1939 – Why the destruction of Albania’s National Theater is more than just the loss of another building.

Today is a dark day in Albanian history.

For over a two years now a war has been waging in regards to the National Theater of Albania, located in the heart of Tirana. Today at 4 am in the morning, it was torn down. In the cloak of darkness – maybe in a bid to hide the insidious nature of this act. The reasoning for doing this are numerous. The destruction of the theater is in some ways illegal. But in other ways, it sends a clear message to the Albanian people. That their voices do not matter, and that our democracy is a sham.

As an archaeologist, me pikon zemra [my heart aches] when I hear that cultural monuments are torn down anywhere, but especially in my country. Cultural heritage is a rich part of any culture. This is one of the reasons why I love archaeology so much. Uncovering and preserving aspects of our past for our current and future generations to appreciate is a privilege. Cultural heritage has a way of bringing people together in way. In the case of Albania, our rich cultural heritage is being encroached upon at an alarming rate as “development” increases. If you want to call the haphazard spread of improperly planned and illegally funded buildings development.

As an Albanian, this blatant disregard for the law and for the will of the people is terrifying. And that is why I am writing this. I have said this before, I am not a political science specialist. But the very least I can do is help bring even a little more awareness to what is going on in my country. And I would encourage anyone who reads this to do their own readings in addition to hearing what I have to say – because, at the end of the day, it is my opinion. And there are many articles out there written by people who know more then I do.

But for those of you that have never even heard of the theater and this struggle, the situation an be summarized in a few (very broad) points:

  1. The National theater was a historical monument, built-in 1939 in the “Italian style;” like many other government buildings in this part of Tirana. It has been the “home” of many famous writers, playwrights and actors; a hub for artistic expressions and thought.
  2. The building was considered to be a national monument once upon a time, which protected it from destruction. But at some point in the last year or so, it seems to have magically lost this categorization. And with it, its protection.
  3. For over a year, people have been protesting the destruction of the theater, claiming that it is an important architectural feature for the city of Tirana, which it is.
  4. Their voices, pleas, and arguments have been ignored. And peaceful protestors have been fined and removed – sometimes by force.
  5. At last, the building was destroyed in the early morning of May 17th.

Ok so you may be thinking, yes this is very sad that a cultural monument was destroyed. But so what? There are bigger things to worry about. And you would not be wrong. But the fact of the matter is that the destruction of the theater is not just about losing a piece of our cultural heritage. It is about the message it sends – and this message is a terrifying one. It says loud and clear that our government will do as it pleases and ignore the voice of the people.

Destroying a building is one thing, destroying a cultural monument, one that is specifically linked to freedom of expression and thought. That is another. In times of war, it is actually against international law to target and destroy places of cultural or religious importance. And yet it is happening at the will of our own government.

The arguments for the destruction of the theater are mediocre.

“The building was beyond repair.”

Bullshit. Let me tell you, no building is really beyond repair. If we can repair the foundations of castles and citadels from the 6th century BC (and we often do) then a building built less then 100 years ago should have been salvageable.

“The new building will bring much tourism to Tirana.”

Are you kidding me?! In my humble opinion as someone who literally works with cultural heritage, I regret to inform you that people do not come to Albania to look at shiny high-rises. People come to Albania for the rich natural and cultural resources it has to offer. Our parks, beaches, forests, archaeology, our cultural monuments. If it is highrise you want, may I suggest Toronto or perhaps New York?

And this my friends is why the destruction of a cultural monument in Tirana Albania, today, May 17th, really is foreboding. This isn’t about buildings anymore. Or let’s be honest, likely it never was. It’s about democracy. Or in our case, the lack of it. And that is terrifying.

The f-word.

I am a feminist. But if you know me even the slightest, that will not come as surprise. Sometimes I get a lot of push back for this identification. And sometimes it’s not nice. The usual argument is that I should argue for equality, not feminism. Which is think is very ironic since it proves my point for me.

Then the argument goes, well if you believe in equality why call it feminism? Those arguments run akin to why we need #blacklivesmatter as opposed to “all lives matter.” And I won’t go down that rabbit hole today. But I will say this, for as long as we live in a society where a group of people faces systemic discrimination because of their gender or the amount of melanin in their skin, we need these movements. These movements are about balancing the scales, not overthrowing them. Securing equal treatment for disenfranchised groups does not take anything away from other groups..other than, you know… privilege, entitlement, and the like. But I digress.

So why do I care so much about equality? First I think we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room; I have the privilege to care about these things. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal will come from, my country is not a war zone and my family is healthy. Being in academia, I have the luxury to spend a lot of my time reading and researching and I have at my fingertips access to databases upon databases of books, articles, and other resources.

The reason I care so much likely also comes from my discipline. I have said this before and I will say it again, everyone needs to take an anthropology class. It will change your life. Trust me. I was listening to a lecture by one of my favorite professors the other today and he said something that struck a chord.

“Anthropology matters. If only to show us that the categories we think are real, are not.”

Growing up, I was always a bit of a renegade. I think my young mind struggled to make sense of these categories I was forced to fit myself in. I was a girl, I was supposed to like Barbies and pink. So in childish acts of rebellion, I took my stance. I hated pink, sparkles, dresses. Oh, you would have to kill me to get me in a dress.

I played outside with the boys, fought, rode bikes. Up until recently, I outright rejected the practices marriage and childbearing..don’t get me started on marriage. It was not until a few years ago when I started to realizes that this sort of binary thinking was not me fighting the system, this was me playing by its rules. Society states girls like pink, so I hated pink. Society stated women must get married and have children, so I rejected both. In a bid to be strong, independent, not governed by norms, I rejected what I thought in my mind it meant to be a girl or woman.

Binary or categorical thinking is quite dangerous. But this is why I say anthropology matters. Because in anthropology we learn that these norms are constructed, contested, and always changing. Culture, race, gender, sexuality, are all constructs that are created, upheld, challenged, and changed by society. Culture is constantly changing, I think that boggles peoples minds since culture is seen as such as static thing usually. But I will come back to this point in the end because I think it is an important one. I use society in a sort of arbitrary way, since getting into the definition and accounting for scale may take 30 pages, give or take. Let’s think of society as the consensus of a group of people, this can be a community, a nation, a worldwide phenomenon, depending on what you are looking at.

So why am I writing about feminist thought in Albania? I think we all have certain causes that are close to our heart because of our personal trajectories. I think the reason I care so much about equality and female empowerment has a lot to do with my culture. I love my country. I love it so much that I see its flaws, and want it to be better. The academic articles I read about Albania and its people present “the Albanian” as a fierce, stubborn, warrior. On the ground, this translates as “patriarchal” and “conservative.” I won’t go into why I dislike western interpretations of my people, maybe that can be another post for another time. But there is no denying that Albanian society is patriarchal and that this permeates all aspects of our society. Of course, things are changing, and not everyone is the same, we all have agency do we not? Things are different in the bigger cities. People have more open minds, or maybe the just care less about the business of strangers.

To understand why anything is the way it is today, you need to consider its historical context, taking a page from Boas’s Historical Particularism, if you will. Or maybe more fittingly, a page from archaeology’s provenience. Why is Albanian society patriarchal? How long has this been the case, and why is it the case today, in the 21st century?

At least historically, it seems like the roots of our patriarchal social structure come from the times of the Kanun when Albanian society was organized into land-holding kin segments, known as fis. These tribes were headed by men, specifically elderly men, each referred to as plak or krye plak. 

So what did it mean to be an Albanian woman in the time of the Kanun? It means your worth was 1,500 grosh [literally translated to beans, but also used to refer to a type of currency used in the past](Kanun i Leke Dukagjinit, XIX]. This was the price your family was paid if you were killed, or your husband’s family paid for your bride price when your betrothal was agreed upon. For the records, the death of a male was paid in blood. You went from the protection of your father to your husband at the time of your marriage. In fact, you were often betrothed to someone’s son when you were still in the womb. You were superfluous to your household, raised in your parent’s house as someone without roots, who would leave, and relocated to your husband’s house as a permanent outsider (Kanun i Leke Dukagjinit, XXXIV, XXXVI). Your primary job was to give your husband a male heir. Everything in the house was your husbands, your children included. When you were not directly cooking and cleaning, your job was to work the fields, and make clothes for your children, and fetch water and firewood. Never forget the firewood. I’m reminded of a character sketch by some foreign traveler making his way through Albania where he describes a man riding by on a donkey, and his wife walking beside them, firewood on her back. Every traveler, writer, scholar who visited Albania remarked on the disparity between men and women. Edith Durham especially noted how she was often given special treatment because she was foreign, and allowed to eat with the men. Remarking that the women serve the men their meals, but ate afterward, with the children, when the men were done.

The rally for women’s rights in Albania began in the early 20th century. First with writers like Haki Stermilli and his book, Si kur te isha djale (If I were a boy) which is hailed by some as Albania’s first Feminist Manifesto. The story follows the life of a female protagonist, Dija, maybe Albania’s first flaming feminist, as she struggles to make her way through the practical society of Albania at the time.

