Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Renewals, Engagements and the Unstoppable Batchelor Institute

For the last four months I've been acting as Director of Research at Batchelor Institute, and it's been a rollercoaster ride!   We lost several staff members over that time and this meant a huge workload at the same time as we had a lot of planning, doing and capacity building. While I've barely had time to sleep over the last four months, I can honestly say it's been an amazing journey!

Tomorrow I go back into my role as a researcher, and its made me reflect on the last near-decade at the Institute and consider where I go from here. This process isn't - as some folks suggested - a demotion, it's the reverse... it was an opportunity to do more and to put some things in place that will make our future better.  And for that, I'm deeply grateful. Also, going back to only working 70-80 hours a week sounds like a dream (my younger self would be shocked!).  I dunno how you people who work every hour in the day, seven days a week do it.

Approaching 9 years @ Batchelor Institute

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I've worked at Batchelor Institute for nine years.  Throughout my time, I've been able to do a huge amount of work in the research area that no academic would ever have been able to (or expected to, I guess) do in a mainstream institution.  I've managed the Excellence in Research for Australia reporting, literally writing the code that submitted and verified each entry. I came to know the process of it intimately and in a way that other academics in Australia would not.  I've been a part of our successful Collaborative Research Network program, gathering and reporting on funds to build our research area into a unique and successful structure that supports First Nations' collaboration in research. 

I received an Australian Research Council Fellowship and funding to look at 450 museums across three countries, and presented and published on it extensively and have forged relationships with some of the most amazing curators and museum professionals.  I was successful in getting an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellowship (now OLT) and funding, and became - along with my lovely national colleagues - an enduring national fellow with the incredibly clever, and all more senior, Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows.  I was able to be closely involved in 13 various fellowships and programs funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching, and to see how our sector is responding to the rapid changes across teaching and scholarship. 

I've become a partner, associate, fellow, co-conspirator and adjunct with a range of national and international programs. There are standouts because of the impact that they've made on me but also because of their broader impact.   

FIRE -an amazing group of FIREies and Assoc Prof Bronwyn Carlson in red and black behind me! 
FIRE, the Forum for Indigenous Research Collaboration at the University of Wollongong with a national colleague across a community of practice, Associate Professor Bronwyn Carlson. Bronwyn, an Aboriginal scholar, who writes and researches around identity and connections,  does remarkable work.  And like all people who lead from within, I suspect her institutional colleagues don't realise the depths of the work that she inspires. FIRE provides a model for challenging the idea that competition across the research sector requires us to divide and conquer... FIRE and Bronwyn's work provides a model of true collaboration where everybody wins. 

Brodie receiving the award for Aus Uni Teacher of the Year. Obviously
In 2011, I was invited to work with Associate Professor Brydie Leigh Bartleet of the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith.  Brydie is one of those academics who seems too good to be true, until you work with her and she bloody well is that good!  I was able to consult with her on the Service-Learning in Indigenous Communities program, that focused on learning and engagement between students enrolled at the Con and participants in programs at Barkly Regional Arts in the Northern Territory.  An outstanding program, it led to a chapter in a book around this (what a resource!) and a successful Linkage grant through the ARC to support further work of the amazing Barkly Regional Arts Mob.  Through all of these projects, Dr Naomi Sunderland, Brydie, and amazing colleagues like Professor Dawn Bennett, showed me their ways of conducting their working relationships in a way that scuttled notions of the competitive university sector and brought us back to real pedagogy, real community engagement and meaningful collaborations

In 2013 I was invited by Professor Pam Burnard at the University of Cambridge to the first of the Creativities in Intercultural Arts Network (CIAN) workshops.   Since then I've been able to publish through a number of texts connected with that work.  But that wasn't the real power of those workshops.  They renewed my understanding of creativity across the disciplines - she brought together people from around the world, from within and outside  of the sector, school teachers, community artists, medical doctors, musicians, artists, educators and put them in a position where we were encouraged to think creatively.  

There were a LOT of pictures and thoughts floating around at CIAN!

Professor Pam Burnard, CIAN leader, Cambridge Uni.
With all due respect to Cambridge, how is highly imaginative work that challenges ideas of research within the academy fostered at one of the world's major institutions?   It's simple, just like FIRE and Brydie's work at the Con, CIAN has an amazing mind behind it: Pam - she is willing to fight the battles needed within the academy to see this work happen.  And, as all collaborative geniuses, they would say that they do it so well because of others.   I can list off a dozen other people - leaders, really -  that are like this, and have drawn me (supported me) into their work.  

 I (and we, at the Institute) are lucky that have seen the value of our unique way of conducting ourselves,  and have seen the value in the work that we do in our small Institute where we punch above our weight and engage with everyone who'll engage with us in a meaningful and respectful way. 

In Batchelor Institute's Collaborative Research Network program that we called Indigenous Research Collaborations (now the Centre for Indigenous Research Collaboration),  we have been able to form a program that has allowed us to build our research capacity by connecting with our colleagues across the sector, to unplug three of the Institute's academics to complete their PhDs, and to refocus our work so that it is meaningful to First Nations' Peoples.  It's a win-win-win.   And I've been so very lucky to be a part of that. 

Three people who ran Batchelor Institute and me!
Bob Somerville AM, Profs Jeannie Herbert & Veronica Arbon
I'm taking a break to write this blog entry, while I'm writing the Institute's new Research Plan.  I cannot tell you how exciting it is to write something that aspires to do good, interesting, creative and edifying work.  So... it'll run five years and take us up to 2020, in line with our about to be launched Strategic Plan.  Something changed this year.  What I always thought we were heading towards all came together. We have an amazing leader in Bob Somerville who has effected transformative changes across a remarkably short time-frame.  We have gone from a struggling institution with some standout areas, to a robust and renewed organisation ready to take on the world. 

We also have a solid management team - the first full management cohort in the time I've worked at the Institute and a direction that is (and should be) going a million miles a minute.  And while I've always believed in Batchelor Institute as a space where anything can happen, it's now beginning to fully realise it's place as a national leader.  

Recently as one of the perks of the job, I have had the chance to work with Naomi Bonson, who has recently taken over as Executive Director of Strategic and Shared Services at the Institute.  Naomi is someone that I honestly think could run the world one day, okay maybe just Australia.  Not to set Naomi up, but she is the promise of what we could all be.  She's got it all: an educator with an amazing strategic mind, an organisational theorist with a clear idea of opportunities and the power of the imagination, and she does it all while bringing up a young family and maintaining significant cultural ties and being otherwise fabulous.  She sets the bar high... as we all should. 

Hey, and just to be clear, I have a permanent academic job, so I'm not sucking up!  Seriously though, working with these inspiring people makes me want to do everything that I can to meet our central task: working for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and making research that matters. We've got the imagination, we've got the drive and we have these partners in people who want to work with us, who want to collaborate in making this meaningful research.

So...on Thursday I go back into my role as a researcher and hand back the reins to my boss, the unflappable and also inspiring Dr Peter Stephenson, and just like the Institute in 2015, I'm feeling renewed and ready to take on new things.   Watch this space. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Indigenous Thesis Whisperer™: To care or not to care, that really IS the question.

