by Veena Das and Naveeda Khan

May 01, 2020

The September 11 attacks in 2001 marked an important turning point in the life of universities in the United States and affected the whole project of knowledge production in several ways. Writing on epidemiology in the International Journal of Epidemiological Research, Ezra Susser and Mervyn Susser wrote that one consequence for epidemiology was that public health suddenly became a central element of national defense with money pouring in for research on biosecurity. Yet, as they noted, “some see this influx of funding for defense against bioterrorism as a mixed blessing for epidemiology and public health” (Susser and Susser 2002, 719). At that time, the emphasis on biosecurity led to the downscaling of other concerns, such as dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a shift in emphasis to “security studies” more generally. The political response to 9/11 framed as “war on terror” had global effects. Many subtle and not-so-subtle changes took place as restrictions were placed on scientific cooperation. The category of “classified research” was expanded to include “sensitive research,” and many feared that universities would cease to be spaces in which we could find a free flow of ideas (Cohen and Kennedy 2005; Kennedy 2014).

In time the anxieties created by 9/11 became muted as many of the practices of surveillance, restrictions on the free flow of information, and a blurring of boundaries between classified research and open research became normalized. Further tendencies, now roughly seen as “neoliberal,” remade universities into profit-making corporations; teaching and research products were now evaluated as marketable goods, and surveillance and softer forms of control intruded into academic life. An important lens with which to view these changes is to focus on the increasing importance of metrics in the normal lives of universities. Everything must be measured—impact factors, citation rates, student evaluations—the purpose of education becoming to improve university rankings. Corresponding to these changes, the balance between administrators and educators has changed. A disproportionate growth in administrative staff has been accompanied with the tapering of faculty numbers and freezing of faculty recruitment. Universities are encouraged to think of themselves as providing useful information so as to equip students to get “nonacademic” jobs. While university presidents and provosts are congratulating themselves on the improved rankings of their respective universities, the scientific enterprise itself has been corrupted, as many historians of science recognize. In the felicitous phrasing of these authors, the gaming of metrics now implicates groups, networks, and even entire institutions (Biagioli and Lippman 2020, 9). The increasing manipulation of scientific research to improve citation rates and thence impact the overriding concern with rankings has, let us admit it, changed the character of universities. Universities were once a place where the education of young people was in the nature of a trust, but now all kinds of manipulations are routine (e.g., cap classes at 19, to make it count as a small class, introduce more fun courses of one credit so that students don’t have to feel challenged). Teachers have become used to receiving instructions from above and to follow orders while a fiction of consultation is maintained. Administrators openly rely on backroom channels of communication to gather information on colleagues. Yet many people choose to teach in a university because they love ideas, they want to instill a love for learning in students, and they care for students. To such people we ask, how are we going to meet the fresh challenges of a pandemic?

Why is this brief recounting of changes to the character of universities important for understanding the crisis posed by the coronavirus and the emergence of Covid-19? First, this recent history is important to absorb as students come to terms with the enormous responsibilities they will face in making a project of inquiring how to think under uncertainty, learning from past mistakes. For instance, much of the political rhetoric takes shelter behind the “unexpected” nature of the pandemic. It is true that much remains unknown about the coronavirus. But it is not true that mutation of viruses with the potential to create a lethal pandemic were not predicted. Despite many warnings, the urgent need to improve health care globally to contain the emergence of lethal new diseases was just not acknowledged. It is also the case that research in social sciences, which could have informed the modeling of the spread of the virus by taking different kinds of risk factors into account, was not consulted in epidemiological modeling processes. While the need for lockdowns was emphasized by the epidemiologists, the consequences for the poor in terms of food shortages, deaths from conditions unrelated to Covid-19, were nowhere in the models. Perhaps social sciences will take a lead in shifting the conversation on questions of health inequities, justice, fairness, reform of institutions, and what it is to take stewardship of the planet. Second, how is it that there has been no serious assessment of the failures of expert knowledge? After all, the coronavirus has revealed acres of ignorance on basic facts, such as projections of what medical resources would be needed, how migrants would be affected by a lockdown order, and how the virus would differently affect the different demographics of race and class. These difficult questions will be inherited by the students of this generation—perhaps we should think of them as future leaders, however vulnerable they may appear at this moment.

