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.

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