What you need to know:
- Education is essentially about producing civil human beings and our society needs to remember this.
- Unfortunately, we have made education seem like a business commodity and students walk into the classroom already worried about failing to get jobs.
- We need to teach students to appreciate knowledge and skills before they start thinking about jobs.
When Jennifer Muchiri started her education at Kiru Primary School in Murang’a, she didn’t see herself studying at the University of Nairobi for more than eight years. Today, she teaches literature at the institution.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I enjoy teaching and interacting with my students, in and out of class. Being a teacher, I am aware that I can greatly influence my students, even beyond the classroom. I view my students as my children, and I try to relate with them as such. The highlight of my job comes when my students graduate. I see graduation as a culmination of a very important journey. On such days, I always make a point of sending congratulatory messages to the Master’s and PhD students who I supervise.
What are some of your experiences and lessons teaching during a pandemic?
The period has been a learning curve for students as well as academic staff. Many students do not have the infrastructure for virtual learning such as laptops and access to data. We also have students who live in places where learning is not conducive – they do not have a room or space to attend virtual class. Some have not managed to attend classes completely, while others attend but very sporadically.
Universities have been accused of churning out graduates who are not ready for the job market. What is your take on this?
That is a cliché and an accusatory statement to teachers who are undeniably committed to their jobs and to mentoring their students. I believe it is a mistake to focus on jobs instead of wholesome education. We tell students to study certain courses so that they can be employed and from day one, students begin to think about jobs, rather than what they are studying and the need to acquire quality education. Education is essentially about producing civil human beings and our society needs to remember this. Unfortunately, we have made education seem like a business commodity and students walk into the classroom already worried about failing to get jobs. We need to teach students to appreciate knowledge and skills before they start thinking about jobs. Education is about improving worldviews, thought processes and critical thinking – these are transferable skills to any job. If you have an education, you can fit anywhere.
How have your career interests morphed over the years?
As an undergraduate student studying literature, I thought I would work in the civil service. I just did not know in what capacity and in what specific area. While taking my Master’s, however, I realised there was a possibility of getting into academia. I started having conversations with my mentors and lecturers, and I realised there was space for me. I had always seen academia as a field which belonged to certain kinds of people. But, having been brought up in a family with many teachers, I should probably have seen it coming. Mentorship played a critical role for me because if my teachers had not spoken to me and made me realise that academia was a path I could pursue, I wouldn't be here today. The desire to be in academia made my decision to pursue a PhD a natural one.
The Department of Literature is famed for nurturing great minds. Is that still the case?
The department of literature has been around since UoN was opened 51 years ago. We pride ourselves in being the pioneer department of literature in the country. When it comes to staff development, most universities in the country have members of staff who were trained, shaped, and nurtured at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature. We have also trained students who are serving in the academic, public, and private sectors. We have alumni who have gone on to become respected scholars beyond Africa.
What’s your advice to literature students regarding the best way to prepare for one’s career?
Concentrate on acquiring an education. Careers are about learning, and there are no clear-cut guidelines or guarantees about where you will end up. Learn to do things right. Whatever career you land in, you have to do things right for you to be successful. Be respectful and ready to learn. The four years or so you will spend as an undergraduate student are not enough for you to learn all you need to learn about your career. So, seek mentorship and speak to your teachers and senior students because that way, you will begin to learn about the different pathways that you might pursue when you are through with your degree.
You were a student at UoN and are now a lecturer at the same institution. Do these two experiences make you view the university in two different ways?
It’s not really about seeing the school differently but about learning more about the institution. I now relate better with the university compared to when I was an undergraduate student. Looking at my students, I can clearly see where I was when I walked through the gates of the school and so it’s easy for me to be empathetic. It is also a great honor for me to work alongside the people who mentored me when I was a student.
What is your favorite undergraduate memory?
Sitting outside the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Library and at the “Pregnancy Square” with my friends, in between classes, to tell stories. That was a beautiful thing because we made lasting friendships. There were no mobile phones then. Unfortunately, students don't experience that today because mobile phones have taken over their lives. They still sit outside JKML but they hardly talk to each other because each of them is on their phone.
What are your six most recent reads?
Moyez G Vassanji’s And Home was Kariokor: A Memoir of East Africa,Kololo Hill by Neema Shah, Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah; Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi; Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong and Ciku Kimani Mwaniki’s Cocktail from the Savannah.
Who do you look up to in your field?
My greatest mentor is Prof D.H Kiiru of the University of Nairobi. He has been my teacher, supervisor, advisor and friend.