Learning in Liminal Spaces: Encountering Indigenous Knowledge and Artworks in Professional Education
Authors: Kim Snepvangers and Jessica Bulger
Fragmentation and modularisation of e-learning in tertiary contexts is a proliferating phenomenon, driven by innovation in technology and economies of sustainability, accreditation and cost effectiveness. Within such technologies of reproduction, functionality can be negotiated within templated ePortfolio packages in preservice art and design education. Land, Rattray & Vivian’s (2014) forays into learning in liminal spaces are relevant for engagement of learners. Moving towards professional learning entails educators redefining their position. Providing learners with opportunities to make connections between internet-derived knowledge and real world application relies on teacher case based knowledge, new learning communities and spaces for transaction. For example, enforcing templated online ePortfolios leaves little space for creation of new knowledge, especially in the contested space of Indigenous Knowledge. How re-thinking and prioritising Indigenous Knowledge might be achieved within a ‘liminal’ e-learning space, is highlighted through case study ‘encounters’ of an Indigenous educator’s history and experience. Connecting video, artworks and textual artefact exemplars with student expertise in curating ePortfolios directly links learners with previously undisclosed and unsettling knowledge. Learning opportunities that allow students to reflectively engage with contested spaces of liminality, within the “Cultural Interface” Nakata (2004) creates new meeting places and spaces for scholarship. ‘Convergences’ (Nakata et al, 2014) of Indigenous and ‘Western’ knowledge domains contextualise experience and make complex ideas accessible in visual form. Co-authoring in this case by Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators reflects an amalgam of understanding to effectively utilise technology, prioritise Indigenous Knowledge and negotiate systems of professional accreditation within standards based frameworks.
Indigenous Perspectives and ePortfolios
This research investigates Indigenous Perspectives and the significance of liminal or threshold spaces of becoming for learning within the realm of professional online ePortfolios in tertiary art and design education. Contemporary debates about embedding Indigenous Perspectives in tertiary curricula address a “significant gap in a specialised and emergent area of Indigenous education practice” (McLaughlin et al, 2013, p. 52). Indigenous Perspectives is acknowledged as a Western academic term, utilised by many institutions to describe practices and decolonising efforts in curriculum and pedagogy. McLaughlin’s work offers resources and relationship models with the aim of improving practice with space for reflective ongoing development. Like McLaughlin et al, this work is concerned with acknowledging and embedding Indigenous Knowledge at the “Cultural Interface” (Nakata, 2014, 2004). Policy frameworks are not the focus of the authors’ research, rather the detailed explanation of the significance of artworks and visual liminality provides a snapshot of a larger research project. Titled, “Evolving Curriculum: Indigenous teaching perspectives in tertiary art and design”, one of the key issues that emerged from the project was that delivery and engagement of Indigenous Perspectives requires a coherent and open-ended review of courses, with particular focus on the development of staff world-views. Prioritising Indigenous Knowledge within at least one large core cohort coursework course in undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) offerings is considered essential, rather than using a “one-week unit in each course” model, or simply believing that Indigenous Perspectives are being covered by someone or somewhere else within an elective course. Demonstration of proficiency with Indigenous Perspectives also requires that the conception, implementation and evaluation of student assessment and understanding within coursework needs to be actively change-managed. These sentiments echo strongly with preservice teachers concerns in addressing the Australian Institute for Teaching School Leadership (AITSL) Standards when developing ePortfolios for Professional Experience and accreditation. For efficiency and grading these documents are often presented in predetermined software packages or as templated ePortfolios. Preservice art and design educators have difficulty in developing appropriate responses to ePortfolios when they are presented with prescriptive and evidentiary-based instructions. Further difficulties emerge when students are asked to demonstrate their understanding with regard to AITSL Standards 1.4 and 2.4 comprising:
1.4 Strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students;
2.4 Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
To begin to address some of these concerns, investigation of curriculum as an entanglement of ideas across Indigenous and non-Indigenous domains and the significance of socially responsive curricula has been the subject of recent research (Snepvangers & Allas, 2015, 2013). Envisioning curriculum as a historically evolving artefact is potent with regard to Indigenous histories of exclusion in educational and other professional settings. In writing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the writer of the back jacket cover of Beckett’s (2014) book “Encounters with Indigeneity”, suggests that he articulates narratives by “Interweaving intimate perspectives with wider social and historical forces” to enable voices and places to be found. Interweaving, interlacing and entanglement are theoretical ideas of interest in this work. Bulger’s artworks were selected from interview and video data as they show complex layers of meaning, beyond biographical accounts or the creation of artefacts. The dimensions revealed in each encounter extend meaningfulness beyond artworks as content for secondary interpretation. Rather, the artworks demand that the ecologies surrounding the artworks, such as personal, social, historic and geographic relationships across time are recognised as new material practice.
The examples in this research provide a glimpse of the larger project focused on developing staff and ultimately student reflective capabilities as engaged with Indigenous Perspectives. Boud and Garrick (2001) echo similar concerns in higher education and the importance of self-regulated learning frameworks observing that:
While there is a move towards the keeping of portfolios and records of reflective practice by more sophisticated professional bodies, suspicion sometimes arises that these promote skills of self-portrayal rather than other forms of learning and that the over-formalising of professional activity will lead to a loss of personal investment and a disposition of compliance (Boud and Hager, 2011, p. 28).
