She’s an assistant professor at UCLA who specializes in ancient Egyptian art and architecture. But Kara Cooney doesn’t teach only in the lecture hall. She teaches on the small screen too.
Cooney, who has been in the university’s department of Near Eastern languages and cultures since January, traveled the world -- visiting sacred sites, looking at mummified baboons and disembodied heads, even getting spit on by a Mexican shaman in a cleansing ritual -- for “Out of Egypt,” a six-part series premiering tonight on the Discovery Channel.
Using Egypt as a starting point, Cooney embarks on a journey to find links between the social, cultural and religious practices of several ancient civilizations. She discovers that despite being completely disassociated from one another, the societies had striking similarities in behaviors, traditions and beliefs.
“It’s showing that human beings are often more similar to one another than they are different,” Cooney said. “It’s taking things we see as normal or don’t even think about at all and adding a little bizarre to it. I want people to look at their lives and deconstruct it.”
Usually featured as a guest expert in television documentaries, Cooney played a different role this time around -- at the forefront, serving as host, lead researcher and writer of the entire enterprise.
“I have no formal host training. I just wanted to be me, an enthusiastic teacher,” she said.
Creating the concept with her husband, Neil Crawford, a producer of the show, Cooney and her team crafted the two-month itinerary to 10 countries.
“I needed the control because so much of the time when you’re an expert talking to the producer and it goes back to editing . . . they can often edit it in a way that’s not faithful to what you were trying to say,” Cooney said. “Because I’m there in charge of what’s included and what gets cut, I can be very free on camera.”
With most TV hosts being lively personalities but not specialists, it’s rare to have a scholar take the lead role, said Susan Winslow, executive producer of the series.
“She has the knowledge, but she also has the energy and screen presence and personality to pull it off as a host,” Winslow said. “She’s sort of unexpected, and she’s this tall, gorgeous young woman. She’s not your grandfather archaeologist.”
Originally from Texas, Cooney received her PhD in Near Eastern studies from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2002 and worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a researcher and co-curator of the exhibition “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.” She has also taught courses at Stanford and Howard universities.
Cooney calls on other experts throughout the series, depending on which culture she’s visiting, and brings an enthusiasm and genuine curiosity that doesn’t make it feel academic, Winslow said.
“In Egypt, I’m able to be the expert, and when I go out of Egypt I’m more on unstable, shaky ground and ask questions of others and come at it with a puzzled perspective,” Cooney said.
That uncertainty and inquisitiveness will resonate with viewers, she said.
“I’m there as an expert, but as an expert who can help the audience to understand,” she said. “When I’m talking to an expert, like the shaman in Mexico City . . . I’m listening to them and then bring it back to my topic and purge it into a language that the audience can connect to. As a teacher it came naturally.”
Still, Cooney said she realizes that some in the academic world may criticize her for how she chooses to exhibit her expertise. “To do what I’m doing as an untenured professor, it’s a big risk,” Cooney said. But she is ready with an explanation for why the alternative path she’s taken is worthwhile.
“We need to get out there and stop being elitist about it,” she said. “If we academics don’t go in there as leaders of the content, we have nobody else to blame when something goes on TV and it isn’t accurate.”
Instead of begrudging or belittling television, which is where Cooney said most of her students get their information, she’d rather make it her mission to use the medium to its full capabilities.
“Why not go out there and make fun, entertaining content that can really make stuff come alive?” she said. “I think the students respect me for it. I know learning needs to be fun.”
She won’t catch any flak from Tim Stowell, the dean of humanities at the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
“It’s really probably better to have someone on a show about archaeology who knows what they’re talking about rather than have someone who’s primarily an entertainer who might make things up and is not a reliable source,” Stowell said. “I think a way of viewing this is it’s one facet of teaching.”
Two episodes of “Out of Egypt,” dealing with relics and pyramids, air tonight beginning at 9 p.m. Air dates for the remaining installments have not been announced.