An education that prepares archaeologists for archaeology 6

Universities shape the brains of all cultural resource management archaeologistsRecently, I took a job as an assistant professor at a major university that shall (at this time) remain unnamed. This means I have an opportunity to create change in the cultural resource management archaeology field by building the kind of courses that actually prepare graduates to work in the industry.

It’s a big job. And, I need your advice.

There are shortcomings

Addressing the shortcomings of the “traditional” anthropology degree has been a focal point of this blog. For the past five years, I’ve written a number of widely-read posts that highlighted the fact that college graduates finish their education without being taught the kind of skills that will serve them in cultural resource management. This blog, my activity on the CRM Archaeology Podcast, and all of my eBooks are dedicated to filling the gap between college and the workplace.

I’m not the only one who seeks to use the internet to help fill the gap between college and the workplace:

Chris Sims, founder of the Go Dig A Hole Blog and Podcast, does what he can to help field techs learn the ropes.

The folks behind the MAPA Binghamton Public Archaeology Blog do what they can to get students engaged with the public. Through the blog and their professor’s publications and public talks, they’re vested in getting archaeology to the public—something that could make CRM more of a community asset than a corporate liability.

My esteemed colleagues at the Archaeology Podcast Network, especially the CRM Archaeology Podcast, have devoted hours of life to helping counsel CRM archaeologists.

Those who published for the now non-existent LeftCoast Press, particularly press founder Mitch Allen, published a catalog of CRM-oriented books that I’ve used to further my career.

And, not least of all, the faculty at institutions with CRM graduate programs are at the vanguard of cultural resource management education. Universities like Sonoma State, Simon Frasier, Pima Community College, and Adams State University are among the few institutions that have recognized training the next generation is paramount to keeping CRM a vocation, profession, industry, and field of inquiry.

I follow in the footsteps of these individuals and groups, including all the others I have forgotten to mention, and I seek your advice on what skills I should teach and what students need to learn in college.

What should I teach students that will prepare them for a career in CRM?

Cultural resource management, either public or private, is where the vast majority of anthropology graduates will work if they want to do archaeology. Very few of us end up teaching in a university. Few end up working in a museum. Most of us do #CRMarch. This is the reality of the world in which we live.

If CRM is where most archaeos are going to work, it behooves universities to prepare students for this reality. I’ve brought this topic up before and met with criticism. Critics say it is not a university’s job to prepare liberal arts students for the business world. They cite the origins of higher education in the spread of knowledge and inquiry. They’re right. College should not only be about learning a trade. That’s what trade school is for.

However, at present, few university anthropology programs are preparing students for the industry in which the vast majority of their graduates will work if they decide to pursue archaeology. I agree that anthro departments should not be purely about learning a trade, but they should be more about preparing students for life after graduation than they currently are. This is a reality acknowledged by many of the professors I’ve talked to about this subject.

It’s also the reason why there are CRM graduate degrees in a world full of hundreds of traditional degree-granting anthropology departments. Some schools are attempting to capitalize on the fact that the CRM industry needs well-trained, skilled degree-holders. These institutions are heeding the call.

The question we all need to ask is: What do anthro students need to learn? The next question is: What can universities do to address these needs? Finally, we all need to recognize that most of what CRM companies need cannot be taught in school. That forces us to ask: What can CRM companies do to fulfill their own needs?

What do anthro students need to learn?

Based on the conversations I’ve had with CRMers and company owners, there are a few skills universities can teach anthro students at all levels (BA/BS, MA, and PhD):

Teach them strong technical writing skills—This seems like the easiest skill to teach. Anthropology students need to have a strong grasp of technical writing in English. This can be done by assigning a number of writing assignments that are brutally edited. Students need to be ravaged by a discerning eye so they can get used to writing, and re-writing, and re-writing and re-writing and….until they’ve gotten it right.

Brutal editing, especially in 400 and graduate-level courses, can help ameliorate the emotional response and feelings of inadequacy that comes with the realization that your writing is sh*t until it’s been extensively edited and scrutinized by others.

Teach them regulations—This is another thing that can be taught in college. Archaeology ethics and professionalism courses could emphasize the philosophy and mechanics of the regulations that guide historic preservation, heritage conservation and contract archaeology. Tests, quizzes, and papers could all be ways a student’s command of the regulations can be gauged.

