GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Mind Your Language

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/07/03 at 09:01
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

We’re halfway through the academic year in South Africa, and like many of my colleagues, I’ve been catching my breath after the deluge of marking which arrived at the end of the first semester. I’ve taught since beginning my graduate studies, and have marked students’ essays and exam scripts both in South Africa and the UK. Over the past eight years, what has struck me is that the quality of students’ writing and research hasn’t varied all that greatly; I can remember a few very bad, and some brilliant, pieces of work, but I haven’t noticed a decline or marked improvement in the standard of the work submitted to me.

This year, though, while marking slightly more than a hundred essays written by final-year students, I was astonished by how poorly they were written. The grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling were so faulty that, often, I was unable to understand the essays. What concerned me more, though, was that students did not seem to understand the language they were using: some could not distinguish between ‘feminist’ and ‘feminine’, for instance.

This left me in a quandary. I am an historian and in all of the departments where I have worked, I have tended to ignore spelling and grammar errors as I mark because I am more interested in how students argue, in how they construct their essays, support their statements, and analyse primary and secondary material. I only deduct marks for bad spelling or grammar when they inhibit my ability to read an essay.

This policy stems partly from the most useful training session I attended when I began tutoring: a course on identifying and helping dyslexic students. It made me rethink how I marked and evaluated students’ work, and I came to the conclusion that if I could understand their meaning, spelling and grammar were not all that important. After all – having helped to edit a number of journals – I know that many good historians are indifferent spellers. Bad grammar does not make a bad argument.

In addition to this, my university has a bilingual language policy and more than half of my students write in their second or third language. They have the choice to write in either English or Afrikaans, and most prefer the former, usually because they want to improve their proficiency in a language which, they feel, will be useful in finding employment after graduation.

Indeed, I believe that it is precisely for this reason that the essays were so badly written. I have noticed that students feel that they should switch to language which is more complex – more sophisticated – than that which they speak or write informally. As a result of this, they produce convoluted, over-complicated writing which is rendered almost incomprehensible when accompanied by faulty grammar and bad spelling. Those students who wrote in Afrikaans produced clear, concise essays. Ironically, students’ writing in tests and exams – when most prefer to write in their mother tongue – tends to be considerably better.

But I think that the reasons for my students’ poor writing go deeper than attempting – and failing – to reproduce a formal, ‘academic’ tone in a second or third language. I am concerned that they don’t read enough academic writing. As a student, I tried to replicate the style of the historians whom I most admired. Scholars like Eric Hobsbawm are readable precisely because they write simply and avoid unnecessary jargon.

Also, as class sizes and academic workloads have increased, it’s relatively rare for students’ essays to be comprehensively commented upon.  Lecturers and, more frequently, postgraduate tutors focus on students’ arguments and essay structures, rather than their language use, because this is a far quicker way of getting through an enormous pile of essays.

I wonder if my usual view – that correct spelling and grammar aren’t all that important as long as an essay is comprehensible – has contributed to this problem. As a lecturer, I don’t feel that I should correct students’ spelling and grammar. My university has an excellent writing laboratory to which I direct students in need of help with their essays.

But as an historian I feel strongly that we should train young scholars who produce writing that is accessible both to other academics and to the public. And as a lecturer, I don’t feel that it is responsible of me to allow students who can’t write comprehensibly, to graduate. So should universities provide students with spelling and grammar classes?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Open Access

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/05/03 at 21:39

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa

Over the past few weeks,  I’ve been avoiding the inter library loans sections of my university’s library. Guiltily, I’ve been clicking ‘delete’ on the several emails they’ve sent me to remind me to return about twenty books borrowed from other South African libraries.

Like many academics, I am a forgetful borrower of library books, but I do return them promptly when another user requests them. I’m stalling on these sources because I’ve just started writing a few articles based on my research project. I’m working in, what is for me, a relatively new field, which means that I am more than usually reliant on these texts to ensure that I produce rigorous and useful scholarship.

