Decolonising Academic Skilling

17 Mar, 2019 - 00:03 0 Views

The Sunday News

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena

A large part of the propaganda against decoloniality in the westernised university in Africa is based in the arena of quality. 

The allegation is that, by arguing for the inclusion and centering of histories and knowledges of other people besides Europeans and Americans in the University decoloniality threatens quality and standards. This propagandist allegation is as racist as it is nonsensical. It is based on the falsehood that white peoples are the sole embodiment of quality and standards under the sun. Quality and standards are mobilised more as propaganda and ideology than as truisms to seek to give decoloniality, a philosophy of diversity and liberation, a very bad name. 

This is accompanied by a fabrication that decolonial scholars intend to ban knowledges from Europe and America in the university. 

Decolonial scholars demand diversity and plurality of epistemologies. It is the argument of this, my short article, that academic excellence and rigour are skills that can be taught and learnt not natural attributes or qualities of any race of people. I stretch the argument to insist that even intelligence itself is taught and learnt. It is not a genetic quality or natural attributes of any species of people.

Scientific racists and Darwinist imperialists spent, over the years, a lot of energy and effort trying and failing to prove that intelligence is a racial quality that is a preserve of white people. Black and white liberation theologians and philosophers of the world fought and won the fight of dismissing scientific racism as a myth and fiction that it has always been.

 For the reason that the discourse of quality and standards in the university is an ideology of excluding black people and other marginal communities there is no tangible clarity as to what exactly is meant by quality. Even the idea of standards is mystified and presented in obscurantist terms that conceal rather than reveal what is required to meet the standards. 

Students and some of their supervisors wallow in frustration and misery, searching and not finding quality and standards in the University. In frustration and depression populations of students fall out of the university because they cannot meet quality and standards of work that have not been clearly defined in the very first place. 

Every university has senior academic police officers, black and white, that specialise in shooting down research topics and proposals of students. These colonial constables, black and white, make themselves the magistrates of academia that decide what quality and standards are in the westernised academy. There are Pharisees and Sadducees of the academy that defend coloniality. 

The Dissertation and the Thesis

Most university students, especially in the social sciences and humanities, experience panic attacks when dissertations and theses are mentioned. The arena of theses and dissertations has become a cemetery where hopes and ambitions, dreams and careers of students are buried, and rest in peace. Most students are felled at the stage of the topic and research proposal. Theses and dissertations are turned into mysteries that students must decipher in order to make the grade and be counted as competent and acceptable citizens of the academy.

We have to demystify and therefore decolonise the fictions and myths that are tied to dissertations and theses in the university. 

Dissertations and theses can no longer be allowed to be colonial mysteries and fetishes. These are supposed to be understandable and knowable documents that anyone, with time and effort, can develop and complete not only successfully but excellently. 

To start with, dissertations and theses are not intellectual documents. They are academic documents that do not measure intelligence but discipline and focus. 

These are technical documents that are in actuality research reports. As academic and technical documents they are written according to disciplinary conventions and methods. They are complex, extended and persuasive arguments under a given and chosen topic. Developing these documents is a craft that is understandable and knowable, with time and effort, by anyone with the most minimal potential. In simple terms, dissertations and theses are those reports where a student frames a topic, designs questions under the topic, and then goes on to use theory and method to answer the questions with evidence and persuasion. 

The student should display deep and wide research and some credible interpretive and analytical abilities. By their nature, as technical and academic reports, dissertations and thesis do not allow the student to invent any novel ideas of his or her own. 

The student must cite experts and authorities in the given topic to support whatever observations and arguments that are advanced in the document. It is for that reason that I insist that these documents test the discipline and focus of a student, not intelligence and capacities of invention. Students, in the main, have to prove ability to design a topic, prove its researcheability, use theory, method and evidence to answer the research questions and fulfil the research objectives of the study. The research reports are supposed to be presented in neat, logical, clean and clear format, formal and sober in the tone and manner of language used.

Skilling and Tooling 

Conducting research and crafting good research reports is not a mystery or is it witchcraft. It is an art and a science that requires skills and technical tools. The skills and technical tools can be taught to and learnt by anyone with time and potential. Part of the strategy of keeping the skills and tools away from many students in the westernised university has been the individualisation of research. 

Time is not allowed in a formal class for students to be taught the art and craft of dissertation and theses writing. 

The task is left to individual supervisors that may be equally confused or that will teach students different and most times conflicting approaches, exposing the candidates to the wrath of the mysterious examiners. Every decolonised university should have a tutored and lectured course in research report writing from framing a topic, spelling out research questions, clarifying objectives, theory, method and design of the research, interpretation and analysis and conclusions.

The know-how and know-what of dissertation and theses writing should not be left to serendipity and to the luck of students. The research reports are items of craft-literacy and craft-competence that can be clearly imparted to willing students anywhere. Keeping the craft-literacy and craft-competency of researching for and drafting research reports a mystery has been a colonial and racist way of excluding students from excellence. 

This exclusion is now practised, not solely by white academics, but some black lecturers that after achieving their qualifications with some confusion and difficulty make it their job to make things difficult for students. There is a psychological way in which academics that have been persecuted and punished by the colonial university pass on their pain to students under their charge. Confident, liberated and successful scholars normally do not punish but promote novices. Decolonial mentors and supervisors clarify rather than mystify academic and intellectual work for students.

The Question of Rigour

Decolonial scholars boast of their practice of being undisciplinary but rigorous. The hard work must be done without excuses and decoloniality should not be used as an excuse to avoid the hard and excellent work. It is colonial propaganda that decoloniality, by promoting epistemologies of the South, is an enemy of quality and standards in the university. 

Decolonial scholars prove their intellectual stamina by researching and writing on topics that are not imprisoned in limited and limiting Area Studies but are pitched at a locus of enunciation that is local and also planetary. It is for that reason that theoretical frameworks such as the World Systems Analysis have become important to decolonial scholars. As part of decolonisation of higher education, universities in the Global South should prioritise skilling and tooling of students and the craft-literacies and craft competencies of developing and producing dissertations and theses, documents that are academic research reports, not mysteries and fetishes. 

It is my observation and also argument that academic excellence and intelligence itself are skills and tools that can be taught and learnt. Intelligence and academic excellence therefore, cannot only be democratised and made accessible to many, but can also be liberated from coloniality.

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Pretoria: [email protected]

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