Friday, 30 September 2016


There are many issues currently under debate in the South African Higher Educations sector; free education, the reinstatement of students expelled for their actions during prior protests, the security presence on campus, the questionable decisions made by university management and decolonisation. All of these issues are relevant and must be critically discussed and debated. While I certainly do not have all the answers, I would like to add something to the discussion of decolonisation.

Decolonisation is defined as the process of undoing colonial power, where a nation establishes and maintains its domination over dependent territories. This term has been appropriated by the South African student movement, in reference to tertiary education. Here it is being used to refer to the dismantling of the dominant European discourses that are still pervasive in our curriculum and many institutional structures. Afrocentrisim is another, perhaps more appropriate, term being used to refer to the change desired of our system.

Since the notion of decolonised education really came to the fore, almost two years ago, it has been a regular topic for discussion among many educators, and yet little has been done to move towards this goal. Due to curriculum content, some disciplines have made greater visible progress than others, but in particular the sciences have shifted very little if at all. I can’t speak for others, but for myself it has taken me some time to understand what decolonisation means and, beyond that, how it is to be achieved. This fundamental issue of achievement has been for many, I believe, the bottle neck in the process of transformation.

Currently, we are in a student initiated university shut-down until the student’s minimum demands are met. These demands appear to be something of a moving target and different messages are being received from different student groups. Today I attended a silent protest in support of reopening the university. For the protest we were asked to bring along an academic paper to read as a symbol of our desire to continue the work of the university. During the protest a group from the student movement arrived and made some statements which made it clear that unless free decolonised education is guaranteed, they will not allow the university to reopen.

As I listened to the student movement and simultaneously tried to read my paper I was struck by the application of what I was reading to the pressing issue of decolonisation. The paper, by Jewitt et al., (2001), was discussing the co-creation of knowledge, as a learning process, within the classroom. Jewitt et al., (2001) describe how we should be moving away from the unidirectional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. Rather, students take what they are given by their teachers and then reshape the meaning using the resources available to them. Those resources critically include the students lived experiences, interests and primary Discourses. Jewitt et al., (2001) argue that the onus then lies with educators to examine what students produce as meaningful and representative of the choices they have made with the resources relevant to them. This pedagogy is not new, but perhaps its application to the process of decolonisation is.

I think this approach to decolonisation – the co-creation of knowledge for the transformation of knowledge – is fundamental to its success. What I, as a white, female academic can achieve in terms of decolonising what I teach, is limited. Not because I don’t desire transformation, but because I can accept that my lived experiences, my experience of the Africa I grew up in, cannot be representative of all of my students. As such, what are evident to me as the artefacts of colonialism will not be exhaustive and I alone cannot speak for all.  However, it would also be erroneous to simply assume that if I were black I could speak for my students. No two lived experiences are the same, no one person, regardless of colour, can or should speak for all. The decolonisation process must be a partnership.

I therefore appeal to students, we as educators cannot provide you with decolonised education, without your engagement. Engagement, not at yet another forum or meeting or protest but, on a day-to-day level in the classroom. Decolonised education cannot, as an entity, be demanded. It is not a fixed or finite ‘thing’ which we, as educators, can ‘give’ you. What we can give you, is a commitment to open dialogue within our classrooms, to a serious acknowledgement of your contributions to knowledge, both verbal and written, in classrooms and through assessment. On a departmental, faculty and even institutional level we should also commit to the regular re-examination of the transformed knowledge we are co-creating in our classrooms, so that transformed knowledge can be shared. I believe that these engagements should be formalised and enforced – decolonisation is the work of all.  But again I say, decolonial education is not something that can be delivered against a set of demands on a particular date. You, as students, must take decolonisation into your own hands, through respectful discussion, challenge and open debate with your educators and peers.

I will close with an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made by both educators and students, perhaps best described by an analogy. Imagine that we are in a kitchen and you are shouting at me, telling me that you are hungry and demanding that I make you a sandwich. I very much want to meet your needs, but I have no idea what kind of sandwich you want and so I have been wringing my hands and talking about the sandwich for too long now while you become more and more hungry. Therefore, the turning point must be when we both realise that I can only make the kind of sandwich you want if I ask you to help me and if you are willing to help me and if I listen to you and act accordingly. Shouting longer and louder or keeping us out of the kitchen will not get the sandwich made. Just so, decolonialism cannot be achieved unless we work together, which we cannot do if the university is closed. Should this process have begun many years ago? Certainly. Should we continue to quibble over the fact that it didn’t? No. Let us act together now #OpenUCT.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Looking Back

This post forms the first in a series, and comes out of my continued attempts to critically ‘think through writing’ about my role and the role of a writing centre within an academic institution, particularly within the current climate of transformation. My perspective is grounded in the South African context and my experience is based solely on the University of Cape Town’s writing centres, which I have been involved with for the past 6 years.  


Last week, in a meeting with a respected academic from a well-known South African university, I was surprised to hear her say that her university doesn’t have a writing centre. However, my surprise turned to shock as she went on to say that not only do they not have a writing centre, but that she and her colleagues continue to advocate against a writing centre.

Who could possibly be against a writing centre?

As she continued to speak, I learned something about the history of South African writing centres, something I am ashamed of. While this past is not true for all Writing Centres, it was the lived experience for some and as such, I think it needs to be acknowledged in order for us to move forward.

It seems that writing centres were not always the supportive, empowering spaces that many of them are today. Writing centres have a dark past of shadowy damp basements where students were sent to be punished for plagiarism, where struggling students were sent to be “fixed”, where black students were sent to learn “proper English”, where spelling, grammar and referencing were the gospel and where the university held all the power.

It’s enough to give you cold shivers.

These spaces are rightly remembered as demeaning, punitive and remedial and apparently, for some universities, this remembrance has forever tainted their perception of what a writing centre can be.  It is also this past that has prompted certain institutions, such as UCT, to take a rather different approach to writing centres.

This idea, of what a writing centre can be, is something I have been percolating over for some time now. With transformation being the watchcry of the year, knowing where we are now, where we aim to be and how we’re going to get there has become of immediate importance.

Like hungry children, students have grown tired of asking and are now demanding to be fed. And, like the guilty parents we are, we can no longer placate them with 2 minute noodles. We need to roll up our sleeves, peel the vegetables and put in the effort required to produce a nutritious and satisfying meal.

Regardless of your feelings towards the student movements of 2015, notably #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, what is undeniable is that they provided a powerful catalyst for social change - a form of social punctuated-equilibrium. 

Transformation is defined as a marked change in form, nature or appearance. With this in mind, the question becomes, can we ever really transform unless we first take a long hard candid look at where we’ve been?

For me, the first step to moving forward is looking back. This process may feel painful, shameful or frustrating. Yet all of us, regardless of our role and whether we lived the past or have merely inherited it, must take responsibility – this is our mess to clean up, even if we didn’t make it.

As a writing centre, that means acknowledging that our roots come out of a colonialist space, where white was right and English was salvation. It means acknowledging that at their inception, writing centres were about more than just teaching a universal means of communication, but also insidiously about power and control; about privileging and prioritising particular cultures and languages above all others, about using language to control access to knowledge and opportunity, and about reinforcing a particular socio-political ideology.

If we’re honest, writing centres come out of a really ugly place. And, although this is not the end of our story, I think we need to sit with this for a time and reflect.


As this is an ongoing series, I welcome constructive comments, productive dialogue and diverse perspectives.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Being Powerful

They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but apparently hijackings do.....Yesterday I was hijacked for the second time. The first time was about 9 years ago and at gun point, while yesterday's incident was at the end of a very large knife blade. At least the awfulness of having something this horrible happen to me twice is partially countered by the fact that on both of these occasions I have come out of the incident physically unharmed. I know that there are many others who have not been so lucky. 

As I try to process all the emotions I am dealing with, I have been struck by the fact that my overwhelming sense is one of sadness and disappointment. I feel let-down  - by my county, by the system, by our society, by myself. 

I'm not sure how normal this reaction is to a crime like this, but it has given me some heavy food for thought. There seems to be a common belief that we are born of our country, yet I'm starting to see that this is not so. In fact, our country is born of us. Today I feel like the mother of a delinquent child - a child that I love dearly, but a child that is hurting me, and itself. And, like a parent, I'm left wondering how am I complicit in this incident and what I could have done differently, or better, to prevent it?

As the scientist in me cannot be silenced, I am immediately put in mind of the concept of nature versus nurture. While the relative responsibility of these two forces in shaping the outcome of an individual was once a matter of heated debate, we now know more about how the two play off against one another. As it turns out, our nature, that which we inherit, that which is written into our DNA, is much more malleable than we had previously thought. We now know that it is the nurture, how an individual is treated and the environment within which they develop, that truly directs the shape and boundaries of the final product and can even alter our DNA in small but significant ways, thus slowly transforming what we pass on to future generations.  

Our country, like our bodies, carries with it both the burdens and strengths of our past. It's in our DNA and, just like with our bodies, we cannot control or take responsibility for what we inherit, but we MUST take responsibility for what we pass on. We are the environment, we are the nurturers that are shaping this county. We have the power to consciously create an environment in which our country can become the best version of itself. 

So, despite the fact that I am shaken up and, if I'm being honest, more fearful than I was before, I refuse to let that fear control me. I will continue to assume the best about those I meet, I will still be polite and kind to strangers and I will keep opening my door to beggars. I will be the change I want to see in this county. I may not have had the power to prevent being hijacked, but it is within my power to control how I respond. 

I know there are many who may read this, shake their heads and write me off as hopelessly naive. Perhaps I am. But if the #feesmustfall movement over the last week has taught me anything, it's that we the people DO have the power to make positive change. It has reminded me that injury to one is injury to all and that my actions, small and inconsequential though they may seem, can make an impact. And that in our collective impact, there is real power for change. 

I love this county, this wayward child of ours, and I would have to be dragged from its shores, kicking and screaming, before I ever willingly throw up my hands and abandon it to the wicked few. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Cloud

I recently watched an excellent and insightful TED talk by Uri Alon. In his presentation Alon talks about the shared experience that most researchers have at some point on their journey from starting to finishing a project. The experience he is talking about is when everything goes wrong. You start at point A, you have a plan and you move logically in a straight line to point B, end of project. 

Can I have an "Amen" from anyone who's research journey looked like that? ....crickets....

This is exactly Alon's first point - somewhere between beginning a project and completing it, things start to go wrong, nothing works, we get lost, we wonder off into the mist, desperately trying to find a way to move forward. Alon refers to this period in research as 'the cloud'. 

The cloud can be a scary, isolating place. A phase of the journey where it is easy to become dangerously demotivated and depressed. My gut feeling is that most people that abandon their research probably do so when in the cloud. When you're in the cloud all you can do is keep trying new methods or old methods with new approaches, something, anything, until you fianlly find the thing that works, until you make the breakthrough, until you suddenly find yourself back out in the light with the endpoint in sight. Spoiler alert - the endpoint is usually not point B, that we pictured when starting out on the project, but actually point C, somewhere off in left field. 

Which leads us to Alon's second point. Only when you are in the cloud, can true innovation happen, can exciting discoveries be made, can the bounds of our knowledge be nudged out just a little further than they were yesterday. The cloud is where science happens. We need to abandon our fear of the cloud and embrace it for what it is - a fundamental and iterative part of the research process that pushes us to produce truly novel work. 

This concept of the cloud and its implication for research is not unfamiliar - most of us have been through it, but I'll bet you, that just like me, you thought you were the only one. I'll bet, that just like me, you thought that it was because you weren't a good enough researcher, that you weren't smart enough to skip the cloud. But it wasn't just me, and it's not just you, it's all of us. So why on earth didn't anyone tell me that it was normal? Imperative even?

Because, "In science we just learn about the results, not the process." 

The process. So simple yet so profound. 

I think that as academic writers we also have a lot to learn about the process. There seems to be this assumption that if you are a good writer, you simply sit down and produce a great piece of writing, end of story. Sound familiar?  

I remember several years ago being asked about my writing process. I can't recall what I said, but I do remember thinking 'Process? I don't think I have one of those...." The truth is that no writer, not even the great ones, sit down and produce an exceptional text in one go. Everyone has a process, a way of moving from that first rough draft to the published copy. 

If we are ever going to be good (or, one day, hopefully great) academic writers, it is imperative that we acknowledge this and embrace it. 

Hello, my name is Natashia and I have a process. 

It is not only okay, but normal and even beneficial, to lose your way when you write. To grapple with a chapter, to wrestle with your literature review, to spar with a conclusion. These challenges don't make us bad writers, they make for better writing. 

Because everyone's process is unique to them, it is important is to interrogate your own process. What is working? What is not? What could you do differently to make your process more productive? How will you safeguard yourself against demotivation and depression, against giving up or settling for mediocre? 

Establishing your own rituals and routines can be helpful. Favourite comfy jersey? Check. Steaming cup of tea? Check. Einaudi playing softly in the background? Check. Whatever works for you. 

It is also necessary to have a plan around drafting. I remember being told by a lecturer in undergrad that whenever you think you are finished writing an essay, you should put it away for a couple days and then read it again. While this is sage advice that I follow now, at the time I remember wondering how on earth could I do that, given that most assignments were finished at about 3am on the day they were due! But drafting is important, not just for the writing, but also for our thinking through the content we are writing about. In the Writing Lab we know that often when we see bad writing, it is not because the student is a bad writer, but rather because they are confused about what they are writing about. In academia we write about some fairly complex and abstract concepts, and it can be very challenging to think through content and package it in a way that offers a new perspective on old issues. So give yourself the space and time to think and write through multiple iterations of the same piece. Drafting is akin to the cloud, and it is only as we draft that great writing actually begins to take form.

Your process should also include support. Behind every great writer there is an exceptional editor - nobody does it entirely alone. Make use of a Writing Centre or join a Writer's Circle. Be open to other people's impressions and interpretation of your writing. After all, you're not writing for yourself - consider your audience.

Finally, remember that your end product will likely look very different than what you had first envisioned, and that is okay. Embrace the cloud. Only by working through the process can your writing ever evolve from first rough draft to polished prose. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

View from the Top

There are people who have lived in Cape Town for years and never been up Table Mountain. They know it is there, they may even look at it daily, they will marvel at it's beauty and recommend it to tourists, but they have never seen the view from the top. 

Perhaps they are afraid of heights? Maybe they can't afford the cable car? Possibly they are too unfit to hike up? Or they may not see the value in the experience?

The thing is though, once they do go up, once they open themselves to that experience and alter their changes everything.

I recently had a 'view from the top' experience when I attended a writers circle for the first time. 

I certainly had recommended them to others, I understood the principles of how they functioned and thought I appreciated their value, but I had never pushed past my fear, found the time or made the effort to attend. 

Let us just say that I have now altered my perspective, and it has changed everything. 

As someone that enjoys writing and finds it quite an easy task, it is tempting to become comfortable and arrogant about the quality of my work. I'm ashamed to admit that when I shared my piece I really wasn't expecting much criticism or challenge. The piece in question was extracted from my PhD thesis and is in preparation for journal publication, so I had put this piece through many drafts and it had already passed muster with my supervisors and a panel of examiners. 

I was confident - the writing was good. 

I was wrong - the writing could be so much much better. The writing can always be better. 

