There was a social media storm recently after a Rhodes University lecturer used isiXhosa in a history class – and then told unhappy students it was their duty to learn the local language. A version of this event posted on Facebook prompted many discussions on issues of language, privilege and power. After two weeks of debate, the lecturer, Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize, explains the reasoning behind her assertion.

 

With almost 10 years’ experience in teaching and education activism behind me, having taught hundreds of students each year, one of the things that remains a mainstay of my career is that delicate combination of teaching through nurturing and through disruption.

Most undergraduates who arrive at university have had much school experience of nurturing, and very little experience of disruptive pedagogy. Lecturers are aware of this. We expect that much will be awkward in the first few weeks of university, and we delight in provoking and challenging students. It produces independent and critical minds.

Disruptive pedagogy is always context-specific – what one does at Rhodes will not be the same as what one does at Stellenbosch or Tukkies or Turfloop or the University of the Western Cape. Each of these institutions has a dominant culture based on their own histories and traditions of scholarship. What one does at Rhodes may not apply to another university. Certainly one cannot equate the use of a Sintu indigenous language in an African history course with the stubborn institutional use of Afrikaans at universities that once devoted themselves entirely to Verwoedianism.

It is a given in most humanities courses that lecturers will invoke other languages. The basis of our entire humanities tradition is in the study of language and literature. It is not unusual for lecturers to go off in a bit of Latin, Greek, French or German. Mostly, we launch into other languages with a hint of mischievousness, to shake undergraduates up a bit, to make them squirm a little so that after the lecture they head for the library or to the nearest third year student to find out how much they need to do, what they need to know. This is how independent learning is provoked. It signals to students, especially first years, that there’s a whole lot more than a textbook and an exam to university learning.

During one such episode, the students experienced what amounted to no more than five minutes of code-switching between isiXhosa phrases and English translations in a 45-minute lecture. Code-switching is a common practice in South Africa, although it seems unnecessary to have to make such a banal statement. Given our history, code-switching is used a method of social inclusion, not exclusion.

The topic under discussion, in English, was the question of evidence in the 1996 case of “a ‘sangoma’ who claimed that his dreams had pointed to him to where the skull of the murdered King Hintsa lay in the United Kingdom”. It is apparent to any African language speaker that the word ‘sangoma’ is inadequate once used in English. This is why I then code-switch into isiXhosa. I might say “eli gqirha lathi ithonga lakhe lam’bonisa indawo apho intloko kaKumkani uHintsa ilele khona”. I might continue to code-switch in English and isiXhosa – “Many black people in the Eastern Cape supported and agreed with him saying kuba kaloku thina maXhosa siyathonga” – and then code-switch back to English to translate –“because we Xhosas dream”. And so this little segment went for a few minutes.

This was perfectly relevant as we were studying theories and approaches to history. By introducing the isiXhosa, part of the mischief was to show the students what can happen when the historian needs translation. Not being a first-language isiXhosa speaker myself, the aim was to make the students aware of how tricky itias to write history when one has no sense or feel for a language.

I was in the middle of this (brief) code-switching class when I suddenly launched into a stern denunciation of “monolingualism”, and proclaimed the need for a new generation of African historians to come to grips with African languages. The reason it seemed sudden was because of the strange set-up of the lecture theatre. The lecturer has the advantage of being able to see and hear and lot more from the front (including not-so-hushed grumbles). Students, on the other hand, see less, because they are looking down at the backs of one another’s heads. Based on what I was hearing and seeing from the front, I responded in the manner I did.

Perhaps the students ought to use this as an exercise in and of itself about perspective, reality, ‘truth’, about how a story gets told, how institutional context shapes a story, whose reactions ‘create’ the story, how storytelling unfolds, how different experiences result in different narratives. The teacher in me can’t help but see it as a teachable moment.

One of the aims when I code-switch is to give students a direct sense that to produce good history takes effort, work, humility. Producing scholarship, engaging with it, is as much cerebral as it is a strenuous physical experience of grappling with languages one does not speak, and of course, with the people who speak those languages when they tell you their story.