The status of women under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime is disputed. Hoxha pushed for multiple emancipation movements, where women were encouraged to work the same positions as men, including fighting as partisans against enemies of the state. However, how much Hoxha actually cared about women’s rights as opposed to creating the ideal “Albanian comrade” irrespective of gender, remains to be determined. With that said, Albanian women did experience quite a bit more autonomy under the communist regime then they ever had before.

However, the fall of communism in the late 20th century lead to a rejection of all things associated with the Hoxha regime, including the “new” role of women in Albanian society and a reversion to the traditional way of life throughout Albania. One can argue then that the 21st century in many ways found Albania more conservative than it had been in decades, at least in terms of social norms and gender roles.

But what about today? What does it mean to be an Albanian woman today? Well, let me provide some insight from my own experiences.

It means getting harassed on a public bus by an old man who thinks it is his place to tell what is and is not acceptable for you to do with your body.

Maybe I should back up here a little.

I was on the bus with a cousin of mine and we had just returned from a trip down south. We are tired from our trip and just wanted to go home. While absentmindedly looking around the bus, I noticed that the guy next to me had a really beautifully done tattoo. Without even thinking about it, I told him so and asked if he had got it done in Tirana. He did. He told me the name of the studio and I said thank you. And it is at that moment that said elderly gentleman from above interjected.

“You kids these days are so frivolous.”

We were a bit dumbfounded. The boy responded something, but I don’t recall what it was. But it was clear he was not the target of the comment, because the elderly man turned his gaze towards me.

“Women need to be simple, you should not be ruining your body.”

I replied with a smile “Well since women need to be simple good sir, then I will get a simple tattoo, just for you.”

He didn’t like that.

He proceeded to tell me that women could be either beautiful or smart but not both, and that us women should remember to be proper and remember our place, like in the good old days.

At this point, the whole bus is involved.

Another example?

Being a woman in Albanian society means that some men won’t shake your hand when you are out in the field. Or even answer you when you address them, but instead talk only to your younger male colleagues.

It means getting asked questions like “Does your dad know you’re here? When you are out with friends.. or somewhere you “shouldn’t be.”

Or better yet, getting asked “Whose are you?” when you encounter someone in your hometown. “I am Roza’s” I respond.

Ok, these are interactions with strangers, you shouldn’t put so much weight on them since strangers will always judge, right? So let’s move the familial sphere then, where it counts? Where it hurts?

One of my absolute favorite memories is when I’ve had family members mansplain my own research to me, that’s always a treat. It’s not as if I have spent the last 8 years of my life researching and reading about the very thing you’re “explaining” to me.

It means getting asked when you’re going to get married all the time. Because everyone knows a woman only has value in society when she is someone’s wife. It means you are told your whole life you are told you are not enough on your own.

It means getting asked when you will have children? And when you will finally finish that damn school a stop reading all the time.

It means getting told, this is not the job for women, when you tell them you want to be an archaeologist. But when you pursue it regardless, you get asked when you will quit that silly job and get a real one, and stop playing around with dead people.

In all honesty, my experiences are very benign, or maybe I am just stubborn. I have to admit though, I am rather lucky. My parents are pretty woke.. now. After years of me arguing, or should I put it more pc?.. “Debating” with them about my rights, my choices, and my job, they have come around. I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that we live in Canada. I often wonder how different my life would be if we had stayed in Albania. If I would think the way I do. If I would care about the things that I do. I am well into my 20’s now, if we had stayed in Albania, would I have been married off already? Would I have become an archaeologist? Would I be a feminist?

I think about how life is for the average Albanian girl. I understand that this is a problematic phrase since it implies some sort of shared identity. So I want to acknowledge this before moving forward. I don’t want to deny Albanian women their individuality. And I really admire how feminist scholars like Donna Halloway challenges the idea that there exists some sort of shared identity we all can tap into because we are women. She and other scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins make such strong cases why this mentality is also rather dangerous because in addition to being women, we carry multiple other complex and nuanced identities that are unique to us, and these intersectionalities mean that what I may experience as a woman living in Canada does not come close to what a woman living in a third world or a developing country may experience. Or even what a woman of color in the US may experience. And this is not even considering other aspects like age and social class.

So what does it mean to be an Albanian girl or woman today? To be a feminist is a dirty thing – the word itself is not liked, even among women. It is as if by being a feminist you are rejecting your very “Albanianness.”

As stated in the Albanian constitution, discrimination based on gender is against the law, and men and women are equal before the state. But social practices dictate otherwise. Being an Albanian woman, regardless if you live in Albania or elsewhere means accepting a role as a secondary citizen.

It means staying with your abusive husband, sepse është turp të ndahesh [because it is shameful to leave him]. Even if he abuses you.

It means having to come home at a certain time, te përgatisesh darkën dhe te pastrosh shtëpinë, sepse do t’i bësh këto gjëra për burrin [to make dinner ready and to clean the house, because these are the things you will have to do for your husband].

It means having to lie when you go out with your friends. It means hiding any romantic relationship you may have, god forbid you like the same sex, you have to hide that even deeper. Turp [Shame].

It means marrying someone you don’t know, sepse është një djalë i mirë, dhe vjen nga një familje të mirë [because he is a good boy and comes from a good family].

It means your brother going to get his master’s, but you not going to university at all, se nuk ke nevojë për shkollë ti [because you don’t need school].

You must be quiet, you must be obedient. Above all, you must not shame your family. And of course, kur te martohesh, mund të bësh gjithçka që dëshiron zemra, nëse burri te lejon [when you get married, you can do what your heart wants, if your husband lets you].

It means not being taught about sexual health. Një vajzë e mirë nuk ka lidhje me këto gjëra [a good girl does not need these things]. Your main job is to bear a son when its time. No need to talk about STI’s, STD’s and consent.

Albanian society is patriarchal. I am not saying this to paint my culture in a bad light. I am stating a fact (and honestly, I would argue that every society today is). I love our culture, I love our history, our music, our food. But what I don’t love is the remnants of the old ways that still dictate what is acceptable for women in our culture today. If you remember, many paragraphs ago I said that culture is always changing. We can still appreciate our beautiful traditions and embrace feminist ideas. An acceptance of equality is not a rejection of what it means to be Albanian. Arguments that begin with      “we have always done it this way” are weak, and not really arguements. Just because something has been done this way in the past, does not make it right. We also used to steal brides from the next villages over, we don’t do that anymore.

Our culture is not a static fossil. It is changing whether we like it or not. So let’s usher it into a new direction. Let’s start with opening our minds, changing the way we educate and raise our children, girls, and boys. Revamping our education system, from pre-k to university. Teaching gender studies or women studies classes, opening programs dedicated to gender or women studies. Knowledge is power.

Sami Frasheri posed his iconic question over 100 years ago “C’do te behet [Shqipëria]? [What will Albania become?].

I’ll answer it with another question. Kur Shqipëria bëhet një komb pa ndarje. Kur nuk ka ndarje, midis gjinive, çfarë nuk do të bëhet? [When Albania becomes one nation, one nation without division between genders, what won’t Albania become?

Works Referenced

  • Collins, Patricia Hill
    • 1990. Black Feminist Thought.
  • Danaj, Ermira Edvin Lame & Daniela Kalaja
    • 2019 Gender and feminist studies in Albania – a brief state of the art, Gender, Place & Culture.
  • Durham, Edith
    • 1908 High Albania.
  • Frasheri, Sami
    • 1899 Sqipëria, ç ‘ka qënë, ç ‘është e ç ‘do të bëhët.
  • Harraway, Donna
    • 1985 A Cyborg Manifesto.
  • Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit, Albanian
    • [1989] Text Collected and Arranged by Shtjefën Gjeçov, Translated with an Introduction, by Leonard Fox. 
  •  Stermilli, Haki
    • 1936. Si kur te isha djale.
  • The Albanian Constitution
    • 1998 [With 2016 Amendments, in English].

A brief history of Albania, Kosova, the geopolitics that created them, and why this matters today.

A lot of people are fascinated with Albania and Kosova. This is good for me because when I write grant applications to fund my research there, my proposal instantly becomes “mysterious” and “intriguing.” Yep, there’s nothing more appealing to a grant committee than these small, predominantly Muslim countries in the Balkan peninsula, with their long history of communism and turbulent democracy. What is interesting about most people’s intrigue in these countries is that many don’t really know anything about them at all. Or what they do know is colored by Hollywood, which tends to portray Albanians as thieves, drug dealers and human traffickers (Aka. Taken).

So why am I talking about the creation of these two states now? Well a lot of reasons, but mainly, the idea was sparked by the news that Albin Kurti’s (the current Prime Minister of Kosova) 50 day old Government has been toppled in a vote of no-confidence this week. The news articles have been filing in since…

I know what you’re thinking. We are in a global pandemic.. and you’re not a political science specialist, so what have you to say? That’s true – but as always, I find myself having an opinion. In terms of the pandemic, I am doing my part by staying home. I am not a health professional to be able to offer some new and groundbreaking insight on how to kick the virus to the curb. And you really don’t need me to tell you to wash your hands and to stay the fuck home. But seriously.. stay home. In regards to the latter, while I may not have a degree in poli-sci, I do have on my side is an understanding of the history of the area (both in the deep past and in the more recent one) and an anthropological bent. But in the spirit of transparency,  I should mention that I also have a vested interest in the politics of these countries, being Albanian myself.

