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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol 1 > Collaborative writing to enhance cross-cultural understanding within the Academy
Collaborative writing to enhance cross-cultural understanding within the Academy
Author: Donna Lee Brien and Bronwyn Fredericks
Professor Donna Lee Brien and Dr Bronwyn Fredericks convey the history of one particular Australian writing workshop, born of political and educational agendas — in this case Indigenous perspectives.


This paper describes the design and implementation of a research writing workshop for postgraduate students. The workshop was developed to respond to two key issues currently on the agenda in Australia’s universities: a push to embed Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum, and a desire to develop creative works as quality research outputs. The workshop was carefully designed to provide opportunities for participants to practise and improve their writing; develop transferable writing skills; develop a culturally safe environment where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians could work together; provide a place to practise collaborative writing and collaborative facilitating; and provide an opportunity to develop a publication-ready, creative writing piece that was co-developed by participants. In this paper, the authors provide an overview of the literature relevant to Indigenizing a workshop curriculum and reflect on the genre of Indigenous writing in Australia. They also discuss the literature relevant to their collaboration as both writers and facilitators. They conclude that the workshop processes contributed to building a relationship of collaboration and trust between the facilitators and participants, and that these processes directly contributed to the successful workshop outcomes.

Keywords: creative writing, collaboration, indigenous perspectives, indigenizing the curriculum

Most theories of facilitation exhort the facilitator to develop a trusting relationship … yet few propose a model for how this can be achieved, and when they do it is surprisingly naïve. (Hughes 1998: 221)


In August 2013, we organized an intensive research writing workshop for postgraduate students. Alongside the obvious desire to provide guidance on research writing, our workshop responded to two topical issues within Australian universities: the need to embed Indigenous perspectives and approaches within the curriculum (Loban 2011) and a desire to develop creative works as quality research outputs (ARC 2014). In addition, the workshop responded to two topics of interest to us: exploring approaches to facilitating that respect the cultural needs of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, and exploring collaborative writing practice.

We built the workshop from our desire to “mix things up”: we combined
Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, experienced and less-experienced writers and researchers, and creative writing and research writing. We also included brief information sessions alongside interactive group discussions and hands-on practice. During the workshop, participants responded to a visual artwork and wrote two poems. The poems were collaboratively developed and performed by the workshop’s participants, and have since been accepted for publication in a special issue of TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses on creative writing as research (2014).

In this paper, we discuss key aspects of the research writing workshop. We explain the current push in Australia to develop Indigenized curriculums, explore the practice of collaborative creative writing, explore our experiences with cross-cultural collaboration, and examine our role as facilitators
. As the workshop provided a melding of individual voices and a dynamism that is unlikely to be achieved by each participant working as a solo writer, the workshop process presented the participants and the facilitators with challenges and opportunities. It helped us to develop processes for learning, teaching and research as a collective of creative Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (Williamson & Dalal 2007).

Background to the research writing workshop

We developed and conducted this research writing workshop for postgraduate students at Central Queensland University. The workshop was designed to support participants to learn about the processes and techniques of both academic and creative writing, and how to successfully publish that writing. Beyond this, the workshop was deliberately designed to be appropriate for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. Unlike most academic writing and publishing workshops, the workshop included Indigenous content and perspectives and was designed to align to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contexts (Fredericks et al. 2011; White & Fredericks 2012). Many of the facilitated processes underpinning the workshop were steeped in Indigenous knowledges (Battiste 1998; Kincheloe & Steinberg 2008; Martin 2008; Moreton-Robinson 2000; Rigney 2001; Smith 1999).

The workshop registration process was coordinated to include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, without any group dominating. This provided a clear contrast to most university learning environments, where non-Indigenous students tend to dominate the space. Our workshop involved nine
Aboriginal Australian women from diverse cultural backgrounds, two Torres Strait Islander women and seven non-Indigenous women. We did not set out to deliberately target women only, but women were the first to register and filled the available spaces. A number of men have expressed interest in attending a future workshop. As presenters, we added to these numbers as one Indigenous professor and one non-Indigenous professor (professor being the highest level of Australian academic), both women.

