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Student protests dubbed #FeesMustFall in 2016 in Pretoria. Cornel van Heerden/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

On decolonising teaching practices, not just the syllabus

In South Africa, student calls for free, quality, decolonised higher education have coincided with demands for the transformation of canons, curricula and pedagogies.

At the height of the protests assembled around the #FeesMustFall movement since 2014, some students at the University of the Witwatersrand formed their own reading groups, attempting to develop their own curricula.

They presented memorandums demanding that their disciplines decolonise the universals they base their assumptions upon. Assumptions like the very non-secular secularism that shapes all aspects of what the practice of knowledge is; the separation of nature and culture; and the primacy of Western canons as universal and not particular. Students wanted the university to better reflect their experiences and contexts.

Danai Mupotsa’s paper Knowing from Loss considers the practice of teaching in the light of these student protests. Aretha Phiri spoke with her.

Aretha Phiri: You paper is primarily situated in the Fees Must Fall ‘moment’. How did the student protests help shape your teaching?

Danai Mupotsa: This paper has had and will likely have a number of afterlives. I started my first full time teaching position in 2015 and I was excited and energetic and certainly thinking about what teaching as a practice means. Being confronted with questions of what the classroom is, what it is for, how people learn in that context, was acutely present.

In my paper, I give the example of the student in a second-year course on post-independence Africa, who, once we were reading Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance, was a bit teary. The story is told around Kingsley, who places his hopes in education. Kingsley graduates as an engineer, but education is no longer the language of success in Nigeria. After reading this novel, the student felt that perhaps getting an education might not promise the freedom he imagined – also realising the cost of this education to his family – and he could not reconcile with the narrative and what it might represent.

Hachette Books UK

It made me think about the responsibility that we bear as teachers in contexts of rare optimism. A day later, the university was shut down because of #FeesMustFall protests. I had to think about the spaces that I occupy.

Aretha Phiri: Your paper title, Knowing from Loss, specifically references the work of US poet, critic and theorist Fred Moten. Are you attempting to apply his analyses of blackness (in America) to the current ‘decolonial’ South African moment?

Danai Mupotsa: My turn to Moten came out of a workshop on literary traditions in the face of decolonisation. There were people in the room who were broadly dismissive of students who were turning to Afropessimism as a line of thought or to Blackness as the condition that oriented their political vocabulary.

Some of the statements from colleagues, I just found reactionary. But there were also those who were dismissive because of their non-expertise in Black intellectual traditions such as Moten’s, which thinks through the space between Black and Blackness, experience and our knowledge of that experience.

In my writing, my questions often begin with experience – with intimacy, with relation. I use the tools and methods at my disposal to write embodied ‘love letters’. What feminist critic Barbara Christian asks us to think about when we use the word ‘theory’. When theory is removed from the context of its emergence, it works to exclude Black people, queer people and womxn among others from the work of theory. Christian’s reminder is that theory is in the practice of culture, of Black social life.

Aretha Phiri: In discussions arising from your paper, you describe your deliberate deployment of ‘embodied teaching’. Could you explain how that might contribute to quality decolonised education? Or be useful for women and queer bodies in higher education in particular?

Danai Mupotsa: Peace Kiguwa has done substantial work on what it means to be a queer Black person in the classroom and how one mobilises this position to engage students on important questions. I find this work instructive. Being embodied, for me, is about dealing with myself, and participants in a classroom, as living, whole creatures.

So it might be a small thing like, it’s 8am on a Monday and we are a bit tired, so we start with a laughing meditation. People will laugh. Perhaps it’s ridiculous. But even if they’re laughing at me, we are now engaged with each other – we are in conversation. It means that what you bring to the classroom in the way of experience matters. It is part of what informs your judgements long before language helps ‘explain’ it. I ask people to be attentive to the pull of the stomach. To the moment when the hair on the skin rises. This expands the terrain and capacity of ‘intellectual’ engagement.

Aretha Phiri: Your analysis also offers ways in which embodied teaching and learning can disrupt Black Atlantic studies and Paul Gilroy’s 1993 text The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. What do you predict as the future of Black Diaspora Studies?

Danai Mupotsa: I think Black Diaspora studies exist in multiple lives, temporalities, futures, presents and pasts. It is the way that Black people make/ think/ do life. It is the mundane, the ordinary, the radical, the intimate, the erotic, the poetic, the relational. It’s a fundamentally dense knot but equally exciting promise.

This article is part of a series called Decolonising the Black Atlantic in which black and queer women literary academics rethink and disrupt traditional Black Atlantic studies. The series is based on papers delivered at the Revising the Black Atlantic: African Diaspora Perspectives colloquium at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

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