The power of practice and the beauty of lived experience

Monday February 24 2020

Emilly Comfort Maractho

Emilly Comfort Maractho  

By Emilly Comfort Maractho

We are the sum total of our lived experiences. The level of education and exposure complicate our realities. These, in turn, define how we see the world. When we talk about practice, what do we mean? How does practice contribute to the greater good when it is individualised?
Academics and, to some extent, politicians are seen as detached from the lived reality of those we serve. And sometimes that is true, but often not. I cannot speak for politicians because I may be accused of not having experience. But I will say a little about practice in academia.
The university as we know it has greatly changed. Yet, many still see it with eyes of the pre-neoliberal era, refusing to acknowledge current dynamics. In that past, academics were respectable people, and indeed, confined to the proverbial ivory tower where they lived and worked.
Many academics today hustle along with everyone else, living in the suburbs and spending several hours in traffic. It is those who were smart enough not to spend more years than necessary in school reading mostly dead people’s ideas that are the philanthropists of the community in ways academics could never dream. There is increasingly nothing glorious about being well read.
The hustling life of the academic has its two sides. On the one side, fewer academics now devote enough time to research to qualify as ‘theorists.’ On the other side, many more are involved in their respective practices in one way or another, ‘doing things’. So a good number are in the middle of practice and theory, with a fair mix of education, experience and exposure.
Teaching is a humbling experience. You learn to say you do not know. Still, teaching allows us exceptional learning, when tapping into the lives of those who have the privilege of the lived experience. We become seekers of truth and speaking that truth because the stories we interact with makes it important, even when it is uncomfortable.
A year ago, a journalist walked to me after a meeting and said he was surprised that these days, people who have never been in the newsroom teach journalism in a manner that said ‘what do they know?’. I asked how long he had been in the newsroom so that he could teach for me. He said the years and that he was very interested in teaching. I asked him about his teaching experience, he did not have any. I joked: “How can you possibly teach in a university when you have never taught?” We both laughed and talked about other things.
The point is, practice has its respectable place. The world is increasingly thinking in terms of artificial intelligence (AI) and its capacity to change the way things are done. The path is clear for machines to do. People can design these and let them do work in ways never imagined. In that world, big data is the new gold. Who needs people to tell their stories when big data is there? We marvel at that world where things happen seamlessly through automation.
However, no matter what happens, the lived experience will always add value. No amount of big data will make our stories invisible. Those in practice are right to challenge academics to ‘do’. The problem is that we are always doing, just a different doing. We cannot see people doing only if they are doing the way that we do.
I have always gravitated towards reflexive methodologies in my research because I love to hear people tell their story, to learn from them and to answer my research questions by making sense of their stories. I am happier writing about people and also reading people’s stories.
Part of my academic humility is to recognise that I cannot be Daniel Kalinaki or Sam Guma, whose newsroom experiences would each need a book to tell. So interviewing Kalinaki of Daily Monitor or Guma of Uganda Radio Network puts in my bag their 50 years of collective newsroom experience. It is in recognising that as academics, our lived experience is other people’s experiences that we learn.
Over the last 10 years, I have interviewed and chatted with so many people in the media industry, learning so much from them that two higher degrees in journalism and media studies could never afford me. It allows me to reflect and question some theoretical assumptions.
Big data is totally amazing, but talking to people is a foundational skill that academics and researchers today cannot ignore. Talking gives a deeper sense of why things happen and what can be done.
Those in practice have a lot to contribute and the power of practice and beauty of the lived experience is real. People in politics, policy and research, who are also in practice, also have a lot to contribute. It is how these groups each learn from the other and with humility accept that they cannot know it all but should build on each other’s knowledge that will make a collective difference to our society.