Anthropology students at CU Boulder explore how we feel a pandemic
As graduate students in Professor Carla Jones’ advanced anthropology seminar worked through challenging course materials in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably wove itself into their discussions.
Jones’ class focused on affect theory, a diverse field which analyzes feelings as both personal and public. Affect theory asks how feelings are produced, shared and circulated intimately and interpersonally, making it possible to talk about feelings between people, with other creatures, or the mood of a community or a nation.
While students worked through these questions, they also began to personally experience a mix of the feelings that were topics in the class: fear, anger, grief, humor, love.
For a lot of the students in the class, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to help each other make sense of what we’re going through by doing a dive into the particular themes we were starting to see emerging"
“So much about what we are experiencing feels anxious, uncertain, stressful,” Jones said. “We found ourselves saying it was therapeutic to try and make sense of this moment with the tools affect theory had provided us. For a lot of the students in the class, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to help each other make sense of what we’re going through by doing a dive into the particular themes we were starting to see emerging.”
Students felt strongly about creating a historical archive where they could document these feelings and categorize themes they saw emerging during the coronavirus pandemic. Watching this unfold, Jones decided for their final assignment to give students a choice of writing a review of the field or analyzing one of these themes.
Jones mentioned her students’ essays to Carole McGranahan, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who also edits the online supplement to American Ethnologist, a journal put out by the American Ethnological Society and one of the premier journals of the discipline.
“As soon as Carole heard we were doing this, she thought they would be appropriate for the journal’s website,” Jones said. “Carole was instrumental in getting the students’ work out in the world. So, it’s thanks to her.”
Four of the students who had their essays posted on the “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis” webpage wrote about what the experience meant to them.
“I never thought that I would have published an essay in a high-profile venue such as an American Ethnological Society collection by the end of my first year of graduate school. This writing experience allowed me to not only work through some of the emotions I felt as a result of the pandemic, but it also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with my incredible peers. Our amazing instructor, Carla Jones, offered us this opportunity, which enabled us to try to understand widespread public feelings during such a confusing time. “
“During a moment of physical isolation, working on this collection with my peers became a much-needed source of community and connection. It also reminded me of the importance—and long feminist tradition—of reading and writing in community: The process of thinking about (and feeling) the world seemed far less lonely and far more generative together.”
This writing experience allowed me to not only work through some of the emotions I felt as a result of the pandemic, but it also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with my incredible peers"
“My experience writing this essay was cathartic because I had recently become a naturalized citizen just prior to the global outbreak of the COVID-19. All of my family members remain in Myanmar, whereas I find myself stranded alone in the United States. My natural instinct to be close to my home country and family led me to join the Facebook page I discussed in the essay. Little did I know, I came across a bunch of satirical cartoons, which kept me feeling both intimate and distant from my home country—intimate because I get to enjoy in the somewhat coded Burmese humor through those cartoons; distant because I had no one really to share that laughter with. I even became to feel guilty and ashamed for not being there with my family and friends in these difficult times. So, actually I wrote another short reflection for the CU Boulder Center for Humanities and Arts (CHA) Pandemic Posts. While this essay captures a sense of intimacy, my essay in the CHA Pandemic Posts captures the other side of the coin, the distance. I appreciate both outlets which allowed me to articulate those complex feelings for my home. I think they go hand in hand together.”
“The beautiful thing about this experience was how fundamentally collaborative it was. While collaboration is always a part of anthropology, it is often kept somewhat behind the scenes. I love that by compiling a collection that not only considered the many affective dimensions of the pandemic, but also was thought through together, we were able to center the importance of collaboration in anthropology—especially in a moment like this one. So many of the ideas were born out of direct conversations from our classroom as we processed what we were witnessing and feeling. Each week, as we met and discussed new readings, we were able to refine and better articulate those observations. In a moment of physical and social distancing, working on this project felt empowering.
“In anthropology, we tend to take our time researching and writing. We conduct yearlong fieldwork, and only upon returning home do we write our dissertation. This project felt different because we wanted to respond to a particular moment, even as the experience of the pandemic was changing each day. I think there is a different kind of power in writing “from the field,” so to speak, and I hope our essays evoke a sense of the affective underpinnings we were witnessing—and felt in that moment—as the pandemic continues to unfold.”
(Wynfield co-wrote How to Sense a Pandemic: Curves, Models and the Affective Allure of Flattening with Lauren Storz)
Read more on the website American Ethnologist “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis” website.