Q&A with Wayne Hugo

Wayne pic

The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the seventeenth interview in the series. Wayne Hugo is an Associate Professor at the UKZN School of Education (CV here, personal website here). 

1) Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

Four motivations that started the ball rolling – Firstly I was a working class boy with no means to fund higher education and the teaching bursary was very attractive. It actually gave me enough money to help my folks out a little, go out every night for a beer and some pool at the Dev, pay for a small flat in Braamfontein, and buy whatever books I wanted. Secondly, my favorite subjects at school were English and History, so it was easy to make these my majors. Thirdly, I had always loved explaining stuff to my school friends and found I had a knack for it. They are all now making a lot more money than me. Fourth, I have always had a strong desire to write and liked the idea of a half day job that would give me time. Those were the motivations pushing and pulling me into teaching. But then I stumbled into Education Studies at Wits with characters like Joe Muller, Mary Crewe, David Bensusan, Penny Enslin, Ian Moll, Pam Christie, Mike Kissack, Shirley Pendelbury, and Jill Adler. I was pursuing my own curriculum at Wits, spending time in the William Cullen library reading collected works of various luminaries. Joe and Mary Crewe, in particular, actively guided this process, pointing me towards Gramsci, Althusser, Saussure and others, whilst critically taking me on. Education Studies became a place of exploration that allowed me massive freedom along with critical comment. It helped that Lynne Slomimsky was with me for part of this process, as it gave me an intellectual partner who was happy to talk about Laclau and Mouffe, Post Modernism, Freud, dreams and whatever else was brewing. I then left the country to avoid army service and landed up in Wigan as a bouncer, but the massive bursary came back to haunt me as my parents could not afford to pay it back – so back I came into the army and into teaching. I loved teaching, especially as a young teacher, and am writing a book on it to try and capture all the energies and tensions a young male teacher experiences in high school. Anyway, whist teaching I carried on doing my honours and masters part time. A choice quickly arose between shifting into school management or taking a senior lecturing position at the Johannesburg College of Education, and I chose the latter. I will never forget getting my lecturing load and being astonished that I only had to lecture around twice a day. I loved JCE, became the coach of the rugby side, and pretty much carried on as I had at varsity. I did not have a PhD and when friends of mine in Grahamstown needed me to go down there for personal reasons, I decided to do my PhD there. So began a five year journey into the depths of educational thought. I went back to Plato and started to systematically read through all the classical educational texts, making it to Descartes and Hegel. Looking back now there has been an astonishingly consistent daily pattern that has consisted of morning and afternoon reading and writing, late afternoon intense exercise, and evening socialising. After getting my PhD the first post that became available was in Pietermaritzburg. It had academics I deeply respected – Ken Harley, Ben Parker (RIP), Volker Wedekind – so I was pleased to get a post there, and that is where I have settled until now, very happy with a sweet daughter and good friends.

2) What does your average week look like?

Days where I am free – Wake up at 5. Quick check of email, news, facebook. Start writing or reading or both until around 11. Go out for coffee and brunch. Carry on reading, writing and dealing with daily work requirements. Around 4 take the body out to play – go swim, touch rugby, cycle. Around 6 see friends, have a beer, supper, maybe yoga, go to sleep.

My daughter plays havoc with this routine, but then she is worth all of this and more.

3) While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy

Plato exists for me as an unexplainable divine force at the fount of education. His work is beyond profound, continuously astonishes me, humbles me, enriches me.

Dante exists as a luminosity in my imagination – he is my muse and represents a teacher who was able to swallow his whole age and transmutate it into a pedagogic journey from the depths to the heights in a poem.

Below these two are Kant critiques, Hegel Phenomenology and Logic, Marx’s Kapital (vol1) and Piaget’s corpus.

The educational text that blew my mind open was Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in education, society and culture. I loved its axiomatic style that went back to Spinoza. Bernstein has been a growing love affair that has formatted my thinking.

4) Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Joe Muller – Lucid thinker where others are struggling to find a path, nevermind understand it. My experience of him is that he is always on the boundary, pushing towards the unspoken, but able to articulate what the new is and why it is relevent. He is very generous with his insights and recommendations. Almost always I come away from a meeting with him with new thoughts and breakthroughs.

Karl Maton – Brave man with enormous energies and ambitions, complimented by one of the sharpest intellects I have come across. He is quickly developing a comprehensive analytical framework that is process oriented, research driven, and gets to the dynamics of education in ways that help students get to grips with curriculum and pedagogy. Legitimation Code Theory combines field insights of power with an internal analysis of educational events. It pushes Bernsteinian binary into process and flow.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

 We are way behind in Mind, Brain and Education research, and I feel this will give us strong insights into improving how learning works. We are clueless about Instructional Design, especially how it is currently playing out with new developments in technology and engineering. We are struggling with Big Data analysis. My basic take is that the social sciences have shifted sharply closer to the STEM subjects (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths), and that education is not following suit. We need to strengthen our research by using insights and methods taken from Engineering, Economics, Computer programming, Biology, Geography and other ‘complexity’ sciences.

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

From my dad – always act from a position of strength inside yourself. I have taken this to mean that you have to work at knowing so much more than what is expected. It is astonishing how an expanding and deep network consolidates and clarifies whatever it is you are working with. Everything lights up and is of interest because it places itself inside a glowing network.

 7) You are actively involved in teacher education at UKZN – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

The transference relation between young teacher and learner. There are massive energies and emotions that cook under the surface when you start as a young teacher with learners who are only a couple of years younger than you. It’s a very difficult dynamic to talk about with students, because the unconscious works in such powerful and strange ways. Often naming and studying the process only makes it harder to control when encountered.

Over work. Young teachers are exploited and find themselves quickly stretched and exhausted, resulting in burn-out, drop out, and compromised standards

Too much coffee, too much alcohol

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Education allows me the space to do all the things I want to do, so it’s hard to answer. I suppose a full time novelist. I enjoy trickery, so a magician would have been nice. At one stage I liked the idea of being a Psychoanalyst. A secular Monk of the Franciscan type would be my ideal.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

Big fan. I get the over hype and the over expectations and the dangers, but it is taking us into new spaces. It’s the connectivity and creativity it enables that astonishes me. Often we use technology just to replicate existing practices, but it is breaking these practices, changing them, moving us into a new terrain. Technology innovates faster than culture can keep up with, it is our job as the current generation of education academics to stay on the wave, learn to surf it, and articulate what its great strengths and dangers are. I love the post human stuff of Harraway and Crew, feel it speaks to a new mode of existence arising in and through us.

10) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

Certainly not whole school improvement. I would like to set up an education website similar to Khan Academy but in education and then track and trace student responses in a way that improves the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of the website material. The website would give the basic building blocks that specialise a student into education and provide a dialogic space for interaction and engagement that can be used across South Africa, outwards and onwards.


A full list of Wayne’s publications can be found here. He has also done a video lecture series on “Cracking the code

Some of the other academics on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Elizabeth Pretorius, Jill Adler, Paula Ensor and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

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