An Open Letter to Our Students: Sexual Violence, Awareness, and Academic Lives

[Editor’s Note: Drs. Shulist and Biittner frankly care a whole lot about their students so this post is quite different than those that have come before. This post is a letter written to their students. It is a meant to address some of their nuanced understandings of how inequality exists in the academy, something they frequently talk about especially in the context of their roles in the Academic Women’s Network at MacEwan University. But really this means they want to write about some topics that are hard for them – hard because they are personal, they require reflexivity, they are triggering, they represent the very worst of the academy as an institution, and as such they require tact and care.  This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering for the reader.]

Dear students,

If you are here at MacEwan in person, you know that this has been our first ever Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Among the events taking place this week was a roundtable panel, organized by the Academic Women’s Network, on Sexual Violence in the Academy. Both of us were involved in that panel, as executive members of the network, and in Dr. Biittner’s case, as a panelist. Between these local events and the explosion, on social media, of people sharing their stories or just their ‘#metoo’, it’s been a difficult week for us. We have been thinking a lot about our own experiences, about the literally countless stories we have heard over the years, and of the fears we have for women in the future. In some ways, Sexual Violence Awareness Week is frustrating, because many of the people paying enough attention to attend these events (including ourselves) are already deeply and painfully aware. At the same time, it reminds us of how necessary it is to recommit ourselves to learning more, to paying attention more, to reflecting more, on how the pervasive myths of rape culture intersect with and reinforce oppression in multiple forms. As we think about these things, and particularly emerging from the panel about academia, we have a few things we want to say to you.