The efficacy of digital technologies (Rourke and Snepvangers, 2016, Hallam, 2011 and Hallam & Creagh, 2010) and working with Indigenous pre-service teachers and others (Nakata et al, 2014; Moreton-Robinson et al, 2012; Vozzo et al, 2014; and Moran, 2013) is widely recognised in Australian tertiary educational contexts, specifically within teacher preparation programs. The contribution of this research concerns the important role of the educator in informing contemporary debates about how Indigenous Perspectives are included in tertiary curriculum. Moreton-Robinson et al (2012) findings have particular relevance for this research. They note in the Australian context, “the preoccupation within the literature is with teaching Indigenous studies to preservice teachers” (p.1). This situation in Australia differs from Canada and the USA, which has a “social inclusion and community partnership model” and New Zealand, which has a “self-determination” model in relation to Maori education (p.1). Whilst it is not possible to provide a full discussion of each approach here, our research acknowledges the aim of developing an “anti-racist pedagogy” (p.2). Providing educator-led options to competency and presentation of content allows for culturally responsive acknowledgement of the ‘education debt’ using Critical Race Pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 2006 in Vass, 2012, p.89). Through engagement with Indigenous people and artworks liminal experiences are encountered to open depth discussion of some of “the socio-historical trajectory that created widespread disengagement and poor outcomes in the first place” (p. 89).
To extend the curriculum conversation this research portrays the particular affordances of ePortfolios and prioritising Indigenous Knowledge in tertiary curriculum and pedagogy from the perspective of the educator using a “grassroots” approach (Howard, 2015, 2010). Fostering alternative personal and professional engagement with academic staff and students in working with localised and/or marginalised communities, rather than providing traditional pre-packaged information about communities informs the research. Blom et al (2013) discuss the significance of having a “two-way impact” across institutional e-learning policy and educator practice in creative arts through e-Portfolio creation. For these authors’ ePortfolios engage students’ in reflection, ongoing dialogue, collaborative writing, peer evaluation, identity formation and long term career planning (p. 33). The capacity of academic staff to influence “institutional curriculum design and e-learning policy” (p.33) is significant as standardisation coupled with transportability is an aim of many learning online technologies. Laurillard in Beetham & Sharpe (2013) seek to continue policy debates as “opinion-formers outside the field easily overplay the capabilities of technology” (p. xvii). Laurillard goes on to outline how “…digital native students may be able to use technologies, but that does not mean they can learn from them” (p. xvii).
Engaging technology and art and design preservice teacher education in the context of culture has been a critical subject of study for at least the last two decades: “Modularisation can be examined as a process of organisational change informed by particular discursive structures and conceptual problematics, both of which are related to questions of cultural politics and of power” (Collins, 1991, p. 189). For Collins, contested cultural values can be taken up and suggests that art, aesthetics and art education have strategic importance in “making the response … to modularisation significant beyond modularisation, and beyond the educational field” (p.198).
Adding to the complexities of engagement with Indigenous Perspectives and art and design contexts is the need for specific and localised approaches to curriculum and pedagogy. There is not an easy way to deliver a curriculum about Aboriginal Australia because you have got to accommodate for different customs, ways of doing things and different beliefs across different Aboriginal nations. Contemporary research also continues to surface about how Australian educators experience complications with regard to learning and teaching Indigenous matters Ma Rhea, (2012) and McLaughlin (2013). In this research Bulger suggests,
Someone who is non-Indigenous finds it very difficult to go about addressing Indigenous Perspectives in the art and design curriculum because they have a fear and resistance about that. Because they know they’re not Indigenous and they know that there is, in particular with contemporary art, a very big issue around issues of appropriation – which often compound feelings of lack of belonging and that feeling part of – because there’s been all those historical events and what has gone on historically and how important that is to portray in terms of visual art (Bulger, 2015, p.11).
The autonomous role of the teacher in curriculum development becomes a key focus in developing personalised responses to developing staff and ultimately student capacities regarding the ongoing effects of history. Rather than focusing on recording and mimicking past examples, this research provides a counterpoint to modularisation and templated responses to e-learning. Artworks, stories and engagement with “critical communities of learners … and … communities of inquiry” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p.70) become important strategies in contemporary e-learning. They reject the idea of quiet integration or ultimate rejection suggesting instead that reflective and discursive e-learning practice is “part of a pedagogical solution” in a new knowledge era that prioritises “personally meaningful and socially valid knowledge” (p. 69-70).
Co-authoring this paper with Jessica Bulger is part of the ecological approach to data collection in collaboration with Indigenous and non-Indigenous intergenerational research participants. All intergenerational participants in our research have an educational role and have worked within the “Cultural Interface”. Events, memories and places are revealed through Bulger’s artworks to reclaim and review historical encounters and produce new liminalities of visual learning in curriculum design. The specific and localised Indigenous Knowledge discloses rich social and historical encounters, to facilitate understanding of difficult and contested knowledge domains. Case study encounters of Bulger’s artistic and professional practice are situated within a broader discussion about how the acknowledged contested domain of Indigenous Perspectives may be engaged within e-learning and university curriculum contexts. The latter section of this paper discusses reflexive review of data from YouTube video (2013) and two research interviews conducted in 2014 & 2013 with Jessica Bulger, a Wiradjuri Woman from Tumut, NSW as encounters. The role of teacher case-based pedagogical and curricular knowledge (Shulman, 1986) is engaged here with technologies of learning. Re-thinking historical and socio-culturally responsive ways of working to enhance student e-learning capabilities is proposed through examination of visual and text based evidence from an educator’s practice. Bulger’s individual artworks from the Violet Series (2007), community-engaged practice in the Bila Park Project, Tumut (2008) and a recent research interview (2013) are investigated as educational encounters.
