“At PhD level…”

“At PhD level…” has been my supervisor’s soundtrack in my life. I have never felt as dumb as I do now as a PhD student. English can show you flames and shame you in ways you have never imagined. Coming from a school where we joked about our English teacher teaching us English content/stories in IsiXhosa and not being able to pronounce words and names in our short story book, I have come a long way with my English. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to things in order to learn this language and so that I never embarrass myself when speaking in public. It sucks though, because after all the online English classes, the novels, the debate team, the ‘English time at home’, your PhD supervisor can still say, “At PhD level, I expect your writing to be…”
After my struggle of writing an honours thesis and driving myself crazy in the process, I realised that I did not need not to stress myself so much with English and that it was okay that I did not write like a first language speaker or sounded like one. I made a commitment to never even try to sound or write like one. I did it to free myself from all the anxiety that came with presenting at conferences, speaking in seminars, tutoring, and lecturing, writing essays and so on. The anxiety from comments in your papers that read ‘what do you mean’ and you are just not sure if it is content related or if it is because your language makes no sense. So when you read ‘at PhD level, I expect your writing to be…’ you panic because you do not know if it is grammar, content or style that you need to work on. It turned out my supervisor meant I need to own my statements and ideas more, to have some authority in my writing. But hey, how do you own ideas you’re not sure if you’re even articulating properly in English.

There is the anxiety that comes when you finally convince yourself to speak in a seminar and after a few ‘uhms’ and ‘like’, you finally finish talking and the lecturer says ‘okay’ without acknowledging your ideas. Then a white male who is a first language speaker pretty much talks about the same ideas but uses big English words and ‘academic’ language and so the lecturer comments on how great his ideas are. You forgive the lecturer and convince yourself that they are not sexist or racist and that they are just probably not trained to listen and to hear people who speak or sound like you. They genuinely just could not listen or hear you. There is the anxiety that comes when someone asks you to repeat yourself and you immediately think “oh no, there goes my credibility, I must have mispronounced something or used the word in the wrong context, that’s why this person did not hear me”. Then you quickly translate what you said to IsiXhosa to check if you used the word in the right context and just nje, to check if it makes sense. You watch your student’s faces for confusion and you are so scared when your students who are first language English speakers raise their hand because you are thinking, “I hope she does not speak too fast, I hope she doesn’t use a word I am not familiar with, of my goodness these kids will never respect me if I mess this response up, there goes my credibility as a tutor/lecturer”. Then you quickly prepare the dictionary in your head.

That was not healthy, I needed to stop it for my own sanity and be okay with the fact that English was not my first language and that did not make me stupid or an unworthy teacher. I also needed to stop for all the other kids/students who do not have English as a first language and who struggle with English; so that they know that it is possible to write academic work using simple language and that you can have intellectual/academic conversations as a second language speaker because academia and intellect are not English. When I am giving a lecture in my accent and code switch for fun, to feel like me and also because I genuinely do not know which English word to use, I want my students who have English as a second/third language to feel that they have a lecturer they can relate to, lecture slides they understand and also to remind them that that English is not a measure of intelligence. When I use IsiXhosa words or statements or proverbs in class and I ask the IsiXhosa speaking students to help me translate because I can’t think of a translation, I intentionally want to engage those students who would otherwise not speak because forgetting English words in class is awkward and not speaking ‘proper’ English in the right accent makes you dumb. I want to draw in those students who feel that if they cannot speak and think in English, then that is enough reason to silence themselves and all their great ideas and contributions to the classroom. The students who feel that in order to avoid the shame that comes with not being able to articulate themselves in English, it is best to shut up. I have had my share of that, and it pops back every now and then, but it is my duty to work against it, because it is just not right for students to feel that their thoughts and contributions can be left unsaid if they can’t be said in English.

Conferences: What a Boost!


As mentioned in one of the posts, I  presented at the Contemporary Ethnography Across Disciplines (CEAD) conference last week. I presented  in two panels…Yay!

The first presentation was interesting enough inspired by my blog post about my PhD struggles and specifically, language issues. I thought CEAD was a very welcoming and creative space where one could experiment with different kinds of writing and presentation styles (Another presenter did a fabulous role play). Anyway, the presentation was well received and provoked a lot of important discussions about power, race, language in academia, decolonising the curriculum, identity and so on. It could have been super lit if we had enough time but we still had a great discussion after the panel presentation and I got to network with amazing people. I will post the presentation as my next blog post.

