Teaching at the beginning of the new millennium implies understanding and accepting the major shifts that have taken place within the traditional liberal arts disciplines in relation to the complex needs of today's variegated life in society; this process requires educators to redefine the relevance of specific disciplines for the multilayered world beyond the ivory tower. I have adopted the challenge raised by the International Conference on the Humanities in Southern Africa (June 2008): the challenge of deepening conversations "across academic disciplines ... for the betterment of the multicultural, multilingual world in which we live". Based on such a social and practical mission, we are all faced with major challenges concerning the appropriateness of the curricular design so as to bring skills to the values of a society struggling towards a just order.
As a scholar of English Studies (who for more than two decades has had strong links with its cognate, Media and Cultural Studies), I identified what to me seemed a missing area in both disciplines: an area that could broaden the scope of both disciplines regarding students' responsible participation in a diverse, multilingual and multicultural society such as South Africa. I envisaged a study track that could apply the rhetorical, literary and analytical considerations of both disciplines to students' working-world imperatives. At the same time, and without diminishing the integrity of any disciplinary object of study, I wished to forge links across languages and cultures in the contemporary scene. (I shall comment on the specific study track--as offered at UKZN--in the second part of my article.)
When I arrived in South Africa from Europe in 1991, key issues struck me: in a society of many languages, South Africa at the level of tertiary education was/is not a country of multilingual fluency. Neither was it a country--again, I confine my observations to tertiary-level education--of great intercultural curiosity. The study of English literature and isiZulu literature, for example, had no comparative dimension. In Media Studies, American models of journalism or advertising marginalised the local content and accent. Matters are changing, but slowly: not only because of the history of apartheid, but also--I return to my earlier observation--because of a language situation of "uneasy" communication.
It is a situation that has bedevilled the introduction of "European"-style translation courses that expect students to major in two languages (say, English and French/German). In South Africa, attempts to launch translation on the two-language-majoring-student model (say, English and isiZulu/-isiXhosa/Afrikaans) continue to fail tests of student interest or viability. Sadly, very few students pursue such an option. Why not then begin from a local reality in post-1990 South Africa? This involves the position of English as the language of government, commerce and higher education, whether one is easy with it or not. All students learn at least two languages up to matriculation: in most cases, the languages are English and either Afrikaans or one of the larger African languages, e.g. isiZulu, isiXhosa, seSotho. This linguistic fact constitutes a valuable cultural resource, one that nonetheless tends to be forgotten by universities and students alike. Why not make use of such a linguistic resource at tertiary level? Why not raise students' awareness of their embedded (and, therefore, practically available) linguistic capital by integrating it into our offerings? Why not support students to add value to their degrees by becoming more interculturally versatile?
Further questions proceed from the above: How, given such a reality, may one broaden English Studies and Media Studies to engage with a diverse, language-sensitive context? How to point such a project towards appropriate job-related spheres--the communication industry, indeed communication in the workplace, journalism, editing? …