Bianca Hennessy, Aidan Myatt, Oliver Lilford and Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa
This is a personal story about aiming for perfection, failing and learning more than you intended. Katerina is an Associate Professor in Pacific Studies, and did her PhD at ANU in which she researched her ancestral island home of Banaba. Bianca is a PhD candidate working on a thesis about how people in Pacific Studies try to decolonise their work. Aidan and Oliver are Bachelor of Philosophy students at ANU, majoring in Security Studies and Pacific Studies respectively. This essay is borne of Aidan and Oliver taking a Pacific Studies course taught by Katerina in 2018 (PASI2001) and interviewing Bianca for their final assessment.
I’ve taught PASI2001 for 10 years at ANU. It was first called ‘Learning Oceania’ and then transformed into ‘Pacific Studies in a Globalising World’ – a core course in the Pacific Studies major. A central feature is the indigenous Pacific framework of the classroom as a metaphorical canoe, an approach conceptualised by my late elder sister, Associate Professor Teresia Teaiwa. This image offers an ethic and philosophy for Pacific Studies teaching and learning based on the very skilled voyages of Pacific ancestors who settled hundreds of islands across this large Oceanic space. The idea is that a Pacific Studies course is like a voyage through Oceania where you gain a strong sense of the region’s expanse, diversity and complexity but never assume you are a master of all things Pacific. If anything, you develop an ethic of care and respect for the islands and islanders, for the impact of colonialism and imperialism, the nature of contemporary Pacific agency and resilience, and for the individual and collective learning journey, as you would on a voyaging canoe where one does not sail alone.
Wayfinding is the practice of voyaging reliant on understanding the world around you and your place within it: charting your course based on the stars, finding your direction based on the temperature of the water, the currents, the swell of the sea. When wayfinding, there is no perfect destination or route. Instead, there are probable routes and potential destinations. The situation dictates the path. In my course, wayfinding becomes a framework, as articulated by the great historian of Australia and Oceania, and one of my valued mentors, Professor Greg Dening. Like Teresia, his approach encourages critical inquiry, flexibility and resilience in students, knowing they have a supportive and creative learning structure. They grow conscious of their position in the world and what they bring to the course, feeling they are empowered to wayfind through ideas about the region as individuals and in teams.
They come to value the process as much as the ‘final destination’ of assessment and grades. Wayfinding is also a fitting approach for the rather complex ANU Coombs building where many PASI2001 students have been taught and where most Pacific scholars have done their work since the 1960s.
In 2017 and 2018, PASI2001 students had the benefit of wonderful guest lectures from Bianca Hennessy who spoke not just as a PhD scholar, now well ensconced in the Coombs building, but also as a former PASI2001 ANU student who had been on a journey very similar to theirs...
Coombs building staircases. Bianca Hennessy.
The ANU Coombs building is the subject of books and poems, memes and jokes. It’s both beloved and derided for its labyrinthine corridors arranged in a baffling hexagonal figuration. It’s a place that has inspired a lot of soul-searching from its already introspective academic inhabitants. I guess if you’re constantly asking how to get to where you want to go, you’re also urged to ask why you’re there at all. It was the power of a great mentor (in Katerina) and a set of deeply human questions (posed by Pacific Studies) that made me stick around, but I wouldn’t say that I often feel comfortable in this space, either physically or figuratively. I’ve tried to find an energy in that discomfort, and allow it to help me seek out collaborations and conversations in unexpected places – like this essay.
All the 2018 PASI2001 students selected research groups and topics for their final assessment and shared their proposals. Oliver and Aidan had an excellent and ambitious idea to map Pacific Studies at ANU through a series of interviews with scholars and research students, primarily in the Coombs building. This is their story…
Pacific Studies places an acute emphasis on critically evaluating one’s motivations and aspirations for undertaking study in, of, with and about the Pacific. I felt the question of positionality was especially salient. I was struggling to reconcile what my place was in this community, as a white and middle-class Australian and an undergraduate to boot.
