Navigating the Pacific Studies Canoe

Image credit: Tangyao Zhang, ANU Centre for Learning and Teaching

“The Pacific is in my blood, as is my great passion for teaching and learning in ways that empower our students.” Professor Katerina Teaiwa

The Pacific covers one third of the Earth’s surface. It is home to approximately 15 million people (excluding Australia). It features 20 percent of all the world’s languages. And it hosts around 25 nations, states and territories in an ocean of 25,000 islands. So, needless to say, the significance of Pacific Studies cannot be understated. Australia’s closest neighbour has connections going back thousands of years amongst its Indigenous peoples and those of the Western Pacific.

Interdisciplinary Pacific Studies seeks to understand this diverse, complex region, and Professor Katerina Teaiwa is a pioneer in this area of study. She’s taught Pacific Studies for 20 years now, and has recently been rewarded for her path-breaking efforts in this space. This visionary teacher, mentor and leader has made an outstanding contribution to Pacific Studies in Australia and globally.

Katerina contributes to diverse aspects of Pacific affairs, climate change, the arts, and environmental justice, both in and beyond the classroom. Late last year, she became the first Indigenous Pacific Islander and first Pacific woman to become Professor at ANU, and just a few weeks ago, she was recognised as the 2021 Australian University Teacher of the Year.

Her journey so far at ANU and the College of Asia & the Pacific (CAP) has been dotted with many challenges as well as innumerable firsts, achievements, milestones and enviable benchmarks. We’ve had the privilege to read a lot about her and her life’s journey lately, via all the media coverage that her accolades have earned for her. From a more specific lens, however, we were curious to learn more about the magic behind her methods, as well as her association with CHL and how her values and symbiotic relationship with the School, have informed her teaching and approach to Pacific Studies.

The Metaphorical Canoe

Katerina’s approach of collaborative and creative teaching is predominantly guided by her late sister Dr Teresia Teaiwa’s concept of the classroom as a ‘metaphorical canoe.’ Their grandfather’s name ‘Teaiwa’ was translated by their father as ‘fiery canoe’ in the Kiribati language, so the metaphor is apt.

“The ocean is not a barrier but a connector, a highway between islands and continents, and every student embarks on their learning journey as a member of a collective with specific roles and responsibilities. They are ‘wayfinding’ through the field of Pacific Studies in Australia and internationally.”

The journey across the waters entails students to be engaged in diverse learning through dance, art, song, storytelling, critical analysis, and reflective thinking. When students learn about the Pacific in these inclusive ways, they have powerful, transformative experiences regardless of their background or career plans.

The fundamental principles of learning as a journey with collective kinship towards other students, being humbled by the depth and complexity of Pacific knowledges and arts, asking questions about the construction of disciplines and hierarchies of knowledge, and reframing Australia’s place within and relationship with the Pacific Islands, transforms and hones student’s critical thinking skills and ability to see and value their world from many diverse perspectives.

Katerina’s own life balancing many roles as a mother, community activist for the Banaban people, artist, scholar, Vice President for the Australian Association for Pacific Studies, and university administrator supporting over a hundred PhD scholars in our school, is not lost on her students. As one of Katerina’s students, Tom Rasmussen, aptly described of his course experience, it is like “navigating across an expansive ocean, where each student is a member of a canoe voyage with a role to ensure the vessel stays afloat. On this learning journey Katerina acted as the head-navigator making sure the boat remained on course. Katerina’s pedagogy embodies this metaphor and brought to life the idea of learning as a collaborative journey.”

According to Katerina, while she’s made significant national and global impact in Pacific Studies education, her leadership values are best expressed through her students’ achievements._ “I never know for sure which destinations our canoe journey will take them, I just guide with passion and purpose. I’m often delighted and proud of where they land.”_

The CHL Partnership

Katerina has always been inspired to serve and go back to the same systems that support her growth and development. As a loyal person, she believes in giving back to communities and institutions who have given to her, have shaped her and her success. She believes she has been genuinely rewarded and supported by CHL, as typically, ANU is all about the research, the big grants and the funding. So, a school that genuinely values teaching and education cannot be understated.

“There has been cultural transformation at the School, especially over the last 6–7 years, which has brought everyone from the diverse corners of teaching, language and research together to have shared, strong values. I think that transformation is quite powerful and unique.”

Katerina strongly believes in keeping her value system at the forefront of anything she does, and it’s the same with her teaching. It’s an approach that certainly take a lot of time and hard work, but without CHL’s vision through the years, she might not have been able to achieve everything she has to date.

“Creativity is at the heart of my teaching, and I’m grateful that CHL has always valued teaching and my approach to it. I couldn’t have done what I have done these last few years without CHL’s support and without the specific support of Simon, the current Director, and what he has enabled and the education team support that comes with it. It’s been a combination of leadership and wonderful professional staff and colleagues.”

For Katerina, other CHL Directors too, over the years, have been very empowering with respect to Pacific Studies. CHL makes it all possible, because of its education programs, its willingness to infuse funding to key initiatives such as the Pacific Islands Field School.

“CHL recognises and values so much of what has shaped my success….the School and college have encouraged me to dedicate considerable time to convening other initiatives such as the annual Asia Pacific Week. And it’s a synergetic relationship. I feel I have given back to CHL through the sheer scale of time and energy and effort I’ve put in.”

Continuing to Make Waves

Katerina started her journey as an educator at ANU in 2007, building Australia’s first undergraduate program in Pacific Studies. She has since stoically captained the course of Pacific Studies at ANU, but the ocean is vast, so she’s only just getting started!

The clear direction she’s steering towards is creative Pacific Humanities, so she can bring her arts practice to achieve education and research with impact. She’s co-leading an ARC Indigenous Discovery Project where she will get to work with other Indigenous artists and creative producers.

Further, she is now most recently part of an international team that's been successful with an Andrew W. Mellon grant of US$199,152.00 for a Global Humanities Institute program beginning in 2023. Her Australian University Teacher of the Year and national Teaching Excellence awards came with $45,000.00 in prize funds to help her disseminate and share her Pacific pedagogies and teaching passions.

So onward Ho! We look forward to embark on many more voyages with Katerina and her crew on board the Pacific canoe!