HERDSA 2012: Final Keynote, “Connecting with the Other: Some ideas on why Black America likes to sing Bob Dylan”, Professor Liz McKinley

I’ve discussed this final talk in outline but it has had such an impact on me that I wanted to share it in its own post. This also marks the end of my blogging from HERDSA, but I’m sure that you’ve seen enough on this so that’s probably a good thing. (As a note, the next conference that I’ll be at is ICER, in September, so expect some more FrenetoBlogging (TM) then.)

Professor Elizabeth (Liz) McKinley has a great deal of experience in looking at issues of otherness, from her professional role in working with Māori students and postgraduates, and because she is of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Ngāi Tahu descent herself. She began her talk with a long welcome and acknowledgement speech in an indigenous language (I’m not sure which one it was and I haven’t been able to find out), which she then repeated in English, along with an apology to the local indigenous peoples for her bad pronunciation of some of their words.

She began by musing on Bob Dylan, poet, protest song writer, and why his songs, especially “Blowing in the Wind”, were so popular with African Americans. Dylan’s song, released at a turbulent time in US History, asked a key question: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” At a time when African Americans were barely seen as people in some quarters, despite the Constitutional Amendments that had been made so long before, these lyrics captured the frustrations and aspirations of the Black people of the US and it became, in Professor McKinley’s opinion, anthemic in the civil rights movement because of this. She then discussed how many of Bob Dylan’s other songs had been reinterpreted, repurposed, and moved into the Black community, citing “Mr Tambourine Man” as covered by Con Funk Shun as an example of this. (I have been unable to locate this on Youtube or my usual sources but, I’ve been told, it’s not the version that you’re used to and it has an entirely new groove.)

Reinterpretation pays respect to the poet but we rediscover new aspects about the work and the poet and ourselves when we work with another artist. We learn from each other when we share and we see each other’s way of doing things. These are the attributes that we need to adopt if we want to bring in more underrepresented and disadvantaged students from outside of our usual groups – the opportunities to bring their talents to University to share them with us.

She then discussed social justice education in a loose overview: the wide range of pedagogies that are designed to ameliorate the problems caused by unfair practices and marginalisation. Of course, to be marginalised and to be discriminated against, we must have a dominant (or accepted) form, and an other. It is the Other that was a key aspect of the rest of the talk.

The Other can be seen in two very distinct ways. There is the violent Other, the other that we are scared of, that physically repels us, that we hide from and seek to destroy, sideline or ignore. This is drive by social division and inequity. When Gil Scott-Heron sang of the Revolution that wouldn’t be televised, he was speaking to his people who, according to people who look like me, were a violent and terrifying Otherness that lived in the shadows of every city in America. People are excluded when they don’t fit the mainstream thinking, when we’re scared of them – but we can seek to understand the other’s circumstances, which are usually a predicament, to understand their actions and motivations so that we can ameliorate or remedy them.

But there is also the non-violent Other, a philosophical separation, independent of social factors. We often accept this Other, letting it be different and even seeking knowledge from this unknowable other and, rather than classify it as something to be shunned or feared, we defer our categorisation. My interpretation of this non-violent other is perhaps that of those who seek religious orders, at the expense of married life, even small possessions or a personal life within a community that they control. In many regards this is very much an Otherness but we have tolerated and welcomed the religiously Other into our lives for millennia. It has only been reasonably recently that aspects of this, for certain religious orders, has now started to associate a violent Otherness with the mystical and philosophical Otherness that we would usually associate with clerics.

Professor McKinley went on to identify some of the Others in Australia and New Zealand: the disadvantaged, those living in rural or remote areas, the indigenous peoples. Many of the benchmarks for these factors are set against nations like the UK, the US and Canada. She questioned why, given how different our nations are, we benchmarked ourselves against the UK but identified that all of this target setting, regardless of which benchmarks were in use, were set against majority groups that were largely metropolitan/urban and non-indigenous. In New Zealand, the indigenous groups are the Māori and the Pacific Islanders (PI), but there is recognition that there is a large degree of co-location between these peoples and the lower socio-economic status groups – a double whammy as far as Otherness goes compared to affluent white culture.

Professor McKinley has been heavily involved and leading three projects, although she went to great lengths to thank the many people who were making it all work while she was, as she said, running around telling everyone about it. These three projects were the Starpath Project, the Māori and Indigenous (MAI) Doctoral Programme, and the Teaching and Learning in the Supervision of Māori PhD students (TLRI).

The Starpath Project was designed to undertake research and develop and evaluated evidence-based initiatives, designed to improve educational participation and achievement of students from groups currently under-represented in degree level education. This focuses on the 1st decile schools in NZ, those who fall into the bottom 10%, which includes a high proportion of Māori and PI students. The goal was to increase the number of these students who went into Uni out of school, which is contrary to the usual Māori practice of entering University as mature age students when they have a complexity in their life that drives them to seek University (Liz’s phrase, which I really like).

New Zealand is trying to become a knowledge economy, as they have a small population on a relatively small country, and they want more people in University earlier. While the Pākehā, those of European descent, make up most of those who go to Uni, the major population growth is the  Māori and PI communities. There are going to be increasingly large economic and social problems if these students don’t start making it to University earlier.

This is a 10-year project, where phase 1 was research to identify choke points and barriers in to find some intervention initiatives, and phase 2 is a systematic implementation, transferable, sustainable, to track students into Uni. This had a strong scientific basis with emphasis on strong partnerships, leading to relationships with nearly 10% of the secondary schools in New Zealand, focused on the low decile groups that are found predominantly around Auckland. The partnerships were considered to be essential here and the good research was picked up and used to form good government policy – a fantastic achievement.

