Saturday, November 13, 2010

Conference Comments from Cluny Macpherson

The Conference was a productive and well- organised one. It highlighted and celebrated the connections which now connect the various Pacific Studies programmes that have sprung up around Oceania. It demonstrated the influence that one institution, CPIS, has had in shaping over time what is now understood as Pacific Studies. The conference programme was, quite understandably, focused around tracing the contributions of and connections between CPIS alumni who now lead innovative Pacific Studies programmes in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
As the lateral and horizontal links between the CPIS alumni who now lead Pacific Studies programmes in the region were outlined, the connections came to resemble a spider web in which a centre is connected to an ever expanding set of connecting threads which both strengthen the structure and make it an extremely efficient ‘machine’. In fact, as the programme unfolded, it reminded me of the influence which the Fiji School of Medicine once had in the Pacific as its graduates and alumni networks came to link first medical systems and, later, political systems in the throughout the Pacific
Some of the most valuable lessons for me focused on the ways in which those who manage these programmes have addressed various pedagogical, institutional and resourcing challenges generated by the external economic, political, institutional, demographic and sociocultural constraints under which the programmes operate. How, for instance, does one start a programme when one has first to convince colleagues, and a sceptical public, that there is a need or place for such a programme? How does one use social networking technologies to connect with a new student body which looks for new strategies for engaging with the academy? How does one deal with unprecedented growth in demand and stable resources? How does one recruit and retain in Pacific Studies students from non-traditional educational backgrounds and with no history of engagement with the academy? How does one person fill the roles of two ‘giants’ and integrate two programmes which were set up in different ways by two very different people to achieve somewhat different ends? How does one design a programme for people whose conception of the Pacific is generated by quite different spatial and cultural conceptions of the region? These and many other questions were addressed.
This, in itself, was valuable for those in Pacific Studies programmes which face similar constraints, and could learn how others had addressed and managed these challenges. My respect for the people who spelled out one creative solution after another to these challenges, and for the institution which had prepared them for this work, grew as the conference proceeded. The student presentations provided examples of the commitment and enthusiasm which a new generation of CPIS alumni bring to Pacific Studies and will take into their professional lives in and beyond the academy.
So, the conference outlined and celebrated CPIS’ role in the creation of a vital network which is having a marked impact on the ways in which ‘Pacific Studies’ are currently defined and taught in Oceania. But for me it also raised questions about the consequences of the extremely efficient replication of a particular way of thinking and studying the Pacific. It correctly addressed and celebrated what is good about what he have but, the conference was also an opportunity for reflecting on the consequences of creating such an efficient incubator.
It would in my view have been valuable to have another session, or sessions, in which other ways of thinking about and studying other ways of envisaging ‘Pacific Studies’ and ways of defining and addressing these challenges. Beyond the ‘Pacific Studies’ outlined by the speakers are other types of ‘studies in the Pacific’ which are as important to, and in some ways offer more for, the people of the Pacific.
Beyond the creative interdisciplinarity outlined by the speakers, which involved for the most part a relatively small range of humanities and social sciences, are other forms of interdisciplinarity which are required to address some of the most significant issues faced by the region.
On reflection, it occurs to me that the discussion had little to say about a set of problems which impact on the lives Pacific citizens daily and the ‘Pacific studies’ which are necessary to address these. Some public health issues, for instance, which currently make Pacific social indicators some of the worst in the world, require quite different kinds of inter-disciplinary projects. To understand, for instance, why health goals in the UN Millennium Development Goals are not being met is crucial: it impacts on and stunts the opportunities of large numbers women and youth throughout the Pacific.
Identifying and understanding these issues requires different of forms inter-disciplinary collaboration which may involve public health physicians, demographers, statisticians, economists, ethnobotanists, and public policy specialists. It also requires recognition of the fact that our definitions of ‘Pacific Studies’ may prevent us from seeing this other set of issues and from seeing the possibilities of recruiting and working with a much wider range of disciplines.
I am not suggesting that these are ‘better’ ways of studying the Pacific. The definitions of the core of ‘Pacific Studies’ outlined in the conference are the consequences of the necessity of focussing on what we can do with the resources which we have available and under constraints imposed by the institutions in which we work. But these other issues are crucial ones which have a huge impact on the lives of Pacific people. These problems’ very social and human significance make them as important as the challenges of delivering courses to relatively privileged Pacific people in metropolitan centres whose problems focus on finding ways to relate to their personal history.
I enjoyed the programme, but it would, in my view, have been valuable to have run some sessions in which these other ‘studies of the Pacific’ and the sorts of inter-disciplinarity which might be required to address these were discussed, if only to remind ourselves of the consequences of doing things in the ways that we do.
Cluny Macpherson

1 comment:

  1. I very much appreciate Cluny Macpherson's comments, and would like to add that, much the way Jacques Derrida saw in the deconstruction of western philosophy the seeds of its own destruction, if we are to seriously consider (often very uncomfortable) alternatives in the service of normalizing and legitimizing Pacific Studies and its constituent components, then we may very well need to think beyond what is currently normal and legitimate, namely institutions and structures of schooling. Rather than seeing school as an ontological phenomenon that somehow exists outside of time and place, we would do well in Pacific Studies to imagine our current institutions, habits and practices as the very real effects of a rather particular and intentional set of cultural and contextual constructs -- constructs that limit, through the benign activity of 'defining', what it is we mean when we speak of 'Pacific Studies.'

    In other words, let us consider not only what Pacific Studies is, but also what it is not; and, more importantly, what it could be. Especially since it is not clear to me why institutions are necessary for legitimizing and normalizing Pacific Studies at its limits.


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