Unearthing white academics’ experience of teaching in higher education in South Africa
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An ongoing concern within the South African Higher Education environment has been the racial profile of academic staff which in the case of several institutions, including the University of Cape Town (UCT), remains predominantly white.
In his recent paper, Unearthing white academics’ experience of teaching in higher education in South Africa - published in the journal of Teaching in Higher Education - Associate Professor Jeff Jawitz of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) at UCT, delves into what it means to be a white academic at UCT. The paper reports on a study of four white academics and how they are both positioned and actively position themselves in relation to their students and other academics at the university.
The analysis of the experience of these academics throws light on the interaction between racial identity and academic teaching practice within the racialised context of higher education in South Africa. Each interviewee displayed a consciousness of their white identity that challenges stereotypical images of white academics as being oblivious to the racial dynamics in their interactions with their students. The evidence from the study also challenges the idea of the white academic as standing in opposition to transformation in higher education. The narratives of all four interviewees recognised black students as the most significant and vulnerable group at UCT and positioned themselves as support agents for these students and in an oppositional relationship to what they describe as ‘conservative’ academics and a racist discourse in the institution.
“I come face to face with it in my department … when staff members make very conservative kinds of comments ... I’m afraid… because it is so difficult to challenge.”
Interview narratives point to a paradox between an awareness of the privileges and the “limitations of being white” in the context of white academics teaching in higher education in South Africa. Foremost amongst these limitations is the distance from black experience, the dangers of association with “racist social structure” and the recognition that being white enables certain interactions with students and prevents others.
In the opinion of Associate Professor Jawitz the way forward is to acknowledge and be open about how race impacts on classroom engagement. Although this research was conducted before the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests he feels that we still haven’t reached a point of fully understanding how our racial identities act out in different teaching spaces within the institution.