  1. Academia is part of the world, and the world is patriarchal and unsafe, especially for women, trans, and nonbinary folks. On yesterday’s panel, we heard statistics about everything from rates of sexual violence in archaeological fieldwork (see also this update here) to patterns of negative judgment on student course evaluations. We also heard personal stories and reflections on experiences that have happened as we go about our lives and work in the academy. The statistics are horrible. The rates of sexual assault and harassment are heartbreaking. The personal stories are affecting and enraging. Some of this is the product of being part of a world that is so full of violence it can hurt just to look at it. Some of it is also the result of specific structures and patterns of academic culture. We are profoundly hierarchical. Rank and status matter, and institutions are inclined to protect those who bring in money. Our lives are deeply embedded in close relationships of trust, and our careers can rise and fall on the favour of our PhD supervisors or the Principal Investigator on a major grant project, which gives these people immense power to silence and control us, and some of them abuse that. And we often work in ways and in places that blur the boundaries between personal and professional, in which we lower our guard, and which can give predators ways to attack without being noticed by outside observers. Academia isn’t the only type of workplace where we see this, and other environments include different types of practices and standards that predators exploit, but these aspects matter and are meaningful to how we talk about what to do about it. We wish we could counsel you on how to move forward in or beyond academia without talking about this, but we can’t. Because…
  2. We want you to be safe. Just as we know that these experiences are hard to carry in our own work, we see how hard it is for you to carry them. We are committed to making you safe in any way we can. We try to do this by advocating for better policy, by warning you away from people we know to be dangerous, by getting training in ways to support you, by reflecting on how our own privileges require us to pay attention to our own roles in the perpetuation of patterns of abuse and disbelief of those who do not share those privileges. This is a pedagogical commitment for us, and we think it should be for everyone, though we know it’s not. It is almost frustrating to have to say that of course people who are dealing with trauma, who are anxious or fearful, or who are unable to safely attend their classes, cannot learn to the best of their abilities. Some people see this as being overly protective of people who should be adults. We see it as our responsibility as educators and human beings. At the same time…
  3. It’s hard to admit we can’t make academia safe for you. We really, really wish we could. We wish that we could do more than whisper these warnings. We wish we could guarantee that when you go to a place to get an education, that is, in fact, what you will get. But the problem is so big, and it’s so hard, and we can’t. We wish we could be the Carrie Fisher in this story, and maybe, in a few decades when we are more secure and established, we will be, but for now, the only thing we can say is…
  4. We want you to talk to us. But we also want you to realize this is hard for us. This is not easy to articulate, because we do not want it to seem like we are claiming your traumas and experiences of violence are too much for us. They aren’t. Far from it. We are not counselors, and we are not friends, but we care about your success and your ability to do your work with as much focus, energy, and even joy as you can. At the same time, when we think and talk about the impact of sexual violence in academia, we need you to know that some of us are hearing these stories, checking up on those of you we are concerned about, and spending time and mental energy thinking about how, exactly, to protect you and others from known predators. Others around us are not doing that. And this is not to say you should go to them, necessarily – they may not be safe, this is a real thing. We just want you to consider this when you look at who is successful in academia, and when you plan, for yourselves, an academic life. We do this instead of writing another research paper, because this is far more important, but we also must admit it is the research paper that will get us a job, or a promotion, or a grant. As it is women profs (and especially, women of colour profs) who do the majority of this…
  5. This has a big impact on how many people, especially women, trans, and nonbinary people, are able to do their jobs. You, students, may or may not see everything that is involved in our work as your professors. We teach, we prepare classes, and we grade, yes; we also write our own papers and presentations, apply for grants, conduct original research, and serve on committees that make the university run. None of this is easy to do if we are also dealing with the symptoms of trauma, or the anxiety that comes from dealing with a harassing supervisor, or the distraction and shame of an abusive partner. It’s not that we don’t want to provide you with the support you need, it’s that we are more frequently asked to provide this much needed support from our students than our male colleagues because we are female, while knowing that students are also more likely to be biased against us as instructors also because we are female. Add all of this to the emotional labour that is overwhelmingly required of women in our society and you have not just for poor job performance but a high risk for the development of serious mental health issues (anxiety, depression, etc.). So we have to take care of ourselves meaning…
  6. We may only be able to listen, to acknowledge your feelings, and then send you off with options for additional and/or ongoing support. We can and will provide you with academic accommodations – the anniversary of your assault is the same day as your due date so you need to just take off somewhere and might not be able to hand that assignment in on time? Ok. Not a problem. As stated above we cannot be your therapist, your friend, or your confidant (though we will try to make sure that you have all of those people in your life), but we can let you know of what resources are available for you as our student, because…
  7. We know of resources! As instructors we learn the ins and outs of our institution. We also try to make ourselves aware of additional resources nearby that we can suggest may be able to help you – especially those that provide low or no cost counseling services, because it’s horrible to realize that financial barriers prevent many people from being able to access support. Here’s a list of some valuable resources available to you at our campus and in our city:
  8. Together we can try to change this. During the panel one of our students, one of your classmates, maybe you, asked “what can I do to change this?”. Any answer we give to this feels inadequate in the face of a problem of this size, but as anthropologists, we firmly believe in the importance of understanding and imagining the possibility of a radically different world. We know, from our research, that the way things are is not the way they have always been or the way that they have to be. And so we know that they can be changed, and that they have to be changed from the ground up. We have to challenge pervasive assumptions that dismiss the importance of consent and minimize the damage that occurs when we violate other people’s boundaries, that make light of intimate partner violence, that perpetuate toxic notions of masculinity and authority. We have to reflect on our own assumptions about what victims look like, act like, and feel like, and honestly interrogate whether we are more likely to believe some than others. And as the week’s keynote speaker, Dr. Rachel Griffin, reminded us, we have to show up, and be open to listening, because that act could be the thing that saves someone’s life. This is not abstract. This is not a courtroom in which we must hear evidence and be fair to the accused. It really is that important just to say…
  9. We believe you. Because we do. We will. We know.

In solidarity and hope,

Dr. Biittner and Dr. Shulist




The Glamorous Side of Anthropology: Thoughts from an Undergrad Research Assistant

This summer, the nerds who write this site were lucky enough to be able to hire an undergraduate student as a research assistant. In the spirit of pedagogy, we wanted to give that student an opportunity to talk about how she got the job (because this is a thing other people should definitely try to do), what she learned, and also what was totally the worst.

Editor: Tell us how this opportunity came about. How did you find a job with the anthropology department?

