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Academic Travails: 17 hours for 20 minutes

The academic world will never cease to amaze me. Let us look at just one example. Take an invitation to present a paper at an international event, as I was in June 2022. This particular event was the 90th commemoration of the establishment of Oriental Studies at the University of Warsaw, Poland. About 30 of us were invited, mainly from Europe and Asia, to share experiences on our various studies on orientalism from 29th to 30th June 2022.

The trip was daunting for me, to begin with. Started with an hour flight on Qatar Airways to Abuja from Kano (my base). Spent another hour or so on ground at Abuja, before taking off for the six-hour flight to Doha, Qatar. Spent over four hours meandering around the terminal at Doha, waiting for the connecting flight to Warsaw. Eventually boarded the five-hour flight from Doha to Warsaw. All told, about 17 hours journey time. Arrived at the hotel jetlagged, weary and disoriented.

Off the following day to the University of Warsaw for the two-day conference scheduled at 9.00 p.m. each day. And it was right on the dot, with welcoming remarks by Prof. Piotr Taracha, the Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies UW, followed by an address to the conference by Prof. Alojzy Z. Nowak, the Rector of UW. These were followed by two keynote addresses, then appreciation of retiring members of the university community who had been there for over 50 years, including my host, Prof. dr. hab. Nina Pawlak (that’s how distinguished academic titles are labelled in most Eastern European universities). Let’s see what the letters mean; prof stands for professor, while dr is the doctor. To be a hab, however, requires extra efforts.

To be awarded the academic degree of doktor habilitowany (habilitation) the candidate must have remarkable scientific or artistic achievements; submit a habilitation book which contributes to the development of a given scientific discipline; receive a favorable assessment of their output, pass a habilitation examination and deliver a favorably assessed habilitation lecture. It is after all this that they become professors.

Nina Pawlak received her PhD in 1983 (Constructions expressing spatial relations in the Hausa language), habilitation in 1995 (Syntactic Markers in Chadic) and professorship in 2007. Thus entitled to prof. dr. hab. status. The habilitation, a post-doctoral experience that is highly formalized, represented by a separate thesis, or a compendium of outstanding work in the area that can be evaluated as making an original contribution to knowledge. Its takes between four to ten years to complete. Its  public presentation is something like an inaugural lecture before professorship. In most cases, the habilitation is the qualification needed for someone to supervise doctoral students. So far, in Africa, only Al-Azhar University in Cairo seems to offer this route to university scholarship.

It is the habilitation qualification that will determine one’s path to professorship, but the publications required for skipping it to become a professor directly have to be more outstanding that the habilitation publication. This process shows a rigorous respect for original contribution to knowledge in European scholarship. One can still be referred to as prof. dr. in recognition of their scholarship, without the hab. For instance, I was recognized as so by the European Union award of a grant to teach at the University of Warsaw in 2012. The prof. dr. title, used in mainland Europe and some Asian universities, acknowledges scholarship, even without the region-specific hab.

Now back to the Conference. No ‘Chairman of the Occasion’, or Lead Paper presenter, nor ‘Royal Father of the Day’, etc. Just presentations. Now that brings me to my wonderment about the academic process. After over 17 hours of flight time (and same hours returning back), like everyone else, I was given 20 minutes (which included being harassed five minutes to the end by the moderator) to present my paper titled The Trans-Oriental Express: Receptivity and Cinematic Contraflows in African Popular Culture, and 10 minutes allowed for discussions – and that’s it!

Thus, you spend weeks on fieldwork and data synthesis, spend hours being ferried from one location to another, stay for days cooped up in a dingy hotel room (wistfully thinking about your own spacious personal living space!) eat some unusual and often very expensive food. All for 20 minutes of fame! This has been a recurring pattern in all the conferences I had attended.

So, what is it about, at least international scholarship, that people would rather read what you wrote than listen to you? In Nigeria paper presenters tend to ramble way beyond their allocated time – often the moderator of your session is worried about stopping you because you are a ‘big’ man, even if you are talking out of point. I remember one case in which the ‘Guest Speaker’ was reminded that his time was up as per the ‘program of event’ (sic). He adamantly refused to heed to the time and insisted that since he was the main ‘event’ he will only stop when he finished reading the booklet of his lecture which was 32 pages! Thank God for Smartphones – people just ignored him and shifted their attention to their WhatsApp messenger, and came back to earth only after someone started clapping to signal their relief at the conclusion of the presentation!

Perhaps it is time for us as Nigerian academics to move from this dense didactic approach to presenting papers – where you are often expected to give ‘theoretical framework’, ‘research questions’, ‘methodology’ (to appear ‘Scientific’ even if there is no Science in your conclusions) before you get to the actual data itself. And most annoying, you are also expected to give totally useless ‘recommendations.’ I had arguments with moderators and participants in Nigeria on the last point where I am asked my ‘recommendations’ after my presentations. I often reply that I don’t have any recommendations – I present my data and my interpretation. How it goes is up you. For instance, what can I recommend to a person who based their own narrative creativity on intertextual appropriation, thus creating a meta-narrative? That it has happened is fascinating enough. That I brought it to your attention is sufficient enough in knowledge discourses. In wider international scholarship, participants are more interested in exploring other aspects of your data.

I think our approach to conference presentations in Nigeria has vestiges of the didactic educational experiences we were grilled though. Under such academic ecosystem, all research is geared towards policy and governance. It is time for a paradigm shift – cut down the number of minutes on presentation, and focus on the epistemological virtues of the presentation! Oh, and cut-off the prof’s microphone when he seems about to torture his audience beyond his allocated 15 to 20 minutes!

Abdallah Uba Adamu is a Professor of Media and Cultural Communication.

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