As someone who supervises research candidates and has navigated the lonely journey of the good old PhD,  I understand how powerful it can be to hear ways to cope, grow through it and persevere on what is always going to be a terribly difficult and painful... wait... what am I saying?   That a thesis is the worst thing that will ever happen to you?  Cos that can't be right, can it?  I mean why would anyone do something really terrible and soul-destroying? 

There is a term, 'First World Problems' and we all either use it or loathe it, right? I loathe it - normally - but I think I might have found the absolute definition of it.  And it's wrapped up in a bundle of Whiteness and centralising ontologies to boot. 

PhDs are heaps easy
Let me take a step back.  If you've ever completed a PhD, there are two things you can't say.  Must not say.  The first is that it's fun, the second is that it's relatively easy.   If you ever want to experience community-shunning, shout out (on, say, a blog) that PhDs are just like everything else you do in life, unless you turn them into something to fear.   Well I found a blogsite that turns the entire process into something you'll fear, and it annoys me no end because it's filled with people encouraging this bizarre fear.  And it annoys me more because it's also filled with some gorgeous writings that should have an airing.   

It's all about approaching it like a scary big horsie
The Thesis Whisperer raises a few red flags for me.  In part it's the astounding amount of articles on how the academy is terrible, nobody can get a job, you'll never see your family again. And in part it's the privileged language that they use to describe this... it's 'slavery' (yes, really,  the word 'slave' and 'slave-driver' (a supervisor) is used unproblematically across three articles), and that's if you make it through the thesis itself.   The thesis... clearly you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy - if you read enough articles of The Thesis Whisperer you will understand that the thesis is something to endure, not to enjoy.  We'll come back to enemies. 

What if they're wrong? 
Of course there is a rival opinion that this is complete and utter bullshit. You know what a PhD is? It's working on a project for three or four years, researching something, analysing it and writing it.  

If you do an average four-year undergraduate degree you read as many texts as you need for the disparate units that you take, conservatively you'd write about 20-25,000 words a semester, and you focus on about 32 different topics that you may or may not be interested in.   If you write a PhD, it's about 80-120,000 words (about half the amount) on a single topic that you're interested in, and you have support to do it.    

Oh... wait... there's more.  For Australian students -  on top of that - your PhD or Masters will likely be free (RTS funds more than 97% of HDR students in Australia).   In fact you may even be paid to do it.  But yeah by all means turn into a martyr about it, think it's harder than it is, and listen to people telling you its the hardest thing you'll ever do, cos I'm sure that'll help make it easier.   I mean they pay for you to study, and you have to put your thinking cap on... the humanity!!
Issues, Tissues and Some Good Stuff
Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's bad.  Presumably 'hard' is actually good, if you want to use your brain.  You wouldn't want to do a jigsaw puzzle that you could put together in ten seconds, would you?   And presumably 'easy' is the process of enjoying working something through, making it rather less difficult because you don't just magically know it (the puzzle didn't put itself together). 

If you want to research something meaningful, then do it. If you want to engage meaningful knowledge-transfer, wonderful! But also don't beat yourself up, not everyone likes the process of doing a PhD.  If you consider that a PhD is research training and you hate the research aspect of it, it might not be the best career path for you.  If you do research (and that's mostly what I do as a researcher) then it will actually involve many of the PhD elements except every day (presumably for TTW kind of like Sisyphus' plight).   If you actually don't like it, seriously, try something else. Or at least take a break till you love it again.  You deserve more - you really don't have to loathe the work you're making.  There are millions of clever people out there who don't do PhDs (and, according to articles in The Thesis Whisperer, they make more money and have more fulfilled lives).  If you do want to do it, then love it.   All you have to do is focus on something, think about it, work on it, and write it up - it's not that beyond the realm. 

You should do a PhD
If you have something you want to research, if you have enough time to be able to do it, and if you have people you want to work with (as supervisors, other researchers etc), then do a PhD.  Go on.  You'll do great. You'll love it, it'll be fun... it'll be hard, it'll be easy... there'll be coffee. You deserve it.  The world will be better off with your research.  It is not something that will destroy you. Don't let people tell you it is.  

Size of a PhD... look, it's tiny! 

Indigenous Candidates. Non-Traditional Candidates. Actually it's About Value-Adding. 
I had left school early, had no real expectation of smarts, and it had taken me some time to take to higher education.   Of course when I did, like a lot of my colleagues who were late to the party, I felt terribly privileged, I never turned back. It was freedom... because knowledge and engagement is pretty amazing.  I was a lecturer for ten years before I started my PhD, and it's been another ten years since I finished it, but none of that was simple, but it also wasn't awful.   Like many other Indigenous candidates, I questioned everything - my process, my journey, my right, the academy.  But I also knew the enormous support and engagement provided that told me that failure was okay, because it's not the pinnacle of what makes you smart or successful, it's just a bit of paper.  Which was great to know.  It all felt enormously edifying. 

In the last fifteen years, I have had the pleasure to work with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates.  Some have completed, some have moved onto other (often better things), some have halted their studies midway, and others have decided to extend the time that they do the work.   And many of them have found it a struggle, but the struggle - and this is my central complaint of The Thesis Whisperer is often not the same as the struggle that is frequently written about there.  The struggle is that of responsibility, of being the first in a family, the first in a community, the person who will document and support, the person who will put the voice of the community first, the thesis writer who will disrupt the academy, the one who will finally, finally, finally tell our stories.  Because it's about knowledge-transfer, not feeling sorry for our free education and capability to write about whatever we want.   That you can find the word 'Goldilocks' two times across The Thesis Whisperer articles, but you'll only find the word 'Indigenous' in a piece of advertising, is a measure of our value, they're missing out on a really neat trick.  A trick about looking beyond the 'hard' and seeing the impossible.  And doing it anyway.  It kind of makes me think that the 'brass ring' may indeed be knowledge-transfer and meaningful research, and that some of the emptiness is a fear that their research doesn't matter. It should... you deserve more.  Other people deserve more of your research.  

How could we not love our work?   For me, it was getting to think through an Aboriginal-centred question, I got to work through a gender problem and come out the other end with something lovely to show. How could that be anything other than a win-win? 

Note: Oh, in case you're wondering there is no 'Aboriginal' or 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander' either, and 'Indigenous' is, of course, not even capitalised even though it's a short-form for a proper noun, so just a suggestion: learn some English, even if you can't be respectful enough to consider that we deserve capitalisation. 

Friends and Enemies
With friends like these!  Look, truthfully I wouldn't be whinging about The Thesis Whisperer if they weren't also producing good material that is helpful.  How to Write 10,000 words a day, was a crowning achievement filled with promise and clever strategies.  But with helpful friends like some of the writers and so many of the people commenting I wouldn't want to contemplate the enemy in the room.  But they're there.  There are a lot of people who are going through their own personal dark night of the teacup, sure, but there are also people who really need help and are grasping at anything that can get them unstuck from their problem... I wish they were better supported.  But I'm convinced that The Thesis Whisperer is often a huge suck-hole of negativity that is hard to climb out of.  I used to say to students, go there just try to avoid the comments, now I think... do I really want to be responsible for recommending something that just paints a completely bleak picture using exceptionalising and individual experiences.  Cos... frankly, just like me saying my PhD was easy... the 'journeys' depicted are just that - individual and their experience and cannot be easily cast as truth for all readers.   Like the person who says that they can't find a job in their field, but clearly aren't willing to travel for it (side note, kinda, we are advertising for a Level C that goes across humanities areas and we may not fill it).   Or the people who struggle every day that they wake up... even if you also struggle, your struggle will be different. 

