By Hillary J. Haldane
By the Northern Hemisphere fall of 2022,many US universities and colleges had entered into a new phase of magical thinking and rolled back their mask mandates (if they had even had one in Spring 2022); some went so far as to deny faculty the right to require masks in their classrooms, work spaces, and labs. The neoliberal approach to public health was for all intents and purposes hegemonic; sickness, illness, and death had devolved to personal responsibility in USian higher education. Other than the New York Times maintaining a daily infographic of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, most news monitoring entities had capitulated to COVID. While the past two years have taught us that some nations (e.g. the US, UK, Brazil) are willing to prioritize the individual freedom to contract a disease if and when you want, it was disappointing to see institutions of USian higher education, the very sites that generate degrees from biology and chemistry to masters in public health, become indistinguishable from a DeSantis rally. In Connecticut, where I currently reside, public universities and colleges ended their mask mandates at the start of the fall term (and prior to the availability of the bivalent booster), and posted on some institutions’ websites that faculty were disallowed from asking students to mask. Some private institutions started the academic year with mask requirements more generally stated across their classroom and learning spaces, and others left the decision to the discretion of the instructor. Some institutions denied faculty the right to require masks, but did “allow” faculty to “request” the wearing of masks from their students and people entering their work spaces. Beyond masks, institutions deactivated their dashboards and stopped contract tracing. The current approach in US higher education appears to be “if we don’t document it, it doesn’t exist.”
While elitist to focus on the issue of masking in an exclusionary sector of human society–institutions of higher education (and at that, located in the US)–it is a sector where the majority of anthropology is produced, and one site where we can bear witness to the devolution of social responsibility to individual decision making. This individualization of social harm is something that we in the gender-based violence scholarly community regularly confront and push against in our work. I want to posit that this kind of institutional policy making, positioning faculty as the locus of care, is structural violence, defined as the “processes, policies, and polities that systemically produce and/or reproduce oppressive structures”. Faculty, many of whom, while privileged in terms of pay and status in the wider political economy, are disempowered vis-a-vis the hierarchy of decision making in US higher education. This is particularly true for adjunct and part-time faculty, whose pay is often below living wages, and are at the whim of student evaluations in many institutions for their continued employment. Even if they were allowed to make the individual decision to require masks in their classrooms, do they dare risk the wrath of a few vocal students who would rather not be asked to do so?
This begs the question: what does allowing a mask in a classroom have to do with the work of our TIG?
While not all members of our TIG are housed in institutions of higher education, nor located in the US, the work of much of our group is connected to the US academy. Members of our TIG have called out our institutions and professional bodies, even our discipline, and taken a holistic approach to understanding violence in its myriad manifestations and related harms. COVID has exposed and compounded the layers of harm caused by structural violence, resulting in feelings of helplessness, guilt, and despair. It challenges our ability to care for ourselves as we endeavor to care for others. We have long known that institutions of higher education are productive sites of violence. COVID allowed us to see our institutions generate harm before our eyes, witnessing in real time, whether in academic councils, faculty senates, or by Provost fiat delivered via email, the erosion of any semblance of the social contract. Whither acknowledgment that we are respiring and feeling beings, who require the material protection that can only come from the top of the organizational hierarchy. What hope do we have to see higher education as a site where we can theoretically and productively entangle and engage with questions of violence, when we continue to experience threats to our health and wellbeing in relation to the pandemic? Since the May 2020 issue of our TIG column, our members have explored COVID multiple times, documenting our exhaustion, asking the question of what it means to be safe, defining the imperative to enact unsettled witnessing, illuminating how our colleagues in the places where we learn have been impacted, and at our most vulnerable, sharing how COVID has been disruptive/destructive to our very sense of self. Our TIG has already constructed an anthology of epistemic longings in a time of chaos and pain.
Members of the TIG have long been clear that the privileges afforded to those who study and work in academe should not be treated as precious and rare resources: what we ask for ourselves is what we argue should be available to all: life, free of violence, interpersonal and structural.
Hillary J. Haldane (PhD Anthropology, UC Santa Barbara) is a professor of anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. She conducts research on Indigeneity, gender-based violence and frontline workers in Aotearoa and Australia. Her other research interests include the political economy of higher education, and the politics of women’s football. Dr. Haldane is one of the co-founders of the GBV-TIG, and currently serves on the SfAA's nominations and elections committee. As a teacher she enjoys taking students to Morocco to learn from Dar Si Hmad, an organization run by anthropologist Dr. Jamila Bargach, and is looking forward to July 2023 when she will travel with students to Australia to attend the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
For more information on the Gender Based Violence Topical Interest Group or to join our listserv, please drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Wies and Haldane 2011, cf Farmer 1999 and Kleinman et al 1997.