In a country as torn apart by history, writing history takes knowing that you, your feelings, your discomfort, your personal world, is not the concern. You need to sometimes live with the uneasiness of being insignificant.

There are also deep implications for scholarship. As writer Amina Mama points out, the English word “identity” has no equivalent in many Sintu languages. What are the philosophical implications of this? In the 1970s, in his classic critique of the discipline of anthropology, the late Archie Mafeje pointed out that the word “tribe” does not exist in Sintu languages as it does in English. This was the same brilliant Mafeje the University of Cape Town refused to appoint in 1968.

Most students arrive at university with no idea of what has gone before them or what debates and developments are happening among scholars. They arrive believing knowledge is something stable and cohesive, which their lecturer will lovingly and passionately transmit. Within the first week, most of them will have this view of knowledge undone and disrupted. They will realise by the end of the first term that, in fact, there is major contestation, the space is robust, and they are being trained through all kinds of methods to engage, including through the supportive tutorial system.

So far, the majority of first-year History students seem to have taken up the broad intellectual challenge the department sets for them to become.

Where exchange students are concerned, most South African students will be shocked to discover that it is the foreign students who make the effort to sign up to learn indigenous Sintu languages when they travel to Africa. It is considered normal to want to study the local language wherever you study. It will also surprise South African students that they do not know much African history, because our schooling system gives them very little exposure, but this is not a disadvantage at Rhodes University because the university knows the limits of South African schooling, so we give them a basic survey of African history when they arrive.

It being the era of social media, the isiXhosa discussion has gone beyond the boundaries of the university. This is beyond my control. I have opted to not to engage deeply with the social media response because it has become Baudrillardian spectacle where there is no distinction between what happened, the students’ reactions to what happened, and the mediated discussion of what happened.

I am proud, though, to be in the only Rhodes humanities department where every lecturer has a PhD, a department that has the most diverse composition of staff, and where every lecturer is recognised or is gaining recognition for initiating new questions in humanities studies. Our major concern is to produce students who learn to advance knowledge and think out of the box.

Main Photograph: Free to use image from Flickr

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10 Responses to “On Language & Disruptive Pedagogy”

  1. Sethu
    March 4, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    Excellent piece.

    One would assume that once someone enters
    an institution of learning they would have
    orientated themselves to learning with all that
    it encompasses. Unfortunately in South Africa
    the resistance is, as you infer, also historically
    and politically mounted and socially accepted.

    During my time lecturing a transdisciplinary
    first year course at Fort Hare’s East London
    campus, I remember the director of the
    institute responsible for the implementation
    of the course telling us about how parents
    would come to his office to complain about
    the curriculum being too ‘politicised’, one
    parent even alleged we made her daughter
    sing struggle songs. It was frustrating to think
    that at a university whose entire history was
    sculpted on particular experiences was expected to negate those within the teaching and learning space. Plasting them for marketing was however promoted.

    It made me realise how the education realm is
    a highly culturally competitive one and that
    those most aware of this in this country are
    the minorities.

    I’ll leave with a question, what is an Afrikan
    university?

  2. Mayor Mfengu
    March 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Suitably engaging write-up … In the still-contested terrain that is South Africa and her institutions nodal!

    One was so clueless when he first set foot in a (science) lecture hall in Mthatha all those moons ago – the critical mindset and independent thinking part did come (and is still coming) decades later.

    Coming from eCala in the Eastern Cape and knowing that the author (Dr. N.M. Mkhize) did land agrarian studies at UCT’s Humanities faculty is heartening (if you can make the connection)!

  3. Pam Sykes
    March 5, 2015 at 4:38 am #

    How wise and sensible. I hope for my children to experience many such disruptions in their education.

  4. Philippa
    March 5, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you for this. I am a lecturer at UJ and know that coddling and pandering to students does them no favours. This is such an important issue in our land and time and you have addressed it beautifully. Thank you again.

