Dr. John Kenneth Mensah

Senior Lecturer


Dept: Chemistry
Chemistry Department
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KNUST
Kumasi, Ghana

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Research Areas/Interests

Bio-organic Chemistry where research interest is at the intersection of chemistry with biology....~more

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Musings On Academic Influence

During times that I had exited the lecture halls after a particularly stressful session where students’ attention was fleeting and where their body language suggested disengagement and where their facial expressions and fidgety gestures communicated unequivocal disinterest, I had asked myself in frustration whether it is all worth it.

And in times when national policies on Higher Education has been more political than educational and when “lecturer-bashing” on radio talk-shows has been particularly harsh, I have thrown my hands in the air in exasperation asking myself why am I in this job that seeks to terrorise its own adherents and why be in a job that seem to reserve its harshest criticisms for those who love the job most? When public funding for books and research is so meagre that one is forced to supplement his/her academic research with his small personal income, you get antsy about the future and ask what’s the attraction that has glued you to a job with a seemingly high risk-benefit ratio.

No you have not caught the drift yet. When the offices of university administrators are more spacious and are furnished with matching new furniture and curtains and have a climate controlled system buzzing overhead while yours has few mismatched and discarded chairs and tables scavenged from other disused offices, then you wonder why this one-sided marriage to this job has lasted that long.

It has long been an anomaly that politicians have failed to include our voices in the analyses of national issues and even in the promulgation of policy related to emerging educational trends yet this job retains its worth. When cost-cutting initiatives by governments of all stripes have led to budget cuts that have left universities without resources to conduct cutting-edge research and to teach effectively, I still trudge on believing against hope that the future is bright for this honorable venture.

And usually, when the affliction of negativity becomes particularly strong, the answer I get deep in my sub-conscious is yes this job is worth it. Yes, this job is noble, moral, decent, upright, gallant, magnanimous, virtuous and splendid in spite of its many obvious challenges. Whether improvements in the future such as functional smart classrooms, state-of-the art research equipment are provided or not, I will lumber on in despair to honor my commitment with my maker about a job that holds so much promise for humanity but is also one that gives so much heartache for its faithful workers.

Ours is a job unlike any other because it deals directly with changing the mind-sets of the young and the impressionable men and women. Talk about changing your own mind set and its pattern of thoughts and you wince at your paltry success rate.  Changing the mind of others is an arduous task, a mammoth undertaking with a long gestation and with no real guarantees of success, particularly, when done within the impossibly short time window that constitutes an academic year. But that’s our task. We do a good job at it even though critics are stingy with their credits.

Yes, the mundane job descriptions of lecturers are clearly spelt out to all appointees. But underlying it all, I have repeatedly asked, what is my symbolic duty as a lecturer?  Beyond the standardized definitions of terms, I mean really, what do I do as a researcher and a teacher? And what does it mean to be both? I understand and accept that every lecturer has a public duty to register his influence on students’ academic matters. Perhaps symbolically that is what this job is all about. How effective has mine been, as seen by students outside the course evaluation forms? Have I etched a deep influence on student thinking to the point where the ablest among them think of emulating me into a career in academia although the financial remuneration isn’t really an encouragement? On a scale of zero to a hundred, what percentage point will use as a quantitative measure of mine influence on students’ career choice? Does recent alumina recall my classes with nostalgia or do they just write it off as neither too good nor too bad, in fact as a monumental waste of their time?

My department’s mission is to conduct rigorous basic and translational research in all areas of the chemical sciences that are directed towards the improvement in quality of life through a multidisciplinary collaborative approach to research, teaching and community engagement. In accordance with KNUST’s mission to provide excellent research across disciplines with innovative teaching as a subsidiary tool, have I offered students any semblance of fundamental skills leading to the conduct of hypothesis-driven research? How do I sustain this sense of mission with intensity on a very good day in class and how do I recapture the original level of passion on a bad day when my students seem to be lost in translation? Through the good and the bad, have I gradually lost the conviction in the excitement of my lecture material to meet societal needs and its ability to chart a fruitful career path for the lost and the disenchanted student when he wakes up from his/her self-induced stupor? Or does the curriculum cause them to continue to sleepwalk through the course using rote-memorization here and there to eke-out a passing grade.

