Tessa Dowling: Utitshala osefresh!

13 August 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Je’nine May. Director Roxanne Harris, Lerato Maduna. Camera Evan Zerf. Video edit Oatmeal Productions. Coordination Lerato Maduna. Read time 9 min.
Dr Tessa Dowling (in red) with her third-year students (from left, front) Chloe McKellar, Stella Robbins and Finn Lewis (seated). (Back) Nic de Villiers and Liziwe Futuse, Dowling’s PhD student and the section administrator. (Note: Masks were replaced immediately after the photo was taken.)

Dr Tessa Dowling, one of four recipients of a 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), recently met some of her Xhosa Communication students on Muizenberg beach for a lesson. They were that keen to continue speaking and practising in the semester break. As they shared their associations with the ocean, Dowling was able to teach them a new, personal vocabulary about the sea.

“We met in our masks and watched amaza esiza esimka (the waves coming in and out) and I asked them to tell me about any memories of beach or sea experiences they had,” said the University of Cape Town (UCT) scholar. “They had exciting stories to tell of near drownings and being tumbled under the water when very young, so there was lots of material for me to lead them out of the depths of the sea of not knowing the words, into the fresh air of Xhosa communication!”

The “groovy and innovative teacher” (utitshala ofundisa ngeendlela ezintsha ezifresh nezihlwaps) kindly answered questions UCT News put to her about her work and students – and teaching in lockdown.

Dr Tessa Dowling
Dr Tessa Dowling

Helen Swingler (HS): How long have you been with UCT?

Tessa Dowling (TD): I first started teaching at UCT in the late 1980s as a tutor, then as a junior lecturer. I left in 1997 to start African Voices, a company dedicated to producing learning software for South Africa’s African languages. I came back to UCT in 2009.

HS: Is this your first DTA award?

TD: Yes!

HS: What do you teach and to whom?

TD: I teach Xhosa as a second language (this includes grammar, but with the emphasis on the grammar being useful to conversation and listening) in the Xhosa Communication stream – all courses from first to third year. I also teach in the honours in African Languages and Literatures programme. Some of my students in the Xhosa Communication stream are first-language speakers of Xhosa but have never studied their language formally. I supervise MA and PhD students. I even have a private student at Harvard (just in case you thought Xhosa wasn’t international and just to show you how distinguished I am!)

HS: How large are your classes?

TD: My first-year classes are between 60 and 100 students. There are normally 20 second-years and 10 third-years and between 10 and 20 honours students.

HS: What do you love most (and least) about working with students?

TD: I love students who make me laugh and those who are self-motivated; second-language students who laugh at their own errors and then correct them, for example, saying “Ndiyabulala” (I murder) instead of “Ndiyabulela” (I am grateful); and first-language students who mix Xhosa with English and Afrikaans in creative and expressive ways, like “Ndoyiswe finish n klaar yile korona!” (I am so over this corona!); students who listen out for everything that is said in the language, tell me about Xhosa songs, movies and memes and get excited about it and share everything they learn with me. What I like least is students who worry too much about marks and too little about why they are learning the language.

HS: What do you believe makes a good teacher?

TD: I think there are some basic things like being well prepared and knowing your subject. Then there is flexibility, humility, humour and a willingness to change to suit the needs of different types of students.

HS: How would you describe your teaching style?

TD: Electric! Seriously though, I think my teaching style is familiar and friendly. I come from a huge family – I am one of eight children – and I think you learn a language best when you feel comfortable and at ease with your teacher and fellow classmates. You don’t learn your first language by being afraid but by being loved. I think I try to replicate that feeling in my classes.


“I think you learn a language best when you feel comfortable and at ease with your teacher and fellow classmates.”

HS: What are the main challenges of teaching African languages at university level?

TD: You have to keep the academic part of the course in mind. If students just want to learn phrases, they don’t need an academic course. So, there must be a way of making metalinguistic awareness a part of the course without losing sight of the real, practical needs of the students.

HS: How has your relationship with your students, teaching style or subject matter changed over time?

TD: I am getting old, but my teaching style is getting far more groovy and innovative. But I still love a morpheme. I actually feel like I could sit back and be taught by my students; there are secrets about the language they need to tell me.

HS: Inclusivity is a huge part of UCT’s vision. What role does language play in this and how can UCT begin to embrace this, given that South Africa has 11 official languages – a challenge to being taught in one’s home language?

TD: Language is the star of the show. Having English speakers learning African languages shifts the balance of power. You will feel stupid when you learn a new language. And that is right and just. When I have students who couldn’t speak a word of Xhosa three years ago and now conduct their research in Xhosa, I think we are going some way towards being inclusive. When students who are first-language speakers ask me to supervise their theses written in Xhosa, I think sekunjalo! Now is the time! When a member of the cleaning staff leans into my lecture room from the passage and puts in a few language observations of their own, I think that is inclusive.


“When a member of the cleaning staff leans into my lecture room from the passage and puts in a few language observations of their own, I think that is inclusive.”

HS: What are the challenges for vernacular languages of new lexicons linked to new diseases? COVID-19, for example, comes with a bewildering array of terminology (masks, ventilators, social distancing, sanitising).

TD: What I love about speakers of African languages is their ability to make new lexicons, borrow from others and use any resources available to them. I listen to a few hours of Umhlobo Wenene FM (Xhosa national radio station) every day and I hear some people speak about iPPE and isocial distancing and others about izixhobo zokhuselo and ukugcina umgama ... so depending on who you are you can use either form. Language is adaptable; people are creative.

HS: How have you and your students been coping with teaching and learning in lockdown and how is this shaping you as a teacher?

TD: Ndiyafa sana! I am dying, babe! My students have to tell me what to do, like there is this function, it’s called ikhalenda ... a calendar ... cofa pha Tess, click there. The people at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) and Vula, people like the ever-calm and helpful Janet Small, have been amazingly helpful and have helped me manage remote teaching without losing energy and soul. So, I am getting there and still try to be electric with my PowerPoint [presentations] and online lessons, but I do miss my family of students. And my actual family. I can complain.

HS: What is the importance of this kind of recognition (DTA) to teaching staff?

TD: It’s huge! You work so hard, you feel entranced by students stumbling towards knowledge and speech and then standing up on their own ... but you are not sure if anyone notices or cares about this side of the university. Or this side of being an academic.

HS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

TD: Are there marks for this?

Note: The second part of the headline, “Utitshala osefresh”, means “a teacher who is still fresh”.

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