TAFE & Adult Provision Learning the language of country

(Photo: Kerriekerr/iStock)

Institutions need to learn to tread a little lighter on country if they want students to truly understand the land they work in, as one semi-retired TAFE teacher explains.

Top tip: It’s probably best not to refer to casual Melbourne Polytechnic teacher Terence ‘Terry’ Kelly, 66, as “retired”. It’s not a term the larrikin archaeologist responds well to. Terry prefers the term “semi-retired”, continuing to volunteer his time with TAFE students and maintaining a casual membership with the AEU. “I’m union until I die,” he says.

Indulging a lifelong passion for archaeology, conservation and land management, Terry believes we all have an obligation to tread lightly on country. Indeed, when the current COVID crisis has passed, he’ll lead one more field camp out bush, taking TAFE students into Indigenous communities to speak to the Uncles. It’s his greatest wish that they learn to see the land as something more than a resource to be studied. “I’m trying to get them embedded in country, and to build a relationship with mob.”

After a wide-ranging chat listening to his yarns race off on exhilarating tangents, I find myself wondering if it really will be the last trip. Embracing an abundant curiosity, Terry is the sort of man who will skid a car to a dust-disturbing halt if something unexpected catches his eye. He tells me with a wry chuckle that he wound up studying archaeology because a girl he once knew prodded him in the general direction of university. Prior to that he’d been set on taking up a trade, and in a way he did.

Terence ‘Terry’ Kelly. Don't call him "retired". (Photo: supplied)

Affectionately referring to his education as the study of “pointy rocks”, it has taken him all over the world and, it would appear, seeped into his soul like the red dirt of this great land, which has a habit of getting everywhere. He just wishes there were a little more philosophy and a little less bureaucracy. “You can do the philosophy of science, but what about the philosophy of country?” he asks. 

Archaeology is just an excuse for old men to play in the dirt, he says, and they have a lot to learn from the traditional custodians. Terry became a regular visitor to Aboriginal communities over the years, sharing skills and a keen interest in heritage protection. “They didn’t need a university degree, because they work on country. It’s not really hard. You don’t need a radar; you just walk around and have a look.”

Easily excited by a small piece of broken quartz, Terry says it all tells you something worth knowing. “The country’s like a book; all you’ve got to do is learn the language and take the time.”

That’s the most important lesson he imparts to his TAFE students. “You don’t make this a proposition of intense academia,” he insists. “This is about skills. Learning what you’re doing. Walking around, having a look. Knowing about countryside. What bumps up? What jumps down?”

“We all belong to country, and it’s a dumb parasite that kills its host. So, we go out. Listen; you’ve got to take your time.”

Terry has taken the time to listen and learn from First Nations people, sharing his know-how in return, helping out with heritage management issues and the sometimes “perplexing overlapping” of jurisdictions and legal jargon. It’s an invaluable relationship to him. “I mean, we’re all trackers. They track across country, I track through time.” 

As he sees it, training TAFE students to work as rangers and land managers is about so much more than ‘book smarts’. “We’ve armed them with all the skills, but they don’t know how to walk on country. We all belong to country, and it’s a dumb parasite that kills its host. So, we go out. Listen. It’s not about budgets or financial years or anything; you’ve got to take your time.”

Getting out of the city is vital for gaining a real understanding of Australia, Terry argues. “Something like 80% of the population lives on the eastern seaboard,” he says. “I’m surprised the whole country doesn’t tip over. So, I take them into the bush to meet the Uncles, and the Uncles talk to them about being a blackfella, and I talk to them about geology, geomorphology and pointy rocks.”

The two-way cultural conversation is essential. “If you’re going to teach people, taking whitefellas onto country, well, you have to leave them something. Don’t just go there and take away.” Semi-retired or not, Terry has no intention of walking away, or of treading heavily.

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