Aggressively Human: An Anthropological Manifesto

A few months ago, I was talking to a group of students after class. One of them commented that they appreciated my openness about different things as a prof, and how it made me more “human”. I responded by saying “Yeah, that’s intentional. Dr. Biittner and I are, like, aggressively human“.

It was a quick, off the cuff, semi-joking statement, but as we thought about it afterwards, we realized it was much more than that. It was, and is, our guiding principle in approaching teaching and doing anthropology. Anthropology as…aggressively human, if you will.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this idea as we’ve observed the discussion around the abusive practices that have characterized the work of the journal Hau. For a quick primer on the issues and concerns that have been raised, see this Twitter thread by Hilary Agro (and links within). There are also too many fantastic critical posts and threads to note, but I would highlight Zoe Todd’s powerful discussion of decolonial anthropology, as well as discussions and contributions organized by Allegra lab (disclosure: a short comment I made will be part of a discussion about the implications for teaching and education to appear there shortly), and of course, searching #hautalk will bring up a lot of great commentary and information.

As those links show, this story has quickly become one that is about how academic institutions, and anthropology in particular, can work to not only shield abusers, but also create contexts in which they able to perform their violence – for example, through the exploitative and insecure structures of employment and payment that make some members of our community very vulnerable to economic abuse, as well as preventing them from speaking up about other forms of abuse at the risk of losing their job (or, more commonly and frighteningly, losing the opportunity of a hypothetical job well in the future). As several BIPOC scholars have noted, the revelation of abusive practice of Hau’s editorial board was unsurprising to them, because the journal was premised on an exploitative, white-centric model of anthropology and ethnographic theory, visible immediately from its choice of name (see this illuminating discussion the Mahi Tahi collective of New Zealand scholars).

As I note in my contribution to the forthcoming Allegra post, this story reflects a pervasive pattern within academic, and specifically anthropological, teaching and training – the idea that learning occurs through suffering, and that suffering is therefore a necessary part of one’s experience as a student. This is especially true at the graduate levels, where we undergo our final set of rigorous tests to obtain credentials that admit us into the ranks of disciplinary experts, but certainly doesn’t start there. I have heard far too many colleagues justify teaching practices that leave their students in tears, dismiss traumas that they have experienced in the field, or suggest outright that emotions have no place in the academy. To be clear, academia is difficult. Knowledge can be upsetting. Fieldwork is inherently stressful. But it is possible to support students through those difficulties, rather than minimizing their suffering, or worse, actively creating it in the spirit of some kind of “trial by fire”  – abuse disguised as pedagogy.

I link this back to our intention, here to be “aggressively human”, because to me, the model that I have seen reflected in the stories about the abuse at Hau, and the defenses of this abuse as some kind of “difficult but fair” authoritarian model of scholarly practice, is one that is profoundly inhuman and inhumane. This is especially ironic, to my mind, in a discipline that is about the human, and a subfield (ethnography) that develops knowledge through the human practice of connection and empathy.

So, then, an aggressively human anthropology, and specifically, an anthropological pedagogy, is one in which

  1. We place empathy at the core of our learning and teaching experiences, and the human at the centre of our approach to theory and method
  2. We engage directly, constantly, and actively in calls to decolonize the discipline, to move away from and explicitly renounce anthropological practice that is dehumanizing, dismissive, and exploitative of Indigenous and racialized people
  3. We use our positions of relative privilege and power to advocate for humane academic working conditions, to push against increasing precarity, and to protect students from exploitation and abuse within their learning environments
  4. We push against status hierarchies and the creation of academic ‘rock stars’ who can use their status to shield themselves from the consequences of their own abuse, and we advocate for a community of academics that is collaborative and mutually enforcing rather than competitive and egotistical.
  5. We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.

I write this post from my own position, but in consultation with my blogging partner Dr. Biittner, and these points are a shared commitment for us. Continuing this conversation, we need to define what kinds of attainable goals exist within each of these principles, and consider more fully what this looks like within our work as undergraduate instructors, or within our research practices in various communities. Suggestions from fellow aggressively human scholars and anthropologists more than welcome.

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Preparing for the Field (2018 Edition)

Iringa town

It’s been eight years since I’ve traveled to Tanzania for field work so yes I’m more than a little anxious about it. I have been in the field locally (i.e., the Mill Creek field school, which I documented here, here, here, here, here, and here) but there is a heightened sense of importance when one is heading to another continent for an extended period of time even if you’ve done it several times before (I did field work in Tanzania in 2006, 2008, and 2010, and traveled there for a conference in 2009 and to Senegal for a conference in 2010 too). As I tell my students, it is not like I roll out of bed and decide one morning “time to do some fieldwork” and then just grab my trowel and go dig somewhere. There is so much preparation that needs to be done and this is often not communicated well when we talk about going to the field. In recent years I have discussed this at length in all of my archaeology courses (and my Anth101 course too) because I think it is important to demystify the process of setting up a research program including all of the steps that are required before a single shovel can dig into the ground.