Following the news coverage of the “toppling of the Kosovar government,” I’ve gotten messages from my non-Albanian friends asking me what is going on. And I’ve been talking to my friends overseas about the situation as it unravels. Many of us are frustrated. If not outright angry…all of us are worried. And then something struck me. I’ve had to explain the situation so many times these past few days to so many colleagues (happily of course, if you know me, you know there is nothing I love more). But it got me thinking about what the rest of the world must think. How they are interpreting this? And then I thought about how the articles regarding Kosova, its government and the Mini-Schengen deal (which I assure you is at the root of this whole debacle) have been published of late. And the recent tweets from Donald Trump Jr. (link here)  and Ambassador Kosnett’s (link here) comments on the matter of US and NATO Involvement in Kosova. If most of the world has no idea that Kosova exists, then even less are familiar with its history.  And if the only exposure to Kosova many are getting are these heavily biased and skewed articles which use thinly veiled rhetoric with an overt political agenda.. then we have a problem. So I thought the best that I could do is help provide some context.

Of course, I cannot go into all the details of the formation of the Balkan states, but I can provide a generalized timeline specifically in terms of the creation of Albania and Kosova and anyone who wants to know more can read up on their own to fill the gaps (in fact, please do go and read on your own – this is not going to be all-encompassing). My goal here, I guess it to provide a very watered down, but comprehensive enough timeline of the creation of Albania and Kosova, since understanding this will help people contextualize what is going on in the Balkans now, specifically in regards to Kosova, and hopefully bring some more attention to this very worrying situation. Having done that, then you, my friends, can make up your own mind on how you feel about the situation. I also want to make a disclaimer that I am not trying to convince people to favor one party over the other. I know just how messy Balkan politics are and know as well as the next person that no political leader is perfect.

So shall we begin ( a very short history of the Albanian people, with E. Baci)

Once upon a time… Kidding…

There exists in the Balkans an ethnic group of people called the Albanians. Depending on who you ask, they have been there for hundreds of years or thousands of years… I’m not even going to go there. Pause number one, what is an ethnic group? Good question mon amie. Very simply, an ethnic group is a community who see themselves as having a shared culture and descent. Often times, ethnicity is dictated by what people are not, you know, good old fashion binary opposition.

Some of the earliest references to the Albanians as a cultural or ethnic group date to the early Middle Ages, in the 12th century. Their origin and ethnogenesis, however, is very highly contested by scholars… The reasons which I think are also very much rooted in geopolitics. Despite sharing a common language, the Albanians were never politically unified but instead, their socio-political organization was more similar to that of a tribal society, based on landowning kinship units- known as fis, led by men of the family. This form of sociopolitical organization was especially dominant in the north, where it survived until the 20th Century.

Historically, the first time the Albanians united as one was in the year 1444, under the leadership of Gjergj Kastriot (aka Skënderbeg) in order to fight off the Ottoman Empire in a military alliance known as the League of Lezhë. Despite holding off the Ottoman for multiple decades, the Albanians were conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, like the rest of the Balkans. They remained under Ottoman occupation until the year 1912, where I suppose our story really begins.

Some themes are going to intertwine through the rest of this narrative: they are nationalism, romanticism, and foreign diplomacy and geopolitics.

Pause number two, you’re probably wondering what romanticism has anything to do with geopolitics.. a lot my friend.. a lot. A good example of this is the declaration of Independence of Greece. Greece was the first nation to break out of the Ottoman Empire, back in the early 1800s. However, despite being “woke” the Greeks would not have been able to throw the yoke of Ottoman domination without foreign help, specifically from the big European players like England and France. This creates the very unhealthy pattern of foreign intervention that we will over the next 200 years up until the present. You may be asking yourself,  why would these European giants have a vested interest in helping the Greeks? Surely it is out of the goodness of their hearts, no? Sorry to disappoint, but there is always a motive. The first of which was that many of the larger powers want to snuff out the Ottoman Empire because they saw it as a threat to their own power. What better way to weaken the Ottoman Empire other than breaking it up at the very junction where it connects to the European continent? But why help Greece specifically? Well because their ancestors created democracy. The Western world as we (they knew it) owed its existence to the Greeks… très romantic, no? The same argument has been made in regards to the incorporation of Greece into the EU, with many specialists arguing that Greece was not ready economically, politically, etc. etc. to become a part of the EU but obtained the vote because of the romanticization of its past. The romanticization of these heroic or golden days has proven over and over again to be disastrous, just look at Mussolini’s Italy… but I digress.

For the most part, however, the Ottomans were able to maintain their hold on the Balkans until the beginning of the 20th C when the empire began to weaken. In 1912 the Balkan Wars began; a violent war fought by the European powers over the spoils of the dying Ottoman Empire. Yep, others got involved to gain some territory, not to help those under Ottoman control to free themselves…how unromantic. One of the most contested territories was that of Albania – which declared independence at the end of the First Balkan War in 1912. This is what many people don’t know however and the root of a lot of the conflict we see in the Balkans today – in regards to Kosova. The Conference of London, a peace council consisting of the six great powers at the time  (the UK, Germany, France, Italy,  Austria-Hungary, and Russia) decided on the borders of Albania, all with their own interests in mind.

Remember the war was not fought for the liberation of the Albanians or other people, but over who could claim that territory. Here is where “smaller players” like Serbia factor in. Serbia claimed the area that is today Kosova, on the basis that key national and religious monuments, primarily churches are found there. Because we all know, if you build a structure on some land, it becomes yours.. neverminded what lies directly under it.. #logic, amiright? Serbia, being an Orthodox Christian nation had the backing of Russia (yet another case of foreign intervention and support).

Anywho, the border suggested by the Albanians, which would have consolidated the dispersal of ethnic Albanian in the Balkan peninsula under one nation was rejected, and the resulting borders left as many ethnic Albanians outside of the new country as it housed within – essentially creating multiple populations of Albanians as minorities in other nations – again this is really important when we think about the Kosovar War and Genocide which I well get to in a minute.

I am going to fast forward over 80 years in the Balkans fairly quickly. Albania was independent for a short time, then it became an Italian protectorate, and then a monarchy, and the communist state, and only “recently” a democratic republic, in the 1990s. And this is where our storyline comes full circle to the topic at hand. For all of this time, Kosova was a part of Yugoslavia. For those of you who don’t know anything about Kosova, it is Europe’s youngest state with a population of just under 2 million and, as is almost entirely ethnically Albanian. So, you may be wondering dear friend, why are there two countries in the Balkans that have an ethnically Albanian population – the geopolitics that created the Albanian borders mentioned only a paragraph before. Kosova became an independent state in the year 2008, however, it is one of the most contested counties in the world – with its sovereignty bringing challenged and unrecognized by multiple other nations. Spearheaded almost entirely by Serbia, which still refuses to acknowledge “its lost territory” as an independent and sovereign state.

The creation of an independent Kosova is a history that is rooted in violence and oppression. While many people may know of the Bosnian War, very few know the Kosovar War, which started in 1998 and lasted one year. Americans may recall that this is when Clinton sent over NATO forces in 1999. But many fail to understand why the situation called for NATO in the first place.

In the 1990s several Balkan states started to break free from Yugoslavia. You can think of Yugoslavia as a mosaic of “different” ethnicities who were all held together by the idea that they were Slavs (this is a very watered down explanation of a very nuanced situation, so please take it with a large grain of salt). You were not Bosnian, Slovenian, etc., you were a fellow Slav. Interestingly enough, the Kosovars were not Slavs, they were Albanians, and protests began demanding the autonomy of the province in the ’80s. While things may have been more bearable under Tito, who promoted an idea of unity and Slav-brotherhood. However, the Milosevic regime that followed differed as Serbian nationalism grew. It was clear that Milosevic’s regime had a clear bias for certain groups over others, and that resources were not really being equally distributed by going to Belgrade. This sparked national awakenings, with ethnic groups coming together and declaring independence, the first of which were the Croatians and Slovenians.

The conflict rose to the world scene with the Bosnian war in 1992, when the US sent in NATO troops after rumors spread of the mass killing of ethnic Bosnians and the use of rape as a weapon of war by the Serbian Militia.  You with me so far?

The mid-1990s finds the former Yugoslavia a “shadow” of its former “glory” with just Serbia and a few small provinces – one of which was Kosova. At this time, the conflict between Serbia and Kosova intensified as the ethnic Albanians demanded autonomy from Serbia who systematically mistreated them based on lines of ethnicity and race. This conflict came to a head with the Kosova War, which many people don’t even know took place. Like in the Bosnian War, the atrocities carried about by the Serbian military includes systematic genocide and rape as a weapon of war to “erase the Albanian race” from the territory of Kosova. It is estimated that 10 000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the war, and that 20 000 women were raped.

You may be wondering, why the interest in this tiny piece of land? Well, the argument is that there are Orthodox Churches there, as mentioned above. I find this to be weak, to say the least. But really, it’s about money and power. The territory Serbia really wants are the northern parts of Kosova, incidentally, the same territories that are richest in minerals and metals.. go figure. And this brings us to today, to the Mini-Schengen deal, and to the toppling of Albin Kurti’s government.

