Tara Brabazon: The world class is not enough

After considering criteria that demand work ‘well above world standard’, Tara Brabazon concludes that an era of interplanetary scholarship must be upon us

June 16, 2010

Great scholarship initiates inspiration beyond respect. Reading landmark research summons excitement at the presentation of new ideas and admiration for scholars who share their efforts with an audience. Thinking expansively and writing generously are two characteristics of the best academics in our disciplines.

The mechanisms our institutions deploy to “measure” influence rarely capture this joy of discovery. “Impact” used to be a word describing the delivery of missiles (as in, ten seconds to…) or the dystopic title of a B-grade science fiction film where a meteor hurtles towards Earth and threatens millions.

One contentious “measure” of research at the moment is the ERA, the Excellence in Research for Australia. Replacing the Howard government’s Research Quality Framework, it is a fascinating beast that is fixated not only on citations but also on particular lists of “important” journals. The highest rank is described as follows: “The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.”

The first time I read this statement, I needed a second glance at the phrase that was supposedly so important that it was emphasised in a bold typeface. Changing the font did not make it easier to understand. It is hard enough to ascertain “world standard”. But there is something Quentin Crisp-camp and Michael Moore-excessive about the “well above” phrase that precedes it. It is as if Liberace, when asked if he had the largest and most sparkly piano in the world, replied that “it is well above the largest and most sparkly piano in the world”.

If something is well above world standard, does it mean that we need to cite research emerging from Mars, Venus and Jupiter? If “world standard” is not sufficient, then the era of interplanetary scholarship is upon us. Mr Spock may be called up for service in review panels. Oh, I forgot. He is a fictional character.

Scholarship that changes lives is not measured by a “suite of indicators”. Indeed, truly great work reveals its potency and power over decades rather than through arbitrarily imposed assessment periods. It does not appear in a list of “quality” journals that, at best, may have a historical legacy, but perhaps just happen to be the place where the review panellists publish their own papers.

This week, while thinking about “well above world standard”, I reconnected with research that changed my life. Like the best scholarship, it continues to offer new ideas year after year, rereading after rereading. I am examining postgraduate research projects that investigate international podcasting and how it aligns with postcolonial goals and agendas. Students consider how “local” podcasts gain international audiences, creating a respectful space for understanding differences. Put another way, instead of white people going into Africa and Asia (again) and telling citizens about best practice, these scholars are investigating how first peoples create a different type of podcasting that sonically slices through social injustice.

I am inspired by these students. Maggie Wouapi concluded her MA dissertation with a paragraph that offers a challenge and opportunity for white academics in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand: “Through the history of feminism, too many white women have spoken on the behalf of women of colour. Podcasting provides an opportunity to change these power relationships and tell a different story. Enough. The time has come for Cameroonian women to hold a microphone. The time has come for Cameroonian women to speak into it. The time has come for Cameroonian women to be incorporated into iTunes.”

The role for those of us who have the privilege of teaching these early career scholars is to find strategies that create autonomous spaces for learning and thinking. Assumptions that “we” are always needed and “we” have all the answers are arrogant at best and neocolonial at worst.

In finding research to scaffold such modes of teaching, I returned to one of the most inspirational researchers it has been my privilege to read. His words, views and writing are the foundation for my thoughts on identity, race, nation and the media. “Impact” assessments and phrases such as “well above world standard” do not apply to his work. His research was analogue. It was local. It was a small study of a non-globalising language. Yet it changed scholarship with its subtlety, carefulness and specificity.

Eric Michaels is known for many research projects, but is best remembered for his studies of the Warlpiri community in central Australia. Specifically, he investigated the role and function of television in Yuendumu, at the edge of the Tanami Desert. Self-governed since 1978, the location had a previous life as a Baptist mission. Michaels did not enact a conventional anthropological case study. Bringing forward the Canadian tradition of communications through Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, he created a fresh and bright strategy for thinking about differences in the media.

A United States citizen, Michaels left America in 1982 after completing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Texas. He travelled to Australia with the purpose of studying indigenous communities and television. His style was intentionally controversial and confrontational. He attacked readers for lazy and compliant thinking, demanding that they revise assumptions about race, modernity, media and academic dissemination. Michaels operated in a zone of uncertainty, confusion and ambivalence.