Yet it is entirely understandable that the anxiety of the present moment has to be lived with, not made to disappear. As universities, even the richest ones, keep sending memos of the dire financial hardships they are likely to fall into, or worry about declining tuitions and how to grow their endowments, we, as teachers, have to be present for our students at this moment. There may be some whose health care worsens or some who, overcome with fears about where their lives are going, feel like giving up. Their misery over deaths of relatives or over news of the massive death tolls in near and distant places is not something we can just take away with our words, but we can help them endure it. It is this double vision that the authors of the six essays that follow seem to be collectively embodying. Having worked with some of the students who protested the project for private policing at Johns Hopkins, we know the strengths of our students. We also know that while we need to be able to shift the conversation to questions of justice, equality, and fairness as essential for preparing to endure this crisis, we also have to chart a return to ordinary life. But we also want to sustain them in these moments of peril—yet not through a false sentimentality or in veils of false assurances. Written at the moment and for the moment, the authors of the following six pieces do not follow a single approach, nor are these writings about policing disciplinary boundaries. They are simply reaching out to each other across nations and across disciplines to speak of keeping their gazes firmly on the everyday rhythms and on the needs that students express, while also trying to envisage what education of the young will look like in this political milieu with the wounding knowledge that in this round even the richest societies and the richest universities failed the poor and the vulnerable very badly. Still, looking at this six essays we might get a sense of how the authors, each in his or her own way, responds to institutional failures and to the singularity of their students.

We start with a discussion of Benjamin Daniels, Jishnu Das, Ali Hamza, and Beatrice Leydier, the four authors of “Covid-19 Diaries: Early Impressions from an Online Questionnaire.” These authors intuited that there was much to be gained from tracking students from the start of the crisis, which manifested in their lives as the sudden closing of universities and colleges. The researchers put together an online questionnaire that has been translated into several languages and widely distributed both nationally and internationally. In this piece, they provide us a summary and analysis of the first 500 or so responses they got within the first week. The three useful takeaways from this timely and important survey are that, (1) for many students the survey format provided an important means to give voice for the first time to their psychological and practical struggles over the lockdown and stay in place orders; (2) many students reported worsened access to health services after they left campus, suggesting that university health services compensate for the paucity of services, even private ones, in the different places from which students hail; and, (3) while a large percentage logged a response to the question about appreciating something that their institution did, a similar percentage said they wished their institution would have done more. Mental health services, facing dwindling resources, were specifically flagged as necessary to deal with the growing anxiety, particularly among graduate students, about their future1. The important lesson is that while many students look to campus life as a period when each can be equal to another, the lockdown revealed the different kinds of vulnerabilities that resurfaced in their lives.

“When The Clock Starts Moving Again,” by Anna Brooke, Pelagie Couroyer, Elizabeth Fraser, and Juan Mejía, with Jonathan Spencer, captures the rich grain of individual student experiences to which the survey study above points. Spencer had his students write down their thoughts in mid dash to their homes in different parts of the world from the University of Edinburgh. Their reflections capture the frozen quality of time, for themselves and surely for everyone else enduring quarantine. In the instance of Mejía, a student from Honduras, being on lockdown sparks memories of previous such experiences of curfews, crisis, and threats of contagion and flooding. There is the serendipitous irony of taking a course on contagion in the middle of a pandemic for Fraser. We learn of the eruption of social relations under conditions of social distancing because of an all-too-familiar accident of clicking Add to Cart on Amazon for Brooke. We hear the protest in the words of Couroyer, who senses that her relations to familial others, as daughter of, as granddaughter of, reinforces conformist ways of being in the world, as citizen of, unquestioningly taking orders from the state. It is clear that all five authors, including Spencer, are mobilizing anthropology to be attentive to the newness of their present and echoes with the past. Producing anthropology with such heightened awareness is a hallmark of anthropological classics such as Mauss’s The Gift, as Spencer reminds us. The important questions that they help raise are whether anthropology can be certain that it is there for us? What are the limits of its frames of reference and standing concepts? Do we need to go beyond anthropology and how?

