The UKZN Griot. Of Externalling and Surviving
The stories I could tell! The stories I could sell. Here are a few.
African universities take exams very seriously. Woe betide students who can’t spell or write good grammatical English or who write messily. Exams are assessed as much on form as they are on content.
African universities invest very heavily in external examiners. International examiners are often flown into the places where the campuses are located. On entering the hotel rooms one is faced with scripts stacked from floor to ceiling, the assessment of which would consume a week of poorly paid utter torture in badly lit and seriously uncomfortable surroundings, often being buzzed by malaria carrying mosquitoes. I won’t even discuss the food at the dodgier hotels, though when at a Swazi Southern Sun, the chefs know when underpaid academics have arrived, as they tend to spirit both lunch and supper in vast quantities from the breakfast room.
One year the University of Swaziland spread its many examiners across a number of hotels. To my relief, I was allocated to the Mountain Inn, a delightful garden venue with good food and a good view. At the end of the week we were all rounded up and taken to the bank to get paid, where we compared accommodations and argued with bank officials whose stock response was that they didn’t have sufficient cash reserves to pay anyone. But always, after some phone calls to the examination officer, the cash miraculously arrived, though in Ethiopia the Reserve Bank once claimed that its vault was empty, could I return the following day? One group in Swaziland had been once put up at the roadside Happy Valley Motel, where the eating place was across the parking lot from the rooms. Outside the rooms the prostitutes hovered, day and night, pouncing on the male examiners whenever they left their rooms. That hotel was subsequently taken off the list of approved establishments.
In Maseno and Eldoret in Kenya, I was placed in great hotels well past their respective primes. The Sunset on Lake Victoria had to carry hot water for my baths up eight flights of stairs, and had but one working telephone in the manager’s office. The decaying hotel in Eldoret failed to live up to its once architectural splendour in that it had also seen better days, though after a few bottles of Tusker beer, things looked better.
I was fascinated with the way one of my PhD students, a Lecturer at Moi, had incorporated much of what he had learned at UKZN into his department’s curriculum. This quantitative scholar had also become a critical theorist – a fusion that is rare in cultural studies. In the streets, everyone reads newspapers that can be hired from Eldoret street vendors, and traffic pays no attention at all to ‘keep left’. Even the jobless in Kenya keep themselves informed.
In Zambia I once shared university residential quarters with David McQuoid Mason, while some members of the Zambian soccer team got up to all kinds of hijinks more suitable for a Happy Valley kind of venue.
In all cases, I was astounded at the industriousness of the lecturers and students: designing lighting grids for non-existent studios, writing scripts for films for which they had no equipment to make, and actively doing development communication in their own communities. At Addis Ababa University MA journalism students – drawn from the profession - delivered top class treatises that applied statistics to the third decimal point, while forging Ethiopian communication studies. Their critiques of Ethiopian politics were uncompromising and challenging as they were original – notwithstanding the context in which they were both working and studying.
Once engaged in the daunting task of external examining in these countries, I began to actually enjoy the work, though for much of the time one is on auto-pilot as one waded through thousands of scripts. By being taken-to the scripts rather than the scripts being sent to examiners, one is isolated from endless distractions caused by deans, auditors, students, cell phones, TV and family, student protests, burning tires and campus closures. It’s a liminal and peaceful existence requiring that the job be done in the time allocated.
In contrasting this African experience with my PhD externalling for European universities, and their externalling for us, one realises the stark differences between North and South. Where African universities encourage in-depth, almost scopic, research, Anglo-Saxon universities prefer lucid brevity. Northern academics often complain about the length of theses from Africa, even though paid in dollars, whereas the locals just get peanuts, while we are engaged in bartering arrangements: ‘I’ll external your students if you do mine’. Otherwise nothing would get done.
Also, as an examiner I have noted that the European oral/viva – what they call a ‘defence’ - is basically ritualistic. Once, when I had just gotten into my stride, in came a trumpeter wearing a medieval costume trumpeting his ancient horn. I was cut off mid-sentence, and everyone was vigorously marched out of the venue to drinks. Sometimes the defences can become a battle of wits, but the student will have been passed already, irrespective of the technical corrections that should have been done or the critique unanswered at the oral presentation. The thesis, published a book – whether corrected or not - is in some cases already ready for distributed at the ritualised defence.
Where in Europe the PhD student is treated as a person – despite whatever flaws of the assessment process – in South Africa the student is present only in the text/thesis and the examiners are usually unknown to the author. It’s a socially alienating process conducted by administrators and couriers. In Europe, students sometimes get to choose their examiners, whereas in South Africa the process is usually anonymised under a cloud of confidentiality and fear of legal action. I do tell the European (and Australian) students who have nominated me as examiner that I am a tough nut and that they should be prepared for a conceptually rough ride. And, happily, they do rise to the occasion. We all learn in the process.
We need to rise more to the occasion here. The African emphasis on form (i.e. spelling, grammar, structure) would go well with the UKZN emphasis on argument, wrapped up in a more humanistic process.
- Keyan G Tomaselli is a UKZN Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg. Sometimes he is neither here nor there.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.