Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1








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The Wonder Years

Graduate school: a time to test ideas, learn from rejection, live with uncertainty—all in the heady pursuit of discovery. Meet two graduate students in anthropology who are exploring their own personal identities as they come to understand and explain others'.


When people learn that graduate student Sameena Mulla's field is anthropology, they often ask her: "What bizarre foreign cultures are you running with?"

Her response? "My tribe is forensic nurse practitioners."

As a volunteer advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Mulla spent three years observing these nurses in action in the emergency room of an urban Baltimore hospital. "I didn't want to feel I was just exploiting something," explains the 30-year-old. "It was a lot easier to understand it if I had a stake in it."

Welcome to the world of the contemporary anthropologist. Traditionally focused on non-industrial societies, anthropologists today also study groups as varied as West Coast dot-com businesses and hurricane-ravaged communities in New Orleans.

Mulla is just one of 32 graduate students in anthropology at the Krieger School, and she is nearing the end of her graduate student journey. She recently finished writing the first chapters of her dissertation and will be defending in the spring.

At the earlier end of the doctoral process is Anaid Citlalli Reyes Kipp, 27, who just completed her first summer of graduate fieldwork in her home country of Mexico. "Traditionally, it was said that anthropologists left 'home' to go to the 'field,'" says Reyes Kipp. "However, in my case, going to the field has also been going home."

Though Mulla and Reyes Kipp are years apart in their graduate student evolution at the Krieger School, the young women have one thing in common. They are filtering the spectrum of the world through the prism of the self-sharpening their own personal identities even as they come to explore and explain others'.

Veena Das knows this process can be life-changing—and sometimes uncomfortable. As chair of the Anthropology Department, Das has taught, guided, advised, challenged, tested, lauded, critiqued, and helped sculpt dozens of young scholars.

"When graduate students come in they are a little daunted," Das says. "They expect that professors will know much more. Yet graduate training is not just a question of studying a whole lot of methods and texts within the canon of knowledge. Students learn to work with uncertainty, to work hard but be open to ideas. Through the entire process they discover for themselves what they want to be."

It's a deeply formative process that's not unique to anthropology, according to dean of faculty David Bell, a historian whose efforts impact the work of the nearly 1,000 PhD-track graduate students across the Krieger School.

"We like to think of our graduate students from the start, at least in part, as junior colleagues," Bell says. "We hope that is strengthened during their time here. Ideally, we expect them to develop a much greater degree of confidence... to grow [intellectually and emotionally] and to emerge as seasoned teachers."

Sameena Mulla photoSameena Mulla (left) arrived at Johns Hopkins in 2001, already well equipped academically, with bachelor's degrees in anthropology and English from the University of Maryland, and a master's in anthropology from The New School for Social Research in New York City.

She had become interested in issues of sexual violence partly after learning about the experiences of other women she knew, including a high school teacher who had been sexually assaulted. She examined the scientific literature, and found that much of it was conducted from a feminist viewpoint.

Mulla's first-year experience is characteristic of what other anthropology graduate students undertake early on, says Das, and it differs from the approach in some other humanities departments, where the philosophy is, "This is the canon. They need to get this canon," Das says. In anthropology, "we think in terms of formation; an important part of the process is for our students to learn for themselves what kind of canon they want to create."

Mulla was looking to identify and gain access to a particular "social formation," so she volunteered as an emergency-room advocate for women and men who had been sexually assaulted.

Over the next three years, she observed forensic nurse practitioners and patients during 44 forensic examinations, where information is gathered for future legal proceedings. By observing, as well as interviewing and carefully documenting all that she experienced in the ER, Mulla was able to gather—piece by piece—the information she needed to create a detailed "ethnography."

It wasn't easy to be an impartial observer. "The training prepares you, yet the situations upset you," she says.  "I never wanted to feel numb. The time that I felt disengaged was time to quit."

"What I've been studying is difficult and challenging, and it is easy to be pessimistic. [Yet] people are fascinating and creative and inventive. They figure out how to go about living their lives."