Questions of the future of research to meet academic goals as expressed in the first survey, and those more focused on the relevance of anthropology for our present raised by the reflection piece above, are at the forefront in “Funding Anthropological Research in the Age of Covid-19,” by Danilyn Rutherford. Rutherford captures the rapidity with which Covid-19 crashed upon the Wenner-Gren Foundation with student grantees asking how fieldwork was any longer possible under the guidelines of social distancing and proposal evaluators inquiring whether it made sense to review proposals with November start dates when we may well not be clear of the crisis by then. Two clear insights emerge and are explored in detail. First, how anthropologists do their research and, second, their commitments to their interlocutors have to change. And, in an acknowledgement of not knowing how to go forward, this profound and humbling realization, wedded to taking one’s orientation from one’s students, those who struggle for legal recognition as productive members of society, Rutherford here speaks of the UC-Santa Cruz graduate students strike, and grantees already in the field who have experience and insights to offer into the developing Covid-19 crisis, is not a bad step. These are only some of the examples of the “noticing” that Rutherford puts forward as what anthropologists do. Rutherford ends with underlining that the world needs anthropologists “noticing” more than ever, but also underlines that we have to change, or we will be changed in how we notice.

“Facing Covid-19: My Land of Neither Hope Nor Despair,” the title of the next piece by Veena Das, hints at a position from which to take up anthropology. Maybe the issue isn’t what anthropology has to offer or its limits, neither hope, nor despair, but rather its promise is only ever revealed in the task of anticipating our students’ needs and teaching with their input. Das describes how the undergraduate students in her course on “Conflict and Security” that she taught last year were relatively unmoved by the section on biosecurity, since the issue of preparedness for a pandemic felt so abstract and hypothetical to them. She anticipates, however, that when she reoffers the course next year, along with a new course on the anthropology of epidemics, students will likely not only be more interested but will also have to calibrate the issues of fairness or triage with the personal travails they might have faced, even if these are not explicitly brought into the discussion. Das’s commitment is to elicit understanding without injecting moralism into the discussions. For graduate students, she points out the false lure of nonacademic jobs, which draws heavily on instrumental reasoning but which has revealed its vacuity exactly at the moment of pandemic preparedness, when such reasoning could have proved its worth. Instead she advocates a more creative uptake of different sources of data and modes of knowledge production to grow anthropology’s potential. While Das provides concrete examples of what she is doing in terms of her courses right now and what she plans to do in the near future, she acknowledges that she is moving forward tentatively as she learns how to act under profound uncertainty.

In “Analysis on the Influence of Epidemic on Education in China,” Chunchen Xiao and Yi Li of Harbour Education provide a comprehensive survey of how the epidemic has upended standing practices and procedures of education across the board, from schoolchildren all the way to those studying abroad and postdoctoral students in China. For instance, we learn that while there has been a successful move to online learning, it has not only been difficult on children unused to sitting for long stretches of time in front of the computer screen to receive instruction, it has also not been an easy transition for teachers who are accustomed to methods of face-to-face instruction honed over years of practice and training. Online instruction has also seen the rise of new ways to fake attendance, outsmart teachers, and cheat. To deal with this situation, Hong Kong announced one year of repetition of primary school. The exponential rise of online courses for secondary and postsecondary schooling is noted, with some concern expressed for quality control and the loss of free time owing to nonstop learning. While this move to online courses was already happening, the educators fear that strong path dependence may leave education vulnerable to lagging internet capacity and as yet evolving intelligent platforms. Studying abroad and campus recruitment have effectively halted, disrupting the capacity of college-bound students and postgraduates to make any meaningful plans for their future. This profile of education across all different ages indicates that we must widen our scope of students to include younger ones who will feel the impact of this crisis in their lives for years to come.

