By Bekalu Atnafu Taye, PhD
In the academic circle, it is believed that new ideas are born through arguments and discussions. Educationally speaking, students are not expected to be tied up with information obtained from teachers. The students might not endorse the cherished beliefs of teachers in the face of new discoveries. But there might be some teachers who deviate from this line of thinking. A case in point is the experience I had in the Department of English, Addis Ababa University.
I was a prospective graduate in 2010 with PhD from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature (with its former name). Accordingly, I submitted my doctoral thesis to the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature on March 13, 2010. Almost two months after my submission of the thesis, on May 3, 2010, I received a letter from the chairperson asking me to submit all the primary data of my research within 16 hours. I submitted all the required data within three hours. I asked the concerned individuals the reason for such unusual enquiry and I learnt that the chairperson that was not in good terms with me made himself an assessor of my thesis and he declared that the data was ‘dubious’.
This happened for two reasons. The first reason was that my PhD research finding stood against the interest of the Department. The findings of the study showed that most teachers in the Department of English had used power distance as a defense mechanism to cover up for their weaknesses. Although the competence of teachers has been a long- standing concern in the Department, teachers have not begun to understand the weaknesses they have developed. The falling standard of education is very vivid in the Department of English but when teachers came across such types of findings, they went crazy. They do not know that they hide themselves in the University campus. Not being able to entertain such findings could not cultivate the intellectual qualities of students. It is completely unscientific and pedagogically wrong not to consider different areas of inquiry and findings. Educated people are supposed to be open to different views, opinions and issues. They should not expect pre-formulated findings showing their positive image. This is really a mark of academic failure. It is really shameful both to be ignorant of the current pedagogical theories and to deny the application of these theories and to deny students getting new ideas through unexpected findings.
The second reason was due to the fact that the former chairperson and I had a personal dispute during seminar presentations. The dispute arose because I could not entertain every comment he forwarded with regard to my thesis; I could not hang my head in fear while he raised questions during seminar presentations. Owing to this, he threatened that I would not complete my studies.
In relation to the disagreement that the chairperson and I had, my academic advisor stated the following points in a letter written to the Dean of FLS (Faculty of Language Studies):
The chairperson, who was not in good terms with the student, opted to be one of the readers. Then, he accused the candidate of fabricating the data he collected. The candidate has become a victim of the pointless distrust on the part of one of the anonymous readers (the former chairperson) with whom I observed the candidate had some unpleasant exchanges (October 20, 2010).
For the dispute we had, the former chairperson wanted an opportunity for revenge. Then, when I submitted the thesis to the Department, he made himself an assessor of the PhD dissertation. In his capacity as an assessor, the chairperson did not figure out major shortcomings from the thesis but he blackened my name and claimed that the data used was ‘dubious’. Blackening someone’s name is the behavior of wicked people. Such people, by doing so, stir up trouble; this is really a mark of academic immaturity. This act is the visible image of the invisible ignorance. These people need an infantile guidance, leading to the renewal of their thoughts which are full of evil schemes. Had the objective of the chairperson been verifying the ‘suspected data’, the best ways of verifying the data should not have been left aside.
The authenticity of the data could have been checked in various ways without delay. Even the submission of the data within three hours was the best witness to beat the thoughts of the chairperson. Every data was submitted on time and was made available at the chairperson’s office. In line with the authenticity of the data, my academic advisor stated the following in a letter written to CSSH (College of Social Sciences and Humanities):
The teachers and students can still be contacted if their witness clarification is required. All the teachers he interviewed are still teaching in their respective departments. All the students he collected data from are still attending classes (October 20, 2010, June20, 2010, August 10, 2010).
Blackening my name was in revenge for the confrontation made in the seminar presentations. It is ridiculous to think of revenge and to threaten students. My academic advisor stated the following:
The former chairperson threatened that he would fire the student from the PhD program (if possible) or he would delay him from completing his studies.
