December 2020

Excerpted with permission from the College of Saint Benedict. View the full original article, which was published Nov. 17.

Ellen Block
Associate Professor of Anthropology Ellen Block

Graduate student anthropologists in the mid-2000s didn’t often get training in ethnographic skills, such as transcribing, coding and analyzing data.

“Most anthropologists who got their Ph.D.’s around when I did didn’t really get taught to do that,” said Ellen Block, an associate professor of anthropology in the Sociology Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

But Block is trying to change that trend.

Using three CSB students as research assistants – Mackenzie Carlson, Grace Savard and D’Havian Scott – Block submitted preliminary findings on “COVID-19: Clinical and Personal Perspectives from Healthcare Providers in the United States.”

Their qualitative research examines how COVID-19 is impacting healthcare providers (HCPs), their families and their patients. The team conducted 55 interviews with HCPs across 18 different states between April and September.

“What Megan Sheehan and I are trying to do is to train students in ethnographic skills, from interviewing to transcribing, coding and interpreting data,” Block said of her fellow anthropology assistant professor at CSB and SJU.

Mission accomplished, according to the students.

“I have gotten to see the research process almost in its entirety,” said Carlson, a senior sociology major with a concentration in anthropology from Roseville, Minnesota. “I have learned the necessary skills for conducting research.

“I feel confident now that I could conduct my own larger-scale research project in graduate school or another setting,” Carlson added.

“It was a transformative experience,” said Savard, a junior biology and peace studies double-major from Arden Hills, Minnesota. “I loved that we were able to participate wholeheartedly in recruitment, interviewing and the analysis/identifying of emerging trends.

“Professor Block welcomed our input and we frequently collaborated as a team when making decisions. While we worked together to accomplish team goals, all of us had individual tasks to complete as well,” Savard said.

“I’ve worked on research before in class but never to this magnitude,” said Scott, a senior sociology major with a concentration in anthropology from Nassau, Bahamas. “I would say research projects I did in class really prepared me to dive into this research.

“I’m glad that I got to experience what research outside of the classroom looks like. It gave me a feel for what practical challenges I may face, but also the benefits of doing this work,” Scott added.

. . .

Block and the students interviewed doctors, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Through the interview process, they investigated three areas:

  • Professional impacts of COVID-19 on HCPs;
  • Personal impacts of COVID-19 on HCPs;
  • Isolation and its reverberating effects.

One interesting finding the team made is that “COVID-19 is also characterized by a unique isolation and loneliness for patients and families that healthcare providers bear witness to. The effects of this isolation are devastating and disrupting the fundamental ways that humans make meaning, especially around the important rite of passage of dying.

“Piecemeal or limited mental health and wellness efforts for healthcare providers will not be adequate to address the immense physical and psychological challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

The students’ liberal arts background helped, they all agreed.

“I’ve been doing research from when I was a freshman and it’s always something that was encouraged in my major,” Scott said. “I think attending a liberal arts institution really helped to give us an opportunity to grow and develop in ways other students at other colleges may not have. I’m appreciative of the experiences I have gained from having a liberal arts education and being able to draw on different fields of study is helpful when doing research.”

“Being at a small liberal arts school was helpful because I have been able to get to know my professors to the point where I can just reach out and say, ‘Hey, can I join this?’ and it works out,” Carlson said. “I think if I were at a larger school I would not have the relationship with Ellen that allowed me to join so easily.”

“I firmly believe that everything is connected. Cross-disciplinary connections are at the heart of a liberal arts education. I am double majoring in peace studies and biology on a pre-PA track, yet I have a passion for medical anthropology and sociology,” said Savard, who has submitted a thesis proposal to explore the biosocial and sociological elements in order to further understand the effects of COVID-19 on healthcare workers and the broader society .

“While I am not a sociology major, I had an opportunity to assist and work alongside Professor Block on an incredible healthcare-related project that I am super passionate about. Our research tied together elements of sociology, anthropology, political science and communications.  I do not think that I would have had this opportunity at a non-liberal arts school,” Savard added.

“This has been a really cool experience for them,” Block said. “They’re presenting at two professional conferences, they’re working on a paper for publication and one of them is doing a thesis, so they’ve been central to this. I think they’ve learned a lot.”

By Mike Killeen