But worse than the negativity in articles,  there is also a certain flavour to those commenting who blame the system.  One such academic who was lamenting the horrors of the system that pushes through all of these PhDs with no jobs in sight was blaming the system that he works in - even though he's a very senior academic entirely entrenched in developing and promoting the same program he is complaining about.  As though a system exists without him endorsing and shaping it.  As though the institution is a building that controls you and you have no agency... maybe he's staring at a sign that says Freedom is Slavery in his totalitarian dystopia (this sounds familiar).  There is a part of me that wonders if there is a rite of passage element to it.  Scare them, shake the tree, if they drop out... good.  More money for us, more jobs for us, more more more for us.  And it's about as transparent across that space as the frightened comments that they're putting out.  It's okay sad little bloke, you have tenure. 

Privilege Redux
Privilege is something that people either choose to interrogate or choose to accept.  As someone who is well and truly in the former camp, I am concerned that The Thesis Whisperer uses terms like 'slave', details notions of unfairness from an entirely privileged perspective, and sets up the system that people are actually participating in as the evil empire.   If you knew what it was to not have privilege, you wouldn't do it.   TTW... hear diversity.  It might make you less whingey.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

'I wish I got paid to think'... well, that makes two of us.

The other day an academic colleague (not from my Institute, I hasten to add) said to me that they wished that they got paid to think.  I answered, somewhat snakily that I wish they did too.  Unfortunately they didn't really understand my jibe.   Bless.

The conversation was about how lucky I was that I could do whatever I wanted (*wait... what now?).  And it made me reflect on the notion that being paid to think is perceived as such an anathema to knowledge transfer and like an indulgence... my indulgence. I reject this mostly because it's difficult to understand how one would actually transfer knowledge, support change, or make meaningful research without having a good deep think first.  Also, um, thinking is hard!

I'll always be grateful to the mob at James Cook Uni for really being able to tease this out... last year when I was Academic in Residence, I got to hear their post-grads, post-docs and career researchers thinking about what knowledge transfer really means, and the role of deep thinking, reading and discussion in understanding how knowledge works and how it can be transferred.  This is one of the reasons I'm so pleased that Professor Yvonne Cadet-James and Dr Felecia Watkin Lui - who led so much of that discussion - were successful in receiving Australian Research Council funding to map out the importance of this process.

Thinking and doing are such interesting parts of the process of undertaking research.  Talking to people about the work is part of that knowledge transfer and I've just realised (cos I'm finally getting my website together again) that it's a nice way to spread the info around.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The object not the author

There's a problem in the higher education sector.  I've really been struggling to write this for several months including through a number of peer-reviewed writing processes. It's here because I didn't know how to otherwise say it.  

Universities own knowledge, because they must.  
Universities are in the business of creating specific spaces where knowledge is held and attributed according to their own requirements, and they explicitly operate using these practices.  For academics there is a publish or perish imperative that drives the need to ensure your name appears on publications.  As a senior researcher, I have it.  My institution, my boss, expect me to have research work with my name attached to it. They expect me to publish the ideas from my work in peer-reviewed journals, chapters, books, proceedings,  and to have that endorsed through citation.  My name and its association with my institution is an absolute work requirement.   There is a lot of 'I' and 'My' in these sentences because that's how the academic path is managed. Communities of practice, networks, research teams and support systems notwithstanding, academics are assessed as individuals.

Publish or perish. 
Publish or perish and the pragmatic metrics of universities aside, it's also a great feeling to know that you've done work that could be helpful for people, theorised it, and then published it for it to have some kind of impact and maybe effect change or get people thinking about things differently. When I was invited to publish a conversation piece between me and another academic who had worked on a practice-research project in a prestigious journal, I was both flattered and relieved that I could pass on some of that information that had might effect change.  The project focused on Australian Indigenous Studies at unis, and I'd been working on it and the ideas around it for some years, particularly through my work with the Office of Learning and Teaching, and I thought I had a lot of good perspectives and ideas about where it could go and what its function was.   

The process would be a conversation, and we decided after some to and fro-ing that doing it via email (so written convo really) would be the easiest way.   I was effectively writing what I had to say and it was kind of a one-sided conversation, but the topping and tailing would be down to the person asking me the questions.  So the conversation was formed for publication by me answering a range of questions in long form, theorising the value of the work and its place across the sector, the value of the OLT and it's other work.  It provided me an opportunity to really talk up the wonderful work we'd been doing and I was thrilled and kind of mortified at the same time that I was doing most of the 'talking'.   But I hoped that I'd just managed to encapsulate both what the other person wanted to say (surely that's why my contribution remained to publication) and that the theorising of our position was coming through in this conversation. 

Naming is the same as owning. 
The title of the work even included my name, which surprised me, why not both our names... surely a conversation is between two people? I suggested it, but nah it was all good, her choice, really.  I got a final copy for approval, and it was pretty much everything I had said, with a beautifully constructed intro and a conclusion that was great - a collaborative effort.  The whole work contained a great deal of significant analysis over what had happened in the national network that we had both worked on with my reflections as an Indigenous academic who was concerned about what was happening in the broader teaching and learning space of higher education.  It looked great. I did look at it properly, didn't I? 

I am the object not the author
As you can imagine, when you're a researcher you assign time to various tasks and your workplace gains valuable research outcomes or other work product.   I frequently report to my boss about this, let him know what publications are coming up and I did this here.  I've felt the pressure a lot more lately, everyone has - not from my boss, not from the Institute -  but from the industry we work in.  He was waiting on this research outcome and I got it from the other author, and was about to send it on when I read the line.    I wasn't the author. 

In academic contexts it is not the person who provides the words or ideas but rather the person who nominates that they own the right to the presentation of these ideas that legally becomes the author and owner, no matter how significant the content provided.   It was only a conversation with me, that was my only contribution.  I wasn't the author. 

It is attributed, but unowned. Standard practice in research publication attributes knowledge ownership to the person whose name appears as author, not the knowledge holder.  
And I wasn't the author. 

And while this may seem like a criticism of the author whose name is attributed, it should be noted that these decisions are formed by a university imperative to publish or perish, where a single author across some research fields has a greater impact, a far greater impact.  And where the knowledge is owned by whoever first claimed it first, and in writing.

It is also important to note that I was, without question, deeply complicit in the actions that led to a failure to enact a citation in line with author-ownership. I read the words I had written prior to submission and had not realised that my name was absent from the authoring page, and was surprised that in the final publication that I had been included as content, not as author. 

I was the object, not the person, and definitely not the author. 

The material that I wrote I can't now write. I wrote it already, it's already out there. It was framed as an interview, but the words were written on the page, and the analysis was incorporated into that writing and published in the leading journal in the field.  Where would I publish it?  Now it's kind of just a reminder of my own ineptitude and everything that's wrong with the academy.  And it's also actually a really cool piece. 

