Image of the night sky, with stars.

Nervous conditions

I’m really excited about this blog and about sharing this journey with you. I’m not sure who you are but I have an idea when I write. Most times, you are a Black, undergraduate student. You’re someone who doesn’t feel confident that the academy is for you. Sometimes, you are a PhD peer, with the same discomfort. I’m excited to speak to you about all of this because I think it’s important we do so. I imagine a solidarity of sorts between us and these posts are my attempts to connect.

It’s been easy to write so far, about the terror of teaching and the excitement of learning. What has not been easy, which I will attempt to do here, is to write about the ugly feelings. Much heavier, they linger longer than bouts of excitement do. They outlive all other feelings.

In the first week of the Wits academic year, there was a protest due to a lack of accommodation, as well as registration fees. There was private security all over campus. Teargas. Rubber bullets. I remember trying to get to my supervisor’s office, going from pillar to post, finding that most doors to her building had been locked.  I negotiated numbness and helplessness as I moved through the maze. With those I spoke to on campus that week, there were similar feelings. Powerlessness, horror, and grief. How do we exist on a campus where rubber bullets and private security do not elicit reactions from the majority of us anymore?

The university is a violent space. In its very nature. This violence is meted out against those of us who are Black, poor women, queer, transgender, disabled and/or not citizens. We are under seige in so many ways, and even those of us who make it to the upper echelons have limited power in the face of white supremacy and its continued economic power. This is complicated by the fact that the access we have to the university privileges us in comparison to the remainder of society.

It is difficult to write about the grief of trying to exist in such a space, when at the same time, our “achievements” in such a space are celebrated. Indeed, when our presence in such spaces is the result of so much historical (and everyday) sacrifice. The keys that grant us permission to have our physical bodies in the university were gained through struggle. So it means a lot to be the first Black graduate in your family, or to be a graduate from any marginalized group, because we know what it took to get here. People were killed. The promise held in that graduation gown and that transcript makes a symbolic difference to many of our communities, because it would hurt too much to sit in South Africa and acknowledge that people died and little changed.

For me, this is what makes it heaviest to exist in the university: knowing that the promise offered on those brochures is a lie, knowing we only matter as numbers. The battle begins and intensifies from the point of entry. And despite this, we go home and cannot always speak to our families about how things are not okay. It becomes such an isolating experience, sometimes making us illegible to those who love us, who knew us before (if we ever had a before in relation to colonial education). We come to the university but cannot always return. As Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Tambudzai says of her cousin Nyasha in Nervous Conditions,

“I missed the bold, ebullient companion I had had who had gone to England but never returned from there. Yet each time she came [home] I could see she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, as  though she were directing  more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about issues that she alone had seen.”

We become illegible, as we fight battles we cannot put into words or as we are forced to put our feelings in words that require the labour of translation. Even our grief receives more recognition (and praise) when we put it in different language. The university is closest to understanding us when we can say that we face “ontological annihilation”. 

To shutdown the university because it hurts us is not legible to those who see the university who sideline questions of human dignity for some suspect attachment to “improving” the economy. Thus, at every encounter, engaging with the management of universities is an endeavor which assumes that we do not know things, as Black people. We become semi-valid when we have learned academic jargon, then we must explain our greviances in that limit(ted/ing) medium. All this explaining is exhausting, especially because it is obtuse for the parties in power to pretend they do not understand what is meant by “Black pain”. When we are asked to explain – to put it less disruptively, less ‘violently’ – this distracts from the fact that what is happening is a refusal to understand, not an inability to understand. Ruling powers maintain their power and control through such refusal, which is framed as our confusingness, lack of articulation, incoherence, our problem. 

A lot of the prestige that comes with being an academic comes from the idea that the university is a place where the best ideas are nurtured and development. In reality, what we face in the academy creates the very opposite environment. Our ideas are lucky to survive. We are lucky to survive. It is ridiculous that the university can remain this respected place of ideas and hold the power it does when it is so severely constrained. The ideal of what a university should be is constrained by the idea that the new entrants do not deserve to be there. As my colleague/friend Moshibudi Motimele has recently written, universities like Wits are constrained by the idea that their role is to mould workers. It is the antithesis of the idea that universities should be for the good of society at large.

