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.