Featured Faculty: Dr. Beth Drexler

Beth DrexlerDr. Beth Drexler has been very research active recently, thanks to an American Institute for Indonesian Studies Luce Fellowship (2014-2016) and a Fulbright (2015-2017). Her current project explores human rights and memories of violence in the aftermath of authoritarian rule in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (known as East Timor during its occupation by Indonesia). Her next book, tentatively titled “Human Rights, Transitional Justice and History in Indonesia,” analyzes the process of producing and circulating knowledge about past human rights violations in and through public culture, film, fiction, art, courtrooms, documents, and efforts to write new histories. She’s conducted archival research, interviews, and participant observation in relation to the past, and is also working with organizations to explore new issues in the democratic present.

One focus of her current project addresses the commemorations and the materiality of history following the authoritarian Suharto era. Her dissertation research was conducted during a moment of national euphoria following the change in government, and substantial human rights legislation was passed at that time. Now nearly 20 years later, her research has a longitudinal aspect. In Indonesia there has been no formal, state-led process examining the authoritarian past. Instead, people have been working in more diverse ways throughout civil society to reconcile the country’s violent past and democratic present. For example, last year she observed events related to the 50th anniversary of mass killings of suspected members of the then legal communist party. She has interviewed victim support groups and student activists to understand their memory practices and how these reflect the present moment and people’s aspirations for the future. What do activists see as victories and milestones in human rights and the processes of memory? She is particularly interested in how ‘knowing’ plays a role in these practices, since the authoritarian era was a time of propaganda. What does truth recovery and the ‘end of lies’ look like for people and for their social relationships?

On an upcoming visit, she will work with colleagues at the University of Indonesia on a series of seminars related to human rights and ethnography, which will further her exploration of how Indonesian millennials view human rights norms. Although they were born after the Suharto years, millennials get drawn into justice and memory projects as they learn their country’s history. Young people are particularly savvy about online resources, and are collecting and curating their own collections of stories. In the process, they are participating in global human rights networks and producing history, using new media to tell stories differently and contribute to innovative archives of past voices.

Dr. Drexler’s research feeds into her teaching at MSU as she hopes to inspire her students to be engaged global citizens in classes such as Ethnographic Methods, Globalization and Justice, Human Rights, and Anthropological Approaches to Peace and Justice Studies. Undergraduates in her classes have kept “justice journals” in which they integrate theoretical readings with examples from their own lives that they deem important, such as song lyrics, bumper stickers, and graffiti. At some point she hopes to have her MSU students interact with her Indonesian students so they can share their methods of using social media to record and tell stories, map historical sites, and create their own narratives of history.

For Dr. Drexler, working with graduate students in MSU’s Department of Anthropology is one of the best parts of her job. She’s often taught the first year theory class (“Roots”) and has appreciated the opportunity to think more broadly about the discipline while sharing perspectives with the many bright students from various subdisciplines. She also enjoys teaching thematic graduate seminars on State Violence as well as Knowledge, Memory and Archives. Working with graduate students
she mentors on their own projects also helps her think comparatively about human rights and public anthropology. Directing Peace and Justice Studies at MSU has enabled her to work with undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, alumni and community members to create curricular and co-curricular opportunities for engaging shared thematic interests. The Department of Anthropology has also been very supportive of her research and interdisciplinary initiatives on campus, for which she is grateful.

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