Things I learned from the 2017 AAPS postgrad masterclass

Last week I went to Melbourne for the AAPS Epeli Hau’ofa Annual Lecture, which featured Tēvita ʻŌ. Kaʻili from BYU-H talking about Disney’s Moana. AAPS also hosted a postgraduate masterclass with Tēvita – the logistics of which was wonderfully organised by Victoria Stead from Deakin. It was a fantastic session, so in the spirit of reflecting on these sorts of events (inspiration from Teresia and Ema), I thought I’d write up some of the more salient themes from our discussion.

1. There are lots of ways we can decolonise our research work – what we lack is enough spaces to share ideas

Our reading for the session was Tēvita’s co-authored piece “Death of a king: digital ritual and diaspora“, which uses a Tongan conception of time and space (‘tā’ and ‘vā’) and social norms to interpret Facebook interactions following the passing of King Tupou V. Tēvita explained to us that his primary interest is developing indigenous theory to interpret data, but also to bring indigenous theory into conversation with other theoretical traditions.

This opened up the room for the rest of us to chat about the interventions we’re making in our own work to decentre typical epistemological power dynamics. As is typical with Pacific Studies, there was a lot of academic diversity in the room: some historians, anthropologists, musicians, artists, and people who worked in professional spheres like health, education, and youth social work. Most people shared something about how they were applying something of the spirit of decolonisation to their own context, however difficult it might be. For many, this was something to do with bringing their own subjectivity as a Pacific Islander more strongly into their scholarly work, but others also spoke about outreach work in building relationships with the community or disseminating their research output in more accessible and useful ways.

There were some more theoretical suggestions from the group, like finding ways to represent multiplicities of truth in your work or perhaps represent squarely contradictory accounts of the same phenomenon (to disengage with the idea that knowledge must be atomistic, linear, singular, etc).

Katerina suggested that the final PhD dissertation/manuscript doesn’t necessarily need to follow the conventions of social science style and structure. She told us about a PhD thesis she’d recently marked which was written in the style of personal letters to make the work more creative, poetic, and resonant with the content. Of course these kinds of approaches are difficult because the writer still needs to satisfy an academic examiner (who’ll be looking for literature reviews, referencing, etc) but if you can pull it off, it seems like a great option.

I had an idea that it would be cool to have an online resource that just collects different creative ways that PhD theses have diverged from conventional forms, or have combined written and artistic work in some way – to serve as a kind of ideas compendium for others trying to transform the medium/style of their PhD. Perhaps a project for the future!

2. Everyone struggles with navigating their positionality

I often fall into a trap of thinking that my own positionality is the most – and only – problematic position, because I’m a very privileged white scholar working with Islander/Indigenous researchers. The work on methodology that I read often discusses the methods and approaches of indigenous scholars researching their own cultures, but as a non-indigenous scholar it’s hard to find a place in that methodological landscape for myself (not that I should be the centre of attention by any means! I just mean that I’m constantly on the lookout for how to improve myself and my learning practices). I guess a tricky point to grasp on a personal level is that decentering the expert position of the academic, and emphasising indigenous knowledges and pluralised epistemologies, is work that affects everyone – and that it almost always provokes emotional unease.

There’s a lot of great work in Pacific Studies that complicates the notion of insider/outsider in research terms. Of course, we still need to talk about the need to employ Indigenous/Islander academics in our own departments, but in terms of methodology, it’s not really helpful to just assume that those ‘insiders’ just navigate their own communities as research sites effortlessly (also see Kirin Narayan on this). As much as I had read about this, it was still quite surprising to me to see the depths to which lots of Indigenous/Islander researchers had to work to navigate their own layered positions within their research sites, which often were also their own communities. Consider me schooled: it really isn’t an easy ride, for anyone, ever. We heard some great stories from people like Rita, who found that introducing herself on national television as an ethnomusicologist and as a Samoan woman opened a lot of doors; Lisa, who did community consultation with Tolai people on Facebook through her research process, and then had to navigate continuing contestations in researching men’s cultural practices as a woman; or Kirsten, who is looking for a methodology that satisfies the needs of her own Māori community and whakapapa, her artistic practice, and her university’s ethics requirements. These women all face ever-shifting research conundrums that require them to articulate themselves in so many overlapping ways: the self as researcher, obviously; but then the self as part of community, nation, genealogy, and so on. Reflexivity here is not an optional extra, it’s a necessity.

