Nancy Booker: From media personality to helm of academics


Nancy Booker: From media personality to helm of academics


Professor Nancy Booker, Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communication at the Aga Khan University. PHOTO | POOL

Prof Nancy Booker, Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communication at the Aga Khan University, grew up around intelligentsia. Her grandfather was a professor at the University of Nairobi. There were scores of uncles and aunts in academia, including her mother.

“I saw how hard my mother worked,” she says. “Coming back home in the evening to continue doing house chores on top of preparing for the next day’s class, and I thought, no way that is going to be my life.” She wanted something glamorous, so she went into the media and her career, which has spanned over two decades, eventually brought her to a classroom and largely, to what her mother did.

Prof Booker is many things, she’s an administrator, a leader and a media practitioner, who has taught at Daystar University and ABC University in Liberia where she set up the Media and Communication Department in post-war Liberia.

She also serves as one of the seven members of the Media Complaints Commission and is a juror for the Kenyan Annual Journalism Excellence Awards. Many balls in the air, but at the core, she is her mother, a teacher.

Did you ever imagine you’d be a professor?

(Chuckles) Not really. One of my grandfathers was a professor, and many others in the family. I had a lot of admiration for him and I just used to find him fascinating because he had all these books and would spend a lot of his time reading. I found him extremely brilliant and how he handled certain aspects of his life; and how he kept time and the routine of his life. He was very British, in many ways.

My mother was a teacher—God rest her soul—and I would look at how much time she would spend reading and preparing for classes. I just thought there were more interesting things in life. My father always wanted me to be a lawyer. What did my mother want me to be? I don’t know, I think she just wanted me to pursue my dream, whatever direction that took me. One thing I knew for sure was that they did not want me to be in the media.

I remember my father’s comment when he finally realised that I was studying communication and media— that you don’t need to go to university to teach anybody how to speak and he didn’t think that’s where he should put his money. When I went on radio for the first time after my undergrad my dad told all his friends to tune in. I think he enjoyed hearing his name—Booker—as I signed off.

So if nothing else, I think that made him change his mind. But I always had such an interest in media and communications. I loved movies, I loved cartoons. For my master’s, I studied cartoons and just how children interact with cartoons.

What would your grandfather be displeased about you if he came back today?

(Chuckles) I think I would rather talk about what my parents would be displeased about if they came today. (Chuckle) I think both my parents would be very proud of me. My mom would call me Prof even before I became one, so she would be very happy that I am one today. She died after I had my PhD, but I had not become an associate. [Pause] What would they be unhappy about? I think…(Pause) Biko, I don’t know whether I should say this.

Say it.

Who’s going to read this? This is…(Hesitant)

Nobody really, nobody reads this column—maybe a handful of people.

(Laughs) I think my mom desired that she would have lots of grandchildren from me and I don’t have children. I think she would be disappointed by that. However, I don’t think my dad would have cared anyway. Not having children is something I think my mum would even share with her prayer group from time to time. (Chuckles) It almost became an issue where my mum thought she would help in finding me a suitor. I found that quite hilarious.

Would you say academia has taken you away from, you know, giving your mum a lot of grandchildren?

Eh… No. It’s just about what choices one makes in life. It’s a personal choice.

From where do you think you get your greatest affirmation?

From my parents. My dad was way ahead of time because he allowed us to pursue our dreams and I remember him telling me you can be anything you want to be. So it sounded like the power was in your hands. That shaped us. The other place I get a lot of affirmation is in class when students are proud of the contribution that I have made in their lives by creating an enabling environment for them to learn and thrive.

What’s been your most challenging period in life?

Oh, how many do you want?

Give me three.

(Laughter) Losing my mum in 2020 at the height of Covid is one of them. Thanks to the sort of preparation that my mum did. She knew it was going to happen. And I guess part of the gift of being around family when someone is terminally ill, is that then you get prepared but it’s still very difficult. It still is because we shared a lot, she gave me a lot of direction. She was my anchor. I have found many other anchors in life since. I have academic and social anchors.


Under what circumstances, Prof, do you find yourself to be doubtful of yourself?

In the position that I’m in, I make decisions on a day-to-day basis. I’m making strategic decisions for the school, and these decisions have an impact on my team and students and in the future. That’s a whole dance. But I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt is if you’re not going to make a decision, you’ll fail. But in the process of decision-making, there will be instances where you doubt yourself and go back and ask, was that the right decision?

Could I have made a different decision? And in that process, there’ll be people that you disappoint. But if they can see where you’re going and they can trust the product, then that’s fine. And that’s the joy of leadership.

How is your risk appetite, what’s the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Oh, I’m a risk taker, Biko. I’ve taken risks my whole life. (Pause) Biko, you’re asking me tough questions. (Long pause) Why am I overthinking this? I think one of the biggest risks was stepping into the position of dean at the Graduate School of Communications.

I questioned my readiness. I wondered what I would have to sacrifice. If I will have any time? Will I have any work-life balance? We can talk about work-life balance at a different interview. (Laughs) Never mind that I had been prepared for this because before I was the associate dean, and then I was interim for 18 months. But it’s still a risk because then you realise, it’s not, you’re not interim anymore.

Where does the fascination with cartoons come from?

Sometimes you watch cartoons that target children but it is adult content really, you know. And so you ask yourself, you know, who’s the primary audience for this? But also just the fact that there are a lot of lessons to be learned.

Cartoons are a major socialising agent and children spend a lot of time watching. They are those who even use them as babysitters; you put your child in front of a screen and you’ll go away to do other things. And we don’t pay attention to what that content is, what’s the message, and what children are learning. And so that’s my mission.

In my master’s thesis, I looked at how children interact with cartoons and how that then influences their behaviour. That was a while back. I’m not going to say when because then you’ll figure out how old I am and I don’t want you to know that. (Chuckles)

Yeah, I don’t mean to sound philosophical, but I’m just wondering if you find knowledge to be burdensome.

It’s a thrill because you’re always in the process of discovery and in that process, there will be things that you unlearn, things that you discover and things that also make you uncomfortable.

What have you discovered about yourself lately that surprised you?

I’m a lot calmer than I thought I was. I’ve just learned to prioritise what I worry about or think about, and just to be… appreciative of what I can change or do. And that I don’t have to do it all. I’ve learned to be grateful for everything, for what I have and also be very aware that you could have less.

Talking of that Aristotle quote—of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. What’s been the most bizarre thought you’ve entertained?

Biko, this is going on record of course I’m not going to tell you! (laughter) But let’s go back to that question about my favourite cartoons. It’s always been Scooby-Doo, which is one of the animated cartoons that I studied for my master’s. It’s still one of my favourite cartoons because I love dogs. I have five dogs, four of which I inherited from my mother.

How does a professor unwind? Do you bury yourself under books?

Professors have lives, Biko. We have very normal lives. I take road trips. I love them because this country is beautiful.

Every time I go on a road trip with more than one person, I’ll just stop and admire what’s out there and people say okay, there goes that professorial eye! (Laughs) I like listening to the birds and enjoying the greenery out there. I also love watching movies when time allows. And I’ll spend lots of time with my nieces and nephews.

Thanks, Prof. And Merry Christmas!

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