Daystar University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL)
March 19 and 21, 2014
Wow. I’m honored to have been invited to the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning because at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t sure I could handle any more disappointment regarding our department. I asked God to please give us at least some recognition for all we’ve done over the past six years, and I take this invitation as one of the many answers to my prayers. Looking back over the last few years, I now see that despite the difficult journey, God has done exceedingly more than we asked for. And although we remain uncertain, we the faculty are convinced that what we are doing is right, and that because it is right, God shall fight for us, and has been fighting for us. The battle belongs to the Lord.
The details about our session today indicated that I was supposed to address what to do when students think our courses are “ho-hum, boring and lackluster.” Actually, the attitude towards the courses offered by our department has been worse than that. Students have been thinking that our courses have no relevance to the working world. But they do not think that on their own initiative. Rather, they are echoing the message they have been hearing from others both within and outside the university. Besides hearing faulty advice on what is “marketable,” students also live in an environment where politicians, both in Kenya and worldwide, have attacked the arts as a waste of resources of higher education.
A more politically correct term for “little sex appeal” would be “little commercial appeal,” but using the word “commercial” would suggest that graduates of the arts and sciences are unemployable, when in fact they do excel. When the Creatives Academy hosted Ken Walibora – whose work in Kiswahili is simply outstanding, and brilliant story-tellers Ng’ang’a Mbugua and Kap Kirwok, it was humbling to realize we were in the same room with people who have excelled in both literature and the media. However, in the fragmented public mind, only the people who have done media studies work in the media. But we also understand why the public mind wants key words and finds it difficult to keep in mind that literature, music, language and visual arts are essential tools for communicators. With all the noise in the public space coming from the media, politicians and the entertainment industry, details about the value of the arts and humanities are not appealing to listen to, let alone think about. And our department has accepted this reality, and that is why we literally scream about different debates and achievements related to the study of language and music.
In this difficult environment, what are some of our achievements so far?
- The submission of a book manuscript in Kigiriama language as an ENG 597 project by our recent alumnus Robert Kayaa. As far as we know, it is the largest such text in the language.
- In January 2012 we held a class on African political thought that was open to members of the public, and some have testified that the class greatly helped them in articulating political issues.
- The Creatives Academy, which we are running with Kinyanjui Kombani, has been a blessing and surprise. Kenyans have embraced this idea, from the writers and speakers, and even the people who couldn’t come. Every retweet, every “like” or “favorite,” or “share” on social media, including from people like Caroline Mutoko, is the best endorsement I could ever have dreamed of.
- Our Book Club, an initiative of Mike Kuria, is another of our star activities. It brings us together in an informal setting to discuss literature. Our Book Club is like the church as described in Galatians 3:28, in our Book Club, there are no doctors, professors, students and lecturers – just lovers of literature.
- We have witnessed a modest rise in the size of our classes. We are getting more students from other majors taking our classes as electives. However, we have recently realized that some people still don’t understand the concept of the liberal arts, and so they don’t understand that taking free electives is a requirement and it need not add an extra cost or lengthen a student’s stay before graduation.
- Our Music Production class in January 2013 taught by Prof Jack Ballard of Malone University was the first class in music, besides the MUS 111, that had more than 20 students registered. Even the story of how Prof Ballard first got in touch with us is a miracle in itself.
- After an aggressive promotion last year, we have finally registered more students in the Hip Hop class taught by Pastor Curtis Reed this semester. This is another class I’m passionate about, because I find it unfortunate that few hip hop artists know the spiritual and historical roots of this great genre.
- Our interactions with Prof. Helen Walker from Messiah College have led our department to rethink how we teach writing, and what we can make writing do.
So how has our department managed to weather the storm and market our classes? I would sum it up in one word: conviction.
Conviction is a firmly held belief that has driven world events that have brought healing and social change. Conviction is deeply personal, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It makes human beings resist torture and oppression, even when the world is urging them to cave in. Conviction makes people believe that what they are fighting for will eventually come to pass,even though they may not live to see that day come. It was conviction that inspired Martin Luther King Junior to say a day before his death, “I've been to the mountain top…and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Conviction is what has distinguished the supporters of the arts and humanities on one hand, from the detractors and skeptics on the other.
And how do we get conviction? Conviction is built on faith, knowledge and love.
Our conviction is founded on our faith, which is built on our love for God and our belief that we in the arts and humanities are legitimate members of Christ’s body and the Daystar community. We also believe in the power of the Cross to break down artificially created barriers that prevent human beings from understanding the world in which they live. And this is the faith that drives us to keep talking about the value of our programs.
The other pillar of our conviction is a pan-African consciousness that keeps in mind the history and achievements of Africans worldwide since antiquity. From this history, we know that Africans were scientific long before the introduction of Western schooling, and therefore we vehemently oppose the argument that since Western countries developed through privileging the sciences, Africans should do the same and pay less attention to the arts. The history of our continent does not support these claims. The complex dyes used for the beautiful fabrics woven across the continent, the architecture and sculptures, the medicines used in rituals, were all based on science. However, we cannot draw the scientific lessons from African achievements before the 19th century if our sculptures, fabrics and tools are sitting in Western museums and are hardly taught about in our schools these days. Art is the store of science, and so claims that these two disciplines must be considered as separate, and that science must be valued over arts, is an agenda that does not include the advancement of Africans or of humanity.
