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How should my class reckon with the referendum?


I have a Sunday morning ritual where I spend a couple of hours preparing lessons before I go to church. The morning after the referendum, that is what I did. My thoughts had been percolating for a while, wondering about the classes I’d teach in the first week after the vote. In lectures and tutorials over three days, I calculated I would encounter 120 university students, most of them under 30 years old. Many of them would have voted for the first time.

As their teacher and assessor, I’ve been careful with my personal views during the Voice campaign because I understand there is an imbalance of power in the relationship between student and teacher, and that feeling respected and accepted impacts on learning. But I’ve drawn on the full swathe of my pedagogical toolkit to encourage thoughtful engagement in the political process; to nudge against the lazy reasonings of ‘I’ve heard’ and ‘my friend says’. Between course content that had to be covered, I sought to make our learning relevant to the realities of our lives.

When a natural opportunity presented itself in literature lectures, I expanded on themes about racism and resistance. When the topic of my communications course touched on interpersonal skills, we drew on news reporting an increase in calls to helplines from First Nations people experiencing racism and abuse. Prompted, we asked, what responsibilities come with the freedom to speak? With having a voice? A common intervention in the classroom is to call out language that appears to assume who is and who isn’t in the room, language that calls to mind an invisible ‘other’. This is part of an ongoing effort to decolonise the curriculum. This is the work that I do.

But, preparing my work last Sunday, I pictured one story we had chosen for our country would be splayed wide on the desk in front of us when we entered the classroom. As a community, we have said ‘No’ to the invitation to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a Voice to parliament, enshrined in the constitution. My instincts as a teacher told me that I must acknowledge this openly and without fear; as a citizen that I must model acceptance of the democratic process; as a person of faith that I must always side with justice. Thus, as I reflected on drawing each of these imperatives together, I allowed myself to be guided by three pieces of knowledge.


'This is how I aimed to honour the invitation from the red-pulsing heart of this country: through my ongoing efforts to sit on the ground with my palms to the sky, ready to be drawn into different ways of doing and being.'  


The first is that as someone who works closely with young people, I am driven by a deep-seated commitment to inspire faith and hope. I do not shy away from tackling the hard stuff in the classroom — this semester we’ve dug into colonisation, globalisation, climate change, and the Anthropocene — but I will not burden the young with despair. I often see vulnerability in the faces before me, and to that I strive to return confidence that they’ve got what it will take to meet challenges ahead, and that all will be well.

The second is the request from Indigenous leaders on the night of the referendum for a ‘time for silence, to mourn and deeply consider’.  It is not a time for dissection, they advise, but for reflection.

The third is the knowledge of the unprecedented sense of love that buoyed the Yes campaign, the likes of which I have not experienced in more than 40 years of political engagement; active participation that was born in my Catholic roots and that has always been inspired by the gospels. I understood what I experienced during the campaign as embracing different ways of doing business, ways that are deeply embedded in 65,000 years of culture, and ways that were offered to all of us through the Uluru Statement from the Heart and visible on its website. For at least two years, proponents of the Voice encouraged Australians to start a yarn. Talk to your neighbours. Listen to your relatives. Discuss with a friend. Was the power of this strategy fully understood? For a society familiar with campaigns led by politicians and activists — someone else who’s job it is — the enormous potential of local conversations in homes, workplaces and classrooms might have been missed.

For that week, I resolved that in my classrooms, we’d speak to each other and listen. I did not open spaces to comment on the referendum result, share our opinions, or assess the key players. But I shared with these first-year students a few words from senior Aboriginal staff which urged reflection on where we find ourselves now. Then we listened as each student delivered their oral presentation for assessment, and we celebrated how far we had all come in finding our voice and feeling confident to use it. And then we all crossed the room, beyond any cliques or spaces we usually occupied. We greeted someone we hadn’t spent time with yet. We asked one another how we were feeling as the semester draws to an end.

In the literature classroom we bore witness. In this course we have read together powerful words of oppression and liberation from writers and activists over the past century. I suggested that alongside the 2017 Uluru Statement, the 14 October Statement from Indigenous Australians who Supported the Voice Referendum will be remembered as a similarly remarkable piece of writing, and asked if we should listen to it. No one protested, so I read it in its entirety and let the words fall. We did not discuss it; we did not dissect. But we have now all heard it.

This is how I moved through this first week, as the dust settled around all of us, standing here together in this place we call home. This is how I aimed to honour the invitation from the red-pulsing heart of this country: through my ongoing efforts to sit on the ground with my palms to the sky, ready to be drawn into different ways of doing and being.  




Helena Kadmos is a Lecturer in English Literature and Academic Communication at the University of Notre Dame Australia, on the Fremantle campus on Whadjuk country.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Helena Kadmos, Voice, University, Referendum



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Existing comments

This article conjures an image of a YES camel pushing its nose in under the hem of a NO tent in order to take over the narrative. No problem. All camels have a democratic right to stuff their noses under somebody else's tent.

The only NO issue is whether a Voice should be constitutionalised as opposed to legislated or established outside the legislative process. That's all. It's a technical concern. There are no bad intentions, just a concern about a process which could be bad.
Meanwhile, everybody should learn an Aboriginal language and make some Aboriginal friends.

As for Torres Strait Islanders, well, they're only included in the Uluru Statement by virtue of the fact that, being an original people, they can't not be mentioned, even if their experience has not really been one of dispossession.

s martin | 29 October 2023  

What a lovely way in which to respond to the NO vote! Not by objection but by an 'I've been thinking & I have a concern' or an 'I hear the Voice of the Australian people AND this too is my voice which I don't want to be drowned out' and perhaps better, 'This is a conversation that we should have started off having in the first place and I'm glad we're commencing doing it now!'

I first encountered this kind of thinking at a talk in Glasgow by the educationalist Lawrence Stenhouse. He started his talk by asking us how we might proceed with planning how to paint a wall. We said we should clean it, buy the paint, ensure the surface was absorbent, select a suitable set of brushes and take care of contingencies such as spillage & cleaning up afterwards.

'Might there be something else to add?' Stenhouse asked. And one timid hand went up, tentatively venturing: 'What about the painter?'

Stenhouse seized upon this seemingly insignificant point to offer a passionate critique of the Technical model of curriculum (Tyler, Taba): 'All work is human & accordingly learning tasks should never be dehumanised!'

Thank You, Helena Kadmos!

Michael Furtado | 30 October 2023  

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