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These Bones of Mine Round-Up Post for 2016

4 Jan

… Hmm I didn’t actually write that much in 2016 compared to previous years!  Regardless it is now 2017 (happy new year folks) and I think a little round-up post of the entries that I wrote, or helped to edit, for 2016 is in order.  This post is inspired by my reading of the round-up entries by Jess Beck, who blogs over at Bone Broke, and by Zachary Cofran, who blogs at Lawnchair Anthropology.  I recommend that you check out both their entries for haunting film posters and wonderful animal photographs (but stay for the fossils and osteology goodness!).  I digress, so let’s get this round-up rolling.  Firstly we’ll have a little look into the statistics for the year in order to see where the website stands in comparison to previous years on this site.

Site Statistics: Meaningful or Merely Visiting?

The total number of site views for 2016 was 227,920 compared to 2015’s 253,985, whilst the total number of site visits for 2016 totaled out at 167,317, comparable to 2015’s 182,605.  Not bad at all considering I use the site as a central focus (i.e. there is no associated Twitter or Facebook account for the blog, so the blog itself is the central output for posts, information, etc.).  The statistics are comparable for previous years until 2012, when WordPress implemented the distinction between views and visitor, in order to establish clicks per view I believe.  So, for example, the statistic for views in 2012 was 536,562 whilst visitors only totaled 20,955 as a result of the distinction in views/visits coming into effect towards the end of the year.

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A quick visual of the views and visitor statistics for 2016, by calendar month, for These Bones of Mine. We can see a confirmation of the pattern I’ve talked about before for previous years where the views start, and end, strong but take a downward trend in the summer months (as they do on weekends compared to week days). Likely due to the viewing of the blog by students, staff and interested individuals who may be at university, college or school during regular semesters and not visit the site during non-academic periods. Alternatively, or in conjunction to the above, it may all be due to archaeologists being in the field excavating in the summer and having no internet access!

The total number of entries produced for 2016 was 22, a blog low for the site since its inception (for example, 2014 saw 67 entries posted and 2013 54 entries posted, although it is a follow on trend from 2015 where only 25 posts were produced and posted).  A total of 12 posts remain in varying states of drafting, and honestly I doubt that at least two of them will be posted in any format.  The top posts for views last year were, as it always is, the home page/archives to the site.  The next nine top posts are related to the Skeletal Series of posts where each section of the human skeleton is introduced and discussed from a bioarchaeological perspective.  Again, there are no great surprises here; indeed this is actually the main aim of the blog itself and it helps support my intention behind it!  2016 however saw the production of no Skeletal Series entries (though check out the Skeletal Series Human Osteology Glossary from December 2015), this is something I hope to rectify in 2017 by focusing on how bioarchaeologists, or human osteologists, assess skeletal remains in order to assign the biological sex and age for individuals.

So, are statistics useful?

I believe so, generally speaking, as they give me a good indication of what the individuals who visit the site want to read, what they use the site for, and how they navigate the site more generally.  Of course I’ve largely circumnavigated these wants with posts on literary topics of interest or books mentions instead this year!

A Few of My Favourite Posts

The year started with a fairly personal post on A Personal Anthropology of Driving, wherein I discuss the impact that driving has had on my life and I present brief thoughts on socio-cultural issues surrounding the car itself and the environment in which it drives by taking a whistle-stop tour of the world.  The entry let me write loosely on my thoughts and demonstrate that anthropology really can be found all around us, that there is no strict division between the person and the social.  It is a post I very much enjoyed writing, going from the personal osteological endeavors expected when one has a bone disease that has led to multiple fractures and (planned and unplanned) surgical interventions to the great freedom that driving a car can bring, so much so that across much of the world today it is considered a coming-of-age rite – indeed, it is up there with the biological terror of becoming an awkward adolescent!

One of my most treasured posts was Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations, which had a lot of reflective and creative similarities with the Personal Anthropology of Driving post.  I was able to combine my love of poetic writing with the tangible grain of my film photography, as well as to talk about the adorable three chickens that make their home in the back garden.  I also managed to sneak some zooarchaeology into the post as a through-line technique that helped to anchor the post with regards to human-animal relationships.

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I mean look at this beautiful bird! The chicken, a Gingernut Ranger breed, is but one of three that currently terrorize the garden and step on the author’s books. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey black and white film, artfully manipulated in Media player.

