Doctorate needs to have social relevance and functionality

Last week Rhodes University hosted the first Inaugural Lecture of the year by Professor Sioux McKenna titled Unmasking the Doctorate. Professor Sioux McKenna is the coordinator for PhD in Higher Education Studies (CHERTL) and Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies.

Following an enthusiastic and extensive citation by Dr Chrissie Boughey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, an emotional McKenna mentioned that this was a moving occasion for her.

McKenna’s lecture, Unmasking the Doctorate, argues that the doctorate has been underestimated, and at the same time, the significance of a doctorate has been overestimated.

Professor McKenna, a former teacher who loved teaching but hated being a teacher, struggled with following the dominant education system of controlling and disciplining without reviewing and reflecting. Owing to her childhood years in the cocoon of whiteness, she claims she got through university with very few ruffles to her existence in the privileged world of being white in apartheid South Africa. But her experiences of teaching in Umlazi in the 1980s were the starting point to this cocoon unravelling.

Her first point of interrogation is the number of doctorates per hundred thousand people of a country’s population, which is used by the National Development plan as an indicator of a country’s economic development.

“What if it is having a strong economy that provides the kinds of structures, wellresourced universities and libraries that is needed to produce so many doctorates; what if it is having a strong economy that provides the kind of culture needed for a whole lot of people to be able to engage in the indulgent luxury of postgraduate study? In other words, what if it is economic development that drives doctoral output as opposed to doctoral output being a driver Professor Sioux McKenna of economic growth?” McKenna proposes a pertinent question.

She argues that, “for the doctorate to fulfil its function in knowledge creation for both public and private good, we also need to turn a critical lens on the curriculum and pedagogy of the PhD and be prepared to unmask much of its mystique”. She further encouraged academics to be vigilant, or else the doctorate will become a training ground for the marketplace in ways that are unlikely to take environmental sustainability and human flourishing much into account.

She gave a stern warning that higher education institutions must not forget that they are meant to safeguard democratic spaces and public values in order to protect citizens from the excesses of the market.The risk being increasingly conceptualised as tools working in service of that market.

Adding that topics chosen for PhDs ought to interrogate social justice issues towards a better society but that we also needed spaces of Blue Sky research. Further stressing that a doctorate develops highlevel skills with the capability to challenge powerful interest groups such as the state.

Although she touched on decolonisation of knowledge, she also emphasised that the very nature of knowledge building is incremental and transnational. McKenna delivered a paper so important, full of critical questions, suggestions of a better way forward that will essentially enrich multiple social spaces with advancement and development. All of which starts in the academic space where she has dedicated almost her entire life.

“We are working at the frontiers of the field; we are producing original ideas, concepts and research tools. It is the ideal place for us to be questioning whose knowledge is legitimised, and what potential might silenced knowledges have for us”.