Indigenizing the curriculum in Australia

In Australia, improving higher education access and outcomes for Indigenous people has appeared in the national reform agenda through the Australian University Quality Agency (Anning 2010), the Review of Australian Higher Education Final Report (known throughout Australia as the Bradley Report) (Recommendation 30, Bradley et al. 2008: xxiii), and numerous other documents. One common recommendation is to add Indigenous perspectives to learning and teaching approaches and materials, in a process widely known as “Indigenizing the Curriculum” (Kincheloe & Steinberg 2008; Marshall 2006; McLauglin & Whatman 2007).

Most projects that explore methods for Indigenizing the curriculum in Australia to date have involved the undergraduate curriculum, with work completed in the discipline areas of law (Douglas 2004), science (Hauser et al. 2009), humanities (Battiste 2004; Cupit 2011), social sciences (Atal 1981) and psychology (Hagan & Huijser 2008; Ranzijn et al. 2008). There has also been some recent work inquiring into working with Indigenous research students at Masters and Doctoral level (Fredericks et al. forthcoming; Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011; Trudgett 2009; White & Fredericks 2012). In this, discipline areas have tended to attempt to
engage students in learning and teaching activities about Indigenous peoples, cultures and issues. Such projects typically locate literature written by Indigenous peoples and incorporate that literature into their learning and teaching activities. These disciplines clearly state that they are not seeking to appropriate Indigenous knowledge, but seek to understand Indigenous peoples, cultures and issues and provide a counter argument to the premise that minimizes the knowledges and contributions of Indigenous peoples throughout the world (Battiste 1988; Smith 1999). This approach recognizes that, while it is important in Australia to increase knowledge of Indigenous Australians, it is also important to increase knowledge of Indigenous peoples throughout the world, and other Indigenous voices and materials are included. Indigenizing the curriculum is, therefore, a global activity.

Projects seeking to Indigenize the curriculum need, however, to recognize the complexities and tensions that occur at cross-cultural interfaces. They typically have to negotiate between Indigenous knowledge and perspectives and Western disciplinary systems and processes (Bauer & Horsley 2011; Nakata 2007). Acknowledging and attending to these negotiations and recognizing the implied pedagogical practices inherent within them might be challenging for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators (Kincheloe & Steinberg 2008). This is an argument, therefore, for tackling this objective at the highest levels (Williamson & Dalal 2007), and was one of the motivators behind our project that was pitched at postgraduate researchers and involved professorial-level facilitators.

Our workshop project was also, in part, built on our desire to “transform the academy” or “Indigenize the academy” through
increasing Indigenous contributions and influencing the academy’s future work. We were excited by the possibility that a research writing workshop could offer skills to Indigenous peoples and support efforts to reclaim, reconstitute and revitalize Indigenous intellectual and cultural traditions (Fredericks et al. 2011). This was especially important to us in the light of the ongoing history in many countries of “epistemological colonization, which reifies itself through the pedagogue and resides within conventional classroom spaces” (Dei 2011: xi).

Approaches to Indigenous writing

Indigenous writing is valued as a genre in its own right. It makes a contribution by articulating, clarifying, preserving and maintaining Indigenous stories, histories, knowledges and understandings. It also makes a contribution to attempts to Indigenize the curriculum (Fredericks et al. 2011; White & Fredericks 2012). Much Indigenous writing, whether creative or scholarly, is autobiographical or biographical (see, for example, Knudsen 2004; Van Toorn 2006). This trend is recognized both in Australia and globally. Although this auto/biographical focus of Indigenous writing has been valued in terms of the power of its testimony and the lessons that can be learned from its content (Butler 2013), this focus has also led to some criticism of Indigenous authorship (see Grossman 2001), as the Indigenous genre is sometimes seen as limited.

