Vassar College

Serendipity and Circumstance in the Shaping of a Career

Lucy Lewis Johnson, Fall Convocation, 2007

President Hill, most-esteemed colleagues, guests, 4th Years and, most of all, the 1st Years, I am honored to speak to you this afternoon.

I entitled this talk “Serendipity and Circumstance in the Shaping of a Career,” but I have come to realize that the title needs another noun: “Serendipity, Circumstance, and Continuity in the Shaping of a Career.” So, to begin:

Among the members of the class of 2011 who have just entered Vassar are some who are absolutely sure what they want to do in life, others who have absolutely no idea what they want to do in life, and most of you have some ideas but no certainties. The seniors, class of 2008, who will begin the rest of their lives in May, have a higher proportion of those who know what they plan to do, at least next, a lower proportion who have absolutely no idea, and about the same number who have ideas but no certainties. I began college as a dedicated English major, became an anthropology major with a focus on archaeology, thought about digging in Europe but ended up in South America, moved my research focus from Peru to northern Chile to the Straits of Magellan at the south end of South America, flipped hemispheres to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and have now turned my focus back east to New York State where, in addition to digging and continuing to teach anthropology I am now the acting sustainability coordinator for Vassar. Not exactly a straight line! A variety of serendipitous circumstances caused me to change my direction numerous times, and I want to share them with you in the hope that you will look out for such circumstances and take advantage of them when they appear.

I was fortunate to grow up where I could play in the woods and see the Hudson River every morning. In the summer, I ran on the beaches and swam and boated on Gardiner’s Bay at the end of Long Island, and went to camp in the Adirondacks. So I had a close connection to nature in most of its New York State varieties. Going to a progressive elementary school also provided me with resources of creativity if not talent.

Things slowed in high school, a girl’s prep school which I did not like – although I did discoverThe Lord of the Rings just as it was being published! I decided to go to the Midwest, to Carleton, for college because my high school science teacher’s brothers had gone there and loved it. What would have happened had I gone to Swarthmore or the University of Colorado instead? I will never know, just as you will never know what would have happened had you chosen another school: Frost’s two roads diverging in a yellow woods.... My first shock, coming from New York, occurred when I drove into Northfield and saw the huge billboard announcing: “Welcome to Northfield, Minnesota! Home of Colleges, Cows, and Contentment!” I almost turned tail and ran, but stuck it out for two years, discovering that me and the Midwest were not made for each other, nor was I cut out to be the English high school teacher I was sure I wanted to be: after those two years I decided that if anyone asked me to analyze another book, I would throw it at them!

So home I came for a semester, after trying summer stock, knowing that I was not going into the professional theater, nor into a high school English classroom, nor back to the Midwest. Half-way through college, and I had gone from being absolutely sure of what I wanted to do with my life to having absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do next. So I got a couple of college catalogs and went through them from cover to cover, checking off all of the courses that looked interesting, finding courses that involved people living in varied environments at different times and places most intriguing; upon counting interesting courses offered by the School of General Studies at Columbia University, anthropology was the clear choice, and I started in the spring semester as a junior anthropology major without even knowing what the word “anthropology” meant! A decision I have never regretted! I was also told, after blowing off an English placement test, that I would have to take Freshman Composition – after having some eight or 10 credits in English from Carleton!! I stormed into the English Department office in dismay: I managed to get out of Freshman Composition, but did have to take Advanced Rhetoric, a writing course that turned out to be interesting and extremely valuable to me, and which I never would have considered taking without the circumstance of failing the placement test. I was also told I had to take a language, but convinced them that two years of high school Latin, one year of college German, and four high school plus two college years of French sufficed – I subsequently did take Spanish, but that gets us ahead of the story.

So, I wandered into a New World Prehistory course, taught by a marvelous professor, and a week into the semester one of the graduate students, who had excavated in New Mexico with an amateur group, brought in his Clovis and Folsom points to show the class. Now, I had always loved pretty stones, and had a large collection from Long Island beaches, but these points were the most beautiful stones I had ever seen: Paleo-Indian points, exquisitely chipped from high quality multi-colored cherts. I was hooked: I decided there and then that I was going to become an archaeologist and study stone tools – and this spur of the moment decision is another one that I have neither subsequently changed nor ever regretted. And I still collect stones from any beach I find myself on and have created a beach in my backyard on which to display them.

