Squandering Resources On Reggae Poetry

In response to last week’s post,  ‘Passive resistance at UWI, Mona’, which was also was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, a disdainful reader who goes by the name of ‘Pauline Principle’ took a rather unprincipled position: “I am shocked that in these hard times, scarce resources are being squandered on a reggae poetry class that will bring zero value to the job market. UWI needs to review their courses before they become irrelevant. Those who want a reggae poetry class should be allowed to do this at a community centre or at an evening course but not with the aid of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Ms Principle does not appear to understand the principle that knowledge of one’s own history and culture has intrinsic value. And she seems to conceive the job market in rather limited terms. It’s singular, not plural. The diversity of opportunities in the creative/cultural industries completely escapes her. Ms Principle clearly has a very old-fashioned view of culture. It’s something you do as a hobby. Culture couldn’t possibly be serious business.

Five years ago, the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, introduced an undergraduate degree programme in entertainment and cultural enterprise management (ECEM). It was the brainchild of Kam-Au Amen, the very first graduate in cultural studies at UWI. As coordinator of the Reggae Studies Unit, I negotiated for institutional support to get the programme approved.

The ECEM degree is now the second most popular one in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, right behind Media and Communication. Unlike Ms Principle, enterprising students know that they can design jobs for themselves in the creative/cultural industries. They don’t have to sit and wait to see what the job market may or may not throw their way.

Humanities serve no purpose?

It’s feedback like Ms Principle’s that makes me wonder if I should really be spending time and energy week after week writing this column. Instead, I could be working on another book (on reggae) that would be appreciated by those of us who value intellectual enquiry in the humanities. All the same, I have to admit that supportive readers usually take up the fight against my detractors with great passion. I don’t have to get into the fray.

‘Jacandood’ made an excellent point: “Pauline, I am wondering why you choose to undermine the value of the Reggae Poetry class. I bet you don’t feel the same way about Shakespeare being taught at the university.” ‘Jacandood’ knows that courses in the humanities, such as music and art, are usually required in many undergraduate degree programmes. As he put it, “The purpose of tertiary education is to mould rounded individuals.”

Carlton Reynolds, who thoroughly enjoys abusing me, couldn’t resist counter-attacking ‘Jacandood’: “These ‘humanities’ are reserved for people who want to make up credits … usually serves no other purpose … you dare to compare Shakespeare to those reggae lyricists! If Prof is using the reggae lyrics to teach how not to write, then that would be a good thing!”

All I could do was laugh. If only Mr Reynolds knew! Shakespeare, in his time, would not have been on the curriculum of any self-respecting university in England. Latin, not English, was the language of instruction. Shakespeare’s plays were not written for academics but for fun. Full of sex and violence, the plays had mass appeal; just like the lyrics of our dancehall DJs. Translated into modern English, the ‘vulgar’ language of many of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t make it past the censors at our Broadcasting Commission.

9781578063208Contempt for our own culture is at the root of our collective failure to engage in serious academic work on reggae. Most of the influential books on reggae have been written by non-Jamaicans. The author of one of the textbooks for my Reggae Poetry course is Swami Anand Prahlad, a professor of English at the University of Missouri. It’s calledReggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music.

Don’t be fooled by his name as I was. Professor Prahlad is African-American. His great-grandmother was among the first generation of freeborn blacks. He fell in love with the proverbs he was taught as a child. Eventually, he found his way to Jamaican culture. Making connections across the African diaspora is a recurring theme in his scholarly work.

Journey to Jah

Liberty Hall, Kingston

Most of the films and documentaries on reggae and dancehall are also produced by non-Jamaicans. They see value where we don’t. Last Thursday, Liberty Hall hosted a panel discussion for a feature documentary, Journey to Jah, by two German filmmakers, Noël Dernesch and Moritz Springer. The main speakers were the German reggae singer Gentleman; the Italian reggae singer Alborosie, who made sure to tell the lively audience that he has a Jamaican passport; and Terry Lynn, a brilliant poet and techno reggae singer from Waterhouse, who has made it big in Europe.

Each artiste told an arresting story of how they crossed cultural borders to find their creative inspiration. For me, the most powerful speaker was Terry Lynn. Rejecting the role of sex symbol, she made the decision early in her career to not be trapped in stereotypes. Even though she loves dancehall, she didn’t want to be stuck on the same ‘riddim’ every aspiring DJ has to ride. So she liberated herself to explore the techno scene. The title track of her first album, Kingstonlogic, is a brilliant take on Daft Punk’s Technologic.

All the same, things are picking up for ‘local’ writing on reggae. The Calabash International Literary Festival is on next weekend, branded Jubilation! 50. It’s still a secret if the festival is back for good. The opening session on Friday night, ‘Music is My Passion’, features four authors of books on reggae. Two are Jamaican, one has Jamaican roots, the other is an adopted Jamaican. Reggae scholarship is coming back home.