In speaks volumes that universities are under so much surveillance and security. What is seen as being worthy of protection is the system that already exists. People who have been oppressed throughout time are not seen as worthy of such protection. Indeed, we are the threat that has created the justification for security. Regardless, we still have the right to make the spaces we have ours. We can do our best to make sure that the pockets of air we find are preserved for those who come after us.

I am heavy when I let my whole self feel my (dis)place(ment) in the university. I contemplate whether this place – founded on the exclusion of some of my ancestors – was ever worth fighting for. At every closed door I turn to, in this burning maze, it seems more and more to not be worth its salt.

I still have my ideas. I nurture them with help from the resisters whose writings survived. I hope that my ideas survive. I hope that if the university must be destroyed for the sake of a better world, the ideas I am nurturing are still of some use in the new economies of love and connection that may come. In the meantime, I navigate the maze: an everyday confrontation with a broken dream.

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What terror teaches me

It is March. Which is to say, that escalated quickly. Since my last blog post, I have completed a long registration process and I have thought about many things I wanted to write here. I want to write about why I started this blog in the first place, and I have so many thoughts about academia in general. So it’s not a shortage of ideas that has made me silent. Rather I’ve been unable to write because I’ve been lecturing.

At the moment, I teach two awesome courses. For the whole semester, I teach Feminist Theory & Politics to part-time second-year students. For a few weeks in each term, I also teach two novels in a second-year African Literature course. It’s the second year of my teaching journey (I started teaching the Feminist Theory course last year) and it’s been amazing so far. I genuinely believe I have the greatest students of all time. I love how they bring themselves fully into the lectures and I learn so much from the experiences they share in the classes.

Whilst it’s been amazing, I’m going to be honest and say, it’s absolutely T E R R I F Y I N G 😭 Sometimes, when I’m walking to the lecture hall to meet a new group of students, I literally wish I could run away. Firstly, there’s the element of public speaking, which has always been an unpleasant idea. Things have mellowed out on that front over the years, and I’m just grateful my body doesn’t shake the way it used to when I did presentations in high school. I also sometimes get anxious about the dynamics of being so young, and still a student myself. It doesn’t feel very lecturer-y to be that lecturer who has to announce that they are the lecturer, because they blend in 🤣 (this is a fun dynamic sometimes, won’t lie).

Much of the reason I wanted to run away all those times, even though I’m excited to teach the content and engage and and and, is because teaching is a t(rial-and-)error journey. People can give you advice on how to lecture, but the scariest part of it is that once you’re in front of everyone, it’s just you (and a group of people waiting for you to talk). No one can do it for you. No one can hold your hand through it. There is no clone of you that can take one for the team. You cannot phone a friend. Wow, moghel, you are alone!

You can be prepared and know things, but it’s ultimately and inherently an unpredictable situation. This for me, is the most educational part of the experience. Mistakes will be made. Problems will arise.  You will definitely be asked a question that will have you hesitating like a Miss Universe contestant. To gain the courage to walk into such situations requires giving myself regular pep talks.

The training-wheels level of teaching is especially challenging, if (like me) you have been taught to think of things like “knowledge”, “intelligence” as static things rather than processes. Before I started teaching, I had the idea that lecturers had to know everything on a given topic. There is a widespread assumption I think, that academics are supposed to know everything and be experts. And in much of my experience, some of the academics who’ve taught me have maintained some of these impressions*. I now wonder how many of them fumbled through an explanation of something they were unsure of in a moment of panic. Things like this were taken for granted in my undergraduate years.

All of this is to say, teaching is teaching me about learning.In a lot of my early education, when I’ve been praised for being a Smart Girl, it’s been framed as if I had a special gift of knowledge. Innate. Natural. What I appreciate about the terror of teaching is that it dispels all of that. It gives me the gift of learning how to break down what I know and share it. Very intentionally. It requires me to not believe that knowledge, and by extension, intelligence, is innate. Instead, I am forced to learn all the different ways that learning can happen. I was not able to learn these as a Smart Girl, because I was not always taught to think about the process of learning.

Teaching means a commitment to finding new ways to reach each student where they’re at, in a room of very different people. Teaching is the possibility of saying “I don’t know” and owning that lack as much as you own the things you do know. My philosophy on teaching means letting go of the sense of legitimacy based on expertise. It involves breaking down the dynamics which lead so many of us to think we cannot be academic(s) because we have been led to believe that it’s either you got it or you don’t. It requires holding the terror of not knowing in institutions that purport to be founded on knowledge.