I also feel a little resentful about being loaned these books for a relatively short period of time. These sources – all published fairly recently by mainstream academic publishers – are standard historical texts which a university library should stock. Mine, though, does not. In fact, with the exception of its excellent archive and Africana collection, my university’s library’s history section is not particularly good; it lacks significant works, and does not reflect new trends and new fields in the discipline.

I think that part of my annoyance is the result of the fact that I wrote most of my PhD in the British Library where I was able to order every book which I needed. Given that my dissertation was on a fairly obscure aspect of South African history, this was particularly impressive. Returning to South Africa has made me realise how important it is for academics to have ready access to the secondary sources they need to do research.

There are some excellent university libraries in South Africa, but books here are expensive, largely because they are taxed as a luxury item. Despite lobbying to reduce or eliminate the tax, our Government remains loath to do so. Also, ordering books online can be fraught with anxiety, as our postal service is terribly inefficient. In fact, for a while Amazon ceased posting orders to South Africa altogether because of the number of packages which simply disappeared.

It’s here that ebooks become extremely useful to South Africans, academics and otherwise. This week, an edited collection of essays on mass education and citizenship, to which I contributed a chapter, was published. The publisher is posting complementary copies to authors, which is great, but what’s even better is that they’ve made the Kindle edition immediately available. Both editions cost roughly the same, although without postage, the ebook is a cheaper option for academics here.

I was lucky enough to be given a Kindle for my birthday last year. Like many academics and bookish people, I had mixed feelings about Kindles: part of the pleasure of reading is the tactile nature of books. Also, the demise of bookshops dismays me, and I like to support them as much as I can.

But, equally, I need to have access to the sources I need for my research. So I made a promise to myself: my Kindle is for academic books only and over the past few months it has proven to be invaluable. Not only are ebooks frequently cheaper than hard copies, but they arrive almost immediately.

It’s here that I think that universities in the developing world should consider the usefulness of ebooks in allowing academics and students to keep in touch with international scholarship. I don’t argue for the abolition of university libraries – particularly because librarians can be so important in helping us and our students to do research – but, rather, for a rethinking of how we access research produced abroad.

Moreover, ebooks and the Internet open up the ways in which we share our research. There is a gulf between academics and the public in the developing world. Bridging this requires us to be creative in communicating our research. In sub-Saharan Africa where access to the Internet via mobile technology is increasingly widespread, this offers researchers an opportunity to make contact with a public who would not normally be aware of our work.

Instead of seeing Kindles and other devices as a threat to the book – and, even, as some have suggested, to literacy – we should think of them as allowing us to open up access to our research to a far wider audience.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

New Beginnings

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/03/24 at 05:48

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa

Today is the end of the first week of teaching in the South African academic year. It’s been an experience that any academic at any university around the world would recognise: the chaos of finding timetables and new lecture venues, the inevitable problems with IT and parking spaces, the long queues at university bookshops, and in the midst of all this, a new group of anxious, happy, first year students.

They are like first year students anywhere. But in South African terms, they are deeply unusual. In January, Angie Motshekga, the Minister for Basic Education, announced with some fanfare that 70.2% of the pupils who wrote the examinations for the National Senior Certificate – usually referred to as matric – passed. In a country with such high levels of deprivation and poor resource allocation, this appears to be a magnificent achievement.

Unfortunately, the celebrations around the pass rate hid a few worrying facts: that in 2011, there was an 8% drop in the number of pupils writing the exam, and that of the 923,463 pupils who began Grade 1 in 2000, only 496,090 wrote matric in 2011. Nearly half dropped out during their school career. When measured against all those who began school in 2000, the real matric pass rate falls to 38%.

Moreover, of the 70.2% who did pass, only slightly less than a quarter of these achieved marks high enough to qualify for university entrance. The tragedy is that even though such a tiny proportion of school leavers have the marks to enter university, there are not enough places to go around. Last month, a stampede at the University of Johannesburg killed the mother of a potential student, and injured several other people. Thousands of parents and prospective students had turned up to register – in all, around 85,000 students applied for only 11,000 places.

The government has announced measures further to open up access to higher education: in his state of the nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced the building of two new universities, and Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, has committed to expanding the whole further and higher education sector.

