Recognition of (your) teaching (still) matters @ SU

Recognition of (your) teaching (still) matters @ SU

By Dr Karin Cattell-Holden 


Does your teaching matter to the university?  Journeying through the unchartered territory of COVID-19, “our bodies, our selves, and our environment” (Tronto, 2010:160) are characterised by a new vulnerability which highlights the need for care at higher education institutions.

Maak jou onderrig saak vir die Universiteit? Noudat ons die onbekende terrein van COVID-19 betree het, word “ons liggame, onsself en ons omgewing” (Tronto, 2010:160) gekenmerk deur ‘n nuwe kwesbaarheid, wat die behoefte aan sorg by hoëronderwysinstellings beklemtoon.

Ukuqatshelwa kokufundisa (kwakho) ku(sa)balulekile @SU

Ngaba ukufundisa kwakho kubalulekile kule yunivesithi? Ukucand’ amathafa kuloo mhlaba we-COVID-19 ungazange wahanjwa ngaphambili, “ngemizimba yethu, ubuthina bethu kunye noko kusingqongileyo” (Tronto, 2010: 160), yinto ebonakala ngohlobo olutsha lokuba semnciphekweni, mo leyo eqaqambisa imfuneko yenkathalo kumaziko emfundo ephakamileyo.


During the COVID-19 crisis, individuals and communities have been compelled to recognise that lives and livelihoods are based on relationality. “[L]ife rests on our entangled relationships”, Neely & Lopez (2020) comment, indicating not only an interdependency among us and the different facets of our lives but also the accompanying implication that we have a responsibility to one another. In social, economic, and political contexts we are realising, perhaps yet again, that this collective responsibility is founded on caring. Tronto and Fisher (in Tronto, 2010:160) define ‘care’ as “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.” It also includes teaching and the recognition of teaching ‘excellence’.

In the past four months of upheaval and uncertainty, South African higher education has had to deal with radical change and a constant state of flux. Higher education institutions are operating in a space of liminality, transitioning from the familiar – teaching and learning as we used to know it – to the “new normal” of the unfamiliar, an unpredictable future which will continue to be marked by change and the need for adjustment. Journeying through this unchartered territory, “our bodies, our selves, and our environment” are characterised by a new vulnerability which highlights the need for care at higher education institutions.

Tronto (2010:169) describes “the best forms” of institutional care as “those which are highly deliberate and explicit about how to best meet the needs of the people who they serve.” At Stellenbosch University (SU) a number of measures were put in place at the beginning of the lockdown period to facilitate the move to emergency remote teaching and learning for the four university communities – management, lecturers, students, and the academic support environment. Schoonwinkel, van der Merwe and de Klerk (2020) outline the steps taken to avoid the unfair treatment of students without high-speed internet connectivity or digital devices and to ensure a simple and flexible approach to online teaching, learning and assessment which would avoid lecturers having to access “too wide a variety of online tools and applications” which could add “unnecessary pressure during an already demanding time.” Academic support staff provided practical guidelines and resources to aid both lecturers and students. Regular communiques from management updated staff and students on changes, expressing empathy for the stress all role-players were experiencing and emphasising the support available.

The collaboration among the four SU communities demonstrated a deliberate response of high-level care, accepting and sharing the responsibility for the members of the communities, and respecting the collective vulnerability. However, the question arises as to how this institutional care is made visible in the quest for excellent teaching at SU.

The responsibilities of a caring higher education institution involve the recognition of ‘excellent’ teaching. At SU ‘excellent’ teaching refers to teaching of ‘outstanding merit’.[1] It is “recognised, rewarded and promoted”, in contradistinction to ’good’ teaching which is acknowledged, but regarded as the expected norm at the university (SU Teaching and Learning Policy, 2018:5). Excellent teaching is recognised and rewarded on an individual level only, however. The institutional Teaching Excellence Awards situate excellent teaching within a neoliberal context, foregrounding individual performance, productivity and output, and promoting competitiveness. The awards are therefore focused on the private good and the good of the institution.

In light of the growing acknowledgment of our interdependence and the importance of relationality as well as the current close collaboration among the four SU communities, we need to reconsider our institutional responsibility in how we recognise excellent teaching. Teaching at SU matters, as it did before COVID-19, but the increased relationality in our broader life environments should be reflected in the way it is recognised. In the “new normal” we can no longer sustain the sole emphasis on the individual and the private good – we also need to take our relations with the SU academic community and the larger societal context into account. Our recognition of excellent teaching should therefore extend to teaching for the good of society (the public good).

So how could we change the way we recognise teaching excellence? There are two possibilities we could consider. Firstly, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the original purpose of higher education institutions, which came into existence to benefit communities, in other words, for the social or public good. This purpose should be reflected in the criteria for the Teaching Excellence Awards. Secondly, the awards should recognise both individual and collaborative teaching excellence, emphasising the relationality and shared responsibility among SU colleagues – and students – in terms of teaching, learning and assessment. Your teaching matters, whether as an individual or a collective.

In the words of Prof. Wim de Villiers (2020), “[w]e now have the chance to reflect on what went wrong in the past and what needs to be corrected, to rediscover what is really important – to us as individuals and for society as a whole – and to redesign the future so that life becomes better for everyone.”



De Villiers, W. (2020). ‘Six months of COVID-19, and the challenges that still lie ahead’. news@StellenboschUni, 3 July. Available at: (Accessed 4 July 2020)

Neely, A.H. & Lopez, P.J. (2020). Care in the time of Covid-19. Antipode Online, 4 April. Available at: (Accessed 21 July 2020)

Schoonwinkel, A., van der Merwe, A. & de Klerk, M. (2020). Navigating uncertainty in the move to online learning. University World News (Africa Edition), 23 April. Available at: (Accessed 24 April 2020)

Stellenbosch University. 2018. Teaching and Learning Policy.

Stellenbosch University. 2020. The Stellenbosch University Teaching Excellence Awards 2020.

Tronto, J.C. 2010. Creating caring institutions: Politics, plurality, and purpose. ETHICS AND SOCIAL WELFARE, 4(2): 158-171.



[1] The evaluation is made according to the definition of ‘teaching excellence’ in the guidelines for the SU Teaching Excellence Awards (2020:2).



Karin Cattell-Holden is a senior advisor at the Centre for Teaching and Learning and manages the institutional Teaching Excellence Awards. She lectured in Afrikaans literature and Literary Studies at Wits University, Vista University and the University of Johannesburg. She completed a PhD in Afrikaans literature and philosophy at Wits University in 2008. Her research currently focuses on complexity theory as a lens on higher education, in particular the acknowledgment of excellent teaching.

Click here to read more about Karin’s recent presentation on this topic and to access a recording of it.

Dr Karin Cattell-Holden



All views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of the University of Stellenbosch.

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