UCT and transformation part three: the debate over what is taught

Statue of Cecil John Rhodes shortly before it was removed from UCT. Photo by Christine Ayela.
GroundUp Staff    

What should and what should not be taught at our universities? The demands of the Rhodes Must Fall students include calls for major changes to the content of courses at UCT. In the third article in our series we report on some of the debates over what students are taught.

Read part one and part two.

One of UCT’s transformation goals is to make sure that what is learnt, taught, and researched is reflective of the university’s context, and that students gain “a critical knowledge and understanding of the country’s history and the experience of its citizens.” The university states that it wants its students to “engage with debates” around the extent to which African world views and perspectives have historically been undermined. It says, “Research and teaching should give more space and acknowledgement to African voices, and particularly African intellectuals, who should merit the same critical engagement as those from the west.”

GroundUp spoke to UCT staff and students to find out their experiences and views of UCT’s various curricula.

Ru Slayen, who is doing his honours in applied maths and who took part in the occupation of the university’s administrative building as part of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, studied philosophy. He gives an example of what he finds unsatisfactory: UCT’s philosophy department, he says, only introduced a course on philosophy of race last year. He says that a course on great philosophers dealt almost exclusively with white and male philosophers. “If we’re going to do this let’s be honest and call it Great Western Analytic Philosophers,” Slayen says.

Further criticism comes from Judge Dennis Davis, who lectures in UCT’s law faculty. In a letter to the university’s convocation he writes, “[I]n a course in jurisprudence which I co-teach, when I have had the opportunity to teach critical race theory, it is the black students who markedly make the most trenchant contributions. But when the content reverts to aping an Oxbridge jurisprudence course which is wrenched from the South African context … the alienation is palpable.”

Davis was one of several people we spoke to who reserved most of their criticism for the law faculty. Thamsanqa Malusi graduated from UCT where he studied politics and law. He says that on the one hand, in “the politics department at UCT, African literature was given prominence and I got to learn a lot about my history.”
But he contrasts that with his experience in the law faculty. “[They] did not pay much attention to African literature and the African context as a whole. Not once do I remember learning about the legal systems of other African nations. But I left UCT knowing more about the English and Australian systems than I perhaps know about the South African legal system.”

Dean of the law faculty, Professor Pamela Schwikkard, responds by highlighting initiatives “that are directed at promoting African scholarship,” such as the Centre for Law and Society and the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit. “We are always looking for ways of developing and expanding as a home of African scholarship and welcome any input that might assist us in this endeavour,” she says.

UCT Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, recognises that law is a challenge and points to UCT’s Centre for Comparative Law in Africa as an example of where change has been made, saying “this is a new centre that looks at different legal systems and origins of law. It’s a very explicit attempt to get students to think about their place in Africa.”

Many departments at the university have attempted to adapt their content to South African needs. Price cites the Health Science faculty. “I challenge anyone to contest that. It has reformed in content and pedagogically. It has adapted to the needs of the students of today.”

Associate Professor Suellen Shay of UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) — a key UCT institution involved in transformation — agrees. She says that as a result of both external and internal pressures for reform, the Health Science faculty fundamentally changed its curriculum and teaching methods in order to answer the question, “What sort of doctors does South Africa need?”

One of Slayen’s criticisms is that UCT currently offers no African Studies undergraduate major. But Shay says that a process is underway to introduce this and it has “gained real momentum through the last couple of months.”

Laurie Scarborough, who completed her undergraduate at UCT in linguistics and psychology, says in linguistics “we had a lot of input from a South African perspective, especially when it was relevant … For example, with social linguistics, the entire syllabus was South African, so all of the readings we had were South African researchers and academics, and all of the accents we learnt were South African. This was relevant as the work that you would be doing as a linguist in South Africa would be South African accents.”

Speaking about psychology, Scarborough says “a lot of traditional psychology comes from Europe. But, the department does make a huge effort to bring African literature in. All of my courses had South African readings.”

One course, she explains, is about “whether psychology is relevant to South Africa.” In the course, students engaged with topics such as “why the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are lower in South Africa compared to America, [even though] South Africa has a much higher rate of trauma.”

What should and shouldn’t change?

