Saturday, October 25, 2008


‘I formed habits of work rather different from those of most of the other students. I burned no midnight oil. I did my studying in the daytime and had my day parceled out almost to the minute. I spent a great deal of time in the library and did my assignments with thoroughness…’ – The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, 1968, International Publishers, pp 140-141.


By Biko Agozino

A senior university colleague once told new graduate students during an orientation ceremony that they should aim to emulate piranhas in their search for knowledge by insatiably consuming all available information and stripping the sources down to the barest bones. I thought that the imagery jarred especially when images of wounded books with missing pages in the library or books loaned and never returned came to mind.

The images of escaping enslaved Africans and political prisoners in French Guiana’s Devil’s Island, who were probably controlled with tales of escapees who were eaten by piranhas, also flashed past. More recent research suggests that piranhas are rather shy of humans and shoal out of fear of predators and do not have the stomach for a large meal, making do with tiny circular bites. Besides, not a lot of skeletons exist to validate the man-eating bogeyman tale in a James Bond movie. So the piranhas might not be all that bad as an educational model, after all, as fish, they are in school all their lives.

Nevertheless, I decided to challenge the recommendation of my colleague if only to prove to the students that in academia, there are no sacred cows and all ideas are open to challenge on academic grounds. I told the students to emulate instead, the honey bee. Image of the schooling and graduation of bees into work teams in the movie, Bee, also flashed; and how he fell in love with a human, discovered a honey farm, how he fought to end the exploitation of bees in honey farms and saw the consequences of neglecting to collect nectar and thereby failing to pollinate the flowers and keep the cycle of vegetation going, and how the community of bees was reorganized the old-fashioned way to try to save the earth.

I called on the students to emulate instead the busy bees which do not strip flowers down to the barest in order to fetch nectar. Instead, they team up to pollinate them in order to make plants bear fruits that could be eaten by humans and by others who might also scatter the seeds to bring forth new flowering plants that would ensure endless supply of nectar for the bees to keep producing sweet honey for baby bees and bears and humans to enjoy. That is closer to the reality of graduate education than the imagery of the scary piranhas although the image of the Queendom of the bees jars with democratic ideals too, but academia is deliberately structured as a meritocracy and not as a democracy.

Later, one of the graduate students came to say that she was scared for me because she did not know that it was possible to disagree with the opinion of a senior university official publicly without fear of victimization. So I asked the student if she saw herself as a honey bee or as a piranha? She chose the honey bee but she joked that she would come back later to see if I was wearing a plaster from the punishment that she expected me to get from the critique of the senior official. I reassured her that there is academic freedom and that she should no longer fear critical thinking.

The fear of critical thinking among scholars reminds us of the warning by bell hooks in her book, Teaching to Transgress, that critical thinking is a painful process for many students especially when instructors are challenging them to be very critical of taken-for-granted beliefs. Students should be encouraged to enjoy their studies instead of being scared with the usual call to work hard as if they do not work hard enough already.

The students are familiar with the gospel of hard work since they had been hearing nothing but that since elementary school and preschool days. Many students still dread exams but leave serious studying to nearer the exam period and then overwork, trying to cram large chunks of information, like a very hungry piranha, perhaps, but with a regular sized fish belly for digesting all that information. Hence many students fall ill psychologically and physically during the examination period. So the students know all about working hard although some still need to be reminded. Once upon a time working hard was known as working like an African (on the plantation). Hard labour is now what you get for a serious felony in some jurisdictions. So why work hard if you can work smart and get better results?

I bring students the good news that they no longer need to work hard if they know how to work smart and get even better results. I call it the smart students’ guide. It may not work for everyone but every student that tried it confirmed to me that it is effective. There are ten points in the guide and all points would have to be observed to maximize results. No need to add that it is not just a study skill but a life skill that trains the student to be a relaxed problem-solver with critical thinking. Students, parents, teachers and all those who are interested in learning more about this smart way to study and learn more should write in and tell me how they currently study and their results and in my next posting, I will reveal the systematic method to all.

Given reports that the West African Examination Council failed more than 80% of the candidates in 2008 and given continuing educational achievement gaps affecting especially students of African descent internationally, it is time for us to address the need for effective study skills.

Dr. Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology, Criminology Unit Coordinator and Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. or