Note: I’ve previously covered this topic on my personal blog but I’ve updated it as some of the steps have changed. Also this is pretty specific to Tanzania but does give some insight as to the kinds of things you should look into no matter where you plan on working. Finally, I’m presenting this from a professor’s point of view – students will likely not have to complete many of these preparatory steps but I firmly believe that they should be aware of what they are and provide input and receive updates at every stage.

The first step in any research project is to apply for funding. Our project, the Iringa Region Archaeological Project (IRAP), is currently funded through 2022 by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. We budgeted two field seasons into this grant as field work is a costly endeavour (Ed. – Another blog post on this later perhaps?).

In terms of planning to do actually field work, we have to first and foremost apply for research clearance from COSTECH (The Tanzanian Commission on Science and Technology) for all participants. This is typically done approximately 6 months before we intend to go. It currently costs $50 USD to apply (one fee for the single application, does not matter how many people are associated with the project) and $300 USD per person for the permit once approved. We also notify at this time the Director of the Department of Antiquities (Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism) that we are applying for COSTECH clearance as they will be reviewing our file. We cannot receive an excavation permit, that actually allows us to dig and collect artifacts, without COSTECH clearance and will not receive COSTECH clearance without the approval of Antiquities. We are required to have a local collaborator for our COSTECH application as well; we are fortunate to be working with Dr. Pastory Bushozi.

Once we receive notice of approval from COSTECH we can apply for our visas from the Tanzanian High Commission in Ottawa. This is where it also really helps to have our Tanzanian colleague located in Tanzania to assist us as we need to include copies of our COSTECH permits with this application. Our colleague picks up and scans our COSTECH  permits to email them to us; we then include the scans with our application. There is also a cost associated with the visa (and yes, while you can apply for the visa once you arrive there, we find doing it in advance helps speed up other permissions).

Once we have our COSTECH permits confirmed we can then book our flights. While this can occur at any point during the planning process, we tend to wait for COSTECH because without that permit we cannot do the research. We need to have the dates for our visas and our departments so at this point we start to have many things on the go at the same time. We rely heavily on checklists and communication between all of the people who are going to be involved in the field work becomes really important; we schedule frequent lab meetings and are in constant email contact. Around this time we also arrange for our vaccinations and get prescriptions for anti-malarial pills and take care of any other personal medical requirements to ensure we enter (and can leave) the field healthy.

Other tasks include communicating with the appropriate people in our department and any other appropriate offices at our universities. This includes things writing up and submitting ethics approvals, field safety/hazard assessment reports, emergency field response forms, itineraries, etc. We also register with the Canadian High Commission in Dar es Salaam via their webpage (www.travel.gc.ca). This ensures that should any issue arise which may prove a concern to our safety, the High Commission can contact us and get us out if necessary. So yes SO MUCH PAPERWORK. But it is so critical and important. All of these steps ensure we aren’t only doing responsible, safe, and ethical research but also that all of the right people know what is going on and can be kept in the loop.

We also arrange to return any collections we borrowed for study in previous years; we have been fortunate to be able to export artifacts and other materials for study to the lab at the University of Alberta. While we are doing this we are also taking inventories of gear and purchasing whatever supplies we need to take with us.

Then we can pack (this takes me weeks because I pack and unpack until I am satisfied that I have the minimum I need) and also get our personal lives sorted so we can finally make our way to the airport. This is the first year I’ll be leaving a kiddo behind at home so this has added an extra layer of stress to the planning but I’m so grateful for my husband and family who will be supporting her in my absence (I’m also so happy that I can check in all the time – thanks internet!).

There are some additional steps that have to be completed once we arrive in Tanzania. This season the Principal Investigator of our project and her PhD student have gone a few weeks early to take care of some of this before the rest of us (myself, my student, and another PhD student arrive); they are currently there now! After we arrive in Dar and recover from jet lag, we now need to head to the capital city, Dodoma, to visit the Department of Antiquities to officially pay for and pick up our Excavation License (again this process is sped up by having our colleague drop off our application a few months before we plan on arriving). This application includes a short project proposal and budget, 5% of which is what we will pay for the excavation permit. Once the fee is paid, typically in USD, we receive a copy of the License, which notifies us as who is our Antiquities Officer for the duration of our field season. This Officer will accompanies us during our work to ensure that we are conducting responsible and ethical research to the standard required by the Government of Tanzania. Part of our budget requires that we pay them a salary and cover their room and expenses while in the field with us. They also provide us with letters of introduction, which are necessary for visiting government offices in our particular study area.

We also visit the Tanzanian Department of Immigration because as researchers we are required to have our immigration status changed to a Class C “resident’s permit” – our visa just gets us in the country. It is quite the process involving filling out a form (in duplicate), providing 5 passport photos, and copies of your Curriculum Vitae (CV), any diplomas received, COSTECH permit, passport photo and passport visa pages. We submit our application and are given an receipt that provides the date we can pay for and pick up the permit. We are lucky that again our colleague facilitates this  by dropping off the paperwork as soon as we can get copies of everything to them. The first time I did this it meant staying in Dar for two weeks but now we can begin working while it is being processed (though it is typically ready when we arrive).

Once all the steps above are completed we can finally head out to our field site – Iringa Region – to do some archaeology!

empire

Check back regularly for posts from Iringa!