Distinguished Teacher Award 2020 recipients

01 September 2021 | VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

Dear colleagues and students

In recognising outstanding teaching at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and acknowledging contributions to the promotion of teaching and learning excellence at the institution, the Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA) is handed out to deserving recipients annually.

The DTA committee selects awardees after a meticulous assessment of a large pool of portfolios submitted by eligible candidates. The committee engages each teaching portfolio, examining the evidence for excellence in teaching over a number of years, focusing on their:

  • teaching philosophy and pedagogical approach in the context of the teaching and learning challenges in South African higher education
  • contribution to curriculum renewal and transformation in teaching and learning
  • innovation in teaching and learning
  • impact on their students, beyond formal teaching time
  • impact on the teaching and learning approaches of their colleagues
  • understanding and practice of inclusivity in their teaching
  • reflective teaching practices.

In addition, nominees may also provide evidence in relation to:

  • their scholarship of teaching and learning – including any relevant publications, conference attendance, research projects
  • how they design their learning materials to be accessible to differently abled students.

The DTA committee has finalised its assessment of the portfolios submitted in 2020. I am pleased to announce that the DTA recipients for 2020 are:

Dr Bodhisattva Kar
Historical Studies

Dr Kar is the head of the Department of Historical Studies. His teaching methodology is underpinned by a passion for training a new generation of South African historians who demonstrate conceptual depth, are technically competent, critically conscious; and strongly prepared for leadership, teaching, research, and social responsiveness. He states: “It is probably twice as hard to work every day in close proximity with scores of bright, young, impressionable minds trying to teach them to think and, at the same time and more importantly, not to think like their teacher.”

He goes on to state: “The pedagogical challenge, as I understand it, is not to ask of society that it behaves like a classroom and solves all its conflicts on the basis of procedures and protocols of argumentation, but to transform the classroom itself to reimagine the very status of what must count as knowledge in society.” Therein lies Dr Kar’s teaching philosophy as testified to by his legion of students: his ability to develop his students’ conceptual, analytical, and critical competencies – pushing them to new insights and understandings – abound in his student evaluation data. One student comments: “Bodhi’s brain is on fire with knowledge, and it found kindling in mine and I'm sure many others.”

Dr Kar is credited for driving the systematic reconceptualisation and revision of the department’s undergraduate and postgraduate curricula to create a clear progression path from the first year of study, to honours; and providing students with a comprehensive training in the history and methodologies of the discipline in the Global South. He took the curriculum of a department that already boasted several distinguished teachers to a renewed level through the development of an integrated, continuous and incremental undergraduate major, which included a focus on black South African, African and the Global South histories.

He has also extended his positive influence to growing the postgraduate cohort of the department, often at the expense of his own professional trajectory. At the core of his philosophy on supervision is his treatment of each supervision prospect as an opportunity to expand his own intellectual horizon, upskill his abilities and become “worthy of his students’ intelligence”. He is described by both his colleagues and students as a gifted teacher and learned scholar.

The committee strongly endorsed Dr Kar for his disruption of the curriculum, for facilitating critical thinking and for the labour intensive and careful process of curriculum renewal, including his consideration of the transitions students make across the programme. His impact on colleagues, selfless enabling of projects other than his own, and unifying effect on the department was also commended.

Dr Marlon Swai
Social Anthropology

Dr Swai, a lecturer in Social Anthropology, is described as a well-rounded academic who has closely aligned his teaching with his research. His students attest to his excellent teaching. “He expertly held a large group of students, always encouraging rigorous engagement around new and exciting material. I never left a lecture of his without hearing my classmates talking excitedly about the class. The content really expanded my ideas of what constitutes Anthropology and justice-oriented work.”

Dr Swai states that he owes his efficacy as a teacher to having had the benefit of teachers who helped him “become a life-long learner by channeling my interests, but also my frustrations, in such a way as to sensitise me to the urgency and joy of collective learning”. In his formative years, his passion for hip hop music led him to a local community radio station, where he became familiar with foundational principles for decolonial curriculum development. He recognised, during the nurturing and impactful experiences that he had during this period, that his ability to facilitate learning and knowledge production “was to be more than a vocation, but a civic responsibility”. Dr Swai notes that inclusivity is “a constant and critically central challenge that is a cornerstone of sound teaching and learning”.

He feels that his primary responsibility as a teacher is not to win students’ favour but to get them to learn. This includes curriculum design and pedagogical practice that allows students to see themselves reflected in the learning materials and experience the moments of discomfort, belonging and affirmation that come with learning. His earlier experiences continue to inform his student-centered teaching methodologies. These include his adaptation of the rap cypher to the classroom. The effect is to create a participatory, inclusive and dialogical space that inspires the class to engage. The intimacy and sense of community that he is able to create in such spaces lead to the deep, transformative learning that he endeavours to stimulate in students.

Dr Swai’s innovative and critical pedagogies also make use of multi-languaging, which in addition to captivating students according to testimony to his teaching, facilitates their understanding of the role of language in the knowledge project, and how the identities of both teachers and students play themselves out in classrooms. His curriculum and teaching methods are well-researched.

We congratulate both colleagues on attaining one of the university’s sought-after honours in being granted the DTAs for 2020!


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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