Yusuf Serunkuma

Punching with Supervisors: The Challenges of Graduate Education in Africa

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 12.16.25 PMThis year’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa workshop just ended. For the last three years, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has been giving support to PhD students from select universities in Africa to advance their projects. Students from Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa at different levels in their work – proposal development, dissertation research and dissertation completion – get support in different forms. The Next Gen Program does not only provide monies, by the way, for this is just one small and easy part of the bargain.  With a select group of enthusiastic professors who have been working on the continent, students are hosted at the Institute of African Studies (IAS), part of the University of Ghana at Legon, and given chance to think through the knotty contours of their work. It is a deep hangout of sorts, but a fascinating and illuminating engagement. For four days, fellows are treated to intensive thematic group discussions that focus on properly framing research questions, thinking through literature, and finding the methods that best suit their works. It is hands-on, intimate, and arguably comprehensive.

Equally fascinating, albeit unfortunate, are the endless reports of students punching with their professors! Indeed, these scattered threads deserve a project of their own. Perhaps everybody complains about their supervisors at some point. But these stories border on tragicomedy and it seems the situation could be better. Let’s examine three cases. We will creatively call our fellows Jack, Jane and Jill.

Jack is writing up his research findings. He reports having two bedridden supervisors, who each have challenges giving him guidance on his dissertation, a reminder that university faculty are aging rapidly without adequate replacements. This situation could be remedied by Jack moving on to a new professor. However, Jack claims, first, that his sickly professors do not want to release him despite being genuinely challenged with reading his work. Second, his conversations with potential substitute supervisors alert him that he would have to repackage the project – akin to writing a new proposal and perhaps a new thesis. That aside, it also seems there aren’t many faculty options. Before we condemn the professors for failing to appreciate their current conditions and the effects on their student, let’s chasten ourselves with the thought that the student is exaggerating these conditions, in the process disguising his weaknesses.

Jane has a somewhat lengthy project title with themes including constitutionalism, conflict management, democratization and peacebuilding!  Well, under an interdisciplinary arrangement, a properly guided student could string a connection between all or some of these themes – although ideally, it is easier to work on them as separate projects. However, despite Jane’s enthusiasm about this work, she reports being constrained by the intermittent guidance she’s received. This is in addition to the fact that it was her professor who appended two of the terms onto Jane’s project because of his background in peace and religious studies. Before we blame the don, let’s also chasten ourselves with the belief that Jane is not reading enough while her supervisor wants her to broaden her scope, something she’s being stubborn about.

Like Jack, Jill is at the stage of writing her thesis. She’s just returned from data collection and is now going through the process of analyzing and writing her thesis. Her professor is available. Jill is very energetic and enthusiastic. She is working on a project that seeks to connect trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) among refugees in great lakes region to the continued cycle of war, community and family violence.  Too big, right? Yes. Jill’s is a great but clearly lifetime project. One of the SSRC workshop leaders even suggested such a project might require a team of researchers to string together its core argument. Should we chasten ourselves that the problem is with Jill? Maybe?

Of course, these situations are not as smooth as narrated, and the solution not as straightforward as might appear. There are many variables on the continent – colonial, market-born, political, et cetera – that inform the problems students have with supervision. All these have often conspired to stall activity. However, if our universities intend to train a next generation of African scholars – with help from centers such as SSRC – there are variables within our control. Several questions come to mind: Why are professors punching with students? Why is it painful and seemingly confrontational for a student to change supervisors? Why would a professor push an idea onto the student even when it clearly bloats the student’s project? How should we think about these conditions against the quality of work produced at the end of the day?

We do not seek to universalize experiences. Of course, there have been good supervisors who continue to properly guide their students.  Of course, in many cases, students are not necessarily innocent. But they remain students, and the student-supervisor power relations are tilted in favor of the professor. The onus should be placed on the professor who ought never to begrudge opportunity, curse success, unfairly claim possession of work that is not theirs, crudely punish or even deliberately stall progress on the dissertation. It is depressing to imagine the shaky grounds on which our future scholarship seems to rest. We need to have a more nuanced and open conversation on these institutional challenges around mentorship.