Would you Facebook friend your students?

It happens every semester: there’s always one lone student who decides we’re tight enough for him/her to call me “Gabs”. I never know where it comes from since one of my largest social fears is contracting someone’s name too soon. This probably stems from the time, in std 6, when I called a popular girl by her nickname and the netball court came to a standstill as jaws dropped dumbfoundedly. This is not a mistake I am keen to remake, so I am always extra careful in this regard.

I try very hard to maintain a healthy balance between connecting personally with my students in a way that creates a safe space for learning and not over-sharing in a personal way. Sometimes I’ll mention anecdotes in class as a way to show connection between what they’re learning and how these skills are applied in real life. For example, when I’m teaching academic writing, I often draw on my own experiences as a PhD student. 

However, I find it’s easy for boundaries to get blurred when it comes to social media. The religion of networking is one that we in contemporary professional communications preach, but I always feel conflicted when my students friend request me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and ask to connect on LinkedIn. These extra-classroom sites are increasingly spaces of very real connection, but by engaging with them, am I busting the borders that keep a relationship professional?

I read THIS story about a substitute teacher who was forced to quit her job because she wouldn’t unfriend her students from Facebook. But on the very odd occasion that I do a student Facebook stalk, I feel kind of dirty; I can’t un-see the drunken Tiger Tiger pics and it feels like something pure has been sullied. 

Perhaps there’s a market for an academic social media site? With a nod to scholarship, we can call it Bookbook, and it can connect students and lecturers on the basis of taking the same books out of the library and whether our marking is tackled as last minute as their essay writing. Instead of the Facebook thumbs up, we can institute a tick mark. We could even set up a lecturer/student selfie booth in front of Jammie Hall with a direct connection. What about it, Mark Zuckerberg? 

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Dear future readers of my academic writing

Dear student of 2033,

How are you?  I hope that wherever you are in the world, they’ve cured AIDS, the Middle East is peaceful,  and they’ve finally invented those hoverboards from Back To The Future 2.

I’m writing because by now you probably know me as a groundbreaking thinker in the field of Higher Education Studies but today, 17 March 2014, I am but a lowly PhD student trying to chart my course through the choppy sea of academic research.

I am writing to you to promise that no matter how smart I get, no matter the brilliant knowledge I create, no matter whether I’m a Master or a Doctor or a Professor, I will always write in way that you can understand. I will not subject you to the experience I had this morning, of opening a key text and, on the first few pages, encountering the following words:

predicates… reification… ineradicable… adduced… vexacious… subsumption…unreduced… heuristic… verifactory… incommensurability… hors textuelle…multifarious…corrigibly

Please know, dear student, that I am no dummy. The librarian in primary school thought I was a child genius because I read all the Dr Doolittle books in grade 2. I can “big word” it up with the best of them and I will, eventually, conquer the words above.

But know too that my many years of studying and teaching have taught me that the finest wordsmiths are those who can say what they need to say clearly and simply. They’re the ones who really impress me, making concepts come alive and helping me access new worlds of knowledge.

So before I let you return to your 3D hyper-virtual classroom (and I return to a world where it’s still possible to lose an aeroplane) let me once again pledge to keep my academic writing crisp and clear for the sake of you, my future reader.

Greetings and salutations,


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What’s in a (lecturer’s) name? Awakening to cultural awareness in the classroom.

I was thrilled to be asked to chair a session at HAICU’s (UCT’s HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit, if you didn’t know) colloquium  on Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma and Higher Education last week. I  felt like the programme had been planned especially for me since it focussed on issues that occupy my mind a lot and spoke to my identities as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, a post-Apartheid South African and a higher education scholar. You can find out more about the colloquium here

During the day we were exposed to stories about the Nazi Holocaust, about the legacy of trauma and eventual forgiveness. We heard about how Rwandans grappled to come to terms with the 1994 genocide and about apartheid’s effect on the South Africa of today. My take-home from the day was that all South Africans – whether perpetrators, victims or bystanders of/to apartheid – are still trying to find ways to manage the trauma of that time, and that dialogue is such an important part of this process. 

I had an opportunity to reflect on this in class last week.  I always encourage my students to call my “Gabi”. In part, I think this was inspired by my father who, even when he was Dean of a university faculty, insisted that his students call him by his first name. I see it as a way to get the students to relate to me less as a teacher and more as a facilitator – a co-creator of learning in the classroom. 

However, in one of my classes I have a black student who insists on calling me “ma’am”. This makes me feel old, like when little Afrikaans kids call me “tannie” (auntie in Afrikaans), so I’ve tried to push him to call me by my name. However, on Thursday, he explained to me that he comes from a culture that places a lot of respect on elders and that he’d feel uncomfortable calling me “Gabi”.

I was glad he’d been brave enough to explain this to me because it reinforced what I’d learnt at the colloquium. In a country as diverse as South Africa we need to listen to each other and consider different experiences and cultures in the way we relate to one another. I’ll definitely get off this guy’s case from now on, although I’m still not sure I can stomach being a “tannie” quite yet. 

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Loaded guns and hidden plug points: my 2014 teaching year kicks off

The 2014 academic year got off to a flying start at the University of Cape Town this week, with the same dire lack of parking and soul-destroying registration queues that UCT students and academics have come to know so well.

I taught my first Professional Communications lecture on Tuesday morning and had to have a giggle about the mixed bag of teaching venues. It’s really luck of the draw. One semester you’re teaching in a high-tech superspace, with control panels and light dimmers, surround sound options and bluetooth link-up. And the next you’re in a tiny room down the hall behind the door and under the stairs, where you need the students’ help to hunt down the plug point (which turns out to be at the furthest point possible from the data projector) and the chalk board keeps shooting up to the ceiling whenever you try to write on it.