Passive Resistance At UWI, Mona

Three days after the student protest at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over the administration’s firm response to the non-payment of fees, I had a most unsettling experience in the examination room for my Reggae Poetry course. University regulations require examiners to be present for the first half-hour of every exam, just in case any clarification is needed about the paper.

After about 20 minutes or so, it struck me that one of the brightest students in the class was missing. I walked up and down the rows of candidates more than once to make sure. I even disturbed one of her friends to ask if he knew where she was. Given the large number of exams that have to be scheduled, there are inevitable timetable clashes. So provisions are made for students to take a clashing exam at another time and venue under special supervision. But, as far as he knew, she should have been there.

I hurriedly phoned her. She was such a good student, I knew that even if she came late to the exam, she could pass it. She didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail message. Two days later, she emailed to say that she had come to the venue but wasn’t allowed to sit the exam because of registration issues. In response, I asked what, exactly, was her story. She didn’t seem to be the kind of student who would not make appropriate arrangements to pay fees. She came to class regularly, did her coursework assignments and was all set to earn an ‘A’ grade.

I haven’t heard back from from her. Of course, she owes me no explanation. But I did leave another voicemail message because I was quite concerned. I wondered if she was too embarrassed to let me know that she had been plain delinquent. Or had been hoping for a miracle.Despite the hard line I took last week in condemnation of those unconscionable protesters who stopped their classmates from taking their exams, I do have reservations about the policy to stop students from sitting exams. My missing student sealed the case.

A moral dilemma

As soon as I heard about the protest, I called the office of the campus principal. I wanted to know why the option of withholding exam results was not seen as a better solution to the problem of non-payment of fees. It seemed simple enough. Students could not register for the next academic year, or graduate, if they owed fees. But if they were prevented from taking exams, they, obviously, couldn’t pass them. A whole semester’s effort would be wasted.

As it turns out, for the last two years the university administration had, in fact, leniently allowed students in arrears to take exams and their grades had been withheld – officially. But sympathetic lecturers had been sabotaging the system by releasing grades to the students. Armed with the knowledge that they had passed their courses, students managed to manipulate the system and re-register. There seems to be widespread passive resistance to the official policy. And this is understandable.

Academic failure should not be the inevitable consequence of economic disadvantage. It becomes a moral dilemma, not just a cut-and-dried financial issue. Many UWI students are, in fact, quite poor and are struggling to come up with the basics of survival. True, many of them have expensive cellphones. But very few of them have credit. That’s a very elusive commodity. In fact, ‘credit’ seems to be purely virtual. I often overhear conversations that start like this, ‘Anybody have any credit?’ Yes, ‘have’. Most students speak Jamaican outside the classroom. The usual response to the credit question is a big laugh. Or someone will admit to having $20 or so.

With my ‘faas’ self, I often ask students how come they have expensive phones and claim they can’t afford to buy books. They always say it’s a gift. So I persist. Why can’t you ask your benefactor to buy books instead? They look at me as if I’m crazy. Books instead of a cellphone? A student actually told me that she’d lost her phone and her “whole life mash up”. So I’ve come to accept the fact that no self-respecting young person can live without a cellphone. It’s the not-quite-adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. Seriously, though, students do take lecture notes on their phones and search the Internet for assignments. So the cellphone is not just an expensive indulgence; it’s an academic tool.

UWI cheaper than prep schools

There is a small minority of students at Mona who are relatively wealthy. I suppose these are the students who would have gone to college in the US in better times: before Olint became Cash Minus. Given the high cost of tuition in the US if you don’t manage to earn a scholarship, UWI is a big bargain. Here, in many cases, undergraduates are taught by full professors, not graduate students. Even in brand-name US universities, most of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students.

In comparison to US tuition fees in excess of $40,000 per year, UWI tuition fees of approximately US$2,000 per year are quite affordable for some middle-class families. Much cheaper than your typical upscale prep school. But for the vast majority of UWI students, US$2,000 might as well be US$40,000. It ‘s still out of reach. And most students don’t want to take a student loan. As I understand it, the loan becomes repayable within three months of graduation, whether or not the borrower gets a job. So students would rather ‘batter-batter’ than get caught in what they see as the student-loan trap.

I routinely give nutrition lessons in my literature classes, warning students that they can’t function on dry biscuits. And I’ve taken to keeping sweeties in my office. It’s not real food, but the students appreciate the gesture. I once got a very ‘sweet’ joke in class. One of my students confessed that she’d been rummaging in her bag and unexpectedly came up with one of the sweeties. As she put it, “It was like heaven.” The whole class laughed, and some of them admitted that they’d had the same experience.

