LinkingMind: From South Africa to Germany

PhD candidate Anna Berger (Tübingen) and Research Alumnus Dr. Josiah Nyanda (Witwatersrand) talk about their virtual LinkingMinds meeting and tell us about the research they conduct, the conversations they had, virtual networking, and their favourite things to do in Tübingen.

In November 2021, the Tübingen research alums relation team launched LinkingMinds, an initiative designed to connect the University’s researchers and research alums worldwide. The initiative matched alums and researchers and invited them to meet, network, and foster new connections. We now want to find out how one of these meetings went.

Tell us something about yourselves. Where are you currently based and what is your field of research?
Anna: I’m based in Germany where I’m doing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Tübingen. My primary supervisor is Prof. Dr. Ingrid Hotz-Davies and my secondary supervisor Prof. Dr. Dr. Russel West-Pavlov. My PhD project is concerned with the depiction of masculinity in Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. In addition, I’m very interested in the representation of marginalised groups in comics and graphic novels.
Josiah: At present I’m based in South Africa, in Johannesburg, where I’m a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand. The University of Witwatersrand was one of the six universities that, together with the University of Tübingen, were part of the BMBF-DAAD thematic network "Futures under construction in the Global South" (2014-2020). This network first brought me to Tübingen in 2015 to conduct research. I teach Critical Thinking to Engineering, Accounting, and Construction Economic students. My research interests center around life writing, in particular, in political biographies and autobiographies from Africa. My PhD research on “The Machinery of Autobiography in Selected Political Autobiographies from Zimbabwe”, dealt with political autobiographies from Zimbabwe. In one of my chapters, I discuss spectrality and hauntology – similar to Anna, who looks at haunting and hauntology in ghost stories.

Did you discover any further similarities?
Anna: When I received my LinkingMinds match, I immediately looked up Josiah online. I was amazed to see the number of parallels between his professional path and mine – Josiah holds a degree in journalism, I work as a freelance journalist. Josiah worked as a high school teacher and is a university lecturer – I taught at a school in the past and now teach at the English Department. Josiah did a PhD in English Literature – I’m currently in the process of completing mine. In addition, we are both very interested in social issues. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to learn more about the Global South from Josiah which, in turn, has led me to confront my own internalised assumptions and biases.
Josiah: Anna has basically said it all (laughs)! I still wonder how you managed to connect two people who share so many similarities. We live on different continents and yet there is so much that connects us. It has been great to discuss the experiences we share and talk about the paths we chose. I’m interested in Anna’s work and have agreed to read some of her chapters and to give her feedback from a Global South perspective. We are also hoping that, sometime in the next few months, we will be able to co-author a paper.

That sounds great. Do you have a topic in mind?
Josiah: We have not decided on a topic yet, but it will definitely be based on the discussions we have had in the past few weeks. Anna has introduced me to the genre of comic literature, a genre I have not worked on yet. We might analyse a comic from our respective perspectives.

What motivated you to join the initiative?
Josiah: Initially, curiosity, followed by the wish to interact with like-minded people working in a similar field. Fortunately, in my case, this is exactly what LinkingMinds led to. Despite our different backgrounds, Anna and I easily managed to find common ground to discuss our ideas and our research.
Anna: I completely agree with Josiah. LinkingMinds was launched at just the right time. With Covid forcing us all back into our homes, life as we had known it had come to a complete standstill which means there were hardly any opportunities to make professional contacts, let alone network. The last workshop I attended was in February 2020, shortly before the first lockdown. That was the last time I had the chance to interact with likeminded people in an academic context. Despite the fact that workshops and conferences are now frequently held online, they cannot and do not offer the same opportunities to network. In this respect, LinkingMinds has succeeded in, at least partially, filling a gap. This is one of the reasons I’m grateful that the Tübingen Research Alums Center initiated this event and put me in touch with Josiah.
I would really like to encourage the research alums relation team to repeat this initiative and take it a step further. For example, there could be research alums chapters with people working on similar topics and issues. There are many opportunities to network online, for example on LinkedIn and other social media channels, however, approaching people randomly on these platform feels odd. LinkingMinds, by contrast, feels much more familiar because we all have connection with the University of Tübingen.

How did you choose to communicate?
Josiah: At first, by email. Anna initiated the conversation, she sent me an email. It was great to see this first email come through. In these times there is something very comforting about an email from a person you have been linked to that ends in “keep safe”, “stay well”. After that we mostly met on zoom.

How are you experiencing this shift to digital formats?
Anna: I’m generally surprised how well digital interactions work. I realise, however, that this is also related to the fact that I hold a lot privileges. It is easy to self-isolate and work from home when you have, for example, a safe home and the company of a family.
Josiah: It’s astonishing to see how rapidly things have changed. At my faculty, we were quick to accept the fact that everything would now have to take place online. This, however, also presented us with a major challenge: not all of our students had the necessary data package and/or technical equipment to participate in online lectures. Due to the history of Apartheid, there are still glaring social inequalities in our country; however, Wits quickly came up with a solution to solve this problem. All in all, the university sent 5.000 laptops to disadvantaged students and provided them with the necessary data packages. Members of staff also went through rigorous training: the IT Department taught us the basics for teaching online. But, of course, there is still so much missing, simple things like handshakes, the mere presence of a human being.

Did your research and your research methodologies benefit from your conversations?
Anna: Yes, definitely. One of my chapters deals with colonial ghost stories which I analyse from a postcolonial perspective. I argue that these stories form a bridge between colonial and postcolonial thinking. Josiah, looking at my work from a unique Global South perspective, has given me invaluable feedback on the arguments I put forward.
Josiah: I think I’m the biggest beneficiary of this link. Anna has introduced me to the comic genre, a genre I had not paid much attention to before, and has sent me a link listing different comics and texts on the male gaze. These texts mainly revolve around the question of how societies look at women. They are a thought-provoking read and I have decided to include some of them in the required reading for my next “Critical Thinking” classes. The texts speak directly to a book I will be discussing next term, Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Female Fear Factory: Gender and Patriarchy under Racial Capitalism - a powerful book that exposes how the manufacturing of fear is linked to patriarchal suppression. Drawing on these different sources, I will show how the Global North and the Global South deal with gender issues and demonstrate that these issues are universal.

What will these classes be about?
Josiah: My upcoming classes will be dealing with the current pandemic – reading the pandemic, living with the pandemic, and getting rid of the pandemic – and will also address gender-based violence, which has risen dramatically during the pandemic. In fact, in May 2020, the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, declared the threat of gender-based violence a second pandemic in South Africa.
Anna: I am in the process of completing my dissertation and won’t be teaching in the summer term.

Last but not least: What do you like most about Tübingen?
Josiah: Definitely the chocolate market! Followed by the cycling culture and standing on the Neckar bridge. Incidentally, my wife left a padlock on the bridge. I wonder whether it’s still there. I also very much appreciated the fact that the university was very welcoming.
Anna: Sitting on the wall next to the Neckar bridge and simply the general, international atmosphere of Tübingen.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Interview Rebecca Hahn