways of learning opens up the Instrumental Music Studies course to students who have struggled to gain purposeful knowledge through other forms of learning. The transgressive social learning method assists the university music community to break through previously established norms of musical devaluation. Furthermore, involving local community musicians in teaching empowers them to take their place in tertiary education – based on their skills and not academic pursuits.

Integrating traditional and modern forms of knowledge
Integrating traditional and modern forms of knowledge
Students in Instrumental Music Studies at Rhodes University have embraced the change in focus to African indigenous musics.

By implementing this change in the course, Dr McConnachie has not only contributed to raising the social status of African traditional and indigenous knowledge systems; she is proving that where there is a will on the part of academics, integrating traditional and modern forms of knowledge in equipping future generations to solve national challenges is feasible.

Unsettling Paradigms; the Project Purpose

Putting things into perspective, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria, and co-ordinator of the collaborative endeavour taking place at eight research-intensive universities, said the project was exploring how knowledge was being transformed into the curriculum. He said the primary purpose of this project is curriculum reform. The participating scholars are exploring untested curriculum assumptions and drawing attention to existing gaps. They are prioritising research into local challenges to accumulate Global South insights, thereby stimulating and strengthening fresh insights in Humanities disciplines while also fuelling inter-epistemic dialogues and comparative analyses. Within the Reform leg Professor Reddy said Unsettling Paradigms is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve curricula driven by inclusive and democratised knowledge.

Professor Vasu Reddy
The Unsettling Paradigms project is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve inclusive and democratised knowledge, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of Humanities at UP and co-ordinator of this project, explained.

Professor Reddy summarised the project conceptual framework into three Rs: Recovery, Reassessment and Reposition. In the Recovery leg, the project is looking to dismantle apartheid's distorted perceptions of local scholars and local knowledge; to support scholars in the university system in recovering previously silenced voices of blacks, female and dissident writers, philosophers, artists and thinkers; to recognise new role models and to restore the dignity of 'othered'" lives, in pursuit of a multi-voiced understanding of curricula and standards.

The Unsettling Paradigms project is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve inclusive and democratised knowledge, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of Humanities at UP and co-ordinator of this project, explained.

The second R, to Reassess, refers to interrogating the current syllabi to determine what it is that ancient scholars are teaching our students and to identify and interpret deeply entrenched attitudes.

The central tenet of the third R, Reposition, is to mainstream previously marginalised voices across disciplines in Humanities and to define their relationships with education and the economy; the supremacy of European genres; international trade agreements and the mechanics of social and political power.

Ultimately, curriculum change will come about when the ongoing enquiries yield theses and dissertations, books and scholarly articles as well as creative outputs such as music, drama productions, film and art.

Echoing Professor Reddy's sentiment, USAf's Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said South Africa's Knowledge Project was about "how our universities enter the global knowledge system on our own Global South terms."

Background

Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa is an inter-institutional collaborative project that brings together eight research-intensive universities: University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand, University of the Free State, Rhodes University, University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Although the push to decolonise university curricula dates back to the 1980s in South Africa (Chapman, 2020) it spiked during the Fallist movement of 2015/16, when students protested that contemporary curricula and teaching approaches in higher education are devoid of social, contextual and political relevance. This transformational project was made possible by a USD 1, 933, 700 grant, an equivalent of R27, 588, 821 in 2017 from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. Dr Mabizela said USAf is deeply indebted to the leadership of Prof Saleem Badat, former Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University and former Programme Director: International Higher Education & Strategic Projects at the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, for supporting this project. The project is running until 2022.

According to Professor Vasu Reddy, this project ultimately concerns itself with who teaches, what is taught, how teaching and learning happen, and, equally importantly, who makes decisions. He said as the Unsettling Paradigms project enters its mid-term, it is increasingly interrogating knowledge, a deeply contested term and how it influences decisions on educational goals. "What counts as valid knowledge was at the core of the students' movement in 2015," Professor Reddy said.

This article is the first in a series developed from the 7 September Colloquium of the TLSG.

'Mateboho Green, the Writer, is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa

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