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Convocation Address, “There and Back Again: A Professor’s Tale." Anne Pike-Tay, Professor of Anthropology. Spring Convocation, May 1, 2013

Acting President Chenette, faculty and staff colleagues, friends, and especially the Vassar classes of 2013 through 2016; I am honored to speak to you this afternoon.   Freshmen, you’ve made it through a landmark-life transitional year -- lets give them a hand!   Seniors, you’ve transformed from energetic high school students to competent, innovative, knowledgeable and politically engaged citizens!!!  Sophomores and Juniors, don’t worry that you are the middle children, this too shall pass.  What a year you have had here at VC, the visit of Gloria Steinheim, the inauguration of the MLLC program, the re-election of Obama, the outreach to the victims at nearby Newtown, the beautiful show of community in face of Westboro’s attack, the vigil for the marathon victims and so many more examples of civic engagement. 

One conclusion I’ve come to as a result of years of reading folk tales is that although an individual’s life may be jumble of random occurrences in which one must continuously make choices --- in order to stay sane --- people create stories, full of symbols that pattern and repeat to form coherent tales of meaning, fate, and destiny.   I thought I would undergo this very exercise in my talk this afternoon; tying together elements of my past in a continuous thread that led me to a career in Paleoanthropology — to me, a perfect blend of science and art.   Of course I needed a title and I found that earlier convocation speakers; e.g., Prof. Rachel Kitzinger’s “Chance and Choice,” and Steve Rock’s wonderful “Accidental Professor” had already taken the most apt ones.     A friend of mine played a little ditty for me a couple of weeks ago with a title that also seemed to be a great fit to my life’s story, actor John Lithgow’s “From the Indies to the Andes in Undies.”  Still, “From the Hudson to the Andes to the Pyrenees to the Himalayas back to the Hudson in orthopedic shoes” didn’t deliver the same zing as Lithgow’s title.    So I finally settled on “There and Back Again: A Professor’s Tale” with apologies to JRR Tolkien.     In this tale I encounter a series of obstacles and challenges along my way.  Unlike Bilbo Baggins however, I’ve found that not all dragons can be destroyed, but with the help and support of family, friends and colleagues they can be tamed.

Early Days

One thread I can tease out of my past that continues to today is my search for a way to combine my love of both natural science and art.  In 1962 I was in first grade in St. Patrick’s School in Newburgh, just across the river.  Sister John Peter asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I loved to draw, I was doing it all the time, so I happily drew myself as a Roman Catholic nun in a spaceship heading toward the moon.   Projects Mercury and Gemini, the USA’s first manned-space flights, were underway that year and, like most Americans, I was feeling very optimistic about science and life in general.   A year or two later my family got its first TV set, a sweet 19” black and white, and my brothers and I clambered out of bed every morning to catch “Rocky and Bullwinkle” before we headed off to school.    That was Rocket J. Squirrel, a flying squirrel (you could tell because he wore a pilot’s cap), and Bullwinkle the moose.  My favorite characters in the cartoon were evil-doers Boris Badenov and his foxy wife Natasha.    It was Boris and Natasha who made me aware that I was living through the “Cold War.”  

In 1964 the Beatles visited New York, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Sister Marie Anthony cruelly confiscated the Beatle’s wigs that some the older students wore to school.  A couple of years later my brothers and I were shifted over to the Newburgh public school system, which suited me just fine, since by age 9 I knew that I was agnostic at best.  The summer of ’67 we were returning from a family vacation week at the Jersey shore and got stuck in 10 hours of north-bound turnpike traffic with thousands of ‘god damn hippies,’ as my parents called them, all heading for Woodstock.  I loved the flowers and peace signs covering all the broken down VW vans.  The Vietnam War had long replaced Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Cold War and I saw my cousins and an older brother worrying about the draft.  I was entering puberty and the slogan, “Make Love not War” seemed to be the best idea humanity ever came up with. 

Junior High

On the heels of the protests against and ultimate thwarting of Con Edison’s attempt to build a hydropower plant on Storm King Mountain (one of my favorite hiking spots in those days), I not only became a fan of Pete Seeger but also a founding member of North Junior High School’s STOP (Students To Overcome Pollution) – and here is a thread and a concern that I pick up some 30 years later when I return to the Hudson Valley and became founding member of Vassar’s Environmental Studies Program.  

The tragedies of the Kennedy and King assassinations hit Newburgh especially hard.  There were riots, sit-ins, demonstrations, and peace marches for days on end.