I hope to remember the lessons terror teaches the PhD gets tough.

Till next time 🙂

 

It’s hard I suppose, when your job is associated to a certain idea of knowledge, to admit that you don’t know things. I think this is why some academics, especially those who build careers studying marginalized people, have a tense time when the marginalized people they study enter the classroom and start disagreeing with them. What must happen if your understanding of your role as a lecturer does not permit you to be wrong about what you know? Eh. The Fallist generation has been through some things.
cork noticeboard

Noticeboard #2

Here’s some stuff I thought you might like:

It’s 2019. Years after the FeesMustFall movement emerged,  we still have fees-related protests unfolding on South African campuses. It feels like little has changed since 2015 and Naledi Mashishi says students were duped.

Disabling Normativities: The Wits Centre for Diversity Studies is hosting a conference in October, inspired by insights from Critical Disability Studies. To learn more about the conference and/or submit an abstract, click here.

In their premiere episode, Black Girl Chats break down the issue of language and social narratives around rape culture. Check it out & subscribe to their page for more stimulating content:

 

 

So, I’m a PhD student. How did that happen?

It’s early February 2019 and I’m starting my PhD in African Literature at Wits University. Even typing that, it feels unreal because I never really imagined that this is where I would be. It comes with a sense of ambivalence, because it feels like one part ending-up, and one part deliberate beginning .

When I started my university journey, all I wanted was to, one day, be the editor of Seventeen Magazine. I spent spurts of 2012 writing for the magazine’s First-Year Five blog. I daydreamed about becoming my own version of Janine Jellars and Khwezi Magwaza. It was a perfect dream, jarringly interrupted when the magazine was discontinued in 2013. I understand why it happened the way it did, because as journalism students, we were told early on that print journalism was dying. So I understand, but I’m still lowkey grieving that dream. The website doesn’t even exist anymore 😭😭😭

That’s not the whole story of how I ended up here though; it’s just an important footnote. I went to university to become a journalist, and I took Political Studies as a module because I figured, if I was going to be a journalist, I would have to know stuff like that. My first term of Political Studies at Rhodes University was a bit rough. More than a just bit rough, actually – I was confused AF! It felt like there was a bridging course I missed, because I genuinely didn’t understand what was happening in class. People would nod when the lecturer asked “Are you with me?”, while I just looked on wondering how. A week into it, I was about to drop the subject altogether, when my godsend of a tutor helped me fill in the blanks. I absorbed what I could from that moment on.

In the second term, a new lecturer used simpler language, and I was so grateful. I fell in love, yo 😍 We learned that world was built on all of these invisible foundations and layer by layer, we got to unpeel them. Liberalism, Patriarchy. Capitalism. All of. It was all so exciting. It made so much sense. Things weren’t just the way they were: power dynamics were everywhere, shaping everything in the air. With this as my foundation, I began seeking explanations for everything that happened, and that form of curiosity is how I got here.

That was seven years ago. Since then – yhu! – my curiosity has been through it all. It has persevered through academic jargon, brought life to some very boring assignments, and survived several states of emergency.  It has sought different places of residence – Politics, Sociology and Psychology to name a few – and declares all of them home. The older it gets, the less it likes rules. It embraces difficult. Renewal is its second nature.

I love having curiosity as my companion. Instead of finding answers, it sends me on the hunt for new questions. So I’m excited for a future of figuring stuff out. Figuring out what needs to be figured out. Figuring out the stuff I figured out was wrong. Then figuring more stuff out. It’s like a puzzle where the pieces make different pictures as you go along, so you never actually finish. I hope curiosity is still with me when I get to the other side 🙌🏿

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Noticeboard #1

Here’s some cool stuff I thought you might like:

Zoe Samudzi writes about why Black women in academia are tired: Better Sleep Habits Won’t Save Me From the Exhaustion of Academia

The African Feminisms Conference Website: It’s got videos of all the keynote speeches, all the presentations, as well as info about the 2019 conference.

Milisuthando Bongela explains why the #FeesMustFall anthem is a historic modern spiritual.

Here’s one of my favourite renditions: