Q&A: Sarah Luna, newly-hired professor of anthropology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies

Sarah Luna, the Kathryn A. McCarthy, J45, AG46, Assistant Professor in Women's Studies, poses for a photo. Courtesy Sarah Luna

Sarah Luna, the first-ever Kathryn A. McCarthy, J45, AG46, Assistant Professor in Women’s Studies, is one of the 35 newly-hired professors in the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering who arrived at Tufts this fall. Luna, whose research focuses on sex work, migration and borders, and race and ethnicity, sat down with the Daily to share her experiences as a professor and researcher.

Tufts Daily (TD): You have a dual appointment in the anthropology department and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Have you found that there is flexibility and support for your interdisciplinary interests?
Sarah Luna (SL): Yes, I’ve definitely found that there are many opportunities for overlap here. I’ve been in some places where the lines were much more rigid, and even in the classroom [in other universities], I’ve taught classes that were cross-listed between the two departments where there would be conflicts between the students from these two disciplines because they had been so separate in their training. But here, I actually find that those discussions go a lot more smoothly, and I imagine that it must reflect students’ experiences in other classes.

TD: What drew you to anthropology?
SL: It was actually my first semester of college that I decided I wanted to be a professor and that I wanted to be an anthropologist; then I just went in that direction. I did my bachelor’s at the University of Texas, San Antonio, which is where I’m from, and then I went straight to grad school at University of Chicago. In undergrad, I was inspired by a couple of classes and professors. I hadn’t even heard of anthropology before I got to college, but I took some classes and I found that they caused me to rethink and question everything I understood about the world at that point, which to me was a really transformative experience. I admired my professors so much and I felt like they had changed my worldview, and I wanted to give that opportunity to other people. Now I don’t think of what I do in quite those terms, but at the time it was influential in my decision to become an anthropologist.

TD: Within the discipline of anthropology, what is your specialization, research focus or areas of interest?
SL: As an undergraduate, the other thing I became very inspired by was gender and sexuality studies, so I was an anthropology major and a women, gender and sexuality studies minor. My focus, which I developed more in graduate school, is on the U.S.-Mexico border, so my first book project, which I’m working on now, is based upon a year of ethnographic research in a Mexican border city about sex workers and missionaries who migrated there and who met in a prostitution zone surrounded by walls. The book is about relations of love and obligation, and issues of value in a Mexican border city in a time of increased violence during the drug war. That’s the first project and what my research has been about mostly. So far, I’ve been interested in issues of sex work, migration, border lands, racial and national distinctions. Missionary work and queer theory informs my work as well. I plan to do another book project about sex worker activism in Mexico City, as well as a book about whiteness and exercise culture in the United States.

TD: What path did you take to get from your Ph.D. to Tufts? What brings you here now?
SL: I graduated [from University of Chicago] in December of 2013, and then I had two post-doctoral positions: one as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Houston in the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program; then, at Davidson College, in the Latin American Studies program. So I’ve moved around a lot and gotten to teach at different kinds of places. [In deciding to come to Tufts,] I was really impressed by the faculty and the students, and I have found that I have overlapping research interests and concerns with many faculty members, so I think there are a lot of great opportunities for collaboration. I’ve found [Tufts] to be a very welcoming environment, intellectually rigorous, but still kind and welcoming. So far I’ve been really impressed by the students.

TD: What are you teaching this semester?
SL: Right now I’m teaching a course called “Sex and Money: Anthropology of Sex Work” and next semester I’m going to be teaching an anthropology of race and racism seminar. The course this semester looks at anthropological approaches to not only sex work, but also other kinds of intersections of sex and economics, different kinds of monetized sexual exchanges in a variety of contexts throughout the world. The class for next semester is something I’ve taught a version of years ago at [University of California, San Diego] and I had 100 students in my class, so it was a very different atmosphere; this will be much smaller and seminar style. I’m interested in looking at both anthropology’s historical relation to race and racism, as well as anti-racism, and then looking at different instances of constructions throughout the world and there will be, I think, a somewhat heavy focus on whiteness, both in the U. S. and other contexts because of my ethnography; I’m seeing the course as an opportunity to think through my research.

TD: Do you have any specific goals or things you hope to accomplish within your first year at Tufts? What are you most looking forward to?
SL: My biggest goal at the moment is to finish the revisions of my book manuscript. This year, it’s a really nice opportunity that I’m able to teach two classes in which I can really teach and talk to students about these materials that I’m in conversation with in my research [and] that I find to be helpful for [my] teaching too. I also look forward to meeting more students and faculty members, and getting to know Tufts better.

TD: Beyond your research interests, what’s something people might not know about you?
SL: I’m part of a conceptual art project that makes music, called Kegels for Hegel. We write raunchy and ambivalent love songs to philosophers; well, we’ve always called them philosophers, but not all of them [are] technically — more so important thinkers. We have songs to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin — which I think we haven’t recorded yet — but then we just wrote one to Gloria Anzaldúa, and we have music videos also that can be found on YouTube. We make most of our songs in GarageBand, I do sing in some of the songs and we sometimes perform live, but it’s a collaborative project so with each song we collaborate with different academics or artists or just people who want to write a love song to a philosopher. It’s fun to play with some of these ideas; I think the first one to Hegel is the catchiest, but one of our most recent ones to Anzaldúa, I love more at this moment because we were able to film in Houston and incorporate a lot of Texican imagery. What I love about the project is that it allows for collaboration in a more playful way with creative people I know; the fact that it’s generative, but not properly work, is important to me.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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