Chalk board adventures aside, it was great to be back in the classroom and, for the millionth time, get inspired by these sparky students who have an answer for everything and challenge me with their unique perspectives. Teaching is the funnest thing I do, so it was a sobering reminder when I came across this quote by Gee in Social Linguistics and Learning: Ideology in Discourses (2008: 64):

A text, whether written on paper, or on the soul (Plato), or on the world (Freire), is a loaded weapon. The person, the educator, who hands over the gun hands over the bullets (the perspective) and must own up to the consequences.

Gee reminded me that none of the professional communication skills we teach are neutral. For example, even the fact that we’re prepping students to communicate in English in the workplace carries within it echoes of SA’s colonialist and apartheid legacy and a nod to globalisation.

So this year, my first goal as an educator is to be conscious of the consequences of what I say and do in the classroom. I’ll keep reflecting on the ideological undercurrents of what I teach and ensure that, in Gee’s terms, I own up to the consequences of these.

My second goal is to arrive early enough at campus to find a parking somewhere that ISN’T Rhodes Memorial.

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My PhD in White Puffy Dresses and Bouquet Arrangements

I wonder whether any of my readers have ever suffered from split-academic/bride personality disorder, or whether this brand of crazy is 100% Gabi? It’s all-encompassing doing a PhD and it’s all-encompassing planning a wedding, and now that I’m doing the two at the same time, it’s making me a little loopy.

I lie in bed at night and my brain jumps between discourse and banquet courses, Bhaskar and bridesmaids, thesis proposals and proposing toasts, methodological maps and seating plans,  registries and realism. I picture crazy connections being made between the bride and student sides of my brain, thoughts zipping back and forth as my stream of consciousness whips me on a journey from my booth in the library to the beflowered Chuppah and back again. 

Perhaps I should mix it up a bit: instead of a speech thanking my new husband on the big night, I’ll take the opportunity to thank Joseph A. Maxwell for writing his very clear and concise book about critical realism. I can conduct semi-structured in-depth interviews with my guests in the build-up to the wedding to obtain their perspectives on marriage as a social construction. I could even ask our Rabbi for ethical clearance and triangulate any findings with my mother AND my new mother-in-law to ensure that the process is transparent.

In a couple of months I’ll be a married woman with my nose buried deep in my books. Until then, I remain a slightly scatty bride-on-a-mission: to grab a chapter of Maxwell’s book in between dress fittings, site visits and florist meetings, thereby keeping the PhD clock ticking (quietly) on in the background.


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A shout out to the dreamers! (Yo yo yo!)

I read an article yesterday called “Getting to the Bottom of the Well: The Value of Qualitative Research into Teaching and Learning”. (You can access it HERE.) I thought this was aptly named since often, when I’m working on my research, I feel as if I’m stuck in the bottom of a deep, dark well.

But this, unsurprisingly, isn’t what the author is writing about. It’s actually about qualitative and quantitative research and how they need not be seen as contrasting opposites. She writes about the affinities between the two, and as I am a formerly tie-dye wearing BA student, one of her points really interested me:

“… science is indebted to the philosophical critique of theocracy for its repudiation of a settled God given world for a universe of puzzles to be solved through human inquiry.” (Cousin, 2013: 131)

Isn’t that cool? As I understand it, it means that that some crazy thinking on the part of philosophers laid the foundation all the scientific discoveries that have followed. Reconceptualising the nature of the universe created spaces for the most amazing discoveries about nature and science and bird migration, and desalination, and gravity, and so on.

I like this idea so much because it gives a big up to the dreamers who, in all their tie-dye splendour, dare to think of the world in a different way. They may not be scientists in labs with clipboards, but their ideas can fundamentally reshape the way we think about the world. That’s pretty sexy, me’thinks. 

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Do the ends justify the means? Study and my six-pack

I’m feeling very self-righteous today because I did morning gym. I rode that bike and trod that treadmill and ellipticaled on the elliptical machine and you should know that right now, I’m pretty much better then everyone else.

The reason I’m so chuffed is because morning gym (not to mention afternoon and evening gym) is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m more of a sitter then a sweater. In fact, when a friend at a party asked what kind of animal I’d be I said a cow, because I appreciate the time they spend standing still and chewing the cud. That’s sort of my default too (not the cud part).

Now, I’m not the type that goes to gym for the crazy endorphin rush or because it makes me feel amazing. Running exacerbates my asthma and the gym is stinky. So, I often wonder whether I’d still bother going if I was as toned and glowing as the girls on the cover of Women’s Health.

I just read an article which said that the link between higher education qualifications and success in the labour market is a bit of a myth; these days, just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you’ll land your dream job. So this got me thinking:

If you could have walked into your current position without a tertiary qualification, would you have skipped your studies completely?

Just imagine that. No assignments, no tests, no three-hour exams, no signing the green sheet to go pee, no DPR, no referencing, no sucking up to lecturers, no due-dates, no mandatory attendance… If these things aren’t going to help you move forward in your careers, what’s the point of them at all?

Y’all know I’m a big romantic, and I love study for the sake of it, so I wouldn’t have missed out on my undergrad for anything. But does higher education have value if it’s not helping us survive and thrive in the labour market?

And, perhaps more pressingly, how many more gym sessions till my six-pack starts to show?

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