The anthropologist: Associate Professor of Anthropology Misha Quill

Misha Quill didn’t originally intend to be an academic or to live in small-town Iowa. She grew up on the East Coast and worked in public radio documentary production before heading to graduate school at age 40 to study anthropology. 

As part of a 2019 Medical Anthropology course in Nepal, Misha Quill and her students visited Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
As part of a 2019 Medical Anthropology course in Nepal, Misha Quill and her students visited Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Despite receiving her doctoral degree from the University of Iowa, Quill’s first visit to the Cornell College campus was for her job interview. She remembers an instant connection with the historic campus and its people—despite the bitter cold that day. 

“The students were so amazing. I was so touched by how engaged and interested they were. I think that helped tip the balance,” she said.

She’s had a major impact since her arrival on campus in 2015. Anthropology was added as a major separate from sociology, and she has developed over 15 new courses, including Medical Anthropology; Environment, Culture, and Sustainability; and Anthropology of Doing Good. 

Work with refugees

Her Ph.D. explored how the international community manages protracted refugee situations.

As a grad student conducting research in Ireland, she learned of a group of Muslim refugees from Myanmar who escaped to Bangladesh and then years later were resettled in a small village in Ireland. She started learning Bengali and eventually spent 18 months living and working with staff members from an international NGO running a refugee camp 

on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Her dissertation addressed the nature of humanitarian intervention—how to run a refugee camp and keep people safe, fed, and housed—and critiqued the international aid system that sometimes does little more than keep refugees alive.

Life at Cornell

Quill bought a home in Mount Vernon because she thinks a lot in her work about collective responsibility for the planet, and she walks to work most days. “It fit with my values and the life that I wanted for myself,” she says.

As a cultural anthropologist she studies contemporary people, focusing on places where people, society, and culture experience change or conflict. In the classroom she frequently provides real-world examples from her experiences in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Ireland. During off-campus courses she models ways to interact with other communities.

“Anthropology offers students the opportunity to pick up a tool kit, methods, perspectives, and a way of thinking about the world and interacting with people that can help them in lots of disciplines. They can use these tools to work with people, listen to people, bridge differences, and learn what motivates people. It’s a great all-purpose degree for students interested in connecting with other humans,” she said.

Quill is now on sabbatical exploring how the pandemic has reshaped humanitarian work. One of her critiques of humanitarian aid work, and nonprofit work in general, is the amount of time needed to write reports that are required by funding agencies. “In some settings the staff are as concerned with writing reports as doing humanitarian work. On the ground, work can suffer,” she said. “Changing that system seems like an enormous endeavor. But the pandemic might offer opportunities because things are so unsettled.”

She imagined having more time for research and writing when she came to Cornell, but quickly realized that was not the case: “Cornell is a place where most of us focus most of our attention on students.”

Looking to the future

Quill sees two avenues of growth for anthropology programs. One is technology. Many high tech firms are hiring anthropologists to help them develop and refine tech solutions and new products. Using data collection methods like participant observation, interviewing, and focus groups, anthropologists can help organizations hone in on what customers and other stakeholders need and want. 

Working with diverse communities to foster sustainability and social justice is another area of growth.

“Students are very interested in doing environmental work and working with people and communities. Anthropology can really serve them,” she said. “Similarly, there is a lot of excitement about future opportunities for global health. I see anthropology being a key part of that.”

Read about the other faculty in this series:

The organic chemist: Associate Professor of Chemistry Jai Shanata ’05

The wildlife conservationist: Associate Professor of Biology Tammy Mildenstein

The neuroscientist: Associate Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Steven Neese

The physical therapist: Associate Professor of Kinesiology Kristi Meyer ’01