Inaugural Lecture: Professor Dan Wylie

17 May 2011

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to this Inaugural Lecture, which at Rhodes is associated with the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is also a public celebration of the intellectual and scholarly achievements of an academic by peers, students, family and friends and the wider public.

This evening’s inaugural lecture is by Professor Dan Wylie of the Department of English. It is entitled “Elephants, Compassion and the Largesse of Literature”.

Born in Bulawayo, Dan Wylie was raised amongst the forested mountains of eastern Zimbabwe by his naturalist mother and engineer father. He wanted to write since he was four, and was typing stories about dogs at six – until he dropped Lego pieces into his mother’s typewriter and was banned from the machine for some years. Having witnessed the writer and poet he has grown to become, it is clear that this banning did not deter him.

Dan also wanted to teach since the age of 16, after witnessing superlative teaching from his Umtali (now Mutare) High School History and Latin teachers and took every opportunity from his early work opportunities to gain teaching experience.

Characteristically, he always had too many interests going on at once, and was aggrieved when forced to choose between Biology and Latin at A Level.  Mostly, though, he had a boyhood obsession with aircraft but paid attention enough to obtain his O Levels in nine subjects in 1975 and completed his A Levels with an A aggregate in both History and English, and Latin and Economics.

From 1978 to 1979 he spent two largely miserable years in the then Rhodesian military in the closing years of white rule, ending up, gratefully, as a medic. 

At Rhodes between 1980 and 1983 he made the mistake of dropping Fine Art after a year, but relished the majors of History and English, and says he has been unable to specialise in either ever since and instead marries the two in his writing. His other subjects included German, History of Art, Classics and Philosophy.

Dan completed his Honours in English with distinction at the end of 1983, by which time he had been the recipient of various Rhodes University Scholarships, including the Milner Memorial History Prize in 1982 and the Heather Drummond Poetry Prize in 1983.

As a member of the Rhodes Mountain Club, he got into a lot of Drakensberg hiking and some rock-climbing, and, although his final results may not let on, apparently spent most of his time barefoot and not getting his essays in on time, or otherwise slipping past the system.

Other activities at Rhodes included being Chairman of the Rhodes Literary Society and of the Rhodes Tutoring Society, which was formed in the spirit of the current academic development programmes to assist township students to bring their grammar and writing skills up to the required level for university.

Throughout 1984 and 1985 he travelled in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States of America, cycling enormous distances between a rather interesting assortment of jobs – in a mental hospital in Leicester, an archaeological dig on Hadrian’s Wall, as a member of a British Petroleum oil-rig design team in Wembley, London; a summer-camp arts counsellor at Camp Caribou in Waterville, Maine; a blasting company in New Hampshire; and adult literacy teaching in Wembley, London. 

Exhausted by these phenomenally varied experiences, he returned to Zimbabwe and taught in a remote Methodist bush school in Cashel during 1986 and 1987. At this rural school, known as Sunnyside Secondary School, he was responsible for teaching up to O Level History and English and also gave private tuition up to A Level.

He then turned to freelance journalism, concentrating on conservation, literary and socio-political issues, notably for Moto magazine, and trying his hand at cartooning. During this time he also worked for Pangolin Press in Harare, where he launched a travel magazine.

During the ensuing two years Dan increasingly isolated himself, going hermit and writing a novel (which, he hastily reassures us, no longer exists), running a restaurant, tutoring privately, and cooking up a Masters project on representations of Shaka, the Zulu king. 

He returned to Rhodes to continue his Masters project under the warm supervision of Professor Malvern van Wyk Smith while also taking up a position as a tutor in the English Department. His intention was to launch back into something typically footloose after another two years. That was in 1990 – and he is still here.

The MA exploded into a PhD and he obtained a contract job at the then Academic Development Programme (ADP) between 1993 and 1994. He was also the co-designer and teacher with Charlotte Jefferay of the first English Language for Academic Purposes foundation programme from 1993 to 1995. In addition, between 1991 and 1994 he also did outreach work, teaching academic literacy and language skills as part of the iKhonco (Link) programme which was set up by the ADP to help matric school-leavers upgrade their results, usually with a view to entering Rhodes or other tertiary institutions.

Dan finally became a permanent lecturer in the Department of English in 1995.  Since there was nothing comparable going back in Zimbabwe, he stuck around. And stuck around. Mostly because he was enjoying himself thoroughly, loving the teaching and the space to write. His mentor, Don Maclennan, also got him back into climbing in a big way.