For the past 6 months or so the Albanian news outlets have been coving the proceedings of a new political alliance known as the Mini-Schengen deal, between the Balkan states. So far, the leaders of Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia have attended. If you are familiar with the geography of the area, you will notice two things, first, there is a major gap in this free trade zone, by the absence of Kosova. And second, one nation, in particular, towers over the rest, in terms of size and economic strength: Serbia. So you can ask yourself, who will profit the most from this deal? Actually, you don’t have to, Vučić himself will tell you as he told the Serbian people in an official address, Serbia.

While I love international negations that foster peace and comradery as much as the next person, this whole deal is shady to me. Honestly, it sort of reminds me of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). For those of you not familiar with NAFTA, it is a free trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, intended to bolster their economies. However, this is not how things really played out and in fact, the interactions between the three were very asymmetrical, to the detriment of some. For example, the flooding of the Mexican market with US corn due to NAFTA had catastrophic side effects on smaller framers in Mexico. With this analogy in mind, you can think of everyone else in this Mini-Schengen deal as Mexico.

The whole situation is also infuriating for many other reasons. First, a lot of the blame on the stagnation of the deal is being placed on Kosova (the rhetoric I mentioned earlier) – Specifically on Albin Kurtu for his “malicious” tax policy on Serbian goods. And second, for refusing to sign into a deal with a country that refuses to acknowledge its sovereignty….. Yes, you read that right. Kosova is the one playing dirty because they don’t want to sign an international free trade and movement agreement with another nation that doesn’t even recognize it as sovereign. To make matters worse, through a series of tweets (like the ones linked above), because that how geopolitics work now, US officials (if you want to count Trump Jr as an official) are for lack of a better word bullying Kosova into playing along by threatening to pull out NATO forces.

Again, I am not a poli-sci specialist, but if you ask me, it is the “question” of Kosova’s sovereignty that Albin Kurti’s government was toppled, not because of a failure of his government to respond effectively to the COVID pandemic. The fact stands, that after breaking the pattern of a predominantly two-party system (with Vetëvendosje winning by a landslide a few months ago), Kosova finds itself “without a government.”

I am not naive and understand that no political party is perfect, and I am not writing this to suggest that Albin Kurti and Vetëvendosje are the holy grail of Kosova politics. But I can’t help but feel that geopolitics had a lot to do with the movement for the vote of no-confidence which toppled the Kosovar government, and maybe I am being pessimistic, but what will go down in the next few months could not only have catastrophic consequences for the Kosovars but all of us. Let’s not forget that it was nationalism that sparked WWI, beginning in the Balkans no less. And the disaster that followed when the world turned a blind eye to Hitler’s annexing of “small and insignificant” portions of Sudetenland. These small “microaggressions” in the field of geopolitics have disastrous consequences if left unchecked. That is why the world needs to care about this tiny country in the Balkans and its independence.

Despite being so well connected in our day and age because of the internet and social media, it is just as easy for people to disconnect as well. We can get so caught up in our own little world that we could not be bothered to care about the toppling of a government of a country with less than 2 million people. A country that is so far away. A country that has only been a country for just over a decade. But this mentality is dangerous.  History has shown us time and time again what happens when we don’t think the goings-on in a country far far away has no effect on us.

Stay safe and stay healthy dear friends. And as always, formulate your own opinions – all I really wanted to do was get my thoughts out there. And if at most, I anger people enough to go and do their own research, then I consider that a win. I acknowledge that I have my own biases. So if you don’t agree with what I had to say, by all means, you are free to do so.

Peace, love, positivity.. and viva democracy.

PS. I thought about citing all of my sources as I was writing but it became overwhelming. Of course, most of what I present are not my own opinions but recounts of historical events, which I learned from reading various books. If you would like to read on your own and are not sure where to begin, I would be happy to suggest some books and articles.

Imposter Syndrome: Symptom of a broken system.

I was under the impression that Imposter Syndrome was a relatively new phenomenon. But a little research suggested otherwise. A brief overview of the literature shows that scholars have been researching Imposter Syndrome at least since the ’70s, if not earlier..meaning people have been struggling with it for just as long. If not longer. Today, at least in the circles I find myself in, it is something that pops up constantly, almost daily. It seems that my colleagues and I are plagued with the deep, haunting, ever-present feeling of being an imposter.

It turns out, we are not alone. This seems to reflect the literature, as articles, books, and posts related to Imposter Syndrome have spiked in the last decade. Which is good! Part of fixing a problem is first acknowledging it exists. But is Imposter Syndrome the problem? An interesting article I read by Dr. Samyukta Mullangi and Dr. Reshma Jagsi (2019) argues that Imposter Syndrome is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. So in order to treat it so to say, we need to get to the cause – inequity (Mullangi and Jagsi 2019). Other scholars have made similar links between Imposter Syndrome and minority groups, specifically women. Another interesting article I read by Langford and Clance (1993) made an interesting connection between the idea that intelligence is a trait that must be displayed at all times, which is instilled in some of us at a young age by either our parents, or our teachers, and Imposter Syndrome. I think there is quite a bit we can unpack in both of these arguments, so why don’t we take a look at some of their components, shall we?

I can’t help but follow the format that is ingrained in my mind when it comes to writing anything. So of course, I think we need to mention some sort of definition of the term before we can unpack it. A basic definition of the term outlines Imposter Syndrom as the feeling of being inadequate in your field, despite being successful (straight out of dictionary). People who struggle with imposter syndrome often feel like they don’t deserve their success, that they are not good enough, or simply that they are frauds. Well, I feel called out…

I’m going to just say outright what I think the problem is, and you can call me a hardcore processual if you want – I’ll roll with it. I think the problem is systemic. Yes, I blame the system.

Here is why.

I think the entire education system is broken, kindergarten to graduate school. Or maybe broken is not the right word. I think at a time, it did what it was supposed to do. But our school system hasn’t had an overhaul in ages… and the cracks are starting to show. We should be sending our children to school so that they can learn to be critical thinkers, not so they can learn how to do well on standardized tests and become preconditioned to a life of 9 to 5 doing some repetitive task over and over again with a lunch break at noon. Your average school-aged child will go to school for 8 hours a day, wake up at 7, get home at 4, do hours of homework, and then stare at screens for the remainder of the day. I can’t be the only one that finds this to be insane. I know what you’re thinking: “but didn’t you do the same?” Yes and no. Yes, I received a standard public school education, but I also grew up in that weird in-between period where kids still played outside. And I had an obsession with reading. My mom would have to take my books from me at night so I wouldn’t ruin my eyes (that failed – hello glasses).

So if Imposter Syndrome is linked to the notions that are instilled in us at a young age by our parents and teachers that we must be an acceptable level of “smart”, does this not suggest that partial blame for this symptom is how we educate young people? Surprise, surprise, the root of the problem comes from our childhood, how Freudian. Think about how we determine what “smart” is. Standardized tests? Speaking a certain way? Being able to recite a paragraph verbatim from memory?

I feel like I need to add a caveat here. I know that we live in a country where we have the luxury (yes, luxury) of having free and mandatory public education for every child. This is not something to scoff at and we need no reminding that there are some children in parts of the world that don’t have this right. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve on this. Kids are the future, and education is how we prepare them for this future – I just think we should be a bit more critical of the system that is supposedly preparing them. A system that was designed decades ago to prepare people for factory jobs. A system that until not too long ago also kept certain groups out based on notions of what gender, race or socio-economic status deserved an education.

Which ties over to the other cause mentioned above – inequity. Which, let’s face it, is also a systemic problem. I don’t think there is enough space for me (nor do I have the scholarly training) to do justice to the history of how things like colonialism, commercialism, consumerism, and racism (to name a few isms) have created a system where inequality is inherent and rooted so deeply that it is almost unchallenged. It is not surprising then that the people who are the most plagued by Imposter Syndrome are those who are pigeonholed by these isms. Women, who as Simone de Beauvoir put it, were considered the Second Sex for so long. And then minority groups, people of color, nonbinary individuals, people from lower socio-economic households, nontraditional families, the list goes on. Not to mention that these “categories” do not exist as standalone, but often intersect and overlap, and at the intersection of these categories you have even more disenfranchised identities. It is not hard to see how individuals who have been disenfranchised by a system that kept them out for so long struggle to feel like they belong, that they are making an impact, that they deserve to be where they are.

Ok, so how do we solve these problems. I wish I had an answer. I feel like most of my posts end with: “and I don’t really have an answer.” But what I was hoping to highlight in this post in particular, as many brilliant and talented people before me have done is that Imposter Syndrome is not new and it is not a disease so to say in itself. It is a symptom of a much deeper problem. And if we are going to overcome it, we need to address its cause. This is not something that will happen overnight. But at least the ball is rolling. We are talking about it are we not?