All these happened due to the fact that I confidently argued and discussed research issues. Basically, knowledge is a social asset that can be generated, transmitted, criticized and re-created for the benefits of society (UNESCO, 1998). Contrary to this hard fact, some teachers, like the chairperson, perceive that their knowledge could not be challenged and criticized. As per the words of the advisor too, the chairperson swore to take revenge on me, using his academic power in the wrong way. The conclusive proof for the autocratic trait of the chairperson was the threatening remarks he made before the advisor. Such autocratic teachers would prefer to give students a tutorial-like guidance, which could not upgrade new inquiries and discoveries. Such teachers want students to be silent and recipients of only their ideas. Mode of thinking like this would not enable students to be autonomous and responsible citizens. It is also unprofessional to limit the students’ perceptions and make them see things only in the eyes of their teachers.
To address his purpose, the chairperson brought the case to the attention of the Department Graduate Committee (DGC) and the DGC members accepted the chair’s claim, without any enquiry. The DGC members did not have the stamina to stand against the claim of the chairperson because they were afraid of him. The former chairperson didnot appear to be an academic leader rather he seemed to be an autocratic military general.
The Department Graduate Committee had a subsequent meeting and they formed a three- man committee called ‘Independent Committee’ to verify if the data used to write the dissertation was authentic or not. With regard to the independent committee, my academic advisor addressed the points below in a letter written to CSSH:
The DGC formed a committee that would look into the case. The terms of reference of the committee was also prepared by the chairperson without consulting members of the DGC (October 20, 2010).
The chairperson started lobbying at department level to reaffirm that the data was ‘dubious’ and he imposed his will on the ‘Independent Committee’ and the committee also accepted the chair’s intention. It was funny to give the name ‘independent Committee’ for a committee which was not. After some time, the DGC held a meeting and discussed the reports of the committee. Finally, I heard that they would not find a room to fire me. But, I was asked to collect the data again, implying that I would do another PhD work. I did not take the Department’s attacks passively, rather I fought back. That is, I completely rejected the decisions of the Department because I knew what I did and I took the case to higher officials.
Members of the DGC were completely loyal to the chairperson. To show their loyalty, they blindly accepted the reports of the chairperson without raising any question. The failure of the DGC to crosscheck the document makes them accomplice to the crime.
The chairperson offered the ‘independent committee’ a legislative framework, addressing his intention of harming me. Committed to their social affiliation rather than the professional and moral principles, the ‘independent committee’ endorsed the will of the chairperson. They could not be open and fair; certainty and truth are challenged by interpersonal relationships. Here a dichotomy was created between academic integrity and social affiliation. When members of the committee are caught in ‘group think’, members value unity so much that they refuse to voice doubts, even when they see the group headed in a dangerous direction (Grilffin,2006). In my case, academic decisions suffered at the expense of social affiliations. Both the DGC members and the ‘Independent Committee’ lacked intellectual and moral solidarity; they served individual needs rather than honesty and truth. Teachers particularly in higher learning institutions are supposed to have independent and inquisitive minds but here the ‘independent committee’ as well as the DGC members alienated themselves from the truth and they simply trusted the intentions of their chairperson. It is really unprofessional.
The chairperson used a systematic brainwashing and most of the DGC members served to propagate the will of their colleague. All the ‘independent committee’ and the DGC members were puppets; they simply accepted what their boss had recited before. It was observable that the chairperson influenced both the DGC and the ‘independent committee’. It is a remarkable academic failure. The inner most intention of the chairperson tended to harm me under different pretexts. It is ridiculous to see such things from the chairperson of the Department, the ‘independent committee’ and DGC members- persons who were supposed to arm themselves with the highest level of academic and ethical standards. These people have had uncivilized courage and ignorance to exhibit their ill-gotten behavior that does not fit to the contemporary world.
Objectivity, broadmindedness, perseverance, impartiality and intellectual rigor are required from genuine scholars. But the sampled scholars are devoid of such qualities. Both the DGC and the ‘independent committee’ were not devoted to the pursuit of truth. They could not play their rightful roles. No-one rightly condemned the wrong deeds of the chairperson; no-one critically and intelligently examined my voice and the voice of my advisor. This was an academic matter that could be objectively tested but the academic decisions tended to be sacrificed for social affiliations.
Education could not liberate these teachers from being loyal to the individual’s needs. Needless to say, the value of education is to sharpen the judgment of individual but these teachers were servants for individual needs.