Who should have known?
First and foremost, me. In fact when I realised what had happened I had a sinking feeling in my gut for about a week. It made me literally weak and really angry. I summoned up the courage to tell my boss about my mistake and what had happened. I knew it had an impact on us as an Institute, and that it wasn't something that I'd forget in a while (well I thought that, then fast forward to Jan 2015).   Other universities (like the ones that did benefit from this) are big and a missing attribution means  nothing, for us, it's important.  Again, I should have been more careful, because that I knew.

Building a career.
I could blame the author or the editor, the editorial board or the publisher - all competent and prestigious, but actually they're just doing what comes naturally for academics and for publications, they're building, edifying. They are doing what all academics are trained to do, take knowledge and publish it as their own.   For some there is no real trust in this academic space, but I still don't believe that this means that trust is misplaced when people work together.  This is not damning of anyone, instead it's the failure of these pumped up silos of one.  

Research material so frequently fails to attribute. 
There is no sense in any publication that I know of that says that the analysis or the core of the material has to be 100% from the author, or even 90% from the author. It can be from anyone, as long as they are cited. The credit will always be with the author; that's how academic publications work.
I spend so much of my working life talking about the risks of this, of failing to attribute, of taking knowledge and information and academics using it as their own, it's hard to fathom that I let it happen to me.   Of course I would have said that I was talking about Indigenous Knowledges and I would have fought hard for attribution for others, community, elders, people working across cultural and creative spaces. Like many academics I've refused - no matter how tempting -  to use material that is inappropriately attributed or sourced, where the lines of ownership are blurred.  That just seems like politeness and who wants to be cast as the person who used spurious, dodgily-sourced material?

About two weeks ago I got an email from someone asking me to do it again.  I wasn't good enough to write with them or for them, but they needed some quotes, some information that they could put into their own published material.  I readily said yes, then as I was writing it tonight for them, I realised what I was doing. 

One of the reasons I've been so proud of the Batchelor Institute publication by Associate Professor Lyn Fasoli and Rebekah Farmer 'You're in New Country' (a brilliant text on Early Childhood contexts in Indigenous Australian settings) is that they were very clear that their authorship would not be named as absolute.  They frame themselves as researchers who compiled, designed and brought together material from people who provided it.  And all of them are named.  You might be thinking that that's nice, or that this comment about the book is about 'You're in New Country' being respectful, but respect is a cornerstone for the text, everything else is built from there. It's clever because of the authority of authorship, we know who provided the information and their motivations.  

I know that I can only do this in the context of single author publications and that many journals and edited books won't permit it, but I will never fail to think through the process of accreditation.  It just seems like politeness.  

It's worth thinking about this.
I hope that if you've read this, heard this, and you write research that you seriously consider the implications of the work that you undertake. If your research involves others who own the information that you're interpreting, know what their contribution is and tell them what it means.

I could be talking about colonisation here, but I won't even go down that path.  The process is colonised and if I let that happen to me, I did it out of stupidity because that's what the system does. But I also like the system, I get to work within it and I shape and remove that shell of colonisation with every action that we take, I believe that.  I don't have to be is colonised within it. I work at an institution that is remarkable and that contributes to different ways of thinking about academic work. I owe it to my colleagues to do that as well.  We all owe it to ourselves to never be the person who cares more about their position in the academy than their colleagues and their integrity.

Ironically it's also forming a part of a broader sound text work called Cited or the Object, that operates as a practice-research set focusing on problems around cultural authority.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Talk about diametric positions: I'm a bit ashamed to say...but here goes.

Well I had a moment this evening. I've been at a great workshop at AIATSIS this week, and I have to start by reflecting that none of this came from that (in fact nobody there even fits this description, so I hope that's understood!!!).

So... here goes.

Over the last two weeks I've started counting.

Over the last two weeks I've started counting my (professional and personal) blessings too.

There are two stories - try and get through the first more difficult story before we get to what is hopefully a more positive perspective.


The One Thing

So. I do a fair bit of social networking, often to relax and sometimes for work. I know an amazing amount of people on there (here) who come from different backgrounds and do different jobs.

I know a lot of academics on social networking (and most of them in real life). And often these amazing folks announce important academic moments on it (I do it all the time! It's lovely).

Over the last two weeks a lot of people have announced a particular kind of success: recognition from peers within your home institution or around the country. 14 people. I know how many people. Because I counted them. And that's where my shame kicks in.

I got a little bit jealous. I've never won anything in my entire life, true story. I mean I've gotten an OLT Fellowship, an ARC Fellowship and I've had a lot of grants and arts and academic fellowships in my life. I've got a PhD and a few other qualifications and so on. But they were all either about work, or about putting in an application for funding for a project, none of them were about excellence.

Big deal... nearly nobody wins awards. Nearly nobody is excellent, that's why they call it excellence. I've never been exceptional at anything, and I'm an expert in my field, but I'm not great at stuff, and in the end that's what gets you recognised in that way.

But I could be more excellent at something, and I could strive for that. And maybe I would have if I had ever thought that I wanted it. If you'd asked me last week I would have said, no, I kind of don't like it.

The real shock about this had nothing to do with awards. It was that instead of just being proud of my friends and colleagues (and believe me I was), I felt something that I actually think is deeply unfair to them... I felt jealous of them. Instead of unproblematically being proud of them, I had a feeling in the back of my mind that I wondered why I couldn't ever do anything excellent enough to get an award.

Oh and just as an aside, I don't want one now. Going through this stuff made me realise how awful I was, because - in the end - the next story is far more fundamentally how I feel, think and operate. Thank gawd.

I realised on reflection what it was. I can work 16 hours a day and do as much as is humanly possible, but I will never be the person that really achieves those kind of soaring heights. I will, though, get to do the work I want to do, and get to do it with people I want to work with.

And again I say, the next story contains the most shocking revelation of the fortnight.

That waking dream

The night before last I woke up at 5am in a fugue state. I had been up late in my hotel room in Canberra doing some urgent work, so I had only had about 3 hours sleep.

This waking dream involved me trying to remember if something had happened. Or not.

You've had this, right? I bet you have if you've ever lost a loved one and woken up only to remember that they've died. Or if you've had some wonderful event, maybe you've been on holiday and instead thought you had to get ready for work.

It's a surprise. Good or bad.

And then you remember.

I woke up here and I had to convince myself that I had gone to Uni and had gotten an education. That sounds a bit like a blog entry a few ago (maybe my unconscious state was remembering it).

I woke up and thought - for the first time in nearly a decade since I got my PhD and more than 25 years before I started uni - that I was, in fact, educated beyond Grade 8.

Then the next feeling I had was the exact opposite of the first revelation.

I felt grateful.

And not to myself. But to all these people who were getting awards and being excellent. To them. Really, and impossibly, grateful. Without people like that, I never would have achieved anything, ever.

I'm also grateful to the wonderful people I work with at the Institute and in my community of practice. And of course I'm grateful to my family and friends who help me make sense of the world and always make my life better.

Consider that a concession speech.

