Saturday 5 November 2016

The role of the Socially Engaged Academic – Meeting at the University of Johannesburg on 31 October 2016 (posting by Razia Mayet)


The discussion was hosted jointly by the SOTL @ UJ project and FADA/STAND. It was introduced by Brenden Gray, who said, "The idea for the seminar grew out of an interest in understanding how academics who identify themselves as “socially-engaged” think about their agency during times of student struggle and social crisis. There may exist for many teachers and researchers a strange dissonance between what is going on ‘our there’ (on the picket-line, in the news) and what is happening in the classroom, office and lecture hall." His full text is provided at the bottom of this posting. Five academics were asked to speak for no more than five minutes each from a personal point of view about being a socially engaged academic in the current climate of unrest and protest.
Amira Osman from FADA
Amira who is originally from Sudan started by reading from the introduction of Amin Maalouf ‘s book “Disordered World: A vison for the post 9/11 world”. She quoted a poet from the early 20th  century who wrote these lines that were chanted during the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia :
                 If the people one day desire life
                 It is inevitable that destiny grants it
                 It is inevitable that the darkness lifts
                                                Abul-Qacem Echebbi
Amira likened the struggle of the UJ students to the Arab Spring uprisings – while being aware that there may be differences in protest being driven by socio-economic and/or political freedom issues. She reminded us that events have far reaching significance and that we here, today have no way of knowing the real consequence of the student protests. She especially experessed concern that some would call “#feesmustfall or the #governmentmustfall”, quoting the slogan of the Khartoum University students in the 80’s “A FREE UNIVERSITY OR NO UNIVERSITY” and ironically the students were left with ‘no university’ in the sense that standards dropped drastically and student experiences became even more difficult. Coming from an Architecture background meant that Amira would look at the #feesmustfall in a way that was analogous to housing. The South African, award winning, national housing programme is a massive success in terms of the numbers of houses delivered, yet has inadvertently reinforced Apartheid spatial patterns, disadvantage and segregation. Idenitifable housing for the poor, in peripheral locations, is no doubt the unintended consequence of some noble ideals. So she stated that she is against “free houses”. This was because a give-away house reinforces the notions of “government as provider”, rather than “government as enabler” – a major paradigm shift in housing theory. However she can again draw parallels in thinking about housing and education where increased government funding is crucial – it is the manner in which that funding is used that can lead to success or failure, spatially in the built environment or in our educational systems.

Colin Chasi from Humanities
Colin opened his discussion by noting that he is wary of the idea of ‘socially engaged academics’ because he wonders what the ‘social’ is in our institutions, it is so damanged. drawing an analogy between the language of the church and that of the university. The university is a sacrament with its own set of rituals. The protests are regarded as a sacrilege that has desecrated a sacred space. He says that we teach in a strange place that is characterised by estrangement and dislocation that speaks to colonialism /apartheid/othering. There is a sense of the deeply wounded and damaged about where we are. He stated that as humans we are meant to communicate and teach but in our context we are unable to do so as even that is damaged by the violence of the past and the silences of the present. He thus labels apartheid a crime against humanity. He goes on to ask what is the best of our culture? What is it that we can pass on to our students? Why is it that after twenty years of teaching and 20 000 students we still don’t know what our students want or need?
He concluded by saying that we are dehumanised and that we come from a desecrated relationship with the university.

Rubina Setlhare from the Faculty of Education
The training that Psychologists in South Africa receive is a very European western training, the basis of which is ‘be quiet and listen’. Rubina feels that that she cannot be quiet any longer in the face of what students go through and the violence and lack of engagement that characterises the current times. Students deal with huge barriers and anxieties like hunger/ threats /no home and Rubina feels that she can’t go on being the objective psychologist who makes no comment on the lack of interest in the worker and students’ request for open dialogue by upper university management. She is deeply troubled by the fact that when students and workers ask for dialogue  they are met with divisive ploys to create mistrust among the UJ community. There is a refusal to engage and to converse. Instead security has been increased. Students and staff are losing the dialogic intent because they are made to feel that “this is not your space”. They are losing trust in the structures. A deep mistrust therefore exists and she wonders how to cross the divide, more so as the mistrust may become paranoia, with steps being put in place to maintain the status quo.  Rubina referred to similar processes mentioned by journalist Michael Schmidt in his book: DRINKING WITH GHOSTS.