During my time at General Studies, I took a course in Arctic Archaeology, which I found interesting enough to start subscribing to the journal of the same name; however, the professor who taught South American Prehistory had just received a five-year National Science Foundation grant to work in northern Chile, and invited me to stay at Columbia for graduate school, join the project and find a doctoral topic in the research. Who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?? I studied Spanish for a semester, replaced my subscription toArctic Anthropology with one toNawpa Pacha, the journal for Andeanists, spent two summers working in Peru, and headed for Northern Chile, where I researched and subsequently wrote a dissertation grandiosely entitled: “A Computer-Aided Attribute Analysis of a Lithic – that is, stone tool – Industry from Northern Chile.” While finishing up my thesis, I spent two years teaching in the Humanities Department at Brooklyn Polytechnic, which was a very interesting endeavor. Before starting to teach the subject of a course, I had to convince these budding engineers that there was some value in the social sciences. My first semester was the most interesting; I was supposed to be teaching two sections of Introductory Anthropology, one during the day and one in the evening, but the day before classes started my chair informed me that my evening course did not have enough enrollment to run. So she said, “You can teach a section of Contemporary History – after all, you’ve lived through it!” So I used my marches against the Vietnam War as course material, read theNew York Times every day on the trek from the Columbia neighborhood in which I was living to Brooklyn, and muddled through.

I then finished my dissertation and came to Vassar with my newly minted PhD, having serendipitously heard that a position for an archaeologist specializing in South America was open from a fellow graduate student when we met in the Columbia library while pursuing thesis references. My first year was the first year we graduated men who had started as freshmen. My way back to South America for research was rocky, since my advisor had died. In addition, the environmental impact laws, which mandate that every project that uses federal or state funds have an historical, including archaeological, impact analysis done, had just been passed. Since I was the only Americanist archaeologist in the Mid-Hudson Valley at that time, and had excavated on Long Island and Staten Island, which gave me some local credentials, I felt it my professional responsibility to undertake environmental impact surveys, though I did feel that New York archaeology was unutterably dull. After all, who wants to work in their backyard when the rest of the world beckons? So, for a number of years, I and my students wandered around people’s backyards in Poughkeepsie, asking them if they had found any artifacts while working in their gardens, putting in shovel test pits along the proposed Poughkeepsie sewer lines, and getting to know liber, the deed records books in City Hall, very well. I also directed a Vassar College field course over in Orange County for a number of years. These early Vassar years opened me to the joy of working with students both in the classroom and the field and watching them develop their own projects and careers stemming from our research.

In the mid-1970s, my husband was still working at Columbia, where he too had received his PhD, and one day I went down to Columbia with him and chanced to have lunch with a colleague who was interested in recent seismic uplift. Over lunch I told her about the Alacaluf Indians who lived in the region of the Straits of Magellan she was studying, and were sea nomads, moving their camps frequently from place to place. I reasoned that they would camp on the first terrace above sea level, since there was no reason to move farther inland if their stay were to be short. So we hatched a plan for me to join her the following December to January in the Straits to survey for sites on higher terraces, which we hoped would date the minimal age of uplift of the sediments. With support from her grant and Vassar’s Faculty Research Fund, off I went on a new adventure. But for that lunch date.... I published a report of our survey in the local archaeological journal in Magallanes, but we never did pursue our research further; my friend wasn’t much for publishing, and I gave birth to my first child, who preoccupied me for a while.

Three years later, I was off to Egypt! Where did Egypt come from you may ask? Well, it is desert, like northern Chile, but a very different desert for sure. My senior colleague in the Vassar Anthropology Department worked on the predynastic period in Egypt and somehow, I don’t quite remember how, he had discovered an interesting late Pleistocene or early Holocene lithic site in the vicinity of the settlement he was working on, so he invited me to join him for a season to work on that site with a couple of Vassar students. It was an interesting site, and I met a couple of Egyptian Paleolithic archaeologists, who invited me to become part of their team. I might be an Egyptologist today!! But this circumstance wasn’t right: I didn’t like Egypt, and even though I didn’t have a field site at that point, Egypt did not feel like the place I wanted to work.