Encounter is a key term in this research implying a negotiated set of ideas encapsulated in one word. For example, an encounter can mean coming up against something, perhaps through serendipity or as a considered response and either with an agreeable or conflicting set of engagements or outcomes. Educational encounter is used as a heading to describe Bulger’s artworks encapsulating historical and contemporary, local and national, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous ideas of significance within the each image. Bulger’s work also signals the impact of encountering Western systems of governance, as an encounter is typically unexpected, often combined with experiencing something hostile or difficult. This theoretical emphasis on enhancing teacher case-based knowledge is intended to address Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners by engaging individuals liminally, with artworks and ideas that involve tension, ambiguity and contested socio-historical events. The premise is that the concept of encountering in liminal real and virtual spaces can shed light on how knowledge informs learning in meaningful ways.
New materialist scholarship such as “twenty-first century media” theory, Hansen (2015) specifies how new forms of media and digital technologies differ from the past, thus: “Encompassing everything from social media and data mining to passive sensing and environmental microsensors, twenty-first century media designate media following their shift from a past-directed recording platform to a data-driven anticipation of the future” (Hansen, 2015, p. 3-4). Drawing on the phenomenological philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Hansen is describing a type of speculative space, separate from direct experience, and concerned with the environmental agency of networks and ‘worldly sensibilities’ (p.5). Rather than focusing on explanatory devices that prioritise human subjectivity or “agent-centred perception” Hansen signals a shift towards “environmental sensibility”. The change towards data-driven knowledge domains is salient for this research. For example, recording Bulger’s artworks and narrative is important yet, what is most useful to acknowledge is the environmental and ecological sensibility required to engage with the complexity of the associative and interpretive dimensions of the artworks. Hansen is interested in how “… human experience is undergoing change caused by our entanglement within contemporary media environments, and that the directionality of this transformation inverts the long-standing privilege held by humans, as the well-nigh unique addressee of media” (p.6).
Hansen also discusses how the “operational present of sensibility” (p.6) gives unprecedented “access to events outside the scope of our conscious attention and perception.” This work does not begin by “separating the human from the world, but rather by seeking to discover how the human in the deepest sense [is] of the world” (p.9). Human and non-human agency therefore are not distinct, rather they “exist as dimensions of a larger production of a complex environmental process” (p.9). Seeing new media, in this case e-learning as an opportunity to “involve complex overlappings of different levels of experience, none of which is more worthy than others” (p.9) provides an antidote to contemporary critiques involving fragmentation and modularisation of knowledge in for example Learning Management Systems. This way of conceiving content as an environmental complexity and sensibility is also salient when thinking about Indigenous Knowledge. The interrelatedness of new media is well situated within the simultaneously localised and worldly knowledge portrayed in Bulger’s artworks and interviews, signalling the importance of revealing human agency in research and content creation. Engaging with Indigenous agency through artworks, interviews and publication in this way is an active way to retain consciousness and perception in developing socially responsive curriculum design and enhancing teacher case-based knowledge.
Within negotiated and contested spaces, “encountering” has been used by a number of theorists including Connell (2013) with regard to writing about neo-liberal “human capital” agendas. Whilst Connell notes that the neo-liberal profit and managerial concerns extend social reproduction as an explanatory structure for educational progress narratives, they are concurrently insufficient as “bland and critical versions” (p.104).
The bland version is that society’s existence requires training up the young in the values and languages of their elders, and then sorting them into appropriate social roles; and that school [tertiary] systems have been created to do these jobs. The critical version observes that the sorting is an exercise of power that reproduces the privilege of dominant social groups through time. This is an important observation, and one of the keys to what has been happening in Australian education (Connell, 2013, p.104).
For Connell, the dimension of history defined as “the creative development of social practice through time” (p.104) combined with conceptions of encounter, act a counterpoint to stable conceptions of social reproduction, that mean lack of action, complacency or despair. Prioritising history and ‘encounters’, has direct significance in this research with Indigenous Perspectives and the role of e-learning technologies in professional education. Conceiving of educational transformation as social process, nurtures as well as develops capacities for practice in two ways: as re-generative or as intensifying privilege and poverty. Connell recognises nurturing and “encounter(s) between persons … involves care” (p.104) and computers and machines reduce a person’s capacity for care, stating: “Learning from a computer is not education; the machine does not care” and “Learning from a person behaving like a machine is not education” (p.104). Connell is critical of oversimplifying “human capital formation” and “social reproduction” alongside well-documented research about the complexity of teachers’ lives. This concern for teaching practice, autonomy and care is central for Connell across all levels of the educational enterprise and for work in developing staff capabilities in tertiary art and design curriculum. Encounter has the following qualities:
- people capable of encounter, with autonomy to explore power relations for diagnosis and contestation;
- mutual respect, reciprocity and engagement as a condition of complex communication and complex learning;
- equality or citizenship in educational situations conceived as social labour through trust building, (which is easily damaged);
- multiple numbers, structures and diversity of people involved in shaping educational relationships (class, gender, race, regions) as an inclusive practice;
- calibrated to reality, not denying an encounter by omission or need;
- cognitive intellectual excitement, learning through discovery and engagement with truth. (Connell, 2013, p. 104-105).
