Dr. Teresia Teaiwa – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile for Dr Teresia Teaiwa, (Victoria University of Wellington) Award for Sustained Excellence in tertiary teaching 2014
How does one begin to describe the enormity of the Pacific Ocean? It occupies one third of the earth’s surface area. It is the most prominent geographic feature on this planet. How can one begin to describe the history of the first peoples to settle this watery region? Those peoples who made sure that every one of the 20,000 islands in the world’s largest ocean had been explored?
Peoples whose descendants today are some of the world’s most misunderstood and misrepresented groups. Where does one begin?
These were some of the challenges that faced me in the year 2000 when I became the first lecturer in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). I was given the task of developing content and curriculum for a suite of courses approved by the national Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP) in 1999, with nothing except titles and short descriptions. It was my task to map out a new interdisciplinary space for learning and teaching Pacific Studies at VUW.
This was an audacious undertaking. For one thing, although I had been doing my PhD in an interdisciplinary programme at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), it wasn’t in Pacific Studies. My earlier educational qualifications were primarily in History and my previous teaching experience at the University of the South Pacific (USP) was in the History stream of the History/ Politics Department. Furthermore, all previous teaching and learning about the Pacific at VUW had taken place within the disciplines. Creating an entirely new interdisciplinary undergraduate major was something that no other university in the world had attempted to this point. So as I embarked on my teaching and learning journey in Pacific Studies at VUW, it felt as if I was heading into unchartered waters.
In an essay published in 2005 I described the classroom as a metaphorical canoe or waka, to help think through the necessity of a cooperative learning model in Pacific Studies (Teaiwa, 2005). With over 1,200 indigenous languages – one fifth of the world’s linguistic diversity – the Pacific Islands region is so huge and diverse, the pedagogical tasks so complex, that the notion of a single all-knowing teacher delivering knowledge from the front of the classroom is ludicrous. But if the classroom is a metaphorical canoe requiring the attentiveness and effort of all aboard, the field of Pacific Studies is literally oceanic in proportions. However, there was much that had gone before that could guide me. And I realised that if we just started with where my students and I were – at VUW, for example – I might be able to put the ancient Micronesian navigating technique of ‘etak’ to use. Etak is a system of wayfinding and navigation that visualises the canoe as stationary while the islands move towards it. (Diaz, 2002). With such an approach to teaching and learning in Pacific Studies at VUW, maybe we could bring all those 20,000 islands, and so much more, to us?
The portfolio I submitted for the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards documents my experience of charting the awe-inspiring waters of the Pacific and Pacific Studies. Two initiatives exemplify my student-focused approach to teaching. One of them, ‘Akamai’, is a creative option for assessment in PASI 101 The Pacific Heritage that has been offered annually since 2001. The second is Key Concept and Question papers (KCQs), in PASI 101, PASI 201 and PASI 401. KCQs have radically transformed the culture of learning in my classes and around Pacific Studies.
Akamai builds on the ideas of an important Pacific intellectual, Albert Wendt, who wrote: “… Oceania deserves much more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope – if not to contain her – to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain.” (Wendt, 1976:49) The assessment is worth 20 per cent of a student’s final grade, and involves library-based research, a bibliography and written proposal for a work of art or performance, that engages with key concepts and themes explored in the class. Students are required to attend two workshops for feedback on their creative work from teaching staff, and they submit a reflective journal documenting their learning through the process. A quarter to a third of the class participates in Akamai every year (the remainder routinely choose the essay option). Akamai has become an annual fixture in VUW’s Pacific community outreach calendar, attracting audiences of around 300 every year, mostly students, friends and family members. Through Akamai, students start to understand art and performance, not just as artefacts of cultural heritage but as crucial elements of the intellectual heritage of the Pacific.
If Akamai represents Pacific Studies in full flight, KCQs represent my commitment to ensuring its solid academic grounding. In 2010, I introduced 300-word KCQs as a form of assessment into my undergraduate teaching. Having completed a postgraduate course myself in 2007 on higher education learning and teaching that used KCQs as a form of assessment, I found them a useful way of engaging with the assigned readings. I also reflected on the research that a former Pasifika student learning advisor at VUW had done on the experiences of first year students of Pacific heritage with academic reading at university (Davidson-Toumu‘a, 2005). Struck by that work which highlighted the invisibility of reading as an activity, I felt challenged to make reading in Pacific Studies more visible. KCQs would assist by directly
assessing how students were reading. I trialled them in 2010 with my PASI 201 class, replacing the 20 per cent mid-term test with KCQs. In 2011 I introduced KCQs into PASI 101. It has taken some trial and error to settle on the optimum number of KCQs required and I have also tweaked the format of KCQs across courses at different levels. Students comment regularly in their course evaluations that KCQs have helped them keep up with their readings, and that they’ve appreciated the regular feedback from teaching staff.
In future, I plan to refine my curriculum and pedagogy around economic literacy and empowerment. Tertiary education inevitably involves debt for students. I think the sector needs to take more responsibility for helping students understand why this is, and how they can make choices that apply critical thinking to the economics that structure their lives. I already emphasise in my teaching that political decolonisation has not translated into economic sovereignty or well-being for Pacific people; Pacific Studies can and should encourage robust critiques of dominant economic models so people are empowered to choose more sustainable ways of living on this planet. I will use part of my award to help reduce the pressure from debt that is an inevitable condition of transnational diasporic Pacific families; I hope to use the rest of the award to take my children to visit their great- grandparents’ homelands in Kiribati for the first, and possibly the last, time.
Peer & Student Comments
After the final presentation I was able to reflect on the Akamai process from beginning to completion. I feel as though it has offered me more than any other assignment as I
could fully engage and explore the ideas I was interested in.
PASI 101 student, 2013
…throughout the whole process and preparation for Akamai I have learnt a lot. Of my whole three years here at University I now have a deeper understanding for my purpose and why my parents pushed me so hard to
go to university. I understand that we are all still on our journey from migration because we haven’t reached the desired destination yet for my education, because my success is their success.
PASI 101 student, 2013
I am so glad that I chose to do Akamai. I did it because I wanted to challenge myself because I can write a really good essay, I wanted to do something different. …It was a process where I learned about discipline, demonstrated my agency and experienced interdisciplinarity. I believe I learned more
doing Akamai than I could ever learn doing an essay.
PASI 101 student, 2013
For the first time in my own educational journey, I started to feel like I was forming a strong body of knowledge that included theories and methods, and this enabled me to contribute with greater confidence in a scholarly forum regardless of the discipline or content. From my experience and the experience of my students,
it’s fair to say that KCQs have been nothing short of revolutionary in ensuring students’ participation, preparedness and commitment...
Rachel Yates, VUW Pacific Studies postgraduate student and tutor 2013
…Dr Teaiwa revolutionised my own teaching by suggesting a new approach to assessment… it has produced great results and created widespread interest in my faculty here at USP.
Dr Robert Nicole, University of the South Pacific, 2013
Teresia has consistently explored questions regarding the what, why and how of teaching Pacific Studies—this integration of research, teaching and publication about teaching is one of the aspects that sets Teresia apart from many of her peers in our field.
Dr April Henderson, Victoria University of