But I think there are some things that we can do as individuals, especially those of us in academia where Imposter Syndrome runs rampant, to help mitigate some of the sources of the feelings that lead to Imposter Syndrome. And I think a lot of that comes with a revamping of our education system so that it is more inclusive and less biased. By promoting a healthy environment where people are not measured solely by “how they appear on paper.” Moreover, we can all strive to be GOOD people to our colleagues and to ourselves. A system is the sum of its parts. We can’t overhaul a broken system in one night. But we can steadily work on being better ourselves. We can have conversations about Imposter Syndrome and the things that often go along with it like mental health issues. We can speak up against things that are wrong – like workplace and sexual harassment. We can start unpacking the stigma that follows these discussions. Even on a smaller scale, we can foster an environment of collegiality, positivity, and support.

I also think anthropology can be really useful in helping make some progress. I mean, if you think about it, at the root of a lot of these issues is the unchallenged acceptance of social constructs and categories like race for example, which have systematically kept individuals not only out of academia but out of multiple spaces…. but I digress. A little anthropology may go a long way in this sense, especially if we teach young people how these social constructs are created (or what social constructs are).

To anyone reading this that struggles with Imposter Syndrome, you, my friend are not alone. More importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. The way that we speak to ourselves matters. I think most of us would never speak to others the way we speak to ourselves – why is that? Be your own number one fan. Remind yourself that you are brilliant in your own way. You are doing the best you can with what you have. And that no matter what we are all constantly learning and growing.

Peace, love, and positivity (with a dash of rock n roll).

 

A reflection on academia

I don’t mean for my posts to be discouraging. Quite the opposite, I hope they can foster some sort of feeling of solidarity perhaps? Add to the already circulating calls for change?

For the longest time, I have known that I wanted to be a professor and make a career for myself in academia. I’ve been in academia for about 8 years now, and in all honesty, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Not that I expected it to be. I am a firm believer in hard work, I guess, I just didn’t expect the toll school could take on one’s emotional and mental health. I went to one of the best universities in Canada, and for the longest time, I felt like I was just a number cycling in and out of classes; a tiny fish in an endless sea. Going through the motions, with no real direction or guidance. It was not until my third year that my professors knew my name or my research interests. But I made it, got a good GPA, and got into a Master’s program. Where things changed a little.

During my masters, I got a lot more guidance, felt less like a number and more like a person. But the transition from undergrad to grad school comes with a whole new set of dynamics..and expectations. I found a really wonderful program that fully funded its master’s students (including internationals – which is rare I assure you). I finished a two-year program in three, something I may have mentioned before perhaps? Many people see this as quite an accomplishment. I do not, I see it is the time in my life where I picked school over my health. And while I wouldn’t say I regret my decisions, I would not make the same choices again. I became so stressed during the last semester (where I was teaching, taking classes and writing my thesis..while being president of the Graduate Student Association) my stress started to manifest physically and I became so ill I was prescribed medication. I couldn’t eat, sleep, think… yet again, somehow I managed. Well not somehow, I had a really great support system actually. My advisors and colleagues at the time were amazing people. Like they say, it takes a village.

And now I find myself pursing my PhD at one of the best programs in the united states. I have taken classes with some of the founding scholars of my discipline. I’ve started working on my research, and I get to go in the field every summer, doing what I love. I even wrote my preliminary exams this past December. For those of you who may not know, these exams are a milestone for most PhD programs. Where you are tested on your understanding of theory and potentially all major topics related to archaeology, ranging from human evolution to the rise of states. Having completed such a task, you would think that I am on top of the world. I’m not. Honestly, studying for prelims was the most miserable time of my life. I have never felt so stressed, overwhelmed and downright stupid in my life. It nearly broke me. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger..right?

So here I am, at the start of a new decade, prelims done (and hopefully passed). My mind buzzing with all the things I have to tackle this coming semester and its daunting, to say the least. I often find myself wondering what I will do at the end of it all.. or if I will even get there. I know people will say, look at all those before you, who have faced the same obstacles you face and survived. But I think a closer look is needed. The academia we find ourselves in today is not the same as the one that produced our professors. I am not saying it was easier to make it in academia before, more that it was a different atmosphere altogether.

What is required of a Phd student in this day and age? Well, you have to take classes for one, if you are in North America. In addition, you have to either work as a teaching assistant or research assistant, to earn your keep so to say. If you teach, you need to make sure you hold office hours, attend extra training sessions and block off chunks of time for grading. Then you must, of course, check off all the program requirements; language, prelims, etc. Not so bad, so far. But don’t forget, you need to attend outside lectures and talks. Conferences, as well. And it helps if you present a paper or poster. Join some association or club, and volunteer, that looks good on your CV. A smart grad students will be on the constant lookout for grants and staying up to date on the literature (because you don’t have enough readings to cover in your classes). Oh yes, you should also aim to have a few publications under your belt before you finish your program. All the while, you should be working on your own research and attending department and school events. How long does this take? On average 8 years in my department. Is this doable, yes, yes it is. But at what expense?

These are not impossible tasks, but navigating them in a broken system seems like it is. I didn’t even touch on the social and ethical dyanmics; all the cases of sexual harassment that have been swept under the rug, the tensions that can arise between students when funding is tight in a department, or between students and advisors when they have different theoretical approaches or communication styles. There is the socioeconomic barrier to consider when it comes to things like acceptances to programs, attendance at conferences, or in the case of archaeology, field schools. It seems to me that academia has become some sort of race to look good on paper. How about trying to get an article published when an anonymous reviewer blocks it with no feedback? How good is the content we are putting out when people splice up their data or rewrite the same paper to get more publications? What effect does this have on the people who are in the process of “becoming academics?” Most of my colleagues struggle with stress, anxiety, depression and imposter syndrome. Most people I’ve talked to feel overwhelmed and underprepared. This is the atmosphere that we are supposed to be creating knowledge in? I would say I worry or the future of our discipline, but I worry more for the health and well being of the people currently in it.

I want to end on a silver lining, however. Things are changing. People are more aware of things like inclusivity, sexual harassment, and mental health issues. To those of you who have felt overwhelmed and underprepared, it is not you. It is the system you’re operating in. In your pursuit to chase your academic dreams, you do not have to sacrifice your physical and mental well being. It is not a race; take your time, do things your way and remember why you entered your field in the first place.

Peace, love, and positivity.

 

 

 

 

An update from your friendly neighborhood Albanian Archaeologist

Well, dear friends. Your friendly neighborhood Albanian archaeologist has gone a bit MIA of late. Why so, you may ask?

Life – more specifically, life in academia. This is more a note to check in than a proper post.  Check-in with who exactly I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this; Hi, I’m letting you know that I will be back soon. With killer content and insight – I hope.

Grad school can take a toll on you, so much so that it envelopes you. There is deadline after deadline. You have to read constantly, you have to publish, you have to attend classes, teach classes, ” do research,” plan research, apply for grants, attend social events, talks, evening lectures, conferences.. the list goes on.  I will be the first to admit, I struggled to keep up with all of this.

On the surface, I weathered my first year of grad school rather well. I got straight A’s in my classes, landed some grants, went to conferences and talked about my research. I even conducted preliminary dissertation research in Albania and Kosovo this summer (a post that is on the drawing boards I assure you).

In my first year, I often felt like I was running as fast as I could but not getting anywhere. As soon as I completed one task, another fell in my lap. You got a grant to fund your summer research? Great. Better start thinking about the next one you’ll apply to. You finished your 20 page research paper? Amazing. Better start the other one you’ve put off until now.

These are the themes that I would like to explore in this platform because I don’t think that I am alone in thinking like this.  The fact that so many graduate students deal with depression, stress, anxiety, and imposter syndrome is a glaring redlight that there is something seriously wrong with the system so many of us idealize. Many of us pursue graduate degrees because we want to further our field, because we want to be creators of knowledge, we want to be academics. But the game has changed, it has become toxic. And we need to have a discussion about this.

I hope you will stick around until then.

Love, peace, and positivity,

Your friendly neighborhood Albanian archaeologist.

Email Etiquette

Email etiquette is one of the most important skills to have in your repertoire as an academic. I know, you’re thinking, really? Emailing? We all know how to email. But you would be surprised.

What inspired this post? I have many friends who are now in the process of searching for an advisor for their Ph.D.’s. And having successfully navigated this treacherous path, many have asked me how I did it, which prompted my previous post “The Grad School Application Process.” However, once you carefully and painstakingly spend hours narrowing your list of programs that you want to study at, with a faculty member with whom you want to work with, comes the “difficult part” – reaching out. This part terrifies people, myself included. While I touched a bit on the do’s and don’t’s of email etiquette in my last post, I feel like this is a topic worth expanding on.

So, a colleague of mine asks how I reached out to professors when I was looking for an advisor. Naturally, she is freaked out about initiating that first point of contact. And rightly so, the first email you send to a potential advisor can set the tone for the rest of your correspondence. This does not mean, however, that you should be incapacitated with fear. Remind yourself that this is a normal part of academia, that professors get emails every day, and it is part of the job description to correspond with potential new students. Returning to my little story – I said I would send her a template of the email I would set out. Into the rabbit hole of my bachelor email inbox I go to find these early emails I sent when I was looking for masters programs. The results were not pretty my friends.

Now you’re thinking: “Ok, so you had terrible email etiquette, and now you’re going to tell us how to write proper emails?” My answer? Hells, yea. Why? Because nothing teaches you like mistakes, and better yet, if I can share my mistakes with you, then that makes messing up the first time that much more worth it since it was a learning experience for all. Shall we dive in?

