Comfortable with ‘the uncomfortable’

Stellenbosch University oenology lecturer Marianne McKay, middle, and her colleague Marisa Nell of the Stellenbosch University Department of Viticulture and Oenology, with some of the students of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA) that she also trains and mentors. They are Phelisa Ntsokotha, Simamkele Ncapayi, Masanda Mlanjeni, Yolanda Ngwevela , Yonela Zondwayo, Samkelisiwe Magwaza, Yolani Kaso, Mpontseng Ramathathaki, Emihle Ganyaza and Sisanda Samente.

The way in which Marianne McKay goes about teaching her students about different aspects of the South African wine industry has been commended in recent months through a series of awards – one of which is recognition as a Distinguished Teacher from Stellenbosch University.

One cannot help but notice the old-world charm of the JH Neethling Building at Stellenbosch University (SU) as one walks through its stained-glass doors and up a flight of brick-red stairs towards lecturer Marianne McKay’s office.

A hint of fermented grapes hangs in the building, which is home to, among others, the SU Department of Viticulture and Oenology (DVO).

It conjures up images of Cape Dutch farmsteads and white-washed cellars where tourists and connoisseurs can sample the Cape’s best wines.

It is, however, the flipside of this coin that Ms McKay also wants to show her oenology and viticulture students, in the hope that they will develop into responsible employers and employees.

“They should become true change agents in the South African wine industry,” she says.

A module that Ms McKay teaches to her second year students covers the history of South Africa’s wine industry. It relies, in part, on a book written by Jeanne Viall, Wilmot James and Jakes Gerwel.

“Grape – Stories of the Vineyards in South Africa is a book that everybody in the wine industry should read,” she states emphatically.

The module is about more than just the important dates and milestones in the history of the local wine industry.

It also highlights how its development has had a carry-over effect into some of the social issues faced by many Western Cape communities.

“Having to study these issues comes with a measure of discomfort to many of our students, and of course also to myself,” admits Ms McKay. “For learning to take place, it is, however, really important that one moves out of one’s comfort zone, for lecturer and student alike.”

Ms McKay tries to embrace these feelings, because she believes this will eventually benefit the wine industry.

Her approach is rooted in her belief about the importance of social justice and ethical responsibility. “These are attributes that must be instilled during the course of a student’s education at SU, along with all the other ‘normal’ technical and scientific skills associated with winemaking,” she explains.

At the university’s recent annual Scholarship for Teaching and Learning (SOTL) three-day conference in Somerset West, she presented a paper on her experiences in teaching this module, and some of the theoretical underpinning of the work. It was titled Inhabiting a more ambiguous self: Using Discomfort to explore issues of Social Justice.

Ms McKay admits that she was pleasantly surprised when she received the Delegates’ Choice award for the best presentation as well as one for the best paper overall.

She even received a certificate of merit for its abstract.

Ms McKay has been lecturing at SU since 2007. She is one of this year’s recipients of a SU Distinguished Teacher Award, which commends staff members who go to great lengths with this important part of a university’s mandate.

The awards that have come her way in recent months are not the first recognition that she has received.

In 2015, she was presented with a National Excellence in Teaching Award from the Council for Higher Education (CHE) and the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA). The award recognises excellent teaching at South African universities.

Over the past year, she has also been able to delve more deeply into the ways in which she interacts with her students through a teaching fellowship she received from the university in 2016.

She has a keen interest in innovative ways of “Africanising” the science curriculum, and exploring engaged methods that help to make students work-ready, professional and “future-proof”.

This lecturer of note believes in the value of practical experience that moves beyond the theoretical, and takes feedback from students and industry very seriously.

That’s why she helped to introduce wine-tasting and sensory evaluation in every level of training of the undergraduate degree of BSc Viticulture and Oenology students, with a longitudinal tasting portfolio (extending from the first to the third year) in which the students can record their own “wine journey”.

The programme as a whole received quite an overhaul in recent years to ensure that its engaged approach not only meets the professional development needs of the students, but also that of the wine industry.

As part of this, Ms McKay included a service-learning component that forms part of the practical work that second year oenology students do.

She has already published research about the service learning approach within a higher education context together with colleagues from the university’s Division of Social Impact, and has spoken about it at conferences in South Africa, Ireland and the United States.

Ms McKay’s belief in the need for transformation extends further than just the wine industry to the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well. She is, for instance, part of a focus interest group that includes members from various faculties, and was part of the SU task team that drafted a Decolonising the Curriculum document.

Collaborations with colleagues across SU, including arts and military sciences, have also led to publications regarding social justice issues.

If this is not enough, Ms McKay and colleagues from the DVO have been involved in the Pinotage Youth Development Academy.

This NPO teaches vocational skills to young people from communities in and around the winelands of the Boland that they can use in the wine and tourism sectors.

This includes learning basic laboratory skills, as well as the sensory valuation of wine, and winemaking skills. Independent evaluation recently showed that the SU training is a valuable component of the broader PYDA programme.

“This is all about an excellent team, without their help, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ms McKay says in acknowledging the invaluable contribution of her DVO colleagues to the PYDA.

She is also thankful for the valuable mentoring and support that she has received from colleagues in the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and the Division for Social Impact.

“This kind of work requires a thorough understanding of educational and social theories, and can be very challenging for a scientist to do without guidance,” she adds.

Engela Duvenage is a freelance science writer, and co-founder of Scibraai – Sharing stories about South African science.

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