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Caitlin Brooks

A Few Minutes With Caitlin Brooks

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara speaks with Caitlin Brooks, a PhD candidate in the Recreation, Sport and Tourism Dept. within the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois' College of Applied Health Science. I'm Vince Lara. And today I'm speaking with Caitlin Brooks, a PhD candidate in the Recreation, Sport, and Tourism Department, about her research and about how COVID is affected tourism. So Caitlin, thank you for joining me on this edition of A Few Minutes With, our AHS podcast. Now, Caitlin, you did your undergrad work in anthropology. Why did you to choose recreation, sport, and tourism for grad school?

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. So after my undergraduate program, I found myself living in Champaign, Illinois and working for the University, which was wonderful. And I wanted to get a master's degree, but I wasn't exactly sure what I would want to study. I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay with anthropology.

And so while browsing the degree programs, I saw that Illinois offered a Master's of Tourism Management and Recreation, Sport, and Tourism department. And I've been a lifelong lover of travel, traveled a lot I was a kid in a Navy family. So traveling was always really important to my experience of the world.

And so it was really exciting to think that I could get my master's degree in something that was so personally interesting to me. And the tie to anthropology was also really obvious, especially as I studied cultural anthropology. Tourism seemed like another way to sort of get to know some of the cultures of the world.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. I had a chance to look through your CV. And I noticed that you had an inclination towards storytelling, which was really interesting because that's my background. But you ended up pivoting to a more research-based field of study. So I wonder what changed? And what inspired you to do the research you do?

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. That's a great question. So I also worked in communications at the University. That was the job that I had. I first worked for our local extension unit. And then I joined the graduate college on their communications staff, and I still do some work there as well.

Originally, when I started my master's program, I didn't think I wanted to do a PhD. I was really looking for another accreditation that could really help me in my professional advancement, sticking with a communications career, so really sticking with that storytelling perspective. But once I got into my classes in the department, I found that I had really, really missed school and learning and research.

And so I finished my master's degree in about 2 and 1/2 years and decided that I would really enjoy doing the research of sticking with the PhD. But for me, the storytelling and the research aren't really separate because my work is ethnographically grounded. So even though I am doing rigorous social science research, I'm also, at the heart of my work, telling stories about what it means to be human, which is actually pretty in line with what I was doing before just now in a different context.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. You wrote a really interesting paper, when I was looking through your CV, on community-created consent culture. And in that paper you posited that social rules do not just disappear. They are replaced instead by new social rules, fitting the new context. I'm wondering what you mean by that.

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. So that work was my master's thesis that recently got published and is actually what got me into Burning Man, which is what my dissertation is about. When I was-- sorry, this is sort of a long, circuitous story. I hope you'll indulge me.


CAITLIN BROOKS: But when I started the program and was on the thesis track, rather than the professional track, I read a paper by Rasul Mowatt, who also got his PhD at Illinois, coincidentally. And he was talking about some really serious justice issues within the way that we conceptualize leisure. So he writes a lot of historical feature pieces, and he was talking about viewing lynchings through the lens of leisure, which was, of course, a really sensational, really problematic argument that he made very, very well.

But it sort of sparked something in my brain as I was thinking about leisure and the ways that human beings spend their free time and the way that they bring meaning to their life. And it just struck me as so wrong that you could make a justification that we could view lynching as leisure because in my mind, it didn't actually take into account any of the experiences of other people. So that sort of way of thinking about leisure, which was true to the discipline at that time, didn't accommodate the interactional relationship nature of most leisure activities, which is a long bit of background to say I thought that consent was actually something that was missing from our discussion of what is leisure and what something is when it is a leisure activity.

And so I was chatting with a friend who happened to run a Burning Man-themed camp. And she was like, well, if you're really interested in consent and leisure, you need to come to this regional Burning Man event, which was happening in North Carolina. And that turned out to be the site for my field research for my master's thesis and the basis of that paper that you referenced.

And it was really interesting because now I research events, and specifically transformative events. But when I started my degree I wasn't really aware of the special role that events played in our experience of the world and the way that we shape our identities and our communities. So I found myself at that original Burning Man event sort of a little bit clueless but really, really curious about what was going on.

And I noticed that Burning Man and its regional events are places where a lot of the social rules of everyday life don't really apply. So people often go by different names, and they wear really outlandish beautiful, wonderful costumes or nothing at all. It's like a really interesting and wonderful place, but that doesn't mean that there are no rules in that space.

So what I actually found by entering that space as a researcher and wanting to look at the evolution of a culture of consent in that event space was that when you sort of strip away the normal social rules-- so you're not talking about what you do for a living or how much money you make or where you live because everyone lives in tents at these events and sort of takes on these additional leisure identities. What happens when you strip all of that away is this sort of vacuum into which new things can either arise intentionally or sort of fall to fill in that gap. And so I see that as a really interesting opportunity for people to experiment with creation of different cultural norms.

And one of my participants said it really well. She said that Burnings were a place to try things simply because you were able to. And that's not just trying on a new name or trying on an outfit or making some really beautiful or interesting art. It also means that you can practice new ways of interacting with other people and with the world. And so that was, for me, really a light-bulb moment because it opened my eyes to how that liminal event space was really a place for opportunity and growth and change, in a way I hadn't considered before.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. So it's fair to call Burning Man a transformative event for you, you believe?

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. I didn't intend for it to be that way. I went-- and I joke about this. I thought I was too square to go to Burning Man. So my friend, who eventually got me there, had been telling me for years, oh, I think you'd love it. It's so great. It's my favorite thing in the world.

And I always viewed myself as very much-- I'm an academic. I have a hard time getting out on the dance floor, right? What would there be for me at Burning Man? And so when she finally convinced me to go, it was absolutely under the auspices of I was going to go and do my research. And then I would have done it, and she would be happy, and then I wouldn't have to go again.

