The Colgate Scene
March 2004

Miss Cohen's prize pupil
Anthony Aveni's star still rises

Anthony Aveni, Russell B. Colgate Professor of astronomy and anthropology, greets one of the participants in a festschrift held in his honor last October.

It's a sunny, but frigid, weekday afternoon in January, and the Russell B. Colgate Professor of astronomy and anthropology is reminiscing about his second-grade teacher.

"[Miss Cohen] was generous with her time. She was articulate and she was daring, as well as caring," Anthony Aveni recalled. "I've wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a kid. I used to gather my neighborhood friends and we would go down into the cellar of our rented house in New Haven and I would lecture to them about astronomy. What did I know? I was fascinated with it, but I also wanted to be a writer."

The qualities that made Cohen an effective (and memorable) teacher could be applied to Aveni himself, in the opinion of many of his colleagues, peers, and former students. After teaching at Colgate for more than four decades, publishing scores of articles and books, and being widely credited with creating the field of archaeoastronomy, it is clear that Aveni has more than satisfied his aspirations to teach and write. To the generations of students and scholars Aveni has inspired, he is nothing short of a master teacher.

"What makes him a master teacher is his boundless enthusiasm for the subject matter, his intelligence and expertise, his thoroughness in both coursework and research, his ability to ask and to inspire his students to generate analytical questions, his sincere interest in the intellectual development of his students, and his humaneness and accessibility," said Stephen M. Fabian '78, a lecturer in the writing program at Princeton University. "But perhaps most of all, he is the model of the intellectually engaged lifelong learner, dedicated to the continued advancement of intellectual inquiry. It is a sheer pleasure to engage in learning with him."

"First, he masters the data, the discipline of learning about the evidence, and he enjoys this learning as few others do," said David Carrasco, the Rockefeller Professor of Latin American studies at Harvard University. "But he's also artistic in his learning, because for him the world, the Mayan monuments, the alignments [of the stars] are not coldly legible. They were either alive once and he seeks the residues of that life, or they still live on in the traces, memories, and gestures of the living Maya and others."

Carrasco and former Colgate professor Gary Urton organized a festschrift in Aveni's honor that was held on campus in October. The two-day event included presentations from several of Aveni's peers, including Carrasco, Urton, and E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Urton, who is now Dumbarton Oaks Professor of pre-Columbian studies at Harvard University, first met Aveni when he was a graduate student researching the astronomy of native peoples in southern Peru.

"I was told that here was a guy that you can really talk to, who knows a lot about this business," Urton recalled. "I wrote him a long letter from the field, but I expected it to go into oblivion, because that is often what happens when you write to busy professionals on active missions. Not too long afterwards, I got a very nice letter from Tony."

After Urton accepted a post at Colgate in the late 1970s, he found a steadfast friend and colleague in Aveni.

"As a young faculty member, and then as a tenured faculty member, I always received the strongest support and encouragement from him that one could imagine," said Urton. "I saw that he did this, not only with someone who had a common interest with him. He is a remarkable man in that he will find an interest or intellectual point of curiosity that he shares with just about anybody he comes in contact with."


Former Colgate professor Gary Urton helped organize the festschrift in Aveni's honor. Urton, who is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of pre-Columbian studies at Harvard University, said he "always received the strongest support and encouragement from [Aveni] that one could imagine."

Demanding excellence
More than anything, the reason why Aveni has remained at Colgate for four decades can be summed up in a word -- freedom -- particularly the freedom to expand his teaching and research portfolio beyond astronomy into anthropology.

"When I was hired back in the 1960s, of course, that was a period where everybody was getting freedom," Aveni recalled. "Maybe I was lucky to come on board when we were undergoing curricular innovation and new ideas were very much in the winds."

The curricular innovation that mattered most to Aveni was the introduction of the January term, which lives on as extended study programs.

"It was the J-term that caused me to think about taking students off campus," he said. "The campus is not a good place to study astronomy in January anyway. Most of my students would have been frostbitten by the time I did two or three programs. We got the idea of going to Mexico to study the ancient Mexican culture, particularly the urban planning. We were interested in looking for cosmic elements in the urban planning, orientations to the sun, the moon, and calendar keeping."

Aveni's research missions to Mexico and Central America provided students not only with a valuable educational experience, but also with the opportunity to bond with a teacher and build ties that endure, according to his wife, Lorraine.

"A wonderful fallout from doing field work with Colgate students over so many years is that we have relationships that go beyond Christmas cards, birth announcements, or weddings," said Lorraine Aveni, who has been an editor, photographer, and logistics expert for nearly every research field trip her husband has undertaken. "We've gotten to know and remain friendly with quite a few alumni, and it gives us great pleasure."

Although Aveni isn't teaching any classes this semester, he is hardly sitting still. Since early February, accompanied by his wife, Aveni has been lecturing to Colgate alumni clubs around the country. He appeared on the NPR program The Infinite Mind and indulged his love of the culinary arts by appearing on the PBS series Freedom Foods, hosted by the famed TV chef Bert Wolfe. He is also writing a children's book titled The First Americans, which chronicles the history of Native Americans from the migration of their ancestors across the Bering land bridge 10,000 years ago to their first contact with Europeans.

"The book is going to cover everything, from the Taíno, who were on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived, to the Maya, the Inca, the Navajos, to the Iroquois, and the Athabascan people, and so on," he said.

Still more projects underway include contributions to a book on the Madrid Codex, which is the only ancient Maya document that hasn't been deciphered, and yet another book, tentatively titled Bridges of Common Sense: How We Connect with the Natural World.

"That is going to be a cross-disciplinary book that talks all about the ways different cultures of the world do science or don't do science," said Aveni. "It's really at the core of the merging of the disciplines that I work in. I am going to be talking about everything from city planning to calendars to the making of myths. I am going to compare the work of modern scientists with the work of the astronomers who might have worked with old King Montezuma."

And, of course, Aveni will return to the classroom, the source of his greatest satisfaction.

"I had some students who stumbled and bumbled their way through astronomy this last term; a couple of them in particular constantly came in the office and badgered me, in a good way, trying to understand," said Aveni. "I spent hours and hours with them in my office and on those rare occasions -- and they are not so rare -- I would see the lights go on. I would see a smile come across a student's face when he or she said, `I get it. I understand.' That is the satisfaction that goes with teaching that, to me, is paramount above everything else."

"After being in his class, I knew I had to take more classes with him," said Ian Starr '04, a Native American studies major. "Because he cares, and because he gives and demands excellence, I always feel I have no choice but to give him the very best in return. Professor Aveni is the epitome of what a college professor at a liberal arts institution should be. Quite simply, he is the best."

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: ...grounded in our strengths Next: Civil War photos... >>