Anthropology will be posting a few personal pieces from our Faculty, Students, and Staff dealing with the effects of COVID19. Stay tuned for more from our community.
From Our Chair:
What's it like being Chair right now? I'm not sure. Things shift every day.
I've gone from my preferred stance, "reluctant administrator," to one that resembles a disaster relief manager who expected floods and tornadoes but got a global pandemic instead. There's a lot I don't know how to do, and much of what I used to do seems misfit or pointless now. I didn't realize how important just being around the office, physically and emotionally present, was to my job. A lot of our business is done in doorways. Serious matters involve crossing a threshold and taking a seat. Chance encounters in the hallways tell me essential things about the department’s mood and needs. Movement is a necessary part of these rituals, as is the layout of West Hall. Now that I’m working from a laptop in my dining room, I’ve lost entire genres of information. I attend my screen meetings in a state of mild distraction. I’m properly dressed from the waist up, worried that my beard is growing out crooked and gray, and I over-analyze the body language of my interlocutors (and their imperious, Zoom-bombing cats). We’re doing critical work in these meetings, but what I really enjoy about them is the positive spark I feel when a person first appears on screen. I miss face-to-face contact. The virtual department reminds me of the real one, which I know better and want back.
Since mid-March, I've spent a lot of time shutting things down, a process that reverses what I normally do. It's hard to dismantle research agendas people have been working on for years. Human subjects research is on hold; wet and dry labs are empty; stipends intended for international fieldwork must now be spent on subsistence in the US. Grad students are living with their parents, or confined to apartments that are now field sites, or attending language schools online. It's a cruel disruption. We've managed to provide financial support to everyone who needs it for spring and summer, but the coming year will be the real test. The 2020 job market has disappeared. Our newly-minted PhDs who secured tenure-track jobs before the hiring freezes kicked in are almost ashamed of themselves. "It's luck," they say. It's also talent and training, but survival in the (post)pandemic academy is going to be harder for everyone. Our curriculum will need to address the "bad luck" now permeating the system. I wonder what our new grad students will make of the program when they enter in Fall 2020. Their recruitment weekend happened on screens, so at least there was truth in advertising.
After several weeks of telling faculty to stay at home, I've now been given the pleasant task of telling colleagues they cannot buy equipment, fund trips, invite speakers to campus, or (basically) spend money. This will make me more popular than ever! I'm glad to report that no one has exploded yet. Faculty are delicate creatures even in the best of times, but the pandemic has brought out the best in most of them. I do read course evaluations, and what amazed me about Winter 2020 is how close the trauma bond was between professors, GSIs, and students. Coursework was a lifeline. Time and again, students said how much they appreciated the attention of their instructors. Online interaction kept them going. It motivated them, added structure to their days, and helped them contextualize the pandemic, which provided urgent new subject matter for discussion. Parents noticed, too. One actually sent a note to LSA Dean Anne Curzan, commending the department (and three professors by name) for how well we treated her son!
Some of our "business as usual" is actually getting better. I've taken part in (online) pandemic prelims and dissertation defenses, and these are colored by a special desire to make the event "right" for the guest of honor. Our dissertation defenses are better attended now than they ever were before COVID-19. I attended one with 24 visitors in the meeting. Another, I'm told, had over 90! Family, friends, high school teachers, classmates, life partners, all are gathering to witness and celebrate, which I think has a profound effect (and a good one) on the intellectual exchanges at the heart of a defense. They become more inclusive, more thoughtful, and more attuned to what the dissertator's work means not only to the discipline, but to important people in their life, people who've contributed more to their success (and for longer stretches of time) than members of the committee have! Yes, I'm a fan of these events, and I hope we can keep them, with people on screens and together in the room, when things go back to normal.
"Back to normal" is the incantation I utter to bring good things and keep bad ones away. I say it when I start feeling too comfortable with the shortcuts built into online routines, or when I see that an innovation is working and might improve the old, pre-COVID ways of running the department. My guide in casting this little spell is akin to the (very human) desire to "make things right" that's rejuvenating our dissertation defenses. It's a powerful impulse. We know there are huge gaps in our social fabric; we fill them with approximations of what used to be there, and with novelties that suffice for now. We shouldn't get too good at this – the result will be Potemkin villages and spaces we can't reoccupy when the virus is gone – but we should be unapologetic about protecting what counts. I agree with anyone who says that going back is not backward motion, and that the normal we re-establish will be different. In fact, I'll revise my incantation before your very eyes: "Protect what counts." We'll be saying that a lot in the 2020-21 academic year.
Being Chair right now is a bewildering gig. I'm not sleeping. I drift. I watch too much TV. I get emotional in weird ways. I can't read as well or as much as I used to. But I'm also learning important lessons, with absence as my teacher. One is how flexible and fascinating Michigan anthropology can be under duress; another is how many people care deeply about the department and want to help it struggle through. As long as those things are true, I'll have the resources I need to keep us moving. Slowly perhaps. But in the right directions.