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

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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. 


  1. as ever you are a most inspiring person Dr Sandy!

  2. Lynette! Psychic link - I've just been writing about you in relation to our new CIRC (for part two of above for when we launch in a few weeks)! You're incredibly inspiring, the work you've done with us has helped us move forward in leaps and bounds! THAT is the power of collaboration!

  3. Better woman than me! I don't think you should reward them for this eh.True god it's demoting