SJ: Haha, the short answer is: I asked. A couple years ago I was speaking with Dr. Shulist about how difficult it can be to find summer work. At the time, it was too late to apply for anything on campus, but she told me that, if you’re early enough, there are always plenty of opportunities at MacEwan. So this time I approached her in about February and asked her if she knew of any opportunities coming up for the summer. She told me about an upcoming STEP (ed: STEP is an Alberta government funding program that helps universities, government agencies, and other such organizations hire summer students in jobs that will hopefully benefit their learning as well as the organization’s needs.) position and suggested I apply for it, so I did. That’s pretty much how I got the job. It’s not a terribly crazy or exciting story, but just goes to show that it pays (literally) to get to know your professors!

E: What kind of work did you do as a research assistant?

Pile of bones that our friendly neighbourhood RA cleaned for Dr. Biittner’s fieldschool project (yes, with a toothbrush)

SJ: Anything you can think of. People often think that being a research assistant means just sitting at a desk poring over documents all day, but that only a small part of what I did this summer. I was working for three different professors with vastly different areas of expertise and goals, so I got to do all kinds of different things, from watching movies, to helping with Dr. Biittner’s field school, to transcribing interviews. One of the coolest things was learning how to use the 3D printer in the lab!

E: What did you learn in the process? How do you think this enhanced your education? What kinds of skills can you take from this into a future job situation?

SJ: I think the biggest lesson I learned is that you can pretty much do anything with

This is the editor realizing the importance of these lessons.


I mean, that’s something I sort of knew before I started working as a research assistant, but this really gave me the chance to take the skills I’d been learning in class and apply them, and in all kinds of different ways. Who would have known that anthropology would be useful for putting together a film series? Not me, that’s for sure. As far as its use for my education, this job helped me hone my actual research skills. One of my tasks was helping Dr. Shulist find and analyze sources for some projects she was working on, so not only did I have to get better at using the available databases to find sources, but I had to find the information she was looking for in those sources and communicate that back to her in a way that she could apply to her work. And really, this is a skill that I think will be valuable as I go on to other jobs as well. I also did inventory in the lab for Dr. Biittner, which meant going back to my Biological Anthropology lessons to identify hominin skulls, and having to stay super organized.

E: What was the best part of your work?

SJ: This is going to sound really cheesy, but the best part of my job was getting to work so closely with my professors. Drs. Biittner, Sinclair, and Shulist are all people that I really admire, and getting to know them and the kind of work they do was truly the highlight of my summer. I got to see what kinds of things anthropologists do when they’re not teaching, and learn a little bit about what goes into being a professor (and preparing all those awesome classes we get to take!!!). I got to see how much passion they have for anthropology and for their students. It was an amazing experience that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

E: What was your least favourite part?

SJ: Part of me wants to say scrubbing clinker with a toothbrush, but I think I would have to say transcribing interviews. It’s really interesting to hear the kinds of stories that people tell, but having to type it up sound for sound is really tedious. There were times that I spent hours listening and typing, and would only get through a few minutes of speaking, because there was so much happening in those few minutes that I’d have to go back and listen over and over again. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and skill. But that’s not to say I regret the experience. I think it made me a better listener. Not only did I have to pay close attention to what people were saying and how they were saying it, but typing it all up gives you a whole new perspective on how conversations work. It was a lot of work, but in the end I guess I can say it was pretty cool.

E: What would you tell future students looking into this kind of opportunity?

SJ: Don’t be shy. Talk to your professors. Find out what they’re working on and what’s going on in the department. The worst thing that can happen is that there’s nothing available and you’ll have to start looking for the kinds of jobs you’d have been doing anyway. The best thing that can happen is that you get your foot in the door and start being able to actually apply your degree. There’s really no downside. I’d encourage everyone try to do what I did. It’s SOOOO worth it.


So It Begins

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The beginning of a new school year is a thing. Even from my lofty, fictional, editorial position, I see the plans, the excitement, the resolutions. So as we head into this new school year, let’s check in with our people.

