Tānia Ka’ai - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Tānia Ka’ai (Dean of Te Tumu (School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies), University of Otago) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2006
Dean of Te Tumu (School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies), University of Otago
Professor Tānia Ka'ai, has been instrumental in connecting Māori Studies with related Pacific cultures and the global subject of Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago. During her ten years at Otago she has redesigned the school's assessment policy and procedures to reflect Standards-based Assessment. Tānia believes in maintaining a high quality of teaching and is devoted to the advancement and development of Maori and Pacific Island people. Tānia attributes her motivation and love of teaching to her family and cultural background, to the mentoring she has received throughout her life, to the students she has taught over 27 years and to the aspirations she has to live in a society which truly honours and reflects the Treaty of Waitangi.
I grew up in a family that was shaped by a cultural landscape drawn from both a Māori and Pacific heritage. I am Māori (Ngāti Porou and Ngāi Tahu) on my mother's side and Hawaiian, Cook Island Māori and Samoan on my father's side. From birth, I learned from my elders some very important principles and values that derive from an indigenous world-view and epistemology.
These include that:
- the maintenance and survival of our indigenous culture/s is based on the achievements of the critical mass so it is important that we all succeed in life;
- knowledge should be shared;
- one's personal success is assessed by one's indigenous community/iwi (tribe) based on the fundamental principle of service to others, and so one must help others to realise and achieve their dreams;
- one must strive to provide good leadership which is always about ensuring that the interests of the collective are met and never to think about personal gain ahead of the collective interests of the indigenous community/iwi;
- as you aspire to do great things in your life, you must always remember your beginnings and commit to taking others with you to ensure that the wellbeing of the collective is sustained; and
- you must always give back to the people especially to ahikā (those that keep the home fires burning and live in the tribal area) and to observe kanohi kitea, that is, to be seen by these people to ensure one's relationships to the people and the land are nurtured and kept alive.
These cultural values informed my study as a student as I pursued my qualifications and higher degrees. As an indigenous scholar teaching and researching in a university, these cultural values provide an epistemological framework that I have sought to define and describe in my own academic writings as a way to validate indigenous knowledge and ways of doing things and their legitimate place within the western academy in Aotearoa/New Zealand.I am an alumni of Waikato, Auckland and Harvard Universities. I have a background in kaupapa Māori ideology, an umbrella term used to house my eclectic mix of academic writing which includes the following:
- the history of politics of the Māori language in advancing the status of the Māori language as a living language in Aotearoa/New Zealand;
- Māori assertions and aspirations to sovereignty;
- Māori pedagogy and epistemology; and
- contemporary issues in Māori society.
I choose to work in Māori Studies because the core business of te reo me ngā tikanga Māori (Māori language and culture) legitimises my work and scholarship as an indigenous scholar within the university academy.
Māori Studies at the University is a space for undertaking teaching and research which recovers our histories, reclaims our lands and resources, restores justice and preserves our language and traditions within a culturally specific framework called, Kaupapa Māori... herein lie the theories generated by Indigenous scholars and tohunga [experts] who have constructed models to explain Māori way of thinking (epistemology) and a Māori way of doing things within the western academy (Ka'ai 2000: 11-12).
Māori Studies as an academic discipline within the universities of Aotearoa/New Zealand usually emerged out of Anthropology and the emergence of Pacific Island Studies has followed a similar genesis (Webster 1998:157). However, at Otago, it emerged out of Linguistics with a Māori language paper first being taught in 1981. In 1990 the University agreed to establish Māori Studies as a Department.
Like all Māori and Pacific Studies departments at universities, these disciplines have had to fight for legitimacy, space and resources within the academy since they emerged. Māori Studies at Otago is no different. In 1995 the Department of Māori Studies at Otago underwent a review that ultimately led to a number of changes within the department in both staffing and structure. The review panel felt that the department's future was threatened and that without drastic changes Māori Studies could cease to exist. One such change suggested by the panel was the appointment of a Chair to provide academic leadership and strategic direction.
I was the successful candidate and the first Māori female Head of Department of Māori Studies.
One of the hallmarks of my work as a teacher in Te Tumu is the development of a new assessment framework, called Standards-based Assessment, which has been adopted by all Te Tumu staff. This is an instrument for better learning. It provides students with clear criteria from which to complete their assignments and requires the teacher to provide clear feedback on all assignments. It is an empowering tool for students as they know exactly what is required of them in order to achieve a particular grade.
I am committed to this form of assessment, as I have researched assessment models since I became involved with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority in 1990 and thereafter as a writer of Unit Standards for Field Mäori. In my experience, Standards-based Assessment is the best form of assessment for use in Mäori Studies as it most closely aligns with Mäori pedagogy and in particular, the poutama which is a symbolic representation of development learning.