For guest posts and interviews in 2016 I was lucky enough to be able to host a discussion between artists Natalie Marr, David Ashley Pearson and myself as we debated their short film Visitor, which has personal ramifications for each of us as we lost a close mutual friend of ours in 2015.  The interview discusses a number of topics, including the nature of grief, space and the influence of certain artists and film makers in the production of Visitor.  The film is pretty damn beautiful and is currently in a final edit, the trailer can be found on the link above and I recommend watching it.

The site also played host to a tantalizing guest post on artificial cranial deformation in the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević.  In it Maja introduces the theory behind the aims of artificial cranial deformation, the methods and types of cranial deformation, and the context for the migration within Central Europe, presenting illuminating case studies on an area I had not read about or researched before.  In the third, and final, guest post of the year Jennifer Crangle and Greer Dewdney presented the launch of the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, backed by the University of Sheffield.  I’ve written about the Rothwell Charnel Chapple a number of times now for this blog, helping to promote the research carried out by my friend Jennifer Crangle as she promotes the importance of this rare English medieval site and involves the local community and members of the public.  I’ve been down to Rothwell to help participate in an open day, as well as helping to promote the project on this site and I recommend you give the site a visit and check it out!

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A selection of crania at the medieval charnel chapel at Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell. A photographic essay by the author on this site can be found here with a background history on the charnel chapel itself. Photograph by the author using a Pentax S1a camera and Ilford black & white film.

As always, I heartily welcome guest post entries from around the world on a whole range of subjects related to bioarchaeology, human osteology, and archaeology more generally.  I also welcome discussion posts and interviews, where I act as the interviewer helping to ask questions and guide the discussion as necessary.  If you feel that this may be of interest please do read my Guest Post page for previous entries, see the areas that I am interested in and read through the advice post.  Most importantly, please feel free to get in touch either by dropping a comment below or by emailing me using the address on the About Me page.

An important update to one previous post was to highlight the sheer range of postgraduate masters degrees (either taught or research-based) available in bioarchaeology or human osteology related topics on offer in the United Kingdom, alongside the rising cost of the courses themselves.  The post also raised the spectre of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the recent changes made in a government White Paper for the direction of higher education within the country.  Expect a lot of change within the education sector over the next five to ten years, and to the economy of the United Kingdom more generally.  As always I console any students, or interested individuals, who want to pursue a masters focused on the analysis of human skeletal remains, from archaeological contexts, to think of what they want from the course; what research you hope to conduct; what research is conducted at the department itself; what resources are available to the student; what projects do the department carry out and, finally, who the course leaders are and their interests.  I always recommend a visit to the department, if you can, to get a feel for the course and for the location of the university itself.  Furthermore, always try to think of the next step after the masters itself: where do you want this degree to get you to and how will it help on the way?

I finally wrote up a conference review from 2014!  The Day of the Dead, a three-day conference held at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, in October 2014, was a truly fantastic event which mixed human osteology and funerary archaeology to provide an engaging, informative and vital series of presentations on a wide range of topics.  In the review I also managed to grab a quick few words from famed bioarchaeological researcher Christopher Knüsel, who helped lead a workshop on the archaeothanatology method of interpreting the burial position of the body in-situ.  I also blogged about the upcoming conference entitled Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies that is to be held at the University of Southampton in March 2017.  Registration for that conference is still open at the normal rates, so book your tickets now!

day of the dead

A really quite wonderful conference. let’s hope it makes a comeback in some form. Image credit: Queen’s University Belfast.

Last year also continued a strong trend on this blog – I love reading and I am not afraid to tell you the readers just what I’ve been reading.  From non-fiction that covers the impact of momentous 20th century events in Russia and the USSR to the Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives and Fractures and Spanish novelists, I’ve covered a lot of ground sparingly!  Reading is fundamental to understanding the world around you, but also to escape the world around you.  It can give you a much deeper understand of the history of the various countries and regions of the world, as well as offering profound socio-political background knowledge.  I love it and I’d love to hear what bioarchaeological or archaeological textbooks you have been reading and where you have drawn your influences from.

Alongside my recommendations of books to read, I also discussed the pros and cons of academic publishing, the Open Access movement and the horrors of trying to access articles and book reviews, with a particular focus on the Sci-Hub, Academia and ResearchGate websites.  The post itself didn’t get any love from the Sci-Hub founder, or associate perhaps, but I was trying to present a balanced viewpoint of the options available to the student, researcher and layman of accessing academic research.  Clearly I did not succeed!  The year also saw a post by perennial blog favourite Stuart Rathbone’s new collection of archaeological work, entitled Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments, and Unprovoked Attacks.  The post contains a first for this blog – a video review of the volume produced by Stuart himself for publicizing the volume, along with a few questions asked by yours truly.  The volume is published by another These Bones of Mine favourite Robert M. Chapple, whose excellent blog on Irish archaeology can be found here.