I’m lucky to work at a university which attracts the best students in South Africa, but, even so, many of the first years here aren’t properly prepared for university. Here and at other universities, academics have to make up for students’ poor preparation for tertiary education at school. I feel very strongly that a lot of students shouldn’t be at university in the first place – that they should have proceeded to Further Education and Training (FET) colleges where they would receive an education more narrowly focused on preparing them for the job market.

This is the crux of the issue: despite the fact there are about 600,000 unemployed graduates in South Africa, university education is seen as the only pathway to employment. I would rather the Department of Higher Education and Training invested in FET colleges – expanding access to their campuses, improving the quality of their diplomas, and providing scholarships to those who can’t afford tuition fees.

As an academic, I am torn between wanting to help my students do well, and pursuing my own research. I can only earn research funds by publishing, and I can’t publish with a heavy teaching load. I can’t teach students how to study independently, use a library, do research, and write essays without sacrificing my own research time. This dilemma becomes even more fraught as universities are placed under even greater pressure from the Department of Higher Education to produce more graduates – to ensure that as many students as possible complete their degrees. Getting students to pass requires more input from me, even though my research-oriented university rewards me for doing research.

So do we continue failing students who don’t make the grade? Or do we drop our standards and allow as many to pass as possible? Given that seventy percent of South Africa’s youth is unemployed, I don’t think we even be arguing about university entrance at the moment. We should be fixing our education system, and making affordable, good quality vocational training – which could conceivably lead to university education – more easily available.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Entry Requirements

In Sarah's Posts on 2011/12/15 at 00:38

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

I have been invited to present a seminar paper at the Institute of Historical Studies in London in December, but my excitement is tempered by the inevitable visa application. As a South African citizen, I need a visa to gain entry to most of Europe and Asia, all of North America, and parts of Latin America. Most people need to apply for visas for long stays for study or work in foreign countries, but those of us from the developing world need visas for short visits as well. I am not going to add to the debate about the fairness or otherwise of the visa system, but, instead, want to describe its impact on my work as an academic in a developing nation.

Every country has a different visa application procedure, but all require applicants to provide evidence of income – pay slips, bank statements – to show that they have adequate funds to support themselves abroad; proof that they will return to their countries of residence (return tickets, an employment contract, a letter from an employer); itineraries, hotel bookings, or a letter of invitation from a host, with copies of the host’s passport and visa or residence permit; and a completed application form in which applicants must list every trip outside of their country of residence in the past decade, and declare any criminal convictions.

I live in Cape Town where most major countries have consulates, so attending visa interviews is usually not a problem. However, if I were to apply for an Austrian visa, I would need to fly to Johannesburg. Schengen visas, which are required for most countries in the European Union, cost only $80 and tend to have the most straightforward application processes. Fees for British and American visas start at around $140, but whereas the US occasionally grants visas which are valid for a decade, a British visitor’s visa lasts only for six months. I have spent more than $200 on British visas in the past eighteen months. Luckily, I paid for these visas with travel grants, and my applications were successful. If they had not been, I would have been allowed to appeal, but I would not have been refunded the visa fee.

One reason why visas are occasionally refused is because applicants request the wrong kind of visa. This can be quite complicated.  I am travelling to the UK to present a seminar paper. Logically, that means I should apply for a Business (Academic Visitor) visa. But because I will be paying for my visit, I had to apply for a General Visitor’s visa. It seems petty, but a small mistake, like confusing which visa to apply for, can be pricey.

I describe the expensive, time-consuming, and often quite invasive procedure of applying for a visa to explain why they influence my work. Because my American visa is valid until 2015, I jump at the chance of attending conferences in the US. Next year, I hope to present at a conference in Australia, but I will only attend if I manage to secure travel funds which will cover the cost of the visa (another $100). I recently presented a paper at a conference in London via Skype because I had neither the time nor the funds to apply for a British visa.

My postdoctoral project considers the work of the Mothercraft Movement, a global organisation which worked around the British Empire during the twentieth century. I want this project to have as broad a focus as possible, and visa applications have shaped my research plan to some extent. I have included India and east Africa in my study because Indian visas for South Africans are free of charge, and I do not need visas to travel to Kenya and Tanzania. I will choose between Canada and Australia because both charge hefty visa fees. I may include New Zealand as South Africans do not require visas to visit there.