Let me set the scene for you real quick. A 21-year-old AA is eager to pursue a career in archaeology, and she realizes early on that a bachelors degree on its own won’t cut it. So, she begins searching for masters programs. This is a difficult process in itself, it becomes even more so when your research is so niche, like mine. I began by searching for archaeologists who worked in Albania; I found 3. Excited beyond words, I drafted some emails and sent them off. At the moment I was very proud of myself, I had reached out, I was taking baby steps to making my dreams come true. And honestly, I still am proud of 21-year-old me. But there are some things that I would advise her on, because, let me tell you, re-reading some of those emails made me cringe.

 

Spelling and Grammer

I cannot stress how important this is. This is the first time someone is “meeting you.” What’s more, this might be the first impression you make on a potential advisor. Don’t blow it with typos and poor grammar. Did I do this by the way? Oh yea, multiple times, I even spelled last names wrong. That is probably one of the worst things you can do. Luckily, I wasn’t emailing that professor whose name I spelled wrong, but mentioning that I was considering reaching out to them. Of course, because archaeology is a small world, the professor was corresponding knew the professor I was referring to, and corrected me on my spelling. Woops. Clearly, this is a really big weakness for myself, so what are some tips to avoid such blunders.

  1. Slow down: take your time writing your email, there’s no fire. Check yourself as you are writing each sentence. Fix typos and errors as you see them (not at the very end).
  2. Read your email out loud: this is golden, but many people don’t do this anymore. This doesn’t just apply to emails, this applies to all things written. Assignments papers, responses, text messages… if you’re not sure, read it out loud.
  3. Have someone else look over your email: another golden rule. Our brains are notorious for correcting what we see. So when we have looked at something for a long time, we no longer pick up on typos or errors because our brain automatically corrects them for us.
  4. Print it out: if you don’t have a friend to send your draft to, print it out. I used to do this all the time with essays when I felt like I could not look at a screen any longer. For some reason, editing with paper in hand made me pick up on mistakes that I could not on the screen.
  5. Use a spellchecker/grammar software: there are lots of options available online where you can copy and paste your text to be checked. I use Grammarly for everything, from emails to essays (to my thesis).

 

Timing

This was not a major problem for myself, but I have noticed it in other people. Some people are terrible with emails, they are impossible to get a hold of, they don’t respond, and when they do it’s at 2 am in the morning. My rule of thumb is, as a student, you need to be on your A-Game when it comes to email correspondence with faculty members. This means you respond to emails within a 24 hour period and you email/respond at reasonable times ( I try to stick to Monday-Friday 9-5). Now, of course, certain situations call for exceptions, and if you have already established contact with your faculty member, if you already know them, if the email requires a quick response, then you can judge the situation as you see fit. But in my opinion, you cannot go wrong when you maintain those two rules. This, however, means that you are also checking your email frequently enough so that you don’t miss important emails. A lesson the young AA learned the hard way. I used to be terrible at checking my email until I almost missed an important deadline once. Since then, I check my email constantly. Maybe you don’t want to get my level of obsessive, but you should find a consistency that works for you while ensuring you don’t miss anything important.

 

Content

Aside from your email having impeccable spelling and grammar, you also need to have good content. Especially if this is your first time reaching out to someone you want to work with. My advice here would be to keep it simple and keep it concise for the first email. If they want to know more, they will ask. Introduce yourself briefly, tell them about your research interests and relate how it relates to theirs. A good way to start the email is to simply say ” I am looking for programs to pursue my graduate studies, X stands out to me as a wonderful fit.” If you have an advisor at your current university, lead with that. This can help open doors. Anytime I send an email to someone who I want to work with, I lead with:  “My name is X, I am at the University of X, my graduate advisor is X.” After talking briefly about your research, relate it to theirs. ” I recently read your paper on X…” ‘I noticed that your work is X…” I found an old email I sent to a graduate advisor when I was looking for Ph.D. programs ( 1 year ago, let me remind you) and I just about gasped from embarrassment). It was terrible! It was so long, it had terrible structure and although I did not mean it tom it came off as slightly presumptuous. Which relates to the next topic.

 

Courtesy

Related to content is courtesy. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of email etiquette, and can sometimes make or break a correspondence. If the faculty member you are emailing thinks you are rude or entitled, then why would they want to work with you? Remember that email is a professional mode of communication, hence is it really important that you keep a professional tone. This is really important when you are corresponding back and forth over multiple emails. Of course,  you should sense the tone of the conversation, and you may not have to sign off with Sincerely “your full name here” by email number five. But remember, use full sentences, keep it formal and as always, stay humble. Not everyone you will reach out to is going to respond or be interested in working with you – that’s show biz baby.

If you don’t get a response, I would suggest following up, very politely two weeks after. If you get a  response, and it’s a “no,” you still should respond, thank them for their time and wish them all the best. Remember that academia is a small world. Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to go ahead and say it. Academia is inherently hierarchical, I acknowledge that there are severe problems in our discipline, but at the very macro-level, a difference exists between you, the student, and your advisor. This might be a topic for another post about how the mentor-mentee relationship works. But, the way I see it, is this is a hierarchical, professional relationship. Your potential advisor is not meant to be your friend, they are meant to be academic guides if you will. They are experts in their field (with years of experience), treat them as such. So, in your correspondence with potential advisors; stay humble, stay polite and above all do not appear entitled (no one owes you anything – No one has to work with you). By no means should you sell yourself short, just acknowledge that as a young individual in your field, there is much that you don’t know, and that is fine. Cest la vie, you have a career ahead of you to learn. Seven years into school and the only thing that I know for sure is that I have barely scratched the surface of what I need to know.

 

And there you have it, folks. Some simple things to keep in mind to keep your email game on point. Think of how you would put yourself together if you were going for an interview. You would put on your most professional outfit, you would fix your hair, maybe put some makeup on if that’s your thing, you would show up on time, you would have the appropriate material with you. All the same applies to first contact emails when searching for a faculty advisor (or collaborator etc.): put your best academic face forward.

All this said, remember to be yourself, and take that leap of faith. These words of advice are not meant to be all-encompassing or “the law.” Just some helpful suggestions from someone who has sat in your place not too long ago. And hey, I’m still learning too. I’m also learning that you never stop learning. But now I’m getting metaphysical and philosophical. I also have an assignment I need to finish (yes we still have those in grad school), so its time to wrap this up.

You got this kid, now go forth and email.

 

The Grad School Application Process

I know what you’re thinking. It’s still August, why are you talking about applying to grad school, the deadlines are months away.

Well maybe I’m just an overachiever, but I’ve always found that getting a head-start on bureaucratic type processes, like grad school applications, is always a good idea. These things take longer than you think. And a strong application is one that has been well researched and well thought out, in addition to being well written.

So, without further ado, the AA’s guide to the grad school application process…To be taken with a grain of salt, of course.

The first thing you need to do is to do your research. And to do it well. When I first started the grad school application process back in ’16, I must have spent hours Googling different schools, looking at how they compared to each other in regard to my program. Some of the basic things to look for include program duration, cost, funding opportunities, if there is a thesis component etc. I made a little spreadsheet by hand comparing my top favorite universities so I could see how they compared at a glance – not saying you have to do this by any means. I know I’m my own, special, level of organized. Excel also works great..

The next step is to see if there are potential faculty members that could supervise your research, either as chair or committee members. If you like a program, then take a look at the faculty there. Make sure that there are faculty members that can help you with your research.  Alternatively, if there is someone in your field that you really want to work with you might start by searching for the university where they are employed. Don’t limit yourself by only looking at the faculty members in your department only, there could be several faculty members in related departments that would provide valuable insight on your research. For example, I often would look to the geography or classics departments.

Ideally, you will have 3-4 programs that fit your research interests and that have faculty members that could serve as your potential advisers. The next step is to start getting in contact with the university. The best person to initially contact is the graduate adviser. Typically, they know the program better than anyone else and can tell you relatively quickly if it is a good match for you, additionally, recruitment is often a big part of thier job, so they will be happy to talk to potential new students. In the email, introduce yourself, tell them that you find the program very interesting and are interested in applying. You might want to elaborate on your own research interests in a paragraph or so. Ask if there are any resources that you can look at and if the program is accepting students etc. Usually, the graduate adviser will direct you to a faculty member who is taking students and/or has similar research interests. With some luck, it is one of the people that you had researched.

Then you can contact the faculty members you are interested in working with. This first email is essentially the first impression, so it is important that it comes across professional. Keep it short and respectful, and as always, free of typos and grammar errors.  Again, introduce yourself, tell them briefly about you and your research interests and mention that you find their research interesting and pertinent to yours. Ask them if they are accepting students and if they have any advice about your application.

In my experience, the people I reached out to were usually very upfront with me. And let me tell you, I was rejected many, many times. I often got the “your research is interesting, but not really my niche, but you should contact X” response. Rejection is not a bad thing, if someone is not sold on your research, it is better to know that right away. If you get the “sorry not my niche”, or “I have too many students” response, thank them for their time and wish them the best. If you get the very much sought after “that sounds very interesting, tell me more”, and “I am taking students” email, thank them for their time and let them know how much it would mean to have the opportunity to work with them. Now just because someone says they are accepting students doesn’t mean you are in, but it’s a start.

