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, 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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We are not the past.

We are not the past. 
The Wambuul event focussed on local wattle species and some of the interesting ways the Aborigines used it.

We are not the past. 
"When plants are used in a customary way, there is a far greater success rate in them having biological activity," she says. "The plants that were used by the Aborigines are very likely to be useful to us." (Associate Professor Joanne Jamie, Macquarie University)
BTW if you're Aboriginal, just to be clear, you are not 'us'.  She isn't talking to you. 

We are not the past. 
Flagellaria indica is our own Sydney cane...Aborigines in Arnhem Land used thin strips of stem to bind baskets and sew together sections of canoe hulls. We don't know if or how local Aborigines used the cane, but it is inconceivable that such a useful substance was not exploited.
Maybe ask one?

Oh, phew - educators! This HAS to be better.
Many native plants used by the Aborigines contain toxins for which the Aborigines had developed preparation techniques to neutralise their effects.
Oh wait, maybe this is good news, maybe they no longer contain toxins… maybe that’s what they mean when they say ‘used to’?

Aborigines used the area extensively.  
We still use it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I'm kind of a mess and I don't care.

2013 official promo shot, looking a tidy version of how I look.

A few years ago I found myself - not for the first time - at an academic meeting with a few people joking about the clothes I wear and how I look.     I guess they were, effectively, picking on me.  I wasn't joining in with them, by the way, and I suppose that was the marker.   I felt annoyed, fascinated, not very invested, and was very much there in the moment.   I mean they mitigated it, of course, 'oh that's just you' and laughed,  like the rules that they were talking about don't really apply to me.

Well of course they don't.   Actually not only do they not apply to me, they also don't apply to them.   Because the rules are not actually rules as much as a moveable feast of ideas that constantly change and mark things that most of us are entirely unaware of.   

In my mid-thirties I began a PhD that focused on sexuality,  gender and Indigeneity... it blended some of these identity markers, but as a research work that focused on my art practice, the blending was specific and it didn't provide any kind of overview.  Sure, it needed to have consistency of thought around these three areas and how they manifest in my life, and more specifically in my body, but it didn't go beyond that.  I thought gender was in there because it helped understand sexuality, and maybe even, to some extent, Indigeneity in the specific context of my life.

But that wasn't it.

Everything kept leading it's way back to the body, as the focus of self in art often has in my work.  All sounds a bit eighties art school, but there we were.   Each identity had it's own tensions in terms of my body.  Indigenous - well I'm fair skinned, so that can be a thing,  though frankly not something I spend much time thinking about.   Lesbian - when I finally came out as a lesbian at 30, most of my friends either rolled their eyes and said 'about time', or looked at me blank-faced like they had always thought I was.  In fact I spent much of my life to that point telling people that I actually was straight, so it came as no shock to anyone but me.   Gender - heavens, that was another thing again. I had always been misidentified as male on the phone. Always.  I have a very deep voice for a woman, and there is something about my voice that was read as male from a very young age.  So the markers were deeper.   Whenever I lost weight, as I had in my mid-thirties, or was wearing something gender-neutral(ish) I would also get mistaken for a man.  This featured in my PhD work, as you can imagine.   In fact there are some pics at the bottom, if you can't imagine.   But I also came to realise that the multiplicity or even conflation of my identities were inflused with something else again, and it had been a subconscious reaction to how I am perceived by others.   I obstinately won't dress the part - it is my personal political action. In many ways, through that process of the PhD, I began to wonder if it was almost exclusively around gender and how poorly I perform femininity, then I realised it was something else entirely.

That academic meeting was not a space where people were talking about my sexuality, Indigeneity or gender.  They were talking about my messiness and that speaks to three identity markers (or any number) not being the only factors in any one, specific person.   I have discoloured crooked teeth, I'm fat, I have one eye that doesn't properly open, I don't wear make-up and I choose to wear the clothes I do. I'd be a hard-sell - using standards of acceptability - done up 'right'.   So I choose not to, I choose to be messy.  Let me define that a bit.  I'm messy, not dirty (that is the standard preface for talking about messiness, I learned that years ago when I worked on a piece with Ali Smith called The Clean Room), I frequently wear jeans and a t-shirt and a hoodie.  I wear socks with boots, usually.   Which sounds tidier when I write it like that, but I do look a bit of a mess.  

