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Un Magazine 13.2

Australian Indigenous Studies: Operating in the Temporary Autonomous Zone

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10/16

Article

This document addresses the relationship between Australian Indigenous Studies (AIS) andThe University of Melbourne. The way The University of Melbourne exerts power over marginalised communities, and their epistemologies, will be familiar to anyone who has gone through similar treatment in the academy. It is exerted through physical and disciplinary fragmentation of offices and departments, through bureaucratic mismanagement of positions and courses, with the effect of making groups of Indigenous workers disparate. In this instance, dispersal happens physically, through the removal or relocation of staff offices and subsequent monitoring of staff, undermining the ability of the community to organise as a cohesive group. The functioning of the Department as a cohort and an intellectual program is compromised. In a casualised and dispersed program, non-Indigenous (predominantly white) teachers with no background in the program are often hired in key subjects due to a ‘lack of other qualified talent’. Content about Indigenous knowledges is taught with no authority and no accountability to the local community. Students complain. Workers are alienated. Within this context, writing is a powerful form of protest. The authors of this piece feel it critical to address the threat that the AIS program is currently facing. This threat is evidenced by the structural impacts resulting from a lack of program leadership. This manifests in intellectual and psychological challenges placed on staff and students who are teaching and studying into loaded racialised spaces.

1.

It’s 2015. I witness staff from AIS in discussion with one of the white administrative staff about the redecoration of the space that used to make up a large foyer and tearoom outside the AIS offices. ‘Some Aboriginal artworks could be hung here!’ she says, casting her eye around the newly shrunk thoroughfare where the staff now have to meet their students and guests. In the halls at AIS we have a portrait of Cathy Freeman, framed and signed, in full flight on the running track. Winning. There are a few purchased works from Noongar artist, critical race and whiteness scholar Dianne Jones showing her niece in the familiar composition of the Mona Lisa.

The former Head of the AIS Department, Philip Morrissey, was a teacher of mine. In one class, he spoke about his insistence on a few key points of protocol when inviting an Aboriginal guest to speak with our class. Firstly, they must always be welcomed onto campus by another Aboriginal person. The first face they see should be an Aboriginal one. This is a protocol, he noted with frustration, which was never met by the university staff at large when dealing with Aboriginal guests and educators. Secondly, they must always have tea and biscuits with the program staff in the meeting space prior to speaking to the class, and everyone who was available should be there, including sessional staff and students. Morrissey is fond of repeating the phrase, after the late Paddy Roe, ‘things must go both ways.’

The university designates me as your service provider, and you, it designates as the customer. But we are teacher and students. I invite you to step outside of this relationship the university constructs. When I teach, one of you makes the coffee and tea, and another of you brings food. Things must go both ways.

Every week in our class on Aboriginal writing, held in his office in room 317, we do this. He provides the tea leaves, coffee grounds, plungers, teapots, cups and teaspoons, and the milk. He leaves us with the task of filling the cups and the illusion of having contributed. After a few weeks, we settle into a pattern. We adopt roles. Some people remain seated week after week. The duties fall to the same few familiar faces. It’s the neatest analogy for the sharing of Aboriginal knowledge within a colonial structure. This is all designed to teach the content of the course while rehabituating both staff and students into a system of value that both resists and is restrained by the University’s institutional norms. He noted that sessional workers are forced to operate in organised resistance to the faculty’s casualisation and exploitation of labour, a scenario in which doing work outside of one’s paid hours might be read as a crossing of the picket line. Staff eventually internalise this system of value by refusing to participate in anything they can’t timesheet, but working in line with the value-driven program set out by AIS requires suspending the usual rules of time. It invites one to participate in the activities of a community, not of a business.

Temporary Autonomous Zones (after Hakim Bey) are spaces which are able to exist, however briefly, outside the totalising reaches of power. The normal rules of engagement, domination and submission, are suspended within a Temporary Autonomous Zone. They subvert and expose the limits of seemingly impenetrable hierarchies and systems of normalisation. They are only able to exist briefly, before being detected and eliminated by totalising institutions, leaving no trace. But when they exist, they are exciting. They contain radical potential. The Temporary Autonomous Zone represents moments of freedom within the secretive pockets of the totalising institution, clandestine individual happenings and shifting territories of power.

2.