Email etiquette is extremely important at this phase since this is the primary mode of communication with your potential adviser. So, always be polite and prompt. Don’t take three days to respond to an email, and don’t email at 2 am in the morning. Rookie mistakes.

Once you have narrowed down your top universities with faculty members that are taking students and are interested in your research, you can start working on the application itself. This is where the real work starts.  I recommend keeping it to about 3 applications maximum for two reasons – one the applications cost money and they can be expensive, about $100 each. Two, the less applications the more you can focus your time and resources to making strong applications. If you are an international student, I recommend you start early since it will take you time to get your documents ready. The deadline for most programs is often December -March. I would write these deadlines down and know them by heart. Programs won’t consider late applications.

There are about 7 components to the process:

  • Application (form with your basic information)
  • Transcripts
  • Statement of purpose / Personal statement or both
  • Writing Sample
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Your CV
  • The Tests (The GRE and TOEFL)

To really drive the point home, here is an example timeline (with deadlines) of how the application process unfolds. At least how it unfolded for me. If you want to start in the fall semester, you need to start thinking about your application about a year ahead, usually, this is the last year of your current program, unless you are re-entering academia from the workforce or something along those lines. Regardless, this often means that August is when the process begins.

One: Narrow down three to four schools to apply to and make the first contact with the graduate coordinators, then later professors. (August – September)

Two: Find out the requirements for the programs. (Early September)

Three: Contact previous professors from your school to ask about letters. Ask them early and provide them with the deadlines. The can also help edit your statements of purpose.(Early September)

Four: Start the application process, write-down the login information so you don’t forget it. Figure out what documents you need to send and how; some schools are picky about this. If they want hard copies from the school send them early (September).

Five: Start writing your statements. Look at the website for each program so you can tailor each statement fit the goals of the university. Keep in mind, three applications means three statements since you will have to make them specific to the program. (October).

*This is probably the most important part of your applications as it demonstrates who you are and what you have to offer. It is important that it is well written and shows you are driven and ambitious. Here you can talk about your research goals, what you intend to do with your degree after graduating and how your academic career thus far has prepared you for this next step. Mention that the goals of the university line up with your own, that you feel that you will flourish as an academic there for these reasons. Additionally, mention the faculty members at the university who you would like to work with and why. *

Six: Edit your CV and your writing sample. Make your CV show that you are a well-rounded academic with experience. Find a piece of work you have written for classes that you got a good grade one. One that shows your ability to write academically. It helps to have a friend look them over to catch any minor errors or typos you may have missed yourself (October).

Seven: Take the standardized tests. These are a pain, but they are required by most schools. The GRE is required for all American schools and the TOEFL is required of all international students. As with any test, it helps to prepare. Luckily, there are lots of resources out in the inter-webs to help you study. Most schools will say what their required minimum scores are for acceptance. Now, not meeting this score is not the end of the world, but coming close helps. Especially if there is a lot of competition. However, it is the impression you make on the faculty through your interactions with them and your letter of academic intent that really matters. (October / November).

By end of November, you should have everything ready, I suggest submitting your applications end of November to early December (depending on when they are due, but I did all my applications in one day to get them over with). Everything is done online, including your letters of recommendation. Your professors submit them via a link you send them. You will need their emails and approval when you are filling out your application. When you decide that you’re going to finalize and submit your applications, make sure you give yourself time, it takes a few hours to get everything uploaded, double check everything! I made a folder in my computer for my applications and in this, I made a folder for each school. I saved everything in the folder so when it was time to apply I had everything in one place.

Now, this post may seem like overkill and the deadlines are just suggestions. But I honestly do mean to be helpful. I’m the first in my family (both sides) to go to graduate school. I didn’t have much help figuring out this process, and there were times when I felt overwhelmed. But, I did it (twice), and you can too. Just take it a step at a time, plan it out and start early. Show ’em what you have to offer; be confident, be professional, be you.

Thoughts at the airline gate – WIFI withdrawal and phone dependency

I wrote this post two months ago while waiting for my airplane to go to Albania. In the midst of working and travelling it somehow got lost in the depths of my tablet. However, having now returned home and recovered from my jetlag, the post has resurfaced. Without further ado; the musings of an Albanian archaeologist at an airline gate.

I’m sitting somewhere in Atatürk airport, awaiting my gate assignment.  In all honesty, I’m still groggy from sleeping on the plane 8+ hours.  I wasn’t planning on writing anything today – I had given myself the day off, but then an idea hit. As I was sitting there, thinking about nothing in particular, a guy, maybe in his late 40’s early 50’s asked me if there was WIFI here.

Good question I thought, I don’t see why not. All airports offer some sort of WIFI. So I open up my phone and showed him that there was a WIFI and that you had to sign in through the browser etc. It wasn’t working for him for some reason. Now I was determined. So I tried to get it to work on my phone. I was actually surprised that the WIFI here is not actually free. You had to put in your number, get a code, put in that code, then you get your free two hours of WIFI. This is slightly problematic if you’are with a plan back home that charges insane fees for roaming. So, there’s no WIFI for me today.. and that got me thinking.

It is sort of funny that it was almost inconceivable that there would be no WIFI available. WIFI has become a basic right. When you don’t have access to WIFI or a cellular network at least, you instantly feel disconnected. At least I have in the past. When I would go back and forth between Starkville and Toronto, I wouldn’t have a phone number in Toronto. So the second I stepped out of the house, I was unreachable. That used to terrify me to no end.

“What if have to make a phone call?”

“What if I got lost?”

“What if I needed to look something up?”

Or worse – “What if got board and couldn’t scroll mindlessly through Instagram.” Quelle vie!

If I, a 24-year-old, 90’s baby, went through WIFI withdrawal, how must it be for the generation that was raised with smartphones and tablets in their hands? The generation that is chronically diagnosed with ADHD, that doesn’t know what its like to play outside all day?

I’m not trying to blame technology or the internet, I love both, but sometimes I wonder how deep the effects of such a dependency on these things have on us. I’ve spent a lot of time in airport gates lately, the scene is always the same: almost everyone is on some sort of device, a smartphone, a tablet – plugged in. There are people camped out by plugs to charge their ever-draining batteries. I myself am no exception. Not only am I typing away on my tablet, I’m listening to music on my phone as well (Nothing Else Matters – Metallica).

I often wonder how this dependency on technology has affected human behavior. Overall, I think technology has drawn us into ourselves and made us terribly inpatient.

“But it can connect us to people around the world!” You may argue.

True, very true, but while you’re talking to someone across the world, who are you not interacting with that is right in front of you? People go to bars and cafes with friends and spend most of the time messaging other people.. that seems so ironic. My friends and I have recently made a conscious effort to keep phones away when we are hanging out, especially when we are having dinner or grabbing a coffee. What a difference it makes. How nice it is to have fully engaged conversations with no distractions. With no absent-minded “huh” or “yea..”

We have become so content to plug into our phone that we can be in a room with others and talk to no one. It has become such an epidemic that talking to people is perceived as weird and only done in the rare instance that the WIFI is not working or cannot be found. It’s strange, its almost as if we are scared to talk to each other. The man who asked me about the WIFI sounded so uncomfortable like he was pushing himself to ask me.  Last time I was coming home from Starkville, I was sitting next to this woman. And she asked me if she could use my phone to call her brother because she couldn’t sign into the WIFI. I am not proud to say that my first reaction was to tell her I was uncomfortable with giving her my phone. And then it hit me, the irony of it all! I consider myself a culturally relative ANTHROPOLOGIST, above all, a decent human being. So why could I not lend this woman my phone ?! So I apologized and offered her my phone.

I am not saying the answer to this WIFI dependency syndrome is to oblige every stranger that decides to talk to us. But maybe it would do us all a little good to unplug every now and then and interact with those around us. Put away your phone for a few hours when you’re at home and spend some time with those around you. Ask them how their day went, what is on their mind, what their favorite song is at the moment (if you’re wondering, mine is Brother’s in Arms by Dire Straits). It might do humanity a little bit of good if we relearn how to interact with each other. After all, we are social beings, and the ability to effectively interact with others was a key trait in our evolutionary path.

 

 

 

 

How to “Thesis”

books.jpgYour coursework is done, you are now a seasoned graduate student, it is time to begin the ever-daunting thesis writing process.

Regardless of your school or department, most programs have a thesis writing component. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but the thought of churning out 100+ pages of academic writing terrified me to no end. Yet, I somehow managed to do it, and successfully at that.

“Thesising” as we began to call it in my department, is not easy, but it shouldn’t be terrifying either. It is just another process you have to go through if you want a career in academia. If you break it down, a thesis is essentially a really big essay. At this point, you should be an expert at writing essays, so what’s one more?

Hindsight is 20/20, looking back on my thesis journey there are many things I would do differently. Not to be too harsh on myself as there are things that I did right as well.  As I toiled through my thesis I started creating a little list in my head of tips and tricks that just might be handy for someone who is about to begin the ever daunting thesis writing process.

