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  • Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynold

In Praise of PASI

Written by Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynolds (she/they)

In his seminal text, Towards a New Oceania, Albert Wendt says:

“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.”

And that is precisely what Pacific Studies achieves: a departure from sterile facts and figures, hoping to arrive at the Pacific’s full mystifying magnitude. As a severely misunderstood region caught in the colonial webs of exotic desire, noble or ignoble savagery, and perceived smallness, Pacific Studies untangles these narratives to centre Pasifika perspectives, stories, and (most importantly) people.

Vic’s Pacific Studies programme (hot people call it PASI) is unique in the way that it encourages Pasifika students to feel at home in themselves, legitimising and praising our intellectual whakapapa. Moreover, PASI’s reflexivity is unmatched, always seeking to improve itself for the benefit of its tauira. And, the cherry on top, it's all delivered with an unbelievable amount of aroha. 

Founded by the late Dr. Teresia Teaiwa, PASI at VUW has been running since 2000 and is currently directed by the incredible Dr. April Henderson. The major involves only four courses:

  1. PASI101 ‘The Pacific Heritage’

  2. PASI201 ‘Comparative History in Polynesia’

  3. PASI202 ‘Globalisation and Popular Culture in the Pacific’

  4. PASI301 ‘Framing the Pacific: Theorising Culture and Society’

Students must also do one French, Māori, or Sāmoan course. Although its life span is short, the programme is jam-packed with delicious knowledge about our region.

Growing up in Australia, I was fed countless concerning narratives about my people. And along the way, I came to believe that our dances, songs, chants, and tattoos were precisely just that; dances, songs, chants, and tattoos, empty of any meaning or significance (thank you, internalised racism). But, as stated in the PASI101 course content description, whakapapa is taonga; it’s all the material and immaterial treasures we inherit. And it’s PASI’s focus on the immaterial taonga that’s especially significant.

PASI101’s final assignment is a creative assessment; the Akamai project. Here students have the opportunity to critically and creatively respond to a specific PASI101 theme, i.e. go batshit crazy and do whatever the fuck they want. And when I tell you these bitches put their whole badussy into it … I really mean it. The Akamai is a chance for everyone to delve into their personal experiences and connect them to broader social and political processes; they discover for themselves that the personal truly is political. And with the creative aspect of the assignment, students realise that the creative production of knowledge is just as valuable as the academic; something our tupuna knew too. 

I used to think poetry was a waste of time. I thought it was just another high-brow, esoteric art form that excluded my people and couldn’t possibly bear the weight of our stories. But then PASI came along; my class was structured around a poem (which I’ve ironically forgotten), and taught by a poet. And of course, I learnt that my tupuna have always made ‘poetry’. [It was probably] a gentle kick up the ass from my ancestors, saying “Catch up bitch, we’ve been on that grind for AGES”. And the Akamai, for which I wrote a poem, was where I flourished; I felt like I’d finally found a way to authentically voice all the voiceless things. I drew on my Grand-père’s involvement in the nuclear testings that occurred in the Tuamotu Archipelago, and linked it to bigger issues of neo-colonialism and the damage caused by Western framings of the Pacific. It was tough, and I cried a lot. But I discovered it was all part of a bigger picture. One that I can start painting over. 

Tatiana Wong-Tung had a similar experience, describing the Akamai as the “Project that changed everything. It made me realise that my voice and experience matters”. Tatiana is the School of Cultures and Languages’ Student Rep for VUWSA, and was also the Student Rep for all four PASI courses. 

Even April could relate; her introduction to Pacific Studies was the conference paper, “Yaqona/Yagonqu: Roots and Routes of a Displaced Native” by a young Teresia Teaiwa. Written in the style of a film script, Teaiwa narrated the history of the British mining of Banaban land for phosphate, which led to the mass relocation of Banabans to Fiji. Told through camera pans between characters and even a soundtrack, Teaiwa was a masterful artist and scholar, leaving behind an enduring legacy for Pacific Studies, namely her sustained effort to better the programme for students.

Throughout our interview, Māmā April and I would wander off-topic and reminisce on my PASI cohort. She was genuinely intrigued to hear about my experience, struggles, highlights, and lowlights. When I started talking about PASI201, she said, “I’m going to take notes! Because PASI201, I joke about it as the ‘problem child’. That was Teresia’s course, she changed that course so many times, always fiddling and never quite happy with it. So now you’re gonna tell me how you found it!”. I was meant to be interviewing her, not the other way around. But it goes to show how keen she is to better the course, and improve the student experience.

But the final paper, PASI301, is the most impressive example of course-tweaking. Until 2009, the class consisted of lectures and individual presentations, but there was still trouble in paradise. April said, “There was so much absenteeism, so much lacklustre engagement”. So, what did she do? She redesigned the whole programme to be centred around rigorous group work, instead of individual. And it was a profound change. April found that “Students would let down their own expectations of themselves, but they were less likely to let down their group”. And, folks, the result is incredible; it's one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I’ve ever done.

It reminds me of the whakataukī: nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi. With your food basket and my food basket, the people will thrive. When we combined our ideas and worked together, this type of deep learning occurred, where course content became embedded in our psyche (the required readings are my roman empire). We had to do the individual work because we couldn’t disappoint our peers; we had a whole team we were held accountable to. While it fucking sucked sometimes because of the shame and guilt you’d feel if you didn’t do that week’s work, other members would rise up and help. That’s PASI301’s magic: it caters to the dynamics of Pasifika relationships and how we function in community settings. The presentation also gave students a chance to flex their ancestral oratory skills. As stated by April, “[s]tudents are often quite able to deliver insights skilfully orally, that they may not be able to deliver as skilfully in writing”.

I have never experienced a class so eager to be as beneficial as possible for its students. It doesn’t just talk about decolonisation, it embodies decolonial aspirations and is paving the way for other disciplines in recentring indigenous ways of doing and being. 

When I asked Tatiana what she hopes to see in PASI’s future, she said, “I really want to see PASI thriving and expanding … but I think having more targeted papers would make PASI that much more attractive to non-PASI majors''. She also believes that “there needs to be more chances for that growth in undergrad”. And with the newly hired Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu to teach PASI101 and PASI201, there seems to be a new direction, and hopefully, some new exciting things coming up. 

As a side hustle, I work for a company that helps high school students with internships at their desired workplaces, jumpstarting their careers at the ripe age of 16 or 17. These rangatahi are truly exceptional—sometimes I stop and think, fuck, at that age I was staying up until 3 am reading Tom Riddle fanfic. But the tauira who join the programme are extremely committed, incredibly intelligent, and just delightful. A few of those I worked with last year are enrolled in PASI101 for 2024, and I’m ecstatic. This is the next generation of thinkers, doers, change-makers, and I know they’ll be deeply nurtured and loved here. 


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