Sadie Seyama from the Health Science Faculty
Sadi started off by talking about our collective inertia in the institution. She said that her introspection led her to think of it as our collective shame. She sometimes feels ashamed of her silence in the face of what’s happening and is troubled by the impact of the violence: in lectures, to students and in the institution. Why do we as academics complain but remain silent and compliant? Her main contention though is against firstly, the form that performance management takes at University as a response to the performativity culture, which detracts from explicit engagement with social justice issues in the curriculum and pedagogy. Secondly, she feels that we as academics are remiss in that we have never engaged leadership on these issues. She says that it is concerning how neoliberal practices are taking away power from institutions, leaders and academics. She wants to know how we can push back against these ‘neo-liberal practices’. Why do we as academics not have nuanced ways of dealing with the ethical, racial and language practices which all impact on our practices? She concluded with a question for us to reflect on: Is there something beyond our silence? Is it oppression perhaps?

Ylva Rodny-Gumede from the Faculty of Humanities

Ylva is from Sweden. She completed her Journalism degree there. She says that it is a very politically stratified country and mainstream journalism is similarly stratified. This made it  difficult to pursue her ambition to be an ‘activist journalist’ as her job required reporting, not journalism.  The re-curriculation that the university (UJ) underwent has taken away a lot from students. Students are left with a very limited range of subject choices especially in subjects relating to the social sciences. This cuts back on opportunities for them to reflect and think about community and citizen activism. The social sciences have to be reintroduced in university and journalism for an active and reflexive citizenship to develop. Today one can become an activist- journalist but collaboration is diminishing as writers are individualistic within their own network spaces. Her two primary concerns concern journalism courses and how new journalistic identities and activism can be taught and how to become co-producers in the learning space. Ylva’s edited talk is at the bottom of this posting.

DISCUSSION points raised by groups
We go home to our gated communities in middle class neighbourhoods then come to UJ, put on the ‘academic gown’and play the role of academics, instilling ‘ideas and values’. But the students know and feel the disconnect. So how do we negotiate the dilemma between our privilege and the students’ reality?  A socially engaged educator is open to critically examine these dislocations.
We try to establish common ground with the students in relation to power, history and background but we first do the disclaimer. We say ‘ask me anything’ but at the same time say ‘ I am not the expert’. Students are inserted into our lives and we spend so much time with them, as if we take on the role of their parents . We’re supposed to be passing on principles and values but do we? How do we deal with this responsibility? Silence: we are victims of silence. We know these discussions must happen but we remain silent. Colleagues become vocal only when they leave the University.
We are silent because the leadership’s response is punitive or threatening. For example budgets fall in response to perceived action but the budgets for securitization of campus remains unlimited. Yet budgetary constraints are imposed on everyone else.
Have we considered the impact on the students of witnessing the trauma? Students are demoralised. Leadership send out mixed messages. Students feel that they are not being heard.They view the spaces within the university structure with suspicion and distrust. Where are the sacred spaces to heal and find trust ?
Concerns are raised about the increased performativity. Do students really learn? Do they engage? How can we get students to engage critically in community engagement and critical citizenship and thus claim belonging instead of merely passing exams and seeking employment?
What do we as academics need to do now to move the dialogue and the curriculum along?
At post graduate level, the developmental aspect is missing. The structure of the post grad course does not allow staff to actively engage with post grads on issues relating to decolonisation and to be socially engaged
Academics pontificate without understanding the context and the history and the violence. But we fail to act. We cannot just step back and leave it to the students to take up.
Points and issues raised
Is it not possible for us to help students by being mediators between students and leadership. As  academics we can’t just sit back and watch.
Is too much time,nfunds and energy is being put in by progressive staff? Is real change being affected? There are so many diverse opinions of what fees must fall means.
What is the truth /value in the events? There are many false prophets. How can we protect it from them?
In the Arab Spring uprisings the movements and legitimate protests of the youth were hijacked by self- serving agendas of leaders/despots, foreign interests and party politics. How can we protect our students from the same?
At UJ APK campus we are caught between the old RAU broederbond style and the current UJ leaderships ANC style. So we are in the middle of a struggle. This is not a small current protest. It is the ongoing rebellion of the poor through strikes, protests and upheavals. They are ongoing and will intensify. The conversations must continue and the campuses must be drawn into the discussions. It’s unavoidable.
In every small way we bend to the arc of history. No movement or upheavel or protest is in vain. We have to look at the ongoing destruction and violence and ask who is benefitting from it. The security companies are complicit as they have jobs to lose once it’s over.
One of the colleagues’ words left us all deeply reflective when he concluded by saying  that the current leadership is lacking in vision and this is leading to a lost opportunity. He said that our students are living the reality. It’s no more a movie about the rainbow nation that the media reports on. The media creates a narrative that doesn’t reflect the reality. For the students this is the new normal. Give credit to the students. They force the conversation to the fore. We the adults and the academics are out of touch. We must accept that students know. We are like the parents of the students who took rebellion to the forefront in 1976 while the parents sat in shebeens.
A deeply insightful session which gave much food for thought to all who attended. The question that we are all left with is ‘quo vadis’ or where to from here.  Everyone agreed that the conversation is very important and that we need a follow up session.
Razia Mayet


Introduction to the session by Brenden Gray
The role of socially-engaged academics and teachers in times of student struggle

Many of us are reflecting on the roles we are and should be playing in our teaching and in society, at a time of student struggle and continuing social and educational inequality. Some of us believe we have answers, but some of us are still searching. We believe this is a good time to come together to talk, share ideas and strategies.

Many academics identify as socially-engaged. This means that their teaching, research and scholarly work is to whatever extent driven by praxis, by the need for social change whether this means dealing with inequality, poverty, differentials in access, transformation, social justice, decolonisation and so on. For socially-engaged academics teaching and knowledge production is inextricably linked to society and for academics who identify as ‘socially-engaged learning’ has material, symbolic and social effects. Their work is situated. Education is as much a question of what is as what ought to be.

So the question is, in times of struggle, student activism and protest what roles do academics who self-identify as socially-engaged see themselves having? How do these academics respond to student struggles both in terms of their own narratives (the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works) and social action?  This links to how do we understand the positioning and agency of the South African academic in a post-apartheid situation. For me, student struggle and crisis broadly speaking exposes the positions that make up the field of academia, highlighting ideological fault lines that exist within it offering us powerful opportunities to reflect on our politics, pedagogies and our disciplines.  I certainly have seen socially-engaged academics arguing in combative ways over questions of violence, identity politics and structural inequality, the role of the state in our society, the function of democracy, the purpose of education, and the salience of social class and race in understanding the contemporary situation.

The student struggle, certainly in 2015 around outsourcing, RhodesMustFall, FeesMustFall and in 2016 with FeesMustFall- reloaded asks us as socially-engaged academics to take positions, to make our positions clear and sometimes to make difficult dispositional decisions about where we stand and what we are prepared to do in the name of struggle. 

Articles are emerging in the popular press around the positions that academics are taking. Some suggest that academics are “coaching students in tactics” as was recently touted in an article in M&G on “professors of protest”. In other cases, academics in their public intellectual work publish the much needed information and research required by student activists to inform their opinions around critical issues (such as fee-free education for the poor and working class vs free universal higher education). Academics have produced reports on the use of violence on campuses and the constitutionality of decisions made, have petitioned management to deal differently with protest, have opposed interdicts and suspension, have shown solidarity with student struggles by offering material and emotional support, mediated conflict, and others have leveraged the opportunities presented by student struggle (opportunistically or otherwise) to reinvigorate existing transformation work in the academy, and developed new theories to explain emerging forms of social change and social movements, written papers and so on.  In times of student struggle academics who identify as socially-engaged are perhaps thinking and feeling through the issues in multiple ways but do not necessarily have the opportunity to express what are private views in an academic and collegial context. 