I was overwhelmed at the enormous amount of valuable feedback I received that afternoon. The shift in perspective, the fresh eyes on my work, the insightful questions and the thoughtful comments - you just can't buy the kind of interrogation for your work. To have a group of people sit together and read and discuss your ideas, sentences, structure and story...I'm totally hooked. 

I have since reworked my piece based on that feedback and it is so much better, so much stronger - how did I not see that I had put the focus in the wrong place? Why didn't I realise that the story was missing? 

Yes, it is scary to open yourself to that level of criticism, to be vulnerable with your work, but if you do, if you can put on your big-girl pants and push past the fear, it will be so worth the reward. 

UCT Science Writer's Circle
Every Monday from 14:00 - 15:30 in the MCB tea room. 
Contact Karis at for more information. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Setting Goals

"Do you set goals?" my husband asked me this morning as I was getting ready for work.

"Yes, yes I do."

Thinking back, I realise that I have always been a goal-setter. I remember writing my first list of life-goals, more of a bucket list really, when I was about 18. While some goals on that list (I still have it) no longer interest me, when I re-read it every few years, I'm amazed at how much I have already accomplished. 

Around the beginning of each year I often, quite organically, find myself taking stock of where I am - patting myself on the back for achievements and forgiving myself for the failures and short-falls. This mental stocktaking inevitably rolls over into goal-setting for the year ahead. Generally I'll jot down a short list in a notebook and leave it at that. Then over the course of the year I may come across that list and update it, but it's not a task I diarise. Life takes over, January comes around again and I repeat the process. I have at times come across lists that are two or three years old and been surprised at goals I accomplished that I forgot I had set! I find something very satisfying about the act of crossing items off a list!

What has always intrigued me though, was how I was achieving my goals - sometimes without even realising it. Today I read a really useful article on goal-setting that answered my question with simplicity and elegance....

By committing my goals to paper, I had given myself, my subconscious, direction. Of course, Donohue goes on to talk about how we need to do more that write down our goals and forget about them (as I have been doing) and he offers some excellent practical advice on how to go about making the most of this activity. Notably, he talks about setting distinct goals for six key areas in your life; Family & home, finance & career, spiritual & ethical, physical & health, social & cultural, mental & educational. I think it's interesting how we forget that goal-setting really should apply to all areas of life. 

In academia we set goals for each project we do - we call them aims. Most of us wouldn't dream of embarking on a project without a very clear list of aims and objectives. In fact, setting aims and objectives is usually a gate-keeping activity - without them, no research or funding proposal would ever be approved. So, if we know how important they are to the success of a project, why do we struggle to see how important they are to the success of our lives? And, why are we not talking to our students about this?

The more I think about it, the more I realise that setting goals has particular relevance for students. Students are in a very critical phase of development, for the first time they are able to make really diversifying choices about the shape and direction of their lives, yet they often make these choices with very little interrogation. It frustrates me to think that many students (myself included) embark upon a degree with very little thought about what they are going to do when they graduate. At various life stages there are the dreaded questions (When are you handing-in? When are you going to have a baby? When are you going to have another baby?) For many students, I think that dreaded questions is "So, what job are you going to do with that degree?" 

As educators we need to encourage our students to think about their long-term academic and career goals - earlier rather than later. Too many students are pursuing degrees that will not prepare them well for the job they ultimately want - at best leaving them under-prepared for employment and at worst (for those who drop-out) leaving them thousands of rand and several years in debt, without even a piece of paper to show for it. 

If we want our students to be successful, not just with a particular assignment or project, but holistically successful, then we need to talk to our students about the importance of setting goals and teach them the skills of setting good aims and objectives. Not only will this encourage students to engage critically with their aspirations and take ownership of their lives, but it will empower them with tools that will help them to determine direction and cement their focus. 

And the best place to start?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Getting Real About Imposter Syndrome

Ever feel like you don't really belong? Like any day now everyone is going to realise that you have no idea what you're doing? Like your colleagues or peers have it all together while you are secretly drowning? Sound familiar? Chances are you have Imposter Syndrome

Yes, it's a real thing. 

