Monday, April 20, 2020

Responsible Anthropology in the Pandemic

Anthropologists have a mixed legacy of complicity with colonial powers and support for pro-local progressivism. Both strains of anthropology share a desire to travel among 'othered' peoples.  As a guild anthropologists are aware of this intersectional conflict in disciplinary identity and desire.  Neo-Trotskyist anthropologist Kathleen Gough called for anthropologists to subsume themselves in the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles and, in so doing, transform anthropology. For a brief moment in the discipline's history Gough's call resonated within the discipline as part of a global social movement for justice and the overthrow of propertied elites who commanded the heights of national states.  But as movement after movement was defeated anthropologists turned away from material struggles for change to explore nuance in experimental representations of their research in print and visual media instead.  It was a crisis in the global order of rule that created the opportunity for a progressive social moment in the 1960s & 1970s.  

In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic a similar moment of crisis of authority and the normal is occurring.  We see the effects of decades of privatization, underfunding, and tax cutting in the tidal wave of death sweeping through long term care facilities for our elders. Facilities left to profiteers employing low paid marginalized workers have been the center of the worst effects of the pandemic. The need to throttle the wider economy arises from the same ideas of lean management and finding ‘efficiencies’ in our healthcare system. Here we see our hospitals lack the adequate resilience to respond to a serious crisis without shutting down all other services, pushing people out of care, and then closing the rest of society.

It didn’t have to be this way and it doesn't need to be this way in the future. It will be up to historians to dissect how we got here, but we can all focus on how we should move forward today. There is much to learn from the earlier generation of progressives like Gough.  They argued for a locally relevant anthropological practice that was tied to an emancipatory social justice practice.  It was also an anthropology that was interested as much in making changes in the home nation and communities, as it was oriented to changes elsewhere.  In fact, the most committed of the earlier generation of progressives were far less interested in making professional milestones than in facilitating progressive change at home and globally.

So where does this take us? How can we practice anthropology responsibly in the pandemic? We can start with doing anthropology where we are. It has been the luxury of global travel that propelled the diffusion of the virus globally into a pandemic. Combine global travel with key cultural events – lunar New Year in Asia and Spring Break in North America – and we have a recipe for disaster.  Anthropologists, despite their claims otherwise, perform very much like cruise ship voyagers traveling to hot spots of interest and feel totally empowered to do so. So, step one, stop traveling for research.

Step two – study local. Work where we are, in our own neighbourhoods, networks, and communities of account. Especially in the pandemic this reduces adverse impacts of crossing social boundaries. This also addresses issues of power imbalances that social scientists have identified with middle class researchers heading off to study groups of historically marginalized peoples.

Step three – act locally for social justice. The impacts of the current pandemic are magnified by longstanding historic injustices. Long-term care for the elderly has been driven primarily by a privatized for profit sector that pays poorer wages to people with inadequate job security, the result in the pandemic has been needless early death of our elders. Our hospitals have been managed to run lean at near 100% capacity with over paid specialists at one end and poorly paid core staff at the other the net effect that our hospitals don’t have the resilience or capacity to respond without shutting down society and discharging thousands of people who needed care.

A responsible anthropology in the pandemic would thus be local and engaged in fundamental political, social, and economic changes.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Anthropology in the Pandemic

At the University of British Columbia all non-essential and non-COVID-19 research has been 'curtailed' by the university (link).  There is a specific prohibition on in person research (though a definition of such is assumed, not defined).  I assume in-person research is simply any kind of human subject research wherein the researcher and the research participant are  physically in the same general space.  

Research that can be conducted over the phone or internet can, if approved, be continued. 

I have been trying to find the provincial health order that might have compelled UBC to ban all in person research out right.  My various questions to officials in the research ethics off or the office of the vice-president of research have, to date, gone unanswered.*  It would be useful to know what provincial or federal guidance/order/notice was followed to come to a decision to essentially shut down most kinds of anthropological research. 

My understanding of the provincial (and various associated federal and regional) health orders and guidance notes around physical distancing would suggest that anthropological research could be conducted, as long as the appropriate measures  were followed (personal protective equipment as appropriate, 2 meters distance, etc). Yet UBC has 'curtailed' all in person research, even that which might be in compliance with the orders around physical distancing.

There are many types of anthropological research , of course, but that which my students and I engage in is not driven by structured interviews in which 'informants' are lined up and interviewed like cogs on a conveyor belt.  We engage in a classic kind of research that involves participation, engagement, observation, conversation, and moments of shared silence.  There are types of 'qualitative' research in which the interview is at the core of the project (these kinds of research could be tossed online with minimal disruption). But the heart of anthropological research is more humane, personable, and intimate. It involves actually being there (where ever the 'there' might be). 

I could imagine a number of project one might wish to start up today. 

For example, the fishing industry is currently facing a major slow down and market disruption. This isn't just in BC, it's global. Fleets are being beached, processing workers laid off, markets crashing, all around the globe. One project might involve reaching out to fishermen along our coast to learn and observe how onboard practices may have changed.  Perhaps the researcher might even sign up to join the boat as a crewmember (from what I hear it's hard to hire a crew right now). Fishing (along with hunting and cultivation) is labeled an essential part of the food production chain and thus currently deemed essential in BC.  The only drawback is there isn't much of a market right now given the global shutdown.
My current research involves small teams (one, two or three) working in the coastal alpine. Essentially we are hiking along remote mountain ranges observing mountain goats (filming and collecting biological samples) and then talking with family and friends about what we observed to gain greater understanding of long standing Gitxaała practices within the coastal alpine.