  5. Tebogo Mogorosi
    March 5, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    Hello Dr Mkhize

    Upon learning of the incident, I am not going to lie, I was shocked. Not by the fact that you used IsiXhosa in the lecture hall, but by what was reported as your response. My reasons for this were based on the idea that Black South Africans have been in a system that criminalises African languages, and we would have decried the incident were it in the name of either English or Afrikaans. My question was around the consistency surrounding applauding your actions when we would have probably chastised you for English or Afrikaans. I found out about this on social media and somewhat triggered a debate there. It went into depth on a couple of issues, including how African languages have suffered as a result of colonialism and why it is important to allow them to breathe just as much as English, say, does in both academic and social spaces. It was incredibly enlightening for me and though you chose to stay away because social media can oftentimes be bereft of context, I want to thank you for it because it enlightened me further. So thank you very much.

    PS: I am a 24 year old student doing 2nd year BSc Computer Science and Economics at NWU in Potchefstroom.

  6. Morena Thabo
    March 6, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

    Like so many intellectuals, Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize lives in a world apart from ordinary mortals.

    Hence expressions such as “code-switch” instead of “changing languages”.

    If she really wants one of the tribal languages of present day South Africa to be used in her lectures – both orally and on paper – instead of English, then allow all of them, and Afrikaans.

    And let her explain what happens when one student does not understand another student – or herself.

    Language is primarily about communication, not retaining cultural divides.

    Universities are a concept wholly alien to tribal Africa. She needs to go one way or the other.

  7. Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize
    Nomalanga
    March 7, 2015 at 5:16 am #

    Dear Morena Thabo

    Firstly, like so many abusers of the word “intellectual”, you ascribe to me behaviours and characteristics that are wholly in your imagination.

    Might I assume that after this you’ll be telling anatomists to stop calling it the “humerus” when its just an “arm bone”?

    Secondly, to refer to African languages as “tribal” languages gives your game away- the implications of your input here is that African languages are “culturalist” tools rather than linguistic tools. English and Afrikaans, however, are simply universal tools of expression with no culturalist attachments. Are you for real?

    You consider African languages “inferior” for the purposes of university learning. It is you, not me, who reads “culture” into these languages you call “tribal”. I use them as communication devices. But naturally, you must ascribe some “tribal” notion because I am a Black scholar.

    Which leads me to the third point. By degrading these languages into the realm of “tribalism”, which is in your head and not mine, you make assumptions about what happens when Historians teach, write and research. There is scarcely a Historian on this planet who does not delve into other languages. The western tradition of scholarship actually places huge emphasis on the need for Historians to master languages if they are to write decent histories. This is why classicists learn Greek, Latin, Ancient Persian or whichever language of the people of the antiquities they are studying. The whole tradition of western theology depends on arguments about the original Hebrew and Greek versions of scriptures.

    Following in that tradition then, is a century old practice for African historians and anthropologists to study the languages of the people they are studying.

    What I did is nothing *new*, it is the scholarly norm. Perhaps expose yourself to great historians such as John Wright who recently published a dual language history of uKhahlamba http://www.witness.co.za/index.php?showcontent&global_id=99271

    Also do yourself a favour and search for John Wright’s podcast interview on Power FM where he was talking about Shaka and hear how much isiZulu terminology the man uses.

    And lastly, you assume I do not use other languages. By the time the students finish with 3rd year history, they will have heard everything from Shona to Hindi to German to French.

    In high school I had to study French and Zulu. At university I CHOSE to study German (non-mother tongue) and Afrikaans literature (mother tongue). In my short stint in Latin America I had to quickly pick up some Spanish. Here in South Africa, I grew up in a household where there were four languages spoke.

    Ultimately all I can read into your assumptions is that Black scholars who invoke ‘Black languages’ are shallow, unlearned, tribalist individuals who don’t know what they are doing.

