Dear students, partners and colleagues
As we prepare for the national lockdown, I am writing to update you on some actions we have taken in response to the crisis, and what we intend to do going forward. Our basic approach is to accept that the current situation will not be resolved very quickly. Even if the lockdown ends as scheduled, the second term – perhaps even more – will probably have to proceed under difficult circumstances. At the moment, the university expects to reopen on April 20, though that may well change (see university statement here.) At the same time, we are determined to find new ways of working to ensure that we fulfil our commitments.
Events: We have already postponed various events, including (sadly) our inaugural Jamfest (planned for 18 – 20 March) and the Taco Kuiper awards ceremony, planned for 27 March. We will be reviewing others on our calendar as the situation becomes clearer. The Civic Tech Innovation Forum last week had to transform its plans into digital events, and held several successful webinars. (Recordings of these events are available here.) At the same time, we are discussing the possibility of virtual events that respond to the crisis. (Watch this space!)
Teaching: We are working to ensure that our teaching can resume as soon as possible. When the university reopens, much of the teaching is likely to be moved online. Our department is already experimenting with online methods using Sakai, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. One or two courses were last year turned into blended programmes. The various course co-ordinators will be in touch with their classes to discuss specifics.
We are committed to ensuring that nobody is disadvantaged by the move to online teaching and assessment, given connectivity issues etc. If you have concerns about connectivity or anything else, please get in touch. We also expect more clarity from the university on deadlines etc, and will build those into our plans.
We are also concerned about our mid-year block-release courses, which will be harder to move online. We are hoping that the situation will be sufficiently normalised by then to allow them to proceed normally. Just in case, however, we are considering ways to handle them if conditions do not improve sufficiently. We will let you know as soon as we can.
We are particularly conscious of the difficulties facing the full-time career-entry students. We are working on ways of ensuring they get the input they need, and most importantly enough practical reporting and writing experience. It is particularly challenging to do this remotely and in a situation of lockdown. We will share details as we get more clarity. Showing what can be done, Dinesh Balliah and the team of career-entry lecturers and mentors organised a mock graduation for the students whose graduations for their previous degrees were postponed due to the crisis. It was a lovely event, held virtually on the Zoom platform.
Research: We understand that research projects will also be impacted by the situation. Everything from fieldwork to library access is compromised at the moment. The preparatory seminars for Hons and Masters research projects are on hold, but it should be possible to hold them in online seminars. The same goes for masters proposal presentations. We suggest that students working on research should do what they can at the moment, using online resources. Please feel free to discuss your situation with your supervisor. We are aware that some masters students do not yet have a supervisor – we will finalise those in the coming days.
Programmes: Our various programmes, in investigative journalism, community media, Africa-China reporting, media innovation and other areas are all impacted by the pandemic. We are currently working out how best to respond, and will be communicating directly with various stakeholders on how we intend to move forward. The Africa-China Reporting Project has invited proposals for grants to support public health reporting projects across the continent – a timely contribution to the current situation. And Henry Nxumalo grants for investigative journalism projects continue to be made available – two have just been awarded.
Working remotely and administration: Staff in Wits Journalism are working from home, in line with the national lockdown and university directives. It means that responses to emails may be delayed, phones are being set to take messages and there will not be anybody at the office. However, we will try to be as responsive as we possibly can. Please feel free to contact relevant staff directly. We are doing our best to keep the wheels turning with regard to payments and other administrative issues, but it will be difficult as we depend a lot on the central administration. Please be patient.
Information flow: As a journalism department, we are particularly aware of the need to keep information flowing. Wits Vuvuzela (now a purely digital product) has done some important reporting on the situation at Wits. Among our closest partners is Africa Check, which is doing outstanding work in fighting misinformation on this and other issues. Campus radio station Voice of Wits is keeping information flowing to the Wits community and beyond, and created a special show to do just that, The Covid Report. Another of our projects, the Citizen Justice Network, is working with community advice offices and community radio stations to spread reliable information in partner communities.
Among our students, partners and stakeholders, too, we intend to keep information flowing, using the various channels we have. Please feel free to contact us with any concerns or queries.
We are committed to doing what we can to support national and international measures to limit the spread of the pandemic. We will continue our work as best we can, simply because it is an investment in the future. Journalism matters now, and will matter when this is over. At the same time, we are profoundly affected by the crisis, as journalists, academics, members of our families and communities. Amid the many practical issues we have to deal with, we are called upon to find new ways of showing social solidarity while observing the physical distance that will slow the spread of the virus. We are having to learn to live differently. It is an anxious time for everyone: please stay safe.
Adj Prof Franz Krüger, PhD HoD: Wits Journalism Dir: Wits Radio Academy