Inaugural Lecture

27 August 2014

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof Vincent, ladies and gentlemen – molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. Professor Louise Vincent, of the Department of Political and International Studies, is one of the more recent entries on this list.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

Louise grew up in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg and lived in the constituency where Clive Derby-Lewis stood for parliament. To make that clearer – Clive Derby-Lewis, the man who was sentenced to death for his role in the murder of Chris Hani, regarded her area as a winnable constituency.

Unlike most people these days who never knew anyone who supported apartheid, she hardly knew anyone who didn’t support apartheid.

Her upbringing and schooling was pervaded by a strong sense of class loyalty influenced by the disdain they all felt for the people of the Northern suburbs with their private schools and mansions and cars. In her family the worst thing you could be was someone who inherited money and thought you were better than others because of it.

Her mother left school after grade 10 and her father left school after grade eight and fought in the Second World War after lying about his age in order to enlist. The legendary story about him was being punished by the army because when a sergeant threw a broom at him and said “sweep the guard room” he threw it back and said “sweep it yourself”.

He told them this story, she thinks, to make it clear that one never simply bowed to authority and taught them to respect people who earned respect and to see room for respect in unexpected quarters – not necessarily in badges, titles and uniforms but in ordinary hard working people who do a good job on the day, who take care of their families, are loyal to their own, fight their corner, protect their children, turn up when they say they’re going to turn up and follow through on their promises.

Louise says she is sure that her approach to authority owes something to this.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to her, Louise began to read avidly from a very young age and her repertoire included the classics like Dickens, crime fiction and anything that was around. Reading became her closest friend and still is today, if she has a book to retreat to she can cope with almost anything in life.

It is perhaps this reading that influenced her sensibilities, but she began to develop views that were, in that environment, somewhat unpopular. The most prominent of these was her growing sense that homophobia was just silly. It seemed obvious that people should have sex with whoever they wanted. She just didn’t get it.

Her family decided she was lesbian and often tried to persuade her to wear dresses and when she started bringing boys home there was a sense of relief in the air.

Growing up she felt a literal sense of claustrophobia and needed to get out somehow. University was not something people around her spoke about let alone Rhodes University which no one had heard about. Despite this, the ardent reader found out that the only place one could study Journalism at the time was Rhodes University and that Rhodes was very far away.

She applied and was accepted and to this day is the only person in her family ever to go to university.

So in 1985 Louise boarded an aeroplane for the first time in her life and landed at Port Elizabeth. She ended up in Atherstone House with a young woman called Faith Mayimele (known today as Advocate Tshidi Hashatse) from Diepkloof, Soweto as her neighbour and they became close friends.

At Rhodes she longed to study law but believed she was not clever enough or middle class enough so she took what seemed like manageable subjects.

She got 16% per cent for Journalism in June of her first year, fulfilling what she thought was her family’s belief that she had ideas embarrassingly beyond her station and that she would soon return home having realised she was not cut out for university. This was not to be.

In 1989 she graduated with five distinctions in her Honours year and her family lost all hope that she would ever lead a useful life. That same year she was selected as a Rhodes Scholar in the South-Africa-at-Large Constituency and studied at Oxford University where she read for her Master of Philosophy as well as her Doctor of Philosophy which was awarded to her in 1998.

She recalls being stopped by Professor Terence Beard whilst walking down Prince Alfred Street one day who enquired if she was applying for the Rhodes Scholarship. Having never heard of it and not knowing very much about Oxford either, she assumed it had something to do with Rhodes University.

A year later when Justice Edwin Cameron called her to say she had one of the four South-Africa-at-Large Scholarships she could not believe it and asked him if the committee was “out of its mind”. There was no way she could be a Rhodes Scholar and she certainly could not go to Oxford.

Once again she boarded a plane this time leaving behind the love of her life, Rod Amner. Their first year apart was very hard but he soon joined her and they soon married without the knowledge of both their families in the Oxford Registry Office.

They both got work writing distance learning materials for a place called the College of Petroleum and Energy Studies, and it might surprise some to know that she has some expertise in the shipping of liquid petroleum gas.

Louise wrote her PhD thesis in Colindale library – a satellite of the British Museum library where, surprisingly, she read old copies of Huisgenoot magazine.