Ed: What are you most excited about this year?
Sarah (the Linguistic One): 
So many things! MacEwan has a new president, and while I’ve only heard her speak once, she articulated a vision for our school as a place that serve the entire community, that places justice and access at the centre of its mission, and that promises to take real action toward implementing the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I feel like we are at an amazing place right now.

Katie (the Archaeology One): Yeah our new president is ah-maze-ing! I’m really pumped that we are being led by someone who shares so many of the values that are important to me – community, caring, accessibility, activism, justice. Wow. I’m all fired up and feel empowered to create the kind of learning environment I think is important and needed.

Ed: What are you excited about in your teaching?
SS: Five out of the six courses I get to teach this year are linguistic anthropology! Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching sociocultural stuff too, but linguistic anthro is my one true love, and I will be swimming in it this year, with 2 seminars (Language & Power and Language & Media) and a third year course (Language, Gender, and Sexuality), along with 2 sections of intro to ling anth. I feel some definite blog incorporation work coming along…

KB: Can I sit in on your third year course? Because it sounds awesome! I’m redoing my written assignment for my Anth 110 course (Gender, Age, & Culture) to more explicitly involve this blog so that’s exciting. Anth 110 really has become my passion btw so overall I’m just jazzed to get back into it. I’m also really looking forward to finding new/better ways of bringing our lab resources into our classrooms. For example we have this rad new Neandertal skeleton, which we will definitely use in Anth 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) but it could also visit our Anth 101 classes as well.

Ed: OK, you know you have one – what’s your resolution?
 This year, I swear will be the one where I finally break out of the shackles of email notifications controlling my life. Really. I promise. Hold me to it.

KB: Boundaries. I really really need to be clear about what my open door policy is and how it works. Turns out that I need to have times when my door is closed.

Ed: What advice do you want to give your students?
SS: Whatever happens this semester, you’re a human first and a student second. Take care of your needs. Admittedly, some profs are better than others about hearing that, and sometimes your grades end up taking a hit because life. A bad semester, or a bad few classes, is something that can be overcome, and there are people who want to help you with that. Find them, and let them.

KB: ^^^THIS^^^ And read the syllabus #sorrynotsorry It really is an important, useful document.

Ed: New semester on – Got meme?




Nerds Review Things: Arrival

Ed.: Ok nerds I know you’ve both seen the Oscar nominated film Arrival and read the short story it is based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which means I also know you are both dying to share your thoughts. To save our Readers from unstructured ranting and raving I am willing to serve as moderator, posing questions to frame your discussion. I’ll also warn our Readers that spoilers for both the film and story appear throughout the post.

First, what did you think of the story?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I thought it was incredible. I loved the way that it interweaves the interactions with the heptapods with the mundane events of the child’s life. You know from the beginning the weight underlying those latter moments, and every time it cuts back to them, it’s heartbreaking. And then, ultimately, how the end makes you realize Louise has experienced her child’s life in exactly that state of awareness…it’s so beautifully told.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree that there is so much beauty found in the narrative style. I appreciate not only, as Sarah mentions, how Chiang plays with time to create moments of awe and of heartbreak but how this significantly represents the heptapods’ way of knowing, of experiencing too. Time is a cultural construct and I like how Chiang really pushes our boundaries of what we can accept in terms of how we may perceive the passage of time if time is non-linear. Mind blowing stuff really.

What did you think of the differences between the story and the film?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I have to admit I liked the story a bit better, though they were both amazing. I think the film did a great job of translating the main themes and emotional beats of the short story on to the screen, but one thing I appreciated about the story is that it stayed small and intimate. The film did a couple of things to raise the sense of stakes that weren’t present in the book, and while I get that they were essentially necessary elements, some of them bugged a bit. While I didn’t hate the introduction of a threat that one of the other landing sites was going to go violent, I found the way it resolved, with Louise taking dictation from the Chinese General in the future, to be a bit too heavy-handed. The book just let the story be about Louise, her family, and the aliens, and I kind of loved that for a science fiction story.