My work kind of gives me the luxury of not caring - though that 'luxury' (actually let's call it a work condition or as I like to frame it, the Academic Freedom Statement that every university in Australia is required to provide under it's licensing agreement with TEQSA) is changing and I'm fighting back.   I used to joke that I chose to work in academia because I had more time off when the Cricket was on, but that's not it.  It was a perfect storm for me, a way to contribute something meaningful that I also knew I was good at, while being supported in maintaining a level of independent thought that went beyond the boundaries set by the physicality of universities.

Then everyone started wearing suits and appropriate clothing.  As universities became more corporatised and more people started to fill up the ranks of the professional administration staff - a change I do not entirely disapprove of, though all swift changes have some significant implications - many things started to change and the clothing was simply a marker.  One of them was that many people came from industries where corporate clothing was required (corporate attitudes too, but I suspect that would be another post by someone with experience across that environment).  It happened at first with the professional staff wearing suits and girl-versions of suits (which were mostly also suits), and even that didn't happen overnight.  It did, however, happen over less than a decade.    Then I noticed two very different things started happening.   The first was that some lecturers started to dress like that.   The second, far more insidious, was that people started commenting on (mostly lecturers) who were wearing unusual clothing or footwear.  'You know, the guy who wears sandals', followed by an eyeroll.   'You're fine, but why does xxxxx wear jeans with paint on them?', to which I recall answering  'oh you mean the painting lecturer?'   These comments and considerations DO undermine the authority of the person in question.  And they're intended to.  They are about judging their professional capacity.

I went to a major US conference in 2013, one of those big ones that has a lot of young graduate students vying for an elusive tenure-track position.   It was held at a resort and when I was getting dressed that morning, I was trying to work out if I should wear shoes or not.  I mean it was on a beach, four of the presentations were held - literally - on the beach.   I'm happy to report I wore my boots, along with my jeans, tshirt and hoodie.   The first presentation, in a makeshift motel room/presentation area was on English Literature ('Classics' was how they framed it) with the three young presenters - all female - positioned in front of the wall-mounted bedboard that could not be removed even when the beds themselves gave way to a newly formed presentation area.  They were facing ten people in the audience, of which I was one.   Each presenter, and their friends wore suits. Dark suits.  Black or Dark Blue. Suits.  Looking all the world to me like travel agents, I actually began to forget what each of them had presented on, so similar did they look.   Yes, I recognise the irony that I am imposing my own views on clothes here.   And in an interesting way, that was what led me to the next discussion I had with an American academic around my age.  She said, oh yeah, they want to impress... which made me wonder that I couldn't discern one presenter from the other, which I would have found somewhat more impressive, and probably had little to do with their clothes.   I asked if it worked.  She said, nah, they think they are doing an actual job interview here, but they're doing the beginnings of one, and in the beginnings, it's Faculty (academics) like me (she was dressed like I was) that make the decisions, and if their clothing has an impact, it's probably one of resentment and may bring up a lot of issues around changes in the academy.

Sometimes I worry. Not about me,  but about my Institution.  And then I remember why I work there. I work there because they give me academic freedom AND academic expectations.  I have to measure one against the other.  I have conversations with key people, and those convos sometimes influence how they feel about the Institute and maybe to a lesser extent have an impact on me as an academic.  It was over coffee that Dr Chelsea Bond of UQ that she shared with me one of the reasons she feels that she shouldn't be judged for her clothing choices.   She said, 'I thought they employed me for my brains'.  Precisely.

If we were to lose funding, or more likely never gain an important relationship with a key organisation because of how I dress... in the end I may have to examine this.  But as the years progress, I've realised I do keep being invited to the party, in spite of how I dress, in spite of how much of a mess I am.  And, as Chelsea said, I think it might be because - against all odds -  I am more than the clothes I wear.

I realise there is also a lie in some of this discussion.   I am all for not actively looking like a mess sometimes.  My promo shots for work are largely tidy-ish. Or as tidy as I can be.  I don't wear makeup.  A few years ago, I did for a promo shot, it was girl clothes, make up and looking nothing like me.  Or what my brother started to call the 'tit shot'.   I put it on a promo sheet that went to people who would then meet with me, and nearly every person said 'oh your hair looked different in the photo'.  Yeah, I don't think it was my hair.

N.B. Images below may not be safe for work, depending on whether your coworkers can discern the body part at the bottom of each poster. In all fairness, I did warn you I was in art school a few decades ago.

Oops, I'm accidentally wearing a suit. There goes the messiness theory.
Speaking of messiness.

That's more like it.