Providing specific historical material in the form of Jessica Bulger’s artworks, interviews and co-authored writing practice reveals previously undisclosed educational encounters to explore contested spaces within the “Cultural Interface”. Disclosing Indigenous Knowledge through artworks and interview data allows specific, context driven histories, to be linked with contemporary reflexive accounts. Establishing the significance of historical encounters “calibrated to reality” is about a constant process of renovation and collective knowledge growth, necessarily open to debate, rather than “fossilized by institutional mechanisms” (p.105). Case study “encounters” of Indigenous educators experience are discussed in the second section of the paper. Encounters provide a rich base for arguing the important role of ePortfolios as a self-reflexive documentary device with significant capacity for student self-management and learning across university experience. Importantly, encounters show both Indigenous content and possible ways of transferring effective teaching skills and partnerships in educational settings. The role of the educator in the e-learning space is therefore crucial in researching and applying care in prioritising social and cultural histories within increasingly accredited, cost-effective quality online learning environments.
Learning encounters in liminal space
Learning in liminal spaces, characterised in Meyer and Land’s (2003) breakthrough research into threshold concepts together with their contemporary semiotic perspectives (2014) has relevance for this research in seeking to engage with the contested spaces of the “Cultural Interface”. Meyer and Land characterise liminality as a “liquid space, simultaneously transforming and being transformed by the learner as he or she moves through it” (Meyer & Land (2005) in Land, Rattray & Vivien, 2014, p.201). Typically liminal spaces engage troublesome and contested domains. One of the dilemmas of practice entails Indigenous Perspectives as a Western constructed narrative in tertiary settings, when there are very few Indigenous academic staff. Modularisation of knowledge in e-learning also has the potential to ‘teacher-proof’ (Apple, 1991, Apple & Jungck, 1998, 1990) the curriculum and shift the “loci of power” (Lee, 1991, p.207). For example, modularisation is both a flexible structuring and a delivery device, with the added capacity to “attain a high level of central control over knowledge” (p.208).
Within the context of contested Indigenous Knowledge in modularised e-learning environments the teachers’ loci of control can be significantly enhanced through engaging learning concepts, such as “liminality” (Land, Meyer & Bailey, 2010) where learners directly connect with knowledge that may be troublesome, and unsettling. Meyer and Land (2005) indicate how teachers’ choice of content and forms of learning, act as “conceptual gateways” and “transformative” experiences (p.200) enhancing “portals” or new learning thresholds for the learner. The discursive aspects of selected experiences requiring new forms of written & spoken discourse provide opportunities to “re-author” old beliefs. (Ross, 2011 in Land, Rattray & Vivien, 2014, p.201). A fluid a state of liminality where alternative views are considered, removes partial understanding and imitation leading towards emergent expertise in professional domains. Like Connell’s (2013) argument for socially derived coalitions to open new educational spaces, liminal spaces explore ambiguity, context, visual metaphor and new dialectics for incorporation into the learner’s repertoire. The teacher selects appropriate exemplars and engages Shulman’s concept of “pedagogic content knowledge” (Shulman, 1986, p.9) to support students through conceptual dilemmas encountered in the liminal state. The significance of this methodology re-affirms the importance of pedagogical content knowledge in relation to “knowing how” to engage new content with practice, particularly with regard to novice practitioners. For Shulman (1986) it is the teachers’ theoretical acquisition of case-based knowledge through an evolving set of situated experiences devised to enhance wisdom of practice that is central to the learning enterprise. Contextual variations such as the educational encounters presented here, create potential new spaces, and a counterpoint to “teacher-proofing” within modularised preservice e-portfolios through transformed signification of values, beliefs and histories.
Modularisation and encounter
The significance of this research lies in re-thinking previously undisclosed Indigenous Knowledge as a ‘search light’ in new understanding of how human consciousness, agency and sensibilities can enhance modularised e-learning environments in the tertiary context. Modularisation of e-learning has been widely adopted in the tertiary sector, since the 2005 OECD Report characterised modularisation as a “new conception of teaching” (p.176) designed to ensure “greater flexibility of delivery”. Alongside conceiving of modularity as the main format in e-learning environments further enhancements have been put forward and include:
- Teacher as facilitator;
- Learner centred
- Some use of automation;
- Greater flexibility of delivery (OECD, 2005, p.176).
Ten years on from this OECD report, the main formats of aspirational flexibility are still widely recognisable as:
- Dual mode-provision;
- Modularity of content;
- Conversion of print-based to online;
- Remote access for students and improved access for out-of country students;
- Systems integration through Learning Management Systems (LMS, finance, admissions, library, desktop, administrative support for e-learning (p.176).