A linguists’ point of annoyance: The book established clearly that Louise was a field linguist – someone who documents completely unknown languages, which would legitimately give her the skills needed to decipher the aliens’ communication. The movie takes a short cut and has her as the one selected for this task because she had security clearance after doing some Farsi translations for the army previously. But the skills needed to do a Farsi translation are not remotely the same as field linguistics. It doesn’t even require an actual linguist – just someone who speaks Farsi. A little detail, yes, but given how important her work is, I felt slighted in the description of her background and training as a linguist.

That said, I also want to say Amy Adams was fantastic and Jeremy Renner pulled off the adorably sexy nerd thing just fine.

Katie (The Archaeology One): It is incredibly difficult to live up to the reader’s expectations when it comes to translating story to film. I think this is a very successful adaptation overall. I agree with Sarah that the introduction of tension with China and its resolution was heavy handed. It was frankly sappy in a film that already had great moments of deep, significant emotion. I understand why they felt the need to add tension (alien = action afterall…or not) but understanding does not excuse a not-so-great choice. Amy Adams was fantastic. I needed a little more from Jeremy Renner’s character, which isn’t to say he wasn’t adorable nor sexy, I just missed some of the neat character development and physics stuff from the book (I get that this was probably difficult to incorporate).

Speaking of the cast and characters I think there are some things that can be said about gender and age as it is something much discussed in regards to representation. 

Katie (The Archaeology One): One of the interesting things is that Louise’s age is never established – this is because to do so would spoil the twist. This is not a problem when reading the book (you can envision Louise however you’d like) but when you have an actual living human playing a role it has to be addressed – we are not just our gender but also our age. It’s telling that the people behind the film never aged Louise. Now that I’m thinking about it I wonder if this is because we often don’t think of ourselves as AN age – I know I have an idea of what I look like, kind of a stock image of myself, but it doesn’t always match what I see in the mirror and also that when I think of myself as younger or older I don’t necessarily change my image of myself to reflect that difference in age.  One of the consequences of a change in how we perceive the world should also be a change in how one views oneself.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I think the sameness of Louise over the years does ultimately become a part of the commentary on how time and our experience of it are not uniform or universal – aging as a trope in stories does seem to mean one thing all the time, and it’s a thing situated within a view of time passing that this story destabilizes. That said, this was an element where my suspension of disbelief broke down – there are, after all, certain biological realities about when certain bodies are able to bear children. And while I was totally cool with the whole aliens-have-landed thing, asking me to buy that Louise would be established enough in her career to be chosen for this incredible responsibility and kickass opportunity while still also young enough to bear a child got a giant *NOPE* from this observer of academic life patterns.

How about that linguistic determinism?

Katie (The Archaeology One): From my non-linguistic perspective, I get why this theory is included and it does explain why the heptapods behave in the way they do.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): This is the thing that has all the linguists talking about this film, and the reaction is definitely mixed. Part of that is because a lot of linguists think the theory is absolute bunk, while others (like myself) who believe it has a lot of validity still see the version presented in the story as quite a bit more deterministic than we would see working in human languages. The idea that Louise’s mind would be so thoroughly re-wired because of her learning of this different language is a sticking point for a lot of people, as that’s not really something with any real traction in studies of language and cognition. But for me, that actually didn’t matter very much, because this was where I was entirely comfortable with suspension of disbelief. It’s actually like you say, from your non-linguistic perspective, it’s an idea that is needed to explain what matters about the story. It’s like from my non-physicist perspective, I accept that warp drive works, because if it doesn’t, the Enterprise isn’t going very far.

Now, I’d love to start a conversation about other ways linguists could save the world and/or become fascinating central characters in super interesting, intellectually challenging stories, that don’t rely on Sapir/Whorf, but if this is getting us so much attention, who am I to complain?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree with your last few points there Sarah – it’s really hard to complain when you finally have representation BUT we need to keep talking about this to make sure this isn’t the last time we see linguists in film. I know as archaeologists we always struggle with our love/hate relationship with Dr. Jones (and other “archaeologists”) depicted on screen but they also inspire so many of us to get into real archaeology. I DO think overall Hollywood can do better – if the box office of late and the 2017 Oscars are any indication (minus a few just gross exceptions), people really love diverse representation in terms of age, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, occupation, etc. So moar anthropologists pls! Also Louise could totally have been a person of colour. Can we stop defaulting to white?