    Well let me tell you something, the decision to pursue and finish a PhD comes with a deep devotion to the knowledge project.

    wemame.

    • Morena Thabo
      March 8, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Thank you for your reply.

      “Secondly, to refer to African languages as “tribal” languages gives your game away- the implications of your input here is that African languages are “culturalist” tools rather than linguistic tools. English and Afrikaans, however, are simply universal tools of expression with no culturalist attachments. Are you for real?”

      I have no game. Of course African tribal languages are cultural tools. All languages are cultural tools, otherwise there would not be words that are hard or impossible to translate from one to another.

      I really do wonder how much you have travelled and worked and lived outside South Africa to say “English and Afrikaans, however, are simply universal tools of expression with no culturalist attachments.”

      The English of the UK is not the English of Eire, of Australia, of New Zealand, of Canada, of India, of the USA, of South Africa. And the differences are cultural ones. As for Afrikaans being a “universal tool of expression”, are you really not aware that the only places it is used are South Africa and surrounding countries? And it is certainly has cultural attachments – they go right back to the Voortrekkers.

      Yes, I am for real.

      You said “You consider African languages “inferior” for the purposes of university learning.”

      The only reason that I do consider African languages inferior ( without the quotes) for university learning is because they lack so much of today’s vocabulary. That is why one so often hears English words being dropped into tribal sentences.

      Of the several internationally used languages around the world, in business and in teaching, English is one of the most common. Why introduce others? And, as I said, at what expense to the South African taxpayer?

      You said, “It is you, not me, who reads “culture” into these languages you call “tribal”. But it is you who wants to us at least one tribal word because of its cultural meaning. Because of what it means to that tribe.

      You said, “But naturally, you must ascribe some “tribal” notion because I am a Black scholar.”

      There is nothing “natural” about my mention of tribal because you say you are “a Black scholar”. I say just the same things about the absurdity of teaching Gaelic in Scottish state schools, again at taxpayers’ expense.

      As for “By degrading these languages into the realm of “tribalism”, which is in your head and not mine,” that “degrading” is in your head.

      I see nothing degrading in tribal languages. But I do see a lack of utility in water muddying.

      You do yourself a disservice by saying “Ultimately all I can read into your assumptions is that Black scholars who invoke ‘Black languages’ are shallow, unlearned, tribalist individuals who don’t know what they are doing.”

      Of course a historian refers to all sorts of languages, but he or she teaches in the host language of his or her own country. Do you suggest that there should be text books up to university level in all the tribal languages of South Africa? At what cost?

      You said, “Perhaps expose yourself to great historians such as John Wright who recently published a dual language history of uKhahlamba.”

      I could not find the book. Who publishes it? At what price?

      As for “And lastly, you assume I do not use other languages”, I speak and write French. Also some German, and bits of Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Arabic and Sesotho.

      I am still at a loss as to what is “Disruptive pedagogy”. But then, I left school without going beyond ordinary exam levels. My headmaster did not think I had the intellectual ability to go further, certainly not to university.

  8. Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize
    Nomalanga
    March 9, 2015 at 12:30 am #

    Dear Morena Thabo

    I think you missed the sarcasm in the comment about English and Afrikaans.

    On everything else I think you are arguing with assumptions that exist in your head which have no connection to the purpose of university teaching.

    • Morena Thabo
      March 9, 2015 at 10:35 am #

      Lumela Nomalanga,

      If the reader misses the “sarcasm” in what a writer writes, then what was written might need rewriting.

      ” English and Afrikaans, however, are simply universal tools of expression with no culturalist attachments ” is a simple statement, about two quite differently used languages, one close to universal (and used worldwide in universities), the other a minority “tribal” language spoken by the descendants of an off-shoot of the Dutch.

      The sentence “On everything else I think you are arguing with assumptions that exist in your head which have no connection to the purpose of university teaching” has gone into my collection of quotations.

      Have you viewed “Argument Clinic – Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on You Tube?

      Sala hantle