Future Response AssistantFinding my Voice in Academia

Shannon Leigh Landers
Shannon Leigh Landers

A google search for a guide to writing your master’s dissertation offers clinical advice on the importance of reading, preparation and choosing the correct topic and supervisor. However, these tips often neglect the human aspect of this stressful undertaking – mental health. Maintaining mental health is imperative – if not, the most crucial part of the journey.

Many students often experience imposter syndrome or crippling anxiety at the mere thought of this mammoth endeavour. The fear is sometimes aided by being the first in your family to pursue a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s qualification. Another major stressor is the disconnection between students’ material and symbolic experiences and the concepts taught. The lack of representation and the re-presentation of foreign values and ideas render students feeling powerless, even voiceless. However, acknowledging our position of being on the fringe of complex social phenomena also presents a plethora of opportunities for young scholars.

I found refuge in the interdisciplinary field of Cultural Studies because of its bricolage approach to understanding power relations. It helped me recognise that my decentred position is significant because there is meaning in absence. This acknowledgement rewired my thinking and helped me realise that my contribution to scholarship is necessary. The insight garnered from my master’s dissertation enabled me to rationalise the signifying practices that result in moral panics like the Black Lives Matter protests, Clicks TRESemmé debacle and the insurrection on Capitol Hill.

While recently reading an article by sociologist and political activist Stuart Hall on Louis Althusser’s contribution to the reconceptualisation of ideology, I marvelled at his anecdotal account of being part of a “Coloured” Jamaican family who found social currency in being classified as “not Black”. Perhaps, I related to his complex experience with race as it overlaps with my experience as a “Coloured” South African. He further explained how his family clung to this classificatory system like an ideological lifeline as it distanced them from the unfavourable signifying chain of Blackness. Ironically, when Hall relocated to Britain, on a Rhodes Scholarship, Blackness was imposed upon him because, in all its simplicity, he was not White. I imagine that his interpellation into these disparate subject positions marked a critical moment in his academic trajectory.

The anxiety we feel about our displacement as budding academics (or master’s graduates) presents an opportunity to carve a space for ourselves in meta-discourses. Of course, this does not negate the necessity of decolonising Higher Education, and subsequently academic scholarship; but I caution against radical attempts to eradicate existing knowledge fields from curricula. Moments of contestation, frustration and anxiety should compel us to articulate and assert our subject position, no matter how insignificant (or insecure) we feel.

Like many young South African scholars, I am the first in my family to obtain a master’s degree. I had no familial reference point – aside from my supervisor, Professor Ruth Teer-Tomaselli. At times, anxiety would cloud my mind, and I would find great difficulty stringing words together to form a coherent sentence. However, I ultimately managed to quell my anxiety by surrounding myself with a sound support system and finally realising that attaining my masters was a necessary stepping-stone if I desired diverse representation in academia.

*Landers, who was awarded a Master of Arts degree from UKZN where she is currently reading for a PhD, is a lecturer at the AFDA Film School.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


This article was originally published in the ANFASA magazine. Volume 5, issue 2 2021 https://www.anfasa.org.za/.

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