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Thoughts on Academic Archaeology

5 Jan

There have been many excellent blog lists highlighting the incredible archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds from 2013.  Off the top of my head here are four blogs (and one site) that are fantastic at summing up the advances that 2013 have brought:

  • John Hawks reviews his year in Human Evolution, and may I just say what a year it has been in the study of human evolution (for some reason very hard to link to the specific blog entry, just scroll two down or so or look at the whole amazing site!).
  • Katie Wong looks at the fantastic list of human evolutionary finds and studies at Scientific American, with links to the articles for your further perusal.
  • Katy looks at the year’s most interesting and important mortuary archaeological finds at Bones Don’t Lie.
  • Paige, at Imponderabilia, highlights some remarkable archaeological finds from the past 12 months.
  • …and of course Past Horizons is the site where you can keep up to date on all manner of archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds throughout the upcoming year and previous years!

So in highlighting the finds of 2013 I think it would be dreary of me to create my own list because so many great bloggers got there ahead of me (and I wouldn’t know when to stop).  Instead I am going to do something slightly different.

I am going to highlight what I would like to see change in academia regarding my own past experiences  of academia itself and those that I have heard from friends.  Now hear me out – I am aware that this will be a quite personal list relating to human osteology and funerary archaeology but I also think some of the categories stretch over the whole subject of how archaeology is taught at the university level education, where there could be improvements and what I believe could enhance the under-taking of an archaeological degree.  In a way it is also wish list for what I (looking back on my undergraduate and masters education) wish I had been taught.

So without further ado I introduce to you my thoughts on what could improve the academic experience for the bioarchaeologists and archaeologists at university level education:

1) Human Evolution

I highlight human evolution first because there is often a human origins module in most undergraduate archaeology programs.  The past few years have seen tremendous change in how much our knowledge has grown and it continues to grow with the application of new techniques and discovering new remains.  My main worry is that many universities may teach outdated theories or not teach human evolution at all.  For me human evolution contains the best combination of archaeology: science, anatomy and fieldwork.  Granted not every student who takes archaeology may be interested in human evolution or palaeolithic archaeology (and very rarely have the chance to dig at a palaeoanthropological site), but just to give that basic bedrock knowledge of who we are would be one worth keeping as a core module.  In my eyes it is a vital basic module, one that can be hard to keep on top of agreed but surely one fundamental to archaeology and the study of our origins as we are today.   Further to this it helps to contextualise archaeology as a subject itself, the importance of evolutionary biology and the continuing role of the historical context of science.

2) Genetics

Genetics is mentioned primarily due my background because when I was studying for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology degree, I felt that having a basic introductory module in genetics would have been fundamentally beneficial to understanding the scientific literature.  Of course a student of archaeology at the university level may have already attained a college level knowledge of biology (how I wish I had chosen it now!), but a tailored course on the importance of genetics and the understanding of molecular biology would reap benefits for the modern zooarchaeologists, palaeobotanists and human osteologists.  My view is based on the belief that although macro study and recognition of skeletal material is fundamental to the bioarchaeological sciences (and to the maintenance of a job), a paradigm shift is possibly underway (1) in the way in the fact that genetic studies have fundamentally opened up a new and developing understanding of human evolution and the continued evolutionary adaption of organisms to their environment (see Hawks et al. 2011).  Although there will always be a need for human osteologists etc in the archaeological and academic sector, an understanding of genetics and an ability to study the results of such studies and original examinations would provide the bioarchaeologist with a much more informed toolkit to assess archaeological remains and their context, either in a commercial environment or in a research post.

3) Media Relations

Kristina Killgrove has an illuminating short series on her blog entitled Presenting Anthropology.  This is invigorating, dynamic teaching of archaeology as a social media outreach.  It also makes the students think of how they are presenting archaeology to the public.  We all know of the repeated failures of presenting the skeletal system properly in shows such as Bones etc (definitely check out Kristina’s Powered By Osteons if you haven’t!).  Blogging is fantastic and I’d heartily recommend any student of archaeology to give it a go, but I also realise it is not the be all and end all of outreach and media relations.  Sometimes you have to actively engage with the very people who misrepresent you.  I’d quite like to see the extension of the teaching of social media and active outreach to the majority of archaeology courses if it was possible, especially to highlight the value of those avenues of outreach.  Archaeology is easily cast aside by the people that lead us but that need only be the case if we let them.  Therefore I would actively encourage each and every person who identifies as an archaeologist to promote the value and worth of heritage to as wide of an audience as you can!  Again, at a university level, I think a simple guest lecture on this topic would hopefully sum up the current state of play whilst lecturers and course leaders could actively encourage their students to get out there, both in person and online.

4) Reviewing Each Other In Class, Writing Articles & How to Apply for Funding

Reviewing each other in class is not an especially new idea as many academic modules across all distinctions include active seminars and student participation.  However I believe that, as an marked component of a module, individual and group marking of a student’s paper could encourage active and valuable feedback that reflects the peer-review process and academic publishing.  I asked a few of my friends whether they think they would value such an idea, of scoring an essay a student in the class has wrote individually and then discussing it in a group, and many said they would feel uncomfortable with the idea.  I can understand that but I also think it could be a valuable exercise in understanding the different approaches and viewpoints that a university level class facilitates.  There is a variation of this when, often in seminar setting, a published article is handed out and the individual students have to discuss it and then the group discuss the article’s merits together, but it is my belief that comments on your own writing would be more helpful or the approach could be combined to provide a comparison of the literature and approaches used.