Fun and joke aside, funding tertiary education in Jamaica today is no laughing matter. Sensitive to the complex social issues, the UWI administration is giving debarred students the opportunity to take exams in the summer semester. This is a welcome stopgap measure. But the contentious problem posed by large numbers of students perennially in arrears is not going to disappear overnight. New, long-term solutions have to be crafted. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll be forced to concede that our underfunded public education system simply cannot earn a passing grade – from GSAT all the way to the top.



ImageThe unconscionable students at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, who disrupted exams last Monday are clearly suffering from a very bad case of entitlement. This is a common disease that makes victims lose their grip on reality. You become delusional. You begin to believe you deserve certain privileges based purely on your perception of your own importance.

Psychiatrists define delusion as a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason. Delusions are really mind games. You can persuade yourself to believe whatever you want. And you end up playing all sorts of fantastic roles. The English word ‘delude’ is a combination of the Latin preposition ‘de’ (down) and the verb ‘ludere’ (to play). The name of the popular board game, Ludo, comes from that same Latin verb. It means ‘I play’.

Image‘Play-play’ students who can’t afford to pay their school fees aren’t letting that little fact stop them from enjoying delusions of grandeur. Downplaying their vulnerability, they become demanding. They insist on illusory rights. A sane person who hasn’t been able to rustle up his or her school fees for a whole academic year would probably feel just a little bit embarrassed. By contrast, the victim of entitlement is a textbook case of ‘poor show great’.

Delusional individuals are often very selfish. The world revolves around them. So those self-centred UWI students who ‘mashed up the place’ decided, quite irrationally, that if they couldn’t take exams, nobody else should. It didn’t matter that those students who had actually paid their fees were literally entitled to take exams. Too bad for them!

Regional disparities at UWI

The cure for entitlement isn’t simply a healthy dose of reality. The disease is far too complicated for that. In fact, the more you expose victims to reality, the less willing they are to face it. Or the truth about themselves! It’s a truly vicious cycle. Reality is so painful it’s best to maintain the illusion that you are above it all.

I suspect that one of the reasons some students at Mona feel they are entitled to ‘free’ education is because they know that UWI students in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago do not pay tuition fees. But, as they say in T&T, ‘Gopaul luck eh Seepaul luck’. The Jamaican equivalent is ‘puss an dog no have di same luck’ – no disrespect to Gopaul and Seepaul, who are neither feline nor canine. The parallel structure of the proverbs is purely accidental.

ImageThe Jamaican economy, at present, is very unlucky indeed. We have mismanaged our affairs and squandered our natural resources. Demand for bauxite has fallen on the world market. Sugar used to be king but is now definitely dethroned. And bananas no longer have special passports into Europe. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, we have no vast stores of oil or natural gas. Most of our politicians are full of hot air, but that doesn’t count.

On a recent visit to Trinidad, I had a most depressing conversation with the taxi driver who was taking me to the airport. He gleefully told me that he keeps on four 300-watt bulbs at his house all night, every night, one on each corner of the building. Living under the ruthless rule of the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), I was dumbstruck at the thought of the cost of such extravagance. I keep on four 25-watt bulbs.

When I recovered my tongue, I asked the taxi driver if he couldn’t use less wattage. He said, “Nah.” He likes to see the bright lights. But, I persisted. “Is not expensive?” His response: “Nah. Electricity cheap-cheap.” I pressed along: “What if all yuh run out of oil?” “Nah! Dat not happenin fa now.” So what about the next generation? That was none of his concern.

For my blogpost last week on the degradation of Long Mountain, I found a beautiful proverb of Greek origin: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’ I don’t think that grand idea would move my Trini taxi driver to turn down the lights. He could not imagine a future without oil.

‘One-one coco full basket’

ImageThe Mona campus of UWI can barely pay its electricity bills. It needs the tuition fees that students are required to contribute. True, these fees represent a relatively small percentage of the total campus budget. But ‘one-one coco full basket’ – it all adds up.

The university administration has bent over backwards to accommodate students in arrears, urging them to come up with a payment plan. Those who were debarred seem to have made no attempt to comply. They have spent the entire academic year living in a fool’s paradise, expecting that there would be no consequences for their inaction.


Prof. Kenneth Hall

Furthermore, many students don’t seem to realise that tuition fees at Mona are actually subsidised. Most students automatically get a scholarship to the tune of 80 per cent of the full economic cost of tuition. The 20 per cent that students pay is a mere token fee. As I remember it, Sir Kenneth Hall, former campus principal, was the first to make this salient point. With his experience as a senior administrator at a major state university in the US, Professor Hall certainly understands the economics and politics of funding tertiary education.

University education is never ‘free’ – not even in Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago. Somebody is paying the price. Not the student directly; but all taxpayers are covering the cost. And they expect returns on their investment. Graduates of tertiary institutions must contribute to the development of their societies. Delusional students who think they are above paying tuition fees are not likely to accept the terms of this social contract – if they ever manage to graduate. Obviously, they are entitled to a free ride for life.