However, the level of critical user take-up and engagement observed in the 2005 report was minimal, as systems moved from teacher centred, synchronous, limited cohort models to “expand access and lower costs – but sustain quality” (OECD, 2005, p.176). Central questions about quality engagement, uptake and impacts of e-learning conceived as “disruptive technology”, remain at the heart of the organisation of learning, teaching and curricula enhancement in the e-learning domain, as Garrison and Anderson’s (2011, 2003) work attests. Whilst not referring directly to modularisation in e-learning Steve Wilson (2015) also discusses, “The need for flexible, personalised and responsive curricula”. Like the work of Connell (2013), Wilson’s commentary responds to static curriculum and the question of quality learning and student engagement, ideas with salience for Indigenous Knowledge.
Revealing some of the lacing together of individual Indigenous experience with social and historical events as subjected to Western regimes, seeks to engage productively with the “Cultural Interface”. The next section written in the first person, investigates three media rich encounters from a larger research project. The following headings are used: Encounter One – Jessica Bulger: Artworks from the Violet Series (2007); Encounter Two – Jessica Bulger: Bila Park Community Art Project Mural, Tumut (2008); and Encounter Three – Jessica Bulger: Indigenous Learning Ecologies Video Series. YouTube Video (2013).
Encounter One – Jessica Bulger: Artworks from the Violet Series (2007)
This print is about the Stolen Generations, specifically my great grandmother Nanna Violet, who was taken to Cootamundra Girls Home. As a child I would ask about things like the Stolen Generations and didn’t understand why these girls were taken away. A comment I remember being confused by, as a child was ‘they just put them in boxes’. It was meant in the sense of pigeon holing, or categorizing, sorting etc. That’s what it was about really; sorting the children who could be trained for domestic duties. As a child, I was confused by the comment because I took it literally. As if the girls were put in shipping crates and moved like those images of animals in train carriages from storybooks. It’s bizarre because when you read the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) or see films like Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), it’s actually not that absurd to imagine. In order to point out that absurdity through my work, I chose to make a literal image of girls in shipping crates. I also know from research and from my grandfather’s stories that some of the kids avoided capture, or got away after being sent to a home. My Pop would say that they had to run and hide in the briar bushes when they heard the government trucks come. So to make this image a little more absurd and twisted, I have some girls who are not captured, hiding amongst the boxes. The viewer is forced to wonder if they are the sisters or cousins that are trying to free those captured. At this point the intention is that the viewer is really grabbed by the image and really thinks about the practice of taking Aboriginal girls and boys in order to train them to be white and build a deep connection with just how mad, backward and crazy that is.
This image came about during my research into the Stolen Generations and trying to understand my Nanna Violet and the strength and resilience of the people that I come from. It’s a really straightforward image. It’s just of the houses that I researched. This is what the buildings at Cootamundra Girls Home looked like. The print started out as a documentary piece, a record of what they looked like. As I was cutting the print I decided to leave just the houses with no surrounding imagery to show isolation and confusion and emptiness. Originally I had planned to put some girls sitting around the houses dressed in shabby clothing to symbolize the time period and make the meaning more obvious, but I left it in the end, I didn’t want it looking like a happy scene with kids playing. Making this image I thought about all the girls that went through a place like Cootamundra Girls Home and all the ones that never saw their family again. The image as a final product doesn’t give you the message of emptiness very obviously, but personally, as I was making it, I was thinking about all the lost souls and their families that they didn’t make it back to. Many of those people (the families) are now lost and disconnected from community and culture, and that has a sad effect that has on our people, even still today.
Again the intention of this image is documentary of Cootamundra Girls Home. From my research these were the rickety old knobbly looking beds that the girls slept in, and in big warehouse looking dorm all tight in rows. Again, I have tried to reference storage, non-caring and packing together for mass production of capable little trained girls, fixed even. This is a much more drastic version of a photograph I saw of these beds at Coota Girls Home, as it was known; officially Cootamundra Training Home. There’s a repetition here that is deliberate in this series. The beds are lined up in rows, there’s no difference about them. The knobbly ends of the beds, the creases in the sheets and the floorboards are repeated.
I can draw and I can paint ok, but the mystery of creating movement in a print is extraordinary. The moths look like they’re flying over something and they look like … they’re looking over the land, they’re ancestral and symbolic, they’re like a totem – the pattern work references memories. They’re an image in the memory of the old people that told these stories. They don’t look perfect to nature, but they’re a symbol of a memory. This is the final print in the series and perhaps doesn’t actually fit with the others. It’s not directly about my Nanna and Coota Girls. It’s about the Bogong Moth Feast that the Tumut area was known for, years ago. It’s an attempt at a happier image to close the series, because I was so exhausted mentally from working through such content and responding artistically. The story goes, that the Tumut region was a meeting place for three tribes. The Wiradjuri, the Walgalu and the Ngunnawal. They would meet in the Tumut area and travel up the mountains together to feast on Bogong Moths. A tradition or ritual I suppose. To be clear, this isn’t something I do when I go home to Tumut. I want to clear up any delusion around that. This is an old story, of what my ancestors did. It’s an interesting story, because the beautiful thing that does live on is the idea of a gathering place. The Bogong Moths are a symbol of home.