The end of the former Head’s lengthy career was a period of excitement and autonomy, taking a rhizomatic approach to investigating the intellectual and psychological conditions of cultural production in settler colonies. Also, it was doused with an admittedly well-founded paranoia over the future of AIS. Held in high esteem was Aboriginal philosophy and literature, the knowledge of visiting Indigenous guest lecturers, and ongoing attention to the flows of power and governance across Australian civic life.

Indigenous to non-Indigenous cross-cultural reciprocity was a tenet that kept staff bound to one another, and meant many of the students were involved in extracurricular activities. There were occasional tensions between staff, and both students and staff were generally time poor from being engaged in various ‘musters’, whose symbolic frontier allusions never cease to amuse. But, the program was a place conscious of its cultural production and its desire to not be subsumed by the homogenising forces of the University’s recent Business Improvement Plan (BIP). Implemented by the University’s senior management and the contracted ‘international management consultants’ Booz & Co. over the period of 2013–14, BIP resulted in the abolishment of 540 positions, after which all professional staff members were forced to reapply for a diminished pool of jobs.1

This article continues the legacy of the 2015 People’s Tribunal, organised by the former Head and associates of AIS program. The People’s Tribunal sought to hear evidence concerning the effects of BIP, particularly regarding BIP’s control over professional staffs’ jobs, and its relationship to the contractual and social experiences of academic staff in turn. The People’s Tribunal, in its own words, ‘was so designated in conscious acknowledgement of a democratic tradition and aspiration which identifies and defends human rights that are not established in law or by formal governments, but nevertheless have a clear moral force.’2 Like the tribunal members of 2015, we write driven by a desire for transparent and sustainable workforces, intellectual freedom and a serious interest in what has happened to the academic environment in which AIS exists, five years into BIP’s rollout.

The People’s Tribunal identified four main tactics used to control professional staff:

  1. Cognitive dissonance (for example, being required to participate in the design of position descriptions for their own jobs, and via the implementation of a ‘consultation’ process that had no effect on essential outcomes)
  2. Ongoing job insecurity
  3. Destruction of collegiality
  4. individualisation of staff

The writers of this article recognise these tactics, experiencing and attempting to resist these institutional behaviours from becoming normalised working conditions for academic staff as well.

Since the former Head’s retirement in early 2017, there have been the expected disjuncts in all of the program’s proceedings. But what followed, and where the Department finds itself today, is a program managed by Acting Head after Acting Head. This ‘acting head’ position has floated across time like an empty signifier, while an increasingly transient and fractured academic workforce delivers the program’s curriculum.

The picture is in the details. In under twelve months, the program’s designated wing of the building went from four offices to one, with the Acting Head’s office designated to a different floor, further contributing to the Department’s spatial and social fragmentation. A journalism research centre was moved into the aforementioned three office spaces, and their staff took the rooms, while four Aboriginal AIS sessional staff worked from one final office. With the exception of one staff member, the journalists did not make attempts to connect with those staff, despite the shared hallway with walls covered in Aboriginal art and activist posters. By the end of 2018, the final shared office was attempted, by management, to be repurposed for non-Aborignal Arts postgraduate students. Thanks to the protests of one of these students, along with emails to management and some use of social media, that process was delayed, but only after the Aboriginal staff had the experience of turning up to, quite literally, an empty room. This was despite the fact that those staff were still performing teaching duties, such as meeting students for consultations in the room. After the summer renovations, they were told, they could ‘(re)occupy’ the room for the indeterminate future.

At the time of writing, a new advertisement for a Program Director has been distributed. Whether this is filled, and whether a positive shift in the program begins or not, it is a good moment to reflect on how staff have kept their heads above water during this time. Beyond the good measures of laughter, screams and enduring yarns both on and off campus, it has been the move to act that maintains solidarity.

Since the casualisation of the program, the multiple changes began to be documented, which has resulted in a hefty archive holding multiple uses. Shared between members of the program, this archive is visual evidence of what appears to be an ongoing and attempted dissolution of the cultural history of the program. It resists the fragmentation of institutional memory (and in doing so reveals fragmentation further). The AIS archive provides a visual and visible story that celebrates the intellectual and professional value of sessional Aboriginal staff, during a period of institutional silence and devaluing. It is also a testament to the continuous love and care that goes into the AIS program.

Looking to the current material conditions of AIS’ remaining shared office today, one particular indent in the wall holds the greatest symbolism. The indent comes from a recently plastered hole in the office’s white painted walls. The hole came about when the former Head, packing up the materials from his office, ripped three large letters from the wall’s surface. The letters are an acronym, ‘TAZ’ for Temporary Autonomous Zone, whose meaning is elaborated on in an earlier section of this article. Metis scholar David Garneu writes that ‘art is a strange supplement. It is not essential to our survival, but it is integral to our humanity.’3 Documenting, archiving and publishing our experiences stands as a testament.