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The cover of the volume with the chapter in by yours truly. The chapter marks the first publication in a book. Image credit: Springer international publishing.

Even better I became a published bioarchaeological author in 2016!  The publication of New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory, edited by Lorna Tilley and Alecia Shrenk and published by Springer in September 2016, saw my chapter published in a volume which itself was the outcome of a session on Bioarchaeology of Care theory and methodology at the 2015 Society for American Archaeology annual conference, which took place in San Francisco, USA.  My chapter takes a look at the public response, both online and in the traditional and digital media, to the case studies produced by Lorna Tilley as a part of her PhD research on identifying instances of care-provision given to disabled individuals in prehistoric contexts.  My chapter also presents a few best practice suggestions for engaging and communicating to the public the importance of bioarchaeological research.  I cannot tell you what it means to have a bioarchaeological book with my name in it, what a thrill!  You can read my chapter from the volume here. 

…And Finally

I re-wrote the 2002 song Lose Yourself, which is by the rapper Eminem for the 8 Mile soundtrack, and re-titled it Lose Yourself (In Mud) to include observations from an archaeological viewpoint.  It is also lovingly annotated with a few choice remarks.  Enjoy!

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Future Funding: A Blow For UK Students? Maintenance Grants Converted to Loans from the 16/17 Academic Year

14 Jul

The British government have recently released the first financial budget since the conservative party majority win in the general election in May 2015.  There is currently much debate on the nature of the reforms that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has proposed (including the Living Wage replacing the Minimum Wage for people over 25), and whether the budget dis-proportionally targets the middle and lower-income earners (via scrapping working tax credits, removing housing benefit for under 21’s, etc.).  Regardless of the merits and negatives of the budget as a whole, there was one piece of information that is pertinent to the readers of this blog.

That is the proposal to turn maintenance grants (which currently do not have to be paid back unlike the maintenance loans, of up to £3,387 per academic year for lower-income students whose family household income is below £25,000 per annum) into loans from September 2016 (or the 16/17 academic year) for English and Welsh students.  These loans would have to be paid back by the student after they have started earning above a certain income (£21,000 per annum).  Osborne has also stated that the available loaned finance available for students in total will thus be increased up to a total £8,200 per academic year (there is a higher allowance in place for London), dependent on the financial status and background of the student.  This is an overall general increase of £766 per year, the highest that it has been.  Further to this is the possibility and suggestion of the uncapping of the £9000-a-year maximum of student tuition fees that universities in England and Wales can currently charge from the 17/18 academic year for the institutions which offer high-quality teaching, linking it instead with inflation.  There is currently no definition of high-quality teaching institutions and the rise in fees will likely be mentioned in further budgets in the remaining terms of this government.

It should be mentioned here that, for English and Welsh students, university is still free at the point of entry (Scotland has a different system due to greater independence).  Still, I cannot help but think that the loans may discourage students from poorer economic backgrounds in pursuing a degree. I also worry that this could affect different non-finally related sectors of the population more disparately than others in the access to education, when it is well-known that access to education offers the means to improve the circumstances of your life.

Last year I highlighted the changing nature of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from the 15/16 academic year for new students starting from that year.  DSA helps to level the playing field for students with disabilities in accessing tertiary education by equipping the students with non-medical help, transport costs, technological equipment and IT training, once they have been assessed on how their disability, or disabilities, affect them in an academic environment to the detriment of their studies.

It is well acknowledged that adult disabled individuals in the United Kingdom tend to be financially poorer than the norm.  The Papworth Trust, a charity focused on providing help for the disabled and elderly, cited the fact that, in a wide-ranging study of disability in the United Kingdom reported in 2014, the employment rate among disabled adults in March 2013 was 49% (4.1 million) compared to the national average of 81.8% of non-disabled people (source).  The two main barriers to work were seen as access to job opportunities (43%) and difficultly with transport (29%), whilst disabled adults are three times likely to have no formal qualifications as non-disabled individuals at 30% and 11% respectively in the reports study cohort.  In an Office for National Statistics report on adult health in Great Britain in 2013, more than 1 in 3 individuals responded positively to having a long-term disability or illness which affected their life (source).

Of course, this all may appear a minor financial quibble in the United Kingdom compared to the ongoing massive financial and business crisis in Greece (with the ‘troika’ of the EU, ECB and the IMF imposing strict financial settlements and austerity measures) and the possible first signs of trouble, or at least signs of slowing down, in the Chinese economy.

