James Skibo: Unearthing the past
Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology James Skibo has devoted his life’s work to uncovering (literally) the rich history of some of the world’s most interesting, yet often overlooked societies.
Skibo is the director of the Grand Island Archaeological Program, an excavation endeavor started in 2001 to help anthropologists better understand the specific activities of the people who used the resources of the small, yet diverse Michigan island. A prolific scholar whose works cover topics such as behavioral archaeology, pottery use and alteration, ethnoarchaelogy, and experimental archaeology, Skibo has been able to take his love for history and continue to enrich the lives of the students at Illinois State.
“What I like best about my job is the mix of research, which I enjoy, and teaching,” Skibo said about the hands-on approach associated with his field. “Archaeology is a profession that is both academic and scholarly, while at the same time it can be very physical. I like this mix and I like taking students into the field where they too can have this type of experience. There is the challenge, however, of keeping an appropriate balance, not just between research and teaching, but with a family and other relationships.”
In addition to his time in the classroom, Skibo has published and/or edited 12 books and dozens of articles in the field of archaeology and anthropology, one of which, The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, is one of the leading archaeological journals in the country. His projects have taken him to the Philippines, the American Southwest, and most recently the Upper Great Lakes. Skibo’s overarching objective, however, is not concerned with the amount of materials he collects or the amount of hours spent on-site. Rather, Skibo hopes to sharpen the focus of the lens through which he sees the world. His lens is human-oriented and concerned with how we as a modern society can learn from previous generations.
“Having an anthropological worldview has had the greatest impact on how I view society at large.” Skibo noted. “Such a worldview embraces diversity in all of its complexity instead of fearing it, which seems to be a common perception. When one has an anthropological perspective it provides the backdrop for various global, economic, political, and cultural issues especially in the context of change. These forces of change tend to be most difficult for the more powerless, such as indigenous people and ethnic minorities, which are the people anthropologists tend to serve.”
Such an anthropological perspective aligns well with the work of the Stevenson Center. Skibo and his colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (SOA) have taken steps to strengthen the department’s partnership with the Stevenson Center.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my job as chair has been working with the Stevenson Center, which has long been affiliated with our department,” Skibo noted. “Dr. Frank Beck is not only the Director of the Center but also a faculty member in SOA, and we proudly claim Associate Director Beverly Beyer and Program Coordinator James Porter as alumni. Our sociology graduate program has long been affiliated with the Peace Corps Fellows, Applied Community and Economic Development Fellows, and Peace Corps Master’s International Programs, but this year I am proud to say that these programs will also be available to anthropology. We admitted our first anthropology Applied Community and Economic Development sequence student in the fall of 2015 and look to have one or two more join us this fall.”
Despite his impressive record of service at Illinois State and his accolades, Skibo contributes his success in academia to the applied research and excavation projects he has directed for the benefit of his students.
“Although I have many research projects and publications of various kinds, the thing I am most proud of is giving hundreds of students field experiences that involve not just learning archaeology but also living in a remote location.” Skibo said. “I am still in contact with many of the students who have come into the field with me in recent years.”
As chair of his department, Skibo has dialed back his research efforts to focus on writing a monthly column with Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Greg Simpson, on issues affecting higher education. Skibo is in the process of writing yet another book focusing on cooking pots used worldwide and hopes to publish the work—complete with recipes—in the future.