If a PhD student falls in a forest…

I’m reading a book about policy analysis, which should be boring but really isn’t. I am so into it, that at times I find myself shouting “Yes!” out loud or giggling along as I it becomes clear how we human beings are so very shaped by the way official policies (particularly governmental ones) represent society. At moments like this I feel so lucky to be a PhD student, with time and space to expand my mind.

Sounds rad, right? In the midst of enthusiasm, I came across this Foucault (1988: 265) quote. It’s about a particular approach to policy analysis, which encourages us to:

… question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on  the basis of this re-problematisation… to participate in the formation of political will.”

“Eureka!”, thought I. That’s exactly what the PhD’s meant to do! How exciting… how empowering… how realistic?!

Because come on, people, realistically what are the chances of my PhD changing the world? (And you don’t have to be kind, oh loyal readers, I can handle the truth). Even if it’s super-duper good, fuelled by insights and enlightened realisations, chances are it’ll only ever be read by my supervisors, examiner(s) and, after subtle coercion, my very kind husband.

Just like the old adage of the tree falling in the empty forrest, If a PhD student writes a magnificent thesis, but there’s no one there to read it, does the knowledge really exist at all? And if the answer to this is no, then really – what’s the point of it all?

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Students say the darndest things (when they think you’re not listening)

A sunny afternoon on upper campus, UCT. On the grass outside the Arts Block, two Commerce-looking male (CLM) students are chatting about nothing in particular. They spot their equally commerce-looking friend approaching them. Right hand in a cast (RHC), he is walking with purpose in the direction of the Leslie.

CLM 1: Hey Bru!

RHC: Boet! How’s it going?

CLM 2: What happened to your hand, man?

RHC: Bru! Attendance at Ethics lectures is compulsory. I got Mike to sign the register for me and we got caught, so I’m on the way to see the lecturer. I borrowed Guy’s cast so I can say I broke my hand and that’s why I couldn’t go.

After a quick “Cheers, Bru” RHC continues on his journey. To the right, a lone eavesdropping lecturer (me, obviously) guffaws at the thought of a student lying to get out of trouble for faking attendance at an ETHICS lecture.


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My response to the proposed motion to the Rhodes University Faculty of Humanities

It has come to my attention that a motion was proposed and passed by Rhodes University’s Faculty of Humanities that calls on  all members of the Rhodes University academic community to support the position that:

“Academics holding Israeli citizenship, as well as official representatives from Israel, in advance of an invitation to visit Rhodes University, be requested to make a statement renouncing the use of lethal military force by the Israeli government against unarmed civilians in Palestine and the Occupied Territories and the forcible displacement of Palestinians from their homes.”

The statement is lengthy and can be found here. My response follows below.

5 August, 2014 To Whom It May Concern: Re: Motion to the Faculty of Humanities concerning the abuse of Human Rights in Palestine and the Occupied Territories This letter concerns the abovementioned motion, which has been adopted by the Humanities Faculty at Rhodes University. The points below outline my objection to the motion:

  • While the authors’ empathy for human suffering is laudable, at no point does the motion refer to the ongoing rocket attacks on Israel or the terrorist tunnels built by Hamas from Gaza to Israel. A university should be a space for critical engagement and debate. The one-sided narrative portrayed in the motion shuts down any space for debating the nuances in the current Middle East conflict.
  • The motion’s reference to the Constitution of South Africa and the “right to freedom of association and freedom of expression” for its citizens is antithetical to its purpose: to withdraw the freedom of Rhodes students and staff to develop their own informed responses to the current situation.
  • The notion of forcing individuals to “make a statement” regarding their views on Israel’s military actions relies on archaic witch-hunt tactics. This idea is short-sighted in several respects. Firstly, Israel is a democracy with an active civil society with wide-ranging political views. Yet, this motion flattens all distinctions by, ostensibly, making the holding of Israeli citizenship a crime to be punished by public purging. Secondly, will all Israeli citizens, including its Arab and Christian academics, be subject to this sweeping proposal, or will the university be selective in who is deemed a “potential enemy” in this regard? Finally, will similar calls be made for Chinese academics, Russian academics, Syrian academics and Iraqi academics in the light of the conflicts in these regions?
  • The authors briefly refer to the “negotiation” that led to a peaceful resolution of the South African conflict. Yet their proposition, which ostracises any academic holding an opinion contrary to their own, cuts off the chance of any real conversation happening between and across different parties in this conflict.

Its website indicates that the Faculty of Humanities at Rhodes University offers a liberal arts education and goes on to explain that:

“A liberal arts education provides students with critical reasoning skills, in particular the ability to analyse and evaluate arguments, to probe for hidden assumptions, to organise complex material in coherent ways; with an ability to understand the views of others; the ability to communicate well; a capacity to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty; and an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance”


As a student of Higher Education, I question how supporters of this motion purport to educate students to reason critically, to weigh up different arguments, to understand other views and to navigate an often ambiguous and uncertain world by defining what ideologies are allowed and demonising those who hold different opinions.

Institutions of higher education have an important part to play in society. As such, Rhodes University is uniquely placed to provide a safe space to stimulate debate around the current Middle East crisis. It can do this by providing forums for different stakeholders to share their views, by nurturing critically thinking students, and promoting tolerance and debate. The adoption by Senate of this motion would signal a dangerous turn away from academic freedom.


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Do Marks Matter?

I’ve always been a bit of an academic nerd, so marks have never been a big deal for me. The school and university system of assignments and exams worked for me, which made life pretty easy. I do, however, know that there are tons of students who find the whole system very challenging. Last year, for example, I received a distraught email from a very bright student who had tanked his exam. He’d let the stress get to him, he said.

That’s why I was fascinated to read about the book “Why A students work for C students“. In it, the author Robert Kiyosaki explains that the school system rewards kids who read well, memorise and test well. These are the kids who generally churn out the As and go on to study book-smart subjects like accountancy and law.

The C kids are often those who don’t fit this mould. They are often, however, highly creative, out-of-the-box dreamers, and it is these individuals who go on to innovate, create, and change the world around them. Thus, A students often end up working for C students.

I LOVE this idea, and I bet that in many cases it’s true. However, it doesn’t help my student who failed his exam last year. There are real repercussions for poor performance at school and university, no  matter how limited the system may be.

I came across a related idea in Stefan Collini’s (2012) book What are universities for? Here he’s discussing the idea that one of university’s roles is to enable people to develop their potential:

…  (but) what if the potential that people find they have to develop is to become unsaleable esoteric poets?

Kiyosaki says that parents shouldn’t be obsessed with their kids’ grades; they should rather help them find and follow their special gifts. But, what’s a parent to do if that gift is to be an unsaleable esoteric poet? In a world where people need to fill their cars with petrol and pay for health insurance, how idealistic is it to encourage students who may not be academically-minded to follow their (potentially unprofitable) dreams?

Since I left varsity, I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at my matric results, and job applications seldom ask for academic transcripts. So that leaves me wondering if, whether you’re an A or a C student, marks ultimately matter at all. Is it a case of “Nice work if you can get it, but if you can’t, don’t stress too much because you have other gifts”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Rating and evaluating lecturers: a perfect 10 or an outright fail?

At the end of each of our courses, students fill out evaluations about the course itself: how it fulfilled their expectations; what they found most useful; what they think needs to change; and, of course, their lecturer.

Years back, when I was still teaching middle school, I’d fantasise about what I would really like to say in a particularly painful student’s report. Instead of “Joey’s energetic nature means he can, on occasion, distract other students”, I’d imagine myself scrawling, “NOBODY LIKES YOUR SON. HE’S IRRITATING ON MULTIPLE LEVELS. (PS. HE’S NOT VERY BRIGHT. SORRY.)”

So when I hand out the course evaluations to my university students, I wonder whether they’ve spent the semester composing their evil responses in their minds. Most of the time though, it’s all good, and when students say I’m “awesome” I feel inordinately  happy, even though there’s no mention of my innovative teaching methodologies or my commitment to critical pedagogy.

Last night on Twitter, I came across THIS STORY about a Professor in the States who is suing a student for defamation after he posted about her on ratemyprofessors.com (which doesn’t operate in SA) , as well as other websites, blogs and YouTube. It made me wonder, should there be spaces online where a ranty student gets to spew bile about a lecturer anonymously? Doesn’t this place the lecturer immediately on the back foot with no recourse for self-defence?

On the other hand, I’m always bemoaning poor teaching and I can understand how powerlessness students must feel experiencing it day after day. Perhaps sites like ratemyprofessors can usher in an “Academic Spring” and an ousting of poor educators from the system. With an ever-increasing emphasis on research in universities, we need nothing short of a teaching revolution. Could online lecturer evaluations hold the key?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Five common student presentation errors

As the term comes to a frantic end, with stacks of marking and piles of paper, I get to enjoy my favourite chunk of classtime: the student presentations. I’ve blogged about this before (HERE and HERE), but I thought that today I would share some of the most common errors I see in student presentations. Who knows – you just might recognise your own presentation-self in here.


1. Reading off the screen while presenting

We require our students to present with slides (most use PowerPoint; some use Prezi). I always stress that the slides should be a backdrop to their own presentation, that if there was an ESKOM blackout and they lost all use of the computer or the data projector, they should be able to continue with their presentation with no problem. However, students often find comfort reading the notes on the screen, which decreases the connection they’re able to make and sustain with the audience.

