University managment can do more to curb excesses of academics
• My Book is Not A Deliberate, Personal Attack
Lola Akande’s novel, What It Takes, her second novel, a fictional account of how some university teachers dehumanise their students, especially PhD candidates, offers a sharp criticism of a system with little internal control measures to rein in its loose operators. For taking on such a behemoth, she told ANOTE AJELUOROU, She has had to pay a small price among her fellow academics, but she is happy she did, as it aims to conscientise Nigerian academics.
In an interview, Nigeria’s U.S.-based Prof. Okey Idibe bears out your thesis that some Nigeria’s university teachers act like small gods. Now that you are one, what has been the experience?
This is a very interesting question because it puts me right in the hot seat. You want to know if I have begun to act like a small god and I doubt if a straight ‘no’ or ‘yes’ answer would suffice. First, I would say that now that I’m an academic, I try not to act like a small god and that is the whole essence of writing the novel. What It Takes aims to conscientise Nigerian academics and I’m aware that I’m one of them. In addition to my own nightmarish experience as a PhD student, I was also an unhappy observer of, and witness to many other horrendous situations, some of them, far worse than my own. In writing about the problem, I envisioned a situation in which a good number of Nigerian academics would hold the book as a mirror to constantly see the reflection of their attitudes, actions and inactions on students, the university system, and, of course the ultimate effect on society.
What has been my experience? My experience has been that I have realised how much power I possess as an academic; I have become more aware that what I say, do, or fail to say or do could either build or ruin great minds. The academic is saddled with an enormous responsibility with far-reaching consequences. My experience has not shown me that I’m a saint, and it has not proven to me that I have succeeded in becoming the kind of academic I wish to be, but it has shown me that I can be fair to my students, and I can continuously strive, to be a better academic especially by using What It Takes as a conscience monitor.
In universities abroad, students rate/score lecturers/professors for their continued tenureship. Would you recommend that for Nigerian universities?
I can tell you that a good number of universities in Nigeria have a system in which students assess their lecturers. In the University of Lagos, for instance, students regularly evaluate their lecturers, particularly in terms of quality of teaching. UNILAG is so concerned about quality that in addition to the end of session assessment, which all students are encouraged to do and report directly to management, there is a special unit, which is under the office of the Vice-Chancellor and devoted to monitoring and assessing lecturers. Staff of Quality Assurance Unit go round lecture halls as lecturers are teaching; they interact directly with students, soliciting and receiving information about lecturers’ intellectual output as well as the condition under which students learn. The challenge here is that much of the effort is concentrated on protecting undergraduate, postgraduate diploma and master’s students probably because doctoral students are expected to be more mature and able to handle their problems. One of the greatest challenges confronting students at all levels of studentship, in my view, is the unhelpful attitude of some academics toward their students. The question is, how can university authorities measure the attitude of their academic staff?
How has you novel, What It Takes, been received among your colleagues?
The reception has been mixed. Some have received it with encouraging goodwill and support; many appear indifferent, but there are those who are clearly unhappy about it. I can give a few specific instances. I received a call from the Head of Department of English of one university, and she criticised me severely. She wanted to know why an academic would write such an uncomplimentary book about her colleagues. I called a colleague in another university to which I had earlier sent a complimentary copy with the hope that they would assess it, and if they found it good enough, they would probably recommend it to their students. My call was to find out if the department had done its assessment and made its decision. He told me the department did assess the book, but that a majority of its members held that while they recognised that the issues raised in the novel are true, and admitted that the concerns highlighted constitute an ongoing problem in Nigerian universities, they did not wish to expose their students to this grave truth. They would therefore rather ignore the book. I was thankful to them for having the forthrightness to state their position. There are many others who simply left me to figure out their disapproval. I have also lost the friendship and goodwill of a good number of my colleagues in many Nigerian universities. It was as if I have launched a deliberate and personal attack on them. They no longer talk to me. Some of the people who are yet to read it insist that they have been told it’s a controversial book and they don’t want to touch it. It’s curious.
On the flip side, however, are those who have praised it as a monumental contribution, not only to Nigerian literature, but especially to the body of university narratives.
Do you think the exposé in the novel will change the grave attitudes described in it?
