Dr. Kenneth E. Sassaman
UF Department of Anthropology
2013-2014 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I came to the University of Florida (UF) in 1998 to help shape the next few generations of Southeastern U.S. archaeologists. I started in archaeology as a young professional after an enormously positive educational experience with mentors who went beyond teaching to enable and encourage professional development. I left a satisfying job as a full-time researcher to come to UF not because it paid more or to gamer prestige and fame, but to contribute in my own humble way to the legacy of those who inspired me. Archaeology enjoys abundant public cachet but not the professional credentialing of fields like medicine and engineering. Sure, the usual academic standards and peer review curb the excesses of undisciplined practice, but archaeology occupies a tenuous position in the popular imagination: so long as it does not cost much or impinge on personal freedom, archaeology is indulged as the color commentary on our collective past. Having been influenced by mentors versed in critical theory, I had come to expect archaeology to do more than entertain. I expect it to contribute directly to the challenges of our own futures. It would take a large cadre of thoughtful, young professionals to make archaeology more relevant.
I knew from the work of my mentors that any hope of improving the public relevance of archaeology turned on the connections one makes to local communities, and that, in turn, meant making commitments to working in places over the long haul. Trust is built on consistency in practice that comes only from a commitment to return again and again, and to be responsive to requests for help. For that reason I have always worked locally, in places I can be in less than a few hours. I admire my department colleagues who work in South America and Africa, all of whom have developed strong community ties through long-term engagements. But it is extremely hard for them to expand capacity for graduate student involvement because of the enormous costs of fieldwork afar. By working locally, I not only have the opportunity to expand capacity for graduate student involvement but to also place students in academic and governmental positions that serve local and regional needs. I thus attract students who are willing to spend a considerable portion of their careers, if not all of it, working in the Southeast. I understand that this may sound like a fool’s errand, but actually the region has long been a growth region for archaeology, both public and academic, and it promises to continue to grow with challenges going forward, such as climate change and sea level rise.
A few years ago the Department of Anthropology received a $2 million gift to establish an endowed professorship in Florida archaeology. The opportunity came to me after it became clear — under the circumstances of our economic downturn — that an outside hire was not possible. In the proposal I wrote as then-chair to gamer the support, emphasis was on graduate research, and I have kept that the highest priority in taking forward the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professorship in Florida Archaeology. Our lab website (http://www.anthro.ufl.edu/LSM) details the many ways this endowment is being used to build capacity for sustaining Florida archaeology in perpetuity. Funding is structured primarily around long term, multifaceted projects that enable graduate students to find a niche for dissertation research, all the while remaining plugged into a community of cohorts and others for support and synergy. I am especially grateful to have funding to support students who make a concerted effort to attract their own, competitive funding, typically through NSF, but also lesser sources, including state funding. I offer a financial backstop for any proposal that is deemed worthy of funding by a sponsor but not awarded for lack of funds. Too many worthy DIG proposals to NSF are not funded and students too often lose the momentum they need to finish in a timely fashion. Aside from that, the endowment provides small grants-in-aid ($3000) to kick-start student projects, and year-round support for fieldwork, equipment, technical analyses like radiocarbon dating, and conference travel. I actually have been questioned by both the Florida Foundation and the benefactors for not spending more of the money on myself. They understand now, I trust, that I am indeed spending it on myself by spending it on graduate students. Building capacity for the future is what I do.
The Lab Community
The lab environment my graduate students and I maintain is the basis for a community of collaboration, information sharing, and professional development. Archaeology is inherently a team pursuit, especially in the field, where projects require the coordination of many individuals. Leadership is important in these circumstances, but as important is the camaraderie and collegiality of shared experiences in learning. This extends well beyond the coordinated labor of excavation and survey to encompass everything archaeological, from theorizing, to analyzing, to report writing, and even public outreach. The infrastructure of the Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology (LSA) makes all this physically possible. Each of my nine active graduate students in Southeast U.S. archaeology has a “home” in the lab, a place to work with a good computer and access to the network, plus space to process samples, conduct analyses, and store collections and equipment. We hold periodic lab meetings to coordinate everyone’s activities, and we all work with integrated databases to ensure that the results of each project are curated for the future. Graduate students over the years have shaped both the physicality of the lab, as well as its operations. All that aside, the most salient aspect of the lab is the community it nurtures. Despite the divergent personalities and personal goals of my students, they operate as a community for the betterment of the lab and the profession. I am very proud of the environment we have created to make becoming a professional a collective pursuit.
My Greatest Satisfaction Comes from Their Success
I am thrilled that my three of my Ph.D. students from the past five years landed excellent employment immediately after graduating. Dr. Neill Wallis earned a tenure-track professorship at West Florida before accepting three years ago the most influential job in Florida archaeology at our own Florida Museum of Natural History. In the three short years Neill has been with the museum he has achieved more than is humanly imaginable, humbling me and his peers with enviable humility and grace. Dr. Asa Randall stuck around the lab for a year after graduating to head an influential local project with U.S. Forest Service funding and then earned a tenure-track professorship at the University of Oklahoma. He returns to Florida yearly to conduct fieldwork, last year with students. Asa and Neill have a book contract with Cambridge University Press that will at last put Florida archaeology in its rightful place as a world-class operation. They edited another book that will be out in early 2014 with the University Press of Florida. These two volumes promise to redefine the contours of Florida archaeology. Another recent Ph.D, student of mine, Dr. Jon Endonino, took a temporary post at St. Leo University in Florida before moving to Eastern Kentucky University in a position that is tenure-earning next year. Like Asa, Jon comes back to Florida regularly for grant-funded fieldwork, involving his own cadre of fledging archaeologists. The soon-to-be Ph.D, Zack Gilmore, used his recent NSF funding in support of one of the best pieces of research I’ve ever seen. He and another graduate student of mine (Jason O’Donoughue), have an edited volume in press with University of Alabama Press. These and several other students finishing over the next few years and beyond are my dreams fulfilled.
I mentor graduate students to ensure better futures for archaeology and the publics it inflects. I know I am tough on most of them; I do not suffer fools and do not indulge lifestylers. I expect from my students commitment, purpose, professionalism, and ethical practice. I try to find a way to let them be themselves and carve out their own identity apart from me, but at the same time help them to understand that they have a responsibility to the profession, the public, and the future. I am very proud of the students I have and grateful that they acknowledge my contribution to their success with this nomination.