My main takeaway from all these anecdotes was that we all occupy the margins of something, and we all struggle to research in a way that responds to the particular ethical needs of our own subjectivity and research community. I keep remembering something that Alice Te Punga Somerville said at a conference in a while ago at ANU: that indigeneity is a system that reconfigures everyone’s relationships depending on context, it’s not just a demarcation of ‘in’ vs ‘out’. To frame it as such is to reproduce colonial structures of exclusion. So if Pacific Studies highlights indigenous knowledges, then it must also recognise those relational systems that envelop us all, no matter our background (in other words, the ‘how’ of indigeneity as well as the ‘what’). This was a really reassuring realisation for me; to remember that I’m not ever alone in struggling with these questions.

3. Liminal spaces are vital for ethical scholarly practice

Tēvita’s piece uses anthropological theory about ritual to investigate Tongan Facebook interactions. Tēvita and his co-author argue that this approach is helpful according to the following criteria defining ritual: that it’s habitual or repeated, that it’s formalised in some way, and that the action involves transcendent values or symbolism. In this paper, they argue that digital interaction through Facebook are a kind of ritual that creates liminal space (drawing on Victor Turner’s work), which causes a rupture in normal power dynamics and thus allows bonds between a community to be reformed in stronger ways.

They summarise Turner on liminality in this way:

“Ritual ruptures the existing social structure (antithesis) by enacting moments of communitas (synthesis), a sense of connectedness or symbolic solidarity that opens up a space free from hierarchial dominance. The strength of the ritual to induce and stimulate ‘collective we-identities and we-ideals’ has been suggested to derive from this ‘symbolic communitas’”

Somewhere into the third hour of our masterclass (this session was a glorious 4 hours long!) I realised why I keep feeling so enraptured by these pockets of Pacific Studies masterclasses: they are a kind of ritual that creates liminal space. It totally fits: these sessions happen perhaps every 6 months (tick: repeated), have an accepted structure of interaction (tick: formalised), and talk about metaphors, values and symbols in reference to our daily lives (tick: transcendence). If the day-to-day lives of Pacific Studies/Pacific Islander PhD students is one where the powers at be are disciplinary traditions and bureaucratic/managerial corporate university processes, then classes/conferences/workshops sometimes represent opportunities to break away from the clutches of these structures and do something different. Of course, we all go back to our normal workplaces and lives at the end, but we do so with a sense that for a few hours, we poked some sort of rupture in the normal flow of things and re-bonded as a community in the process. That would explain why I feel such a high after such sessions – it’s that post-ritual glow of seeing things slightly reconfigured, if only for a few hours.

4. We need to take belief seriously – and help each other to do so

I’d always felt uneasy at the way ethnographies of spiritual belief and religious practice would hold the object of belief at arm’s length and treat that world as a kind of fiction. I think I just find it a bit weird to take secular collective belief seriously (like democracy, for example – it’s an idea that we believe in and participate in, but it’s not a tangible *thing*, you know?) But then when comes to other forms of belief, belief that shapes lives just as much, it’s dealt with in a kind of detached condescending manner.

Tēvita opened his keynote the night before demonstrating that he is a direct descendant of various mythical figures and natural forms in Tongan cosmogony. Not that he believes to be a descendant, but that he is. The distinction is important: if we are to take indigenous forms of knowing and being seriously, then I think we need to expand our analytical models to make sense of that.

I think Pacific Studies is a really fertile space for this more radical cultural study because its loyalty is not to any particular disciplinary tradition, but to the people of the Pacific themselves. We talked a little in the session about gatekeeping and feeling like you have the legitimacy or authority to produce work that dares to elevate the importance of Pacific communities above the usual hegemony of academic disciplines. Masterclasses like these – little rituals of learning – are immensely useful spaces because they allow us to seek and validate methods by which we can co-create knowledges that take all of people’s lives seriously, not just the parts that track neatly against existing disciplinary conventions.