High School

I became the cartoonist for the school newspaper, and I added copies of Ms. Magazine to Siddartha and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my summer-time reading.  The Saturday hikes with my father and brothers in the Hudson Highlands -- Break Neck mountain, Mt. Beacon, and Storm King  -- were superseded by treks around the Shawangunks and Minnewaska ,and skinning dipping in Minnesink Falls with my friends.

Like many of you, I was of the first generation in my family to attend college.   As this was all new to my parents, who worried more about the higher education of sons than daughters, my senior year in High School saw some difficult one-sided conversations on the home front.   I was told that I could either stay home or go to the recently co-ed-ified “sister school” of the college my older brother and some male cousins were attending.    So, although there were many other colleges to which I would have liked to apply (including Vassar), my parents were not people to be crossed.   That said, I decided I’d just have to thrive where I landed and ended up with no time or inclinations for regrets.

College, Jobs and Grad School

The summer before I left for college in New York City, Nixon resigned.  Saigon fell a year later.  I earned a BS concentrating in East Asian art history, studio art, Spanish and Japanese language study, and added a smattering of coursework in biology.  I had only taken one anthropology course though, through the then new Peace Studies Program at Manhattan College.

Since I was determined to see the world and never return to the Hudson Valley, halfway through my senior year I checked with the Peace Corps.  Unfortunately, my training did not match their needs.   At this point in my life the old adage, “where there’s a will there’s a way” had become a guiding force, so I next searched lists of International Schools and sent letters of interest to each one listed in Japan and Latin America.   I heard back from two out of over 40, and both were in Colombia.   I decided to interview for the job in Bogotá and landed it.  I was over the moon!  I adored pre-Columbian art, Gabriel García Márquez, and the literature of magical realism.   I was not disappointed for a moment: the people, theatre, art studios, poetry readings and hikes in and around Bogotá were glorious.  I spent the three weeks of winter break taking busetas and trains all the way down to southern Peru.   Along the way I became increasingly fascinated by the archaeology of the areas I passed through and enthralled by the local makeshift museums with their prized Incan mummy displays that seemed to pop up everywhere.    

During the year in Bogotá I prepared for the next stage of my journey by continuing Japanese language study through the patient tutoring of the mother of one of my young students, and by adding to my drawing and painting portfolio.    With an introduction from one of my studio art teachers in college, I applied to apprentice to the wood-block print master, Yoshida Toshi, and was granted an apprenticeship in Master Yoshida’s studio in the mountainous agricultural area of Nagano ken, Japan.     Once again, I was humbled by the beauty of the place and the kindness of the people I met and I could not believe my good fortune.

As the year passed I knew I should start thinking about applying to graduate school – but for what?   Art history or archaeology?   In Japan too, I had been drawn to fabulous archaeological sites and finds.    Either way, I had decided to focus on East Asia, so it was time to start Chinese language study (as I’d already fallen in love with Tang period sancai ceramics and Song Dynasty Silk Paintings, this was an easy decision).    In the early summer of 1980, I left Tokyo for Taipei, where I would receive free board in return for English language tutoring to a High School teacher (she in fact, needed no tutoring, but really enjoyed the opportunity to converse in English, so how lucky was I!).     I spent mornings studying Chinese and afternoons steadily making my way through the fabulous collections of the Gùgōng, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, taking copious notes and sketching.   As I neared the end of my summer in Taipei, graduate students from Taiwan, Europe and the US I’d befriended who were doing research at the Gùgōng invited me to join them in attending a professional conference on Chinese art and archaeology.     Going to that conference made up my mind for me:  I felt much more in tune with the way the archaeologists viewed the materials than the way the art historians did.   I was hooked and ready to start looking into grad school.

Back in New York City I got a job with the Chinatown Planning Council’s after-school program, took the GREs and applied to NYU’s graduate program in Anthropology, hoping to concentrate in archaeology. I was married by then, expecting my first child, living downtown, and NYU had what looked to me to be a terrific department.   The added bonus was that it was walking distance, which I knew would be incredibly important if I was committing to a 6-8 year stint.     Call it naïveté or flexibility: although there was no East Asian archaeology specialist at NYU, there was an expert in the European Ice Age; I figured if I concentrated on a time period full of stone tools and Pleistocene animal and human bones, the knowledge and skills would be transferable to anywhere across the Eurasian continent and further east.  If there was a downside, it was that I now would have to learn French for my dissertation research, after all those years of studying Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

Still, nothing beats bones!  I love working with bones as much as I love pre-Columbian ceramics, woodblock prints, and Sung paintings. It was only a matter of dusting off my college biology texts as I entered the world of human evolution, paleontology and Ice age fauna. I never turned back.

