The Pasifika Talanoa network is a fortnightly web conference designed to foster an academic community of postgraduate Pasifika students and researchers. Pacific Scoop checks out the initiative.
Report – By Suze Metherell
Encouraging Pasifika students to enter postgraduate studies has been one of the major inspirations for Tagaloatele Professor Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop in establishing an expanding Talanoa research seminar series.
The Building Research Capability in the Social Sciences network (BRCSS) was an $8 million government initiative established by New Zealand in 2003.
The University of Auckland, AUT University, University of Waikato, Massey University, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Canterbury, Lincoln University and the University of Otago are all included in the scheme, which connects the universities via an online access grid.
Each participating university has dedicated hubs that are capable of high-speed online video conferencing.
The Talanoa series itself began in 2006 when Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop arrived at Victoria University of Wellington.
“When I came to lecture in New Zealand at Victoria University in 2006 it was quite notable that Pacific [studies and students] had not been using it and they had not been participating in the other forums,” says Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop.
Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop connected with the other universities to establish a seminar series that would fully use the technology available.
“In every university we have got a hub, which is totally fantastic at generating interest among the postgraduates within their universities. That is how we have built it,” she says.
Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop has since moved to AUT’s Public Policy Institute, and brought the coordination of the Talanoa series with her.
“BRCSS funding stopped last year – that whole project stopped with the government. So AUT has been helping funding it. AUT has funded it for the last couple of years,” she says.
“But I would like to say is that without the hubs, without the universities, it wouldn’t happen.”
Every second Monday during the academic year a different university chairs the session. Two postgraduate students present their research for the group, followed by questions and discussion.
“We have three sorts of students presenting; some who are just framing their research, some who are looking at their methodology and what is working, and then others who have got to the end. We have masters students through to PhD,” says Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop.
She says the series have grown since its initial inception in 2006.
“In the first year we had 300 students and researchers attending. It has grown now. It is not just students, it is now also emerging researchers, and government departments.
“Last year we had more than 650 attending the sessions throughout the year,” says Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop.
“USP in Fiji came in. For the first one, they could see and they could hear but they could not talk. This year, for the very first time, they presented from Fiji, which was quite remarkable.
“The technology is always changing and it is opening up opportunities. The beauty about this New Zealand one is that it has made a community. Bringing in the Pacific universities has been an extra bonus . . . we would really like it to increase.”
Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop says the sense of community is an important factor in the Talanoa series, especially in breaking down perceived academic barriers to postgraduate study.
“For many of our students, going to university in itself has been a big leap, going to postgraduate has been out of the realms of imagination, apart from our parents didn’t do it.
“There is a small number of Pacific postgraduate students, or emerging researchers, so the idea was how could we break down a mere sense of academic isolation, and also personal isolation,” says Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop.
Edmond Fehoko is completing his Masters in Social Sciences at AUT and is set to present his own work this year.
“I first knew about the Talanoa sessions last year, my third year in my undergraduate studies. I was first anxious and scared, to be honest, sitting in there and listening to postgrad students Talanoa, or talk, about their research.
“By attending more and more of the sessions, and with support from Peggy [Fairbairn-Dunlop] to do postgrad, I knew one day I could see myself presenting in one of the sessions,” says Fehoko.
Dr April Henderson is a senior lecturer and programme director of Pacific Studies at Victoria University.
Dr Henderson also directs the university’s Talanoa hub.
She says the promise of the Talanoa programme is the development of a community, as well as practical experience for students in presenting their ideas.
“It is being able to present your work publicly… particularly if someone going in to an academic career. It is on the ground experience.
“The employability skills to present your ideas, cohesively and coherently. To present the genealogy of your ideas, and then defend them . . . Giving students the opportunity to hone those skills is very important,” says Dr Henderson.
“The access grid has the ability to provide that opportunity without having to fly to a conference in another country.”
However, Dr Henderson says the onus rests with students and their committed participation, especially to achieve the sense of community among Pacific postgraduate students.
Vergil Narokobi is completing a PhD in law at Victoria University. Originally from Papua New Guinea, Narokobi recently presented his research at Talanoa.
Narokobi says the sessions not only provide networking opportunities, but also help develop a interdisciplinary understanding of research.
“When I gave my presentation I was asked], ‘You’ve told us about what you’re going to do but you have haven’t told us about your research methodology’.
“I am coming from a legal background and empirical research is not the traditional way of lawyers doing research, you just go and look for case law legislation and you don’t naturally formulate a questionnaire. So I would agree people are coming from different mind sets of approaching issues.
Professor Fairbain-Dunlop says the opportunity to talk about methodology is important for students.
“Pacific research methodologies, we are very, so they say, holistic. For our sessions, though it is supposed to promote social sciences research we have the whole range right across the humanities. We have environment, we have water, theology, sustainable development – we have the whole range.
“What I have found is not only are students starting to look cross-discipline, but they’re starting to learn how to question,” says Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop.
Narokobi says, ultimately that Talanoa has given him a greater understanding of the Pacific region.
“Many of us have not been exposed to the wider Pacific, we are just focused on our own country experiences. Coming to the Talanoa talk just opens up our minds, that the Pacific is not a small place and there are a lot of things that are happening – and it is an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Suze Metherell is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalists on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT.