“To be a scholar is an act of freedom. There is no other job like that. Research the knowledge of your dreams. You have an impact on your own growth as you choose your path.”
This was the salient, inspirational advice by Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa to early career academics at a recent Learning and Teaching hybrid session at the institution.
Some 50 emerging academics in the University’s Early Career Academics Advancement Programme (ECAAP) attended the session at the Business School and online in April.
ECAAP is a professional progression programme aimed at growing and capacitating the next generation of academics.
Executive Dean: Learning and Teaching Dr Phumeza Kota-Nyati, DVC Engagement and Transformation Prof Andre Keet, and Director: Research Development Dr Priscilla Mensah (on behalf of the DVC Research and Innovation Dr Thandi Mgwebi), formed the panel together with Prof Muthwa.
Teaching Development Director and co-coordinator of ECAAP, Dr Noluthando Toni, was the facilitator. Ms Eunice Champion co-coordinates the programme with Dr Toni.
Prof Muthwa invited emerging academics to take advantage of the support systems that the university offers, such as those by Learning and Teaching. She also encouraged the audience to create their own informal spaces to create relationships.
She welcomed inputs as leadership needed to be informed with “fresh ideas about what makes the University great” but equally, to point out its blind spots.
The young academics welcomed the opportunity to engage with the University leadership and aired both the strengths and challenges and frustrations.
Small city university
The issue of Mandela Uni residing in a “small city” as a possible frustration to career advancement was shared. The argument was opposed, since many highly successful universities are not necessarily situated in big cities.
According to Prof Muthwa the academy should not depend on its location, but rather on the bigger call to the advancement of social justice and the contribution it should make.
It was agreed that the next generation should leave the university in a better place, contributing to humanity.
“Academics should spread their wings and return with more experience” and that they should view themselves as “valuable assets” to the University and ask, “what can we bring to the table?”.
Effect of the pandemic
Another talking point revolved around the impact of the pandemic, as both a challenge and opportunity. The situation called for academics to be innovative and creative, and to find new ways of teaching and working with technology.
Chemistry and science, for example, demanded severe changes with laboratory work and staff are only now finding their feet, thinking in different ways with hybrid sessions. Changing the scholarship of science was, however, rewarding.
The pandemic saw seniority lines blur and disappear with everybody becoming experts, having to understand technology and other skills. This had positively contributed to self-actualisation.
Moodle transitioned academics to be more confident, creative with technology, recording experiments, specialised cameras moving around were “mind-blowing”. Innovation with groups was also a positive factor, one of the academics said.
A huge learning curve also had to be transitioned with many students challenged with data support and devices as well as the online experience.
Spelling and language problems were mentioned and the importance of bridging courses for technology and language issues in rigid curriculums.
In response, Dr Kota-Nyati mentioned the team of writing consultants available to work in groups to assist with assignments. Some departments, such as Economics, have also translated their coursework into isiXhosa and Afrikaans.
Learning and Teaching GetDigiReady consultants are situated in all faculties, automated electronic books are available on Moodle, as well as designers and experts to assist academics to transition to technology, also for postgraduate students.
Student funding issues and academic burnout
The contentious issue of student funding processes was raised because of the impact it had on academics who were expected to constantly bring affected students up to date. This saw academics experience burnout.
Prof Muthwa explained that there were no easy answers as the University had a social responsibility to support poor deserving students with late registration since their life pathways were at stake.
She said the answer lay in the stability of government policy to finalise funding ahead of the start of the new year.
The large teaching and marking load of young academics also needed to be researched, Prof Muthwa said.
“Looking after one’s wellbeing, which includes having good relationships and supporting one another, is important.”
The sum of everyone’s individual contributions led to benefits for the larger entity.
Support for academics
Prof Muthwa said support was the big issue and commended ECAAP for its affirming support in producing well-rounded academics.
“These conversations are a step in the right direction.”
Another point raised was to return to the institutional values including social justice. In this way the layers between emerging academics, and those higher up could become energising and a good institutional culture fostered. This could remove feelings of being threatened from all sides. And humility is in line with the humanising pedagogy underlining the academic project.
Contributing to institutional culture
Prof Keet further shared that the University space is both exciting and challenging, with career advancement and collegiality and working against a culture of competition. One must avoid the negative pitfalls. “A good university is built on good people. And you know who you don’t want to be”, he said.
Prof Muthwa agreed that institutional culture engagement should take place between all layers of academics as everyone contributes to the same goal with different strengths, weaknesses, and fears. Therefore, intergenerational conversations among layers should take place. The same is applicable to administrative staff and between them and the academics. The values and Vision 2030 should be popularised, what it means for Mandela Uni and how it comes through everyone.
Prof Keet reflected on the importance for young researchers to become involved with interdisciplinary research on global challenges in civil society. He emphasised that emerging academics had the possibility to do great work. And the University is a key space to turn their social projects into academic endeavours at our University. This is possible with the growth and leverage of experience at the University.
He also paused at the idea of the university’s place in society and its purpose to build its legitimacy, working on its role and impact to improve the human condition. “People at your level have the critical knowledge to drive the change among academics, especially the changes since 2020, he said.
Research funding opportunities
Dr Mensah mentioned various funding opportunities including available seed funding for postgraduate students, the Mandela University funded ones, internal research grants, senior post docs and access to research professional Africa. All these can be found on the Research Development website and Facebook.
We have to walk into our power and take emerging opportunities to contribute to the advancement of our continent, Prof Muthwa said.
“We are fleeting, as we lead the University, we are building for a future. Create your own ambition and rise to the best that you can be as a scholar. We must create the space and you must take the opportunities”.