Q&A with Rosanna Dent

Rosanna Dent is an historian of science, a Member in the School of Historical Studies, and Assistant Professor, Federated History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She pursues research at the intersection of medicine, Latin American history, Native studies, and feminist science/technology studies.

Her work focuses on the politics and effects of research relationships. Her current book project, Studying Indigenous Brazil: Moral Economies of Research in A'uwe-Xavante Territory, combines historical, ethnographic, and community-based methods to explore the human sciences and their afterlives in Indigenous communities. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you describe your work to friends and family?

I am working to understand how they, as research subjects, experience, influence, and make political use of science, and how they have influenced scientific disciplines in the process.

I study iterative processes of research in Indigenous communities that are highly studied. This is the case in many communities in colonial, post-colonial, or settler colonial contexts. Specifically, I collaborate with a group of A’uwẽ (Xavante) communities in Central Brazil that have been hosting researchers for the past sixty years. They have hosted all kinds of scholars: anthropologists, geneticists, public health researchers, and others. I am working to understand how they, as research subjects, experience, influence, and make political use of science, and how they have influenced scientific disciplines in the process. We’re building a digital archive together so community members can access the materials that have been created about them by outsiders and annotate and use the materials as they wish.

What question(s) within your field do you most want to answer and why?

I am most interested in how histories and historians of science can contribute to a more just present and future. Some of the questions that animate my work are: How can historians work with and be accountable to communities that have suffered harm from scholarship in the past? How can understanding human subjects’ experience of research help us envision anticolonial knowledge making across the disciplines?

Who or what has had an outsized influence on you in your academic career? And what is one of your most memorable moments as an academic?

I’ll answer these questions together. Early in my first stay in the A’uwẽ (Xavante) community of Pimentel Barbosa in 2015, I was questioning whether I should be there. I wasn’t sure whether the nascent community archive project I was working on was something that really interested my hosts. It had taken me a long time to decide I should reach out to community members, and that the benefits of the work could be worth the potential damage of unequal power dynamics, but I still had my doubts.

Lincon Dure’we Xavante
Leader Tsuptó Buprewêm Wa’iri Xavante and Rosanna discuss a published historical photograph during a community meeting in 2019.

One evening in a crisis of confidence, I went to visit Sidówi Wai’azase Xavante, an Elder and leader who had spoken on behalf of the project several times. Sidówi and his wife Angelica took me into their home, talked with me, encouraged me, and even comforted me. I’ll never know exactly what Sidówi did, but after that, things suddenly started to move with the project. One of his sons and a nephew showed up each morning to start teaching me A’uwẽ language skills. Elders came to look at historical documentation. People showed up for community meetings about the archive.

Though I’d been interested in the labor of community members related to hosting research, this moment really crystalized for me how much work it is to engage with us and look after us. It focused my attention on the affective dynamics of this research: the way that Sidówi and Angelica practiced care for me, without knowing if I would understand or follow through on my obligations within the relationship. Sidówi joined the ancestors in 2017, but his memory and his certainty that gaining access to historical documentation would be important for his community continues to motivate my work.

Why IAS?

It’s hard to imagine a better place to do this work. For me, thinking is a social act. Since I want my book to speak to a wide and interdisciplinary audience, revising and refining my arguments while sharing space with social scientists, natural scientists, and historians will be priceless.

How might the reopening of campus (and society at large) influence you and your work?

I am impatient to get back to Brazil and talk about what I have been working on with my collaborators there, though it likely won’t be until July 2022. WhatsApp helps us stay in touch, but nothing substitutes being able to sit together and discuss or work one-on-one with digitized archival materials. Brazil has been particularly hard hit with COVID, which took a number of A’uwẽ Elders and some young people too, so there is also a profound sadness and no real “return to normal” as it were.

How can we make academia more inclusive?

I think historians of science have the potential to play a particularly important role in shifting the exclusive dynamics of academia. We’re well equipped to recognize that different positions, personal histories, and experiences lead to different knowledges and that those knowledges are valuable. But we need to move past that. The next step is to really apply that orientation to valorize and materially support the people and communities that have been marginalized and excluded, but not simply by folding them into existing structures. Non-marginalized academics like me need to learn how we can engage and support on their terms and in reciprocal ways. It’s about a rebalancing of power and resources.

Where is your favorite place to think?

If it’s not out loud over a cup of tea with a colleague and friend, then one of my favorite places to think is the woods. The company of trees and all the other beings is grounding, so I’m planning lots of long walks this year.

What other activities or pastimes do you enjoy?

I run regularly to clear my mind. I also love cooking and baking as an antidote to too much time in front of a computer. Maybe predictably, I started making slow rise bread during the pandemic when yeast inventories were low. I’m hoping to get back to that now that the summer heat is passing and there should be plenty to share.