Anthropology, Armenia and Academia: Professor Kathryn Keith shares her story

CJ RobinsonReporter

In her office, many objects jump out at once; a binder labeled “gender,” a monkey mug, books on a shelf including Neolithic Revolution in the Near East, a woven map of Kyrgyzstan, jungle party hats and a group of archaeological artifacts underneath the window.

Anthropology professor Kathryn Keith explains that the artifacts come from Armenia.

“What you see here are replicas of ancient pottery from Armenia,” Keith said. “I was on a dig there one summer. It’s not an actual second millennium pot because that’d be illegal and I’d now be in jail, but these are both replicas.”

Keith spent a large part of her graduate education on digs before she achieved her doctorate in anthropology and Near Eastern studies with an archaeology focus, specializing in old Babylonian Mesopotamia for her dissertation.

Many of her passions may have stemmed from her childhood, Keith said. She grew up in Southern Idaho near labor camps with Hispanic children. She recounts how her love for language and archaeology may have come from this era of her childhood.

“I always liked languages,” Keith said. “They came easy to me and I was around Spanish a lot. What our family would do for fun is pile in a Jeep and go driving out in the boonies. One of the places we really liked to go were ghost towns and pioneer cemeteries.”

Keith and her family would analyze tombstone and odd inscriptions, similar to a field research project she conducts for her archaeology class. Although she had a passion for these fields going into college, she majored in bilingual multicultural elementary education with endorsements in early childhood, Spanish and English as a Second Language at Boise State University instead.

Keith comes from a family of teachers. Her stepdad was a junior high art teacher and her mother was an early reading specialist. Keith’s grandparents were also teachers.

“It’s a definite family tradition,” Keith said. “It was like ‘you shall be a teacher’, and at the time I really didn’t want to, but that’s the direction I was herded in. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.”

After she completed her undergraduate degree, she taught 3rd and 4th grade in Wilder, Idaho.

“They’re a lot like college students,” Keith said. “College students are a little more sophisticated but they’re very similar in their enthusiasm. It was fun.”

To carry on her passion for language, Keith took a community Japanese class. Through a connection with her instructor, she was able to teach English in Japan.

Keith said she didn’t accomplish her original intent of learning Japanese as well as she wanted to. Although she lived in Japan for four years, most of the people she interacted with wanted to practice their English with her. She was also living in a complex with all the other English teachers for that particular school, making it even harder to engage with the language.

“Mostly, I just kept to myself so I didn’t go out much, so it took me a while to get past that fear of being in a new place,” Keith said. “I did study a bit of Japanese, but I never got to use it, oddly enough.”

After her second two-year contract with the school, Keith decided to travel back to the United States. She realized that she didn’t have to go back into teaching elementary and could pursue her passions, go to graduate school and become a linguist and anthropologist. She realized she’d saved up enough money for this and because of the timing of the Graduate Record Exam, she had to take the standardized test to attend school in Japan. She was nervous to go back and encountered a bit of a problem when it came time to take the test, Keith said.

“After one section of the test, we all received a break.” Keith said. “I actually ended up locking myself in the bathroom and practically had to kick the door to get it open. I got to the test a few minutes after the test had started, but it turned out to be an experimental math section that I was going to crash and burn on anyway, so it worked out.”

From that point, she received a fellowship from the college of her choice to receive compensation for attending that school. Keith said the majority of students receive some type of funding if accepted into graduate school.

“I was pretty terrified when I started grad school because I’d been out of it for a while,” Keith said. “And you know, ‘ew, grad school’, but I kind of gritted my teeth and got on with it.”

Before her graduate education, Keith went to a small field school aimed at teachers and got accustomed to being on digs. She went on many more throughout her time at the college and played many different roles on trips, but the conditions weren’t always favorable.

“They (the conditions) change all the time,” Keith said. “In one trip we ended up getting our water from this pipe in the side of a hill, which wasn’t good because the earthquakes in that area had broken the pipe and (the water) was contaminated. A lot of people got sick. “

To complete her PhD, Keith completed a project looking at Babylonian cities and how they were structured. She lived in Berlin for a year completing dissertation research to examine sites and inscriptions regarding property.

After completing her PhD, Keith received a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth to teach classes, writing a dissertation into a book format and interviewing for positions at universities.

“I was told at a couple of them that ‘we don’t want you to put too much energy into your teaching, because this is a research institute so if you want tenure you’re gonna have to publish research,’” Keith said. “I come from a family of teachers so I didn’t think I could do that.”

Keith discovered the community college system and decided to come to Pierce because she enjoys teaching introductory courses and the emphasis on teaching.

Keith now teaches anthropology courses at the college and enjoys bird-watching and knitting in her pastime. She’s also known for her wigs, which she attributed to being lazy and wanting blue hair, both of which pointed towards wigs.

“I really like working with students who’re just interested in stuff,” Keith said. “It’s kind of fun when they get into an anthropology class and go ‘ooh!’ It’s fun to explore that new field with them.”

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Anthropology, Armenia and Academia: Professor Kathryn Keith shares her story

by CJ Robinson time to read: 4 min