In Australia,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are under-represented in both academic and creative publications (Fredericks et al. forthcoming). Within universities, it is widely recognized that publishing is necessary for individual career progression and promotion. What is less well recognized, though, is that the academy might need Indigenous voices, narratives and visions, and that increasing the publishing of Indigenous authors might promote positive change for all (Battiste 2004). Moreover, Indigenous academics need the freedom to publish in both mainstream academic media and Indigenous-specific media that are targeted to Indigenous audiences. As Fredericks explains (in Laycock et al. 2011: 266): 

We can use writing as another vehicle to document what we think, how we do things and what matters to us. We can also leave writing for the generations that follow us so that they can quote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars and writers, politicians, activists and community members about our business. Collectively we can all make a difference to the struggle and remake our history and what is known about us as Indigenous peoples.

Some emerging networks help to support this need for Indigenous peoples to both publish and gain knowledge. For example, in some places, there exists a kind of community knowledge exchange between Indigenous peoples, which assists Indigenous community members who might not otherwise read academic journals (let alone contribute to them) access and provide information (Laycock et al. 2011). Sometimes Indigenous people will refer to this as “writing double” or “parallel publishing” (Fredericks et al. forthcoming; Laycock et al. 2011).

Creative and collaborative writing within the academy

In developing our workshop, we drew on the theories of creative writing and narrative enquiry to consider how experience can be narrated through story and how narrative provides writers (and speakers) with a way to not only conceptualize but also to shape life experiences (Brady & Krauth 2006; Bruner 2004). We were interested in the ways that narrative enquiry has been used in identity mapping of students and teachers (Clandinin et al. 2006) and in approaching educational research itself (Richardson 2003). We aimed to harness the active learning (Hayler & Thomson 1995) and community of practice aspects of creative writing workshops by creating narratives with formative feedback offered by the group and moderated by the workshop facilitator (Green 2001; Donnelly 2010). This approach contributed to the processes of moderated individual and group writing (Fitzpatrick 1995) as a method of both research enquiry (Richardson 2001, 2003) and a way of building the creativity and confidence of the writers involved (Brien 2007a&b).

We wanted to approach the narrative work in a way that
left room for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers to generate their own metaphors through their writing. The workshop, therefore, aimed to help participants to describe their experiences of researching and writing grounded within the academy, and academic practice more globally, regardless of which university they worked within (Anzaldua 1995; Chamberlain 2000; Mihesuah 2003; Smith 1999).

The workshop was built around collaborative writing practice. To inform our collaborative approach, we drew on work undertaken by White and Fredericks for the
Tiddas Writin’ Up: Indigenous Women and Educational Leadership project (Bunda & White 2012), which offered information for Indigenous women on improving research outputs and the quality of their publications, while also offering a hands-on experience to build researchers’ confidence and recognition. Significantly, this project contributed to Indigenous women’s growing academic influence within Australian universities, while simultaneously enabling them to retain and be proud of their cultural heritage (Fredericks et al. forthcoming; Fredericks & White 2013; White & Fredericks 2012). Building on the learnings from Tiddas Writin’ Up, we set about establishing a culturally safe environment (Ramsden, 2002) and exploring ways that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women might prefer to work (Bessarab & Ng'andu 2010; Bunda & White 2009; Reinharz 1992; Tisdell 1995; White & Fredericks 2012). In this, we were also informed by Brien’s work on collaborative practice and collaborative writing (2007b; Brien & Brady 2003; Brien & Bruns 2006).

As the workshop leaders, we consciously modelled collaborative practice in the way that we facilitated each session. We co-presented all sessions, deferring to each other’s expertise while contributing our own knowledge of the topic at hand, modelling the way that productive, creative partnerships can be based on the complementary strengths that collaborators bring to projects (Brien & Brady 2003). As a facilitating team of one Indigenous woman and one non-Indigenous woman, it was important for us to model cross-cultural practice and respect, without domination by one or the other. We, therefore, sought to model feminist participatory and inclusive practices (Reinharz 1992; Tisdell 1995) and the Indigenous women’s leadership practices of sharing (Bunda & White 2009; White & Fredericks 2012). We placed ourselves as participants in many of the workshop activities, completing the set tasks alongside other participants and participating fully in the guided group activities and shared enquiry. Through our participation, we not only modelled, but also learned from, these activities and improved our own research and writing practices. In this practice, we were interested in exploring the ways that collaboration can diminish some of the competitiveness encouraged by the quantitative evaluative measures of the contemporary academy, because it encourages a focus on the productivity achieved when individuals work together to produce a quality output (Brien 2007b).

