Students and Strops. An Academic in Africa

'she was overtaken with flouncy teenage indignation'. DR meets the students.


The students are turning out to be the usual mix of committed, disinterested, pleasant, arrogant and outright hilarious.  Sometimes all at once.  Witness, for example, some of the excuses that we’ve been presented with this term.

One girl went to Peter and asked for two weeks off.  He asked if she was going to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – and if she’d any sense she’d have said yes because it would have got her the time off no questions asked.  Instead she said no, she wanted to go to Dubai for two weeks to go shopping.  Brilliant.  Especially as she was surprised that the answer was “no”.

Another student, two days after she had enrolled during Week 7 of term, came with a similar request.  Rather than asking how she could catch up with what she missed, having lost over half the semester, she came and said that she wanted to take the next two weeks off to go to Spain.  Why?  Medical reasons.  And those are?  I get headaches.

I’m glad it wasn’t me that had to deal with that request because I think I would have just laughed at her.  It sounds a bit too much like an E.M. Forster novel where a frail young thing has to go and spend three months in a warmer climate for her nerves.  I did have a girl come in and tell me that the reason she was trying to hand something in two weeks late without any apology was that she’d been away at her mother’s burial.  When I asked her when this was and why she hadn’t told me in advance, she replied that “they didn’t tell me until the last minute”.

this inclined me to think that she was lying

Now, forgive me for sounding like a cynical old bastard, but this inclined me to think that she was lying.  People tend to know when their own mother’s funeral is, and as she said she hadn’t left until over a week after the work was due anyway, my sympathy was short.   The girl was not pleased when I told her that I wouldn’t accept her submission – but not in a way that suggested to me she was overtaken in grief.  In fact she was overtaken with flouncy teenage indignation, especially after I told her not to take that tone with me and that she should leave my office immediately.  She slammed the door quite loudly.

I am getting much better (although I‘m not sure this is a good thing) at all this crowd control malarkey.  It’s not fun, but it seems to work, and they sure as hell don’t talk whilst I do in a lecture, and I only have to look at someone with a mobile phone in their hand to make them cringe.

Unfortunately, some of the wider realisations they need to make are going to be more difficult to instil.  The idea of thinking critically about something rather than just memorising what you’ve been told is still pretty alien to most of them.  For example, I did a seminar with the first cohort the other day on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s essay “Decolonising the Mind”.  Ngugi’s a Kenyan author, author of some very famous postcolonial novels and also known for deciding in the 1980s that he would no longer write in English, but in his native language, Kikuyu.

The essay is an explanation of why he chose to repudiate English, and a look at the ways in which the British Empire sought to impose their language and culture on Kenya – in other words, how it colonised minds as well as land.  The discussion we had around this was genuinely interesting at points, but when I asked them at the end the impact that colonialism had had on them, it was a bit depressing.

“the real Nigeria” – which one?

“It brought us civilisation”.  “It transformed the country”.  Was it a good thing?  Yes, unquestionably.  They sounded like poster boys for Empire from the early 1900s.  I tried to point out that Ngugi would be disappointed with the extent to which they had swallowed the colonial myth whole, and to be fair some of them got what I meant.  Most of them just looked bored though.  That’s the problem when you hear people talking about “the real Nigeria” – which one?  Because the answer is that the real one is just as much the spoilt rich kids here who are more interested in the latest iPhone as it is someone living in a mud hut in Yobe and living off N50 a day.

To a certain extent I’m not interested in this idea of the “real” place.  It’s a dangerous way to look at things I think, that is half a Beach style “real traveller” thing to say, and part a neo-colonial mindset that has a tendency towards other pearls of wisdom like “oh, but the people are wonderful.  So friendly.”  Especially if they’re doing picturesque, “traditional” things.

I also don’t know if I like Nigeria

I don’t know if I am in the “real Nigeria” or not, but nor do I care.  I also don’t know if I like Nigeria, but it’s one of the first questions anyone wants to ask you.  The truth is that it’s more complex than saying yes or no – it always is.  But then that just sounds like a cop-out, which leaves you between a rock and a hard place.

Still, I’d rather be a cop out than a cliche.

In other news, it’s matriculation again in two weeks’ time.  This time we’re supposed to be angling to have Goodluck himself pop over, but I doubt it’ll happen.  What I do know is that a Nigerian tailor is making a knock off version of a Sussex PhD gown for me, so I will be in attendance looking even more ridiculous than last time.  Which is saying something.

I just hope I get away without having to wear the hat.  A small mercy, and unfortunately, an even smaller chance.  Whatever happens, there will be speeches.

It might be a good day to get food poisoning, all in all.   

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