We also know that the so-called developed countries have such strong cultural industries that provide the vehicle for the sciences. Even the science that experienced an explosion in 18th century Enlightenment Europe was also accompanied by classics in philosophy, literature and law by people like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Hollywood is one of the biggest pillars of America’s dominance of the world, just as is the English and French languages in Africa. It is therefore simply not true that the West neglected the arts.
Above all, our conviction is based on love. Love for each other as faculty, but most of all for our students. Whatever we do is driven by the human beings in our classes, and our belief that they can become greater children of God. This contrasts us with detractors of the arts who base their positions on material concerns such as jobs, balance sheets and the market. It is not that those things are not important. But we in the humanities know that these things cannot be done well if the human beings are broken and without a life that is conscious of God, themselves and others. So we’re not fighting for our survival; we’re fighting for humanity. This powerful conviction makes us hold onto hope, and drives us to tell students that they must take the arts, or at least support them, for the sake of humanity.
Our conviction about our calling in the arts and humanities has translated into the following actions.
Seeing students as human beings
For us, students are not customers or consumers – they are human beings who are complete even in their youth, and still becoming complete. The purpose of education is to facilitate this process of perfection through knowledge. The Apostle Paul talked about this mystery in 1 Corinthians 13: 12 – “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” Therefore, when we teach our classes, we’re teaching students to be the best human beings they can be. That has meant that in our classes, the goal is not to teach students to write, act, sing or think; it is to help students become better writers, actors, singers or thinkers. Other times, our goal has been to use the arts to help students become better people and professionals. Some of our success stories include a student who, through writing an ENG 112 project, was able to find reconciliation with her past and her family, or other students who through our mentorship, have received scholarships for graduate studies in the US.
But most of all, many of our students are our friends. We consider them as our colleagues in their own right, and encourage them to write, publish and implement ideas. The students have loved us back, because often they are the ones who tell us the best way to reach the student body. Shine FM and Involvement have also been very helpful in spreading news about our department.
The “relevance” question
Because of the constant accusations of irrelevance against us, we have made a deliberate effort to show how the questions, topics and skills taught in each class are relevant to questions in the outside world. For instance, every session of our ENG 213 (literary theory) class last semester began with a discussion of the Literary Discourse magazine in the previous Saturday’s Nation newspaper, so that students could use the knowledge gained in class to engage the issues raised by the public. We have made our drama class fully practical, and assessment is in terms of a project that students have to perform at the end of the semester. The Creatives Academy was also driven by the desire to show students that it was not true that writing and literature have no career prospects. Our exam questions are almost all application questions that require critical thinking, and in fact, we'd like to move away from final exams altogether.
Tied to this effort is our commitment to creating content. We post the book reviews we write on our department website, and this activity has now flourished into Larry Ndivo's fully fledged blog that is now serialized in The People newspaper. We also put our speeches, lectures and class proceedings on the website, on Soundcloud, Twitter and youtube. We greatly encourage students to also write for the website, and so one of our book reviews was written by Dorcas Koome, who was then a student of LIT 111. The student tutors and alumni of our Writing and Speech Center have also written articles that are published on the website. Our purpose is twofold: to make a contribution to humanity as a whole, but also to draw prospective students through showing them what our degrees have enabled us to do, and can help them do. We also tell the students that having their articles or links to their blogs on our website is something to which they can point prospective employers.
In training our students, we insist that getting a “marketable” degree is a very limited and short term focus. We tell our students that their goal is to leave university with a portfolio that shows evidence of their skills, and with networks with the outside world. This is why the department is committed to inviting at least two guests to campus every semester.
Our department is quite active on social media, is now preparing to formally establish a community of bloggers, and we hope that soon we shall be able to require that all our majors and minors have a twitter handle. However, we did not set out to be integrated in social media. The reason we got hooked was twofold. First, with no funds for marketing, our best hope of getting out the news and information about our courses was social media. Secondly, social media in the arts world has become a major vehicle of expression and of promotion of artistic material. It was only natural that we got involved in social media and that we insisted on our students doing the same.
The added advantage of our social media platforms is that they have helped us create networks and friendships with the students, and to respond to untruths about our programs in real time, rather than one semester later.
Remaining faithful to the core mission of universities
We feel that one of the core functions of a university, in addition to CSR, is to improve the level of public discourse and thinking on various issues affecting society. That is why our department has opened up classes such as the African political thought and Creatives Academy to members of the public, because our goal is for them to refine, improve, rethink the issues that they confront. In fact, this is a more human version on the MOOCs which open university courses to students worldwide.
A word on marketing
Even though we have ended up marketing our courses, that has not been our primary goal. Our goal has been to inform the public and the students, so that even if they chose not to take our classes, their decision is not based on lies or lack of information about the arts and what our department does.
Our approach, in turn, ties in with an emerging trend in marketing known as “content marketing.” This trend is biased towards creating content that will attract people, rather than through deliberate outreach such as advertising and product promotions.
Building a fire under students?
We believe that every student has a spark that just needs the right information, encouragement and understanding to build it into a flame. We are committed to this mission no matter the cost, and it is probably this consistency and assurance that has made the student body respond positively to our classes. We are glad that CETL has done the same.