However, I’d argue that, as a potential barrier in accessing higher education, and hence skills, this poses a problem in the ability for students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities having to justify their course choices and, more generally, the financial ability to pay the loan back once the course has been completed.  Furthermore, there is the potential for the cost to fall back on the UK taxpayers if these loans are not repaid by the student.  There are no easy answers to the funding of higher education, especially as more students gain entry than ever before.  Universities are dynamic places though, both in as centers of employment and of research and teaching – to undervalue them would be to do great discredit to their economic and educational value.  There is a crushing amount of debt to face already as a new university student in the UK, however it is realised that the student loans system is quite unlike high street bank loans, in the fact that the interest rate is much lower and the individual is given a much longer time back in which to pay back the loan, and only after a certain amount of annual income has been reached.  Still, I would, as a new student today, think twice regarding whether a course was necessarily worth the debt (though I have no doubts the value and real wealth of the British university system, in both the quality of the research and the experience itself of being a student).

It is this last point that makes me think of archaeology in all of this.  Most practicing archaeologists in the UK today are highly educated, often needing or pursuing post-graduate courses to specialise within the sector.  It is well recognised that, at the moment and historically, archaeology is a poorly paid employment sector and, especially if you are primarily a field archaeologist, that this employment can be precarious in nature.  With recent changes in planning and construction law, the ability of archaeological companies to safeguard both the work and the quality of the archaeology uncovered is also in real danger.  We gain must ask ourselves who is archaeology for and who is involved?  What are the barriers to everyone accessing archaeology and how can we overcome these barriers as a sector?

I’ve got confidence that the archaeological market will adapt to the challenges posed, that students will still attend university, and that loans will, in one form or another be paid back as possible.  It is clear though that barriers to accessing education at a higher level in the UK are rising.  We should be wary of this, and we should be wary of the longer term implications of it, especially when we come to view our past.

Further Information

  • A full breakdown of the financial entitlements available to students who study in the United Kingdom is available here via the government website.  The page includes all the information available for the pricing of the maintenance loans, maintenance grants and the terms and conditions of the financial agreements themselves.  The website for the Office for National Statistics, which houses many open access reports, documents various national statistics, including the health and disability status of the population of the United Kingdom and the individual countries within it.
  • The previous post detailing the available human osteology taught masters courses in the United Kingdom (or courses where modules in human osteology and anatomy are included), along with the guidelines on course prices for domestic and international students, can be found here.  A supplementary post on the questions to remember to ask when thinking about studying human osteology, or bioarchaeology, at the masters level can be found here.

Future Funding: Disabled Students Allowance in the UK

21 Apr

There are some quietly dramatic changes ongoing in higher education in the UK currently but there is one issue that is particularly close to my heart that, as I scanned newspapers and current affairs magazines over the past few weeks, seems to have received scant media coverage or attention.

On the 7th of April David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, released a ministerial statement on future changes to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) that will affect new students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The Disabled Student Allowance are non-repayable grants, available to both part-time and full-time undergraduate or postgraduate students, that assist with additional costs that a disabled student incurs in relation to their study in higher education, such as when a disabled individual may need a note taker during lectures, a library helper to find and handle books, or when they require specialist equipment for studying and for producing written work.  Those disabled students who are currently enrolled and agreed DSA will not be affected by the new changes, but students who start in 15/16 academic year will be affected.

The aim, Willetts declares in the statement, is to modernise Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) by reviewing the £125 million-a-year support given to thousands of disabled students in the UK.  Essentially the Student Loans Company, the not-for-profit company that provides student loans and DSA in the UK, will be limiting the support types and equipment allocation that they currently fund for disabled students who attend higher education.  Willetts states that he would expect the higher education institutions (HEI’s) to pick up the slack, and provide and pay for the more general support types needed by individual students with disabilities.  Thus the limited public funds available for DSA will support and supply disabled students applying for higher education with a core allocation for certain complex types of support (such as specialised software), whilst hoping that the individual institutions will have the frameworks in place for providing more generalised support types for disabled students in conjunction with support suppliers.

The only mainstream magazine that I have seen mention or discuss the announcement is the ever reliable Private Eye magazine (current edition No. 1364, page 9), and online independent bloggers such as Assist Tech.  Private Eye quote the fact that the National Association of Disability Practitioners (the providers of support that invoice the Student Loan Company for support given) have stated that the move as described by Willetts would create an enormous disincentive for universities to recruit disabled students because of the costs involved.

