Michael P. Oman-Reagan is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology. He was nominated in 2014 and again in 2015 for the national Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship competition. In 2012, he was given the “Movers & Shakers Advocate” award from Library Journal for his work as a co-founder of The People’s Library, the library of Occupy Wall Street in New York City.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
When I was doing my undergraduate study in New York, I knew that I might want to pursue a PhD outside the US. I had studied overseas before in Denmark and in Indonesia. Unlike in the U.S., most PhD programs in Canada and Europe require a masters degree, so I continued after my BA and completed a two-year, four-field MA in anthropology also. Having completed an MA meant I could apply to PhD programs both in the U.S. and across Canada and Europe. After considering the admissions offers, I decided MUN was the right fit for three reasons: the students I spoke with said great things about the anthropology department, the faculty were excited about my research topic and how I wanted to approach it, and the low tuition meant I could do the PhD without going into as much debt as I would in the U.S. A PhD in anthropology in the U.S. takes typically eight years to finish.
What drew you to explore anthropology?
I took a circuitous route to anthropology. Both of my parents were trained as archaeologists, so when I first went to university I avoided anthropology. I studied biology, then philosophy, international studies, studio arts and art theory. Then I worked as an artist and ran an art gallery. After moving to New York I decided to complete an undergraduate degree and I started with a BA in religion. I'm fascinated by the stories we tell about where we come from, why we’re here, and where we’re going. To compliment the humanities focus, I needed a way to look at what people were actually doing on the ground, so I added an anthropology degree, and then an interdisciplinary program so I wound up with a triple-major BA. In my first anthropology class, I realized that I’d been an anthropologist all along.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
My research has always looked at how people imagine a better future and work to bring about that new world. For my MA thesis at Hunter College, City University of New York, I wrote an ethnography of Indonesian activism. I examined how the Occupy social movement travelled from the Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan, New York City to Indonesia both online and in physical space. Now, in my doctoral research I am looking at space science and space exploration. One of my objectives is to study how social and cultural factors influence space science, and how space scientists increasingly shape the ways we imagine the future, both on and off the Earth.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to her/his role as your advisor and mentor?
One of the strengths of the anthropology department at MUN is the diversity of the faculty and this is reflected in my supervisory committee. I’m really lucky to have committee members who each approach the discipline a bit differently and who have related but unique interests and theoretical orientations. All the faculty in the department have shaped my research, whether through coursework, from a conversation at a department party, or even just recommending a science fiction book. That diversity is a real benefit as a student because it encourages me to consider my topic from different angles, a vital approach in anthropology.
You have recently garnered quite a bit of media for your taking the Oxford Dictionary of English to task for gendered definitions – can you explain how that all came about and what has the ultimate impact been?
I happened to be looking up the word “rabid” in the dictionary on my laptop when I noticed the example sentence for it was “a rabid feminist.” I thought it was interesting, so I posted it on Twitter. I thought the editors at Oxford and my community on Twitter would find it interesting to see this anachronistic pejorative reference to feminism showing up in the dictionary on every Apple computer, phone, and tablet. This started a discussion with thousands of people from Canada, India, U.S., Europe, Australia and beyond, all joining the conversation online. After I wrote more about the issue online pretty soon the press was covering it, Oxford was responding, and it had become a news story. In the end the staff at Oxford wrote a blog post saying they appreciate having these examples pointed out to them. They said we were right that “rabid feminist” wasn’t a good choice for an example because it distracted from their goal, which is to help clarify the meaning through examples. For me this was a case of doing public anthropology, applying my linguistic anthropological training to point out that even though dictionaries today usually claim to just be describing language, they are also playing a prescriptive role in shaping how people use language and even, in this case, reproducing sexism. And, as Oxford says, language matters. There have been over 60 news stories so far, including the Guardian and the Washington Post, and the discussion continues.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
In November, I organized a panel on the anthropology of outer space and presented my paper "Unfolding the Space Between Stars: Anthropology of the Interstellar” at the 115th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado. I collaborated with an anthropology PhD student at York University, in Toronto, to put the panel together.
The Oxford dictionary discussion has also led to another academic collaboration. I am co-authoring a new paper called "Confronting Language Ideologies in Public Anthropology: A Case Study of the #OxfordSexism Debate” with two linguistic anthropologists, Dr. Sarah Shulist (MacEwan University) and Dr. Lavanya M. Proctor (Lawrence University). They proposed that we write about the situation, and the abstract has been submitted for presentation at the 95th Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society where Dr. Proctor will present it in Kansas City, Missouri in April.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
I am writing for SAPIENS, a brand new online anthropology publication from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. My blog there about the anthropology of outer space is called Wanderers (sapiens.org). MUN-STS, the Memorial University Science and Technology Studies group, is doing amazing work to bring together scholars across disciplines at MUN who study science and technology. Dr. Max Liboiron (sociology) and Dr. Josh Lepawsky (geography), brought the group together and are the co-directors. I helped a bit last year by getting the web site up, and serve as a graduate student contact for the group (munsts.ca).
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
The Queen Elizabeth II Library! As soon as I arrived at MUN in 2014, I was immediately impressed by the extensive resources, especially the digital journal and database subscriptions. These are so important because they’re the only major research library for an entire province. In New York, I could go to university and public libraries all over town if needed, but here the QEII is our one resource for accessing research material. The physical collection is impressive, the stacks are just fun to look at, the reading area with all that great natural light is so important, and the building looks like something from another planet, so of course I love that also. I also really enjoy the fact that I can walk across campus to Queens College on the trails through the woods, at least for a few months of the year.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
Whether I continue my research at a university or work for an organization like the CSA/ASC (Canadian Space Agency) or NASA, I want to be involved in shaping how we approach space exploration and the ways it impacts all of us. Astronauts say that seeing the Earth from space changes how they think about politics, the environment, social issues, and humanity. This is especially important in an era of human impact on the planet, ongoing wars, and refugee crises. As Carl Sagan said, when you look at our planet from far away in space it appears as nothing but a small dot of light in a vast universe and this "underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known."