On August 1st, 2016 the Global Communications and Protocol team in Illinois International sat down with Professor Ellen Moodie—Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—to talk to her about her recent work in Cuba. From June 6-12, 2016, Dr. Moodie co-taught a qualitative methods seminar at the University of Pinar del Río in Cuba. Sociologist Belkis Rojas Hernández and Dr. Moodie co-led a multi-disciplinary group of advanced students, which marked the very first collaboration between the University of Illinois and a university in Cuba since 1959, when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement took power. (See http://www.upr.edu.cu/)
The seminar was envisioned as a reflexive ethnographic exercise in which all participants considered their training, research trajectories, and investigative processes in the context of historical conditions. In other words, as they learned about and experimented with ethnographic methods, participants were expected to collaborate with each other in an auto-ethnographic project. Rojas Hernández and Moodie hope to extend interactions among participants over the next few years.
The following highlights some of Dr. Moodie’s primary reflections during the hour-long interview.
GCP: Can you start by telling us a bit about your background? And how you developed your teaching interests and research focus?
EM: I’m originally from Indiana and got interested in Latin America as I was coming of age during the political movements of the 1980s. I first set out to become a newspaper journalist and got a reporting job in a part of New Jersey that had a lot of Latin American refugees and migrants—many Salvadorans, Cubans, Guatemalans, among others. It was a very exciting place and time to be a journalist and through that work, I became part of a sister city group with El Salvador. I first traveled there in 1993, right after the war had ended, in 1992. I wanted to see what peace would look like after war and how people interpret their realities in a post-war setting. At the same time, I got accepted into graduate school at the University of Michigan. I was interested in documenting atrocities, and looking at dynamics of war and peace. What would peace look like, after war? But what happened in El Salvador in the 1990s was that the crime rate went up after the war and homicide rates increased. So my research turned toward this phenomenon and generally toward political transitions. Salvadorans were saying things like “it’s worse than it was during the war now, now you don’t know who you can trust.” I wanted to dig into this question of how people theorize their own lives and how they perceive democracy after wartime when violence and social distrust increases.
In 2012, I took a sabbatical to do research among young people in El Salvador who were just coming of age and don’t remember the war. While I was there, I got to know a group of people who were part of the FMLN—the former guerillas who are now a legal political party and in power. Some of these friends had planned a trip to Cuba that year, which was a slightly unexpected and unplanned trip but one which allowed me to get to see “their Cuba” rather than just what I might have seen through North American eyes. One of the things that struck me right away was the total lack of citizen insecurity; people could walk freely in the streets day and night, which is very different from El Salvador, where there are armed police and security guards in the streets everywhere. In Cuba there’s a very different vibe and sense of freedom walking around the street and people are more willing to talk to you.
GCP: Were you self-conscious about being American? And how did this translate into your current field of inquiry?
EM: No, as a North American I didn’t feel suspect at all. People were, Cubans are, curious about me, about us. Though I should say when I first arrived at the airport they pulled me aside and asked me many questions—I guess it was strange to see a lone white U.S. citizen coming in with a bunch of Salvadorans. But it has since gotten easier I think.
So how did I come to this research project? I’ve made a career of teaching research methods and ways of knowing—in other words, epistemology and ways of knowing your own history. That’s what I explored with Salvadorans when they thought about their history and experience after war, in relation to the armed conflict. Now that has all come together with my work in Cuba, asking people how they understand themselves in the midst of ongoing transformations. This new partnership with UPR will really facilitated the research process.
GCP: Why did you choose the University of Pinar del Río and build this particular partnership?
EM: When I returned to Cuba in 2014, just my second visit, Obama and Raul Castro announced a re-opening of diplomatic relations. I was traveling with a Salvadoran journalist friend who had some contacts on the island. We got to Pinar del Río and met up with a friend of his, a kind of cultural entrepreneur, and his wife Belkis Rojas—who is a PhD and professor at the University of Pinar del Río. Belkis and I immediately hit it off. We had a lot in common and a lot to talk about. We found that we were investigating some of the same kinds of questions. But she’s a sociologist. I found out there is no dedicated anthropology department in Cuba, though there are practicing anthropologists.