My early university experience fuelled my problematic predispositions towards the Pacific. First year security courses painted the canvas of Australia’s near neighbourhood red and black in a silhouette of the ‘arc of instability’. On the eve of a year-long sojourn in the Pacific, I had a dire need to reconstruct the lens through which I saw the region.
Through a series of interviews with scholars, we wished to illuminate the history of Pacific Studies at the ANU, detailing how it came to occupy the physical and conceptual spaces that it does today. We envisioned these stories as the pieces of a documentary and the coordinates for a physical map, charting the journeys of people and ideas as they became part of Pacific Studies. Coombs is the beating heart of this academic archipelago, and was thus the focus of the project.
The project was beset with challenges from the outset, however, and confusing conceptual currents swept us into the perfect storm of practical difficulties.
We thought we knew where we were going. It was a fairly straightforward exercise: produce a map that would take us from A to B. Yet, we had not anticipated the state of flux in which we would find Coombs: the building on the eve of its renovation, its community thus distanced from its home.
Institutional fragmentation, both geographic and disciplinary, is captured perfectly within the Coombsian maze. And, as we tried to rationalise this tangled intersection of people, places, funding agendas and paradigms, we came face-to-face with the complex layers of the Pacific Studies community, a community sometimes geared more towards research and policy impacts than to teaching or student engagement.
Caught up in the short-sightedness of grades alone, we had lost touch with the context of our learning, blindly following our initial object to ‘learn from experts’.
We had attempted to master the corridors, chasing the shadows of illustrious academics and focused, unwaveringly, on our plan. Yet Coombs spat us out and we were left scrambling to right the metaphoric canoe we had been travelling in, clutching now useless charts of projected destinations.
Convoluted, unduly complicated and sometimes contested corridors were so much more than a hazard for unsuspecting students. Among its twists and turns were discoveries to make, not just of worlds and people past, but also of ourselves.
On the day before the presentation, I wandered deep into the heart of Coombs: an eclectic mix of artefacts here, an empty corridor there, name plates and biographies fixed on fronts of doors.
I stopped filming and started taking photos instead, seeking to record a little better the detail of the world I found myself moving through. As I began framing my shots, it suddenly dawned on me that I had become acutely aware of my position in the space.
Our obsession with ambition precluded any thought of reflection. To truly learn, one has to set aside the assumptions that so often accompany motivations. It was in the eleventh hour we realised that in running after coattails, we were in fact following footsteps. As we desperately searched for solace in previous academics’ experiences of Pacific Studies, we realised the importance of wayfinding.
Unlike navigation, wayfinding is not predicated on transplanting oneself from point A to B using instruments and charts. Instead, it involves striving toward a set of criteria, ever cognisant of signs in the environment through which one is moving, so as to understand one’s position relative to those criteria. Wayfinding is reflective and responsive; it allows one to negotiate the constant flux of circumstance.
From the outset we had been navigating. We had set course to a single destination – to interview Pacific Studies academics – and failed to reflect on our own positions in the changing context of our journey.
For me, wayfinding is not about mastering the world beyond one’s control, but about coming to terms with oneself and one’s experiences. We had ventured into Coombs trying to find a conceptualisation of ANU Pacific Studies in its stories. Instead, we were forced to look in the mirror. What we found was not failure, but a firsthand experience of the field of study itself.
The story of Coombs is exactly about being lost. It’s about the storms and the rough seas, coming face-to-face with a Papua New Guinean mask and backtracking with your tail between your legs. Everyone gets lost in Coombs, but only if you think you know where you are going.
Operating in this institution sometimes makes you think you need to conform to a rigid idea of disciplinary excellence – a perfunctory perfected ideal that’s given a skeleton of the ways we measure our performance, and a lifeblood of anxiety, self‑doubt and scarcity. Diving into intellectual vulnerability is hard to do in a place that impresses its history upon you so relentlessly. There’s an insidious odour of coloniality that permeates the way we expect expertise in ourselves and others, and it makes us hard, brittle and risk averse. But just as losing your way in Coombs is sometimes inevitable, sometimes losing your way in a research project is necessary. Sometimes the best learning happens when you release control.
