An Interview with Dr. Liza Gijanto, 2012 Kathleen Kirk Gilmore Dissertation Award Recipient

Students are an important component of the Society for Historical Archaeology, representing the future of the organization. The Society provides opportunities for professional growth for students in historical archaeology. Each year, the Kathleen Kirk Gilmore Dissertation Award Subcommittee honors a student who makes an outstanding contribution to historical archaeology. In her dissertation Change and the Era of the Atlantic Trade: Commerce and Interaction in the Niumi Commercial Center (The Gambia), this year’s winner, Dr. Liza Gijanto, takes a diachronic look at the impact of the Atlantic trade on the Gambia River. Dr. Gijanto completed her dissertation at Syracuse University, under the direction of Christopher DeCorse. To highlight her contributions and learn more about her work, I interviewed Dr. Gijanto on behalf of the Academic and Professional Training Student Sub-committee. Via email she answered some questions, explaining her perspective and sharing her experiences with current students.

What is your dissertation topic?

My research focuses on the nature of the impact of the Atlantic trade on the coastal Gambian polity of Niumi from the late 17th into the early 19th century. Niumi was the first point of contact for European powers trading along the river and was the Atlantic era commercial center. I examine local responses to increased commerce on the Gambia River tied to the opening of trans-Atlantic trade, situated in a long-term study comparing this period to pre-Atlantic and colonial settings. The Atlantic trade created a multi-ethnic setting where Mande, European, and Luso-African traders interacted on a daily basis through social, political, and economic exchanges. My approach incorporates theories of everyday life, value, and taste examining day-to-day happenings within the scope of larger events such as the opening and closing of the Atlantic trade.

When did you first become interested in your topic and why?

As an undergraduate, I became interested in the Atlantic world through my history courses, and Africa after taking a historical archaeology course taught by Carmel Schrire. I decided that I wanted to work in West Africa on this period, but I did not know exactly where until my master’s advisor Kevin MacDonald was driving me to the airport to go to Syracuse to begin my Ph.D. He asked if I had decided on an area yet for my dissertation, and I told him that I had promised my mom I would only go places that were not dangerous. He said, “I know the perfect place no one is working in The Gambia.” So I went, and thus far it has worked out well.

Remains of the former British trading house at Juffure (Photo by Liza Gijanto).

How do you feel your work is relevant to contemporary communities?

Before I began reading academic and historical accounts of The Gambia, all I really knew about it was from Alex Haley’s novel Roots. When I first got there, I was not prepared for how engrained this story had become in the Gambian national identity, and specifically in Juffure and Albreda where I was living and working. Juffure is the village where Kunta Kinte is from in the novel. From the beginning, my work necessarily took on a heritage/community engagement aspect independent of my dissertation. I was able to help with public education days, and set up an exhibit for the Roots Homecoming Festival. I have also assisted in site preservation and interpretative efforts at James Island and in the capital of Banjul, which was established by the British to block the slave trade. The Gambia has had a unique relationship with the broader Atlantic World and the country has had a number of opportunities to really develop their sites, and present this past for heritage tourists. I am lucky that my research can be of use in this area, and that the National Centre for Arts and Culture in The Gambia has been receptive of my findings and involved me in many of their own projects.

What tips do you have for students identifying, working on, and finishing research?

This is really important. I received really great guidance from my undergraduate professors regarding graduate school. I was encouraged to take a year off working in CRM before going to graduate school and my various bosses and co-workers also influenced my decisions about projects and graduate school. I think it is important for anyone considering going into a Ph.D. program to first take some time off and work in the real world on a number of CRM projects. Everything I learned about managing a site, designing paperwork, all the basic management skills you do not get in a field school I got from CRM. I was hired as a staff member for the Feltville Archaeology Field School run by Matt Tomaso in Union, New Jersey and got to see the other side of a field school before taking on all the responsibility of its management myself. He really emphasized teaching skills students would need for CRM and involving all staff and students in all levels of the project. I do not think I could have gone out and excavated the sites I did and manage a local crew as well as field schools students in The Gambia without this experience. It is the kind of learning you cannot get in graduate school, but should have before starting your own project.

