Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Inspirational University Lecturers: A Rare Breed, Indeed

8 November 2011

Last week I was privileged to launch the opening of a student photographic exhibition at UCT, entitled Imagining Our Worlds. It was a celebration of what is possible when lecturers inspire their students.

Five post-graduate students in Film and Media, with camera in hand, travelled around the Cape crossing race, class and cultural barriers to understand the world and underworld of the informal economy, others, captured the sub-cultures of those living on the margins, and another tried to portray “the traces of humanity and humans in a context of unbounded nature.”

Coloured, African and White, local and foreign, these students produced an aesthetically pleasing and erudite display of their work, often crossing over into the realms of ethnography, anthropology, and sociology. They all claimed that this course was the highlight of their academic experience at UCT, firstly because their teacher, Paul Weinberg, was the best they had during their entire learning experience. He taught them what he knew about his craft without indulging in theoretical hogwash. “Instructors like Paul are rare. He was committed to sharing his time and sharing himself. Class was like hanging out in a pub...just without booze...lots of laughs.” “He eschews theoretical bullshit; he is refreshing and much of his teaching is experienced-based. He teaches us what he knows, and he knows a helluva lot!”

Is that not how Oxford University’s tutorial system works? Personalised attention and tutelage?

When students are passionate and enthusiastic about their courses, then we should celebrate them; more importantly, we should celebrate the teacher who gets it right. Paul Weinberg is not only a renowned photographer, whose works everyone knows, but he is also an amazing teacher, who as a teacher occupies a role few have the privilege to witness. Two comments capture the essence of who he is: “He embraces all that is South African.” “His work has been against the traffic challenging stereotypes.” Weinberg jolted his students out of the straightjacket of political correctness; he got them to explore the world around them and view life “against the traffic” so to speak. As young adults they have become grounded in their identities – conscious of who they are through discovering the magic of photography. He taught this class to look beneath the surface; to capture the world upside down and on its side, as confirmed by William Allard in “The Photographic Essay”: “I think the best pictures are often on the edges of any situation, I don't find photographing the situation nearly as interesting as photographing the edges.

Peter-Jon Grove, born in Komaggas, reading a MA in Historical Studies, exhibited a photo-story called Hands and Feet. Asking the question “what is the physical cost of our professions and history upon our person” he portrays the hands and feet of a range of personalities in every nook and cranny of Cape Town. Grove discovers the “in-between worlds” inhabited by people and he reveals, starkly that “the labours ... we undertake leave their marks on us, on our body parts.”

Chiedza Mutizwa-Mangiza from Zimbabwe and Nairobi ventured into the hot-spot of racial tension, Ruyterwacht Caravan Park, capturing the lives of sixteen households of inter-marriage, “each representing a racial group that often sits outside the discourses on poverty.” Her goal was to portray “the changing racial dynamics of inequality in post-apartheid South Africa”, and the result is excellent!

Kayleigh Roos, “too young to understand what the word apartheid meant” revisited some of the places and events captured by iconic struggle photographers in black and white and juxtaposed her photographs with these “to preserve memory and [create] new memories for our generation and those to come.”

Candice Jansen set out to explore Retreat Road, her home ground. It is 3km in length, and as she claims, it is “a sounding board for the nostalgia of its past and aspirations for its future – Retreat Road is the heartbeat of Retreat.”  All her life she walked past those little shops, 134 in total, but it was only in choosing this as an area of exploration with her camera that her eyes opened to what lurks behind the informal economy: economic refugees, weird and wonderful examples of entrepreneurship; people who circumvent red tape, who beat the system, who make money, who make deals, who survive, who make an honest and dishonest living, who go to church and funerals, and so on. Powerfully, she demonstrates that “the goal is not to change your subjects, but for the subject to change the photographer.”

There are many lecturers in our universities who stifle students, who kill their spirit and who even feel threatened by students who ask questions. Weinberg reversed this for his students and succeeded in making his students see the world rather than just look at it.

"Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own." Nikos Kazantzakis

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