And probably within 12 hours of arriving at the event to do my field research, I realized that there was something really special and really interesting happening at those events that eventually led to me relaxing some of the walls that I had put up and really having the time of my life. And I still do. I think I'm like 15, 20 events in, at this point. And it truly is the most fun and interesting experiment I've ever been a part.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. I have to pivot to COVID-19, because what would 2020 be without a question on COVID-19? And you've said that COVID-19 became a source of creativity in terms of your research. And I'm wondering how, how that happened.

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. So I defended my dissertation proposal, which is the last step before you get to go out there and collect data for your dissertation, on April 9th. And Burning Man was canceled the next day because of COVID-19. And my dissertation plan had involved two stages of field work. It was a really elaborate, well-thought-out, years-in-the-making plan.

And suddenly, the unthinkable had happened. Burning Man hasn't ever been canceled before. But COVID did that, and for good reason. It's not responsible to have an event in the desert during a global pandemic.

But what that sort of abrupt shift caused for me, in particular, because I'd been planning to finish my dissertation this year, I realized that even though I couldn't do the project that I wanted to do, there was a lot of opportunity in this sudden and unprecedented shift. So I was devastated personally. My husband and I were planning to have our group family wedding ceremony out at Burning Man this year. So it was obviously a really upsetting thing for it to be canceled.

But because my dissertation looks at how Burning Man contributes to meaning in people's lives, and specifically how people can feel like belonging and home at the event, I knew that I was getting an unprecedented opportunity to look at how that loss might impact those feelings of belonging and identity. If you think that Burning Man is home, what does it mean when you get told that you can't go home? And that's really been inspirational and the very hard work of still thinking about something that's very meaningful for me during a year when I also can't experience it.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. That's interesting. We can also talk-- I wanted to ask you about how COVID's changed the tourism industry. I mean, it clearly has. Do you expect what's happening now to the tourism industry to have-- to be a long-lasting effect?

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. That's the hot question right now. So we sort of thought that the tourism industry was indestructible. And then this happened. And so I don't think that there's ever been something that has disrupted tourism on this scale ever before and fingers crossed that it doesn't happen again.

But I think that in addition to just bringing everything to a standstill, humbling many economies that depend on tourism as a major revenue stream, there are a lot of "what's going to happen next" questions about these impacts. So I know that in my research group with Dr. Santos, we've been talking about what will tourism look like when we're all able to travel? And I think there is some sort of hopeful or optimistic things behind it.

So COVID has caused everyone to stay at home, stay inside, live these very much small, enclosed lives, which is different from what most people think about tourism being. But I think that there's a potential hope that maybe when things open up, maybe when people are able to travel again, they will be able to do that with an awareness or intentionality about the destinations that they take or the tourism providers that they're selecting. I know my personal hope is to maybe, I guess, sort of like I was talking about with events being a space where you can build from the ground up when the social mores disappear, this being an opportunity to build a better future of tourism, so a future of tourism in which we incorporate ethics and sustainability and all of these really, really wonderful powerful things that can get lost in the-- I don't know, the run-of-the-mill operation of things. I think it could be a really great opportunity for us to do some serious thinking about how we travel and how the tourism industry could look, in a way that can make space on the table for a lot more destinations, a lot more hosts in their communities, and a lot more providers in a much more equitable way.

VINCE LARA: Hmm. Another thing I noticed in looking through your CV was the disparate interests you have. And part of those were your aerial arts coaching. So I had to ask you about that. What led to you what led you to teach aerial arts? And talk a little bit about what that is.

CAITLIN BROOKS: Oh, no, please go ahead.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, talk about what aerial arts are.

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. We can start there. So aerial arts are the-- so if you think about the circus or various circus performances, the people who dance in the air on lyras, which are the aerial hoops, the aerial silks, which are the fabric that people dance on, and also static trapeze, I teach all three of those. I'm not a professional circus performer, by any stretch of the imagination.

But I found a really wonderful community here in Champaign-Urbana, Defy Gravity, which is our local aerial arts and pole fitness studio. And I found it at a time that was a really, really challenging time in my personal life. And I sort of took a class on a whim and found that I loved the embodied feeling of doing aerial art, so having to build the muscle to climb the aerial silk or of achieving a longer knee hang upside down on a lyra.

And so I love that embodied feeling. And I also just love the community that was there. It's a body-positive, queer, intersectional feminist space, which is so rare to find in a fitness space and really aligned with a lot of my values. So after a few years of building up strength and feeling really empowered by my aerial arts work, I had the opportunity to apply to be an instructor because the studio was growing, which was great.

And so I took that chance. Actually even before I was teaching my own classes at Illinois, I was teaching my own classes at the aerial art studio to sort of hone some teaching skills in a very non-traditional environment. But I primarily teach adults, all ages, how to do aerial silk at the very beginner level, which is an incredibly rewarding experience to see people who have gone from maybe not considering themselves athletes at all to being able to climb the silk 14 feet into the air and do a bunch of really cool tricks. It's a really, really wonderful part of my life.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. That's really neat. Speaking of your life, you're set to graduate in May with your PhD. So what's next?

CAITLIN BROOKS: Yeah. I think everyone's asking that in COVID, for sure. I am hoping to become a professor at an institution that has both research and teaching. So I love teaching, and I would love to continue doing that at the college level. But I also find my research really interesting and compelling and rewarding.

So I'd love to find a job as a professor where I can do both of those things. Of course, the job market is always a little bit unpredictable. So we'll have to see what pans out from that.

VINCE LARA: My Thanks to Caitlin Brooks. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, iHeart Radio, Spotify, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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