2. Strange involuntary body movements

I will never tire of watching the strange things that otherwise normal students do when they stand up to present. Legs shake… one hand flies around… weight shifts from foot to foot… a finger points at the audience… a groin gets periodically scratched (no jokes!). We’ve started filming the students while they present and then playing the video back to them so they can see the strange things they do. They’re almost always surprised at what they see.

3. Robot voice

There’s something about giving a formal presentation that makes many a lively, engaging, funny student turn into a robot. The whole presentation gets delivered in a strange sing-song tone to the voice a’la the talking clock you get when you’re lonely and you phone 1026. I know what this is: the student has learnt the presentation off-by-heart and is reciting it to the audience. The problem is this eliminates any natural spontaneity, which an audience finds appealing and engaging. 

4. Being very, VERY serious

Yes, sometimes students present on things like illnesses, pollution or poverty, and a serious tone is justified. However, often they forget that audiences like to connect with real people, and real people exhibit a range of emotions during conversations. Often students forget to smile when they introduce themselves, or get excited when trying to get audiences to buy into their idea. This almost always affects the impact of their presentation, which can feel more didactic then is appropriate.

5. Making themselves small

I’ve been super-aware of this one since watching Amy Cuddy’s AMAZING Ted Talk (click HERE if you haven’t seen it yet) about how one’s body language shapes who you are. Some students, when they stand up to present, make themselves so tiny. Their shoulder close in, they wring their aims together, they slouch inwards. This doesn’t just create the impression of an unconfident presenters but, as Cuddy shows, feeds into feelings of powerlessness for the students themselves.


I’m passionate about helping students learn to present effectively and powerfully. I see these five errors a lot in student presentations, but I firmly believe that, in most cases, good presenters are bred not born. Seeing the students improve during our courses is proof of this.

Do you see your presenting styles in this list? Can you spot any I may have left out?


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Putting the “high” into Higher Education

As a BA graduate at a university in Cape Town, I am well-placed to know that there are many ways UCT students get high. The fresh sweep of wind as they walk down Jammie stairs… the pump of adrenalin as the short loan book they wanted is still in… meeting a last minute hand-in deadline. There’s other less legal (but equally natural) highs, but we’ll save that for someone else’s blog.

What I’m interest in is what it is that puts the “high” into Higher Education. I started think of this while reading Ronald Barnett’s (1990) book, The Idea of Higher Education. In it, he writes:

It is not “further education”: it is not simply more of what has gone before. Rather, the term is a reference to a level of individual development over and above that normally implied by the term “education”.

(1990: 6)

I thought this was such an interesting idea on two levels. Firstly, it reminded me again about the way that our use of language both reflects and shapes our practices as human beings. Gee (2008: 97) gives another educational example of this. When we say “The teacher teaches the student French”, our words imply that French is being passed down whole from the teacher to the student. As an educator, I know that this kind of one-way flow of information doesn’t result in deep learning. So even in its simplicity, this statement embodies particular notions of how teaching and learning should take place.

This leads me to the second aspect of Barnett’s idea that I find interesting. What are the values implicit in referring to after-school education as “higher”? It could be said that once you attend a higher education institution, you’re ready to move higher up the social ladder. Or maybe a higher education allows one to access texts (of all sorts) at a higher, more sophisticated level. And do you only achieve “highness” once you’ve graduated, or is the whole experience, from the very first day, a journey up an inclining hill?

Barnett argues that the thing that makes higher education “high” is the sense of criticality that should be built in to it. Students shouldn’t simply acquire particular competencies. Rather, they should be able to adopt sceptical stances in relation to the truth claims and practices they come across. Barnett explains:

Students must be encouraged to stand back, reflect deeply, consider ethical dimensions of both thought and action, to understand the place of their knowledge in higher education, to glimpse something of what it may be, to gain their own independence from all that they learn, think and do.

(1990: 78)

The challenge is how, in a skills building course like the one I teach on, where we’re teaching students how to do things the right way, to encourage them to be sceptical. They can be as critical as they like about what I teach, but if they don’t use the kind of language that I teach them in a professional report they will a) fail the assignment and b) not be adequately prepared when they go to work.

There’s tons of research about this, which leads me to a tentative theory on what is high about higher education. Maybe it’s that there’s a whole dynamic body of literature around learning and teaching, which is devoted to understanding better what happens in academic classrooms, departments, faculties and institutions. It’s not a stagnant body; it’s always growing and developing – reaching higher levels of understanding, if you will. That’s why I’m excited to be part of this field of enquiry.

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