- Maya Angelou, "Our Grandmothers"
(Thoughts shared with the Faculty Council of USIU - Africa, on 20th Feb 2016)
I was asked to speak about creating an online presence as an academic, which was in turn linked to the importance of branding. Although I can understand my work being linked to market values, I remain uncomfortable with using corporate metaphors to describe what I do on my blog and on social media.
I started blogging almost 10 years ago, on a blog called The Zeleza Post. Yes, it was a website set up by Prof Tiyambe Zeleza, who is now USIU’s Vice-Chancellor. I had just completed my PhD and was moving back to Kenya, and I was mourning the fact that I had just sealed my fate in singlehood. So when he first asked me to write a post, I declined because I felt a public profile might interfere with my marriageability. That was not what I told him, but that’s what it was.
And since we’re celebrating black history month this month, I would say that having academics speak into public conversations has always been an urgent need for pan-African intellectuals. Why? It is because, as my friend Lewis Gordon has repeatedly said, freedom has been a major and immediate pre-occupation of peoples of the motherland and diaspora, and so intellectuals have felt that their work is not simply for teaching in the classroom or for gaining accolades. Over the last six or so centuries, lack of freedom has hit so close to home, from the physical displacement and torture of our bodies on slave ships, in plantations, and in urban mines of colonialism and apartheid, to imposition of foreign languages and curriculum that teach the cultures of others but ourselves, to our economic livelihoods in an imbalanced global economy. The most immediate struggle of our people is for political, economic and cultural dignity, and any African intellectual worth his or her salt has always had to grapple with that.
And that was the heritage from which I began publishing blogs from The Zeleza Post. Already, reading Mwalimu’s work, especially on the history and condition of higher education in Africa and its diaspora, had empowered me as a PhD student in a predominately white environment. But also, as a student of French, I had become familiar with the debates about commitment (“engagement”), an expectation made many African intellectuals feel that their freedom to choose the subject of their books was being curtailed.
However, that tension was clarified for me by Lewis Gordon. In Her Majesty’s other children, Gordon writes that we live in a world that has an impact on the meaning of what we write. The question for Africana intellectuals, therefore, is not whether we are qualified to speak, but whose side we’re on in this polarized global economy. And he likens the job of intellectuals to that of a playwright, saying that our calling is to dramatize global events for our people. When an audience watches a play, they are watching life being simulated on a stage and in so doing, they get a clearer picture of the motivations behind certain events, and of certain characters. In that way, the audience better understands the real-life drama outside the theater’s walls.
And that’s what my blogging has been about – to explain the stage on which events take place. I have always seen my vocation as providing clarity on the issues we’re grappling with in the public sphere and that affect us privately. That is why my blog remains a little difficult to classify. People tell me that I write about politics, but actually, my focus is on ordinary life and how it is affected by things such as politics, and where our lives stand in history. Like the tagline on my blog says, I write for love and revolution.
My discomfort with branding
Because of this market imperative, I asked the students how can I reach them to tell them about our classes. Their reply: social media. So in fact, I opened the department facebook page before I opened my personal one.
Essentially, students have added the dimension of marketing to blogging. A few years ago, I hooked up with the Bloggers’ Association of Kenya, and invited them to help us with workshops and to promote blogging among students as a way of writing. My primary interest then was for us in language to establish ourselves as “relevant” to the market by promoting writing. However, attending forums at NaiLab on Ngong Road was so life-changing for me. I loved being an ordinary student, taught by younger people about the digital media, and eventually my initial interest in blogging for marketing gave way to a genuine desire for our students to blog so that they became better writers. Just like blogging had helped me become a better writer.
So my experience with social media, both as a teacher and an administrator, shows that I have obtained a significant market value for my intellectual and administrative output. However, I must point out that the motivation for my work is not the market. My motivation is my social (and not corporate social) responsibility. It is the legacy of great thinkers over the centuries who have said that freedom is not only economic, but also cultural and intellectual. I believe that the role of the intellectual, just like the role ingrained in our African oral artists and philosophers such as the griots, is to clarify issues by putting them in a broader geo-historical perspective. The internet for me is a vehicle no different from books, or from songs and epics before them.
Nevertheless, I am aware that the neo-liberal ideology has become so dominant, that it has trapped us into defining and our academic vocation in corporate terms. My belief, however, is that corporatization demeans the higher ideals to which we have been called as academics. For instance, the word “branding” is rooted in the practice of burning an indelible mark on cattle so that they are easily identifiable. Applying branding to our academic output, or our career prospects, raises troubling questions about the demeaning of our humanity, especially when we remember the branding of slaves or of Holocaust victims.
I have read publications on marketing and branding where writers promise that branding helps improve the quality of a product and enhances the reputation of the brand and consumers’ trust in the product. However, I disagree with such writers that the link between brand enhancement and consumer trust and social service is that direct. In fact, I think what branding does is the process that Roland Barthes explains in his book Mythologies. Initially, a product or service may gain public trust because of its good quality. That means the initial goal, besides making money, may have been to render a service. But when we focus on the brand, which means protecting a reputation, we risk slipping into complacency and into investing more resources in the name, than in the services that gained us that name.
That is what we’re witnessing when the amount of resources universities spend on marketing is fast catching up with the amount spent on boosting academic programs that are vital for a robust civic life. And so we’re witnessing more bogus universities being hurriedly set up, part-time lecturers being exploited through literal slave labor, and form four leavers and BA degree holders teaching and supervising at post-graduate level. To use Barthes’s terms, the signifier – the certificate – is replacing the signified, which is a proper education.
So, I would encourage us academics to increase our online presence, not because we want to market or create a brand, but because our goal is higher – it is to be part of our society’s journey towards becoming a more cohesive nation. I would suggest that online presence should be Kenyan academics' contribution to public discourse. We have academics before us who engaged in public issues, from Micere Mugo to ES Atieno Odhiambo before us, to many others before them. So, while we would be blogging individually, we will be standing in the name of thousands of African peoples who have been committed to intellectual production over the centuries. And then hopefully, our brand as people who can be relied on for vigorous intellectual output will automatically follow.