A year of pondering ivy

I’ve been postponing writing this final blog for SAYAS. Why? For one thing, I’ve always been bad at goodbyes. Although in this case, as our fabulous editor Jennifer Fitchett aptly said, ‘it will never be goodbye, just less contact’. Even parties I usually prefer to leave quietly without drawing attention to my exit. But writing for SAYAS was an experience that warrants at least an attempt at finding some recounting words. Also because I find the blog’s mission of creating a platform for genuine stories, shared by young academics, imperative to creating an environment where support and openness trumps the overwrought image of the academic as a stoic, objective, singular figure. At least, that’s my own interpretation of the platform. 

Blogging for SAYAS spanned quite a few significant experiences for me: from submitting my PhD thesis, via having to revise and re-submit it after that, to finally learning that I will receive my degree. I also got to share my thoughts while searching for work, figuring out which of my interests to focus on in the process, and starting a postdoctoral position. This all transpired during a time when academic life is still almost exclusively happening online (due to COVID-19), providing an additional spin to grappling with the social and political fundamentals embedded in academia.

Overall, it was a period of really pondering whether academia is where I envision myself for the foreseeable future. In my introductory blog for SAYAS, I said that it is ethnography, the immersive research method in anthropology, rather than the discipline itself that I feel at home with. But what is increasingly relevant for me is the institutional dynamics within which I can apply myself and whether they can form a place of conviviality. The latter is a concept that has been developed and dignified by the works of my PhD supervisor, Professor Francis Nyamnjoh. It has been significant in how I think about being human, being a scholar and imbued in the webs of power of universities. For the moment, I suppose, you will still find me at one of those institutions – as difficult, hierarchical and frustrating as they sometimes are.

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An ivy-covered door to a building at the University of Cape Town. For me, quite symbolic of the elitism (like that of the US-American so-called ‘ivy league’ of hight-status colleges including Harvard) that tends to get reproduced through academic conceptions.

My decision to apply mostly for postdoctoral positions after the PhD also had to do with attending various events that were accessible for free due to in-person conferences, symposia and seminars being moved online throughout the pandemic. Apart from interesting content, I picked up the gist that there is more desire for invigorating exchanges than I had thought. There are always people who seek to reimagine what seems unshakable. My hope is that such spaces for conversation will be made more accessible, even after restrictions on global movements are eased, as many scholars won’t have the luxury of access to the lavish funds that are needed to attend. 

Writing and thus creating some coherence to the messiness of being human is a practice that can be very calming for me. It has been for long, yet I spend most of my writing time writing for something – for a degree or for being published. Rarely do I set time aside to write for just myself. Which is a pity! If I were a person to make new year resolutions, this may be one. 

So taking ‘writing time’ to just think through all the things that were happening this year, the ordeals and moments of relief, was rather curative. However, sharing my thoughts and vulnerabilities in this blog was not always easy. Publishing quite personal reflections is still quite new to me and has, sometimes, put me out of my comfort zone. But it did encourage me to advocate for (and practice) a less varnished form of academic communication. And I believe that it takes this openness and putting one’s guard down to really achieve a more approachable, companionable scholarship. One that illustrates some resistance to creeping ivy coverage – as presentable as it may be.

It has been a…What a year!

I am still looking for an adjective to fill in the gap in the title. Probably because it has been quite a year, or maybe because although it is almost the end of the year, it still feels like the year has just started. I suppose it is hope that got me feeling like this. A lot has happened but so much can still happen. I am saying this thinking of a friend of mine who said to me “it does not matter if it happened this year or not. Surely whatever that did not happen this year can still happen next year”.  This was sparked by a conversation about the job market and other opportunities after getting a post-graduate qualification.

It has been a thrilling year, so good! So great! and SO much fun! Throughout the year I wrote a series of 12 blogs (including this one) and vlogs talking about my experiences as a post-graduate student in a South African university, surviving COVID-19 and experiencing the wrath of violence and criminality in our cities. I feel, particularly overwhelmed today, by thoughts and emotions seeing that this is my very last blog post. I am not so sure what to write about, and how to write about it. I am not sure how to feel. Perhaps I have exhausted my emotions throughout the year, particularly because it has been such an emotional year with job hunting, thinking through my PhD project, applying for funding, and sorting out application issues for placement at a University. All these have been both exhausting and thrilling.  But it was all worth it. Despite it being an emotional year, it has been an exciting year.

I have had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone, as a literary critic, and entered a scientific space as a science communicator, to bring science closer to everyone. An experience I treasure for so many reasons, one being the fact that I am now published in a South African Journal of Science. History will write me as a well-rounded character, as multidisciplined academic. My interaction with the other bloggers, Mauro, Leah, Keith, and Professor Jennifer Fitchett (and Professor Roula Ingelsi-Lotz who joined us for the first half of the year) – the editor of the blog has made me realize what is most important about being, firstly, human and secondly a researcher and a post-graduate student. I have been reminded by these individuals that my value as a person is not determined by my research although my research plays a critical role in positioning me for opportunities, both financial and in knowledge production. I am more than my research and research interest. I am more than just a Masters graduate and PhD candidate. I am human, I go through everyday life motions, I have hobbies and other interests.

And the truth of the matter is this is one fundamental aspect of our lives we neglect and miss. We miss out on being truly who we are, because of what we want to be and achieve. Blogging and reading the other bloggers’ posts truly inspired me to level up my life and all these aspects. To be a researcher, scholar, intellectual, but more humane, brotherly, neighbourly and to stay and keep in touch with what makes me truly human. I truly hope my experiences have helped one or two post-graduate students out there, I hope I have ignited hope and inspiration in someone. What a year!