South African Visiting Professor Leaves Lasting Mark at Georgia State
Professor Sindiwe Magona walked through Langdale Hall modeling her signature smile, her head adorned with a black scarf. As she neared the end of the hall, she yelled, “Open the door!” Her students laughed as they followed her into classroom 331.
Magona is a renowned South African novelist, playwright, poet and activist, best known for works such as Mother to Mother and Beautiful Gift. The writer recently headed back to South Africa after working with Georgia State University’s English Department and the Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language and Literacy (RCALL) Area of Focus Initiative as a writer-in-residence.
She worked with two completely different groups of students to achieve two different goals, working with English students to compose life memoirs and mentoring RCALL Doctoral Fellows through a semester of creating children’s literature.
On this particular day, Magona’s class presented the life writing stories they worked on all semester. With a presentation lineup already in place, the first student approached the front of the class to read her story.
The conclusion of the first student’s story was met with a round of applause from the class and a wink from Magona. With a crunch for time, the professor glanced at the lineup and called for the next student.
“Next victim,” she laughed.
A student hesitantly got up from her desk and began to walk to the front. Her nerves disappeared with just one pat on the back from Magona, however. The student began to read as Magona closed her eyes, nodded and smiled.
Welcome to English 4205, Life Writing: From Children’s Book to Adult Memoir.
In just 10 weeks, Magona’s students became her family away from home and her classroom, a source of inspiration.
“It’s a pleasure to teach and lead a group who are attentive and respectful. The real pain of teaching is when you find students who don’t know what they want or are being forced,” Magona said. “You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught. These students wanted to be taught.”
During her time at Georgia State, Magona co-taught the English course on life writing with English Professor Renee Schatteman. In the course, students developed creative writing pieces inspired by life experiences. Magona served not only as a professor but also as a mentor for her students, guiding them through weeks of transparent and vulnerable story writing.
“She has been different because she was truly like a parent to us. She cared for our writing and embraced our unique takes on our own lives,” said English senior Karlye Hayes. “At the same time she pushed us to continue sharing and to continue not to hold back. Professor Magona put us in a place where we could truly trust each other and her.”
“The only thing I would change is that she would not have to go home,” she added.
What started as just a teaching opportunity became much more than that for Magona. To see her students conquer the challenge of writing pieces inspired by memorable and meaningful life events was nothing short of an amazing experience, she said.
“Some students started off fragile and now they speak loud and clear. I’m very proud of my students here, honestly. I have no words,” Magona said.
Schatteman formed a great professional and personal bond with Magona, sharing both a classroom and an office with the visiting professor. She believes that the writer’s work at Georgia State will have a lasting impact.
“Having Professor Magona here on campus for an extended period of time has greatly enhanced the English Department as well as the RCALL Initiative,” Schatteman said. “She has helped students to feel passionate about life writing and to realize that they have important stories to tell. Her charming and high spirited energy will be long remembered.”
Magona was able to come to Georgia State because of funding from a Developing External Educational Partnerships (DEEP) grant awarded to Schatteman from the College of Arts and Sciences and the RCALL Initiative. Schatteman joined forces with RCALL Co-Director and psychology Professor Rose Sevcik to plan Magona’s mini-semester visit. MaryAnn Romski, RCALL faculty member and associate dean for research and graduate programs for the College of Arts and Sciences, worked closely with Magona on the RCALL Initiative’s seminar course, a five-week interdisciplinary course Magona taught on Monday evenings.
Schatteman, Sevcik and Romski have been active in the university’s South African Task Force, which is a part of Georgia State’s strategic plan to globalize the university. The three have worked extensively with colleagues from South African universities, work that set the stage for Magona’s visit.
Magona’s Approach to Language and Literacy
Magona’s RCALL Initiative seminar course took a different approach to the issue of language and literacy challenges. Her students focused on the books children read, rather than children’s difficulty or inability to speak, read or write.
“This was a very different experience for our students,” said Romski. “I think all the students feel like Professor Magona has helped them think in a different way about language and literacy and about how kids are communicating.”
The RCALL Initiative at Georgia State focuses on the challenges of acquiring language and literacy, promoting research and awareness of the oral and written dimensions of language acquisition. The students and faculty involved with the interdisciplinary initiative across the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Education often work with children and adults who have difficulty processing texts or communicating orally.
Magona’s students created children’s books, a crucial part to understanding and digging deeper into language and literacy, Magona said. The author of more than 130 children’s books, she pushed the students to create pieces that identified with the needs and issues of the children they’d worked with in the past.
“All children need to see themselves in the stories we write. We see it in color. We see it in gender. But let’s see it even in terms of abilities. We need to experience ourselves in the stories,” Magona said.
And to the writer’s satisfaction, her students’ children’s books did just that. The books were populated with people of all variety, of all diversity.
“Eat your heart out, look what those students produced,” Magona said as she admired the students’ books. “One of the students said ‘we surprised ourselves, we never thought we could do this,’ and that was affirming for me. It’s more than they thought they would ever do. I hope that they stay with it and continue to write, even as they pursue their other studies and start their careers.”
Magona knows what it’s like to surprise oneself. In fact, although she developed a love for reading at a very young age, she didn’t begin to write her own books until she read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in her thirties.
“If you don’t ever meet a writer or buy a book from a writer who looks like you, you don’t think it’s possible. So my idea of writing was that it wasn’t for me,” she said. “The first time I read a book written by a black woman, I realized even someone who looks like me can do this.”
Magona is a true believer and living representation of the notion that it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start. She hopes that her students not only grew as writers during her time at Georgia State but also found value and inspiration in her personal stories of failure and success.
“When I first started, I wasn’t bold enough to even put writer on my business card. I put folklorist,” she told RCALL students on her last day. “I didn’t even know what a folklorist was, but it didn’t sound as daring as saying writer. That’s the step I took.”
She added, “I took money out of my pocket and paid for cards because I knew I was going to write books. So believe in yourself. You already have the ability to create.”
Magona returned to her position as faculty at the University of the Western Cape outside of Capetown where she resides in March with lifelong memories, an extended family at Georgia State and half of her newest novel complete. She plans to finish and release the novel, “Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle,” later this year.