Student short-term apathy can be pernicious to their self-stated long-term career goals. Have my words of advice offered in informal settings helped pull away the coat of indifference that is wrapped around the minds of some students about the pursuit of academic excellence? Have I helped take down the mantle of apathy that so easily beset the minds of students with no declared career objective and of those with no intention of declaring a career objective?

Unfortunately, lecturers encounter students’ positions on many academic and socio-cultural issues only after it has become entrenched. Sometimes our attempts at remediation are too late to effect timely corrective measures and at other times the scale of the challenge and its level of difficulty simply overwhelm us. But we hang in there nonetheless, mindful of the Biblical admonition that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But really, in all or any of these challenging scenarios, has my modulating role played a decisive influence in allaying unfounded fears or in offering definite resolution or even in pointing to a direction infused with corrective solution?

For some students, the stirring for deep academic pursuit is at the bottom of the totem-pole when compared with their extracurricular interests. Have I challenged the minds and the imaginations of students during lectures with didactic instructions that match-up to their lively extramural interests in Champions League Football? Do my instructions and the course content animate them to the same extent that the intractable argument about Messi and Ronaldo does? Or do my instructions and course materials merely skirt the border of what they consider “cool” in their parlance? Without a renewed vision of academic responsibility and sans an inspired curriculum, students nurture and training will merely wobble along, uniformly characterized as neither good nor bad but rumbling along all the same in the production assembly.

Restoration of academic excellence to proper centrality in the university is key to the holistic training of students. Do student’s refusals to pay attention mean my information is irrelevant to their central academic concern? What about the drop in students’ attendance? Is it a symptom of my inattention to detail, boring delivery of the material or the simple-minded explanation that this generation of students are just too lazy? How do I make the academic answer so compelling and the academic excitement so palpable that students will sit at the edge of their seats in anticipation and will listen with rapt attention to my lectures? Or is the course material so prosaic that a pallbearer can be considered its most competent deliverer? How do I maximize levels of individual students’ attainment outside a generalized university framework? Does the information and knowledge I presume to impart within the research and teaching curriculum shape secular beliefs and societal knowledge systems as well? If not, then why not? Do my students “open up” instead of “narrow down” during chance encounters with me or during office hours? Do I scare them off with sa cowl of rejection or welcome them with a smile of acceptance?

Students prompt lecture attendance underscores the importance of the course material to them. General across the board drop in students attendance to lectures therefore represent a critical challenge to the university’s academic cause. Can bridging the seemingly irreconcilable chasm between lecturer’s views and students’ views increase students enthusiasm for lectures based on the rationale that minimization of the intellectual gap between disparate positions often fosters common grounds?

This is not a fair world and by tacit understanding this job of ours is a “labor of love,” a kind of “missionary service” that provides refuge for men and women afraid of the real world. In it, they can indulge their Bibliophilic passion of the mind, acquiring endless book knowledge and securing an escape from the vicissitudes of real life through learning. So “Lecturer-bashing” and university education-ridicule has now become a calling of some radio talk show hosts and few visible eclectic assemblies of Ghanaians. Industry leaders now contend strongly that the university curriculum is now not relevant to their needs and that it should be made more responsive to their concept of modernity. “Our graduates don’t have the needed skills for the industry,” they lament. “Our graduates are poorly trained,” they bemoan. Such critics are not asking for bandaged corrections, they are seeking a paradigm shift. How so? So the university should become like a manufacturing industry where our engineering department produce cars, our medical schools produce drugs on demand, our physicists produce bombs and our social scientists make high probability predictive forecast on the Ghana stock exchange. These are not trivial matters because they constitute core philosophical departure from the status quo. Time has a way of resolving thorny issues and it will settle this one too.

