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Opinions of Saturday, 20 November 2010

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Academic Reference After Ten Years?

Ask Professor Badu

Even for the career student, ten years is all it should take to complete a PhD, even if he had to do a second bachelors degree. But if ten years after completing a second masters degree he is still a bachelor (unmarried), then he is better off getting a marriage certificate than going for another academic decoration. And if he must ever bother to do another degree, it better not be another master’s. How can one person serve three masters?

Recently, a reader wrote to demand of me a very difficult favour. He needed a reference as part of the requirements for a master’s degree application. The writer, who only described himself as a fan of mine since I started writing, (as if he actually knows when I wrote my first article on the romantic lifestyles of baboons and buffoons), had left university some ten years ago. Most of his lecturers are on retirement. Not many had died but they were not growing any younger. The few who are still there do not remember him. Like me, he wasn’t outstanding in any particular subject and didn’t hold any post. He just walked through the institution and managed to graduate with a second class.

Why would anybody ask me for an academic reference when I am not an academic? My former Hall President, Frank Yaw Ansu (May his soul find refuge in the Lord) always teased that I should never consider a career in academia because my name sounds very unacademic. So I have steered clear the academic path for better reasons. And with a questionable behavioural pattern characterised by a tsunami of donts and a few doubtful dos, I have never attempted to write a character reference for anybody, let alone an academic one. I haven’t even mastered the compunction to punch-past my strongholds to write a character reference for myself, unless I am certain I would be sincere, for once.

My fan reader is one of many who abandon otherwise important academic pursuits because of references. Incidentally, at the time I received his request, I was also making telephone calls across the globe, scouting for references from professors who didn’t remember what manner of man I was. Luckily, one of my old professors remembered me and asked: “So you graduated in year 2000?” “Yes Sir, Prof”, I would quickly reply, gratified at the prospect that he was getting close to making me out. Then he came even closer: “Were you short and skinny? You graduated with a distinction, right?” He was right about my height and size but not the distinction. He had obviously confused me with another short guy. He would later warn that I risked wasting my professional life if I continued to live in a foreign land: “Most of your mates are in big positions here while you are globetrotting. Don’t you talk to them? 28 year olds hold positions in government. You sit there jumping from university to university.” I couldn’t go on with the request.

The other professor I called was even more exciting. He had taught me in my undergraduate years (between 1995 and 1998). He asked me my full name and some of the lecturers who taught me. I eagerly supplied the names of a few Drs and who had since become professors, actually emeritus professors. So, as I said Dr this, he quickly corrected me “You mean professor that?” “My son, you see a lot has changed since you left this department. We have moved from where we used to be.” I would later learn that the entire department is now housed in a new modern facility miles away from where it was when I dosed through my lectures in Semantics and Pragmatics. But professors, even the not so good ones, always have something to profess: “So after all these years, what have you been doing with your life? Where do you work?” “Sir, I am in Canada and work with a private energy firm. We are into green issues, public information and education and all” “And what do you need a PhD for?” There, I knew I was in for a lecture, so I was ready for a piece of advice on how unrewarding a career in academia is, but I was wrong. Instead, he asked:” Did you do your masters in this department?” No, Sir, I did it in England” Then came the stinker: “Then why am I even wasting time on you? You should get a reference from your university in England”, he said- quite professorially.

The university lecturers in Ghana had just resumed from a long strike, so I decided the professor may be tired. And frankly, he sounded quite tired. I would later learn that he went on pension but the university had re-engaged him to help out in a greying department. I decided to try one of my lady professors in England. By nature, ladies have a softer spot, and of course a breast – filled with the milk of human kindness. Well, not this one, who, going by the instant quizzes he put me through on the telephone, appeared to have weaned her breast of milk or any kind of liquid for that matter: “Is that professor Blunt?” “Speaking, what can I do for you, darling?” Mind you, in England ‘darling’ does not connote any affection at all; it is dished out to every twit, and sometimes to dogs and cats, who incidentally, prove to be better darlings than their selfish owners. But, at least, I was a darling for starters. After what would pass for a rehearsed rendition of my reference story, she politely asked: “What is your student number?” Ahh, I had no clue, not even now. “I don’t remember, Madam.” “Well, if you don’t remember your own student number, how do you expect me to remember your face and your performance?” Damn right, she was. It had been only 4 years and I had already forgotten that I was only a number when I was student at the university, not a human student at all.

Indeed, that is all we are when we register to take courses in our universities: lifeless numbers in files, and these days, on computer screens. Well, if you graduated from a certain Ghanaian university before 1998, then you are not even on a computer screen yet; you are still a number hidden in old files packed in a cupboard somewhere in a certain room: you necessarily need to be sorted out, and that takes time - understandably. Getting your own transcripts is a bit of a Golgotha, especially if you are a Methuselah of an alumnus like me. You would think getting an academic reference would be the crucifixion. Well, not Ghanaian professors, most of whom understand that a lot could change with time, and in between time. Do not believe stories about lecturers who gladly accept to write references for students and later contemptuously toss their forms into rubbish bins. So, as the students sit in the cold in London, waiting in faith that their references had been received by their dream universities, their lectures had already started in a rubbish bin in Ghana. These stories are false only if they haven’t happened to you, and true if they did.

Did I get any references for my PhD application? It doesn’t matter, because I am in my ninth month already, almost due. I mean we are pregnant: my wife and I. Our concentration has shifted from a career in academia to family biology. As for my fan reader, he got one from Prof Badu, who, unbeknownst to him, had written in a nicely sealed envelope that the applicant did not have the intellectual capacity to do a PhD.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist who specialises in stress-busters and opinion writing. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.