I think the novel has a great capacity to engender positive behavioural change in a good number of academics because it should show the consequences of their behaviour and therefore make them strive to improve on their relationship with students. The book should serve as a constant reminder to us to strive to do the right thing with the very important position we hold as carers and nurturers of minds. Some of us do not seem to know the consequences of our utterances and actions. With this book, whenever we are tempted to be high-handed, nasty, impossible, lecherous, or insensitive, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing is socially responsible. And if pressure from work, mood swings or personal or domestic circumstances make us act or react to our students in unhelpful ways, we should bear it in mind to make amends.
Are you satisfied with its distribution process as to want to self-publish again?
No, I’m not satisfied with its distribution. Right now, the book is available in Lagos, Ibadan and Abuja only. This makes me unhappy, especially when interested readers from other parts of the country contact me to make orders. They often pay more than the cover price because they have to bear the cost of postage. My wish is to make it available everywhere in Nigeria and beyond, but this has not been possible. I’m a teacher; I know next to nothing about distribution and marketing. So, I’m practically groping in the dark in terms of distribution.
I must explain that I went into self-publishing as a last resort; I didn’t wish to self-publish. I made efforts at getting a publisher and I thought I was in luck at some point. This was when a publisher accepted the manuscript and I celebrated. But they then kept it for two years without communicating with me. Initially, I tried to be patient, but by the time I had waited for more than a year, and the publisher hadn’t contacted me, I began to worry. Then, I made effort to reach them through the telephone, but they wouldn’t pick my call. Again, I counselled myself to have a little more patience. Finally, two years after accepting my manuscript with no further interaction with them, I sent a mail, and that was when they dignified me with a response, telling me they were sorry and that they were not in a position to give definite commitment as to when they might publish although, they still liked the work and wished to publish it. Anyway, they returned my manuscript and I was distraught. It was at that point that I decided to self-publish, rather than leave it in my computer forever. Now that the book is in public domain, I intend to take my time and search for a publisher who would perhaps treat me with a semblance of civility.
What is your experience with bookshop outlets?
Hmm, I haven’t been able to do much largely, because I don’t have the time, I lack experience, and I have no money to put a marketing team in place. I have visited a few bookshops in Lagos to request them to stock the book. They accepted and the book is doing well. Some of the bookshops have sold out initial copies and made request for more. I’m optimistic that bookshop sales will soar with time. Currently, however, Nigerian universities are the biggest and most impressive patrons of the book. Some of my colleagues in other universities are fascinated by the book and are recommending it to their students at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. What is even more impressive is that some of them accompany their requests with payment so that they don’t leave me worrying about how I would get paid. Universities are my greatest source of encouragement at the moment. I’m aware that there are several other people in the larger public who wish to read the book, but can’t get it to buy. I haven’t figured out what to do yet.
What would you recommend to change the obviously anti-intellectual behaviours narrated in What It Takes?
University managements need to do more to curb the excesses of their academic staff. Nigerians need to insist that academics show more humanity in the discharge of their duties. I don’t think it’s fair to say Nigerian academics act as small gods and that there is nothing anyone can do about it, or that students must do whatever they are asked to do even if such things are illegal or demeaning, just to get a degree. There are demands that negate personal values and which can ruin the mind irredeemably. No, there are things we must not exchange for university degrees. It breaks my heart when some of my friends outside the academia ask me why I bothered to write about these things. Didn’t I know that things have always been like that and no one can change them? Couldn’t I have just thanked God that I survived the ordeal and moved on? Some of them even insisted that I didn’t suffer enough; they would go on to cite instances that were far worse and conclude such experiences have become the norm.
So, I would recommend that the NUC, the federal Ministry of Education, the legislative bodies, and other stakeholders in the education sector should pay more attention to some of these issues. We must continuously strive for improvement rather than promote absurdities. Finally, I suggest that Nigerians should be encouraged to read the novel. I’m positive that my colleagues in the academia would find something of value in it to work with.
How exactly frustrating is academic life in Nigerian campuses?
That’s a difficult question to answer. What is apparent is that some people simply hijack the system and use it to suit their whims. There are well-intentioned privileges that some people misuse. Such people often give the excuse that they have become institutions in their own right and that no one can challenge their wrongdoing. What could be more frustrating than when a lecturer makes illegal demands on students and insists on full compliance because he can do and undo? How more frustrating could it be?
What is new coming up?
I just finished writing a new novel, but I can’t tell when it may be published. Hopefully, I will find a publisher soon.