The current COVID-19 lockdown is not only doom and gloom. Since Dr Sonnette Smith recently moved to Cape Town to fill a position as a contract accounting lecturer, she has thoroughly enjoyed being able to help her new colleagues during lockdown with implementing effective online teaching and learning on BlackBoard. “My experiences at the Department of Accounting at UP in this regard have greatly assisted me,” she stresses. Along with 15 other candidates, she was awarded a PhD at the virtual UP graduation ceremony on 15 April 2020. Read more about her career, aspirations and thoughts on linguistic barriers in accounting.
Q: What was the topic of your PhD thesis and why did you specifically select it?
A: Topic: Social and Cognitive Dimension of Language in the Learning of Introductory Accounting.
Reason for selecting this topic: I have been teaching accounting to higher education students since 1995, that is one year into South Africa's new democratic era. However, in my personal experience, the pre-existing structural injustices that apartheid produced in the country’s education system continue to favour English and Afrikaans (mostly White) students over African language (mostly Black African) students.
Students who speak an African language at home, and particularly those who take an African language at home language level in their Grade 12 exams, face two distinct linguistic barriers in their study of accounting. Not only do they have to deal with the social practices of communicating in academic English in higher education, they also have to acquire the language of accounting.
One of the goals of my research was to counter the view that language is a neutral instrument of communication and that students only need to know how to read and write and adhere to grammar and spelling rules to become academically literate. Instead I consider academic literacy to be the social practice of language as situated within a discipline, in my case, the discipline of accounting.
It is this view of disciplinary literacy that should inform how teaching and learning change in response to the domain content and the ways of reading, thinking and knowing that are germane to the discipline of accounting. Implementing the necessary change is an ongoing challenge for lecturers around the world, teaching students with diverse language backgrounds.
Q: In your opinion, to what extent does a PhD ensure/boost business/career success?
A: When I started teaching accounting 25 years ago, being a Chartered Accountant was sufficient to secure you a lecturing position. Now it is almost impossible to get a lecturing position without a Master’s or preferably a PhD degree. So a PhD definitely boosts your career in academia.
I think it is important that accounting academics should have both professional and academic qualifications. The teaching of accounting in South Africa is still very technically based with insufficient emphasis placed on scholarship.
Q: Are you happy with the way your career has evolved?
A: I wish I had started my research career earlier in my life. While I started lecturing in 1995, I only completed my Master’s degree in 2013. Once I started doing research, I loved it and was sorry I hadn't started earlier.
Q: What are the most compelling/rewarding aspects of your current job?
A: I recently moved to Cape Town and have a contract accounting lecturer position. I have enjoyed being able to help my new colleagues during the current lockdown for COVID-19 with implementing effective online teaching and learning on BlackBoard. My experiences at the Department of Accounting at UP in this regard have greatly assisted me.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: It is too early to answer this question with regard to my PhD as I have only just finished it. However, I can say that I benefited a great deal from the Master’s in Accounting coursework programme at UP. The quality of lecturers that we had on the programme was world-class. The content was comprehensive and provided a good research grounding for my PhD studies. The research tools I gained in the master’s programme contributed towards me completing my PhD in a relatively short space of time even though I was also lecturing full-time for almost all of the time while I was studying.
Q: What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt from your studies/lecturers at the University of Pretoria?
A: The Department of Accounting at UP is a leader in accounting education in South Africa and also in the world. I was privileged to be able to study in this environment. We interacted with many well-respected international researchers, and I was able to start building up a network of valuable contacts in South Africa and internationally.
Q: What is your “golden guideline” in life, in other words what keeps you on track?
A: I have always enjoyed this quote from Khalil Gibran (artist, poet, writer):
“Yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
Q: Going forward, what are your career and personal goals?
A: My PhD was interdisciplinary, incorporating second language acquisition theories with accounting education. There is still a lot of work to do in this area. The accounting profession continues to face the challenge of lower throughput rates for Black African students, especially at the exit level. I believe one of the main contributing factors is that students are studying in English as an additional language. I would like to develop my career in this direction, by addressing this issue from an applied linguistic perspective.
Q: How is the SA economy, and business in general, likely to be reshaped post COVID-19?
A: Online business is going to grow significantly. However, going online requires different ways of thinking and communicating with clients/customers. Not understanding how to do this and failing to operate in this sphere are going to be the death knell for many entities. In higher education, the traditional face-to-face classroom model is going to gradually decrease in importance.