Most of the people we talked to, including students supporting the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, emphasised curriculum changes in the humanities rather than sciences. Price says that much of the criticism is directed at humanities. It may be, he said, that there are courses where a different approach can be taken. But he also said there are many parts of the university where curricula changes would not be appropriate. He mentions molecular biology and economics as examples.

However, Associate Professor in the Centre for African Studies, Harry Garuba, writes in the Mail & Guardian: “every curriculum in every discipline – be it in geology or medicine, history or chemistry – assigns value to its objects of study and withdraws it from others, which could be thought of as belonging to the same domain. If I asked medical students or students of pharmacology to study my grandmother’s cures, which I know from experience are as effective as any other, some are likely to fall off their chairs laughing.”

His article appears to call for fundamental changes to science curricula as well, “The first step is to ­recognise the cultural and scientific production – the knowledge – of previously devalued groups of people.”

Judge Davis disagrees. “If you follow Garuba’s idea you risk condemning millions of people to ill health or death. If you teach people in medicine that the scientific method is universal, that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt courses to deal with local or African matters, such as developing a cure for Ebola. But that doesn’t mean you jettison the scientific method to get there. On the contrary you need top order science in order to develop the medicines we need to save lives.”

However, one way that science curricula could be adapted, according to some academics we spoke to, is to introduce humanities courses into them. Engineering students are already required to do a course from outside the engineering, science, and commerce faculties in order to qualify for their degree. These students are encouraged to do one of the two undergraduate African Studies courses offered through the humanities faculty.

An associate professor in the science faculty wonders if the university should have an introduction to South African history course for all students. He also points to the US model of having a core curriculum that all students do. But, he says that if something like that is introduced at UCT, students would have to drop some of what they are currently doing.

Another possibility, suggested by Shay, would be to emulate what the University of Sheffield has done, which is to “clear two weeks of the teaching space in the first year; and in those two weeks, students have the opportunity to do 15 to 20 different seminars of things that they might be interested in.” In UCT’s case, some of these seminars could be focused on the South African and African context.

Academic Freedom

Both Price and Shay point out that changing curricula is not something that top management in the university can simply order.

“One has to tread carefully, not to cross the academic freedom line and tell people how or what to teach or research,” says Price. “To the extent that we can be influential in curricula, it is a much slower process [than, say, admissions]. A university is very different from a corporate environment. It is very collegial.” He and the faculty deans need the support of senate and faculty boards, he says. “Sometimes you have fast movement, but it’s not easy to steer from the top, both because of academic freedom and governance structures.”

Shay says “accountability [and] autonomy for a curriculum go right down to the level of the academic who is responsible for that course.” She explains that particular professions, such as engineering, accounting, and health sciences, have “professional bodies that would have a big influence on that curriculum.” In these cases, UCT has less freedom in terms of what can and cannot be changed in curricula as they need to meet the requirements laid out by these professional bodies.

Shay says that the strength of academic autonomy is that as experts in their area of study professors have the responsibility to ensure that their courses are at the cutting edge. “The downside of that is … how do you ensure that what is in the curriculum is addressing any of the wider imperatives of our mission? For example, ‘engaged citizenship’ or ‘social justice’.” She says, “Every ten years, the Institutional Planning Department run departmental reviews. Those are supposed be an opportunity for a department to stand back and say ‘What are we doing in our curriculum? Is it appropriate? Is it producing the graduates [we want]?’”

Price says that the university also has a Curriculum Review Task Team which will be expanded to include students and other interested staff, to intensify the programme of curriculum review.

Davis suggests in his letter to convocation that “each faculty engage in its own debate among its staff [and] students about what transformation in the subject matter taught in the faculty means, i.e. if we claim to be an Afropolitan university what does that mean practically and across the board?” He continues, “There must be a truly deliberative process to deal with these questions, as universities are supposed to - by way of debate and argument.”

Shay says, “We know that academic performance at UCT is racially differentiated. We know that white students perform, overall, better than black South African students. That is a curriculum issue.”

This is the third in a series of articles on transformation at UCT. In part four we’ll look at the racial composition of UCT’s academic staff, and in part five we’ll look at financial aid and financial exclusions at UCT.

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