Scholarship ‘on the ground’: Elizabeth Vibert

Although I have never had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, I became interested in her work after seeing advertisements for the Colonial Legacies Field School, a program led by Dr. Vibert and carried out in South Africa. Researching further, it seemed to me that in light of the ‘on-the-ground,’ social-justice oriented nature of her scholarship, Dr Vibert would have valuable insights on the relationship between academia and activism.

Trained as an historian of South Africa, Dr. Vibert’s research interests include the history and historical construction of poverty. Her current project, which involves collecting the life stories of rural women farmers in the Limpopo province of South Africa, has further led her to ponder “food security and food sovereignty questions,” not only in an international, but a local, context. From giving talks to Victoria-based groups about the micro-economies of South African farmers to actively fundraising on the latter’s behalf, Dr. Vibert has become immersed in her work in a way I greatly admire.

I recommend that students interested in the opportunities offered by an activist-oriented approach to scholarship take a moment to learn from Dr. Vibert’s insights. I was fascinated by her observation that the field of history has “opened up,” creating space for scholars interested in applying their research to matters of politics, social justice, or law-making. Moreover, I was heartened by her assertion that teaching and writing can be their own form of activism, and that the seeds of activist research are often planted in the work students are so familiar with; namely, sitting at a desk and translating thoughts into words.

Lastly, I was interested by her thoughtful definition of activism. For her own research, Dr. Vibert defined activism as “taking the ideas that I spend so much time working with and bringing them to life on the ground.” I think this is a thought-provoking description of a concept that has myriad and sometimes elusive meanings. I would encourage any student to come up with their own definition of activism, and to consider how this might impact the direction of their scholarship.

Alissa Cartwright, spring 2016

mthavini-baloyiMthavini Balogi at the Hleketani Community Garden. Learn more about the farm here and Dr. Vibert’s forthcoming documentary film on the women who work there here.

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