3.

With the recent advertising for a new permanent Head of the AIS program, it is an appropriate time for the AIS community of practice to reflect on the present, and some critical moments of the not so distant past. I write these accounts from the position of observer. Since teaching sporadically into the AIS program over the last twelve months, I have maintained a degree of separation from the internal politics of the program, due to my position as a settler on these lands. My entrance into the program coincided with the appointment of the most recent Acting Head in a string of Acting Heads, following the sudden resignation of the Aboriginal Head of the program in January 2017. The events that have transpired over this short period of time have undoubtedly resulted in permanent and damaging structural consequences to the AIS program, which will not easily be transposed.

In the weeks following my commencement, I, along with all other AIS sessional staff, were encouraged to attend a casual catch up with the newly appointed Acting Head of the program. It was in this meeting, on a Friday afternoon over pastries and cakes, that he excitedly announced the ‘transformation’ of the AIS program. A single paper copy of the proposed new program structure was passed around the room, and I sat back as the Indigenous staff in the room huddled around the document, taking in the gravity of what had just been presented to them. It appeared that for those Aboriginal staff in the room this was the first that they had heard of this transformation process. In addition to cutting subjects, this transformation came with what was presented as a slight shift in program name. The Acting Head announced that from 2020, the ‘Australian’ would be erased from the program name. Moving forward, the program would just be ‘Indigenous Studies’. This was not presented as a form of resistance seeking to reject the illegal Australian state. Rather, it was about creating a program that is ‘global in reach’, and supposedly, ‘local in focus’. The irony of erasing place from the name of the program that seeks to teach its students about the importance of centring Aboriginal sovereignty is painstakingly obvious. As Maori theorists Graham Smith and Linda Tuhiwai-Smith argue, the neoliberal shift of the academy has been accompanied by the commodification and exportation of Indigenous education.4 In an institutional environment where success is quantified financially, it is clear that the program’s transformation is more about monetary gain than program improvement. In this meeting the value attributed to the ongoing, yet precarious, labour of Indigenous sessionals was clear. The undocumented archival knowledge and wisdom of the program, held in the memories of these precarciously employed staff, appeared to be inconsequential. The purpose of my presence in this meeting—one which undoubtedly marked a critical turning point in the program—or that of the presence of other newly appointed settler sessionals who had, at this point, been teaching into the program for a total of three weeks, was unclear.

Prior to the end of my four-month contract, I also witnessed the attempted dissolution of the final AIS office space. While this office was never my own, I hold fond memories of being a guest in the space. Despite a successful protest against the reallocation of this space, accompanied by grovelling in the form of free booze from the Acting Head of the program, for some Indigenous sessionals, the attempted dispossession of this space appears to have ignited a politics of refusal. Mohawk scholar Professor Audra Simpson argues that a politics of refusal is signified by a refusal to accept the ‘gifts’ and play on the terms of the settler state.5 Through the act of refusing to continue to teach into the program (as many Aboriginal sessionals have done), and refusing to play on the terms of this colonial institution, an opportunity is presented to disrupt the underlying structures and relationships at play. Once made up of a solely Blak teaching team, the program’s largest enrolled subject no longer has a single Blak staff member. If invasion is a structure that continues to permeate through time, then refusal is a structure too. Right now, refusal feels like the best form of resistance.


  1. Marion Campbell and Philip Morrissey (eds.), The People’s Tribunal: an inquiry into the ‘Business Improvement Program’ at The University of Melbourne, Aboriginal Humanities Projects, Melbourne, 2015. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. David Garneau, ‘Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonisation’, Fuse Magazine, vol. 36, no. 4, 2013, p. 14 

  4. Graham Hingangaroa Smith and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Doing Indigenous Work: Decolonising and Transforming the Academy’, in Elizabeth McKinley & Linda Tuhiwai Smith (ed.), Handbook of Indigenous Education, Springer Singapore, Singapore, 2018, pp. 1-27. 

  5. Audra Simpson, ‘The ruse of consent and the anatomy
    of ‘refusal’: cases from indigenous North America and Australia’, (Postcolonial Studies,* vol. 20, no. 1, 2017, pp. 18-33