Regarding the thesis, my academic advisor noted the following points in a letter written to the Director of CSSH:
I have been able to witness that the student has worked very hard, read widely and comfortably grasped the subject matter he has been working on. I can also say that he has used sound methods to link the psychological and social milieu with learners’ affective factors. I have never doubted his academic integrity. He spent a lot of his time with teachers and students trying to create good rapport and collect valid and reliable data. In short, the student has had the vigor and strength of thought required of a PhD candidate and this has been reflected in the thesis he has produced (October 20, 2010).
No-one would be better positioned to substantiate the nature of the thesis other than the advisor. But my advisor was not consulted for every measure the Department took because he did not participate with them.
Later, I took the case to the President’s Office (the former president). The President sent the case to the Legal Department of the University. After receiving the assignment from the President’s Office, the Legal Department of the University, on its part, interviewed the chairperson of the Department, my advisor and me. Finally, the Legal Department of the University in its report written to the President stated the following:
The decisions of the ‘Independent Committee’ and the DGC were Improper (September 20, 2011)
Here, no-one was able to consider the decision of the Legal Department, not even the former president of the University. Rather, the case was sent to the Dean of the Faculty of Language Studies. But the Dean of the Faculty of Language Studies was a perfect handicap in dealing with such issues. The Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies sent the case to the Director of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. The Director’s Office gave the assignment of checking the authenticity of the data to an assessor. The assessor slept over the case for more than eight months without fully checking the data but the assessor finally reported in a letter written to CSSH as follows:
The PhD document is essentially a research report of 197 pages. The materials heavily rely on extensive psychological sources in its address of foreign language anxiety in the English classes at AAU. It underscores the intertwinement of both the cognitive and affective domains in stating the problem and addressing this psychological issues of anxiety. The document is consistent and readable despite the repetitive style of the writer (April 1, 2011).
After all these, no-one was able to pass any decision. I hung around, looking for solutions, with feelings of sorrow deep inside, protesting against the Department head’s irrational attack; but in general my disgruntled voices have received a deaf ear for two years.
The anonymous assessor took a long time. The bulk of the analysis was based on data collected through interviews and focus group discussions. Therefore, listening to the recorded responses of the participants and checking with the transcriptions should not have taken so much time. To an outsider of AAU, this is astonishing (sleeping over a case for more than eight months). But for members of the inner group, this is a common experience. Several similar happenings do run in such a way. This is an academic institution; these are academicians who produce tomorrow’s leaders, scientists, researchers, teachers and civil servants. These people could be models or figures for nothing. The University has to polish its institutional culture.
My case tended to be buried beneath the tables of all offices almost for two years (the Dean’s Office, the Director’s Office and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies). My case was unjustly neglected and the delay was unjustifiable; it is academically unsound not to give decisions on time. Most of these offices became trouble makers on student’s academic life rather than being trouble shooters. Bluntly speaking, individuals in charge of these offices have never been highly functioning people; they did not have the confidence to make decisions.
This indicated that being assigned as a Dean, a Director and a Vice President for Research and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies could not ensure the possession of the required skills of making decisions. These people were simple academicians devoid of basic managerial skills, talents and competence. They lost their leadership modesty. The first reason for not making a timely decision was that these academic leaders did not want to lose their social relationships; most of them were servants only to their relationships, not to the prevailing truth. They felt that they would contradict the teacher with whom I did not agree. They did not want to reverse the decision of the teacher who quarreled with me. They thought that resisting their colleague’s decision might make them lose their social prestige. Right decision was equated with social affiliation but not truth or evidence. Relationship is perceived to have more value than the truth. At the AAU, no-one wants to expose his/her colleagues; these people are prisoners of the established practices of the institution.
The second dominant reason for the delay was fear of making decisions. Fear is a common cold of every higher official of the University; particularly, if they are confronted with competing claims or cases. They are generally hesitant about expressing strong opinions. They are sacred of making decisions. They hold powerful academic offices but they are handicapped by fear. They are inadequate to meet the demands of the positions they hold. They are a disgrace to the Department, Faculty, College and to the University at large. Had they been in the highest level of ethical standards, they would have felt guilty for their wrongdoing and they would have resigned from their positions. My voice was heard at all levels. Finally, I took the case to the Ministry of Education. State Minister for Higher Education wrote a letter to the President of the University (the current President). Based on the letter written, the current President called a meeting to which my advisor and I were invited. We discussed the case in detail and the President requested the Department to offer him a response within a week. A week after, the Department allowed me to defend my dissertation without any conditions, forgetting the claim the Department had made earlier. At last, I finally won the battle and defended my thesis.
