Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Renewals, Engagements and the Unstoppable Batchelor Institute

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

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

Approaching 9 years @ Batchelor Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Size of a PhD... look, it's tiny! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The object not the author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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