Tribute to Brenda Leibowitz
How does one begin to pay tribute in a few words to a life lived as vastly, as widely as lovingly and scholarly as Brenda’s? Every word we write about who Brenda was to each of us, to the higher education academy and the broader academic development field fails to capture the full magnitude of Brenda’s impact on our world. Others have paid tribute to Brenda’s scholarly contribution to higher education. While we acknowledge the enormity of this, we want to focus on the impact that Brenda had on our lives while she was at UJ.
Brenda joined UJ in 2014 as the Chair of Teaching and Learning – the first in the country. We do not think there is anyone in the country that is more deserving of that position. Brenda was passionate about Teaching and Learning and Academic Development. So it is not surprising that when she arrived at UJ one of her first visits was to ADC (Academic Development Centre) and CASD (Centre for Academic Staff Development) to explore ways in which we could collaborate.
Even though Brenda was only at UJ for just over four years, her ability to draw people in, her warmth, her passion and willingness to share her knowledge soon became evident to everyone. Brenda became our teacher, our friend, our mentor, for some even a ‘work mother’ because Brenda filled spaces we rarely expect to be filled in the academy. And this says much about universities.
If there was one superpower that Brenda embodied, it was her commitment to growing and extending people, beyond what they ever thought they could be. Brenda’s scholarly and academic work was always infused with care for others and a deep commitment to social justice. In ways that truly mattered, she lived the values of criticality, justice and fairness in her engagement with everyone, whether it was in a quick chat in the corridor, teaching in a classroom or infused into her scholarship.
She made an enormous contribution to higher education through the projects she initiated, through her research and through her teaching and supervision – evidenced in her numerous publications and students that she supervised. The magnitude of Brenda’s knowledge about so many teaching and learning issues was constantly surprising to us…she was in so many ways a walking resource for our learning. But she also lived and embodied that knowledge as a social justice activist scholar.
One of Brenda’s doctoral students Ingrid Baigrie shares:
“This is what I will remember Brenda for – her courage. Her willingness to stand up and DO. And I loved her one-liner emails that would send me reading for a month or more around some critical issue like, ‘the deficit discourse’ or ‘cognitive justice’. Her early passing is a great loss to those of us who are left behind.”
One of Brenda’s project at UJ was the SoTL @ UJ: Towards a Socially Just Pedagogy. For Brenda, it was not enough to help academics research their practice, they had to do that in a way that ensured that their practices addressed social justice issues. Many of the participants in this project have Brenda to thank (ourselves included) for conference presentations and publications that began through this project.
Brenda’s influence in SOTL extended beyond UJ and she was invited to deliver keynote presentations and workshops in a number of local and international institutions. Brenda had the ability to grow projects and take them to unprecedented levels. The UJ SOTL project evolved into the SOTL in the South International conference which UJ hosted last year. The SoTL in the South Journal with Brenda as editor in chief was launched at the conference. The latest edition which was released in April this year was fittingly dedicated to her.
Her commitment to addressing social injustices permeates all her work. This was certainly a key feature of the ESRC (Economic Social and Research Council) /NRF project on rurality. Brenda was one of the primary investigators and driving force of the Southern African Rurality in Higher Education (SARiHE). Brenda really enjoyed her work on the project – particularly the student engagement.
Over the last two months, so much has been said about Brenda’s amazing accomplishments, yet she was profoundly humble about these. Her aim in all of these was always to bring others along with her, irrespective of their stature or experience – if Brenda thought there was space for you to grow into, she would gently coerce in her special Brenda-way, move you to get involved, participate, write and share.
Brenda acknowledged her humanness with great humility, and because she (in her usual calm manner) was comfortable in her own fallibility and humanness, she was comfortable with it in others. This did not mean she didn’t make it quite clear when she disagreed with someone, but her disagreement was always respectful and her caring for others was central. This made her an excellent teacher.
One of our PGDipHE students Chaka Mbele shares:
“I found Brenda to have multiple strong qualities of an excellent educator such as passion, commitment and a willingness to share her knowledge. I would like to remember her for being a humble and caring soul. I learned from Brenda that one can inspire others by being true to yourself. Her ability to inspire others onto the journey of lifelong learning with humility is an outstanding quality. I once called her Prof, and with a whispering voice she replied, ‘Just call me Brenda!’. For me, this was a remarkable moment. One was able to experience her desire to share knowledge unconditionally. She was a professional who left me empowered in a way that I will never be able to fully measure.”
A colleague of Brenda’s, Prof Kim Berman suggests that:
“We each can take some of the light and humanness she gave us and share it with others. In this way, we can continue to extend her beautiful and profound legacy.”
So in the coming days, as we continue to mourn the loss of this beautiful soul, we commit to extending Brenda’s legacy, and we do so with great pride, and gratitude that we were able to know Brenda. Prof Lionel Green-Thompson has this to say about Brenda “… her spirit blows warmly, refreshingly and with great challenge as to who we must become.” The torch is passed onto us, and we will continue to work in ways that she has encouraged.
Many who knew Brenda in a social context will remember her deep love of jazz and her enthusiasm for dancing. She never remained seated when Brenda Fassie’s ‘Vulindlela’ started playing.
Kahil Gibran reminds us
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
We will continue to sing, dance and write in honour of Brenda and through these movements, we strive to make the world a kinder place.
Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi
Siyahlabelela, siyadansa futhi siyabhala ukuze sigcine imfundiso zakho nomoya wakho uphile