Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fieldwork and Archival Research in the Age of Terror

One of the toughest hurdles we must surmount as young academics is the extended trip. Ethnomusicologists generally spend between 6 months to 2 years in some place outside of their comfort zone, ranging from foreign countries to a field site on the other end of the city. Musicologists may do this as well, or they might spend months on end in an archive. As many Americanists know, international travel grants are among the most highly prized funding sources out there for our fields of study while domestic travel grants are difficult to obtain. It looks like the Americanists now have a new advantage of not having to worry about the TSA rummaging through their research notes.

In recent years, we've been hearing an endless stream of headlines about how our endless War on Terror influences what we do: if you wish to study Arabic or Farsi, odds are there is a government grant out there for you; if you happen to be a non-resident of the U.S. employed by a U.S. institution, you will probably have new troubles with your visa (we all know of the infamous case of the musicologist denied re-entry by the Department of Homeland Security). There is now a new hurdle for young traveling scholars that I don't think anyone adequately anticipated: the search and seizure of written documents upon re-entry into the U.S. after a lengthy research trip. The AAUP reports that as of 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has directed customs and border control agents to seize electronic and printed materials upon re-entry into the U.S. without individualized suspicion. The TSA has been able to search and/or confiscate computers for some time now, but it is only getting news now due to a high profile subpeana and seizure that the TSA later withdrew. The Obama administration is keeping this policy. This morning I heard that many returning Fulbright fellows have had their boxes of research materials opened and returned in disarray – sometimes with the wrong contents, sometimes missing large quantities of research materials – without warning. The message came out over SEM-L that young scholars should be careful when returning from a research trip. Needless to say the AAUP and the ACLU are fighting this.

People, this is huge and terrifying. Speaking from personal experience, we all have enough hurdles to jump through when it comes to international travel and research. Visas on their own can be tough to get. Now we have to worry that our data might be seized without individualized suspicion?! I know we have plenty to be upset about these days (budget cuts, pay cuts, ballooning class sizes), but this particular policy will have a directly negative affect on all international research.


Bob Judd said...

Salutary warning, thanks. Forgive me for sidestepping the bigger issue for a moment, but pragmatically speaking, I think it's good advice for those traveling abroad to be even more careful than they normally would be about making and keeping data backups. Burn CDs of important materials and mail them to yourself. Take digital photos of notes and do likewise. If you can get online while abroad, upload digital materials to your acct. back home. Give copies of those CDs you burned to a friend for safe keeping "just in case." And so on: whatever it takes, keep safe copies of important research materials.

For the bigger issue: academic societies (often with the ACLU) have been complaining to the Dept. of State about invasion of privacy for years, and have encountered brick walls. Even when US senators intercede. Yes, the societies, individuals, libraries, academic institutions, and the ACLU must continue to stand up for researchers' rights; but we must also acknowledge that a quick and easy resolution of the problem is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon.

Dan B. said...

My colleague who just finished up here has tales of West Africa. I think she spent less than 48 hours between arriving and being evacuated on the last flight out.

I guess harrowing encounters on the subway will have to sustain me.

KG said...

Bob, I think I will take your advice and submit to cloud backups of my data for my next research trip. Pictures also sound like a great idea. The current plan is to bring a small external hard-drive with me to Brazil, and use either's Jungle Disk or some other equivalent service. Colby wants me to bring my laptop to the ITS department to have them provide yet another level of backups. It may be overkill, but I'd rather not take any chances with my work.
Now, if only I could find a way to avoid having my stuff randomly seized, all will be well. Perhaps I can escape without harrowing experiences, no?