We were aware that collaboration is a highly desirable and often mandated element of academic practice – including creative practice, research, and community-based service – as well as work in business and industry, and that project funding and successful or innovative outcomes often depend on the quality of collaboration. We were also, however, aware that, while there is a growing literature on collaboration (and especially team building) in institutional, corporate and industry settings, in research it is often the case that “participants in collaborative projects have a limited understanding of collaboration (in theory and practice) beyond that of a general concept, tossed about with nods of approval but rarely unpacked” (Brien & Bruns 2006).

There is little recent scholarly material discussing collaborative writing from the point of view of the collaborators – that is, those engaged in the writing practice. In a key text on collaborative practice, Koestenbaum (1989) writes: 

Collaborative works are intrinsically different than books written by one author alone ... the decision to collaborate determines the work’s contours, and the way it is read. Books with two authors are specimens of relation, and show writing to be a quality of motion and exchange, not a fixed thing. (2)

We wanted to mobilize this idea of setting up “relations” between authors and reveal the process of writing as one of “motion and exchange”. We did this by profiling and discussing collaborative writing with our participants, then asking them to engage in a collaborative writing activity. Our goal was to ask participants to produce examples of collaborative work that were ready for publication and written within the timeframe of the workshop.

To achieve this, we designed an activity for participants that would involve producing a creative work through a process of “joint collaboration” (Brien & Brady 2003). This is a form of collaborative writing practice where “two or more writers/artists work together on a single product producing a seamless text unrecognizable as belonging in part to any individual collaborator” (Brien & Brady 2003). Such work differs from the more typical academic and scholarly collaborations where a series of authors write separate chapters or parts of a finished work, depending on their expertise or involvement in the project. It is also different from collaborations where there are clear demarcations of roles – such as the roles of writer, illustrator and editor. In a joint collaboration, the writers work together to produce a text that coheres internally and reads as if it was composed by a single entity. Authorship is attributed jointly, and each individual writer is named, but their specific contribution is not identified. To develop this process of joint collaboration, we followed Laura Brady’s (1994) ideas about collaboration as conversation, which involves listening and understanding as well as writing. We were also interested in the rich contribution of the group as a collaborative organism, and how this builds on each individual’s effort (see, for example, Gere 1987, on writing groups).

To facilitate this process, we divided participants evenly into two groups. The groups were formed by chance, according to where in the room participants were sitting. This group formation was in line with a key strategy that we used to develop communication networks throughout the workshop; we developed a series of activities that progressively moved participants around the room – so that they could meet with, talk to and work with “new” people (see Fredericks & Brien forthcoming). We gave each collaborative writing group the same visual writing prompt, an artwork by one of the participants. We then facilitated a collaborative writing and editing process with each group, with one of the facilitators working with each group and becoming a co-author of their work. (The process was developed by Brien in previous workshops, and refined by the current authors for this workshop).

Cross-cultural collaboration

While we sought to Indigenize the workshop, we considered cross-cultural collaboration in all aspects of our workshop planning, seeking to develop a program that was equally welcoming for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants.

The workshop was held at Central Queensland University’s Noosa campus, which is located in riverside Noosaville, on the land of the Gubbi Gubbi people (Horton 1999). To acknowledge the Gubbi Gubbi ownership, we incorporated images of Gubbi Gubbi Country into all workshop materials. This helped to link the participants to Country and Country to the participants. Recognizing the Country on which we met was a key part of
the Indigenization process; we recognized that we are always in, and on, Indigenous places and that we should actively convey this throughout the workshop (Fredericks 2010; Moreton-Robinson 2003).

