“Living in a State of Pandemic” is a public anthropology project I started in collaboration with students at Humboldt State University. The project documents the lived experiences of the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic through autoethnographic writing and expression. The goal is to better comprehend how the pandemic is upending ordinary life as we forge a new and unfamiliar “normal.”
How the Project Came to Be
“Living in a State of Pandemic” began in an ethnographic methods course I taught in spring 2020. Students were designing a collective applied ethnographic study of disaster preparedness in Humboldt County, California. I selected this topic given its relevance to students in Northern California. There had already been talk of a “new normal” foisted upon us by multiple sustained power outages the previous semester, ostensibly due to preventative measures against wildfires. Recent wildfires had also claimed students’ family homes, including that of my course assistant. We also discussed compounded disasters due to multiple hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and flooding given that HSU is located on the coast within the Cascadia subduction zone and Humboldt Bay has the fastest rate of sea level rise on the west coast.
The class completed CITI training on human subject research, discussed particularly vulnerable populations and sensitive issues, studied FEMA reports written by applied anthropologists, and participated in workshops to develop an ethnographic project on disaster preparedness in Humboldt County. However, none of us anticipated that our project on disaster preparedness would morph into a project on the lived experience of disaster, but then SARS-CoV-2 swept the globe.
In a twist of fate, students had a firsthand glimpse into the magia and chaos of ethnographic fieldwork on the topic of disaster that would have otherwise not been possible. They learned tacitly how ethnographers’ plans can be thwarted due to uncontrollable forces and how research agendas change as they follow new leads or adapt to new circumstances. While the pandemic dislocated and disembedded students from campus communities, we still managed to maintain our learning community largely because of the collaborative design of the class project.
Autoethnography as Research & Teaching Method
The ‘pandemic’ half of the semester shifted focus from ethnographic methods to autoethnographic research given the new limitations of face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork (as well as ethical and practical quandaries of redesigning a project to be ‘digital anthropology’ mid-semester). Autoethnography is an approach to ethnographic research and writing that describes and systematically analyzes personal experiences in order to understand broader culturally significant moments and patterns of social behavior. It is also part of a broader project to decolonize anthropology and ethnographic field methods, heeding critical methodological interventions of Indigenous scholars and calls for greater epistemic humility within the social sciences.
Autoethnography was more than just a pragmatic solution to complete a class research project; autoethnography validated students’ struggles and valued their own experiences as insightful and anthropologically relevant. Writing critically about their own experiences also enabled students to still meet the learning objectives of the course. It also allowed me to address inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, as several students were unemployed after the shutdowns and many were required to leave dorms and relocate several hundred (and even thousand) miles away. Educators have already noted in a torrent of recent op-eds how the pandemic has compounded multiple challenges for first generation students and members of underrepresented communities. Autoethnography foregrounded the student experience of the pandemic in the curriculum and helped students appreciate some of the most invaluable challenges of ethnography. One student even attended a Zoom session while working a shift as a housekeeper at a hotel, while simultaneously providing important input into our final projects.
Students had the responsibility of defining the final deliverables of the semester project. Two students in particular, Jason Laugesen and Jordyn Story, took the lead on the final projects outlined below and continue to work with me on their development. All students in ANTH 318 submitted individual contributions that built on our course material on disaster anthropology and ethnographic methods as well as their fieldwork exercises including preliminary and systematic observations (when the course was still face-to-face), conversations from zoom sessions, email exchanges, and collective field note jottings.
Public Anthropology & Project Deliverables
Public anthropology is increasingly becoming an important aspect of my scholarship. The “Living in a State of Pandemic” project is conceived to engage the public in a participatory nature much like citizen science projects, but with autoethnographic methodological tools instead of cheap lab kits. My ANTH 318 class designed two pilot projects that use autoethnography to better understand the lived experiences of the pandemic. These projects have also established new opportunities for anthropology majors at HSU to be involved in research, including students in my ANTH 482 Anthropology Internship course. Student assistants will help further develop these projects and prepare for an eventual public autoethnographic submission roll out process in the 2020-2021 academic year.
“Living in a State of Pandemic” is currently composed of two active websites: 1) a spatial mapping of autoethnographic descriptions of sheltering in place and other aspects of pandemic life. 2) a repository for creative expressions of the pandemic. Below I outline both projects in slightly more detail:
Mapping the Lived Pandemic
See proof of concept here: https://arcg.is/14vWKH
“Mapping the Lived Pandemic” is an interactive website that maps out autoethnographic vignettes of the lived experiences of the pandemic. Autoethnographic vignettes combined narrative-style/storytelling/descriptive writing about personal experience with analytical reflection, moving from ‘thick’ details of a moment and place in time to broader conceptual ideas.
In the first stage of the pilot project, student research assistant Jason Laugesen mapped out these analytical narratives and accompanied images using geotagging. In the next phase, we will create an indexical system based on coding of the vignettes, tagged with salient themes such as labor, housing, race, and infrastructure.
See proof of concept here: https://pandemicexpressions.tumblr.com/
The second deliverable to come out of this project is “Pandemic Expressions,” a repository for creative work inspired by thinking anthropologically and aesthetically about the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic. Students created a collective of expressive pieces that represented their lives as they worked through the unfamiliar time-space compressions of sheltering-in-place. These works took the form of poems, drawings, musical performances, and other affective expressions. Student research assistant Jordyn Story created a Tumblr page to launch the initial phase of this project. The next phase is to expand the submissions and begin design work for a Pandemic Expressions,” digital zine.