Pilot Study Launch Event

On Wednesday 22 May 2019 the Teacher-Researchers pilot project was officially launched at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Hosted by Maxine McKew, the launch provided special guests with an overview of the project aims and activities to date. Guests were also introduced to the five teachers undertaking research via the pilot study. A/Professor Larissa McLean Davies spoke about the importance of diverse Australian literature in educational contexts and the impetus for this suite of work.

The event also included a presentation from Stella Prize Chair Seri Rankin about the links between Stella’s schools program and the Teacher-Researchers project and opportunities for teachers and researchers moving forward.

We thank all attendees for joining us at this exciting event.

Amy Brown’s reflections in the archive

I had trouble sleeping last night because my two-year-old’s nightmares woke me every couple of hours between midnight and five. In between comforting him, I worried about the research project I’ve chosen for myself and the way in which I’m conducting the research: am I using the archives effectively? Is my question coherent? Am I the right person to be asking such a question? Mark Nicholls’ point yesterday, about the necessity of finding a particular relevance in the text to yourself rang clear and true in the small hours. Who am I to question the reception of Indigenous women’s writing in Australia? In the question there is an assumption that the reception has been inadequate and that my research will be able to ameliorate this inadequacy in some way. Ha! The chutzpah and ignorance (these were my thoughts at about 2am). But, behind the self-flagellation, there was an answer forming to Mark’s question (how does your research relate to you?).

The reasons why I want to learn more about Van Neerven’s stories are several fold:

1) I love reading them, but see how the language that is rewarded in the VCE Literature exam might not be fit to describing the ways in which they work. That is to say, what I feel is the collection’s “literary merit” is not well served by close attention to, say, audial effects and imagery. “To talk about Heat and Light,” Van Neerven said in an interview with Helena Kadmos last year, “you must talk about the form.” Yet, to understand the logic of the form—its allusions and references—knowledge is required beyond the cultural capital required to interpret canonical texts, and beyond my students’ (many of them first or second generation migrants to Australia) frames of reference. To appreciate is to understand, and to acknowledge the limits of one’s understanding.

2) I’m a migrant to Australia too. My home, Aotearoa, New Zealand, is a different country with different traditions and different relationships with its traditions to Australia’s. The idea of a manuscript being submitted by a white male academic on behalf of a Māori woman in 1982, and the cover letter of the submission stating that the work is the first by a “full-blood aboriginal woman” is shocking. The integration of te reo Māori and tikanga Māori (language and culture) into New Zealand culture at large – the media, publishing industries and education system, for instance – means that texts by Māori authors are not siloed, fetishized, ignored or misinterpreted to the extent that texts by Australian Indigenous authors seem to be. As a teacher in Australia I see it as one of my duties to replace my ignorance of Australian aboriginal languages and cultures with knowledge – as much as I am allowed.

3) During her PhD in creative writing at Monash University, a friend spent time in Central Australia with Warlpiri women, some of whom remembered her as a child with her geologist father, who was part of their community in the 1990s. My friend gave a paper at a conference that emphasised the ways in which knowledge is conceived of by the Warlpiri people, which might clash with Western understandings of learning, publishing and literary success. Communication, she stressed, is necessarily imperfect. Certain knowledge must be earned rather than just learned.

In the English classroom, successful communication is upheld as a fundamental principle; if we only learn to read, speak, write and listen properly then we will be more adept at what makes us human – empathy. What if this striving to understand, well-meaning as it is, is necessarily thwarted? This reminds me of a different case of cultural misinterpretation that took place in a Year 11 Literature lesson last year. The final task of the year was a personal essay, applying postcolonial theory to Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case and to the students’ own lives. One diligent, bright student struggled to begin. As I tried to buoy her up and persuade her that everyone’s perspective is worth writing about, she told me that the “personal” thing was fundamentally in opposition to the culture in which she’d been raised: she wasn’t comfortable writing about herself in this way. I am still trying to figure out whether my instinct, that this task was valuable to a seventeen-year-old Chinese-Australian student, was right, or whether I was in my own form of colonialism, forcing an assumption upon her.

