‘I can’t breathe’.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered global momentum these words became a familiar refrain; forever linked to the African American man whose life was extinguished by police on a city street in 2020. Few recall the same words uttered by an Aboriginal man in a police cell in Sydney in 2015, as his life too was violently terminated. This is but one example to illustrate that much of the truth of Indigenous history and colonialism remains unknown by many Australians thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that all Australians needed better education on Indigenous Australian history. This lack of knowledge also permeates higher education with many non-Indigenous staff under-confident in Indigenous matters.
Since 2017 the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategies have committed all Australian universities to ensuring university students develop cultural capability through Indigenous content embedded in disciplinary curricula. The work required to achieve this often falls to Indigenous staff, some like myself who have dedicated learning and teaching roles but also other Indigenous colleagues who have more conventional teaching and research roles.
My role: I have been lucky enough, for almost the last decade to be focused on work to Indigenise curriculum or embedding Indigenous curriculum. While this work includes policy work, research and publishing, as well as disciplinary and institutional service, a large part of my role is working with largely non-Indigenous academics in various disciplines on Indigenising their curriculum.
It is in this context that I use my 3P approach that draws on persuasion, patience and persistence.
My practice involves a lot of conversations and talking as I work with colleagues to make new meaning. This dialogic approach is purposeful, and I use it to address ignorance and to collaborate on creating engaging Indigenous curriculum. Through these conversations I aim to (re)animate disciplinary silences (Bodkin-Andrews, et al. 2018) and (re)fill absences in curriculum to produce university graduates who can not only better serve Indigenous peoples and communities but also build a stronger, more just nation.
Persuasion: The skill of persuasion can be required in a range of circumstances, both individual and institutional, at times requires more effort than others. I often use persuasion to challenge existing thinking and open dialogue with colleagues. Below are some examples of how I use persuasion.
- Colleagues unconvinced Indigenous content needed in curriculum
Persuasion might be required to support colleagues who don’t think there is space in their curriculum or who want to embed Indigenous curriculum into their courses but who don’t quite know how. We talk about the possibilities, about resources that might be sought or approaches that could be taken. On other occasions persuasion is required to help manage fear. Some of my work is persuading teachers (and administrators) to continue rather than be immobilised by uncertainty or by occasional negative feedback.
- Serving on Committees
Persuasion may be required at institutional level to convince a committee of the need for policy change to support Indigenous curriculum implementation or to create an award to recognise staff achievement.
- Convincing Indigenous colleagues their work is valuable
Conversely, sometimes I find myself persuading Indigenous colleagues that their work is valuable and valued, although it may seem invisible in their school, department, faculty or university. Support your Indigenous colleagues who are often doing amazing work under difficult circumstances (Locke, et al. 2021, Thunig & Jones, 2020).
Patience, along with traits such as openness, respect and curiosity, are considered important for student learning but is less often considered as a teacher trait or considered necessary for organisational change. The academy is a place where patience -and its associated requirement of time – is not necessarily considered as a virtue. Academic time is constrained by things like timetables, semesters and increasingly by workload formulas, as well as performance and productivity requirements. The time I spent in conversations with colleagues requires patience and time.
Wasting time? I am aware though of the commodification of time that represents money – the idea that time is money, and the increasing compression and control of time. Consequently, I worry about whether I am I using my time wisely, if conversations that are so integral to my work are a useful way to spend my time, or if I am simply wasting time. These reflections are associated with feelings of guilt, being rushed, and can be a source of stress.
Or an investment? Using my conversations with academic colleagues as a point of reference, the topics we discuss are very similar and they fall into two major categories – fear of getting ‘things’ wrong and a lack of confidence in whether Indigenous curriculum is something the individual should be doing. Although the topics of conversation are similar, each individual experiences them in their own way – similar to students really. It is difficult to know at the outset whether the time will be ‘wasted’ or how many of those single hours taken for meetings it will take for confidence to build or understanding to develop. In this respect, I consider the time spent as an investment, recognising that any productivity gains, within the Western constraints of modern educational spaces, in this deeply interpersonal work, require that patience.
Persistence is both the overarching and underpinning factor, without which patience and persuasion have limited capacity to galvanize change. The ability to persist and the act of persisting in the face of adversity and indifference is critical. Across the sector, Indigenous persistence has been the key to creating space, initially for Indigenous people in universities and more recently for advocating for change in curriculum.
No opportunity lost: Resolve is required to have the same conversation with different colleagues – justifying the need to Indigenous curriculum despite existing national and institutional policy commitments, knowing that it is often the second or third conversation which causes a shift in thinking that will ultimately result in change and better curriculum for students.
Groundhog Day: Persistence also manifests as the capacity to return to teaching Indigenous studies classes, for example, knowing that there will be resistant students, racist comments and misinformation to address. Like Groundhog Day, each year, each semester delivers a fresh set of learners who will not know that you have heard these same arguments regularly or be unaware of the hurt that can be caused by even inadvertent racism. It’s been a while since I taught in a classroom myself but not so long since I have tended the wounds of Indigenous tutors enraged or cut to the quick by student comments.
The Key to Sustainable Indigenous Curriculum Development
Indigenous academics feel the strain of advising their colleagues on Indigenising curriculum and are sometimes captive to university quality and workload processes, which fail to account for the nature of this work (Bullen & Flavell, 2017).
The work of developing Indigenous curriculum is part of a role which I enjoy immensely. It is less so for many Indigenous academics who are attempting to develop their own careers while juggling the dual demands of servicing the needs of (sometimes) unknowing non-Indigenous colleagues and the teaching of Indigenous studies where they are confronted with (and by) challenging and uncertain students.
Professor Susan Page is an Aboriginal Australian academic whose research focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experience of learning and academic work in higher education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. Her current role is Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching at Western Sydney University. She has collaborated on several competitive research grants, received a national award for Excellence in Teaching (Neville Bonner Award) and is published in Indigenous Higher Education. She recently co-edited a special edition of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, Ō tatou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous voices in higher education.