Stranger in the Lab

Stranger in the Lab

“What were you thinking?!” I asked myself a cool day in September. I kept my eyes down toward the black tabletop to avoid making eye contact with the trowels across from me that seemed to be staring back and whispering “you’re in the wrong building!” I wondered what a first-year sociocultural anthropology student with minimal background in anthropology and no background in archaeology was doing in a graduate archaeology fellowship. Friends, and family have also questioned why I chose to explore the world of archaeology when my research interests clearly lie in the sociocultural realm. If the response to my participation in CAP is not an Indiana Jones joke, it is confusion and intrigue. To be honest, I do not have a definite answer as to why I officially signed on to be a CAP graduate fellow and I have come to realize that might have served me well this first year. 

The instinct for most students at the doctoral level would likely be to reserve their limited time to organizations that have a clear link to their research or at least their subfield. I certainly considered this as I made my decision but I realized that I wouldn’t feel right in my field if I did not have at least some idea of what everyone else was doing. Part of my motivation to join CAP was to pay respect to the discipline I was new to and to get acquainted with the interplay between the subfields. I was also especially drawn to CAP’s outreach-oriented mission which I believe is too often overlooked in academic environments. During my first semester, I got to participate in creating innovative ways to connect with our community and understand what CAP, and archaeology, could be about. Events such as the ones mentioned in our previous blog post showcased the dedication CAP has to moving beyond the bounds of MSU’s campus and get the greater mid-Michigan community engaging with the land we all occupy in a thoughtful manner that highlights the the rich history of the area. 

Since joining CAP, I have come to see the places in which the subfields of anthropology overlap. My experience thus far has shown me the benefits that a four-field approach can bring to such an interdisciplinary practice. An example of this has been my research with historical anthropology student and CAP colleague Benjamin Akey where we have been conducting archival research on the history of Asian American graduate students at MSU. This collaboration has allowed me to expand my own understanding of archaeology to recognize the ways in which archaeology can be a powerful tool to address overlooked histories. Our research will conclude this spring with an oral history that reflects on the formation of the Asian Pacific Graduate Alliance (APAGA) at MSU. As a non-archaeologist CAP fellow, I feel that my background has also supported CAP’s work to deconstruct narratives that reduce archaeology to digging for buried treasure. Through the inclusion of oral histories as a CAP project and an emphasis on archival research, I feel that I have been able to serve as an example to myself and hopefully to others of the way the anthropological community can benefit from cross-subfield collaboration. 

As the second semester picks up, I still find myself raising my hand during our weekly meetings to clarify what are probably concepts the archaeology students could explain in their sleep but I feel excited to learn the answer instead of nervous that too many questions will make them regret taking on someone with such minimal expertise. What I didn’t know, I have learned thanks to the patience of the rest of the CAP fellows and our fearless leaders Dr. Stacey Camp and Autumn Painter. In addition to the many laughs, professional experience, and kind people CAP has brought into my life, I have also become more well-rounded in my own practice which I believe can only aid me in the future. 

I want to express my deepest gratitude to the MSU Archives who have been extremely helpful throughout our research process and please stay tuned for our APAGA oral history coming later this spring!

Author: Grace Gerloff

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