Archaeology and the Community

Over the past two years, I have been responsible for creating a wide variety of educational outreach programs for the Exploring Joara Foundation, a small public archaeology organization in western North Carolina.  This summer has been particularly scorching, and as we slowly stew in the thick heat of summer it is easy to forget that our role as archaeology educators goes well beyond our responsibility to stress the need for the preservation of archaeological resources and the understanding and appreciation of past cultures.  We may be the only real face of archaeology that the public sees, and it is our responsibility to not only make an impression that breaks the stereotype of treasure hunter, but to also inspire children and adults to ask more questions about the past and to become directly involved with its preservation.  This is the only way the public will not just know the importance of preservation, but leave with the belief that it is their responsibility to make that a reality.

The Exploring Joara Foundation is a perfect example of what results from putting the past in the public’s hands. The non-profit was formed in 2007 by members of the Morganton community with assistance from head archaeologists at the Berry Site.  The foundation’s goal was to help support professional archaeological research at the site. It has since grown to incorporate a public education program dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding of archaeological resources. This has put the organization in a fairly unique position. It is not tied to any specific school, institution, or state. Instead, the foundation was born from the local community’s desire to share the archaeology of their hometown and to preserve its history. Though we are over an hour away from any metropolis, our wide variety of outreach has provided us with a steady stream of students, scouts, teachers, homeschool groups, campers, and community members that are eager to learn more about the region’s archaeology. The foundation now functions as a year round resource for the community, offering free and paid programming to the public, while still helping to support professional archaeological research at the Berry site.

Public Field Day at the Berry Site.

Before 2010, the foundation only funded one public open house at the Berry Site each year. During those public days we heard numerous suggestions and requests from the community on what they felt we should offer. By building our outreach around their requests, we have been able to accommodate a broad range of ages and interests. The foundation now supports talks at local schools and organizations, teacher workshops, summer camps, and field and lab experiences for all ages. We added each of these programs only after listening carefully to the public on what they wanted or felt was needed for the community. This is essential to creating a public archaeology program that really works. It’s certainly a trial and error process, but knowing what the public wants is crucial.

Middle school campers learning to screen at the Berry Site.

One of the requests we heard most was for archaeology experiences for kids too young to participate in the Berry Site Field School. With direction from Dr. Theresa McReynolds Shebalin, the foundation is now able to offer camps for both middle school and high school students in July and August. The campers have a similar experience to field school students at the Berry Site as they work alongside professional archaeologists to uncover the remains of a 16th-century Catawba town and Spanish fort. Campers revel in knowing that they are contributing to research and that their interpretations may find their way into the professional archaeologists’ dialogue. During the hotter part of the day, campers take part in experimental archaeology projects, artifact analysis, archaeology games, and crafts. The camps are designed to be discussion based in order to give kids the opportunity to ask questions and pose hypotheses so that they can feel directly involved with the research. This year those discussions led the middle school students to ask questions such as: can you tell the difference between carbonized corn that has been cut or eaten off the cob? The question resulted in a blind experiment to determine if the campers could tell the difference with corn from the store burned behind the field house. At the end of the week, students leave the camp with the feeling that archaeology is a field that is accessible and possible to pursue as a career. It is necessary to make sure each person leaves not only with a better understanding of the past and an appreciation for preservation, but with a feeling that they participated in adding to ongoing academic research.

Caldwell County Public School group celebrates after a day in the field.

Since we can’t reach a large number of students through camps, the foundation also runs workshops geared toward 4th-8th grade teachers. On the first day, teachers learn about North Carolina prehistory and the science of archaeology through hands-on activities that they can adapt for use in their own classrooms. During a make-and-take session, teachers are encouraged to come up with their own practical applications with guidance from Exploring Joara staff. Over the past three years, we have observed that this flexible approach results in a better success rate of the material being used in the classroom than when teachers are simply introduced to standard lesson plans. On the second day, the teachers go out into the field to work at the Berry Site. This hands-on time is critical and even resulted in one teacher bringing her high school class to the site for an excavation workshop the following fall. To me, this is a perfect example of community action resulting in a more educated public.

