By Chelsea Haith
First year students at Rhodes University were corralled into the Rhodes Drama Department in the opening weeks of the second term for performances of Unzip Your Knowledge. The final show on the evening of 21 April was received with a standing ovation by the full audience.
Unzip Your Knowledge is a visual and dramatic complement to the RU Learning support guide project initiated by Professor Chrissie Boughey, the Rhodes University Dean of Teaching and Learning. The RU Learning booklet is to be distributed to students soon and the show is in its second year of running. The intention of the show is to unpack what ‘academic literacy’ is, as Boughey feels the term is misunderstood and misused in South Africa. “It does not only refer to the ability to read and write in a technical sense of being able to encode and decode the alphabet but to ways of relating to text – what people are prepared to read and write and how they are prepared to read and write,” she said.
Plagiarism was another key concern played out from the students’ perspective and showed the potential slip-ups that students make when trying to articulate their ideas using secondary sources. After the show the actors and director discussed different approaches to the issues to avoid, for example, being excluded from the university for plagiarising your peers work or copying from readings.
The show tackled relevant issues including xenophobia, racism, classism, white privilege and the #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall debates. The audience’s reactions were particularly visceral when confronted with scenes portraying students losing their Duly Performed Certificates and the effects of too much partying.
The show was directed by Simona Mazza who graduated from Rhodes with Honours in Drama in 2013. Last year, directed by Jessica Harrison, the show focussed on the elections and critical thinking so this year’s show has taken a new focus.
“This year we really tried to focus on the incremental learning part, and really just break it down in terms of evidence and substantiation. And opinion. Last year we did it but it was too different, it almost felt like it was two different plays with the election scene. It was really valuable but we didn’t focus as much on students who were writing the essays, so this year we tried to focus more on them,” explained Mazza.
Students’ responses to the show have been positive. “They’ve been emailing the student affairs since the shows last week to say how much the show has been opening their minds to how they must work,” Mazza said.
The idea to dramatise the RU Learning book was Boughey’s and the project is a collaboration between UBom! and CHERTL. “I wrote the RULearning book to try make both the values about knowledge and how it can be known underpinning academic reading, writing and speaking overt to students. It then made sense to me to try and demonstrate both the values and attitudes and the ways of behaving in relation to text. I approached Ubom! in late 2013 to ask if they could help with this. The result was the 2014 Unzip production which went down so well that we repeated it in 2015,” explained Boughey.