A bit of a derailing there Biittner but I’ll let it slide this time because you are correct. Getting back to Anthropology…so…umm… were the aliens like anthropologists or what?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I would argue no, because of my interpretation of their “role” in the story (I’m going to deliberately ignore the film’s take on why they came to Earth). The heptapods arrive on Earth because it is part of their understanding of what must pass/has already passed. I’m struggling to describe this because the story does it so well but also because I am still trying to process the implications of non-linear time and experience myself. That’s the twist – that Louise is not remembering her child, she is experiencing her child. As Louise learns heptapod she begins to think and therefore live as a heptapod does.

I also think the film makers (and some readers, particularly those of us in the west) struggle with a being that lacks agency so we look for purpose – the whole point of learning to communicate with the heptapods is initially presented as finding out what the heptapods want. Spoiler: the answer is they want nothing. So the heptapods are given agency (must give language to humans so they can help us in three thousand years) rather than simply being. To suggest they were anthropologists is to suggest they had the intention of studying humans, which they simply did not. Not on screen. Not in the short story.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I agree that I found it paradoxically more satisfying in the story, when we were left without explanation for their visit. It speaks so much more clearly not only to this radically different way of understanding action/experience/agency, but also to the constant unknowns of the forces that do the most to shape our everyday lives. I think our dear editor posed this question to us somewhat facetiously, mostly to get us to think about whether it matters why they were there or not, and how that might relate to the strange arrivals that we, as anthropologists, engage in through our studies. So while I think in the end there’s no case to be made that the heptapods were anthropologically motivated, I do think there is a lot to say about anthropology coming out of the movie.

Also, given that Jeremy Renner the physicist was given so little to do as a physicist, maybe we could argue that he needed to be an adorably nerdy anthropologist to support Louise’s linguistic efforts.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I’ll support a Renner as anthropologist position because reasons.

Any final thoughts or comments? 

Katie (The Archaeology One): The written language in the film is very beautiful so major kudos to the designers behind it. I was underwhelmed by the heptapods themselves (looked too much like the hands they were likely modeled on; I needed more angular abstraction in their form) and thought the sequence where Louise actually enters the heptapods’ room was lame (too much use of the Galadriel “all shall love me and despair” glowing in the fog filter on Adams there). I need to re-read the story and the whole compilation it is included in because it’s all so so good. I can easily see myself using parts of the film in class – heptapod as the new con-lang. I’d rate the film six heptapods out of seven. The story is unquestionably a seven out of seven.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I had the odd experience of almost simultaneously reading the book and watching the film. I rarely have enough energy after my kids go to bed to stay awake for an entire movie, so when I was about halfway through the story, I rented the movie and watched half of it before falling asleep. I finished the story the next day, then watched the rest of the film. This really made the differences between them stand out, and may have made me feel more negative about the movie than I might have otherwise, because of those clearly Hollywood details. What I really wish had been made more clear in the film, though, was the fact that the heptapods written language was in fact an entirely different system from the spoken language. This is something that doesn’t exist in human language at all – all of our written forms are designed to represent speech, not to function as full linguistic systems in their own right, so the relationship between symbol and meaning in our writing is indirect, while for the heptapods, it’s direct. They are essentially inherently multilingual, knowing both their written language and their spoken one. This is such a massive difference, and it’s given really only a throwaway line in the movie (to the point that many linguists I know express frustration because no true field linguist would ever focus on written forms rather than spoken ones, and the choice to do so only makes sense given what Louise realizes about that connection). It’s an example of the incredibly creative way that Chiang, in the whole collection of stories, thinks about language and inserts “but what ifs” into his considerations of how humans use language. Solid seven heptapods for the story version for me, 5.5 for the movie adaptation.

Thanks nerds!