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Finding a new place to stand together

Mātauranga Māori and Pacific knowledge is being incorporated into both course content and the class environment in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts.

“It’s not about replacing one body of knowledge with another,” says Dr Hirini Kaa, the faculty kaiārahi (mentor) who is leading the change with the support of the dean, Professor Robert Greenberg, and faculty leadership.

“This is a true partnership; the reinsertion of mātauranga Māori alongside a global body of knowledge.”

The new Ako Arts programme takes many forms, from rethinking the whole way a course is being delivered to inviting an expert to give a Māori or Pacific perspective on a course-related topic. It might even be something like learning and singing a class waiata or students learning their pepeha (personal introduction) in te reo.

Dr Kaa says getting out of the lecture room is also an important part of the process for any kind of mindset shift.

“For example, we took three of the academics involved in Ako Arts to the big South Auckland event Polyfest so they could experience the vibrancy and passion of Pacific life first-hand, because this is not only a whiteboard exercise, it’s a heart exercise.”

The Pacific perspective sits very naturally in the mix, says Dr Kaa.

“Mātauranga Māori came from the Pacific over a 5,000-year journey. All those ancestors down in the wharenui at Waipapa Marae (the University marae) are Pacific ancestors. We have a lot in common, we share a lot of values, and our engagement with the Pacific deepens our engagement with mātauranga Māori rather than challenges it.”

He believes the faculty has been willing to make the change for a while but until recently has lacked the driver or “external push” it’s getting now from things like changes in the research funding environment and broader social changes.

First piloted in a 2018 history course, he says Ako Arts was extended to four courses in the first semester of 2019 and four in semester two. “Each academic course leader was paired with a Kaiako, an embedded mentor who supported them in areas like ako (reciprocal learning, as opposed to treating students as ‘empty vessels’), manaakitanga and tauhi vā (connections between people) in their approach to teaching and assessments.

One of those courses was an introduction to classics which mainly features Greek and Roman mythology. The challenge for the lecturer, says Dr Kaa, was to work with the Ako Arts team to rethink the Eurocentric foundation of the course using the concept of tūrangawaewae (‘a place to stand’).

“Where does the course stand and speak from? How do we ‘do’ classics in Aotearoa New Zealand in the Pacific in 2019? Whose knowledge gets privileged? How can Greek and Roman mythology be read through a Māori or Pacific lens? How could that work in assessment?”

He says that far from excluding non-Māori or Pacific students, this reframing also worked well for the Pākehā, Asian and students of other backgrounds who became interested in thinking about the Greeks and Romans in a different way. The new approach has also engaged academics in terms of their personal research.

“You see some of our top non-Māori researchers get really excited by the possibilities and potential of this in their work. The brilliant part for Māori is it only works if it’s a partnership – Pākehā can’t do this on their own. There are risks and downsides, change is not always comfortable, but it’s got so many advantages that make it worth pursuing as a faculty and an institution.”

Read more about embedding Māori and Pacific worldviews in the classroom in Arts Insider Spring 2019.

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