“How is school?” Well, school is a colonial institution designed to promote elitism within every sphere of the world that academia penetrates and produce a caliber of humans that promote the institutional hegemony while being made to believe they’re revolutionary… or otherwise keeping them too busy with “knowledge” production and consumption for them to do anything actually revolutionary, thanks for asking. 😊 Oh, you meant, like, what classes am I taking and stuff? Oops, my bad. LOL.
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since coming here is how I’m finding the university system here in comparison to my experience of college in the US, so that approach is going to frame this post.
On a surface level, the differences between the two systems are obvious. A small, liberal arts college near Los Angeles with a student population of approximately 2000 students (6000 if you count everyone in the college consortium), against a huge university in Cape Town with a population of about 27,000. So, the number of students I pass by on a daily basis is definitely one big difference. To be honest, I’ve found myself wishing from time to time that I actually had gone to a huge traditional university rather than a small liberal arts college. (Put this in the context of the fact that I hate school and would rather not be in any institution at all.) Frankly, I like the freedom of being able to disappear. Here, lectures are lectures, and ideally, there are far too many students present in the hall for either professors or peers to meaningfully interact with all of them. If you don’t want to speak during class, you don’t have to, and you can get away with it for the entire semester if you’re playing your cards right. Also, especially on days when I cannot get out of bed to save my life, I’m grateful to be able to just not show up to class, without the pressure of teachers attacking me when I enter the room the following day, trying to act like nothing happened. If I had to guess, I’d say each of my classes has a lower-bound average of 70 students and an upper-bound average of 170 students technically enrolled. As to the number of students that actually show up regularly to lectures? Well, that figure is… LOL. As in, one of my classes is lucky to have even fifteen students per lecture.
Courses and majors here are arranged according to “faculty” and all the classes I’m taking are placed under the Humanities faculty, which is the only one I can speak on through experience. The general structure of things at UCT is that each undergrad class has lectures three times a week, which only last, on average, for 45 minutes. That’s the length of a lecture period here, and some lectures (or tutorials) may take up double-periods, which means they will be almost two hours long. Now you may think that being in school for 45 minutes, 3 times a week is a mere walk in the park, but that doesn’t take compulsory tutorials into account, nor does it indicate the irritation of sometimes having to walk thirty minutes up a mountain for one 45-minute class and then walk 20 mins back down the mountain because ta-da, you’ve finished for the day. (My Thursdays dey bore.)
Tutorials are these sessions that split the large classes into sections of averagely 15-20 students each, and are led by tutors rather than professors, although professors can also be tutors. The purpose of tutorials is to essentially, as I see it, replicate the ideal atmosphere of a tiny, liberal arts school classroom. They are supposed to be places where you can freely converse (with guidelines sometimes) about lecture material, ask for clarification, express personal opinions, and talk about assignments. As for me, I have found that while many lectures and a significant portion of the content I’ve been exposed to here are stimulating/relevant, tutorials tend to be downright useless. Unfortunately, it’s the tutorials for which mandatory attendance is enforced and from which consistent absence will result in being disqualified from writing end-of-sem exams and consequently, failing. Yes, the more useless one mmom is the one with consequences. It frustrates me to no end. Thankfully, we’re at the end of the semester and I can run away from them forever.
Tutors who aren’t professors are usually post-graduate students of some kind, working towards their Masters’ or PhD. Typically, they don’t attend lectures. Out of my three tutors, only one is present in actual course lectures—and that’s because she’s also the course professor. Tutors do sometimes have guidelines about what to discuss during the tutorials, but I must say, I don’t think whoever writes the guidelines attends lectures either. Tutorial conversations often end up being confused messes/wastes of time where the neither the tutors nor the students are really saying much, and then we end up talking about the prices of the new iPhones or, if someone is feeling gracious, being released early. I’d always rather be sleeping.
What classes am I taking!? (Maybe I should use past tense since this is basically last week of lectures.) I’ve been taking 3 classes: History of South Africa (from the 1800s), a Media Studies course called Media, Power and Culture, and an African Studies course about Globalization in Africa. Undergrad degrees here are typically three years, and all my courses are second-year courses.
My disposition towards classes at the beginning of the semester was very different from my disposition now. I was incredibly excited at the beginning of the semester, mostly because of the lecture content and the professors. Most of my professors throughout the semester have evidently been extremely intelligent humans, possibly evenly split between male and female—and it has both surprised and pleased me that I’m not being forced to sit in rooms just to be bullshitted to. What I’m saying is: them dey talk sense. I’ve also been pleased to see many of my own personal sentiments reflected in their lectures. More on this later.