My ‘questioning’ of UBC’s ’curtailment’ includes a concern with the meta level principles/health orders that led to the ban on all in person research and with a more micro level focus on the criteria that would make in person research feasible. I raise the first concern as I think UBC’s curtailment goes beyond the health orders.  I ask the second as I think we need to engage in some curtailment and I am therefore intersted in what criteria we might use to facilitate local in person research.  

*Update, April 18, 8:30pm: one response was received that referred me to this page and noted that in addition to physical distancing orders, there are restrictions on non-essential travel and concerns with impacts on remote areas. That is reasonable. Remaining to consider are criteria for in person research within one's own locality (thus obviating issues with non-essential travel). Also, travel should not be confused with commuting. Travel implies a notion of journey of some time, whereas commuting is a regular movement from a home to a place of work and back. Commuting is not, from what I can see, prohibited.

There is also a category 'field research' that might apply for anthropological research, however I suspect that the kind of 'fieldwork' envisioned is more of the biological or geological sciences, for example.

One looks forward to a more engaged process that brings in a wide array of disciplinary specialists so that the full range and nuance of 'field' and in-person research can be considered fairly and safely.

Update, April 19, 5:30am: One further thought - there is a sense to which the university is envisioning faculty's core and primary roles as teachers. This is only one portion of what we do, research (which includes writing and publishing) and administrative functions being the bulk of our work. But the work from home directives focus primarily upon our teaching. That is understandable as teaching is at the core of the university's public face and core 'market.'  Teaching and learning was the publicly disruptive act of curtailment and required immediate attention. But it does underline a perception that research, especially in the arts, is something 'other,' almost a luxury that can be set aside until later.  

Monday, April 6, 2020

Letter from Faculty of Arts faculty to UBC-V's senate on SEoTs

We are Faculty of Arts teaching staff who are concerned about the UBCV Provost’s decision to continuing holding student evaluations of teaching (SEoTs) “as usual” this term.  There is nothing usual about the conditions for teaching this term and we do not believe that this decision is in the best interest of the teaching staff at UBCV.  The ability of individuals to undertake the burdens of the switch to online teaching differs according to individual circumstances and these burdens have been placed particularly heavily upon the most vulnerable members of our teaching complement, who have both a larger number of courses to teach and a smaller pool of financial resources to absorb additional burdens like the cost of high-speed internet or other equipment they need for their courses.

Moreover, the Provost’s reasoning in which he claims that “we [sic] believe it will be useful to gather student feedback on their experience of the transition to online” is concerning.  This is not a goal for SEoTs contemplated in the Senate policy for SEoTs, the SEoT questionnaire was not developed with this goal in view and will not yield reliable or valid data on that topic, and there are many aspects to the student “experience of the transition to online” that go beyond their experience in (and thus their evaluation of) individual courses and their instructors. If gathering student feedback on the transition to online teaching is the University’s goal, it must develop a dedicated instrument for this purpose.

The Senate meets in special session on 8 April to discuss covid-19-related matters.  We urge that you place a discussion of this decision onto the agenda for that meeting.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Open Letter on SEoT to UBC-V's Provost.

Dear Andrew,

I note your memo on SEoT for UBC-V instructors that was relayed via my department.

In that memo is the suggestion that there is valuable data to be collected on the transition to online delivery – emergency remote teaching. There may indeed be data waiting to be harvested, yet this instrument  was not designed to do that task.  

The individual option for instructors that you have provided is problematic. One of my colleagues recently shared their thoughts via a department list serve raising concerns about the implications for a faculty member to not use this term's records – wondering out loud how that would be interpreted and understood in reviews if others did include them.  

The data you are looking for on the transition could have been rolled out in a way that left evaluation of teaching off the table. The technical modification of those forms is not that complicated (or at least that is what I have been told by the technicians previously). 

At this juncture, where so much is in turmoil, so many of us with family, friends, associates affected adversely by the pandemic and it’s spill over effects, it seems that running yet one more evaluation during this time takes on the appearances of an act of unkindness.  As instructors we have been asked, and many of us have taken a lead on encouraging others, to act with compassion. We have made modifications, accommodations, and allowances. We have worked to pay attention to our students' needs. 

For example, in one of my courses where we are reading an ethnography and viewing a film of working in a food processing plant one student explained that they couldn’t get past the first page of the book. They were surprised at their response – I excused all of the subsequent assignments. Another wrote apologies for missing a virtual class from their phone as their parent was being admitted to an emergency room.  Another had given up their rental accommodation because economic uncertainty due to the pandemic and our virtual class fell on their moving day. And on these stories go. In the best times I work out alternative projects or other accommodations, but in this case asking these students to continue to do make-up work strikes me as an act devoid of compassion. The harm caused by continuing the SEoT, however valuable the data may be for you, outweighs any perceived benefit.

I am compelled to urge my own students not to complete these evaluations as I can find no importance in doing them at this time.  Furthermore I encourage my colleagues not to facilitate or support the implementation of SEoT either.

With warm regards,