Will strange omissions from Chicago appear in Naarm this year?

We were so lucky to be sent to Chicago. So lucky. Each year AARE is invited to send a representative symposium to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to showcase the quality of our research.

We were back at an international conference “in person” and ready to mobilise our digital research, reimagine academic networks IRL and expand thinking within the latest studies and ideas from the field that had seemed to become smaller and more in focus during the lockdowns in Melbourne.   

We, Kate and Sarah, are two academics who have worked in the field of anti-colonisation and anti-racism for years through art and design education, initial teacher education and through methodological practice of speculative a/r/tography. We are not people of colour but we hope our own contribution makes some difference to the work we do with The Science Gallery in Melbourne, Bengaluru and Atlanta, and within the ‘Learning with the Land’ research project. This SSHRC funded partnership (with Professor Rita Irwin, UBC) responds to the urgent need for innovative models of learning, teaching, and scholarship that create and examine human-land relationships as collective expression grounded in movement of thought (theory) and body (practices) by drawing on a transnational coalition of scholars, students, artists, and writers in education. And what we learned in the US at AERA is that Australia is in a very different place on race and colonialism.

Which is not to say we are perfect – or even getting there. But this conference revealed the deep race divides in the US as well as the need for explicit acknowledgement of the ‘very alive’ colonial project in education.

Let us set the scene. At every public event in Australia, academic or otherwise, we are welcomed to Country or we hear an Acknowledgement of Country. This ‘event’ invites us to acknowledge and respect the lands we meet upon through introducing and placing Peoples, places, cultures, histories and scapes that have continuously held knowledges in that Country. They are so rare in the US. AERA has a traditional acknowledgement of the Indigenous land but on this occasion it was followed by what American academics say was the first simultaneous land and cultural acknowledgement at the Opening Plenary performed by the Muntu Dance Company; an invitation to rethink learning with both land and culture through time, pointing a way to anti-colonial and anti-racist education. A good place to begin (Un)Learning Our Truths.

That was the title of the panel which continued – Dreaming Out Loud: Black, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Communities in Teaching and Teacher Education. In this session we saw Dr Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’s ‘Archaeology of Self’ in action, an approach that resonates with our own speculative a/r/t/ographic work (Coleman & MacDonald, 2020; MacDonald et al, 2022) in teacher education. 

This panel invited us into dialogue with Asian and Black solidarity in teacher education, through querying the place of truth and the danger of the single story in the colonial project. The educators asked us to dream out loud with them in teacher education, and ask; how do we prepare teachers for teaching racial literacy in this world, especially if living in two worlds?

What was said was as telling as what remained unsaid. 

As Australian educational researchers, we were particularly struck by how we felt race and Indigenous scholarship were done so very differently in the American context. With race centred, we wondered why Indigeneity felt so marginalised in the questions we heard from the audience. 

‘What about me’ questions were hard to hear and made us uncomfortable, these must have hit the panelists like weapons. But, as Dr Cornel West pointed out, if racially marginalised academics are continuously auditioning for a place in academia, then perhaps it is difficult to know when and how to let others speak, particularly Indigenous academics.  

Coming into AARE 2023 and turning towards the theme of Truth, Voice, Place: Critical junctures for educational research, we want to draw your attention to the consequential questions to come out of this conference: Whose truth matters? Whose facts matter? Whose crises matter? 

This blog can only be a series of impressions of a conference of nearly 15000 delegates and 75+ concurrent sessions. We chose to curate our sessions by searching for those considering the future.  As Professor Emerita Gloria Ladson-Billings most noted for her work on critical race theory and culturally relevant pedagogy noted, “Dream-sharing and dreaming in public can be a dangerous thing to do”.

We were invited to take “Dreams for Digital Spaces” to the AERA conference, so we explored the conference through the keyword search of “dream*”. This curation of the program offered a place to locate our practice alongside other dreamers and change makers.  

In the discussion with Dr Cornel West, AERA President Rich Milner described “the attacks on education and democracy that we face in our nation and world”. This concern was parsed through scholarly inquiry that emphasised race, social justice, post truth politics and/or mental health. It was through this lens we curated each day of our conference.

Dr Cornel West, a progressive activist educator and Black scholar gave the first  AERA Lateral Learning Lecture for Equity and Justice. His oration of power was at once performative, introspective and a call to action. He centered justice and equity and planted the seeds for the week. It provided a platform for educational researchers to shift their lens, confront their racial bias and query the power of whiteness in and across the conference rooms and of course in education. To hear Dr West the overflow rooms were overflowing with colleagues working hard to get into positions that would  allow Dr West’s words to embrace us and land all around us. 

Gun ‘silence’ at AERA 

On an evening of networking and dinner meetings we found ourselves close to gun violence while being confronted by how close we were in the normalcy of the daily coverage of shootings. Hearing  “There’s an active shooter in the park” and being asked to turn around and leave an area was a reminder of the strict gun laws we often take for granted in Australia. Not widely reported in the media, we assume this was partly because it was storied as ‘youth riots’. We rang home to let our families know we were ok, and they couldn’t even find a mention of it on the news. The insignificance of black and brown young people’s lives drives home the racialised injustices of gun violence – providing a case in point of why race is at the fore of consequential educational research in pursuit of truth in America. While there was a session dedicated to the Uvalde school shooting at AERA, the general absence of conversation concerned with this aspect of growing up in America was striking. 

“Don’t defunk the odour of catastrophe” (Dr Cornel West, Opening Plenary, AERA 2023). Our somewhat controversial impression of our time in America is that its emphasis on anti-racism in relation to the significant impact of Black Lives Matter has sidelined the radical impact of colonialism in education across the globe. Arguably, we experience colonialism as an ongoing catastrophe that is alive and well across the colonies and America. Without acknowledgement of the colonial project at its critical juncture with racism, Indigeneity will continue to be pushed to the side. The inadequacy of current conceptualisations of race, racialisation, and the entwinement with colonialism is in need of attention – perhaps by Australian scholars who are at critical junctures of research that reckons with Indigeneity, race, whiteness, settler-colonialism, land, violence and justice in very different ways to America.

Whatever path we chart, we need to “not reduce the catastrophic to the problematic because once you think it’s just a problem, you think that your professionalism can come and manage the problem” (Dr Cornel West, Opening Plenary, AERA 2023).

Associate Professor Kate Coleman is co-lead of SWISP Lab with Dr Sarah Healy. Kate is the AARE co-convenor of the Arts Education Practice Research SIG, and CI on ‘The Learning with the Land’, SSHRC project at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Kate is an Academic Convenor for the University of Melbourne, Petascale Campus. Her research and teaching is positioned in the intersection of art, design, digital, practice, culture and data.

Dr Sarah Healy is co-lead of SWISP Lab with Dr Kate Coleman. She is an inaugural Melbourne Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. Best known for her contributions to the fields of critical affect studies, digital methods and the posthumanities, Sarah’s interdisciplinary program of research involves research collaborations with academics, artists, practitioners and educators from around the world.

Header image is of Chicago from an image by Jrbarc!