Completing his PhD in 1996 he published his research in book form as Savage Delight: White Myths of Shaka in 2000. Having discovered that no one had yet published a scholarly biography of Shaka, or seemed about to, he sighed and said, ‘Oh well, I’ll just have to do it myself’. 

The epic project resulted in a huge book entitled Myth of Iron: Shaka in history, published in 2006, for which he received the Vice-Chancellor’s Book Award in 2008. You’ll be glad to hear, this tome is now also published as a bonsai version under the name Shaka - a Jacana ‘pocket biography’. 

Since then, he has become more interested in writing poetry, with several volumes to his name; and in the interface between literature and the environment – thus moving back into his environmentalist mother’s arms in a way. Most recently, he has published Elephant, in the Reaktion Books Animal series. 

During his time at Rhodes, Dan’s writing and poetry have seen him become the recipient of several distinguished awards. These include the Ingrid Jonker Prize for Poetry in 1997, the Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry in 1998, the aforementioned Vice-Chancellor’s Book Award in 2008, and most recently the Rhodes University Environmental Award in 2009.

While these projects occupied Dan’s personal research activities, on the teaching front a promotion to Senior Lecturer came in 2002 and he became an Associate Professor in the Department of English from 2008. A dedicated academic staff member, his departmental administrative duties have included tutor-training; Academic Development tuition; English I and English III coordinator; and he has been an enthusiastic organiser of extra-curricular poetry readings in the Department.

At the institutional level he is a Member of the Faculty of Humanities and served on the Higher Degrees Committee between 2007 and 2010. He has also been strongly involved in various community projects over the years, including the iKhonco and GADRA outreach programmes between 1991 and 1995.

He is an editorial board member of the journals Scrutiny2, Current Writing, and English in Africa. From 2003 to 2005 he was the Poetry judge for the Grahamstown Eisteddfod, attended the ADC Assessment course in 2005 and the Introductory Xhosa course in 2006.

He has given various public and invited lectures on Shaka, elephants and other aspects of his research at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee; the Hilton Festival, Pietermaritzburg and several Schools’ Festivals.

Given his interest in the environment and its interface with literature, Dan is particularly active in issues of the environment. He has been on the Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA (WESSA) Grahamstown committee since 2004 and is a regular contributor to environmental columns and articles in local papers.

He is also the founder of the Literature & Ecology Colloquium which, since its inception in 2004, has a book and three special journal issues in Current Writing and Alternation to its credit. The Colloquium has been instrumental in establishing a core of dedicated ecologically-orientated literary scholars who are now increasingly teaching environmental matters within English departments in South Africa.

Dan’s main environmental thrust nevertheless remains in the realm of teaching where he brings in ecological concerns where appropriate, or introduces them into existing courses. These include areas as diverse as the marine biologist/poet Douglas Livingstone’s poetry in South African literature; ecological dimensions of Zimbabwean literature; and the eco-Bushman trope in the African Literary Studies course. 

For several years he has run an elective course at third-year level, “Literature & Ecology”, in which he encourages research into new areas, especially via a long essay. Eco-criticism is now established as part of the Literary Theory course at Honours level.

Dan’s main teaching areas include African literatures, especially oral literatures; introductory poetry; William Blake; TS Eliot and Modernism; Faulkner; Woolf; Dante; Walcott; Literature & Ecology; and Livingstone.  He also readily offers up his time to provide support tuition at all levels.

He has supervised or co-supervised seven MA theses, of which five were awarded a distinction, and is currently supervising another two. He has also supervised three PhD theses and is currently supervising a further four. A number of these theses, including mini theses at the Honours level, have environmental or ecocritical dimensions.

In addition, Dan has examined creative writing poetry theses from UCT, MAs on Zimbabwean literature, and a creative writing PhD novel from University of Newcastle, Australia.

In his personal research he expends most of his efforts on Southern African poets’ treatment of the natural world; the idea of the Bushman; and the presence of elephants in Southern African literature.

Elephant (2008) is a book on the role of the elephant in all of world culture; and he is currently writing Crocodile in the same series. He is also engaged in co-authoring a critical biography of one of South Africa’s premier poets, Sydney Clouts, with an emphasis on his representation of the natural world with Dr Samantha Naidu. And if that is not enough, he is presently editing a volume of essays on Don Maclennan’s work.

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Dan Wylie to address us on his chosen topic: “Elephants, Compassion and the Largesse of Literature”.

Last Modified: Wed, 19 Nov 2014 12:25:21 SAST