When I first came across Imposter Syndrome, quite incidentally and in no way related to my work, I can't describe the immense sensation of relief I felt. Why doesn't anyone talk about this? To be able to put a name to what I was feeling, what I had been feeling for years, was such a comfort. Knowing that I was not alone, understanding why I felt that way, slowly coming to accept that maybe it was all in my head. Starting to believe that maybe I wasn't such a fraud, maybe I actually deserve to be where I am. 

Since learning about this syndrome a few years ago, I can report that I have experienced these negative feelings a lot less and, when they do periodically surface, I have developed strategies for coping. But recently I was forced to take a fresh look at what it means to be an imposter. 

Last week I attended an excellent seminar, given by Caroline Kuo, on how to write for publication. At the start of the seminar we did a round of introductions, including sharing our publication record with the group. I could have lied, but I took a deep breath and admitted my shameful truth - I have no publications. I am part of the Language Development Group, I run the FHS Writing Lab, I regularly lecture on academic literacy and yet, I have no publications. How fraudulent is that?  Let me be clear, I'm not unskilled or unqualified for my job. I have written both Masters and PhD theses, I worked as a Writing Centre consultant for years and I certainly understand and can teach the mechanics of academic writing, but no, I have no published journal articles. 

Part of my coping strategy for dealing with feeling like an imposter is to try and take objective stock of where I am and what I have achieved. Often, I'll actually write a list of my accomplishments and hang onto it for a few days, pondering it until my brain gets the message that I have the goods. However, on this occasion it wasn't what was on the list, but what wasn't that really mattered. When you walk around for years feeling like a fraud, the only recourse is to get real, to be real. For those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome the challenge is usually that we can't accept what is real, but when you have grappled with this syndrome and found ways to cope with it, the danger is that we might dismiss shortcoming that are real, as fraudulent feelings that are not. A fine line to navigate. 

So when you identify a real shortcoming, how do you deal with it? The same way you do with fraudulent feelings - get real. Be objective, assess the situation accurately and fairly, make a plan, stay focussed and work towards your goal (I have set aside weekly protected writing time and joined a writer's circle). 

But what about when we recognise this syndrome in our students? What is our role as teachers and mentors? 

Firstly, we need to be aware that some students are more vulnerable than others. High achieving students (those that we tend to worry about the least!) and particular women in the sciences are most at risk, but so are black students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students that have been accepted to the university on the basis of some kind of academic concession or redress are extremely susceptible to feeling as though they are not worthy, as though they do not belong. As teachers, the onus is on us to to be aware of this vulnerability in our students, even when everything may look fine on the outside, and to help them find ways to work through these negative feelings.

Secondly, when our students succeed, praise their skills and abilities, not the grade or award. "Well done on making the Dean's List" is nice, but not as helpful to the student as pointing out to them why they made the Dean's List "You really know how to develop a convincing argument in your written assignments - I wasn't surprised to see your name on the list." Constructive feedback and praise will make it easier for students to identify their strengths and improve their confidence levels. 

Thirdly, I think that it is important to temper our expectations of students. This is somewhat emphasised in the difference in academic paths between faculties. I come from science, where there is a very clear expectation that you will progress directly from Masters to PhD to PostDoc, you will publish extensively and it will be years before you ever see the inside of a lecture theater. So you can imagine my amazement when I discovered that it doesn't have to be that way. In other faculties Masters students are lecturing, PhD's are supervising, publications happen organically over time and senior lecturers in their 50's are grumbling over their own PhD manuscripts. There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one route to academic success. 

Finally, like the experience I described above, there will be times when students have genuine shortcomings which are undermining their confidence. Again, be constructive in dealing with the problem and help the student become solution orientated. Help the student find objectivity, assess the situation accurately and fairly, make a plan and stay focussed as they work towards their goal. Basically, get real.