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.

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