His famous studies explored how viewers in the Yuendumu “read” Hollywood movies. Unlike the fashion of the time, he did not document “alternative” or “resistive” readings. Instead, the Warlpiri interpretations held as much value and relevance as any other. He showed how the Warlpiri viewers filled in the absent information from Hollywood blockbusters so they fitted into their context. When watching Rocky, they extended the narrative to explain information such as the location of Rocky’s grandmother during the events of the movie, along with who was caring for his sister-in-law. This research project was titled, “Hollywood iconography: a Warlpiri reading”.

For Michaels, these were not minoritarian rationalisations of foreign media. Instead, he showed how such views transformed key models and metaphors of communication studies, such as McLuhan’s “global village”. He used inversion, sarcasm and irony to problematise the separation of us and them. He attacked the easy categories of research and funding councils that used phrases such as “Aboriginal content”. Indeed, he wrote an essay titled “Aboriginal content”, arguing that “local media” is a more precise description. The report he submitted to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1986 was titled, “The Aboriginal Invention of Television”. He even probed the relationship between “Western desert sandpainting and postmodernism”.

Although educated as an anthropologist, his scholarship was more influential outside his home discipline. At its most basic, Michaels’ scholarship questioned whether “we” have a right to know. Decades before controversies about Facebook’s privacy settings, he warned that there is no right to photograph. There is no right to record. There is no right to broadcast. Instead, the Warlpiri – and the rest of us – have the entitlement to hide our images, voices, views and ideas. He validated information restriction, arguing that profound lessons must be learned not only from first peoples, but also from the first information economy. Therefore, the Warlpiri “invented” television to suit their purposes.

Applying Michaels’ arguments more widely, formerly colonised peoples “invent” media that are appropriate to their context. Cameroonian citizens “invent” podcasts to suit their purposes. Angolans “invent” a Facebook that is appropriate to their context. Inuit people “invent” YouTube to enable their history and experiences. This invention (and intervention) is a postcolonial act.

In rereading his research amid an online environment of feral libertarianism from the left and right, where there is a “right” to edit, a “right” to upload, a “right” to tag, a “right” to comment and a “right” to abuse, Michaels’ corrective that information should be controlled and restricted is powerful. In a Facebook age, such an argument is an intellectual car alarm reminding us to read rather than comment, listen rather than talk and think rather than upload.

Michaels was able to stay with the Warlpiri community during the crucial period when indigenous-owned television licences were being granted. In a prescient analogue version of the read-write web, Michaels showed how the Warlpiri’s love of video led to the production, transmission and reception of their own content and how the Warlpiri Media Association was born. The community started out recording sporting events, moving into filming ceremonies, creating educational materials and more complex projects such as reinterpreting the 1928 Coniston massacre, the “last” mass killing of Australian indigenous peoples.

Michaels watched and noted alternative strategies for film-making. For him, the question was not “the cult of the amateur” or the “prosumer”. Instead, he showed how the camera was given a role in Dreaming Law, creating new, innovative and complex relationships between subject and object. He stated: “Warlpiri videotape is at first disappointing to the European observer. It seems unbearably slow, involving long landscape pans and still takes that seem semantically empty. Much of what appears on screen, for better or worse, might easily be attributed to naive filmmaking.”

This new mode of film-making offered wider lessons about self determination, cultural maintenance and the cost of colonial appropriation.

Michaels died in 1988, aged 40. I am now 41. I have outlived him. There is unfairness in such a bitter distribution of life choices and chances. This was an extraordinary man, who rattled the metaphoric academic cage, spoke out, thought differently and cared passionately. He believed not only that difference should be respected but that it is a font of learning for the empowered, the colonising, the lazy and the self-entitled.

Just before his death, he wrote that he had “only intellectual property to dispense”. His use of the word “only” is as inappropriate as the ERA’s use of “well above world standard”. His intellectual property – his scholarship – transformed those who read it.

Near the end of his life, he asked the two great questions that remain unaddressed in our current models of research assessment: “For whom do I write? And, worse yet, from what position?” Our task is not to answer Michaels’ questions, but to know that when dispensing his intellectual property through research and teaching, we keep the legacy of this great, disturbing, flawed, passionate and defiant scholar alive. He was not well above world standard. Instead, he changed how we think about both the world and standards.

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