I also endeavour to incorporate Māori cultural values into my teaching in the way I conduct my classes. These include the concepts of manaaki (hospitality and mutual support), aroha (concern for others), mahi tahi (working together as a group), and tuakana teina (seniors helping juniors). In recent times I have taught more of my classes in a wānanga (residential learning context) style often on the marae. This has proved to be an effective way of learning for the students.
For me, this demonstrates research-informed teaching and especially the research that I have undertaken for the past twenty years using kaupapa Māori ideology. This is a philosophical doctrine incorporating the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and world-view of Māori society that have emanated from a Māori metaphysical base. It informs Māori about the way in which they best develop physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially and intellectually as a people. Central to this is the notion of pedagogy, the way in which we transmit and receive knowledge within a whānau (extended family), hapū, (clan) and iwi context. Thus kaupapa Māori ideology is the motivation and intellectual framework behind my teaching.
One of the realities of anyone who elects to work in Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies in the tertiary sector, and universities in particular, is that they immediately take on a dual role, that of academic teacher and researcher within the discipline and, one of educator within the wider academy, about indigenous issues. This is to ensure accurate representation of the indigenous world-view in all policy decisions made within the academy.
‘Indigenising' the academy means to make the academy both responsive and responsible to indigenous peoples' goals of self-determination and wellbeing. This requires a huge effort by indigenous scholars to be committed to transforming the academy. To engage in this work, requires a redefining of the academy from an agent of colonialism to a platform for decolonisation. This role also requires indigenous scholars to establish a continuous, visible and active presence at tertiary institutions.
As an indigenous scholar within the university academy, I am "committed to the notion of education as the practice of freedom" (bell hooks 1994: 12). My aim is to facilitate learning, to produce graduates who are transformed through a greater understanding of ideas and issues and, as critical thinkers, who will assume their rightful place as citizens of the land to help transform and shape our nation and society based on key values, including those embedded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Peer and Student Comments
Professor Ka'ai only gives out what she expects back from those around her, and that can be summed up in one word ‘excellence', the Professor makes it clear that she does not expect her staff or students to do anything she would not, this is a quality that I admire as so often in life we come across people who preach ‘do as I say not as I do'. Professor Ka'ai's commitment to a teaching style that creates scholars has been an inspiration and has laid out a challenge to me that I will strive to achieve for the rest of my life.
Kylee Potae, former student
Her welcoming, inclusive and dialogic approach to teaching encapsulates Mäori pedagogy and is both effective and inspiring. Professor Ka'ai takes a personal interest in each of her students and encourages and motivates them by creating a mutually respectful environment.
Anne Begg, former student
She has a unique ability to take abstract concepts and tie them back to the physical and social world in which her students exist thus making these relevant to their lives. Her passion and the obvious joy that derives from teaching was infectious and it created a classroom environment that was different to any other that I encountered as an undergraduate student.
Nathan Matthews, former student, now lecturer, University of Otago
Every meeting I had with Professor Ka'ai leading up to the completion of my PhD was, as I remember it now, like a ‘shot of pure coffee to the system'. Professor Ka'ai would always manage to inspire me so that I left her office feeling recharged and rejuvenated.
Brendan Hokowhitu, former student, now programme co-ordinator, University of Otago
Professor Ka'ai brings passion, drive and vision to her leadership of Te Tumu. From the moment she took up her post she was determined to reorganise and where necessary re-design the curriculum for both the language and the cultural streams. Professor Ka'ai's ability to conceptualise an entire nest of degrees, one that locates Māori Studies within a broader corpus of Pacific Studies, while attending to the content and delivery of each paper, is little short of astonishing. She has in the process created a model for the country. That model not only meets the University's best standards for teaching and research, but reflects and enhances kaupapa Māori.
Erik Olssen, Emeritus Professor, University of Otago
Professor Ka'ai's influence as an educator extends well beyond her students. In my view, she has steadily raised the cultural awareness of the whole University through her input into policy, as well as her tireless commitment to communicating understanding of the Māori world and its culture to other staff through short courses, retreats and induction sessions. As a member of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team, she has ‘enlightened' all of us (and I include myself in this) as to the ways in which Māori construct their sense of the world, and how this differs from the Pakeha world view.
This heightened understanding has led to a new Māori and Pacific Teaching Assistantships scheme that will aim to place indigenous staff members in every department in the Division of Humanities, with the goal of improving the learning environment for Māori and Pacific students. Only a true educator of the highest order could have managed to exercise this kind of influence on colleagues, many of whom have tended to hold very entrenched views that could have provided a serious impediment.
Alistair Fox, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Otago
Ka'ai, T. M. 2000 Ngā Hua o te Mātauranga Māori i roto i te Whare Wānanga: The Value of Māori Studies in the University. Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Dunedin: University of Otago
Webster, S. 1998 Patrons of Culture-Power, Theory and Ideology in the Māori Renaissance, Dunedin: University of Otago Press