Distinguished award for lecturer

Dr Tessa Dowling (in red) with her third-year students. Back row: PhD student Nic de Villiers and section administrator Liziwe Futuse. Front row: Chloe McKellar, Stella Robbins and Finn Lewis

Sit in on one of UCT lecturer Dr Tessa Dowling’s lessons and you just might land up with beach sand between your toes.

Dr Dowling, of Muizenberg, teaches Xhosa as a second language, and she’s been holding some open-air classes on the beach after Covid-19 closed campuses.

“It has been a joy to teach one or two small, socially distanced classes on Muizenberg Beach,” she says. “I even had vocabulary ready for a mugging! This was welcome relief from online teaching.”

True grit is something Dr Dowling seems to have in buckets – and not just from the beach. Last month, she was one of only four recipients of a UCT 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award.

The announcement of the award came the day before her 60th birthday on July 29 and was a ‘’lekker’’ present, she says.

For someone who works in academia, she says, it often seems to be all about theories, conferences, networking and clever ways of getting grants.

“This award means a lot to me, because it shows that the university values the practice of good teaching and all the hard work and creativity that go into it.”

Dr Dowling used the beach visits as a learning curve, and encouraged her students to share stories of their earliest memories of the sea.

“We met in our masks and watched the waves coming in and out (amaza esiza esimka). They had exciting stories to tell of near drownings and being tumbled under the water when very young, so there were lots of material for me to lead them out of the depths of the sea of not knowing the words, into the fresh air of Xhosa communication.”

Dr Dowling says she loves living in the seaside village because her family is close by. “And because you can walk past people and they are talking about their ‘auras’ and you can hear a sentence like ‘Whoah! I was like… ‘ and it means something quite profound. People remember you from way, way, way back. The sea remembers you from way, way, way back and so does the mountain.”

She has taught at UCT for many years, starting at UCT in the late 1980s as a tutor, then as a junior lecturer. She left in 1997 to start African Voices, a company dedicated to producing learning software for South Africa’s African languages, and went back to UCT in 2009. She now teaches Xhosa as a second language in the Xhosa communication stream, all courses from first to third year. She also teaches in the Honours in African languages and literatures programme.

“Some of my students in the Xhosa communication stream are first-language speakers of Xhosa but have never studied their language formally. I even have a private student at Harvard,” she says with a grin.

Dr Dowling says she loves students who are self-motivated, and those who make her laugh and who can laugh at their own errors. Classes have between 60 to 100 students, but there is always room for a giggle, for example, saying “Ndiyabulala (I murder)” instead of “Ndiyabulela (I am grateful)”.

She also enjoys the first-language students who mix Xhosa with English and Afrikaans in creative and expressive ways, such as saying “Ndoyiswe finish * klaar yile korona! (I am so over this corona!)”

She also appreciates students who listen out for everything that is said in the language, and who tell her about Xhosa songs, movies and memes and who get excited and share everything they learn with her.

“What I like least is students who worry too much about marks and too little about why they are learning the language,” she says.

There are some basic things, she believes, that make a great teacher, such as being well prepared and knowing your subject. “Then there is flexibility, humility, humour and a willingness to change to suit the needs of different types of students.”

She first describes her own teaching style as electric, then laughs and describes it as familiar and friendly. Being one of eight children, she says, taught her that people learn a language best when they feel comfortable and at ease.

“You don’t learn your first language by being afraid but by being loved. I think I try to replicate that feeling in my classes.”

That said, she keeps the academic part of the course in mind.

“If students just want to learn phrases, they don’t need an academic course. So, there must be a way of making metalinguistic awareness a part of the course, without losing sight of the real, practical needs of the students.”

As she gets older, she feels her teaching style is changing. “My teaching style is getting far more groovy and innovative. But I still love a morpheme. I actually feel like I could sit back and be taught by my students; there are secrets about the language they need to tell me.”

Having English speakers learning African languages shifts the balance of power, she says, warning that you feel stupid when you learn a new language, but that this is right and just.

When she sees students who couldn’t speak a word of Xhosa three years ago doing research in the language, she sees inclusivity – as when students who are first-language speakers ask her to supervise their theses written in Xhosa, she says.

“When a member of the cleaning staff leans into my lecture room from the passage and puts in a few language observations of their own, that is inclusive.”

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