Retiring reticence

I’m two years into my PhD now and I feel like I haven’t really done the kind of public engagement that I admire in the research of others. That’s the point of this blog: opening up my learning journey to scrutiny, making myself more accessible and accountable to my peers and colleagues, and making connections with others working with similar ideas. I think that this sort of public communication is an ethical imperative for anyone in the humanities and social sciences, but especially necessary for those trying to navigate complex layers of social privilege.

This morning I met a lovely historian who said that she’d presented work at three conferences in the first year of her PhD. It’s hard for me to imagine feeling so keen to open my thoughts up to others, especially so early in the process. I think a lot of this has to do with personality – I default to reticence when I don’t feel very good at something – and a natural proclivity to want to listen rather than speak. This is compounded by reading a lot of academic work that questions the very presence of people like myself in the academy – who am I, a middle class white woman, to speak about indigenising epistemology, decolonising methodologies, transforming knowledge structures? When the world is built to propel my success, it’s hard to claim that I’ll ever understand systems of epistemic and tangible oppression enough to be an authority on how to dismantle them.

But then – who am I to stay silent on these issues, given my rather astonishingly privileged life and access to resources? There comes a point at which my joy in just listening becomes a problem, because all I’m doing is benefiting from all the hard work of peers and not contributing anything meaningful to the conversation.

I’ve been buoyed over the past week by many rich, long conversations with other students and academics who face similar issues navigating their path through the research process. And the fact that they were conversations – not lectures, not monologues – is what made them so meaningful. So I’m committing here to writing a fair bit more as I go along, trying to tease out ideas in a more community-facing orientation (with less speaking just to myself and my office plants.)

I already know that the answers to all my navel-gazey inner turmoil are in relationships. It’s hard to articulate just how warm and grateful I feel to have been welcomed by so many people into the Pacific Studies community. That inclusion is hugely significant on an intellectual level as it aligns with so many of my methodological goals, but it’s meaningful on an emotional, personal level too. Academia is not an industry in which you’re supposed to show much heart (but let’s be real, I never believed in objectivity to begin with) but I’m certainly touched by the quite personal nature of support from this community. My greatest resource is the people I know and learn alongside: their encouragement, questions, putting in good words for me in the right places. So I think it makes sense to do more writing that speaks to (and with) that community from whose nurture I’ve already gained so much.

Decolonising the University: Lessons from Oceania

This piece was originally published by Demos Journal, here.


In October 2013, students and staff at the University of Hawaiʻi painted this mural on their campus in Honolulu. The mural was painted in protest of the University’s involvement in plans to build a thirty-metre wide telescope on Mauna Kea, a very sacred place for indigenous Hawaiians.

Image by the Hawaii Independent

This mural captures a moment in which students and staff call their institution to account. Their demand that the University operate as a “Hawaiian place of learning” reveals an implicit obligation for their institution’s administration to not just respect the indigenous people on whose land their campus lies, but to integrate their ways of knowing and being more deeply into everyday campus business.

The University of Hawaiʻi has a history of politically-engaged scholarship on Hawaiian history and culture. Activists claim that it is hypocritical to create research and teaching problems learning about Hawaiian culture, but then fail to truly ‘walk the walk’ in terms of how they engage with the community.

We might compare this to a university teaching the horrors of colonial exploitation of Africa but still hosting a statue of Cecil Rhodes, or a university researching climate change yet holding shares in fossil fuel -related industries.

Left image by UCT: Rhodes Must Fall. Right image by Jeff Tan. 

United under a banner of decolonisation, scholars and students across the world are demanding that those who talk about the enduring legacies of colonial histories also examine their complicity in these systems, and work to dismantle them. Essentially, decolonising academia is a project to restore reflexive integrity to what happens in universities: it’s not sufficient to talk about critical theory if you do not animate it.

