Journey to the southern tip of South Africa, and you will find yourself in the vibrant city of Cape Town with its richly diverse mix of ethnicities, culture, and language. Although world renowned as a tourist destination, far more importantly from an African perspective, Cape Town is a continental hub for employment and education – both sectors which still experience the effects of South Africa’s difficult history of systemic oppression.

Of particular concern to those of us working in academic development spaces, such as writing centres, is that although undergraduate applicants are hard-working and high achieving, the vast majority come from secondary schools that are ill-resourced to adequately prepare them for tertiary education. Furthermore, many of these students hail from economically vulnerable communities and are the first in their family to attend university. As such, we carry a significant responsibility to ensure that all students have access to the support they need for success at university.

Within this context, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is Africa’s top-ranking university, making it a highly competitive, research- and teaching-intensive institution. And perhaps the most acute example of this is in UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), home to the FHS Writing Lab.

Picture of the Writing Lab in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT

The Writing Lab was established in 2015, unintentionally coinciding with the rise of student activism movements, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. These called strongly for a transformed, decolonial, and Afrocentric approach to economically, culturally, and epistemologically accessible tertiary education in South Africa. Although some experienced this as an attack on academic traditions, for the Writing Lab, it only strengthened our resolve to consciously engage the transformative ideology of the academic literacies approach through socially-just practices (Muna et al., 2019).

Our goal is to provide contextually-situated academic literacies support, in a manner that respects the diversity of lived experience and enables authorial identity development, so that writers are empowered to communicate authentically and effectively.  However, like our schools, our universities also experience significant resource constraints, and so with the small staff team for which our funding allows (two full-time academics, and four part-time postgraduate student consultants/tutors), meeting the needs of the FHS has proved challenging.

The FHS is the largest faculty at UCT with 4500 students; more than half of whom are postgraduates registered across 14 specialist departments, while at the undergraduate level, MBChB and Health and Rehabilitation Sciences programmes are offered. Thus, in addition to providing individual writing consultations and customized workshops for large numbers of students, developing resources, and offering capacity development for staff, the depth and focus of our work is also highly variable as we navigate between levels of study and areas of specialization. Mitigating these complexities has motivated us to focus on the richness of the resources that we do have, limited though they may be. Crucial in this regard, has been our perspective of Writing Lab staff as our most valuable resource, leading to increasing attention to recruitment, training, and staff support.

A wall in the Writing Lab in the Faculty Health Services at UCT

A wall in the Writing Lab in the Faculty Health Services at UCT

Recruitment is targeted towards black applicants who have transformative values, view academic writing as a vehicle for the interrogation of ideas and argument, and hold (or are completing) a masters degree in the biosciences. By constituting a team of ‘disciplinary-insiders”, we have capitalised on our ability to work flexibly and meaningfully with the literacies and genres of health sciences. An additional unanticipated benefit has been in building relationships with staff, who we find are far more willing to work with us, once they know we share a similar disciplinary grounding. Furthermore, by preferencing black applicants we both support employment equity, and ensure that students can relate to the team along multiple lines of intersection, such as language use.

Although UCT is an English-medium university, South Africa has eleven official languages and for most, English is an additional language. As such, we encourage ‘translanguaging’ and ‘code-switching’ as transformative practices that welcome indigenous languages into educational spaces from which they have long been excluded:

In our staff training programme, we have adopted a ‘values-based’ Action Research approach (McNiff and Whitehead, 2010), by following a cycle of developing theoretical knowledge, applying this to practice, and critically reflecting on impact and alignment to our values. Additionally, our training exposes staff to administration and management activities such as monitoring and evaluation, annual reporting, and performance reviews. Together, these foci contribute to developing the pipeline of future black academics.

Most recently, in the wake of the pandemic, we have recognized the need for increased staff support, particularly in terms of mental wellness. We have now introduced regular engagements with a mental health professional to help staff manage the demands and challenges of their role in the Writing Lab, their own postgraduate studies, and family responsibilities.

Given that the quality of our work rests on the strength of our team, we view this investment in our staff as an investment not only in their futures, but also into the future of every student they will teach during their careers.

The FHS Writing Lab is a unit of the Centre for Higher Education Development, and is situated within the Department of Health Sciences Education. The Writing Lab is funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training through the University Capacity Development Programme

McNiff, J., and Whitehead, J., 2010. You and your action research project. 3rd edition. Routledge.

Muna, N., Goolam Hoosen, T., Moxley, K. and Van Pletzen, E., 2019. Establishing a Health Sciences writing centre in the changing landscape of South African Higher Education. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning7(1), pp.19-41.

About the Author

Natashia Muna has a background in science, with specialisations in zoology, biodiversity, and molecular and cell biology. During her PhD, Natashia worked as a student consultant at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Writing Centre, and it was there that she discovered her passion for working with the languages of science. In 2015 she took up a lectureship position as coordinator of the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences Writing Lab; a writing centre that provides academic literacies support, teaching, and capacity development for staff and students in the faculty. Natashia is currently researching and supervising in the areas of multimodal social semiotics, and authorial identity development.

One Comment

  1. Terry Myers Zawack February 27, 2023 at 9:05 am

    As Dr. Muna attests, so many highly qualified students—undergraduate and graduate—fall in love with writing center work after their experiences as tutors. Dr. Muna’s background and doctorate in the sciences along with the location of the center in the Faculty of Health Sciences sends such a strong message that the ability to write well is also valued in STEM. The Center’s commitment and approach to racial and linguistic justice is truly inspiring.

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