Grammar, Google, and getting away from it all

Dee Nkozi

I retired officially from university teaching and administration last week on 28 February 2018. This seems an appropriate enough moment to have a quick glance back at a thirty+-year career together with its ups and downs. It all started innocuously enough: the lecturer for the course was on a sabbatical and thought I should have more than just conducting tutorials under my belt. And so I ended up teaching my first full philosophy course in the 1986-87 session when I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies. It was a small class composed mostly of seminary students who had to fulfil their obligations to take a requisite number of philosophy courses, and my course: medieval philosophy, was mandatory. They were mildly interested (at least I thought so at the time), but I was totally hooked! Nights were spent reading until the wee small hours, then writing out each lecture in large readable joined up worried that I be caught out by an innocent but unprepared-for question from a class not much younger than me. I was a nervous wreck at the start of each teaching hour, but they were quite forgiving of any gaps in my knowledge, and, happily, all of them passed the exam!

That was then. Thirty-odd years later a lot more lectures have been written up, slept through, enjoyed, given off the cuff, not-quite-booed-at but nearly, and a lot of dissertations have been supervised. By my reckoning, somewhere in the region of fifty master’s dissertations and a handful of PhDs have kept me up nights and had me out of bed when the moon was still making her rounds. I have lost count of the BA dissertations that, for the most part, had me tearing my hair out.

There were, of course, hard years, dry years, but also – thankfully – more fertile, enjoyable years. One in particular stands out in my memory. Being short of staff at the university on the equator, one colleague in my department and I each ended up teaching three courses in one semester and two in the next. That was to be the first graduation year at our new university, and 18 undergraduate dissertations were also thrown into the mix. I think we both had seven to supervise and somehow managed to farm out the remainder. That was a rough schedule that was made tougher by the fact that I had never taught any of my five courses before. A lot of books came back in the luggage before that year began and a lot of candles were used to read them night after night, getting each lecture ready just before it was due to be given. But apart from all the hard work that was a good year, and it stands out in my memory as the year I finally regarded myself as a university teacher. I learned a lot from teaching (probably more than my students!), especially in the environment and gender courses I taught, so much so that a half-written book has been on my desk gathering dust for the past ten years. It’s called Putting on Trousers that are Empty. Empowerment in a Patriarchal World. Rather a naughty title, but I think you get the central argument! Other more esoteric stuff is also on the back burner and I’m now looking forward to getting back to my academic roots with a follow-up volume to my first book on negative theology – if, as my granny would have said “God spares me”.

Previously in this blog I have highlighted my difficulties with understanding what has come to be known as Uglish (the Ugandan version of English) but over the years my ear has adapted rather well and my brain has finally caught up, so much so that I am almost a fluent speaker at this stage. But given the fact that in Uganda all my students were learning in a second language (for some a third language), English has almost always been a problem. My newly-allocated, end-of-second-year dissertation students were invariably scared sh**less by the third years: “eeeeh she’s too tough”, “she writes ALL over your pages in a green pen and you have to tick off the corrections as you make them”, “she tells you stuff about split infinitives, Oxford commas, colons and semi-colons, and attributive adjectives … she’s nuts” … things like that. No wonder they came for the first consultation in deferential mode. But they thawed as we began to work together, and I’m proud to say not a single BA student failed a dissertation. There were mishaps with two or three MAs but I’d rather not get into that. I did, therefore, spend an inordinate amount of time correcting bad English, but to my dismay only a handful of students over the years learned from the corrections – three of whom are now PhDs, (and I am happy to have been their doktormütter). But after so long, I have now lightened up a bit and am a little more tolerant; I “cope up with it” and let some Uglish slide – after all, everyone else will know what they mean!

But what I can’t let slide is the plagiarism. I know it’s not a local problem but it has become endemic in Uganda’s institutions. And the awful thing is very few academic staff complain about it; even fewer academics do anything to detect or prevent it. There is a number of reasons for this, not least is bottom-line laziness stemming from having two or three jobs to make ends meet. But stubbornly I routinely ran work submitted through plagiarism detection software. Students who violated the rules of academic honesty were almost always genuinely surprised to be the subjects of demerits. It was not unusual to receive an essay comprised of a series of plagiarised paragraphs (quite often disjointed) with a general reference tagged to the end of each. “But I gave the references”, they wailed. “But you copied each paragraph word for word”. “But I told you where they came from”. “Why didn’t you use quotation marks?” It was hopeless. I personally blame Google. As soon as this search engine became available on campus, library use was noticeably less while the computer lab became crowded. I myself love Google for all the great services it provides from how to get rid of jiggers under your toenails to the secrets of hing in Indian cookery, but its use by students leads to serious plagiarism. Despite my giving zero for plagiarised work, very few understand academic theft and, therefore, it continues unabated. Unfortunately, my little battles didn’t contribute much to winning the war on that front.

Another issue I am really glad to be leaving behind is basic student laziness regarding academic effort. As I have said here before, Uganda has a rather poor reading culture stemming from the fact that books were / are simply not available so teachers wrote / write notes on the blackboard which students copy and subsequently cram for examinations. That practice is, unfortunately still with us. Students will always want your notes to keep them in their comfort zone. To take notes in class and read about the subject in books is outside that comfort zone. “Just how much of this required reading textbook do I have to read?” “Well, er, all of it. Plus the other five recommended texts if you want a first-class mark”. “But I can’t read all that. Can’t you give us summaries?” Jeepers!

Over the years it has been a lot of hard work with some wonderful successes, but a lot of it was simply hard work with little thanks at the end of the day and much, much less pay than an average plumber (sometimes none at all). Although I must say I have received a fair few out-of-the-blue phone calls from former students thanking me when they got a job / promotion / higher degree / professional award …. . Those calls remain dear to my heart. And I do meet students on the streets of Kampala who always say thanks; “you were tough with us, but fair” seems to be the general consensus of those I taught. My former students are professors, vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors, registrars, politicians, doctors, policemen and women, teachers, nurses and midwives, administrators, public health practitioners, bankers, development workers, IT specialists, farmers, shopkeepers, and fisherfolk, so my words have travelled far and wide. I hope some of those words have been remembered.

But now I think I have done my bit for tertiary education in Uganda. Twenty-five years and three universities later I am not sorry to retire from it all. It has been a steep learning curve for the most part, but an experience I would not trade for all the fish in Lake Victoria. I am going back to the academic work I started with after a hiatus of a quarter of a century, but I am going back with a wealth of experience that twenty-five years in Ireland could never have afforded me. A huge thanks to all the students who have taught me so much since I arrived in The Pearl of Africa as a naive philosopher hoping to teach for a year, get a tan, travel a bit, and then return to Europe for a tenured appointment. I for one am happy that life doesn’t always give us what we plan for!

And so this is me, back to my roots, sans robes, and loving every minute of it!

Dee Feb18

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4 thoughts on “Grammar, Google, and getting away from it all

  1. Jimmy Opoka

    Dear Prof. Dee,

    This is a masterpiece of writing. How else would I have learned from your experience? You deserves a million words of thank you from students, surbodinates and former employees.

    Your efforts will not perish because it is already bearing fruits and am sure the spiral of the trickle down effect will continue for years to come. Your intellect, honesty, strictness and accountability is unmatched.

    If every body is like you, the world would be a better place! If there is any body to be awarded a Gold medal for high moral integrity then it is you.

    Your brilliantly highlighted the sticky issues in University teaching in Uganda ~ love it!

    We will miss you.

    Wish you the very best in your career!

    Reply

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