Another key aspect, especially from the indigenous perspective, was to get the families on board. By doing this, involving parents and family, guardian participation in activities shot up from 20% to 80% but it was crucial to think beyond the individual, including writing materials for families – parents and children. Families are the locus of change in these communities. Part of the work here involved transitions support for students to get from school to uni, supported by scholarships to show both the students and the community that they can learn and achieve to the same degree as any other student.

One great approach was that, instead of targeting the disadvantaged kids for support, everyone got the same level of (higher) support which normalised the student support and reduced the Otherness in this context.

The next project, the MAI programme, was a challenge to Māori researchers to develop a doctoral programme and support that didn’t ignore the past while still conforming to the academic needs of the present. (“Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1999, was heavily referenced throughout this.) Māori students have cultural connections and associations that can make certain PhD work very difficult: consider a student who is supposed to work with human flesh samples, where handling dead tissue is completely inappropriate in Māori culture. It is profoundly easy, as well as lazy, to map an expectation of conformity over the top of this (Well, if you’re doing our degree then you follow our culture) but this is the worst example of a colonising methodology and this is exactly what MAI was started to address.

MAI works through communities, meeting regularly. Māori academics, students and cultural advisors meet regularly to alleviate the pressures of cross-cultural issues and provide support through meetings and retreats.

The final project, the Māori PhD project, was initiated by MAI (above) to investigate indigenous students, to understand why they were carrying out their PhDs. Students were having problem, as with the tissue example above, so the project also provided advice to institutions and to students, encouraging Pākehā supervisors to work with Māori students, as well as the possibility of Māori supervision if the student needed to feel culturally safe. This was a bicultural project, with five academics across four institutions.

From Smith, 1997, p203, “educational battleground for Māori is spatial. It is about theoretical spaces, pedagogical spaces, structural spaces.” From this project there were differences in what the students were seeking and the associated pedagogies. Some where seeking difference from their own basis, an ancestral Māori basis. Some were Māori but not really seeking that culture. Some, however, were using their own thesis to regain their lost identity as Māori.

The phrase that showed up occasionally was a “colonised history” – even your own identity is threatened by the impact of the colonists on the records, memories and freedoms of your people. We had regularly seen colonists move to diminish and reduce the Other, as a perceived threat, where they classify it as a violent other. The third group of students, above, are trying to rebuild what it meant to be Māori for them, in the face of New Zealand’s present state as a heavily colonised country, where most advantage lies with the Pākehā and Asian communities. They were addressing a sense of loss, in the sense of their loss of what it meant to be Māori. This quest for Māori identity was sometimes a challenge to the institution, hence the importance of this project to facilitate bicultural understanding and allow everyone to be happy with the progress and nature of the study.

At this point in my own notes I wrote “IDENTITY IDENTITY IDENTITY” because it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the key issue that is plaguing us all, and that kept coming up at HERDSA. Who are we? Who is my trusted group? How do I survive? Who am I? While this issues, associated with Otherness in the indigenous community, are particularly significant for low SES groups and the indigenous, they affect all of us in this times of great change.

An issue of identity that I have touched on, and that Professor McKinley brought up in her talk, was how we establish the identity of the teacher, in order to identify who should be teaching. In Māori culture, there are three important aspects: Matauranga (Knowledge), Whakapapa (ancestral links) and Tikanga (cultural protocols and customs). But this raises pedagogical issues, especially when two or more of these clash. Who is the teacher and how can we recognise them? There are significant cultural issues if we seek certain types of knowledge from the outside, because we run headlong into Tikanga. These knowledge barriers may not be flexible at all, which is confronting to western culture (except for all of the secret barriers that we choose not to acknowledge). The teachers may be parents, elders, grandparents – recognising this requires knowledge, time and understanding. And, of course, respect.

Another important aspect is the importance of the community. If you, as a Māori PhD student, go to a community and ask them to answer some questions, at some stage in the future, they’ll expect you back to help out with something else. So, time management becomes an issue because there is a spirit of reciprocity that requires the returned action – this is at odds with restricted time for PhDs and the desire for timely completion if you have to disappear for 2 weeks to help build or facilitate something.

Professor McKinley showed a great picture. A student, graduating with PhD gown surmounted by the sacred cloak of the Māori people. They have to have a separate graduation ceremony, as well as the small ‘two tickets maximum’ one in the hall, because community and family pride is strong – two tickets maximum won’t accommodate the two busloads of people who showed up to see this particular student graduate.

The summary of the Other was that we have two views:

  • The Other as a consequence of social, economic and/or political disaffiliation (Don’t pathologise the learning by diagnosing it as a problem and trying to prescribe a remedy.)
  • As an alterity that is independent of social force. (Welcoming the other on their own terms. A more generous form but a scarier form for the dominant culture.)

What can we learn from the other? My difference matters to my institution. We need to ensure that we have placed our ethics into social justice education – this stance allows us how to frame ethics across the often imposed barriers of difference.

Professor McKinley then concluded by calling up some of her New Zealand colleagues to the stage, to close the talk with a song. An unusual (for me) end to an inspiring and extremely thought-provoking talk. (Sadly, it wasn’t Bob Dylan, but it was in Māori so it may have secretly been so!)

2 Comments on “HERDSA 2012: Final Keynote, “Connecting with the Other: Some ideas on why Black America likes to sing Bob Dylan”, Professor Liz McKinley”

  1. This would have been an excellent conclusion to what sounds like a good experience at the conference. I will have to think about what Dylan offers to me in the 21st Century. It is a different way of thinking. Roads are constantly revealed to move down. Thank you.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Thank you! It was certainly worth attending and was, in many ways, transformative. My apologies for such a prolix post – something I hope to address in the next sequence.


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