This naturally leads into another facet of this idea that under-graduate and master level students are, in my experience, not given advice on how to write an article for a journal.  I do not just mean content alone but style, diagram placing and referencing as well.  Many academic journals have strict guidelines on what particular format or program the article should have been wrote in before acceptance or the peer review process takes place (if you get that far!).  A class or two could help inform the students of such basic knowledge.  As a part of this idea I also think it would helpful be to be told on what to look out for in an academic journal.  We all know there are predatory journals out there in the academic publishing world, waiting to snap up an article to boost the publishing houses qualifications or ‘seriousness’.  (Two fantastic sites to check out are Retraction Watch and Scholarly Open Access).  Another natural extension of this is (for those who are either looking at MA or MSc courses, PhD or post-doc funding) for students to be given advice on how to apply for funding, to be informed on what bodies fund what research depending on the applicants research area, and how to write a funding form or grant efficiently and effectively.  I am aware that this already happens for PhD students but this is normally at an individual level, wouldn’t a concise one off lecture be helpful to all?

5) Guest Speakers

A relatively simple wish, for archaeology departments to regularly hold guest speaker events either at the department or at the Student Union.  The University of Sheffield’s archaeology department is very active in bringing in a wide range of guest speakers for the weekly Tuesday Lunchtime Lecture and I was grateful for seeing some invigorating and inspiring guest speakers.  This may be a wish that is already largely fulfilled but it is one worth highlighting anyway.  Guest lectures can be relatively easy to organize, with social media definitely making it easier to make contact with a variety of archaeologists both in the commercial sector or in the academic sector.  Guest speakers are also a great way to introduce the great variety of strands in archaeology to an already dedicated and largely interested audience.  I think there could be great scope in grading the guest speakers for a variety of audiences, from introductory talks to the various aspects that make up archaeology a a whole right up to the cutting edge specialist researchers whose knowledge would be beneficial to a select audience.

6) Active Science

Sometimes in academia it can be difficult to think that you are actually contributing anything to the great font of knowledge, especially at the masters level were you are not entirely sure your work will have any impact.  It should be stated here that the majority of universities that offer archaeology also have an active on-going field archaeology project with the undergraduate courses especially stating that fieldwork must be completed before beginning the 2nd year of study.  However I think that there is the opportunity for university students to participate at a deeper level, particularly if the university department runs specialist and technical equipment.  In my own experience there was limited opportunity, outside of the normal fieldwork sessions, to join in with scientific research opportunities.  This may have been a consequence due to the nature of the archaeology departments of where I studied (and the lack of technical equipment) but I cannot help but feel that a greater integration of student and lecturer would provide numerous benefits to both, including gaining all important technical and research experience.

7) Improve Field/Commercial Skills

From informal chats with David Connolly (BAJR leader), reading Doug’s Archaeology and carefully reading the Institute For Archaeology‘s quarterly magazine a common gripe from commercial archaeological units is the fact that many students require training for commercial fieldwork after they have joined an archaeological unit.  As stated above many universities that offer archaeology as an undergraduate degree course state that 2-3 weeks (sometimes more) of fieldwork during the 1st year must be completed before the student can proceed onto the 2nd year of the course.  However this is generally conducted at a research excavation which is quite unlike a commercial excavation.  After the 1st year many students will take modules that they are particularly interested in, thus the opportunity to excavate may not be taken up again before job seeking starts.

I would argue that commercial excavation is very different from university led research excavation and that time and monetary constraints are major factors involved in the excavation ahead of building work (as if so often the case at commercial sites).  Further to this the skills needed often need to be quickly learnt and applied to help record the archaeology effectively and efficiently.  You only ever get the chance to dig and excavate once.  It is also well known that the environment of commercial digging is fundamentally different to research led excavations.  Therefore I propose that, at some stage and preferably at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, guest talks or lectures are given on the differences between excavation types.  Ideally the skills needed to excavate on commercial sites should also be taught and maintained (I do realise not everyone wants to dig though!).

8) Contact Time

It has been noted that many non-EU students who come to study archaeology at the post-graduate level can be put off at first by the lack of contact time, either in scheduled tuition meetings, lectures, practical/lab classes and/or seminars.  This is generally the way with British academia, it is normally standard that the student must allocate his or her time carefully to allow the full maximum use of the university’s resources for their needs.  Modules often have a stated hour learning limit (ie 50hrs reading time, 24hrs lecture time) in the modular handbooks over the semester or year, given out at the start of each term.  However some students have started to question the amount of active contact time in consideration of, and relation to, the hike in university fees in the UK.  This is a tricky situation as students should receive quality education but also accept that the lecturer has other research needs and a whole raft of students and colleagues to work with and projects to proceed on with.  Archaeology, as a discipline, places varying pressures across the department and as such there is no easy answer to this one.  I wish I had more contact time but I also wish I had made slightly better use of the time I was given to access the human osteology lab.

Notes

(1) This may be hyperbole!  The importance of genetics in understanding the relationships between hominin species in the Homo genus however is helping to suggest relationships and interbreeding that could not be conclusively evidenced from the fossil anatomical record alone.  The picture is far from clear but recent DNA studies of the Altai Neandertal suggest that genetic drift and interbreeding are distinctly important mechanism in understanding the evolution of of the Homo species (if indeed they are different species or sub-species).
 
Bibliography

Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive EvolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104 (52): 20753-20758.

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