Reflection: artworks from the Violet Series
The Violet Series was in response to research I was doing on my own history. It was in response to one of the first projects we did at art school. It was on self-portraits; the brief said something about ‘who you are, and where you come from’. It didn’t necessarily have to be a portrait in the obvious sense, a realistic likeness of a person. The bit about ‘where you come from’ got me. I had no idea how to depict that in an artwork. I had some odd belief that because I am Aboriginal I had to create an image that was typically Aboriginal. You know, with dots, animals and motifs of dreaming stories, or old stories about the land and people. I wasn’t equipped to respond to an artwork brief like this, so I started researching, asking questions and finding out what I could. I submitted a weak drawing of myself with no depth. I passed the assessment, but wanted to search for something of substance to inform my work. I started with stories I knew from my childhood, even the ones that made little sense. I started with the ‘Girls in Boxes’ image, and then started finding pictures in books about the training home itself. I started with the era of my great grandmother because she was spoken about a lot when I was a kid. She passed when I was seven, so her memory was really forefront in my family. My mum and aunts spoke about her like a symbol of resilience as she had overcome so much to see her family do a little better. When I consider the works now, the prints themselves aren’t actually that brilliant. I got much better at printmaking in the following years, but they aren’t really technically brilliant. Without the background story the images aren’t that powerful. As an artist though this series is very important to me, it is when I worked out how special art as visual language is. It helped me to understand and articulate my feelings around key moments that have impacted our people, such as the Stolen Generations. The research and exploration in creating these works helped me to understand what Aboriginal people in this country have been through. Making these works also helped me connect with clarity to the pursuit of becoming an art teacher. It felt good to be able to understand things such as the Stolen Generations and specifically a little more about my great grandmother. This journey helped me to know I wanted to be able to teach this process of research, understanding and eventually creation of artwork as a way of depicting meaning. The topics and content selected for inclusion in the Violet Series resonate well with the concerns of this paper, as each print Girls in Boxes, School Houses, Beds in Rows and the repetition in the Bogong Moths have a strong relationship to the colonial social history of Australian and troublesome knowledge. The metaphorical depiction of a type of modularization (rows/series/boxes/repetition) apparent in the artworks signifies the power of visual portrayal within liminal spaces. Researching and selecting such exemplars within liminal and contested spaces for learning provides an art educational counterpoint to templated ePortfolios in teacher preservice programs.
Encounter Two – Jessica Bulger: Bila Park Community Art Project Mural, Tumut (2008)
The Bila Park Project is something I am very proud of, although I didn’t create the design. The original design concept is the result of consultation between local artists Sonia Piper and Tammy Tidmarsh and local art teacher Sue MacDonald. This project was called the Land Art People project and received Council funding prior to my involvement. The role I played was more like project coordination in the execution. Over the summer of 2007 and 2008 I worked on Bila Park every day for about eight weeks. Each day we had a group of volunteers helping construct an eighteen-metre diameter mosaic using granite, sandstone, river pebbles and concrete. Some of our volunteers came every day, and some just one time. Some days we had fifteen people come and go during the day, other days it was just me, my mum, and my Pop. The volunteers were both Indigenous and non-Indigenous and ranged in age from just three, to seventy-nine. My grandfather, who was seventy-nine at the time, came to help every day that he could. He didn’t always participate in the work as bending over repeatedly in the forty degree heat was a bit much for even him. Instead, he sat and advised and told stories, and filled up people’s water bottles and made sure that everyone was in good spirits and that the story came out just right in the work. All of the granite and sandstone was ordered in large sheets, to get the unique smaller shapes, all the materials were smashed with hammers on site by the volunteers. The Tumut Council were also able to provide an artist in residence for a part of the project, a lady by the name of Anna Kearey from Moruya who had previous experience in mosaics.
The story in the mosaic is about the people of the Tumut region. The Aboriginal people of the area were known to meet in the Bila Park area for many years to meet their neighbouring tribes, the Walgalu and the Ngunnawal. Together the Wiradjuri, Walgalu and Ngunnawal people would then travel together into the mountains above Tumut to feast on the Bogong Moths. From what I know, this occurred up until the 1870s. Stories also tell us that ceremonies related to marriages and coming of age were reserved for this period, to be celebrated with the larger group. More recently in the time that Brungle Mission has existed, Bila Park was also a meeting place for our people. People who were coming into Tumut from Brungle Mission for business or to attend the movies would meet at Bila Park and leave their vehicle or horse there while they were in town. Within the mosaic, you can also see two large goannas; they are symbolic of the totem of the people of this area, the girawa (Wiradjuri word for goanna). During construction of the mosaic I have some fond memories of working with my grandfather. I hold these memories close to my heart, especially since his passing in 2013. On one particular occasion we worked very hard to get the legs of the goannas right. Goanna’s walk kind of uniquely, not like mammals, they bring their front and back legs together on the same side with each stride, rather than putting both right legs forward, then both left legs forward. It sounds bizarre I know. We wanted to the goannas to look like they were mid stride, not stationary, because our people are always walking forward. While Pop and I were laying the broken bits of granite down and rearranging them to get the toes of the foot in the right place, one of my aunts called me away to go and get another load of rock from the council yards in the ute. I can remember thinking that while I was away, someone would come along and stick the foot down and unknowingly mess it up. I didn’t say anything to Pop. I didn’t want to be rude and ask people not to touch that area, so I just let it go. When I got back, Pop had positioned his white plastic chair right over the part I had been working on, claiming this was the best place for him to get shade from the shade tent. As silly as it sounds this is how I knew my Pop trusted me, and my obsession with attention to detail.