Naveeda Khan, in her “Covid-19/Climate Change in the Lives of Students,” provides detailed accounts of how three of her students, one undergraduate, one graduate, and one postgraduate, experienced school closure, subsequent moves to their parents’ homes or self-isolation within their apartments, and move to online instruction. Like “When the Clock Starts Moving Again,” her piece attempts to enter into the moments of disruptions to understand how time, even if it doesn’t stand still, is slowed to such an extent that one is often standing beside oneself attempting to parse the growing unfamiliarity of one’s life. We get invaluable insight into how graduate students and recent graduates of today are thinking of their own futures as teachers. Khan’s more specific interest is to understand how Covid-19 comes to inflect individual lives differently, to show how for some it is only one more element in a life that is already very complicated and for others it completely upends their lives. This difference is relevant both in the context of Covid-19 but also as a proxy for how climate change enters into people’s line of vision and differently orients their life. Like the earlier piece profiling the long durée of effects that Covid-19 will have on the lives of schoolchildren, Khan’s piece tries to indicate that studies of Covid-19 could do well to acquire an ecological perspective so that we understand the long past that led to this crisis and how it will inform how climate change will be dealt with in years to come.

Student experiences, needs, and analysis have been an important orientation of the pieces collected here. They have been written in collaboration with students, sometimes from their perspectives, but also the perspectives of faculty, educators, researchers, and grant makers. We are missing institutional voices, particularly those of university administrators. Our hope is to be inclusive but critical, to coevolve ways of going forward with humbleness, with acknowledgement of the ignorance and uncertainty that beset us, while keeping the question of fairness and equality alive and not the exclusive provenance of anyone.


[1] 1 As Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Anthropology department at Johns Hopkins, I (Naveeda) can offer some anecdotal evidence on the issue of dwindling resources for mental health. Three valiant members of our campus counseling services recently led a workshop titled “Director of Undergraduate Studies Mental Health Training.” They were trying to be alive to the particular challenges students are facing and had taken to Zoom to train us to be attentive to psychological distress in our students. But when asked about their practical setup, they confessed that their actual offices were closed and that there was a hiring freeze, so they did not have anywhere near the numbers to match demand. This confession pointed to the fact that the workshop was either an attempt to meet a formal obligation or a good-faith effort, but not a meaningful striving to address, much less acknowledge, the extraordinary nature of the present circumstances. Our trainers kept assuring us that student needs and expressions were likely not all that different from what we would encounter during the usual course of things and were very careful to mark out what was properly their domain of concern (psychological health) from that of others (such as, financial hardships, struggling with academics). With mental health so narrowly defined, it ought not to surprise us that the best resource I came away with was the Calm app on my cell phone.


Biagioli, Mario, and Alexandra Lippman. 2020. Gaming the Metrics: Misconduct and Manipulation in Academic Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cohen, William David, and Michael D. Kennedy. 2005. Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics. Ann Arbor, MI: Scholarly Publishing Office.

Kennedy, Michael D. 2014. Globalizing knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities, and Publics in Transformation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Susser, Ezra, and Mervyn Susser. 2002. “The Aftermath of September 11: What’s an Epidemiologist to Do?” International Journal of Epidemiology 1(4) (August): 719–21.

Cite As: Das, Veena, and Naveeda Khan. 2020. “Introduction: Covid-19 and Student Focused Concerns: Threats and Possibilities.” In “Covid-19 and Student Focused Concerns: Threats and Possibilities,” Veena Das and Naveeda Khan, eds., American Ethnologist website, May 1 2020, [].

Veena Das is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Naveeda Khan is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Anthropology Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies at Johns Hopkins University.