The other important thing to know early on is if you even need to excavate to answer your research question. There are so many collections housed in facilities in the US and abroad that could provide some really interesting information. I have a number of friends that have gone this route, and their projects are just as exciting and relevant as those that undertake excavation. I think there is a misconception that everyone has to find “their” site in order to be successful, but that is not the case anymore. What you really need is experience on a range of sites.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the research process, and especially writing the actual dissertation. I had a supportive and engaged advisor that made the process flow more smoothly. In graduate school your relationship with and advisor and the faculty is crucial. In addition to this, having a strong cohort or group of graduate students at the same stage of the program with you is important. No one I know finished their dissertation at the exact time they planned or had a field experience that exactly matched their proposal. Things happen, and you often end up going to Plan C. If you have friends to help you figure things out who are going through the same thing, the process is a bit more bearable and even enjoyable.

What are current or future plans for your work?

I began working at a trading site on the south bank of the river in 2010 in order to gain a broader understanding of the trade on the river outside the formal commercial center. I am also working in the Gambian capital Banjul to help prepare for the city’s 200th anniversary in 2016.

What impacts do you foresee or hope for?

One of my goals is to assist the Gambian National Center for Arts and Culture to develop archaeological protocol and to find and train Gambians to implement this. As of now there are no Gambian archaeologists.

For my research, I hope that this works adds to our understanding of the Atlantic experience in West Africa. I consider my research to be part of African Atlantic studies and Atlantic studies more broadly, not just focused one West Africa or The Gambia. I hope this work proves useful for those working with Diaspora communities as well.

Is there anyone who you did not get a chance to thank who you would like to now?

I have had a really great transition from graduate school into a tenure-track position that would not have been possible without the continued help of my advisors, and the support of my new colleagues.

Fattatenda trading site adjacent to the Gambia River (Photo by Liza Gijanto).

Dr. Gijanto is a faculty member at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Non-student members of the SHA may nominate members who have defended their dissertations and received their PhDs within approximately three years of the award. Recent winners of the dissertation award include Gerard Chouin (2011), Meredith Lynn (2010), and Neil L. Norman (2009). To learn more, visit the SHA home page.

Networking After the Conference: Suggestions for Students

For students, the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference is a fantastic place to meet people – it is a “society” after all. You can explore interests and network with other archaeologists including academics, professionals and peers. However, from one year to the next these connections can be forgotten. Building lasting networks out of conference conversations requires one key activity – follow up. Turning a great conversation into something more can be tricky, however. Here are a few tips.

We all think we will remember the details of conversations had with archaeologists whose work truly interests us, but three days, a rolling sea of faces and names, and a drop of beer can taint even the most amazing memories. Take the time to write down details of your conversations at the conference. Include not only the things you would like to remember but also those things you would like the other person to remember about you. Read over your notes and make any additions that would clarify them. For example, it turns out that the person you met day one was a student of someone you met day three. That connection may help future conversations flow.

It is no surprise that many conference attendees arrive home with new work and some backlog, not to mention our personal lives. Follow-ups should occur soon but not too soon after the conference. Waiting a few weeks allows for everyone to recover while reducing the chance that your efforts are met with a quizzical response; “Who is this again?”

Maintaining the new lines of your network isn’t all timing. Your follow up should include some idea for a next step. Give some thought to a transition from the conference to some clear and reasonable goals. Otherwise, you are just reminding someone that you met. Perhaps you can use the time since you last spoke to chew over the next stage of your dialog. Set a few reasonable first step goals for the exchange. If these truly elude you, you may ask why are you contacting this person.

If you are asking your new connection for something, especially time, you should have some idea of what you have to offer in return. Often those attending conferences serve on one or several of the many committees that it takes to run the SHA. Volunteering to help can be a way to connect with a new contact, explore the workings and current issues of the society, and help keep the SHA going strong. Make sure offers you make are ones you can keep, as few things are worse than overextending yourself.

Social media is providing new tools that can help you foster connections from a distance whether you are following or participating in the creation of dialog. More and more archaeologists are joining sites like Facebook or Twitter and Academia.edu or LinkedIn. All can provide either streams or tidbits of current event information from your network or by you. Keep in mind that you are building professional relationships and think about the content you plan to jettison into the digital world.

Not all contacts have futures. Sometimes a great conversation is just that – savor it, think about it, and be open to another at next year’s conference. However, it never hurts to say thanks. Dropping a brief note with a detail or two to remind someone where you two met is a great means to demonstrate you were not raised in a cave by wolves. It also increases the chance they will remember you next year.

How do you maintain your connections with people you’ve met at conferences? What are some communities that are good places to network and meet people? What are some of your fears about networking? Non-students, do you have any tips for students?

This post was co-authored by Jennifer Coplin and Mary Petrich-Guy.