I went back to Cuba in June 2015 and visited Pinar del Río again. That’s when Belkis and I decided to teach a class together. It would never have occurred to me but when she proposed collaborating in a seminar, I started thinking about how to incorporate my growing interest in Cuba into my broader research interests on how the social uncertainty inherent to political transitions shapes subjectivities.
What’s happening in Cuba now as it continues to change is really interesting. I mean, I want to stress that we are always changing, societies are always changing, no matter where we are but Cuba in particular has been transforming in powerful ways since 1959 and the triumph of the Revolution—and then especially since 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and then the U.S. embargo was tightened. The country has struggled through a lot of significant changes. What I saw from the moment I landed in December 2014 was that many Cubans have a lot of hope and it’s a fascinating time to be there. I wanted to think about people thinking about those changes and teaching research methods was a good vehicle for that.
In October 2015, Belkis and I proposed the curriculum for the research seminar. We had to present it with a syllabus (for a two-week intensive seminar on research methods in cultural anthropology) but even the syllabus I wrote had to be turned into something that would match the Cuban academic system, identifying each step of the class. Eventually the class and syllabus were approved and I was vetted and approved, and got an academic visa from the embassy in Washington D.C., which took a lot of effort! It was a huge process but I got it. Finally I was on my way to Cuba. This would be the fifth visit since I first started going there.
So why collaboration with the University of Pinar del Río? It was somewhat serendipitous because of my friend from El Salvador who knew these people there. But the UPR, like other institutions in Cuba, wants to expand its international presence and develop more possibilities for collaboration.
And as you know there’s a lot of interest in collaborating with Cuba among people in the U.S. now. Historically this attention has focused on Havana. Havana is seductive. But UPR has a lot going for it. This particular campus is a regional university and a bit easier to navigate and obviously also just an interesting space for me to do my research, with some interesting parallels to Illinois.
PDR is the most western province of Cuba, with abundant natural beauty. It is a very tobacco-oriented area, heavy on agriculture and eco-tourism. So in those ways, there are special affinities with Illinois but I wasn’t looking for that…it just worked out that way.
GCP: Were there other foreigners there?
EM: Yes, there are a lot of international students at the University. I saw some women in hijabs for example, who were foreign students. There are also many students from all over Latin America—many Bolivians and Venezuelans in particular—and lots of international interaction and educational agreements with foreign countries. But I am told I was the first North American to teach a class for credit there.
GCP: What was the process like in terms of developing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and what are some of your hopes for it?
EM: I didn’t have previous experience with developing an MOU. Belkis suggested it. I understand it does help to have one in order facilitate things in Cuba. Now our relationship, the relationship with Illinois and UPR, has been formally recognized. The MOU allows anyone from the University who wants to go to Cuba the ability to get an academic visa. You need to affiliate with an institution to do research in Cuba and it facilitates the process a lot to already have a good relationship with a university.
I will be back in Cuba for a conference in the fall and Helaine [Silverman], an archaeologist here at the U of I, and I have put together a Cuba studies group with a grant from the IPRH, which supports bringing in speakers. When we asked who was interested in joining the group, we got such a huge response from all over campus, especially from the library, ACES, and political science, so we are really bringing together a very diverse group of people. The agricultural connection is also really excellent and UPR would be great for study abroad in the future, as the area is easier to manage and much calmer than in Havana, where most people tend to go.
GCP: Can you talk a bit about the class you taught and how that went?
EM: The class was on ethnographic methods; qualitative research methods with a focus on ethnography. I should say, ethnography is an intimate method of participating in and observing communities at an everyday level. In the course I also offered a brief history of the discipline of anthropology, where the ethnographic method originated. We were together about four hours a day, for a week, followed by a week of individual consultations. Thirty-three people signed up. All the students were post-graduates in different social sciences, and many were from regional or rural towns who traveled to Pinar del Río, which is the provincial capital, just for this seminar.
