Yarning circle

On Friday last week, I visited the beautiful campus of the University of Wollongong (on the coast south of Sydney for international readers) for a meeting of higher education scholars. I have written about this group previously (The spirit of research)—a loose gathering of like-minded researchers interested in higher education, universities, learning and teaching, and academic life.

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Image source: University of Wollongong Now & Then

From the start, the day felt different from our previous meetings. We were warmly invited into a yarning circle by Jade Kennedy, a Dharawal-Yuin man who is researching and practicing embedding indigenous knowledges across the university curriculum. It was a powerful and transformative (a word I find overused in higher education, but entirely apt here) experience. We sat in a circle, unprotected by desks or devices, looked each other in the eye and took turns to tell our stories. In an anticlockwise spiral, we each spoke three times over the course of the day. This was a space of deep listening, vulnerability and intimacy.

Our stimulus for discussion, chosen by Alisa Percy and her team, was Pat Sikes’ (2006) paper, ‘On dodgy ground? Problematics and ethics in educational research’. This was a timely read for me, as I grapple with preparing a conference paper for HERDSA (in Adelaide in a couple of weeks) about the complexities of an institutional research project. Sikes describes some of the risks of researching practices from within your own university:

Insider research is inherently sensitive and, therefore, potentially dodgy in both ethical and career development terms. People considering embarking on insider research have to think very carefully about what taking on the role and identity of researcher can mean and involve in a setting where they are normally seen as someone else with particular responsibilities and powers (p 110).

In the yarning circle, we talked about the risks of researching (or not researching) in higher education. We traversed the what, when, where, who and why of our research, and its impacts for individuals (career trajectories, families, students, colleagues), for the field or discipline of university studies, for institutions and for the sector. We also talked about what risk means to us personally—whether we see ourselves as risk-takers, being medically ‘at risk’, what it means to be safe, and playing the university game.

We spoke of the work of other scholars which we have enjoyed (including Harré, Grant, Locke & Sturm’s infinite game) and I have some more articles on my reading list:

The yarning circle offered a counterpoint to the amount of time I spend ‘in my head’  learning through reading.

I am striving to improve my Aboriginal literacy, as my school and university education glossed over much of this crucial Australian history and culture. I am (slowly) undertaking the Aboriginal Sydney MOOC, which I highly recommend for its generous information and stimulating perspectives. I appreciate the wealth of resources, including historical websites Barani and A history of Aboriginal Sydney. I am reading fiction and non-fiction texts by Aboriginal authors, including Wright’s collective memoir Tracker, winner of the Stella Prize. And, given my predilection for the genre, I  can recommend three dystopian novels by Aboriginal writers: Wright’s The Swan Book, Coleman’s Terra Nullius and Kwaymullina’s The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.

In the yarning circle, I learnt differently. I actively listened to others without feeling drained. I followed different trains of thought and held ideas that were new to me. It was an embodied learning I had not realised was missing from my life.

Another recent deep listening experience underscored this: a seminar presentation by Professor and Head of Indigenous Studies Bronwyn Carlson who told her inspiring life story. A transient childhood and the consequent loss of connection with place, her love of reading (including the dictionary), and a troubled adolescence. Entrenched racism: “We were told kids like us wouldn’t become anything” which continues to this day. She always had a yearning to learn which brought her to university, a struggle after nomadic schooling and a patchy educational toolbox. “It still blows my mind I have a PhD.” Her final messages after a gripping conversation that went for over an hour: “Tell Indigenous kids: you belong here” and “Never stop wanting to know.”

7 thoughts on “Yarning circle

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