Here's a photo of me not being excellent. Bron is though! And to be fair, it's an excellent use of handcuffs!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Knowledge Transfer - it just makes sense

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of knowledge transfer at the moment as I write the hardest piece of academic writing I have ever attempted. It's a chapter for a book and it was due weeks ago, in fact maybe it's too late, which is perhaps the price I'll pay for how this has rocked my psyche. The struggle with the chapter has been squarely focused on my own fear that I am using oppression as a game-strategy, rather than honouring the lived experience of people who are working beyond it by exercising their agency. It's a chapter that ponders the value of reciprocity in the dynamic and, sadly, sometimes dyadic environment of university and community. Knowledge transfer, at some point, hijacked the writing, and it took me the last week of activities to truly understand why.

A few things happened in the last week that helped me out and that has me back on track to complete the writing this weekend. First of all, I was asked to be Academic in Residence at James Cook University's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre, as they ran their annual research candidates workshop. I've been to a lot of these kinds of programs over more than twenty years, and they're always great. You get to learn a lot, hear a lot and engage with wonderful people who are on a remarkable journey. This workshop did all of that and more, and I've had a day or so to reflect on why it really changed some of my thinking... and of course helped me with this difficult chapter.

The JCU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre (Note: new name, used to be a school) is an innovative space and there's excellence happening across their research programs that reflects this. Professor Yvonne Cadet-James who heads up the Centre, Aunty Valda Wallace who provides support to students and staff, and the head of their research training area, Dr Felecia Watkin Lui, are all brilliant and innovative in different and complementary ways. I've known Professor Cadet-James for a number of years, since her time as the Chancellor of Batchelor Institute. When Felecia contacted me she explained that they were bringing their students together, that they were mostly early on in their research programs, and that input would be welcomed across disciplines. Which disciplines? Environment science, maths, other areas of the physical sciences, ecosystems, ethnobotany, business, engineering and governance.

If you work across Indigenous research training contexts, you know how mind-blowing the end of the last paragraph is. Many of us across the academy spend a great deal of energy trying to encourage Indigenous students to engage in these disciplines... at an undergraduate level our participation in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) areas, for instance, is a fraction of our non-Indigenous counterparts. So when Felecia explained there would be students across these broad areas, I figured I would be delivering the Office for Learning and Teaching program that I've been working on since 2009 where I talk about The Long Career (an idea that I've been writing about that supports a mapping of postdoctoral work) and the importance of disseminating your research. When the disciplines are well outside of my areas, I usually contribute a little about the shape of the program or provide some advice about support structures (get together a community of practice, engage critical friends etc). But something was different at this workshop. The students - research candidates entering into a PhD or Masters at the university - all *seemed* to be doing work that overlapped no matter how disparate the areas.

I say *seemed* because, under further analysis, most of them are unconnected, in fact some of the students didn't even know one another as they were new to the program. On further reflection it was clear that the programs were about very different topics from self-sustaining national organisations to project prioritisation in information markets to the power of protected areas across multiple countries to a beginning ethnobotany program. But what they all shared, across focus and discipline, across communities and markets, was the idea that knowledge transfer, rather than being an afterthought, led the development of their research.

A participant in the program was the newly completed Dr Cass Hunter, who has been successful in acquiring National Competitive (ARC) Funding for her participatory tool for estimating future impacts on ecosystem services and livelihoods in Torres Strait program. Her contribution at the workshop was a solid reminder that there are leaders being grown across the disciplines at JCU. Her work will support the application of her overlapping science and maths disciplines for an outcome that is led by the needs and engagement of Torres Strait communities. Cass is a shining example of the program of support that JCU offers its Indigenous candidates in making their research meaningful and ensuring that it is led by something other than the hope and aspiration. Knowledge transfer is the promise that the research outcomes will be meaningful and it drives students to understand their research better, and to imagine not just a submission of a thesis, but the delivery of an outcome that can effect change.
Me and Josephine Bourne, a PhD Candidate and colleague who is working within the discipline of Indigenous Governance. 

There were also some bonus presentations over the week that I got to experience. We got to hear about Patrick Cook's Mona Aboriginal Corporation in Mt Isa... an award winning intervention program that helps our kids find an alternative to drugs and suicide by getting them engaged in horse-riding. We got to hear about the work that Professor Sigmund Grønmo is doing at the Sami University College in Norway. We had Dr Liz Tynan's workshop on how to write... and I definitely learned a thing or two. Some remarkable presentations, including by the candidates themselves. 10 minutes was all they had to talk about their project, and those who had properly begun the program were able to articulate exactly what they planned to do, how they planned to do it, and to ask and seek input on making their work better. After two decades of attending these kinds of workshops, this was a standout, and it was a reminder that while knowledge transfer is a great idea, it only works if people are both willing to share knowledge and receive it.

Just as an end note, I was fortunate to have the participants reflect on my contribution and it was a lovely gift. It was affirming and it reminded me that while I may have had an expectation that I was turning up there to be an expert support person... knowledge transfer is a little more complex than that, and it doesn't always take the path you expect.
A gift. The sentiment was not lost.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The day I went to the Creation Museum (and found ontology and had a lesbian moment, but actually not very much about Jesus).

Please note that this blog post is image heavy (at the bottom). 

...or I spent time at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and I had revelations (not to be confused with Revelations). 

Some folks might be aware that I am currently completing a major research project that has included four years of visiting more than 400 national and nationally-significant museums around the world.  I was funded by the Australian Research Council and some of this material has already been published with a whole of project summary to be found in the book I'm completing for publication (hopefully) next year.

Along the way I visited some remarkable museums. The project examines their capacity to represent and engage First Peoples in their museum space. It was focused on the museums rather than the communities, because as more than one community member told me before I started the research, "communities already know what works, it's the museums that don't get it", I was told again and again that focusing on communities and their expectations would fail to identify the deficit engagement. Actually the project focuses not on deficits but on what these sometimes very fraught places do well.

But along the way I came across a conundrum in the form of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.   I'm still not sure if I'm going to write it up in the book I'm working on right now, it doesn't really meet the brief,  but I found out some important things about how museums talk about ontology by examining this space.

So, I don't aim to make this blog entry a cheap shot at the Creation Museum, it's too crucial at the moment in the space of winning hearts and minds and in the impact it has on other museums for that to accurately reflect my feelings after I visited.   Let me put up some photos and tell you about my experience and what I did learn, cos while it might not be terribly illuminating, it got me thinking in a different way about successful positioning of ontological views to a wider audience - and yes, this bit I am writing up right now and some is included below - though I've personalised it a wee bit.

In 2011 I visited the Creation Museum for the first time.  I know some of you may be wondering why or trying to draw a link between the major national museums and the Keeping Places of the Potawatomi, Northern Cherokee, Mashantucket Pequot, or Saginaw Chippewa Nations. I went there because I had heard an informal damning criticism from a mainstream academic on the representation of community ontologies as a central, universal truth.   They were talking about creation stories displayed in the NMAI, in large mainstream institutions and in First Peoples' museums.   And they were arguing to me that by presenting these ontologies they were creating fantasies about the past that would make their experiences harder for mainstream audiences to connect with.

I was intrigued by the criticism, cos my experience (and at that stage I had only reviewed about 30 museums of an eventual 400+ when the comment was made) had been that First Peoples' museums often presented their own ontological view with a very clear idea that it was what they believed rather than as a 'universal' truth, and in fact not one single First Peoples' museum that I would end up visiting, would present their ontology as a worldwide all-peoples experience.  The same scientist told me that if we presented Christianity in the encyclopedic museum in the same way, it would undermine the message.

