Can I finally say “Welcome back”?
I wonder if the expression fits.
Are we really back?
Did we ever leave?
It seems we've been working all summer long, prepping for online courses and devising plans for climate repair in the department. If you are one of the 15 new students entering our graduate program this year, we'll probably meet and work with you on computer screens. Only a handful of faculty and students will encounter each other in classroom settings, and those encounters will be modified by face masks, lots of gaps between seats, and scrupulous protocols for entering and exiting the buildings. We're running 58 courses this semester: 48 remote, 8 hybrid, and 2 in-person. It's going to be a strange regime, and who knows how long it will last?
Not long, it turns out.
As I was writing this note, the GEO strike began. The campus and department were caught up in critical responses to the University’s in-person semester plans, issues of campus policing, the right to work remotely, and figuring out how to engage with our undergrads without crossing picket lines. The resolution of the eight-day strike left many of us dissatisfied, but I’m glad our faculty, after helpful consultation with anthropology’s GEO stewards, Addie Block and Annie Birkeland, produced a letter in support of the strikers and critical of the restraining order the University filed against GEO. Thanks to Kelly Askew, Damani Partridge, and Laura MacLatchy for writing the letter, which attracted 37 signatures in solidarity. We did not need a work stoppage to realize just how indispensable GSIs are to our teaching mission – GSIs consistently rank among our very best instructors – but it was amazing to see the intense dedication of our graduate students to ensuring the safety of the wider community, even at great financial and legal risk to themselves.
So now we face a second “back to school” moment, and the ordinary business of producing extraordinary anthropology churns on. We're welcoming a new Collegiate Fellow to the department this year, Alyssa Paredes(sociocultural), who's taken the bold step of moving to town. Her computer screen is right here in Ann Arbor, where she will continue her research on the political economy of banana plantations in the Philippines. Giulia Semerari (archaeology) will join us as a Lecturer affiliated with the UMMAA; zooming in from Italy, she'll teach a new course, Gender & Archaeology, this fall. Several of our faculty are targeting their intellectual efforts directly at the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Melissa Burch, now a Ford Foundation Fellow, will spend the year writing and researching at the cutting edge of carceral studies, and Stuart Kirsch, a Nomis Fellow, will teach a new course on COVID-19 as he prepares for five years of vital research on global climate change. In a bold move to foster diversity and inclusion in the department, the Biological subfield has organized an amazing lecture series (11 talks in the fall semester) featuring the innovative work of BIPOC scholars who study genetics, evolution, and human behavior. Other subfields are following suit, with colloquia, reading groups, and coursework dedicated to new research on race and anti-racism, and on the means and ends of decolonizing our discipline.
At every level of our program, people are doing fascinating things. In ANT 101, our students are winning research awards (check out Mackenzie Gard's prize), and at the other end of the pipeline, our emeritus faculty are receiving accolades as well (read about John Speth's Byron Cummings Award). The College is honoring our professors (Webb Keane will give his Collegiate Lecture this semester), and the larger discipline acknowledges the impressive work of our alums (Rebecca Carter's first book won a 2020 Victor Turner Prize). Meanwhile, our graduate students are defending dissertations and landing postdocs and tenure track jobs even as the pandemic rages. Some of them must balance frustration and elation after winning prestigious grants they cannot use because of COVID-19 research and travel restrictions.
It is reassuring to see that Michigan Anthropology is still its vibrant self, even in these hard times. The department is filled with creative people and creative energy. Yet our desires to interact and learn from each other are blocked in countless ways. Our collective life takes greater effort now. It requires more intention, less routine. That's exactly what we'll need as we begin a year of reforms to a departmental climate that needs mending. Don't shy away from this work. Participate. Observe. Social distancing has made us realize that, even before COVID, we were not always engaging with each other as well or as much as we should. Our mentoring systems, the canons we teach, the languages in which we recognize each other, all need special attention and renovation. We need to fill our intellectual spaces with new people and new ideas; to do so, we'll have to jettison some old intellectual habits, and we'll have to be conscientious about it. We've done this throughout our history, as a discipline and as a department. We can do it again today.
This year, let's enact changes that will make the department a richer, more welcoming place. We already do some of the world's best, most challenging anthropology at Michigan. If we transform in creative dialogue with that tradition, imagine how much better we could be.