The following is excerpted from the excellent anthology, edited by Susan Levine, At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University (2018, Human Sciences Research Council Press). Instead of conforming to the logic and rhetoric of elitist academic pursuits, Kessi insists on a radical andragogy that embraces the experiences of students who inhabit the world unevenly — that is, who live to a greater or lesser extent with chronic injustice or privilege. Student positionalities are embedded within a social matrix of power and inequality, which Kessi harnesses and critiques to make learning a relevant and engaged process.

Teaching social and critical forms of psychology in the South African context opens many possibilities for contributing to transformation, giving students the opportunity to reflect on and critically discuss contemporary social issues relating to race, gender, class, and sexualities.  In recent years, many classroom discussions in South Africa have focused on the student movements on our campuses and across the nation, engagements that allow for social psychological analyses of our current context.  As a result, many students in my undergraduate courses have become actively involved in the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement and other kinds of political action.  This is a testament to the possibility of bridging academia and activism, thus closing the gap between teaching, research and lived-experience.  Students seem to enjoy my classes because they can relate to the material while building strong theoretical understandings and a desire to engage in transformative dialogue.

My teaching style is participatory and interactive, featuring the frequent use of audiovisual materials and class exercises such as debates and small group discussions.  I prioritize black South African scholars as well as scholars from the Global South in my reading materials.  I place a strong emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of social and critical psychology by including different types of readings, such as novels and other literary materials, text from other social science disciplines, and media reports.  I also invite scholars from different departments and faculties to give lectures on pertinent topics.  All of these approaches locate my teaching in a decolonial frame.  This is essential in order to make psychology relevant today in South Africa and across our continent.

Psychology is a key discipline given the significance of attitudes and beliefs in the decolonial project.  Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like discusses the mind as the most important weapon in the hand of the oppressor.  A historical analysis of the discipline itself — in particular, the contributions of psychology to scientistic racism emerging through eugenics and social Darwinism — demonstrates how psychologists, through studies of intelligence testing and other psychometric tools, have attempted to prove that black people were the least intelligent race.  Psychologists have also been involved in the pathologisation of women and LGBT people, or indeed any persons who do not match the norm of a white, male, middleclass and heterosexual figure.  This pathologisation happened and continues to happen.

Our responsibilities as educators should be to forge attitudes in our classrooms that can give rise to a transformed society.  Being conscious of who is in the classroom and whose voice is dominant is crucial in developing strategies to create space for openness and critical dialogue.  Nevertheless, it is a very tricky task to speak of a decolonized and decolonizing curriculum while the prevailing institutional symbolism and general culture tend to erase the experiences of black students and staff.

Teaching at the University of Cape Town in the past few years has often been a humbling experience.  I am thrilled when my students tell me my classroom has been ‘life changing’ and experienced as a safe space for dialogue.  In one year, my honors seminar doubled in size and my critical psychology class for undergraduates grew from thirty-eight to ninetyseven students.  In my experience, the intellectual and political contributions that students bring to the classroom are extraordinary.  Perhaps it is the mutual relationship of trust and respect, along with the emphasis on dialogue, that brings out the best in them and in me.