Studying anthropology at Mount Allison, I have learned that many questions have the same answer: “It’s complicated, and it’s changing.” That’s why, when I heard about the potential closure of the anthropology department, my response was complicated. And changing.
Anthropology has a past plagued by colonialism. At its worst, it is exploitative and even exterminatory. However, at their best, anthropologists are ally-researchers, active listeners in the most animated sense. They use their discipline as a tool to clear space in academia for people who are too often dismissed. They insist that everybody else listen, too. At Mt. A, I have been lucky enough to learn from the best sort of anthropologists.
Recently, the acting head of the anthropology department, Prof. Kelly Spurles, wrote a statement to the Mt. A faculty proposing that the department be closed. She felt that its resources would be better used to hire Indigenous professors in other fields. Ironically, I believe that her proposal was made in the best spirit of anthropology.
The actions of the university administration are another matter entirely. I was away on exchange when some of these major decisions were happening. The University sent me exactly three emails on the subject, most of which were carelessly vague. This month, another “open” discussion on the future of the department was based on documents which were not provided to the students until after the meeting was over. The time and date of the meeting were not announced until the morning of the day it happened. In practice, this meant that the information reached me and many other anthropology students just an hour before it started. I was lucky to be able to attend a meeting on the closure of my own degree program.
It is possible that these were accidental communication breakdowns. It is also possible that they were intentional, especially given the amount of student resistance to the closure of the women and gender studies department a couple years ago.
So where does that leave us? I agree with Prof. Spurles that ideally Indigenous scholars would be respected everywhere in academia and would not be confined to Indigenous studies or anthropology. But given past experience, I also do not trust our current school administration to follow through on vague promises to improve Indigenous representation on campus without a dedicated program and without active student advocacy.
I will be graduating this year, but I am sure that this debate will outlast my time at Mt. A. There is time for student voices to be heard. I won’t pretend to have a simple answer, and I will not ask you to stand up for anthropology. Although the idea that the department may close pains me, I understand that these things are complicated, they change and maybe we don’t need more anthropologists. I honestly don’t know.
But I do know that the world needs more teachers and lawmakers who recognize the truth of Indigenous knowledge. The world needs more researchers who think in terms of what they can offer communities, instead of what communities can offer them. The world needs more doctors and law enforcement officers who understand the pervasive power of intergenerational trauma and racism. The world needs more people who understand what active listening really means. If anthropology is allowed to be defunded, and if promises to hire Indigenous professors are forgotten, then Mt. A, and by extension every student at Mt. A, will be left with an education that is incomplete, a set of tools that is missing an essential component.
This is a chance to decide what happens next, to make sure that the changes we make are good ones. Don’t be complacent, don’t be locked out and don’t allow yourself to be bypassed in this debate. The University needs to be held accountable and it needs to know that we care.