When the object teaches: Indigenous academics in Australian universities

By Chelsea Bond | 14 Nov 14

If there were ever a time to be an Indigenous academic, one would think it would be now.

We are witnessing a sustained push to achieve parity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, including more senior appointments, alongside the current “‘Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum’ historical moment”[1].

There is a general consensus that Indigenous academics are critical to increasing Indigenous student participation and success, as well as enriching the cultural competency of Australian universities and their graduates.

Despite this recognition, little attention is given to the experiences of Indigenous academics in performing these tasks particularly in the teaching and learning context where our presence can be unsettling for students. Some of our students are engaging with Indigenous knowledges, perspectives and peoples for the very first time in their life, and as such, the teaching and learning environment is a new frontier.

We must consider the pedagogical approaches to the conflict that our presence in classrooms as educators inspires.

The encounters that students have with Indigenous knowledges, perspectives and peoples are, of course, varied. Some students are willing participants who have elected to study us, but not necessarily learn from us, while others are resistant and dare I say “racist”, particularly if the course or lecture is a compulsory unit of study. A proportion of students want to engage, but are reluctant to contribute to class discussions for fear of being branded “racist” or “ignorant” or unintentionally offending the Indigenous lecturer. I have learnt that for these students, my presence can hinder their learning, as unpalatable views about Aboriginal people only emerge in my absence.

“My presence simply doesn’t reconcile with their imaginary representations of Aboriginality.”

To remedy these quandaries, I’ve reflected upon my pedagogical approach; surely I’m doing something to inspire these responses? But I’m fairly convinced that there is something about my presence as an Indigenous academic that of itself is a source of conflict for students. Perhaps it is easier to talk about the “native” when the “native” is not present. And perhaps strategic absence of Indigenous academics is in fact a useful pedagogical approach.

My presence as an Indigenous scholar, if not confronting, is sometimes unintelligible for students. It conflicts with the comfortable colonial narratives of the “native” as mute, deficient, exotic or absent. For many Australians, the “real Aborigine” always exists somewhere else in time or place, but not in their neighbouring suburb, or at the front of the lecture theatre. My presence simply doesn’t reconcile with their imaginary representations of Aboriginality.

I know that some of my students try to decipher whether I’m an “authentic Aborigine” or a “legitimate academic”, because I can’t possibly be both; for some, I can’t possibly be either. I have encouraged students to reflect upon how they are reading my presence, rather than dismiss those thoughts. I draw upon the challenging nature of my presence as an opportunity for students to think critically about their requirement for Aboriginal people to perform authentic representations of Aboriginality, and to interrogate the origins of their assumptions, values and beliefs.

Our dual position as both “the subject of inquiry and mode of instruction”2 can be a powerful learning instrument, but it is not without risk. We bring with us into the learning environment our own stories and personal experiences, and many of us illuminate our lecture theatres with photographic projections of our families and communities. Our presence and those images provide a human face to a version of Australian history that has eluded many of our students. They provide a powerful counter-narrative to the representations of Aboriginality that students are familiar with.

When these counter-narratives are contested, particularly from the hostile and overtly racist students on a regular basis, it can be quite damaging for Indigenous academics, so much so, that they refuse to return to teaching. The “everyday garden-variety racism[s]”[2] remain a real workplace health and safety issue for Indigenous academics, and account for 50 per cent of the workload stress experienced by Indigenous academics[3]. Therefore, we need to be strategic about the stories we share, as well as the teaching workload we carry.

While we may be ideally placed to teach Indigenous “content” maybe other academics need to carry some of the intellectual burden.

Indigenous educators already carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to unfavourable student responses to our courses, because they are in a sense our stories. But also, the widely espoused mantra of a “no blame philosophy” is often placed squarely upon our shoulders.

“Our presence is more than a parity project or ‘black window dressing’.”

Perhaps a hangover from Australia’s “history wars”, Indigenous educators have been encouraged and required to teach Indigenous studies in a way that doesn’t make our students feel guilty or uncomfortable.

Guilt and blame are not useful for inspiring culturally competent students, we are told, yet they are natural emotional responses to witnessing Australia’s Indigenous history and the ongoing experiences of disadvantage and injustice. If learning is to be transformative, students will transition through an array of emotions, the pace of which will vary between them regardless of whether they are engaged in a two hour lecture or a 13 week course. For some students, our courses are their very first stepping stone in a journey of learning with Indigenous Australia. Students may leave our class feeling uncomfortable or frustrated, but they may not necessarily be trapped in those places indefinitely.

Thus, we need to be mindful of the expectations we place upon the Indigenous guest lecture or the course that we offer, and more importantly, the expectations that we place upon Indigenous educators in navigating environments which can be as culturally unsafe for us as they are the student.

In highlighting some of the challenges that our presence as Indigenous educators inspires, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have a critical and invaluable role to play in teaching Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. But we need to be more strategic.

Relentlessly placing Aboriginal academics on the frontline simply ensures that we will acquire casualties at a much faster rate than we can replenish. Interrogating Indigenous pedagogies and educator capabilities without acknowledging how race, racism and whiteness are operationalised in teaching and learning environments is irresponsible and counter-productive.

When learning objectives are not realised, it may not be due to our competency as educators, but instead due to the failure of students to see past their own pervasive racialised imaginings of us.

Race and racism are not just concepts we teach or talk about. Rather they are experiences we embody both inside and outside of the learning environment and they affect how students engage with us and the content we teach. Indigenous educators do not enjoy the privilege of racial invisibility that our non-Indigenous colleagues do and we must simultaneously contest our racialised identities while remaining conscious of it.

Thus the paradoxical position that Indigenous educators experience must feature more prominently in pedagogical discussions regarding the teaching of Indigenous perspectives in Australian universities.

Our presence is more than a parity project or “black window dressing”. Our presence is disruptive, confrontational, and confusing, but is a necessary part of transformative “warrior scholarship”.


[1] Rigney, L.R. 2011. Review of Indigenous Higher Education Consultancy. Professor Rigney Consultant Recommendations, viewed 14 October 2014, <docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/rigney_2011.doc>

[2] Hart, V. 2003. ‘Teaching Black and Teaching Back’ Social Alternatives, vol. 3, no. 22, pp. 12-16.

[3] Asmar, P & Page, S. 2009 ‘Sources of satisfaction and stress among Indigenous Academic teachers: Findings from a national Australian study’ Asia Pacific Journal of Education, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 387-401.

Dr Chelsea Bond is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit. She is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow exploring the concept cultural safety for Indigenous academics in Australian universities and an associate member of the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network.