The idea for the seminar grew out of an interest in understanding how academics who identify themselves as “socially-engaged” think about their agency during times of student struggle and social crisis. There may exist for many teachers and researchers a strange dissonance between what is going on ‘our there’ (on the picket-line, in the news) and what is happening in the classroom, office and lecture hall. Do we proceed with business as usual in our teaching and research?  Do socially-engaged academics, at times of crisis and struggle, see their academic struggles (for example against the commodification of research, globalisation, corporatisation of the university, managerialism, decreased state funding, and instrumentalisation) articulated with those of students for free, public higher education system, decolonised curricula, end to outsourcing, institutional racism and so on?  This session attempts to open up this terrain and in some senses asks what: is the habitus of the socially-engaged South African academic.

Academic, journalist, activist
Ylva Rodny-Gumede
In the current context of upheaval in the higher education landscape as well as the broader social and political landscape in South Africa, it is legitimate to ask what the role of academics should and could be. For journalism scholars, these questions are also coupled to questions of the role of journalism and journalism education.
The role of the news media are highly debated and highly contested all over the world, even more so in the context of societies undergoing social and political transitions. Equally, so the role of higher education.  In the current South African context and amidst renewed and amplified calls for addressing colonialism head on, the role of the news media as well as higher education as institutions thought of as both sites and agents of transformation will have to take seriously their role as change agents.
Crucially, then is the role of journalism scholars who straddles both spheres as academics articulating both new theory and practice with regards to the role of journalism, and as practitioners engaged in facilitating public discourse formation as well as contributors to such discourses in the public realm.
The news media is thought to play a crucial role in building a new democratic society; in giving people a platform to voice diverse opinions; in informing citizens of their rights and responsibilities, and in increasing people’s knowledge about ways for them to participate in government processes. Some scholars even talk of a new age of realism where people’s need for reliable information and quality journalism on issues of society, economy and the environment is increasing rather than decreasing. This seems particularly pertinent with regards to the emergence of new media platforms, and social media in particular.
And while the news media are often considered a vital part of the public sphere, the link between media and democracy and the role that the news media is thought to play in the public sphere is not uncontested. Questions can be asked as to what information is being circulated in the public sphere characterised by an information ‘glut’ and ever more contestation over hegemonic discourses and politics of push rather than pull.
In this context, journalists will have an important role to play, not only to dissect the ‘glut’ but, also increasingly as socially engaged journalists and activists acting as counter forces to increasingly dominant and hegemonic discourses within both the news media and the academy.
However, for journalism scholars this is often thought of as somewhat of a catch 22, as whilst educating a new generation of journalists, they are beholden to thread the line between enforcing established media practices that talk less to advocacy roles shrouded in ideas of political bias, than maintaining fairness and balance in reporting, thought of as at odds with more politically stratified view points.
To overcome this, journalism scholars will have to take on a role that goes beyond educating ‘reporters’ but also thinkers and intellectuals that with integrity and bravery can marry the roles of journalists and activists. And, equally, media and journalism scholars will have to find ways of marrying and developing their own roles of academics, journalists and activists.
The idea of fostering active citizenship within the academy as well as in the journalistic profession must as such extend beyond the role we play as teachers and become part and parcel of how we look upon our own role as academics and journalists and encompass the role of activists.
This also extends to our own research. In an African context scholars have to be cognizant of both global, as well as local disciplinary debates and research agendas and how best to facilitate and foster participatory and politically engaged methodologies that extensively bridge paradigms of critical and administrative research.
It is thus time that journalism scholars reflect upon the dominant themes that have made journalism research an increasingly important element of political, social and cultural enquiry. This to set out a research agenda for the discipline that not only talk to the local or African context but increasingly to what African media and communications research contributes to the growth of the discipline as a whole and what the role of journalism scholars should be in this context as academics, journalists and activists.