Professor Thea de Wet, a lecturer in the Department Anthropology and Development Studies and researcher at the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), is the recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Teaching Excellence Award for 2013.
Prof de Wet’s approach to teaching and learning is creative and innovative. During lectures she uses small experiments and demonstrations in interesting and fun ways to illustrate difficult concepts, for example, plotting the earth’s 4.5 billion year history on 230 sheets of toilet paper to illustrate the vastness of geological time and the blip that humans occupy in that history. Debates in tutorials allow students to voice opinions and discuss unsettling topics such as evolution, science versus religion, and what is ‘natural’ in human behaviour.
For Thea her teaching is about developing students into responsible anti-racist and anti-sexist citizens, who understand the commonalities of humans. She explains: “UJ’s location near the Cradle of Humankind offers an incredible opportunity to teach and concentrate on common human origins in Africa. I use my knowledge of palaeoanthropology and human genetics to teach and address myths about ‘racial’ biological differences.”
As a full professor, Prof de Wet has a specific commitment to teaching first-year students. She says: “I recognise that students from many different backgrounds arrive at UJ with a diversity of skills or lack thereof, that their preparedness for learning varies significantly and that we have to take that into account if we want students to succeed. The first semester for a first-year student is a particular challenge. Academic and social support for new students, as well as scaffolding their skills are critical for success.” And this commitment is clearly much appreciated by students: her open door, but also her open heart and in many cases open purse have become legendary – to the extent that, two years ago her students nominated Professor de Wet for the Checkers Woman of the Year Award.
Her dedication to students is matched by a comparable commitment to mentoring of young and less experienced colleagues, and post-graduate students. It is not only South Africans who appreciate her: Thea recently spent half a year as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Wittenberg University, Ohio, where she developed and taught courses in Anthropology. And in addition, as part time Director of UJ’s Centre for Anthropological Research, she also makes time for various research projects.