Exploring Joara is a relatively young foundation, with an even younger public archaeology program. It was built by the community and therefore has strong public support and interest. This support is evident in the continued respect and protection of the Berry Site. The well-known site’s only security is the watchful eye of neighbors and community members who are proud of their local history and the site’s significance. I continue to be thankful for that support and know that without the public, the foundation and its unique programming would not exist. I hope to see programs like this continue to form out of the public’s desire and encouragement. If the small town of Morganton, North Carolina can garner enough interest to create a year round educational program, could this be the future of public archaeology? Have you seen a shift in public interest and concern in other areas of the country? Are there other avenues that we could pursue as archaeology educators that would reach a broader population or have a greater impact on the community?

Surviving the Academic Job Talk

No pressure

It’s summer. As the mercury slides up the thermometer (WAY up the thermometer),  several events in the archaeological yearly round appear on the horizon. A host of field schools are in full swing around the globe, anxious graduate students are working to complete fieldwork before returning to the classroom, and there is the usual crop of CRM projects that tax the sweat glands and keep sports drink companies in the black.

For those of us exploring the academic job market, this also means that a new round of position announcements lies on the horizon. For each position, a lucky few candidates will get invited to a campus visit, which will entail a job talk.

The job talk can be an intimidating, highly daunting experience. This post is intended to offer some basic guidance that may assist the prospective with preparing for this talk. I draw upon some printed and electronic sources (there frankly aren’t many available on this subject) as well as some interviews with several scholars who have gone through this process recently and met with success.

Do Your Homework

It should come as no surprise that there is a lot of planning involved in the job talk. Think about who is going to be in the room. If you will be presenting at a large university with a graduate program, you can expect faculty, graduate students, and some upper-division undergraduates. With many departmental web pages now carrying faculty photographs, it’s not a bad idea to be able to identify the faculty on sight, which can help you anticipate queries during the Q and A after the talk and anticipate some of the questions that might be posed to you.

In most departments, the attendees are likely to be at least conversant in the elements of archaeology, though may not be as familiar with historical archaeology, and almost certainly not with your particular focus within historical archaeology, so be prepared to walk them along to the point that you can convey the import of your work. James Davidson, of the University of Florida, suggests that avoiding excessive particularlism can help the candidate show how well-rounded he or she is.

Anna Agbe-Davies (University of North Carolina) points out that as historical archaeologists, we straddle a lot of disciplines, meaning that we might wind up teaching in anthropology, history, or American studies departments, each of which will be more or less familiar with your discipline. It is possible that 75% of the audience may have no meaningful understanding of archaeology, and would therefore need more background than a department crammed full of diggers.

If you don’t do this well, you can expect to get questions on the technical aspects of the work only, and you likely lose the chance to have a substantive discussion of what you just presented. You also want to avoid coming off as interested in an arcane corner of the scholarly world. It’s easy to forget how niche your work is when you’re writing the dissertation. Showing the relevance of your work to larger trends in academic thought, within as well as outside of archaeology, is generally a good thing.

Time and Message Discipline: These are a Few of My Favorite Things

Most of the job talks I’ve attended were allocated an hour. You know what happens at the end of that hour, right? People start looking towards the door, ready to leave. If you talk right up to that hour mark, your audience won’t get to ask questions or will have to stay late, which won’t make you look good to a prospective employer.

Darley and Zannah (1986) suggest that it’s best to take about 75% of the allotted time for your talk. For an hour, this would be about 45 minutes, which is long enough to get to the meaty bits of your research, but not so long that you start unduly taxing people’s attention spans. This will leave a nice amount of room for questions, which there will be (see Practice, Practice, Practice, below). Be sure to check with the host institution before you start planning the talk to make sure you know long you have.

Also, keep on message (avoid ramblings and digressions) and keep an eye on the clock (wear a wristwatch in case there’s not a visible clock in the room). These kinds of discipline are crucial to show that you can organize your talk into a digestible, relatable way. Hit the high points.

The Army* encourages presentations (OK, briefings, but they’re basically the same thing) to consist of three major points, each supported by three subsidiary points. While that structure isn’t going to suit everyone, the idea behind that structure is to present the most crucial elements of the material in a fulsome, but necessarily limited manner, as you don’t have the time and your audience doesn’t have the attention span to ingest all the details of your work.

Technology

Let’s envision a scenario wherein you’re setting up for your job talk at Awesome State University (Go Fighting Crawfish!). You’ve spent the past week constructing what could be empirically verified as the greatest PowerPoint presentation in history. It interdigitates flawlessly with your job talk, the images and data tables tagging off brilliantly with the speech you’re about to give. The recording of the talk (it will probably be recorded) will play on a continuous loop in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa.

