Mentoring next generation academics is absolutely critical

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The Next Generation Academic Programme is absolutely crucial to bring young, committed, inspiring lecturers into the University.These are the future leaders of Rhodes and we need to be proactive about identifying them,” says Distinguished Professor Paul Maylam.
He explains that the academic profession is not always the first choice for postgraduate students today:

“While most are committed to South Africa, they don’t always think that teaching and academia is the area in which they can make their contribution.

“There is also the issue of academic salaries, which are not really sufficient to attract significant numbers of bright young people into the profession, especially when there are family financial pressures. Moreover, the private sector may be quicker off the mark than universities in hiring outstanding graduates.

“All these reasons and more make the Next Generation Academic Programme an essential recruitment and academic development initiative, not only for higher education, but also to find ways of solving the many problems that South Africa and the world face today.”

The History Department has been particularly successful in this regard. As a result of it, three very successful academics and lecturers are now permanent members of the department, and will hopefully remain at Rhodes for many years to come.

As their mentor and Head of Department at the time, Prof Maylam says certain basics are essential when new lecturers join the department. “People need to feel welcomed and accepted, and special care must be taken not to exploit them by overloading them with teaching that other lecturers do not wish to undertake,” he says.

“My approach was to put the new lecturers on a very light teaching load – the programme specifies a 50% teaching load to begin with – but I took this a step further and made sure that I kept them away from first-year teaching initially. This is one of the most difficult teaching challenges, and to put an inexperienced lecturer in front of a first-year class in a subject like history would impose heavy demands.”

He believes it is far more effective to start the lecturer off teaching their area of specialty at third-year level. In this way, they can draw upon their strongest knowledge base to develop their teaching skills and confidence.

He further believes that to be a successful mentor you need to have overall confidence in the lecturer’s ability from the outset. “This is where the identification and appointment of talent is critical. I think it would be a serious mistake to appoint people who are not cut out for teaching at university level,” he says.

While some candidates apply for the programme from outside of the University, such as Prof Enocent Msindo and Dr Vashna Jagarnath, others can be identified at undergraduate level as potential academics.

“Dr Nomalanga Mkhize is one of these people. I could see her potential when she was an undergraduate student in the History Department, and when she became a tutor in her third year it was clear she had a gift for teaching. I suggested to her that she could have a great future in academia and she subsequently pursued her Honours in the department.”

Prof Maylam recommended that she apply for the Next Generation Academic Programme, despite her young age, and despite the programme’s general preference for Master’s students.

He put in a strong recommendation for Dr Mkhize to the selection committee, which included several Deans. They took note that a scholar and teacher of Prof Maylam’s calibre had full faith in her ability.

“Having confidence in the person’s academic ability sets the tone of the relationship – one of mutual respect,” he explains. “From here you can identify the lecturer’s strengths and weaknesses, and then reinforce their strengths and work empathetically with their weaknesses.”

Prof Maylam does not believe in “heavy” mentoring. He explains that he tried to give his three mentees a lot of space to get on with their work and lives, and then to review how they were doing ahead of the six-monthly reports for CHERTL, which the mentees always see.

Equally important, he continues, is to show the new lecturers how the University functions.

“You need to encourage them to attend faculty meetings, get involved in university committees, and run departmental programmes, such as the postgraduate student/ staff seminar programme, which Prof Msindo ran brilliantly,” he explains.

Transformation of the University, he adds, is about transformation at every level – from department level to Senate: “It’s all about engendering an atmosphere of confidence and interest in new colleagues to build strong departments and transformed universities.

“If I think back to when I first started lecturing at Rhodes in 1991, it was a conservative institution, which it still is in some ways. This is not all bad as it draws some of its strengths from being conservative in certain areas, having, for instance, an administration that, for the most part, functions efficiently.”

Heading further back in time to his student days he recalls how he was inspired by certain academics, notably Professor Winifred Maxwell, who was his history professor at Rhodes in the late sixties. “She made me into something of an historian when I had had no real intention of pursuing an academic career; I was going to be a lawyer,” he says.

“She showed me that I had an aptitude for history and encouraged me to work at it, and to think and write. Because of her I went on to do my Honours in history at Rhodes in 1970, and I learnt more in that year in terms of my intellectual development, than in any other year.”

The year before had also been a watershed year for Prof Maylam in terms of his social development.

“In 1969, the University Council twice overruled Senate resolutions recommending the appointment of Reverend Basil Moore to a post in the Theology Department, because he was considered too radical, having been involved in the anti-apartheid University Christian Movement,” he explains.

Because of this, the SRC decided to call a student body meeting, putting forward a motion condemning Council’s action. The question was, who should propose the motion.

“One student (the current Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies) suggested that I do it, and so I was landed with what seemed at the time an utterly terrifying ordeal, as I had never had to give a speech in public before,” says Prof Maylam.

And so it was that he made the first speech of many to come as a politically active member of Rhodes.

“The culture, politics and ethos of the University has, of course, changed significantly for the better since then, and especially so during Dr Saleem Badat’s time as Vice-Chancellor,” adds Prof Maylam.

“Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the new Vice-Chancellor, has long been pursuing transformation in his capacity as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Student Affairs.

One can be confident that he will continue to build on the work of Dr Badat in creating a more diverse body of academic and managerial staff while maintaining the University’s reputation for excellence in teaching and research.”

“To this end it will be crucial to attract the brightest young people to Rhodes, underlining the importance of sustaining the Next Generation Academic Programme.”

Read more from publication : Rhodes University

Article by : Heather Dugmore