So back I came to Poughkeepsie to continue teaching the field course, undertake environmental impact surveys, and to add another person to the human population. But then, in the spring of 1984, my colleague from southern Chile had a party at which were other colleagues and friends from Columbia who were working in the Shumagin Islands in Alaska, which are the innermost Aleutian Islands, south of the Alaska Peninsula and west of Kodiak Island, and they wondered whether we could use site locations to gauge recent uplift in that area as my colleague and I had in the Straits of Magellan. This intriguing opportunity was too great to miss, especially as I had been fascinated by the Arctic way back when, so off I went in another direction, but still sticking with stone tools! I didn’t have time to read up on the area during the remainder of the semester since it was my heavy teaching semester, but I planned to spend the two weeks between semester’s end and my trip to Alaska buried in the library stacks reading all of the articles I could about the Aleuts, the prehistoric inhabitants of the Shumagin Islands. But circumstance and serendipity raised their heads again. The circumstance: my daughter got sick and I spent the two weeks at home sitting with her head in my lap reading about Eskimos rather than in the stacks reading about Aleuts. The serendipity: if I had been in the stacks I would have learned that the Aleuts, rather than being nomads, built substantial semi-subterranean houses. Therefore, their settlements were on high terraces well above sea level and not sensitive to the sort of micro-variation in sea level my Columbia colleagues were looking at. So, if I had known this, I would have had to tell them that my joining them was a complete boondoggle and I wouldn’t be able to take their money for this survey. But I didn’t know, because my daughter got sick! So off I went to Alaska, fell madly in love with the area, and returned for field work 10 summer seasons over the next 20 years, working with Vassar students to collect artifacts and information that we continue to analyze.

So how did I get back to working in New York? Serendipity and circumstance once again: in the fall of 2004, almost simultaneously, I was asked to become director of Exploring Research, our summer science program for community college students, which would involve teaching a course to the students, and was approached by the historian for the Beacon Center for Rivers and Estuaries, who was looking for a Vassar archaeologist to follow up on a Vassar related study of the 1930s. So I put two and two together and took the ER students to survey and dig on Dennings Point in Beacon, right down the river, for two summers, having a wonderful time and discovering that the prehistory, and history, of this area was much more interesting than I had thought.

Now, Vassar has a research contract with the Mohonk Preserve, located in the “Shungum” Mountains, those are written Shawangunk, on the other side of the Hudson River – a great place for hiking and rock-climbing if either of those interests you. In the fall of 2005, the research director of the preserve came to Vassar to try to interest more Vassar professors in doing research on preserve lands. He cornered me, and before I knew it I was committed to taking a Vassar field archaeology class to the Gunks. Our first season, last fall, was fascinating: we worked at a rock shelter which is located at the top of the major pass across the ridge; this summer I surveyed the ridge with my Ford scholar, finding many unknown shelters, and our second season got off to a great start last Saturday. So I may get back to Alaska one of these days, but right now I am happy working in my own, very interesting, back yard – the same backyard that I once had found very boring.

And, finally, there is the sustainability coordinator. Where did that come from, and what is it? Well, you will remember that I spent much of my youth outside, enjoying and getting to know the natural world, and, of course, as an archaeologist much of my time has been spent outdoors, surveying and digging. In addition, right from the start of my anthropology career, I focused my theoretical interests on the interactions between humans and the environment and on how these are mediated by technology. We humans are technological creatures; we always interact with the environment through our tools, whether these be clothing, or spears, or baskets, or jet planes. Humans are obligate tool users and to me it has always been fascinating to try to understand how our relationship to the environment has changed as our tools have changed. So when the Environmental Studies Development Project got underway, I signed right up, and taught, with Lisa Brawley, the second iteration of the required core course for environmental studies for three years as well as serving on the ENST steering committee. When a group of environmental scholars in the Hudson Valley got together to create the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities, I joined immediately and have been on its steering committee since its formal incorporation two years ago. And finally, last fall, when the consortium conference on greening academia was followed by a Mid-Hudson Valley conference on the likely effects of global warming on New York State, I decided that I no longer had a choice: I had to devote myself to doing all I could do to slow global warming, on a local as well as a national and international level, so that you guys and your children will have a decent world to live in. The job of Vassar College’s sustainability coordinator is to convene the Sustainability Committee. We meet every two weeks; our next meeting will be next week and you – faculty, staff and students of all classes – are welcome to join us – and to work with our interns and all members of the Vassar community to reduce/recycle/reuse and bring the campus and our surrounding community into a balanced relationship with the natural world.

Serendipity and Circumstance and Continuity: find something you love to do, but don’t cast it in stone, unless stone it is, and don’t be afraid of change. Be alert to events which may send you off in totally different directions. If you are not happy with where you are or what you are doing, do something else! Life is always full of surprises, and too short to get stuck doing boring things. If you are open to change, and willing to grasp opportunity, you’ll be like me, enjoying my teaching as it evolves and my research as I move into new areas, and my stone tools, my bellwether, 40 years out. Have fun!!!

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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

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