Food and the art of representation

This article appeared this week in Campus Review – an interview with me about the year ahead as CAPA President. 🙂


Julie Hare

February 15, 2010

Campus Review

I am what I eat. You are what I feed you,” Tammi Jonas’s bio on Twitter asserts. When the new president of the Council of Postgraduate Associations is not cooking – or thinking about, talking about and communicating about food – she’s completing a PhD (with a food focus – of course) and representing the country’s 270,000 postgraduate students.

Jonas’s blog, called ‘Tammi Tasting Terroir’ and subtitled ‘The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community …’ sums it up.

The blog is a random mix of recipes for sourdough and passionate monologues on the state of higher education.

Food frames most aspects of Jonas’s life – even the political. Two years ago she held a soup kitchen for University of Melbourne tutors under vice-chancellor Glyn Davis’s office window to draw attention to poor conditions and unpaid work that their lot in life.

“We got everyone to come down with their fingerless gloves and I made a giant pot of potato and leek soup. I literally fed the tutors,” laughs Jonas.

More recently, she drew national attention to the issue of casual teaching when she resigned from the University of Melbourne council – and then wrote about it in an article for New Matilda.

Now her penchant for the big political statement is due to find its fulfilment in her role as president of CAPA – and she hope’s individual branches will follow suit.

While she likes the publicity, Jonas says her resignation from Melbourne University council was more than just a stunt.

“I certainly wanted the publicity to keep shining light on the issue [of exploitation of casual staff], otherwise no one will realise we need their sympathy,” she says.

“It wasn’t so much a stunt as a principled and ethical resignation, because I was no longer willing to be part of a body that wasn’t in my view behaving ethically by leading the way and ensuring all members of the academic community are being treated fairly.”

The issue, which Jonas says she had been campaigning on for years (and is itemised on her blog), revolved around postgraduate students being asked to present unpaid “guest lectures”, lack of adequate office and desk space, and unpaid work in other areas such as marking.

However, she would like it known that Melbourne is not the worst culprit – and can point the finger at any number of the other universities which she considers even more exploitative.

As Jonas takes up the top gig with CAPA, 2010 might be the year that some of the more pressing issues to do with postgraduate workforce issues get resolved. The government’s research workforce strategy reference group is due to report in the first half of the year.

“We’ve had the Bradley and Cutler reviews, but there are still many issues around lack of sustainability [of the research workforce] if things don’t change,” says Jonas.

“We have too many people leaving the sector because it’s not attractive enough. We are particularly interested in seeing conditions improve for research students both as casual labour and also in terms of their own basic minimum resources – computers, desks and so on – when they are doing their study. And then, of course, there are follow on effects of that on coursework postgraduates such as having better funded teaching programs so everyone is getting better quality courses.”

Jonas says other key items on her agenda for the year include the welfare of international postgraduate students and the quality of coursework programs on offer.

Originally from the US, Jonas moved to Australia 18 years ago after meeting her husband Stuart while backpacking around London.

“Being a migrant explains my interest in national identity,” she says. “My passion for issues around international students I’m sure [is partly inspired] from being a migrant myself – although I’ve never been identified as one because I’m white and sound a lot like the people here.

“I often assert my migrant status to highlight for people the diversity of what migrants are.”

Jonas recently chaired a working group to set up a new national representative body for international students and is hopeful it will be launched later this year.

The CAPA and National Union of Students initiative came about in the aftermath of the hijacking of the former representative body, the NLC, by a group led by a Chinese businessman Master Shang (CR, 27.04.10 and 11.05.10).

“It’s such an important job – they have no independent national voice right now and we would like to see international students representing international students again.”

Jonas said the third big ticket item for CAPA is student services and student organisation. CAPA’s finances have been savaged since VSU legislation introduced by the Howard government. With the Student Services and Amenities Bill currently being held up in the Senate, there is uncertainty as to whether the government will get the support necessary to get it passed.

“CAPA is really struggling to survive. If you look at some of our achievements last year such as making sure that postgraduates got the stimulus funding, the rise in APAs and getting income support for masters students, these are really big achievements. If we didn’t exist, none of these things are likely to have happened.

“I find it extraordinary that people [politicians] who are in the business of representation themselves don’t understand the importance of the representation we provide.”

While Jonas has a big year ahead, she said there is no way her PhD (on multicultural foodways and cosmopolitanism in Melbourne) will get put on ice. With an invitation to submit an article to the Australian Humanities Review and another to present a paper at the international food ethnography conference in Finland in August, Jonas says she will plough on.

In the meantime, there is also CAPA, the family and food, beautiful food.

Find Jonas’s blog at http://tammijonas.blogspot.com

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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