—Sameena Mulla
Mulla was not alone in confronting painful situations out in the field. Given the nature of their studies, many graduate students in anthropology find themselves observing cultures in difficult—sometimes dangerous—environments. "But our graduate students are so supportive of each other," Das says. "Many call each other when they're out in the field. Those chats on the phone are very important to them."

For Mulla, during the most intense part of her fieldwork, in her third year, she was on-call for back-to-back eight-hour shifts. "We had to be there within 45 minutes of the call," she says. She sometimes stayed overnight to observe the nurses working weekends. During her "downtime" she scheduled interviews with victims and police detectives and kept up with her field notes—writing individual narratives, going back over her scribblings and finding lines of inquiry to pursue.

Then, as she was wrapping up her fieldwork-transcribing her notes and doing library archival research, she started teaching her own courses in January 2006, including The Anthropology of Work, and Gender, Sexuality, and Law.

"When I got to Hopkins there was a lot of processing. I felt like I didn't know a thing," Mulla says. "But, very slowly, as I was working toward my own exams, I was getting it grain by grain, and thinking, 'Maybe I know a little bit.'"

During her time at the Krieger School, Mulla presented more than a dozen papers at conferences on such issues as "racism in the forensic encounter and patient advocacy." She also helped organize conference panels, including one on emergency contraception at the Law and Society Association Conference in Berlin in July.

"Sameena is an extraordinary researcher," says Das. "She goes very deeply into a problem. Most research [in her subject area] looks at issues of rape either in the home or the courtroom. Sameena looks at the intervening spaces."

Both Das and Krieger School anthropology professor Deborah Poole advised Mulla as she applied for the grants and fellowships so necessary for funding her fieldwork. "It can become a sensitive relationship in that advice comes in all forms, both supportive and critical," says Poole. "Proposal writing is a stressful process on both sides—although no doubt more stressful on the student's side," she adds.

Notes Mulla: "We would write draft, after draft, after draft." Her advisors and fellow students would then provide the critiques. "They would read the draft and tell you how terrible it was today and then you would come back and they would tell you how terrible it is now. But it's for your own good. And it worked."

This academic year, Mulla will finish writing her dissertation, The Institutionalization of Suffering: Time and Technique in Medico-Legal Sexual Assault Interventions in Baltimore. With monthly feedback from Das and Poole, she'll write (and teach a course) at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., with funding from the competitive Charles Gaius Bolin Dissertation Fellowship. Among the issues Mulla is addressing in her work: How do individual experiences fit into a social context? How did the players—the nurses and patients—cope with trauma over time?

What she found has surprised her, and revealed something about the essence of human resilience. "Not every victim is teary-eyed," she says. By the time the patients get to the emergency room, "the bad thing that happened has happened; it's in the past. This was a place for them to feel secure and safe again."

Forensic nurse practitioners negotiate a difficult space—treating patients with compassion, while maintaining enough professional distance to gather evidence. "I learned how it was possible for people to do very challenging and emotionally draining work on a regular basis," Mulla says.

In the end, Mulla says her own cross-cultural background (her parents are from India and she grew up in Washington D.C.) has helped her sidestep one potential pitfall: assuming she knew what was going on with people before she let them have a chance to show her.

"What I've been studying is difficult and challenging, and it is easy to be pessimistic," she says. Yet, "people are fascinating and creative and inventive. They figure out how to go about living their lives."

Anaid Citlalli Reyes KippAnaid Citlalli Reyes Kipp (left) spent most of last year reading, reading, and reading some more. By the time she completes year two of her graduate student career year this spring, she'll need to have 10 courses under her belt, as well as a foreign language.

The small size of her graduate seminars, including On the Question of Ethics and Duplicity and Law, sparked lots of lively scholarly discussions and debate—both in the classroom and after hours, in the department's graduate student lounge in Macaulay Hall.

Because the Anthropology Department is relatively small, with just 10 faculty members, says Das students are encouraged to forge relationships with a variety of faculty, rather than rely exclusively on a single mentor. "The department functions as a collective," says Das. "Faculty members are ready to offer whatever they can to any student in the department." The benefit? "A collegiality that doesn't translate into personal rivalry."