You clear your throat, approach the podium, and you get through exactly five letters (“Welco…”) before a pop and hiss signifies the untimely demise of the bulb in the projector… that is affixed to the ceiling of the classroom… fifteen feet above the audience and reachable only by ladder. There’s no chance that bulb gets replaced anytime tonight, and you must now do your presentation without the aid of visuals (I would not advise trying to compensate by doing shadow puppets with a flashlight).

As you can see from my next slide… NOOOOOO!

We’ve all seen this kind of thing happen at conferences. Not so long ago, the slide projector might spit the carousel, or a slide would be in backwards. Nowadays, it might be that the available computer runs OpenOffice or something else not-PowerPoint, and the formatting goes haywire. We can laugh that off because a conference presentation is not a job talk.

This is. Buller (2010:21) observes that candidates can derail their chances for being offered a job by placing their faith in unreliable technology. Never assume that a certain kind of technology will be available, and be prepared for malfunctions. Always take several different formats of your presentation. At minimum, have a laptop with you that has your presentation deck saved on it. Carry additional copies on a flash drive and a CD/DVD (have cuneiform tablets gone out of style yet?). Get these together BEFORE you leave town for the campus visit, as you can’t rely on having the time to make the requisite copies.

I’ll include one other thing that cropped up recently with a colleague’s laptop as she started teaching a class here at Southern Arkansas University. Her brand-new laptop didn’t come with a VGA port. That’s the 15-hole connector on the side of most laptops. Since most folks never use the VGA port, the manufacturer left it out, requiring a special adapter (“dongle”) to add that functionality. Better to find that out before you get in the room to give your talk.

At the most extreme, be prepared to give your talk completely sans power/technology. Buller recommends carrying printouts of essential images or data tables to pass around, should the technology completely fail you. If everything goes smoothly and you don’t need them, they make useful handouts that you can pass along to interested parties at the close of the talk, or useful aids to those with failing eyesight who might have trouble seeing your presentation slides from the audience.

Practice, Practice, Practice (then Practice Some More… and between Practices, Work in Some Practice)

Darley and Zanna (1986) describe the job talk as essentially a performance. Like any play or musical, rehearsal breeds quality and coherence. Know the talk cold. Be able to present it in 16 different languages, and be able to present it backwards in at least 9. Have friends shoot you with paintballs at random while rehearsing so you can practice recovering should you be knocked off your rhythm.

Agbe-Davies suggests that, if you’re a graduate student, get your peer grads together to watch a dry run of your talk. Graduate students can be some of the harshest critics of your work, much more so than faculty, and their comments (politely phrased) can help you anticipate questions that could crop up at the actual job talk or point out shortcomings that you could revise into a subsequent draft of the talk.

Don’t Panic, and Always Carry a Towel

OK, not really. Well, do indeed refrain from panicking, but a towel is not necessary. See Adams (1979) for disambiguation.

If you haven’t sat through job talks at your own institution before, be warned that they can become somewhat tense. Resident faculty may ask some hard, sometimes harsh, questions of the candidate. This is not necessarily intended to expose the speaker’s shortcomings as a scholar, though it might. It could, rather, be a test of the speaker’s ability to carry on rigorous academic debate. One’s ability to match wits with the department’s faculty can significantly add to a candidate’s standing. Matt Liebmann, of Harvard University, encourages us to “NEVER apologize for your work,” and that one’s inclination, when challenged by established faculty, is to become apologetic for its shortcomings. “Deliver your talk with confidence and always stand up for yourself during the question and answer section” (Liebmann, personal communication).

But, don’t fret. You’re not going to anticipate EVERY question, and there is likely going to be something asked that you just don’t have an answer for. Admit that you don’t know, thank the questioner for providing new light on the subject, and write down the question. Whether you get the job or not, you have something to consider in your own scholarship in future. If you have a later job talk elsewhere, you have a chance to prepare for that question, should it come up again. It also shows that you’re engaged with the audience and having a professional discussion with them.

Do you have other thoughts or insights? Post them in the comments section.

Thanks to Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies (University of North Carolina), Dr. James Davidson (University of Florida), and Dr. Matthew Liebmann (Harvard University) for providing insight and reflections on their experience of this process. The above is my recalling and interpretation of their remarks, and I take full responsibility for any mischaracterizations, etc.

References

  • Adams, Douglas
    • 1979     The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Buller, Jeffrey L.
    • 2010     The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Darley, John M. and Mark P. Zanna
    • 1986     The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide. New York: Random House.

Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.