And so it looks like it’s going to be a day of questions…Rather than continuing to dig in the archival boxes, I intend to read some more recent articles, reviews and interviews, and continue to tweak the parameters of the project to suit my capacities and requirements (as the person I am, teaching the students I teach).

Professor Phillip Mead on Australian Literary Studies

On the third day of the intensive, Professor Philip Mead led a discussion with teachers and members of the research team about current work in the Australian literary studies field. Philip provided an overview of a number of significant and emerging research areas in literary studies including:

    World literature
    Ecocriticism
    Comparative literature
    Digital humanities
    Regional literary studies

There was conversation in this session around Indigenous literatures and national contexts, curriculum constraints, and book history. Philip also provided teacher-researchers with links to scholarly resources and literary networks and publications for consideration in their future work.

Kacey Pelle’s Reflections in the archives

Why do we still study “the classics”?

This is the question I pose my students whenever we’re about to tackle Shakespeare, or Dickens, or a ‘scary’ piece of older Western literature. Inevitably, they— bless their poly-blend socks— begin by attacking this question with what they think I want to hear:

‘Because it’s still relevant today.’

‘Because there are still lessons we can learn from them.’

‘Because they’re historically important.’

‘Because the English department hates us. Like, just admit it, Miss.’

Look, they’re not wrong (mostly). But they aren’t actually answering the question of why we do it. I tell them so, and it always leads to a much more interesting discussion about what classic actually is. On this, they start to differ pretty wildly:

‘It has to be old.’

Does it?

‘It has to be famous.’

To whom?

‘It has to have a good moral message.’

Really?Lolita? Perfume? Lord of the Flies?A Clockwork Orange? Really?

‘It has to be universally enjoyable.’

What makes you say that?

From here, I ask them to write an exploration of what they think makes a classic a classic. If they’re super-duper keen, I get them to read a translation of Italo Calvino’s ‘Perché leggere i classici’, but by this stage they’ve already started formulating their own responses to this without needing to read an essay by an old dead white guy.

And that, at its heart, is the question which Ireally want answered: why are so many “classics” written by old, dead, (usually) straight white guys?

That’s not to say that there’s no value in texts written by that particular demographic. Of course there is. I have a Shakespeare tattoo from my lit-nerd version of young rebellion, so golly, I hope so. But why do we, societally, place so much value on those specific texts?

That’s a huge question in and of itself. And it’s incredibly condescending to think that teenagers might not be able to help us answer it.

Any English teacher right now can tell you about the surge they’re seeing in their students engaging with young adult literature. It’s not surprising; why would it be a leap to think that kids want to see themselves reflected in the media they consume? What’s really interesting, though, are the types of stories they’re choosing to engage with.

I work with boys, and the appetite for YA fiction either written by women and/or are about the female experience is honestly huge. They’re certainly spoiled for choice: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100, The Hate U Give, Tomorrow When the War Began…it would be very easy to keep going, especially now that publishers are cottoning on. Screen texts have followed suit— The Hunger Games, Divergent,and The Hate U Givehave all been adapted into film. The television adaptation of The 100is currently airing its sixth season. Tomorrow When the War Begangot both. Original YA TV series are gaining traction as well: recent successes include The Society, Atypical, Sex Education, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

The point here isn’t the average teen’s list of media consumption, but what’s actually in it. And the answer might be surprising; these shows and books, especially the more recent, don’t just explore female experience, but ‘otherness’ in general. Race, gender spectrums, sex and sexual fluidity, disability— admittedly with varying degrees of success and sensitivity. The 100has an openly bisexual protagonist and a number of multi-racial straight and gay relationships (importantly for a futuristic text, accepted in-world without fanfare), and tackles the issue of living with disability in a mid-scarcity post-apocalyptic narrative lacking effective support and medical care. The Society examines sexual fluidity intersecting with disability, as does Atypical. Sex Education explores the intersections of sexuality and race, and Sabrina attempts all of the above alongside critiques of gender and patriarchal religious systems. That’s not to say they all do so well, exactly— the criticism of Sabrina has been especially rigorous, and they all focus on white protagonists— but they do share a recognition of the desire for narratives outside what has come to be accepted as the standard.

