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.