Reflection: Bila Park Community Art Project Mural, Tumut
Pop isn’t the only member of the Bila Park volunteer group no longer with us. We also lost Sue MacDonald recently, the art teacher that drove the whole project. We had a memorial service for her right at the site of the mosaic and planted a tree for her nearby. It sounds sort of silly but when I go to Bila Park even today, I know that Pop and Sue’s spirits are strong there. I know they see me and understand whatever worries I am contemplating at the time and I draw strength from that when I go there. My husband and I got married at Bila Park in 2013 shortly after Sue’s passing, and just before my Pop’s passing. Bila Park is a special place to me for the memories of Sue and Pop and our wedding. It was important to me as a location for our wedding to be nearby this artwork and the story of our people using the location as a meeting place relevant to coming together.
Encounter Three – Jessica Bulger: Indigenous Learning Ecologies Video Series. Youtube video (2013)
This except from a research interview highlights a response about the importance of having Aboriginal art teachers in the education system, working alongside non-Indigenous educators. The co-creation of knowledge and ecological approach that is required and already identified in Bulger’s artworks and community projects is further articulated:
Well it’s incredibly important because there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of opportunity to teach Aboriginal art in the curriculum and I think that in the past, there’s been a bit of a disjointed way of doing it and we’ve all – we’re all familiar with the Clifford Possum Footprint Handout and make a story based on these prints and let’s study the artists that are from Western Australia or the Northern Territory. But what I found in my couple of years of teaching in high schools is that kids are much more open to learning about Aboriginal art if you take the process and teach that to them (Bulger, 2013, p. 6-7).
Reflection: Indigenous Learning Ecologies Video Series Youtube
In the excerpt about the significance of Indigenous educators, Bulger refers to the modularization of Indigenous Knowledge recognised by most art educators in the form of the “Clifford Possum Emu Footprint Handout”. Such stereotypical and widely utilised examples readily portray how technologies and modes of production can easily revert to “past-directed recording platforms” (Hansen, 2015), rather than as Bulger suggests “particular experiences … using the principles that the Aboriginal artist is using and creating your own view… rather than a key or legend”. This encounter reveals how specific learning can be enhanced as a counterpoint to pre-digested knowledge. Communicating the skills, expertise and passion of artistic forms and knowledge of the creative process is a beginning step. The significance of using free access software, such as Dropbox or YouTube for the creation of ePortfolio documentation has salience with working beyond stereotypical accounts to actively prioritise Indigenous Knowledge, histories, voice and experience. Beetham and Sharpe’s (2013) discussion of the role of pedagogy in a digital age calls upon educators to re-think issues of value and care (Connell, 2013) noting:
In reality learners and learning situations are unpredictable: as teachers, we encourage learners to engage in dialogue with us, to respond individually to learning opportunities, and to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. The use of digital technologies does not alter this fundamental contract (Beetham and Sharpe, 2013, p. 8-9).
Bulger’s artworks, community-based projects and research interviews reveal the teachers’ role in actively engaging with ‘environmental sensibilities’ and specific localised research and content in a co-authoring relationship with Indigenous educators, communities and individuals. The prints in Educational Encounter One reflect unexpectedly encountered events and engage with the lived experience of a member of the Stolen Generations and the ongoing intergenerational effects of that encounter. Educational Encounter Two outlines community engagement, coming together at a historical meeting place and metaphors of walking forward and getting the story right. Educational Encounter Three uses intergenerational interviews to reveal the educational implications if using pre-determined worksheets such as the well honed Clifford Possum Footprint Handout. The three encounters provide a snapshot of engagement with Indigenous Perspectives beyond secondary or textbook accounts. This research contributes to Moreton-Robinson et al (2012) recommendation to “Research and identify best practice pedagogical and community engagement models to inform in service, professional development and pre-service teacher training” (p. 2).
Some concluding remarks
The complexity of relationships, contested histories and social engagement with places and events of significance is highlighted in the rich media examples using Bulger’s artworks. The three Educational Encounters discussed, speak back to some of the initial encounters described in the Violet Series, to better equip staff and ultimately students to constructively engage and consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Encountering liminal knowledge in this way signals an ethic of care in encountering stable social reproduction (Connell, 2013) especially when developing already templated ePortfolios. The significance of getting it right, challenging “progress narratives” and prioritising Indigenous Knowledge in liminal encounters allows for critical review of power, entanglement and the way privilege has been and continues to be applied to dominant social groups. Concepts of repetition, isolation, fragmentation and modularisation echo through the artworks in the Violet Series engaging in liminal spaces of troublesome knowledge. Conceptions of gathering, connection and claiming new spaces of generational healing and care are disclosed in visual form in the Bila Park Project. Bulger says:
What makes me so happy about the current work that I do is that it is related to my artistic practice – this idea of repetition and sameness that I struggled to understand in the history of things like the Stolen Generations. At CareerTrackers we don’t categorise, or make assumptions and settle for that, we create opportunities that are unique and student driven. It’s obviously successful because the career paths that we create via internships are based on each individual student’s career aspirations and interests. This allows a process of exploration via work experience to get people on the right path (Bulger, 2015).