So... this started to inform some of my thoughts... at best it made it's way into the back of my mind. I had heard about the formation of the Creation Museum and had heard some criticisms.  They had focused on the idea that it was presenting a singular view that was challenging and that did not accommodate 'truth'.   Which of course I found fascinating, given that I was viewing a lot of museums that presented a world views that may prove challenging to scientists. Well, obviously a lot of scientists are not challenged by alternative world views, and I don't mean to suggest it, but by examining the Creation Museum I got a kernel of information that helped me better understand some of the underlying issues that were expressed to me.

First a warning, or a comment or something... full disclosure, I guess.  I don't think it's clever or interesting to attack Christians or people who hold onto beliefs that differ from mine.   But as we go further down through the photos, there is a criticism that this space is neither Christian nor does it follow ideas of ontological alternatives presented in First Nations' or First Peoples' museums, and that is intriguing.   Interestingly I have some similar concerns about Natural History museums in their reaction to this phenomenon... and I'll try to articulate these here.

Over the range of the museums that were developed by First Nations and First Peoples, I've found the thing they share is one of aspiration, hope and a focus on the present and the future.  As with most social history museums they also focus, at least in some part, on the past - often providing a context for their present.   It was with some knowledge of this that I found my way to Kentucky to visit the Creation Museum.

And if, as these photos begin, you're screaming what has this got to do with being a lesbian (or an Indigenous person for that matter), I'm hoping I address it a bit further down.  Again this isn't some kind of easy joking around about Creationism or Christianity. If I were doing that about First Peoples, not a soul reading this wouldn't be on me, and rightly so.  The criticism, it will emerge, is about how and why this museum operates in a fundamentally different way to the First Peoples museums that I've visited and why I think they could learn a thing or two from how we do it.

Going to the Creation Museum
I arrived at the museum on a weekday in October 2011,  some family groups including some home-schoolers were milling around;  it was very busy.  On checking the time-stamp on my photos and my notes, I realise that it was not over a school vacation period, and the place was packed.   Having now visited so many museums, I have to say that this is very unusual for museums where there is no entry fee, but for a museum that has a relatively high fee, this was a surprise.

I got there mid-morning, and had all of that day and the next to investigate the museum, go through each exhibit and at one point I even (unofficially) talked to a museum visitor engagement officer, to which I politely and accurately described it as a remarkable museum.  Indeed, four years later, I'm finding myself thinking and remembering it a great deal - remarkable is right.

I should explain that with all museums I visited, I attempted to not learn too much about the museum before I visited it for the first time.  If I was to talk to the museum staff (this happened with about 100 of the museums I visited), I would ensure that I reviewed the work of the museum, the museum itself and any online materials after I visited it and before I spoke to them.   As a visit that I thought was about settling concerns, I saw this as one that I simply needed to experience and then do background during the time between the first day and the second, and there was no official discussion with staff at the Museum.

Creation Museum, Kentucky

Not sure why - but I was a bit surprised to see dinosaurs as the main CM marker.
I started exploring some of the exhibits... I was confused why there were dragons in the main hall as you enter the exhibits area (though this would be explained later), but moved on through the exhibits which were neither chronological,  not entirely of The Book.  This was probably the first most intriguing thing.  I assumed before I got there that Creationism would focus mostly on the Bible.  So far I had dinosaurs, dragons and archaeologists.

In the main hall at the entrance of the museum - the Dragon Hall bookstore.

Archaeology and/or paleontology, the beginnings of a debate.

On entry there is a diorama with two scientists (above, called either paleontologists or archaeologists at different points, something that typically irks a first year student of either one) digging up fossils. One of them will explain how, after a lifetime of scientific 'proof' that the earth was billions of years old, he now believes it's only 6,000 years old.  The other is his colleague who disagrees with him and explains in detail that the earth is billions of years old and that they'll always disagree on this.   It's, sadly, the last time in the Museum that there will be any sense of a debate. 

As you enter the exhibits area, you can follow a path (that will take you on a kind of chronology) but there is an optional bit of material that sits opposite one another.  The first (below) to the left is a dinosaur with a small child playing next to it.  This is the first real indication that in spite of the dinosaurs, this isn't a typical Natural History museum.  Then on the other side is a slew of offerings that talk about the path that we'll follow in the Museum that show a very particular ontology and one that is not reflected in the Bible: the 7 Cs in God's Eternal Plan (at this point, I should apologise for my terrible photography, I hope you understand I take them as research reference, not usually intending to show them).  The Seven Cs are: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross and Consummation - in that order.  

This is where I learned two important things about the Museum that would be played out across my visit.  The first is that it would challenge my views (dinosaurs, kids, together), the second was that it would focus mostly on fear and destruction.  The Seven Cs were very clearly a call for reading the Museum, and for a museum that nearly never mentions Christ or Creation, the other five Cs were heavily represented.  It was also the first of some just appalling grammatical errors... in this case an errant apostrophe on 'C's' consistent throughout their materials.  And this speaks to some other concerns at the bottom of this blog entry.

 Animatronic Child (aka tasty morsel) + Dinosuar

7 Cs in God's Eternal Plan. Grammatical error noted.

Jesus is almost absent from the museum, as is Creation.  This is a surprise, in part because although it's called the Creation Museum it focuses mostly on ideas that challenge though mimic Evolution, and stories from the Old Testament, with then a general leap to the 20th CenturyBy my reckoning there was more information on the Creationist archaeologist than there was on Jesus Christ.  I haven't read this as a specific criticism of the Creation Museum, sadly it so often focuses on the space being over the top, that it forgets that in some ways it also fails to meet its brief of Christian.

This concern started to become prominent after I reflected on the images of the day, and the experience of going through the museum for the first time and here's why.  In my experience, museums that present an alternate ontological view of the creation of the world, spend no time positioning alternative views as wrong.  It would be a reasonable thesis to suggest that the Creation Museum was more of an Anti-Evolution Museum than a museum that described acts or ideas around Creation.  In fact beyond the Old Testament representations it focused nearly exclusively on destruction, rather than creation.

An alternative to evolution.  But with the constant mentions of Evolution.

Adam naming the animals.   There's a kangaroo there somewhere.

Dead bodies, childbirth, natural disasters, drug use.

Sadly one of the Museum's few non-White figures. Again, poverty, animals eating other animals, human destruction.

An alternative to evolution.

An argument against diversity, I guess. Yet another alternative to evolution. 'Over time' is a phrase used a great deal at the Museum, and challenged by others because of it's vagueness.

Before Original Sin was removed: animal sacrifice.

The way that Creationism was framed in these dioramas and exhibits focused very specifically on fear, retribution and a vengeful and unhappy God.  But that Jesus was nearly absent from the discussion is unclear.  With almost no mentions or included material from the New Testament, the display seems to skip from some of the bigger and negative stories in the Old Testament to a much later period in time... first Martin Luther posting up his theses, then the Scopes Trial, then Nietsche's God is Dead, then it moves into the territory of the horrors of the world  (above).

Martin Luther posting up his theses at Wittenberg.
The Scopes (or Monkey) Trial.  As an example of where the world has gone wrong.

Nietzsche's God is Dead

Isolation, destruction, anger, death... it's hard to know what all of these images meant as there wasn't a lot of instruction of how they represented hope.  