Pacific Islander scholars have made significant inroads to enacting such integrity. Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s pioneering book Decolonizing Methodologies asked researchers of human culture to consider the problematic symbiosis of social science research and imperialism.

These arguments cut a cogent line through the troubling history of social science’s engagement with indigenous people. Compelling as they are, however, enacting their praxis-based imperatives is a difficult task. To examine exactly how scholars go about decolonising their work, I’m researching the Pacific Studies academic community.

Pacific Studies – a culture/area studies hybrid with a deeply decolonial orientation – has offered a surging seascape of methods, if you’ll allow me the metaphor. In the Pacific, a region so often dismissed from Australia as being too irrelevant to our big-continent interests, scholars have engaged in stunning creative and intellectual risks to produce decolonised knowledge. In this field, it is normal to use oral history techniques and collaborative ethnography to collect information; to take seriously elements of lives like gossip, humour, superstition, art or sport; and to communicate research findings in ever-creative mediums. Albert Wendt, a Samoan writer and academic, justified this approach as such:

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Image by Bianca Hennessy, taken at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu

Perhaps it is tempting to dismiss such creatively-engaged research as being too reliant on so-called ‘soft humanities’ methods. But decolonisation’s power should not be underestimated: as an idea, it is resilient and flexible enough to be applied to a very wide scope of human activity, illuminating power dynamics and uncomfortable realities of practices that seem, perhaps, impenetrable to colonial legacies. For example, Bani Amor writes a blog about the need to decolonise travel. Decolonial Atlas upends our assumptions about cartography. Clare Land’s book Decolonizing Solidarity urges a reflection on the ways that even practicing solidarity with indigenous people can be a site for re-embedding of colonised dynamics. The list goes on.

So how do we decolonise the constituent practices that make up academia? Let’s take, for example, teaching. Teaching is a core academic activity for most scholars: it allows research to be spread, ideas to be discussed, careers to be nurtured, and vitally, income to be raised.

It’s also a site of some very problematic dynamics. Critical pedagogy asks us to look at how societal power structures are replicated in classrooms and perpetuated by what we teach and how we teach it. In the case of the Pacific – and Australia, for that matter – we need to ask about the presence (or lack thereof) of indigenous ways of knowing, and how diverse ways of learning are accommodated. Too often social privilege systems are reinscribed by affirming only white, male, and/or colonial stories about the world.

So, what does a decolonised classroom or curriculum look like? When I imagine a decolonised classroom, some of my own experiences come to mind. My own experiences in Pacific Studies has had some of the following highlights: I’ve learnt about the history of Micronesian navigation by sanding down a canoe, about where to pick edible seaweed through a hula dance, about the connections between food security and sovereignty by helping to build a sea wall, and about the spiritual significance of the taro plant by getting dirty in a garden.

Images by Bianca Hennessy, taken during the Pacific Islands Field School in O’ahu, Hawaiʻi

For me, a decolonised classroom is one that perhaps isn’t a room at all – it’s a site in which students access corporeal or embodied communication modes as much as text-based ones, in which lecturers learn as much as students, emotional states are altered and acknowledged, and most importantly, the community from whom we learn is engaged, respected and made visible at all times.

It’s been my experience that changing the way that I learn and teach unsettles the usual expectations of a classroom to the extent that learning about culture, history and society begins to dismantle assumptions that don’t serve a decolonised vision. We make space for ways of knowing the world that don’t translate into linear or logical reasoning, creating knowledges that cannot be easily pummelled into chunks of dry text. Students are put into situations where their own participation in settler colonial systems is revealed and challenged.

Of course, teaching programs are never without problematic aspects. They always rely on a limited set of knowledges communicated in a limited number of communicative modes, for purposes of sheer expediency. They almost always limit access to those privileged in some form. And yet perhaps, as we move ever closer towards the huge goals that fuel decolonial visions, we can enact tiny interventions to chip away at colonial systems. Perhaps that looks like changing a curriculum, supporting a community engagement program, or holding your institution to account in some way. If we have the privilege to operate within a university system, then we have an obligation to ask that our institution is a place of learning that actively serves the communities it researches.