The constant shift of people and paradigms within the Pacific Studies community plays out in corridors of Coombs. Evidence of their impact is captured in the dislocated and dissociated ‘artefacts’ hanging on the wall, the empty corridors, and in the piles of detritus pushed into long-forgotten corners. This confluence of items, images and their associated imaginaries reminds us of the ever-present histories that shape our current state of being, and raise important questions about the ongoing processes of decolonisation and gender equity.
As I grow as a scholar I’ve tried to practice a kind of non-complacent ambivalence towards academia, towards Coombs, even towards Pacific Studies. For all that we love and celebrate about this place, we need to keep critiquing it and keep alert to what we do and the consequences. That’s especially important for non-Islanders in Pacific Studies.
I was born in Zimbabwe in 1997, the result of five generations of white settlement on both my mother’s and father’s sides. For the first five years of my life, my family and I lived on Mvuramachena farm, Guruve. My grandmother’s ashes are buried on that farm. In 2002 we were dispossessed of Mvuramachena and forced to emigrate. We chose Australia. I have been back to Zimbabwe twice since then, but never to the farm.
Place is complicated, and I am yet to unpack fully what it meant and continues to mean to have been both the dispossessed and the dispossessor. It is for this reason that I find myself so deeply moved by the possibility of learning what ‘place’ means for different people, of learning new ways to understand ‘place’, to see ‘place’, feel ‘place’, and care for it in all its cultural, social and physical complexity.
Maybe wayfinding can help us to think through the fact that it’s not just where we’re going that matters, but where we come from too, and how we orient ourselves to that history. The more I read about notions of indigeneity and belonging in the Pacific, the more I feel dislocated as a white Australian. But those Oceanic scholars have also taught me that place can’t be separated from people – space becomes place when tended to by generations of intensely woven-together people. Caring for place animates belonging.
As I continue to open myself to Oceania, this experience has rebuilt the lens through which I see the region. I will seek to learn, deeply, at every opportunity I receive. I will delight in being driven off course, towards new horizons, towards greater possibilities.
Katerina Teaiwa is Associate Professor in Pacific Studies in the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She has been teaching Pacific Studies since 2003 at ANU and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is a visual artist, anthropologist, author of Consuming Ocean Island: stories of people and phosphate from Banaba, Chair of the Oceania Working Party for the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Vice-President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies.
Bianca Hennessy is a PhD scholar in the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She is writing a thesis about how the Pacific Studies community seeks to re-centre Islander knowledges in research, teaching and community-building. Her research looks into decolonial theory and activism in universities, transformative pedagogy and the power of reflexive scholarly practice; and sits at the intersection between critical humanities and area studies.
Oliver Lilford is a second-year undergraduate student undertaking a Bachelor of Philosophy with the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His interests lie primarily with the Pacific and its incredibly diverse peoples, cultures and environments. Guided by this passion, Oliver has travelled to both Samoa and Fiji for various field courses and hopes to return to the Pacific in 2019 through the University’s study abroad program. He is looking to spend a semester at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, studying and undertaking internships with regional organisations.
Aidan Myatt is a third-year Bachelor of Philosophy (Asia-Pacific) student at ANU, where he focuses on Security Studies and International Politics. Having started his Pacific Studies journey in early 2017, Aidan has dived in the Pacific and has since washed up on various Pacific islands to study and work. From analysing grand strategy, to perfecting peace building processes, to grappling with climate diplomacy, Aidan’s passion for learning has gifted him a diversity of interests. In his downtime, he daydreams of one day working in a humanitarian aid agency. However, he draws the most bliss from spending time appreciating fine flowers and gorgeous gardening.
Header Image: Oliver Lilford