This welcoming cross-cultural approach extended to the workshop classroom environment, the surrounding spaces in the education facility, the workshop content and processes, and even the catering (see Fredericks & Brien forthcoming). By interrogating each aspect of the workshop, we attempted to embody processes that enabled learning, gathering of information, and acceptance of culturally ascribed and cooperative conversations that offered new meaning (Bessarab & Ng'andu 2010)
. Feedback showed that we also established processes of accountability and relatedness between all participants as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who shared connections as women, writers and researchers (Martin 2008). In this way, we believe our collaborative environment allowed all participants to become creators and co-creators of the learning content, social discourse and processes at hand. The sense of interconnectedness and cultural collaboration became an important element of encouraging collaborative work and Indigenizing the workshop’s processes and content. This Indigenized, cross-culturally aware, collaborative environment also helped to develop trust and respect, maintain order and dignity, and provide cultural safety for all (Ramsden 2002).


We began this article with a quotation asserting that workshop facilitators need to build trust in their participants, but have little to guide them in this endeavour. Hughes (1998: 221) notes that “most theories of facilitation exhort the facilitator to develop a trusting relationship … yet few propose a model for how this can be achieved”. Hughes argues that building trust between facilitators and participants is an essential component of ensuring that any learning occurring in what the author calls the “micro-climates” of the workshop (spaces purposefully developed for facilitation and a model within which our workshop would fit) is transferable to environments outside that micro-climate. We conclude by suggesting that we believe our efforts to Indigenize the workshop curriculum, develop scholarly collaboration and develop cross-cultural collaboration helped to build a relationship of trust between the facilitators and participants and, therefore, contributed to achieving the workshop’s outcomes.

We designed our creative and research writing workshop with several goals in mind. While we wanted participants to develop their writing and publishing skills and practice transferring their new skills to their ongoing writing practice, we also planned for participants to experience collaboration and develop their collaborative skills. We also wanted to contribute to Indigenization and improve the publication outputs of Indigenous researchers, and we wanted to develop our own skills as collaborative facilitators. We felt that we could be certain that our workshop environment would help participants to develop skills that could be transferred to their ongoing writing and research practice. We also hoped that the wider learning and experiences of the workshop – the increase in academic and creative confidence, cross-cultural awareness and interconnectedness – would endure past the workshop itself. While we have only anecdotal evidence, a number of participants have, unbidden, sent us information that attests to this having happened.

In this micro-to-macro view, our workshop is an example of how collaborative practice and approaches can be mobilized in an attempt to increase cross-cultural awareness, relatedness, sensitivity and understanding. In our experience, in Australia, it is rare to develop academic activities that are underpinned by a rationale that explicitly extends beyond the stated academic objectives (in this case, increasing confidence and capacity in creative and academic writing). Our workshop did this by explicitly incorporating Indigenized curriculum objectives, cross-cultural awareness processes, and collaborative practice in a way that allowed us to seek much wider and more significant goals. We believe that this example makes a contribution towards
Indigenizing the international academy through the workshop itself, and through sharing its practices.


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Donna Lee Brien (BEd, GCHE, MA(Prelim), MA, PhD) is Professor, Creative Industries, and Chair, Creative and Performing Arts Research Group at Central Queensland University, Australia. Widely published on creative writing praxis and pedagogy, Donna has recently completed a federal government funded national project on the examination standards of creative arts doctorates. Current research includes projects on Australian food writers and their contribution to national culinary culture, and the intersection of food writing with health issues.

Bronwyn Fredericks (DipT (Sec), Bed, Med, MEdStudies, PhD) is a Murri woman from South-East Queensland, Australia. She is a member of the National Indigenous Researchers and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN), the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Capricornia Arts Mob (Indigenous artists in Central Queensland). Bronwyn is a Professor and the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) and BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) Chair in Indigenous Engagement at Central Queensland University, Australia.