The general public reticence to changes advocated by industry is blamed on the manifest stubbornness of lecturers. “It all starts and ends with the aloof lecturer corps who can’t take their heads out of their books for a short time to look around and notice that the world is no longer listening to their dogma. They are too bookish. What have they accomplished anyway? Nothing, nada, caput, nil, zilch, zippo, nought! They are all sitting on their fat asses pontificating into thin air about archaic formulas. While the world has changed, they remain stuck with their book knowledge. They need to become useful, you know, like an appliance. After all, didn’t the Bible say that the letter killeth while the spirit giveth life?” Such unwarranted criticisms should not make me bitter but should spur my public re-education effort on what a university is supposed to be: a citadel for the practice of the habit of the mind.

Reality rarely lives up to its hype. As the students look around for alternative jobs, I tell them that this job did not make me rich but I think I manage alright. I have a comfortable living by Ghanaian standards. And this work will reward their ingenuity, creativity and inventiveness of their minds if they choose it. So they should allow the flaming passions of academic inquiry to overtake them. Together, they should be the generation of young university minds in passionate revolt against mediocrity and against academic apathy. Because when all is said and done, they are sons and daughters of parents working hard, using any means necessary, to stay financially afloat just to pay their fees and provide their school supplies.

Pretty soon Ghanaian universities will go through consequential transformations as the “free education” module of the current high school system releases its hoard of students into the university. What will my role be? Will there be new added responsibilities? Will the conveyor belt of quick and fast training move faster or will it slow down with the newly added excess load? Our factory model of higher education with such high students’ numbers makes it difficult to pay attention to students as individuals. How many names of students do I bother to learn and remember so I can address them in personal terms? How many do I really have to know in terms of their personal academic strengths and how many of them have I studied well-enough to understand the basis of their academic weaknesses? Have I focussed more on student weaknesses and less on their effort to excel at all cost?

Results are the ultimate decider of academic fate. Students who are slow learners; students with poor-self view about their intellectual capabilities and students who lose focus on achievement goals quickly learn that the price for their deficiencies is very steep on their transcripts. Unfortunately, their transcripts may not reflect their correct innate intelligence or their real intellectual competence. That’s sad but life isn’t fair. The conveyor belt in the factory system waits for no one.

Have I acted, out of unadulterated love, to the harsh realities of students’ lives when needy students implore me with only misty eye-contacts of desperation to tell me that they are living at the edge of financial despair and that their sunken cheeks are the results of lack of money for food? In response, have I merely offered a calming kind word and walked away or did I compel myself to become an unwilling philanthropist uninterested in public adulation?

 

Provision of mentorship by training in core techniques and concepts, in generating and analyzing data, in publishing and presenting results and in excelling and completing coursework ensures the perpetuation of our trade. In all the years that I have served, have I offered advice and guidance and research mentorship that has led to the development and growth of a former student as a new independent researcher focussed on research at the interface of the sciences and as a new investigator who has expanded my scientific network of like-minded researchers? How do I foster a formal and informal collegial and respectful academic environment to facilitate uninhibited discussion of ideas, thoughts, proposals, questions, impressions and “plain-old wacky” philosophies and “out-of-this-world” opinions between and among students and lecturers?

Let’s encourage an academic growth mind-set among students, starting very early with undergraduate students. Let’s maximize student academic training and academic output performance through journal clubs, manuscript preparation, presentations at conferences so students may become equipped with essential tools to navigate a future rigorous career in academia or imminent demanding vocation in the industry. Counselling them on individualized academic planning, on professional development, and on skill-building activities to increase their competitiveness and readiness for the job market or for further studies in tough academic programs anyplace anywhere in the world. Their attitudinal disposition in and out of classes/lectures has nothing to do with our divinely inspired mandate to open the eyes of their understanding to new thoughts and to novel ideas. Ours is to do our job even if students appear in class with no clothes on except a smile on their faces. Our collective effort, in spite of all the known and predictable snafus, will increase KNUST’s institutional impact on student training experiences. This job gives me fulfilment.

 

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