My Grad Student Life in COVID Times: Disciplinary Change is Coming?

My grad student life has changed significantly since my last post in March: I no longer have a physical home on campus, unscheduled interactions with colleagues in the hallways or at conferences are impossible, it is unsafe to travel for fieldwork, I am teaching my course online (often in my favorite dinosaur sweatpants). The virtual turn brought on by COVID-19 has made me feel less connected to my campus community and my research community in Kodiak. At the same time, I feel much more connected to the wider anthropology community through the huge proliferation of webinars and panels over the past several months.

As I imagine most people have experienced, I have also been anxious about the uncertainty looming over EVERYTHING. This anxiety extends from uncertainty about the health and wellbeing of myself and others to uncertainty about my ability to make progress towards my degree. What if I can’t safely return to Old Harbor for several years? Do I have to rework my research to complete a library dissertation instead? Will the pandemic change the way that anthropologists and archaeologists conduct their research for years to come? In times of disturbance and instability, there is great potential for lasting change, but I am not sure where I, or my research, will fit into those changes.

The crucial work of the movement for Black lives has spurred discussions about what it means to do anthropology and archaeology ethically, with care, and in an accountable and respectful way. These large-scale discussions are long overdue and I believe that they will change the discipline for the better by making community-centered work the norm.

On the other hand, I worry that the economic crisis coupled with the turn to virtual learning will speed up the ‘adjunctification’ of universities in the United States – meaning that more classes will be taught by underpaid and overworked contingent lecturers rather than universities investing in teaching and research faculty. In other words, I wonder what kind of jobs will be available if/when I do finish my PhD, especially as someone who wants teaching to be a continued part of their work.

As I have been waiting for some certainty to return, I have spent a lot of time educating myself in Indigenous Studies, Black Studies and Indigenous Archaeology. Scholars and practitioners in these and related disciplines have done tremendous work to critique and challenge the ways and conditions under which knowledge is produced. If anthropology and archaeology are going to come out of this pandemic changed, I want to do what I can to make sure that they are changed for the better. I want post-pandemic anthropology to be more equitable, inclusive, accountable and centered on the needs of the communities with whom we study and serve. While the pandemic is a disaster on all levels, from the personal to the global, I am grateful that quarantine and the slowing of my dissertation research has given me the time to dig into this essential work.

Chilling out in Fairbanks for the AkAAs

I spent the past week in Fairbanks for the Alaska Anthropological Association’s (AkAA) 2020 annual meeting. The weather there was sunny and clear but the temperature remained below 0ºF…brrrr.

The frozen Chena River in Fairbanks, February 26, 2020.

It was great to connect with researchers who work in Alaska and start to build a network with both current students and professionals, many of whom attend or work at the University of Alaska campuses or the National Park Service. I also got the chance to hang out with some of my friends and colleagues from the Alutiiq Museum!

Of course, conferences are also a chance to learn about ongoing research projects in the discipline. Two sessions that I found especially interesting were one on traditional place names (i.e. the names that Indigenous communities have for locations, land features and places in their languages) and one on community-based participatory research in Alaska. There was also an amazing talk by Princess Daazhraii Johnson, the producer of PBS’s Molly of Denali, about the need for Indigenous narrative sovereignty. Johnson’s words about the power of storytelling and positive representation really hit home for me as I begin to research the lives and stories of Sugpiaq ancestors.

Title slide from my presentation at the 2020 AkAA meeting. “Uncovering Native-lived Colonialism at Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq Village in the Kodiak Archipelago.”

I presented in a session entitled “Recent Archaeological Research of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago.” Overall, I was really happy with my talk, which discussed the framework for the Old Harbor Archaeological History Project, emphasizing the community-oriented nature of the project, and my plans for the next season of excavation. After my presentation, I was pleasantly surprised that so many fellow students came up to me to talk about how to make archaeological research more relevant and engaging. Many of the archaeology talks at the conference were devoid of storytelling or even any real mention of people – something that both I and the students I spoke with noticed. I think this points to a need for more engaged (and engaging!) archaeological research and reporting. Archaeology should also strive to be socially and culturally relevant, especially for descendant communities, who have the most to gain or lose from the process of research and dissemination of results.

All in all, the conference was a much needed intellectual and motivational boost as I turn back to working on my NSF dissertation funding proposal this week. I have been struggling to put all the pieces of my project together in a convincing way (and all the bureaucratic paperwork and budgeting that goes along with a proposal scares me), but I think that I can finally see a way through. It certainly helped that I was able to meet with the NSF program officer for Arctic Social Sciences to discuss my dissertation project at the AkAA conference!

Here’s to a productive and illness-free end to winter quarter at the UW!