It’s reasonable to assume that much of the audience for these texts consists of people living the intersections of those experiences. That said, I’m not pulling these examples out of nowhere— these are the books and shows which my overwhelmingly white, affluent, male students are choosing to engage with, and to share with me and with each other. They are actively seeking out narratives which offer windows into experiences outside their own, and tellingly, outside the hallowed canon of Western literature.

Certainly there are instances within teaching this canon that allow for broad discussion of difference. My Year 11s are currently finishing up a unit on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and it’s been thoroughly enjoyable discussing the Big Question of the Bard’s sexuality with respect to the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady. It opens up discussions about power and society, and whose voices get published and censored and centred and studied and why. Especially in Australia.

That has essentially been my jumping off point for this week of archival study. An article I found in the

Spring 1988 issue of Lilith calls this Euro-centric focus the ‘canon of significance’, and it’s challenged and explored pretty consistently— but anything that does challenge it is also considered to be of niche interest. It’s not a coincidence I found this terminology in a feminist publication. But if we have students actively telling us they want to hear from other voices, it begs the question of how we could do this better.

The study of classics, at least within the context of my school, ultimately comes down to what it tells us about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going. To that end, my research has been geared towards building a unit of work that offers students a framework for discussing, with a fair degree of autonomy, a) what a “classic” is; b) what the modern Australian voice might look like by comparison; and c) how to go about discussing these as part of a landscape of multimodal literature, rather than as existing in isolated bubbles that they can forget about as soon as a SAC is over.

In an Australian context, that covers an enormous range of voices. There certainly isn’t just one, and I want my students to actively engage with that concept. So the week up until now has been focused on narrowing my scope down to something manageable that’s still meaningful. My original focus was on intersectionality and intertextuality overall; from what I’ve looked at this week, I think the lens is narrowing to the crossovers between migrant voices, queer voices, and female voices. My text list for this unit now looks something like this:

  • Looking for Alibrandi
  • The Hate Race
  • Foreign Soil
  • Growing Up Asian In Australia

I’ve been looking primarily at material that builds the field of understanding of where these voices sat in the Australian setting during the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, and what factors led into their being afforded increased validity. The archives have offered up some gems, such as these from the YWCA’s Immigration Regional Coordinating Committee Minutes:

…All of them?

I sent this one to my family, many of whom are now upset that they never got an outstanding migrant award.

There are several other examples, too many to reproduce here without getting repetitive, of very long discussions about whether it might, in fact, be useful to ask the migrant women in question what would actually help them in adjusting to their new home. While these isolated bits and bobs are very entertaining, they also provide really useful insight into the language and attitudes of their eras towards migrant women, particularly since they were usually coming from well-meaning women themselves. These are significant in terms of realia I can use with my students and discussing the intentions versus the impact of decisions around engaging with voices who don’t fit the “classic” paradigm— precisely what we come up against in challenging the Western canon itself.

From the perspective of my own ongoing research paper, I intend to look further into the Euro-centric model of schooling which encourages these ties to British and American texts, and why as a teacher it often feels as though the teaching of Australian texts is quite forced.

So that’s where I’m sitting right now. If you’ve made it through this absolutely over-long blog post, well done! I’ll leave you with this absolute gift from a glossary in a flyer packet I found in the Dianne Otto collection advertising joint events between women’s liberation and homosexual support groups:

Quite.

Associate Professor Larissa McLean Davies – Discussion on Text Selection

Text selection has been a key issue in subject English throughout its history and continues to be a pertinent and urgent consideration in contemporary classrooms. Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy education at MGSE, presented on the historical and contemporary issues impacting on text selection in their classrooms.

Dr. McLean Davies asked the teachers and members of the research team to think about the kind of stories the texts they are teaching are creating for their students and for the future. This session included an interactive activity on team members’ ‘Book-Prints’ – “a reading and writing autobiography which shows that who you are is in part developed through the stories and information you’ve experienced” (Alfred Tatum, University of Illinois).