As a South African at a respected, well-funded university, applying for visas is time-consuming and expensive, but I am usually guaranteed that my applications will be successful. For colleagues in other parts of Africa or south Asia, where consulates tend only to be located in major cities and where applications are viewed with suspicion, the process is even more fraught.  Restricting our ability to travel means that we in the developing world must work twice as hard to produce good research, as our colleagues in Europe, North America, and Australia.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog,, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

An Impossible Position?

In Sarah's Posts on 2011/10/07 at 10:55

Sarah Emily Duff writes from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Today I found myself in an impossible position. After my lecture – I’m teaching an introduction to South African history to the first year undergraduates – I was approached by two students. One asked if he could read my lecture notes because he, an Afrikaans speaker, was having difficulty following my lectures (I lecture in English). The other, an exchange student from Germany, complained that she hadn’t understood a word of her tutorial that morning because it had been in Afrikaans.

I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Based in the wine lands region near Cape Town, the University is one of the best in South Africa, has a growing international profile, and a difficult history which casts a long shadow over its activities in the present. Stellenbosch was closely associated with the apartheid government, educating Prime Ministers and nationalist ideologues. That said, the first questioning of apartheid within Afrikaans society came from Stellenbosch as well, and, since 1994, the university has worked hard to encourage a more socially-diverse campus.

One of the remnants of Stellenbosch’s contact with Afrikaner nationalism is its commitment to being an Afrikaans university. Afrikaans – which evolved from Dutch in the kitchens and slave quarters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – was transformed into a language of academia and science at Stellenbosch during the 1930s. After 1994, debate turned to whether Stellenbosch should remain Afrikaans.

I taught at Stellenbosch during the early 2000s, at a time when the taaldebat (language debate), was at its most ferocious. Afrikaans students were fiercely protective over the language. One group distributed stickers bearing the slogan ‘Engels, Engels, alles Engels’ (English, English, everything English) which echoed the rallying cry of the first Afrikaner nationalist group to emerge during the 1870s. When there was a mix-up over the translation of notes from English into Afrikaans for a course I was teaching, both I and my Head of Department were inundated with complaints.

But even then it seemed as if the pro-Afrikaans lobby was fighting a losing battle. By 2005, half of the undergraduates at the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences were English-speaking. This faculty adopted a bilingual teaching policy, and I was, and am, free to lecture in English, as long as all the course reading was available in both languages and students could ask questions and write assignments and examinations in whichever language they preferred. In 2006, Stellenbosch’s revised language policy decreed that postgraduate study would be in English, and that undergraduate courses could be bilingual.

This is the case at other universities too: McGill and Ottawa Universities in Canada have a similar set of rules as regards English and French. But the difference at Stellenbosch is that Afrikaans is spoken exclusively in South Africa. For Stellenbosch to be recognized internationally, it needs to operate in English, and students themselves are beginning to realize this – and to effect change.

When I started teaching at Stellenbosch again this year, I realized that things had changed when I noticed that Afrikaans students preferred to use the English course reading packs. When I taught a module on revolutions in world history, the course readers were only in English because of the dearth of Afrikaans-language scholarship on the topic. Not one student complained. These are young, middle-class students – both white and black – who are bilingual and who expect to work in English-speaking environments. Many plan to work and travel abroad. They feel comfortable in a globalized world.

Nevertheless, there are Afrikaans-speaking students, those who are white and from the country’s rural areas or who are working-class and “colored” (a non-pejorative term in South Africa), who attend Stellenbosch precisely because their English is poor. They resent the creeping Anglicisation of Stellenbosch, but they are in a shrinking minority. As a result, their voices are seldom raised in protest.

I find myself as a lecturer in an impossible position: between two groups of students who have equally valid claims to be taught in either English or Afrikaans. As an academic, I resent having to spend time translating notes into Afrikaans, but sympathize with Afrikaans students who feel that they were misled into believing that they would have a fully Afrikaans tertiary education.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog,, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.