All that said, my application to NYU’s graduate program in Anthropology was initially rejected.  The letter I received stated that I did not have sufficient social science background.  With the mantra, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” bouncing in my head I went to speak with the Director of Graduate Studies to see if I could take some courses to make up this deficit, with the intention of applying again the next term. I was sent to speak with several additional faculty members and ultimately accepted that very semester on academic probation, and was onboard for the full ride afterwards.  I found out that it never hurts to ask!


Friends from earlier years asked how I could have jumped from East Asian Art History, painting and printmaking to honing my expertise on the analysis of Ice Age reindeer teeth from caves in France.  They didn’t see it, but it all flowed logically for me (or as I said in the beginning – I conjured the threads of continuity and pulled them through).   The good news was the Ice Age occurred everywhere, so acquiring the skills to analyze prehistoric bones and stone tools in one geographic region turned out to be an asset to doing the same some place else.   I had learned that being flexible with my life plans (as they were) and drawing on my strengths were my tickets to doing what I was passionate about –  And who could not be passionate about the discovery of human origins, fossil bones and teeth, and mucking around in caves?

My research has concentrated on two major transitional periods in prehistory.  The first pertains to the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in western Europe; and a concurrent phenomenon --- the peopling of Australia (specifically Tasmania).  The main participants in this transition were Neanderthals and/or early versions of ourselves: Homo sapiens sapiens.  The second transition is that from hunting and gathering to the permanent or semi-permanent life style of the Neolithic, which is marked by profound changes in ideology as animals and land, once thought of as ancestral spirits to be approached with respect by hunter-gatherers, become objects of possession, manipulation and care taking, by herders and farmers.  I have worked on Neolithic materials from Europe and – YES – finally, from China!    So, some thirty years after studying the language in Taipei, I did and do go to China.

My research goals have been to make contributions on several fronts.  Most generally defined, these include: 1) the prehistoric archaeological record of Eurasia and Australia;  2) human evolution in the Late Pleistocene; and, 3) the methodology of osteological (bones and especially teeth) study in archaeological science.

This is what I do, but what I have experienced takes on another dimension.  I have excavated in caves where Neanderthals and earlier Homo erectus lived and died, and I’ve held their tools and the remains of their hunts in my hands.   I’ve been entrusted with the analysis 100,000 year old fossil remains.  I have been as humbled and awed by walking underneath the Ice Age cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira as I have by walking through Chartres cathedral.  


The Vassar Chronicle of Sept. 1956 (incidentally, exactly 100 years after an ancient skull cap was discovered in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf that gave Neandertal its name) reported that Miss Newcomer, Prof. of Economics’ delivered the convocation speech.  The unnamed student reporter relays her message as follows:

In college, one should learn the art of thinking for oneself, of choosing and rejecting ideas.  One becomes more adaptable to the world and better able to live in a democracy, which Professor Newcomer defined as “the art of thinking independently together (1956:1).”

Perhaps my greatest reward from working at Vassar has been the many opportunities to “think independently together” with my colleagues on departmental issues, on college committees, and on research and teaching questions, and with students in the communal exploration of questions surrounding the social and political implications of the study of the past; including the thoughtful examination of the anti-evolution movement in the US and beyond.

Before speaking today, in addition to reviewing earlier convocation speeches, I asked my son, a VC 2004 grad, what useful point I could offer to the class of 2013.   He said “tell them that many different paths lead to success (and there are many definitions of success).”  In other words, he, like me, and many of my former students, walked several paths until we landed on the one that provided fulfillment.    

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the extremely funny are thrown at us everyday and we need to choose what to take away from those experiences.  The threads that have tied together the stages of my journey and spurred me forward have been: endeavoring to be flexible rather than rigid with my plans; endeavoring to be adaptable rather than imposing on my surroundings; endeavoring to remain teachable rather than thinking I’m an expert; and endeavoring to engage in service to others when I feel alone.   As for the borrowed title of my tale, “There and back again”, I started out in the beautiful Hudson Valley and thought I’d never be happy to return, but have discovered that that idea had to do with where my state of mind was many years ago and not where my – yes, hairy-- feet are today.  Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, May 1, 2013