Scary inner-city living.  Scary graffiti.  A lot of fear here.

Scary inner-city living.  Scary graffiti.  A lot of fear here.

This was really tricky.  Two things happened at this point, and they made me reflect on my own journey through the space.

This is a diorama of two teenagers. One of them is a boy and one is a girl.  And that was where I made two crucial errors and also had a revelation of a kind.  Apologies that this shifts into a personal phenomenology, but that's the way it is sometimes with viewing a museum.  If you've never met me before, this is what I looked like at the museum.

I know what you're thinking.  Me too.  When I walked in there, I did think... heavens, this is a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian space and I look like a lesbian.  And for all that I like to think I travel this world without gender, race, sexuality and whatever else... I know that the overwhelming identifier around me is my sexuality.  Which is entirely okay. Normally.

So when two women approached - as I was talking notes at the above exhibit with the teenagers and their speech bubble - I was a bit vagued out (writing, taking pictures etc).  One of them said something like 'oh yes', and looked at me.  And I said, 'I don't really understand why it's two girls'. To which the women who had said 'oh yes' said to me with a surprising amount of anger, 'it's a boy and a girl, one of them has short hair'.  I then looked and looked again, laughed politely, and said my own 'oh yes'.  It reminded me that I could have seemed rather abject to her and it gnawed at me through the rest of the viewing.   It was not long after this very brief exchange that I had a woman from the Creation Museum come up to me in the main hall (she took the picture of me, above) and my reaction to her - as I suggested a million years ago in the blog entry - was to be polite and careful and to this day I wish I had not had the first experience as my questions to her might have been quite different.  In fact, I was by the time we met, a little paranoid. And I had one more day to go.

The second day gave me more reflection, and a few more revelations, but I also spent the day considering the people around me, their motivations and whether the space was meeting their needs (and probably overly focusing on what they thought of me).  It is not in the brief of this research journey of mine, to talk to visitors to museums.  Not that that kind of work doesn't reap enormous benefits, but it is also a very complex and difficult process and would have resulted in me undertaking a far less comprehensive site survey.   But it was difficult given the experiences I had had the day before, not to consider who was there.

The next day was also a weekday, the crowd was similar and I spent some time in both the dragon area (including the film on how dragons and behemoths also existed and were, effectively, known dinosaurs) and in the very tranquil outside area that featured animals and plants whose presence was intended to prove that evolution was unnecessary to support change.  These ideas were interesting, compelling, but they were not the main discussion point.

A difficult (literally, squishy and scarier than it looks) bridge to cross.

Looking out from the museum to the area where the animals are kept.
I started to really feel for the Creation Museum.  Sure, it was hard to take it seriously, just the whole notion that you have to put religion at odds with science is unfair to both.   I was sorry that I hadn't actually visited a museum focused on Creationism, but instead a museum that could not bear to discuss it for fear it would not be taken seriously. I would have.  When alternative ontologies are presented, they are legitimate. If it had taken a moment to talk about what Creation was, what Christ was (in the Christian evocation used throughout) and what these beliefs were, instead of what they weren't... it would have proven fascinating.  But the bad science and worse wall-text ('finch kind' in the second photo below, as an example) - even the terrible grammar - was a result of not really considering how it could be edifying, and not having a great deal of respect for participating in engaging the viewer.  It was a museum on the attack, and those being attacked weren't taking it seriously.  In the end, I wonder if it was very interesting or helpful to even the most anti-Evolutionary folks.

Science or religion or science... why choose?

The 'finch kind'? 

Thanks for listening to all of this.  I wanted to finish by saying that it wasn't until I left the museum and traveled to four mainstream (and very large) museums that focused on natural history - all located in the US - that I learned the greatest lesson from the Creation Museum.   These museums had begun to respond to Creationism by talking about scientific proof.  If ever there was a more unscientific notion in the changing environment of the sciences, it is the idea of intractable proof.  It's a shame to see the game becoming about belief versus science.   And this is the lesson that can be learned from most First Peoples' Museums... the how and why of this is what I'm writing in the book.  Now to finish it!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I work at Batchelor Institute and I'd like to tell you why.

For the last eight years I've been working at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.   For the last five years it's been as a researcher.

In the past, when I've talked about my research or the Institute, I've focused on others - specifically my colleagues who make my work better and sometimes challenging (in a good way).   There's never any doubt in my mind that colleagues make the workplace.  For the last few days I've been in Darwin, working with colleagues (usually I work a few thousand kms away in Brisbane), planning amazing things,  and I've been reflecting on my role as a researcher.  I don't mean specific projects or activities,  but what it means to undertake research.  A comment from one of my colleagues made me reel, and in thinking about it, it reminds me of why I love working at Batchelor.  And it surprised me.

When I was 15 I worked at a laundromat, long hours and pretty good pay considering I had no education or experience, in my spare time I worked at a music store for a dollar an hour, not so good but I got some experience (mostly dealing with dodgy guys).  Both workplaces were physically hard and I loved the jobs because I was good at them.   I also got to work with some people who were nice or challenging, and I realised then - early on in my work career - that who I worked with would always matter the most.

Going to uni
Back then, I never imagined I would have any level of education and I didn't see education as important.  I never finished school and couldn't read properly, and I wasn't motivated to ever do anything other than play music and make art.  I never imagined that  I would ever do anything else (except maybe have a 'day-job' to support my music, probably somewhere like the laundromat).  Somewhere along the way some of that changed.   In my twenties, more than a decade after I left school, I got into university on the basis of an audition (thank heavens, I wouldn't have passed a test!), and found amazing fellow students and two academic mentors who would always influence my work.  I would never have done anything other than creative arts... not cos I wasn't interested in other things, but I knew I was a good performer and artist (well not as good as I thought I was, but...you know, I had confidence).

A meaningful career, maybe
I fell into teaching by accident in 1992 (no doubt comforting to the thousands of students I've taught), at the end of the third year of my undergraduate degree,  and I loved it.   I also ended up working with an amazing art partner (Ali Smith) and creating a lot of art and making a lot more music.  I got to spend two years as an artist in residence at Wollongong Gallery and have a very blessed life doing things I loved.  During these early years, I also worked for Wollongong City Council  as a Youth Worker, and worked with incredible young people who I am lucky to say I remain connected with to this day.

Thinking about research
I'd done research pretty early on... I did my honours in 1993 and had been involved in research projects in a lot of different capacities.  I realised I was good at planning projects, got good (after a lot of practice) at writing funding applications, and was good at promoting an idea.  Myself not so much, but applications in the context that I wrote them were largely talking about something, not talking much about my own capacity.  After lecturing in Dubai for three years I moved back to Aus and promptly started making art, music and my PhD, swearing that I wouldn't teach during the PhD and just focus on it.  That didn't happen, I worked full-time and did my PhD full-time as well... I did it in a little over 3 years, and loved every minute of it.  I was making art, and writing about it. The form  was easy for me... but that doesn't mean that the process was easy.  It was hard, but I was skilled at it, cos a lot of what I was doing I had been doing for years, and now I got to do the thing I really, really wanted to.   I also learned that you shouldn't tell people you enjoyed your PhD, you're meant to endure it, move past it, learn from it, but not enjoy it.