The session asked teachers to consider cultural capital, diversity, knowledge and censorship and the impacts these issues have on their text choices for their students.

Professor Sue Martin on 19th Century Australian Literature and Archives

On Day Two of the Teacher-Researchers Pilot, Professor Sue Martin from La Trobe University gave an account of her research in the archive investigating:

  • Literary themes in 19th century Australian literature
  • The circulation of 19th century texts
  • Ephemera
  • Frontispieces
  • Paratextual information
  • Advertising

Professor Martin went into detail on some texts she’d studied. For example, Younah!: A Tasmanian Aboriginal Romance of the Cataract Gorge and critiqued how as a narrative of a white settler child being stolen by Aboriginal people operates as an inversion of what was historically happening in Australia during the time it was written (1890s). In addition, while representing a typical ‘noble savage’ style narrative that were more typical in the 1800s. Teacher-researchers discussed how they could compare the novel with current writing and trouble accepted literary history.

Professor Martin  gave examples of 19th century novels that had advertising in them including The Newest Woman: The Destined Monarch of the World, a speculative fiction novel by Millie Finkelstein where women ruled the world, which included ads for beer, betting agents, and phrenologists inside the original publication.

The teacher-researchers discussed how literature circulated in the 19th century, to and from the colonies of Britain on the same boats as personal letters. They thought about how that might have impacted the way colonisation may have been represented as idea(l) or reality through fiction and personal correspondence.

The session ended with a discussion of Trove as a way of researching what was being read, locally in regional papers of the time, with prompts for secondary school teaching and learning.

 

Dr. Amanda Burritt on Object-Based Learning

On Day Two of the Pilot study of the Teacher-Researchers Project, Dr. Amanda Burritt, a historian and literacy educator led a discussion about object-based learning.

The conversation included how affect circulates with objects, the symbolic meaning of objects, and how objects can be used to help create an understanding of context when analysing texts as well as help foster dialogic teaching.

Dr. Burritt highlighted how provenance and social capital are related to the circulation and interpretation of historical objects and how educators should be purposeful in their intent to bring an object into a pedagogical setting.

The teacher-researchers discussed their own use of objects in teaching secondary English to introduce texts and foster literal, referential, and evaluative analysis.

Critical conversations surrounding the fetisiation of objects, identity, culture, and power also took place in this session.

 

Cameron Smith’s reflection in the archive

Visiting the University of Melbourne Archive Repository was an immersive experience. Going behind the scenes and walking through the shelves highlighted the extent of the archival material available and the history that is encapsulated in various documents, artefacts and objects.

I spent the day perusing newspaper articles, letters and book reviews that related to Australian literary journals such as Scripsi and Meanjin.

These magazines are cultural artefacts that have disseminated knowledge and ideas across time and place. I am curious to read further about ‘who’ they represent and the voices they express. I intend to delve further into these archives to establish the value of these journals within the Australian publishing industry and how they have informed the notion of ‘Australian Literature’.

 

Archive Reflection by Antony Monteleone

I have been looking into the Greer archives and for my research, there is a real fascination in how people respond to the publications that she releases and the way in which this links to Australian identity. The wielding of language as a weapon in this sense has enthralled me this first day. I feel like I have a much better sense of how I can use her material alongside Clarke’s and Coleman’s works to get students thinking and writing about what it means to be Australian for different people and themselves. I look forward to linking this to the Meanjin Archive in an effort to deepen my students political understanding of the discourses that surround the power structures that preference particular performances of ‘Australian’ and how they can fit into and/or challenge these understandings.

Teacher-Researchers in the Archive

 

On the first day of the Pilot, the teacher-researchers began with a tour of the archive led by Senior Archivist Katie Wood. Katie explained some of the theory of archival arrangement and principle of provenance, collection policies, and preservation guidelines.

The teacher-researchers then began work on their personal projects linking pieces from the archives with contemporary Australia literature.