 

  • Know what you want to research and get approval from your supervisor

What helped me out immensely was that I knew what I wanted to base my thesis research on before I even applied to Mississippi State. Knowing what you want to study works in your favor since you can gear your classes to help your research (more on this below). However, it is important that you obtain approval from your thesis supervisor if you are coming in with a research question already determined. Your thesis research in not only a reflection of your work but is tied to your university and your committee as well. Your superior will be able to tell you if your research is feasible and ethical. While I came in with a research question in mind, my research design and many important parameters were decided in agreement with my supervisor. However, I’ve noticed that many people do not have a hard and ready research question coming into a graduate program. Most of my peers had general research interests, but not set question. If you do not have an idea question that drives you, the best thing you can do is take on a research question that is pertinent to your supervisor’s research. Chances are your supervisor’s research interests are similar to yours, either theoretically, geographically or methodologically. Additionally, they would be able to provide you with access to the required data more readily, as opposed to trying to secure data from elsewhere.

 

  • Know your topic – Do your background research

You do not need to be an expert, but you do need to know what you’re talking about. When I began my thesis, I knew very little about Albanian archaeology, other than I wanted to study it. I grew up in Canada, so Albanian prehistory was not a high priority in the Ontario Public School Curriculum. However, I was lucky enough to take a Directed Individual Study (DIS) in the second semester of my first year which allowed me to familiarize myself with my topic. I created a list of readings which covered Albanian archaeology, the history of archaeology in Albania, archaeological theory, GIS and GIS in archaeology, which my thesis supervisor amended and approved. I would read my weekly readings, take notes and meet with my supervisor once a week to discuss them. This kills two birds with one stone as it allows you to familiarize yourself on your topic all the while doing the background readings for your thesis proposal. Since a DIS is a class, you will need a way to be evaluated – in my case, I wrote my thesis proposal as my evaluation. This was helpful in moving along my progress in the program as it gave me a hard and fast deadline which I had to adhere to, of course I added significantly to my reading list over time, but this is a good stepping stone to get you started and build up a base of knowledge. As I made my way through my original list, I found more articles by looking through works cited pages. As my proposal came together, I noticed gaps or ideas that I wanted to explore more, which prompted me to consider other resources or articles that I had not considered previously. Additionally, as my knowledge on the topic grew, I was able to search more successfully for new resources since I had a better idea of what keywords to look for. Also, worth keeping in mind is that the research portion of your thesis does not end with your thesis proposal or your literature review. I was constantly reading new articles and expanding my works cited – I found some of my strongest articles 3 weeks before I defended! Never stop reading, never stop writing, and the more you read, the better your research becomes.

 

  • Do not try to reinvent the wheel

Consider why your program requires a thesis in the first place. In my department, they encouraged us to cap our thesis at about 100 pages, excluding graphics and appendices. As a master’s student, you are not supposed to reinvent the wheel. What you are required to do is demonstrate that you have the capability to organize and carry out research, and interpret the results within a theoretical framework.  This means that you should keep your reach question as simple and your research design as straightforward as possible. Take it from someone that had 13 hypotheses and sub-hypothesis – Simplicity is your friend! If you can prove or disprove something with two hypotheses and two sub-hypotheses. DO IT. Keep your research question simple and above all feasible! While it may be very interesting to do DNA analysis on human remains from a Pueblo site, for example, chances are you will not be allowed to do so. When coming up with a research question keep in mind access to data and time and money restrictions. Is your data overseas? Can you access it? How will get access to it?  Are you allowed to publish on it? What about your methods – are they destructive? Do they take a long time? Are they expensive? Do you have access to certain tools and instruments you will need? It took me 5 months to collect and work with my data, and I was working with secondary sources and open data that could be accessed online.

 

  • Use your coursework to help you

I wrote my thesis while taking classes. This can be difficult at times, but what helped me make progress in both my classes and thesis, is that I would use my coursework to aide my thesis research. You have to write a paper for you GIS class, great – write it on the history of GIS in Albanian archaeology. Need to analyze data for your stats class? Great, use your thesis data! I tied my thesis research to every class I had to take, even Middle Eastern Cultures (I wrote a great paper on interconnectivity in the Mediterranean and world systems theory – the main theoretical framework I used in my thesis – WIN!). By the time I finished my coursework, I had written papers on the history of Albanian archaeology, world systems theory and interconnectivity, GIS application in archaeology and Albania and done multiple projects using my thesis data for both my GIS and my stats classes. Using your data for classes is so useful as it allows you to really get to know your data, and facility with your data is key!

 

  • Deadlines and progress

I remember being in my first semester of classes and thinking about my thesis as if it was some monster. It was overwhelming, how does one get to a polished, bound, approved thesis in just two years. The answer, dear friends is to break it up into manageable chunks. This is how I broke down my thesis:

  1. Background reading
  2. Thesis proposal – Literature Review, Methods and Materials
  3. Collect data
  4. Analyze data
  5. Interpret data
  6. Write results
  7. Conclusions, limitations

I gave myself deadlines to adhere to for each part outlined above. They were not set in stone, and they were sometimes unrealistic, but they helped keep me on track. My deadlines were often super early, so even if I missed them, I would still be on track. I am a very visual person, so once I had an approved thesis proposal I create this board for myself. I know, sounds lame, but I swear to you this thing kept me from going crazy.  I went to Walmart, got a cork board, some push pins and cue cards and sat down on the floor of my room one September day and planned out my thesis writing process. At the very center of my board when my thesis statement. This was not an original idea. I remember from my professionalization class, Dr. Zuckerman telling us to write down our thesis statement and to put it over where we will be writing. Having your thesis statement direct over your head as you are writing is a great way to keep yourself on topic, and helps keep your writing concise and to the point. The next for que-cards around these statements consisted of important information that is pertinent to your research. I had the descriptions of my categories up; my time periods, site designations etc. Finally, were the posts with deadlines and progress.  I gave myself hard and soft deadlines and made note of things that I had completed. The latter was helpful for morale – even through my to-do list was very growing, seeing the completed list grow as well always made me feel a little better. The most important deadlines, however, where the department and program deadlines. Write these in BOLD RED. Know them, live them, have them memorized. Do NOT miss these deadlines.

 

  • Don’t take it personally

One thing that I quickly learned is that when you have a complete and approved thesis proposal, 1/3 of your thesis is done! Your proposal consists of a problem statement, a literature review, methods and materials, those are the first few chapters of your thesis. Of course, you will have to add and edit certain parts, but a big chunk of your thesis is ready. Once you have a first draft you really are past the hard part. Now all you have to do is go through the rounds of edits with your supervisor and committee. There are some things to keep in mind during this part of the process. First, draft one will never be perfect, so get ready to edit a ton. And two, thesis edits are not to be taken personally, they are meant to make your work stronger, so if you committee suggests you change or add something, my advice would be to do it. I added entire sanctions to my thesis to meet the requirements of my committee and I am so glad that I did because now I think I have better and stronger thesis.

 

  • Love yourself

This became my motto and words of advice during my last semester. I finished my program in two years but it is designed to be three. Most people take courses for two years and then write in their third. I, however, had classes, TA’d, volunteered and wrote and defined my thesis in one semester. And while I did it, I sometimes think my mental and physical health suffered for it. Of course, there have been people before me who have done the same, and there will be many people after me who will successfully defend in two years. This is something that is determined between each individual and their committee. But my advice to everyone who asked me if they should do it in two years is to think about why they want to finish in two years. Do you have a job lined up?  Do you have another program to start? Do you have family or someone waiting on you back home? Does your supervisor think that you can successfully complete the program in two years? If the answer is yes, and you yourself want to finish the program in two years, then do it. I know you can. Otherwise, love yourself more, and work at the pace that you’re comfortable with. Remember, it is not a race and you are not competing with anyone, the impotent thing is that you do good research. Also remember that it is ok to take breaks, to cut yourself some slack and to love yourself. Believe it or not, it will get done, it always does.

 

  • You are not alone

Cheesy as this sounds, you need to remember that you are not alone. You have an entire department behind you. Your supervisor and committee have a vested interest in you succeeding, after all, your success reflects positively on them. I cannot count the number of times I had to go to my supervisor for help when I was stuck on a method, when my data would not process or when my stats were wonky. And every time, my supervisor sat down with me, walked through the problems with me and helped me come to a solution. We ended up changing major parts of my thesis by the end of it, and my thesis is only the stronger because of it.  Aside from your committee and your supervisor you also have your peers. There were countless times when I would sit up and talk theory or methods with my colleagues. What I loved most about my department is how much we care about and help each other. One person’s success is all of our success. My colleges and I would help each other find resources, edits drafts of our work, and even just be there for moral support. I remember I was so stressed one time that my roommate went out and brought me a little “happy” bag filled with my favorite chocolates and kombucha and a fuzzy blanket. Some of my best memories are of paint nights in with my friends to celebrate finishing a chapter or getting back thesis edits.

Now take this with a grain of salt, I am not a professional and this little list is not meant to be exhaustive. But the point is, writing a thesis does not have to be a terrifying task. If you come at it with a clear and simple research question, break it up in manageable parts, and chip away at it consonantly, you can get it done. After all, it’s just another essay, and you’ve written hundreds of essays by now.