Kara Cooney is a UCLA archaeologist and the author of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty panel discussion titled “Did Women Ever Rule the World?” she spoke in the green room about the cruelty of academia, saying “yes” to everything, and how to bring your young child with you on an Egyptian excavation.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
It has to be modeling. So when I was in undergrad and grad school I modeled on the side. And I did some pretty weird gigs, modeling on the side. And it taught me that people value and objectify other human beings for physical properties only. It was a cruel business to be in, and it was helpful for me to have that on the side because I could make decent money in a short amount of time, then go back to my life of the mind.
Did doing modeling let you disengage from the life of the mind?
Oh no, I was a snotty b!$©h, really, in an academic sense.
You were critiquing it as you were doing it?
In my mind, I was always critiquing everything that was happening, why it was happening. At the same time, I was always worrying that I was too fat, because I was always too tall and too fat for that job—and that’s about 35 pounds ago, and many years. [Laughs]
Did modeling help or hinder you to deal with self-image issues?
Oh no, it helped me to deal with criticism. Academics are cruel; they’re like a bunch of third graders. How you write, your style. Your presentation may be less critiqued, perhaps. But what you are saying, and whether you’re using the right jargon in the right way, is very much critiqued. And so to see how superficial it could be, and how joyless it could be, it made me realize that what I always need to return to is the joy, of learning, of teaching, of thinking. And if I do that, then I’m okay.
What’s some of the best advice you ever got?
Say “yes” to everything. Essentially I’m telling you the advice I give to other people!
And do you follow it?
I can’t anymore. And I tell my students, “At the beginning you say ‘yes’ to everything, until you can’t say ‘yes’ to everything anymore.” Then you have to start choosing what you want to say “yes” to and start turning things down, but that’s your first world problem. But until you get to that first world problem, you say “yes” to as many opportunities as you can. I’m not saying if a drug dealer comes along and asks me to be a mule I’m going to say “yes,” but if somebody asks me to write a popular book—and I think, “Oh, I’m an academic at UCLA, I can’t do that, what will people think?”—I don’t go down that path. I say “yes” to the lit agent who out of the blue shows up and says, “I think you should write a popular book,” and I say, “Okay.” I realize that I need to go there and do something that I’m afraid of, and I will learn something new by doing it.
If you could time travel anywhere, where would you go?
Well, I have to go to [ancient] Egypt. That’s the place that continues to call to me, for whatever reason—I don’t know why.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you, maybe even helped shape your career?
My own thesis advisor, Betsy Bryan, at Johns Hopkins, where I got my Ph.D. She was instrumental in teaching me that you could have kids and a high-powered professorial career. And to be able to see how she managed that, and to see that it wasn’t pretty, to see that it was often very messy. And to see her take her child along with her on an excavation was quite meaningful to me. And so when I entered those years myself, I didn’t try to be a perfectionist about it, and let things get messy. And that was very formative.
Where did she take her child on excavation?
To Egypt. We were in Luxor, on the West Bank, in a tomb called Theban 292. And I know that this kid—who was very much like my son is now, not able to sit still, full of energy—he does not want to sit and do his homework. Independent study was a disaster, although I’m sure he learned other things besides filling out homework sheets given to him by the school. So it was interesting to see how a family can interfere with your work, or how you have to sacrifice on the family to do your work. And these are decisions I make on a daily basis, every time I figure out my travel schedule. I do a lot of public speaking. And I’m divorced, so I have partial custody of my kid—is it a day when I have him, or not?
You said you’re not sure why Egypt keeps calling to you?
This is the question I’m asked the most often: Why am I an Egyptologist and why do I do this? Number one, there are no answers, and it’s not the kind of thing that one Egyptologist would ever ask another, because we have no idea ourselves. It’s this strange thing—I see the world better by looking through the lens of this ancient place than I do by looking at the place around me. I don’t understand why that is. And the second reason is a social reason. It’s because I’m an upper-middle-class white chick whose mother brought books back from the British Museum when she went on a trip with my father, an attorney, to London. And I saw mummies and I saw coffins and all of these things, and I thought, “My God, this is amazing.” And then growing up I was told I could do whatever I wanted.