With regard to my dissertation, the external examiner who came from Great Britain stated the following points in the report he compiled:
This study makes a useful contribution to the field in that it incorporates insights from psychology and considers their effects on language learning. The literature review covers the relevant points, the questions asked are in general clear, the data collected is appropriate and in general well analyzed and discussed. Both examiners said that they had enjoyed reading the work. Overall, subject to the minor changes, the work is deserving of the award of PhD (December 12, 2011).
Rather than considering the scholarly performance of students, teachers committed themselves fully to consider the level of submission students exhibited. Furthermore, a close interdependence exists among teachers; but this close link is not formed to conduct research but to harm students who do not submit themselves to the will of dictatorial teachers. Students who have personal and professional integrity could be the subjects of their attacks.
There is a clear need for promoting the spirit of enquiry. This happens through discussion and professional dialogue. Discussion is a basic condition for learning; students come from a wide-ranging background and they have diversified views. It is through discussion that one can sharpen others’ idea. This being the case, some teachers maintain very traditional thought and misinterpret the discussion or arguments of students differently.
My appeal bounced back and affected me. Thus, other fellow students would come to understand that their voices of compliant are unheard. This makes students become slaves of autocratic behaviors of teaches; they could not be themselves. This situation forces the University to be an incubator of citizens who have low self-esteem.
In the past and to a large extent in the present, there is a common sentiment among University teachers that they do not want to resist the decisions of their colleagues despite the fact that the decision is wrong. Teachers are prewired to respond similarly. They could not weigh things objectively and dispassionately.
It was found out that absence of a critical and detached view on the part of the DGC members and the ‘independent committee’, coupled with the indecisive traits of the concerned offices in the University, made my case intricate. Some of today’s academic leaders are not responsive. They could not close the substantial gap separating students from teachers. They do not have the readiness and the desired talent to assume positions; they are not equipped with the basic managerial skills, competence and confidence.
In the Department of English, academic competence does not pay off. Rather the behavior of the students and the level of social rapport with teachers would be evaluated. Students should form a secured attachment and productive interpersonal relationship in order to complete their studies. No-one bothers about the immature language usage and research skills students have. Stuttering students have been viewed in a positive light if they have formed a bond with the concerned individuals. This is because teachers themselves have milder or severe impairments in using the language. The competence of teachers is an issue generating considerable discussion. This is a living legend in the Department of English. If COC (Certificate Of Competence) examination were to be introduced in AAU, particularly, in the Department of English, real academicians who would be few in number, would be differentiated from technicians. I long to see this happening.
This article stimulates considerable research into the area of the Department and the academic leaders of the University. This case implies that any student who does not become receptive to the ideas of a teacher is the target of attack. When a student confronts a teacher, his/her confrontation will bear multiple meanings and implications. Such acts are contemptible.
I am not bitter about my delay because I believe that God has a divine purpose for the timing of everything. But we have to fight irregularities and my case should be a lesson to learn form; so no-one will suffer in a similar way.
The interpretation of this story gives a window through which to view the tasks done in the Department of English and the University at large.
♦ I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Berhanu Bogale, my advisor, Dr. Kaba Urgessa, State Minister for Higher Education, and Ato Birhanemeskel Tena, Head of Higher Education Capacity Building Desk. My effort would have been in vain if these genuine scholars had turned my case down. Once again, thank you all; please keep on fighting such odds.
♦ The thesis has been published as a monograph and available at: http://www.amazon.com/
♦ Dear readers, I will have the second article in the weeks to come.
♦The author can be reached at : email@example.com
♦References Grilffin K. (2006). Human Communication. McGraw-Hill International Editions, Seventh Editions. New York: UNESCO (1998). World Conference on Higher Education. Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century: Vision and Action: Paris.
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