I've lectured either full-time or casually (early days) or undertaken research, since 1992.    Every moment of it has been hard and a joy.

What I'm not good at
Through all of this, I never got very good at talking up myself or my work, it always makes me feel uncomfortable and somewhat upset. Talking about the work is great, but talking up my own contribution is still a struggle.   I'm competent and I can assess when something works, but I don't feel good about talking it up - it's a challenge I'm working on understanding.

What I'm good at
I'm great with ideas, I really am.  Thinking of them, planning, articulating, and moving them into action.   The 'moving into action' part  can be a struggle and I am terrible at taking credit for ideas, even as I've realised that if I don't, others will - with no shame.  When you teach, you have to seed the idea that information and ways of knowing something belong to the students... you're preparing a feast and in the end they're the ones ingesting - and hopefully digesting.   So I love to work that way, and on great days that's how it manifests. And here, in talking about what I'm good at, I've mitigated it by talking about what I'm not.  It's a challenge, an ongoing challenge.  But it also seeds the beginnings of understanding why I love working at Batchelor.

About Batchelor Institute
The Institute has been around for 40 years... we just had our celebration!    I won't talk through all of the history of the Institute, cos others can do that better, and you can see our website!

I started working there in 2006 and at the time I was working in at Batchelor.   The people were amazing, lovely, engaging and smart.   The place had a bit of turmoil about it at the time and in the time that followed (what higher education institution doesn't?), but it continued on regardless.   A whole bunch of stuff then happened in my personal life and I kept working for Batchelor, but a year later, from Brisbane.  And this arrangement has continued.

The job I do
I know that it sounds like I have a job that was handed to me, that is a dream job and that permits me to work from Brisbane.  All of that fails to understand the complexity of the Institute and it forgets my own hard work in the process.  So I am going to talk it up here and explain it.

I finished my PhD in 2006, and while - at that stage - I had been a lecturer for 14 years, I was a little burned out from teaching.  Working full-time and doing the PhD - all in the space of 3 years, was hard work.  I had worked at five institutions over that time, had been on multiple committees and had a lot of experience.  I had held a senior position for a while (one I haven't quite regained) and of course - as happens sometimes -  I also had life plans that didn't pan out.  The work I did at first at the Institute was a challenge to me, working on fixing up the public profile of the Institute and the online programs. I know that they wanted an Indigenous academic with a PhD, but what they gave me was a chance to work very hard, and I took it.

I got an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (now OLT) Fellowship in 2009.  I was the first Indigenous academic in the country to have one and the first at the Institute.  It's a fellowship that is awarded to academic leaders who work through a program of activities that address a topic or suite of ideas that affect the higher education sector, nation-wide.  The Fellowships are now enduring, which means that it is retained for the remainder of my career.  And I was proud of it, no question, but I was also glad to have a chance to do the work.   The program of activities was about examining, supporting, thinking about and seeding interest in alternative dissemination as a legitimate research outcome for Indigenous research candidates.  I felt - and continue to feel - passionate about it.  I believe strongly that research should be disseminated in a way that is accessible and appropriate to it's use.

In 2010 I got an Australian Research Council Fellowship and funding - significant national competitive funding and the first ARC Fellowship that we'd had at the Institute, and it meant I could focus on a problem that I'd found during some of my earlier work on repatriation in museums.  Museums had been enemies, and this was a chance for them to have to articulate exactly how they work for Indigenous Peoples and Communities... it was both a challenge and exhilarating.   Getting the grant was hard, doing the work was hard, but it was all also amazingly fun.

Being an academic and doing this kind of work that I've described does mean working 70 hours a week... it's a reality for most academics and it's a reality that I have both embraced and struggled with, in equal parts.   I don't think you can do research and not think about it for much of your time, so it's lucky I really love it and that I'm pretty good at it.  I say pretty good not to diminish, but to recognise that I could be a lot better.  I get to travel with my work, and for that I am very grateful, but that too is hard work and I've done a poor job at times of explaining that to others.  Too grateful I am to get to do this work, that I forget that when people see photos like the ones below, they don't get a real sense of the boring, tedious and difficult parts of my work.  But the alternative is to not be grateful or to not be open to the discussion of it.

The brilliant Dr Michelle Evans and I, in California.  Aboriginal academics, keeping it real-ish. 
Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures (and leader in the field), Manchester Museum. 
Frank at the Saginaw Chippewa's Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways.

Batchelor Institute
Today one of my fantastic colleagues said something that shook me to the core.  There is no way that they would have been able to think of it as anything other than a compliment, but it really shook me - not in a bad way, but in a way that made me realise that I don't reflect on this enough and that I probably don't share it enough.   I can't remember the exact words (sorry, in case they're reading this!!!!!) but it was a discussion about capacity, and it went along the lines of 'it's different for you, you're an exception', and it was specifically in terms of my capacity to do the stuff I do.

It made me reflect on my history.   I could barely read till I was 15 and went to an adult learning course, the best grade I got in maths as a kid was 12%.  The first time I ever wrote anything other than a letter, a shopping list,  or a song was when I went to uni.   And I remember young people at uni, with freshly minted high school certificates talking about theorists, when I didn't even know that the word 'theorist' existed.  I always thought of myself as creative and hardworking and authentic, but a dunce.

I know, now, that that's why I'm good at what I do.  I know what it is to not know these things and not know them at a devastating level.   I also know it's why I work where I work.  My work at Batchelor Institute is meaningful, creative and authentic.  I work hard for my salary, as I should.  I work hard to make the place better for students and staff, as I should.  I get to think creatively about solutions, and have them heard and implemented.  The work I do is not propped up by a system, I get to work to make the system happen.  We aren't a big uni with the capacity to spend as investment here and there, we have to make every decision count, and it's kept our work authentic.   Big unis have financial bottom-lines, I am certainly not proposing that they have slush funds for research activity,  but there is a transparency to the how and why that I so appreciate.   And we make amazing decisions every day about our research... it's connected, real and meaningful.  And I never feel like a dunce.

And if I haven't said it before, my research work is so much better because of my colleagues.   And if I haven't said it before, it's also because of me.

Consider where you are

I don't want anyone to read this as a pitch for Batchelor Institute.  This isn't about increasing our student numbers, or our research capacity, or our work in general... but I think wherever any of us find ourselves, we need to reflect on why we're there.    I've had many people over the years I've been at Batchelor, ask me why I'm there, and sometimes they really don't get it.   What we do is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.  Is it always successful?  Nah. Do we always try?  Yep.  Can we be ignored in this space?  Well... here's a complex answer... anyone can be ignored anywhere, but when there's a mob of mob, not so much.  And that's why I work there. People make my work better, from the laundromat to the last publication I submitted.

Mainstream institutions are really important and I will fight for our right to participate at every level... but being connected to an institution where being Aboriginal is not something that has to be managed every day, is a gift.   I like that the expectations of me are enormous and that I am not patronised in any way.  Actually 'like' is not strong enough.  One of the best things about the Institute is that I am expected to be excellent, my lovely colleague even thinks that maybe I always have been.  And in spite of how I feel at times about my own capacity, that expectation is the best feeling in the world.

Our motto is: strengthening identity, achieving success, transforming lives

Indeed it has.