Although the African Studies class has interested me more in the recent past weeks, for a long time, my history class was my favorite class, for two main reasons: First, my history professor for most of the sem, a South African Indian woman, is one of the smartest individuals I’ve ever been taught by. It’s been a good while since I’ve been struck in awe of a professor. (Actually, the last time was two semesters ago, when I enjoyed school for the first time in several years. That guy had entire pages of novels memorized and he also builds trippy, philosophical, life-sized wooden objects based on W.E.B. Du Bois texts in his free time. Bloody brilliant weirdo.) She clearly knew exactly what she was talking about all the time and made no pretenses of neutrality. She always made it very clear which side of history she was choosing to be on and whose lens we should be learning it through. (Not the male, white or foreign one, that’s for sure.) Which brings me to my second point:
The content wasn’t a generic run-through of timelines, like I’ve unfortunately experienced with my African history classes back in the US. Here, I’m not being taught things in the format of X happened, then Y happened, all because A happened earlier, and that’s the only way to interpret that. Instead, the approach has been much more personal and localized. Most of our required readings were written by South Africans, about very specific events or people, thankfully not generic, “neutral,” general histories written by British white men. Reading the analysis of the Zulu AmaWasha guild’s origins and initiative, learning about Charlotte Maxexe’s feminism, reading Sol Plaatje’s accounts of events written in real-time, or seeing Sofasonke’s grandeur through my texts (when I was able to satisfactorily read them) brought me considerable pleasure. I remember thinking, “For once, I am being taught history the way I want to be taught history; not with an overarching “sense of things” and a few specifics, but with a lot of specifics, contextualized by an overarching “sense of things” in the background. It goes to show, I think, how many events and names my professor mentioned in the class that no-one—yes, including South African students—had even heard of. In that regard, I’m grateful for the class’s content.
My Globalization in Africa and Media Studies classes haven’t been quite as spectacular in terms of diversity of content, teaching style approach, and actual education. There’s really only a handful of things from both classes combined that I can honestly tell you I hadn’t known before—and these things were often peripheral information, not exactly what I was supposed to be taking away from the lecture. Cases in point: the medicinal quality of dassie (Afrikaans word for rock rabbit) poop, or the existence of the Tallensi ethnic group in Ghana. (Yes, I am Ghanaian. Yes, I had no idea.) At some point, it felt like the very same information kept being reiterated in different assigned texts and by different professors. (A note on professors; rarely would you have a single prof for each class all semester. There’s usually a main prof called the Convener, who teaches majority of the lectures, and then a rotation of guest lecturers that handle 1-3 weeks each. My aforementioned history class had the least amount of rotation, with only one guest lecturer other than my Convener, and the former covered only three weeks.)
The most exciting thing for me about these latter two classes, was that many of my frustrations with the current fundamental structure of the world were, for once, articulated in the classroom by professors who got me, rather than gaslighted me. One professor in my Media Studies class (some Coloured man whom I’m now slightly in love with—and apparently, he’s a spoken word artist too!) traced many of our societal problems, as Africans belonging to a shared continent as well as in relation to the rest of the world, back to “modernity,” which he insisted should be called colonial modernity, and I was like, Yoooo, this is what I’ve been saying, fam! And some other lecturer from my African Studies class spent two weeks explaining how (higher) education as we know it today, as an institutional way of managing knowledge production and distribution was literally created for the purpose of being a colonial tool (check it bro, the timelines coincide), and I was like, Thank you! Is this not what I’ve been trying to say my entire life?
These kinds of things were satisfying to a point—because I was immensely grateful that these topics were being sensibly addressed somewhere. On the other hand, they soon led me into a peculiar kind of despair, resulting from the incessant articulation of problems. The despair isn’t because there aren’t solutions; it’s because there are, but either not enough people seem to be regarding them as emergencies/even consciously acknowledging them; or because the world systematically co-opts or strikes down insurgents. Depressing. Furthermore, my gratitude that these problems were being addressed soon fizzled out because then I started questioning why I was being required to sit down and be told things I’ve known about the world from time. (Admittedly, not everyone already thinks the way I think, but if they don’t, I hardly think a one-week guest lecture series is going to seriously transform their lives. There were quite a handful of intellectually stubborn individuals in my classes.)
One thing I’ve truly hated, though? Assignments. Their submission and weighting within the course is handled with such formal strictness, even though the assignments themselves are often given with confusing/vague instructions, are often nonfa tasks, and ultimately useless. (Purportedly, they’re useful for exam preparation, but I think exams are also ultimately useless, so there’s that.)
In conclusion, I feel like if there were a way to combine the bullshit-lacking informational content I’ve received here (minus tutorials) with the lax performance/deadline rules of American liberal arts college, it would be significantly less torturous than either on its own. That’s my final take on the structural comparisons. (Of course, the ideal would be to abolish the institution of higher education entirely, but since y’all don’t want to hear me, I’ll just personally walk away from it myself and suffer the consequences. Send money if you love me, because I’mma probably be broke soon. 😊)