SA Ambassador on an American campus
February 9, 2005
By Gary Baines
Gary Baines shares his experience of a teaching exchange with Maryville College, Tennessee, in 2003: the realities of organizing it, the demands on the teacher and the lessons he learned.
South African universities are recognizing the financial and other benefits of globalization. Some are actively seeking to recruit foreign students on the basis that quality education can be offered at 'discount' rates on account of the fact the rand exchange rate works in the favour of those who can pay in stronger currencies. So universities such as my own have established and staffed International Offices often headed by a Dean whose function it is to handle matters pertaining to visiting students and staff. In this regard, they are somewhat belatedly following international trends in tertiary education. Scholars, on the other hand, have long been aware of the opportunities available to them overseas. These opportunities take various forms: attendance at overseas conferences where it is possible to network with fellow scholars; the award of grants to study, research or teach at institutions abroad; and participation in faculty exchange programs. They are seized for a variety of reasons, including improving prospects for career advancement, the acquisition of knowledge and skills that might be utilized to achieve educational outcomes of the individual, a university or even the wider community, or simply to travel for its own sake.
It was my good fortune to be invited to teach at Maryville College in Eastern Tennessee for the duration of the Fall Semester in 2003. As a South African educationist, there were not only the usual bureaucratic obstacles to overcome but also the 'hidden' costs arising from an unfavourable exchange rate and a relative disparity between salaries in the two countries. Moreover, it was the first time that a member of the Rhodes University faculty - as opposed to an exchange student - would make the trip. Then there was the added hindrance that Maryville College did not obtain the authorization to apply for work visas until a few weeks prior to my scheduled departure. When this was forthcoming, the visas and other paperwork were organized quite speedily due to the efficiency of Maryville College's International Office. My wife and I were offered remuneration at the level of adjunct professors - she in the Education Division and I in the History Department. The local high school agreed to admit our son for the duration of our visit. Medical insurance was arranged and accommodation was found for us in a first-year dormitory. But things did not fall into place of their own accord. Our visit was made possible not because of the existence of an exchange agreement between the two institutions, but on account of the willingness and determination of my hosts to make it happen.
The course I taught was called "Narratives of War". It was cross-listed in the Maryville College prospectus as a credit for History and English seniors, and it provided me with the opportunity to 'experiment' with the use of fictional texts as part of a history course, something that I have subsequently introduced into my teaching here at Rhodes University. Equally interesting was that I had the opportunity to interrogate American history and memory with American students. I thought that my 'revisionist' tendencies might be regarded with some suspicion. But the class of sixteen senior students seemed to accept my bona fides and some appeared to even welcome my outsider's perspective. I obviously had to make adjustments to my teaching style in order to accommodate the expectations and requirements of the students. One thing that did take some getting accustomed to was the practice of awarding students with points for activities whether they were integrally related to academic work or not. But I discovered that the quality, as well as the work habits of Maryville students was little different from those at Rhodes University. Some wanted easy credits, whilst others relished the challenge of producing work of a rigorous nature and a high standard.
My trip was also undertaken in order to conduct further research for a comparative project with which I am currently engaged called "South Africa's Vietnam? The Border War". This seeks to trace analogies between representations of American combat experience in South-East Asia with that of South African soldiers in its war with the liberation movements and the Front-Line states. I was granted ready access to the collection 'Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War' housed at Connelly Library, La Salle University, Philadelphia by its curator. This collection boasts the most substantial holdings of imaginative literature, visual arts and music relating to the Vietnam War in the USA and proved to be a very productive and worthwhile visit.
From the vantage point of my location in East Tennessee, I was also able to undertake a number of trips that combined work and pleasure. Highlights included a tour -perhaps pilgrimage is the correct term - of the famous musical capitals and sites in the American South. My journey took me to Nashville, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. This provided me with first-hand knowledge of places about which I had read so much for the course 'Rock Music: Social History and Styles' that I teach at Rhodes University. I also arranged a visit to Washington, DC where I visited the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. This reflected my interest in how the process of memorialization functions in society, and which constitutes a major theme in another course I teach called "Representations of the 20th Century". I subsequently decided to add presentations on these particular memorials when I revised the material to be covered for the current academic year. Indeed, my experience of teaching on an American campus, as well as visiting sites has both added new dimensions to my own teaching practices.
Whilst in Maryville, I was invited to give public lectures on my home country. I created a power point presentation which - its title rather lacking in originality - was dubbed "South Africa: The State of the Nation". I made this presentation twice on the Maryville College campus and once - without the slides - to a local Rotary Club. At these talks I found myself wearing two hats: one being that of the scholar attempting to provide a balanced appraisal of South Africa's transition from a pariah state to a functioning democracy and fully-fledged member of the international community. But I also donned the hat of an ambassador for my country, trying to convince my audiences that South Africa was a country well worth visiting (as exchange students, academics or simply tourists).
Being an ambassador should not be taken to imply that I was an apologist for the South African government. In fact, at the last of my talks I found myself in the awkward spot of having to try explaining the state's HIV/AIDS policies, especially with respect to its intransigence in disbursing anti-retrovirals. This talk happened to coincide with President Mbeki's visit to New York where he made the well-publicized and ingenuous statement that he was not acquainted with anyone who had contracted or died from HIV/AIDS. How was I to deal with this downright embarrassing situation where the head of state was making a patently false statement because he was entertaining the "dissident" position on the spread of HIV/AIDS? Fortunately, the well-known South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro) came to my rescue. He produced a scathing indictment of Mbeki's indefensible position in a cartoon published in the Mail & Guardian. I was able to download this image and employ it to good effect in my talk to illustrate the inconsistency of Mbeki's position on HIV/AIDS. But I'm not sure that my words were able to do anything to offset the damage that Mbeki had done to South Africa's image abroad. For someone who makes repeated appeals to expatriate South Africans not to "rubbish" the country, he does a fair amount of damage himself! So I drew the rather ironic lesson that I was a self-appointed ambassador engaged in an exercise of damage control.
My need to disassociate myself from Mbeki's stance on HIV/AIDS is not unlike that of a recent visiting American colleague to Rhodes University who, during a public lecture, felt compelled to distance himself from the America of George W. Bush. His (presumably spontaneous) disparaging comment about Bush which had no bearing on the subject matter made it clear that he was critical of the Bush administration's decision to wage war against Iraq on the pretext of ridding that sorry state of weapons of mass destruction. Although he used throwaway lines, his criticisms clearly stemmed from heartfelt convictions. The point is that he felt the need to position himself as anti-Bush with his audience. Having been in South Africa for about two weeks, he had obviously decided that his Grahamstown audience was likely to be receptive to the tenor of such rhetoric. In any situation, speakers invariably tailor their words to what they think the audience wishes to hear. This is not to suggest that such words are necessarily insincere but that scholars - like ambassadors - cannot ignore the climate in which they operate. And the climate my American visitor found here was obviously that of fairly strident anti-Americanism on South African campuses. This suggests that scholars are equally adept at role playing as politicians. Indeed, we need to be so if we are to spend the occasional sabbatical overseas.
My visit to the USA proved to be a learning experience in more ways than one. And what I learned, above all else, was that international education has as much to do with diplomacy and international relations as it does with education.