Connell’s (2013) concepts of encounter are used to structure the concluding remarks. The educational encounters portrayed in the artworks, community projects and research interview with Jessica Bulger highlight the importance of teachers’, preservice teachers’ and ultimately students becoming people capable of encounter, with the freedom and autonomy to explore power relations for diagnosis within contested domains. Researching specific social and cultural histories and encountering Indigenous people as staff and students within ecologies, and “worldly sensibilities” (Hansen, 2015) begins to re-generate and disrupt stable practices of social reproduction. Bulger’s artworks, community projects and work in professional educational settings as an art educator and program manager show how mutual respect, reciprocity and engagement are a condition of complex communication and transformative learning. The examples provide co-authoring and autonomous teacher cased based examples counteracting progressive linear relations within modularised e-learning environments. The various conceptions of community – Indigenous art teachers, home, university, aunties and other relatives illustrated in the encounters show equality or citizenship in educational situations conceived as social labour through trust building. The engagement and agency of multiple numbers, structures and diversity of people involved in shaping educational relationships as an inclusive practice is showcased through the development of coherent knowledge structures, and processes as in the Violet Series and the Bila Park Project. Through specificity and environmental agency the focus is on re-authoring old beliefs and in creating new forms of written and spoken discourse. Significantly, the emphasis on representing ideas calibrated to reality and not denying an encounter by omission or need leads to culturally responsive and negotiated ways to encounter Indigenous perspectives in the tertiary curriculum. The contribution of visual practice and understanding artworks as powerful liminal and ethical encountering
resources cannot be underestimated in this work. Representing localised Indigenous realities and approaches with negotiable expectations through content choice such as Bulger’s ‘encounters’, encourages deep and sustained learning. Such critical curriculum discourse is highly valuable in e-learning which requires an iterative and often generic response to accreditation and teaching standards in ePortfolio formats. Taking time to develop meaningful educational encounters within prescribed online modes of delivery provides a counterpoint to teacher-proofing and potential disempowerment within contemporary e-learning environments. Finally, by utilising critical discourse and cognitive intellectual excitement, learning through discovery and engagement with rather than about Indigenous people, land and community builds trust, fosters personal commitment and encourages further development of learning pathways in liminal spaces of becoming.
Excerpt from Research Interview with Jessica Bulger.
Well it’s incredibly important because there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of opportunity to teach Aboriginal art in the curriculum and I think that in the past, there’s been a bit of a disjointed way of doing it and we’ve all – we’re all familiar with the Clifford Possum Emu Footprint handout and make a story based on these prints and let’s study the artists that are from Western Australia or the Northern Territory. But what I found in my couple of years of teaching in high schools is that kids are much more open to learning about Aboriginal art if you take the process and teach that to them.
So rather than saying here’s a key like a legend to a map and now we’re going to get you to tell a story in the same way this artist who’s obviously – like that’s, those are his symbols from his culture – it’s not going to make sense to every student. I had a little bit of success with getting students to understand the process so that the Aboriginal artwork that we are looking at is about a particular experience or a trip from here to there or it’s about the land from the top down and using that visual language – using the same principles that the Aboriginal artist is using and creating an artwork that is about your own experience and your view of the world rather than just using it like a key or a legend. I think being an Indigenous art teacher is important because – or having more of them – is important because you’ve got to have that – oh I can’t think of the word. You’ve got to have the – to actually go, “no hang on this is how it should be, this is how it should be done”, we don’t need the Clifford Possum handout.
Yeah I – it’s funny – I always find it interesting because students get this weird – when you take the mystery away from it, when you’re – because there’s all this taboo around wow it’s dots and when you can actually have a conversation about what the artist is trying to do, what the meaning is behind it, it demystifies it for non-Indigenous students that were expecting it to be part of this, I don’t know, taboo sort of thing that they weren’t ever going to get access to knowing about(Bulger, 2013, p. 6-7).
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The authors’ would like to acknowledge UNSW Australia: Art & Design for two Learning & Teaching Innovation Grants, awarded to Snepvangers & Allas in 2014 & 2013. Thank you to Jessica Bulger, Vic Chapman and Tess Allas for their contribution to this research.
About the Authors
Dr Kim Snepvangers, UNSW Teaching Fellow, Professional Experience Project Coordinator, Program Director Art Education, UNSW Australia: Art & Design. As the recipient of a recent UNSW Strategic Grant titled: New Approaches to the Development of Professional Identity through Independent Critical Reflection her research interweaves creative and professional leadership contexts. In her previous role as Head, School of Art History & Art Education (2013-2005) she managed the strategic direction of art & design education and art history & theory. Kim’s research interests include ecologies of practice, liminality and Indigenous Perspectives in tertiary art, design and media.
Jessica Bulger, Program Manager, NSW/ACT CareerTrackers, Indigenous Internship Program. Jessica Bulger is from Tumut in Wiradjuri country, NSW. She graduated in 2008 from the Bachelor of Art Education at COFA, UNSW, with a studio focus in Printmaking. She has taught at the secondary and tertiary level, including as a lecturer in first year courses of the Art Education program. Jessica recently moved into the NFP sector with a desire to see other Indigenous people obtain a degree and succeed. She works across corporate and university sectors to create opportunities with Indigenous students and communities. Jessica currently manages the program delivery of CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship program for NSW and ACT.