Howard Tsai was unfamiliar with the Spanish language before he first traveled to Peru for archaeological research, but that initial lack of knowledge did not stop him from falling in love with the country’s people and culture.
“I became fascinated with Peruvian culture and history,” he said. “My first host family were the nicest, most considerate people. I learned so much from them, how to be generous and perceptive. Coming back, I strove to be like that, too.”
And so began a 20-year love affair with Peru that has endured to the present.
Tsai studied at the University of California, Los Angeles for his undergraduate degree in archaeology and anthropology. After graduation, he left the West Coast for the University of Michigan to pursue an anthropology doctoral degree.
Once he completed his graduate student career, Tsai taught various study abroad courses in Peru the Centro Tinku, an educational institute based in Cusco. When Tsai returned to America, he joined the U-M Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies to coordinate language programs, particularly the indigenous languages of Latin America.
Currently, he works as a project coordinator at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Tsai is also a lecturer at the center and teaches courses in Ann Arbor and Cusco, Peru.
“I learn so many things from my students,” he laughed. “I teach about indigenous communities in South America and then I realized that the most exotic tribe out there is our own undergraduates. It’s interesting to learn about the life of a U-M undergraduate student. By teaching and studying abroad, I am actually learning a lot about student culture, and that aspect is very rewarding and very interesting.”
These days, Tsai spends most of his time teaching and working for the Center of Latin American and Caribbean Studies in lieu of archaeological fieldwork. However, he remains an active member of the academic archeological community. Tsai’s forthcoming book, “Las Varas: Ritual and Ethnicity in the Ancient Andes,” will be published by the University of Alabama Press. He is also an avid follower of the latest archaeological news and developments.
“I haven’t done archaeological fieldwork for a long time now, and I miss it,” he admitted. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections between technology and archeological research, and how that’s been growing.”
Tsai is a strong supporter of utilizing the latest machines, particularly 3-D printing, to generate new archaeological findings. He believes that modern technology has the power to transform the entire field.
“The fundamental principle of archaeology is a placement of ancient artifacts, ruins, and structures into three-dimensional space,” Tsai said. “The way we used to do it was by generating 2-D images to portray 3-D relationships. Why don’t we just skip all of that and take advantage of computer technology, 3-D information, to generate a more in-depth understanding of archaeological sites and objects?”
Even in his teaching practices, he makes the effort to include alternative approaches and utilize the latest methodologies. Tsai knows, based on scientific research, that learning outside of the classroom is highly effective. He enjoys taking his students to various museums and galleries to allow them to physically interact with the material they are learning about.
His classes are also among the few that use video-conferencing calls to interact with students and professors from other universities, and even with community leaders in Peru. Tsai urges students to understand the importance of being proactive with all elements of their education.
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“There are so many resources on campus. It’s shocking and delightful,” Tsai said, upon being asked about what he would like students to take away from his classes. “It feels like every day you can take advantage of new opportunities. Don’t take that for granted.
“Practice your powers of observation and really engage with both the natural and human world. I hope to show that not just the specific content of the class is interesting, but that, if you pay close attention, your whole world will turn out to be very, very interesting.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
While leading a group of U-M students in Cusco, as we were exploring Inca ruins with snow-capped mountains in the background and a rushing river the color of café au lait in the verdant valley below, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is my job?”
What can’t you live without?
Intellectual adventures in archaeology, Brahms’ chamber works performed by Heifetz, and a piping hot bowl of pho.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The Museum of Natural History. Also the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology for a close second.
What inspires you?
Patient and honest scholarship practiced by kind, generous and fearless scholars.
What are you currently reading?
“Postwar” by Tony Judt, a magisterial account of the political and cultural reconfigurations of Europe following the century’s deadliest conflict. It’s a history of how we’ve destroyed and then rebuilt a world.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Mentors who steered my career and impacted my life: Mrs. Jan Johnson (Oka Elementary), Carol Mackey (California State University Northridge), Joyce Marcus (U-M Anthropology), and Nataša Gruden-Alajbegović (U-M Program in International and Comparative Studies). There are many others, so apologies to those whom I neglected to mention. Foremost in this matrilineage is, of course, my mom.