Louise and Rod returned to South Africa just after democracy and shortly after their return her father died.

They moved back to Grahamstown because Rod had a job offer at Rhodes and she also subsequently got work here. The following years were very much occupied with the birth and early years of her two children, Sebastian and Ellie.

During that time she also began to develop her ideas about teaching and grew passionate about trying to do things in the classroom in a different way. Her work with narrative grew out of this passion and it was her second year students who were the guinea pigs for her early ideas about the power of story-telling both as a research tool and as a way of confronting relations of power and inequality.

Perhaps it was in part that work which won her the Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002 and which led the external examiner to call her the ‘finest teacher of politics’ he had ever encountered in a long career.

Louise says that she finds teaching very hard so the award meant a lot to her.

In 2009 she was nominated for the National Teaching Excellence Award and was nominated for a second time this year for the Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

There followed a period in which Louise became interested in research methodology and retooled herself as a qualitative research methodologist. She began to work with SANPAD’s research capacity development initiatives in South Africa, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

This work gave her a new sense of what her purpose might be as she found in herself a facility for working especially with people who are afraid of research and are being pushed by universities to do their PhDs, but who are terrified of the prospect and for whom methodology is opaque and arcane.

Over the past decade having worked with rooms of people like this has been one of the great joys of her life. Many of these are people who like her, experience themselves very much as outsiders in the academy and doubt their abilities because of their gender, their background, their race, their class.

Louise says that she is rewarded with those moments when people come up to her and tell her everything has changed for them and they now believe they can do it.

Louise’s research is principally in the field of the politics of the body. This interest expresses itself in a variety of projects in which she attempts to read the ‘political’ through a corporeal lens including work on traditional male initiation, virginity testing, termination of pregnancy, 'race', masculinity and 'obesity'.

Currently she leads a Mellon Foundation-funded research project in the field of Higher Education Institutional Cultures, Equity and Transformation. She is one of the principal investigators in the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction project supported by SANPAD, the A W Mellon Foundation and the National Research Foundation.

She has been jointly awarded with Dr Merran Toerien, Department of Sociology, University of York the British Academy Award for International Partnerships and Mobility Scheme 2014-15 for their project: ‘Research into Reproductive Justice – a critical examination of abortion law and practice in the UK and South Africa’.

Louise has supervised four Doctoral and 20 Masters thesis. Currently she is supervising three PhD as well as 11 Masters dissertations. She has also been an external examiner at several South African universities as well as the University of Glasgow.

She has published one book and has 10 book chapters to her name and more than 40 publications in accredited and peer-reviewed local and international journals with a further six in other publications. She has made presentations at 12 international and several national conferences.

Given the particular focus of her research, Louise is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Life Sciences and Open Family Studies Journal. She is also a reviewer of manuscripts for Men and Masculinities, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Agenda, Wits University Press and Social Problems.

She is currently Fellow of the International Association of University Principles/United Nations Commission on Disarmament     Education and has also been an Advisory Board member for Development Media Agency, a Board Member and Change Management Team member of East Cape Rural Industries, member of the Rhodes Scholarships National Selection Committee, Free State and Eastern Cape Region Area Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarships Selection Committee and a Project Read Literacy volunteer.

Louise is very committed to this institution having served as Acting Deputy Dean and Dean of Humanities as well as Acting Head of Department. She has served on Humanities Faculty Standing Committee, Humanities Faculty Higher Degrees Committee, Executive Committee of Faculty, Faculty Chair of Promotions Committee, Library Building Committee, Campus Safety and Security Committee, Academic Freedom Committee, Senior Management Forum, Deans Forum, appointed Deans’ Representative on Equity Committee, Teaching and Learning Committee, Joint Research Committee, Promotions Committee and elected a member of Senate.

Reflecting on her upbringing, she says: “My father was a carpenter. He worked with his hands and made useful things. I feel the intensity of his gaze every day asking me what useful thing I have accomplished. It is not an easy question to answer as an academic. Thank goodness for children. In Seb and Ellie, at least, I think I could offer him some evidence that his values were not lost on me.”

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Louise Vincent to address us.                Her lecture this evening is titled: “The Body Political”.



Last Modified: Mon, 17 Nov 2014 11:09:16 SAST