Reyes Kipp came to the Krieger School already equipped with a licenciatura (roughly equivalent to an American BA/MA degree) in cultural anthropology from the Universidad de las Americas, Puebla.

"This first year has been a time of change and discovery for me," she says. Thanks to the new ideas and arguments she's encountered from faculty and her classmates, she says, "the ideas about anthropology and myself that I brought with me from Mexico have changed and expanded. I feel like I'm standing in front of a broad and fascinating field of knowledge and experience that I am just beginning to explore."

Last year, in November, Reyes Kipp began laying the groundwork for her first summer fieldwork project.

"Our students are given wide latitude in designing their own research projects," says Poole, who helped guide her. "Identity plays into all of our students' projects," she adds. "In some cases, the link with identity could be said to be cultural or national."

Reyes Kipp became focused on Mexican cultural identity while working on her licenciatura in the small Mexican town of Chipilo, which was founded in 1882 by a group of 68 peasant families from Italy.

After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), meztizaje, or the blending of Indian and European heritage, was held up as the national ideal. But ideals rarely mirror reality. And Mexicans with mostly European heritage continue to hold much of the nation's socio-economic power.

"The ideas about anthropology and myself that I brought with me from Mexico have changed and expanded. I feel like I'm standing in front of a broad and fascinating field of knowledge and experience that I am just beginning to explore."

Anaid Citlalli
Reyes Kipp
"As a Mexican national, I am aware of the force of white privilege in my society and the extent to which I am a part of it," says Reyes Kipp, whose mother is from Germany and whose father's family has a primarily European heritage. Through her studies, she's hoping to gain a sharper understanding of inequality in Mexico as experienced in everyday social relations.

Those relations include the domestic arrangement of nannies and their employers. As part of her fieldwork in urban Mexico City, Reyes Kipp visited families' homes and European private schools. "Her particular focus is on the tense relationships that bind middle-class mothers and children to the nannies who care for their children and who, in many cases, also live with the family," Poole explains. "Because the nannies are poor and often of indigenous origin, the families often view them as racially inferior."

Reyes Kipp is already finding her dissertation fieldwork to be an intense experience. As she wrote from Mexico during a late summer e-mail exchange, "It is a time of openness—and vulnerability—where you let the lives and worlds of others touch you, and this can be both gratifying and hard." She continued, "When working on topics such as racism and discrimination, it is not always easy to handle these simultaneous feelings of emotional proximity and distance."

"Sometimes I do not sympathize or feel comfortable with the people I talk to or spend time with," she added, "and this has been difficult for me."

One afternoon, Reyes Kipp was walking with a woman, a business owner and mother of two girls. She asked the mother about their nanny: "She told me her nanny was a young Indigenous woman who could not speak 'proper' Spanish. She explained to me how difficult it had been for her to 'educate' the nanny," Reyes Kipp says. The woman then complained about the nanny's "backward culture."

Meanwhile, another longtime worker, an Indigenous woman, was standing nearby: "The worker was hearing all the conversation, but it was as if she wasn't really there," Reyes Kipp notes. "She had to pretend she was not hearing us. It was very hard for me to hear the mother's words and witness this complete disregard for another."

As Mulla and Reyes Kipp are discovering, the formation of a scholar requires an ever-evolving identity. And, as the saying goes, with experience, comes wisdom.

"Many first-year students think of their fieldwork as a sort of empirical testing ground for the theoretical literatures and ideas they've come across in their classwork," says Poole. "By the time they get to their dissertation proposal, they are usually better positioned to 'think out from the field'"—the knowledge they've gained from the field influencing their ideas.

Once they finish their PhDs, both Mulla and Reyes Kipp plan to forge careers in academia.

"Anthropology asks for involvement," says Reyes Kipp. "And this means letting the worlds you encounter in the field change your own. It is a form of knowledge that touches the intimate and personal."

For Veena Das, it is the culmination that is most rewarding for her. "The best part of being a researcher," she says, "is to see young people as they develop into mature anthropologists." 

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a frequent contributor to Johns Hopkins publications.