Before the course, I gathered a lot of readings on ethnographic methods in Spanish in PDF format. Books are not always affordable, books published elsewhere, and paper for photocopying would be very expensive, and Internet connectivity is pretty weak in Cuba right now. So I put together jump drives with texts for my class. What surprised me was that it seemed like almost everyone did at least some the readings ahead of time and they were very engaged, even though they were very busy, with families, and other responsibilities.. My sense is that in Cuba, in higher education, there are a lot of people who read very intensively and seriously.
I also had the students do exercises in research methods from simple observations and interviews…We also did educational mapping exercises and had people narrate their own educations which was interesting and involved discussing and producing oral histories.
One thing I was very impressed by, in the class and beyond: Cubans have a very strong sense of history shaped by the Revolution. Most people have a very clear sense of self, of national self, of historical consequence, after the Revolution of 1959. So many people in Cuba have a very clear sense of where and who they are in the context of the world- I mean we’re all shaped by dominant ways of thinking about national history, wherever we live, but. I was struck by the way a lot of my Cuban students could explicitly articulate their lives in a historical context. So when they told their own life stories, they would situate them within national and global history
GCP: What’s next for you? Where is this leading you in the year ahead?
EM: I’m teaching a methods class this fall in anthropology and I’m sure I’ll talk about this experience in Cuba a lot—in terms of how we arrive at particular conclusions about what we know; from my perspective, from a cultural anthropologist’s perspective, there’s no such thing as objectivity in that sense. For example, in terms of methods it’s useful to think about why people choose to research what they do, why they ask the questions they ask, and how they approach particular problems. It is different among postgraduate students in Pinar del Río, Cuba, than it is among students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The way I have been designing my upcoming methods class now is being influenced by the experience in Cuba.
I also want to encourage faculty here at Illinois to expand their relationships with Cuba, for example professors at the college of ACES or my colleague Helaine Silverman, who is now interested in Cuba and cultural heritage there. Her past work is mostly in Peru and Asia. I want to encourage faculty to explore their interests in Cuba, even if they don’t speak Spanish.
Dr. Moodie will be returning to Cuba in late November 2016 to participate in the Cuban Institute of Anthropology’s eighth international conference, where she will present findings from ongoing research in El Salvador. She plans to continue her anthropological fieldwork on Cuban social science methods over the next few years, collaborating with the University of Pinar del Río and other institutions.
Established in 1972, Universidad de Pinar del Río (University of Pinar del Río or UPR) is a non-profit, public higher education institution located in the city of Pinar del Río. UPR offers courses and programs leading to recognized higher education degrees such as bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates in economic sciences, social and humanistic sciences, technical sciences, forestry and agronomy, and mountain agronomy. Since its founding, UPR has graduated over 18,000 Cubans, along with international students from more than 43 countries. For more information, visit the UPR website.
Dr. Ellen Moodie, a Conrad Humanities Scholar and a Senior Fellow of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, is currently the Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is affiliated with LAS Global Studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Center for Global Studies. She has taught courses on Central America, violence, crime, human rights, social theory, research methods, ethnographic fieldwork, ethnography through language, the history of anthropological theory, and the anthropology of the city. Her first book, El Salvador in the Aftermath of Peace: Crime, Uncertainty, and the Transition to Democracy (Pennsylvania 2010), follows the circulation of the phrase “It’s worse than the war” in the years since peace accords were signed in 1992. Her second book, Central America in the New Millennium: Living Transition and Re-imagining Democracy, co-edited with Jennifer L. Burrell (Berghahn 2013), gathers anthropologists who work throughout the isthmus to explore the post-Cold War transition. She received her PhD in Anthropology form the University of Michigan in 2002. View her full CV here