The second presentation was based on my Masters research which draws on the concept of risk management to demonstrate that in a world where life is precarious due to illnesses, poverty and other social ills, child care revolves around sustaining the life of an infant. The chapter I presented at CEAD suggests that mothers are being pulled by different ideas on child care, from health professionals, family and friends and that  access to these multiple ideas forces mothers to choose who they trust and believe to have the best interests of their baby at heart. In this case, the grand mothers’ experience, having been a mother and having raised healthy babies is valued and seen as someone who has knowledge about infant feeding and child care. The grandmother is not only  a ‘knower’ by experience but also  a ‘knower’ a mother can trust which shapes childcare in particular ways and emphasises the importance of relationships of trust in childcare.

I was in a panel with two other great emerging scholars who are also conducting their research on the first 1000 days of life. Nicole focused on the different factors involved when pregnant women ‘arrive late’ at the clinic, particularly the everyday violence in the forms of gang violence, shootings, taxi violence and muggings and its impact on women’s experiences of pregnancy and access to health care. Kylie focused on the relationships of care that develop between infants and caretakers and how an ethnography of leaks can offer access into both the physical (biological) and social worlds of infants, revealing lived experiences of illnesses and care relationships, embodied structural inequalities, as well as highlight the role of power within caregiver-infant relationships of care.

So now you know my area of research, I am not sure if I ever mentioned it. The great thing about this conference is that it came at a time when I was broken, discouraged and just doubting if I can continue with this academic journey. I realised how isolating pursuing a PhD can be and how it can feel like no one understands what you are trying to say and no one understands how invested you are in this project, giving it your all. Sometimes supervisors, colleagues and friends offer criticism and even though it is necessary and it may come from a good place, it  hurts so much because you have given it your all and what the criticism communicates to you is that your all is not good enough. A friend of mine who is also pursuing a PhD said “I feel like I have given my supervisor my soul and even that is not good enough”. It also does’t help when you have insecurities about language and a whole lot of other personal baggage. But what I learnt last week is that you must never isolate yourself. You have to meet with other emerging scholars, senior scholars, talk to people nje, get out there and don’t just sit in that cubicle from 9am to 7pm locked up in your own world. Being at the conference last week, talking to other people about my work, exchanging ideas with others and just the great feedback on my presentations was just the kind of boost I needed. I think I am ready to grind again! No PhD anxiety formed against me will prosper. I serve an amazing God and so I know this PhD is mine, I just need to claim it.

Mourning Loved Ones You Never Met

After a very serious and real conversation with my supervisor two weeks ago, a week or two of sulking. dealing with uncertainty about my future in academia, wondering if I am doing the right thing, or in the right department or if I need to take some time out to think, I finally decided to go to campus and try out this PhD thing again. But like I said in my last blog post, life happens during the PhD journey.
So I got a call, a call to inform me that my brother passed away on Sunday. I had never really met this brother. I was planning to meet him soon and we had spoken about how much we are looking forward to meeting each other and just how life is full of surprises.
Life really is full of surprises and weird feelings. As I write this I am not sure if sad. I am not sure how to feel. I just know that I don’t feel great.

I am not sure how to mourn him, I am not sure if I should mourn him. I never met him, I don’t really know him, there are no memories made, nothing to miss about him but here I am on my desk where I am supposed to be revising my literature review, but instead I am writing a post about a brother I never even met.

Recently I also lost two beautiful nieces before I even met them. I haven’t been able to mourn them either. I’m not sure if they are mine to mourn. If I have the right to miss them or bring them up in discussions or even think of them.
This blog post has no answers or interesting things to share; it is just questions about mourning:
How do you mourn people you loved but never met?
How do you mourn people you were never meant to know they exist?
How do you mourn those who are not yours to mourn?

Life really is full of surprises and weird feelings. As I write this I am not sure if sad. I am not sure how to feel. I just know that I don’t feel great. I will probably eventually work on my literature review but for now I am just going to take a moment and just sit here and think about my brother and  my nieces. I will sit here and wonder what they looked like, wonder about their smiles, how their voices sounded, particularly how they laughed and if they would have loved me as much as I love them.