UCT gains P-rated researcher

01 August 2022 | Story and Photo Nadia Krige Read time 8 min.
Professor Jess Auerbach
Professor Jess Auerbach

When the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB) recruited Associate Professor Jess Auerbach to head up its Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Inclusive Innovation, it was clear that the institution would be gaining a talented young researcher with a unique transdisciplinary field of expertise. The fact that she would receive a National Research Foundation (NRF) P-rating within the first month on the job came as a wonderful bonus.  

Before joining UCT, Auerbach had spent 12 years abroad and two years as a senior lecturer and associate professor in social anthropology at North-West University (NWU) in Potchefstroom. It was during her time there that she applied for the NRF rating. The NRF P-rating is a rare achievement for early career researchers who display the potential of becoming future international leaders in their field on the basis of exceptional research performance and output. Auerbach is one of seven P-rated researchers at UCT and the only one in the Faculty of Commerce.

Pioneering a new field of research

What makes her work especially remarkable is the fact that Auerbach is truly the pioneer in her field, even having coined the term  ‘knowledge mobilities’ to describe it.

In short, her research combines theory and practices of teaching (also known as pedagogy) with histories of the nature of knowledge, or epistemology; at the same time it pays attention to the material conduits through which knowledge is shared, such as internet infrastructure.

“My work looks at people, technology and learning practices, as well as the histories of ideas,” explains Auerbach. “I’m also interested in how these histories of ideas circulate in very particular ways across disciplines, institutions, regions, languages and so forth.”

With knowledge mobilities being an entirely new field of research, the vocabulary in which it exists is still evolving, growing and changing.

“Completing the NRF review was such a helpful process, because it forced me to explain and tell the story of the questions that have been keeping me up at night in all these different parts of the world, in all these different contexts,” says Auerbach.

Drawing inspiration from personal experience

In many ways, the seed for her current work was planted during Auerbach’s undergraduate years at UCT, during which she was actively involved in student politics. Among other things, she was part of a pan-African youth body that had been constituted by the United Nations (UN) and Danish Aid to collect youth perspectives from the continent for input into policy and practice.

“As one of only two South Africans, that experience was really transformative for me,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity to think with colleagues from around the continent in a whole bunch of different ways and it helped me move beyond the South African exceptionalism that often shapes how we engage with other African countries from here.”

Between her undergraduate and honours degrees, Auerbach worked with refugee organisations in Cape Town and later the UN’s High Commission for Refugees in Mozambique. As the grandchild of a Jewish refugee from World War 2, she had grown up aware of the potential impacts of statelessness. These early experiences, combined with an MSc in Forced Migration at the University of Oxford, prompted deep questions concerning global decision-making and the frequent exclusion of those most impacted by particular policies when it comes to decision-making and planning.

For the next 10 years Jess moved around the globe, completing a PhD at Stanford University, learning Portuguese in Brazil, and conducting research around Angola’s post-war trajectory and multiculturalism in Mauritius. Throughout this period, Auerbach’s questions around knowledge systems, their global transfer and evolution expanded and developed.

This led to the organic genesis of the field of knowledge mobilities.

"I really feel that we have so much to teach places that are grappling with questions around diversity, inequality and resource distribution"

Breaking down silos

Being transdisciplinary in nature, her work has allowed Auerbach to push academic boundaries and transcend silos.

Using the term ‘intellectual ancestry’, she emphasises her deep respect for the histories of knowledge and how each discipline has its own story.

“I certainly understand why the disciplines we have today were formulated with the boundaries that they have,” Auerbach says.

“But in a deeply interconnected world where we are facing issues like pandemics, climate change, lack of imagination for our political futures etc., we are increasingly required to draw on the insights, techniques and research methodologies of multiple different disciplines to find appropriate responses to challenges and questions.”

Throughout her career, Auerbach has proven herself to be an academic bridge-builder who moves between different canons and areas of expertise with enviable ease.

Making sense of her own trajectory, Auerbach cites neurodiversity as an advantage in this regard.

“I’m conscious of the fact that because I’m considered medically ‘neurodiverse’, it’s a lot easier for me to see outside of the disciplinary structures than it might be for others,” she explains. “That is certainly something I hope to utilize even more going forward.”

South Africa as a global microcosm

Returning to her undergraduate alma mater as the director of an MPhil course that is inclusive by nature and welcomes a diverse range of students has been deeply moving and significant to Auerbach.

While there is no lack of positions for a promising young researcher such as herself at prestigious institutions across the globe, Auerbach feels privileged to be contributing to higher learning in South Africa right now.

“In many ways, South Africa is a microcosm of global systems,” she explains. “Also, it’s one of the most honest places to look at issues like inequality, global structures of power, race etc. because we live with those systems heartbreakingly visible here and each of us is forced to respond to them daily. In other places there are often national borders separating the wealthy from the poor, like the US and Mexico, for example, or Europe with North Africa and the Mediterranean acting as a boundary.”

Auerbach adds that while being personally impacted by these types of issues can make researching them more difficult, it also offers the opportunity for a necessary reckoning that gives South Africa an edge over its global counterparts. 

“I really feel that we have so much to teach places that are grappling with questions around diversity, inequality and resource distribution – things that, however imperfectly, are front and centre of our national dialogue,” she says.

Visit Jess Auerbach’s website for more information about her research.

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