The value of having a centralised loan company that can collect information, review procedures and investigate providers of equipment and support will surely be lost if individual HEI’s have to rely on a  binary system of dealing with both the Student Loans Company and the individual practitioners, during the providing of support for disabled individuals in higher education.

Following the ministerial statement by Willetts, Paul Higgs, as a part of the Higher Education Student Funding Policy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also released a more in-depth Student Support Information Note in April 2014 (SSIN, fully accessible here).  In it the nuts and bolts of the modernisation program is highlighted, and it makes for depressing reading:

  • The bulk of the non-specialist non-medical helpers (NMH) support that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded by the Student Loan Company.  This includes library or laboratory assistants, note takers, personal helpers, mentors or specialist helpers.
  • The majority of the equipment that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded from 15/16 on-wards, only specialist equipment that is specifically needed by the student will be funded.
  • No assistive technology support or related non-medical helper support is expected to be funded either.
  • Funding will no longer be provided for consumable items (paper, ink etc).
  • No funding will be given for additional costs regarding accommodation changes where the accommodation is funded by the HEI, if this is to be a problem the HEI itself is expected to meet the cost.

There is, of course, core funding that will remain in place and accessible for disabled students from The Student Loans Company itself in complex situations (although complexicity in this instance is not defined further).  The HEI should hopefully have core support ring-fenced from its own allocation of funding and have such frameworks in place for the support of disabled students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The aim of the statement and intended proposals from Willetts and Higgs is to ensure that the DSA is up to date, consummate with the use of public funds and its spending, and to make sure that HEI’s are abiding by the 2010 Equality Act, which ensures that disabled individuals have an equal playing field, in both academia and in employment compared to the average non-disabled individual.  This is an honourable view certainly.

Yet I retain deep reservations about this latest move by the government.  Yes it has only just been announced and yes it is not currently in practice, but I worry for disabled students access to higher education and to academia generally.  This move will force a greater financial burden onto educational institutions throughout the country.  The economic worth of study, and of the place of academia within a national economy generally, is not in dispute, but the availability of access to academia by every sector of society is.  The move is also slowly breaking down the great vision that study is worth it for its own sake as limitations are further placed on the value of access to education.  Furthermore it is another demoralising move towards eroding the individual freedom of disabled people by dismantling core government support, and fanning it out instead to a variety of organisations and companies.

Dr Sarah Lewthwaite, who is a post doctoral research associate in student experience at King’s College London, argues in a critical and perceptive article for The Guardian‘s Higher Education Network that the latest publicly available records state that the DSA annual spending statistics are actually down compared to previous years (12/13 academic year compared to previous academic years).  Further to this, she also questions the areas that are being proposed to be cut by central funding from The Student Loans Company, highlighting that the

Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.

Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.

It is worth reading Lewthwaite’s full article as it exposes some of the concerns from the academic sector itself, as well as highlighting issues that will affect disabled students and their access to education.

Patoss, the professional association of teachers of students with special learning difficulties, has also raised its concerned with the changes proposed by Willetts.  In a statement, mentioned on their post on the proposals, Paddy Turner has stated that “the size and the scale of these cuts is unprecedented and represents a retrogressive step in equality for disabled people“.  Needless to say I will be interested to see the development and implementation of the modernisation of DSA in the upcoming years ahead.  I will also keep an eye out for further information as and when it becomes available.

Note 1

A thank you goes to Chris Morley, who highlighted in the comments section below several invaluable articles that helped improve this post.

Note 2

Please note that students in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland may be affected differently due to national changes.  It has also become apparent that different universities may have allocated funds for disabled students which could be used for support.  However the problem still remains that universities that formally received DSA support from central government may no longer be able to provide for disabled students.  Please remember that this is dynamic situation and I’d expect changes to happen, especially as a General Election is due in 2015.

Further Information

  • The ministerial statement by Rt Hon. David Willetts, MP for Universities and Science, can be read here.
  • Paul Higgs SSIN statement on the changes in DSA for 15/16 can be found here.
  • Read Sarah Lewthwaite’s perceptive article in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network section here.
  • Have a read of Assist Tech’s personal view and much more detailed response to Willett’s and Higgs’s statement here.  Worth noting is where the ministerial statement found the statistics it uses on the access to a laptop question.  It is misleading at best.
  • The National Union of Students has blasted the decision by Willets in this article here.
  • Read the legislation for the Equality Act 2010 here.
  • The University of Sheffield Union is holding a demonstration against the cuts on the 6th of June, as part of an on-going campaign.  Find out more information here.