Teach them that archaeology is done for people who are alive today— Rural people, Native Americans, other “minorities,” and their ancestors aren’t interesting “things” we can study. They are living beings that exist in living communities. Archaeologists and the CRM industry mines these locations for information and monetizes this data. First, we archaeologists need to acknowledge this. Second, we need to do what we can to include the communities in which we practice our craft in the process.

This could be taught in college but it would require a conscious decision among a number of professors, departmental administrators, and (possibly) an entire college to emphasize the living, human aspect of archaeology. This would help archaeology move beyond simplistic treatment of sites, dates, and artifacts towards a discussion of people, heritage, discrimination, access, control, authority, and other elements of the murky world in which CRM is practiced. It would also generate CRM practitioners who understand the reason why historic preservation regulations were created: To help communities reclaim and preserve their heritage.

Introduce them to the way in which archaeology works—Learning about sites and archaeological cultures is great. But, how often do we talk about the way this information is generated, contextualized, and reported? Practicing archaeological surveys and excavation is as important as learning about contracting, doing archival research, conducting a records search, building a research design, and grant/proposal writing.

For graduate courses, every final assignment should be building a research design, writing a technical report, or writing a mock grant proposal. The 20-page “read-and-regurgitate” paper needs to go away.

College can’t teach you everything

Ain’t it the truth? Book learning is great but it cannot replace real-world experiential learning. There are some things universities can introduce that will have to be further augmented by each student’s professional experiences but most of the heavy lifting will have to be done by each and every student.

For example, students can be introduced to networking in college but they will have to further their aptitude at this skill by immersing themselves in the professional archaeology community and connecting with other archaeologists. This can be done through social media but it is better accomplished through face-to-face interactions in spaces like conferences and workshops.

Experiential learning along the lines of field school are among the most formative parts of every archaeologist’s career. Universities can do their best to simulate a CRM field environment in their field school but students will have to seek out internships with CRM companies, museums, and research assistantships on academic archaeology projects.

Competition for these spots is fierce, which means students will also need to figure out the job application and interviewing process. The only way to get a job is by learning how to get jobs. This requires practice, getting used to rejection, and overcoming obstacles. None of this can be taught in a college classroom.

Companies have to help universities make this change

Universities cannot respond to the needs of the industry without consulting CRM practitioners and company owners. Writing articles telling anthro departments what they need to teach is not enough. CRMers need to tell their former advisers what students need to learn in order to be competitive in the job market. Advisers need to listen and take action.

The best way for change to happen in the university sphere is for companies to build partnerships with local universities. Alumni are an excellent conduit for these partnerships but there is nothing that prevents companies from seeking mutually beneficial connections with local universities. My experience in Tucson and at the University of Arizona helped me realize what can be accomplished with through CRM—University partnerships. In a world with declining anthro undergrad enrollments, creating CRM—University partnerships could save anthropology departments because it would create a pathway from the classroom to the workplace.

Universities are doing a lot of good things

The previous 1,500 words in this post makes it seem like universities are doing nothing to prepare their graduates for the workplace. This is far from the truth. Today’s students, particularly Masters and PhDs, are pulling off groundbreaking research on shoestring budgets. These graduates are exactly the kind of people cultural resource management companies need to fulfill their ethical obligations to communities and the field of archaeology.

The skill and intelligence of the PhD students I went to school with at Arizona put the pressure on me to perform at my highest level because they were truly exemplary scholars. I feel like this is the case at most top-tier universities. The world needs to create space for these scholars to make contributions to society through archaeology. This is one thing quality CRM provides.

Nevertheless, a disconnect remains between anthropology departments and the CRM industry that could be lessened through conscientious, forward-thinking on the part of CRMers and anthropology departments. If business, medicine, and law schools can bridge the gap, there’s little keeping anthropology from doing the same.

What do you think CRM archaeologists should learn in college?

This is a salient question that is even more important given the political climate regarding environmental regulations. Companies can no longer force regulatory compliance simply for compliance sake. The government wants to cut environmental regulations. CRMers need to prove their necessity to our modern world if the industry is to survive.

Similarly, universities need to prove that their expensive services are necessary. Students sacrifice a lot of time and money on a college degree they believe will help them land gainful employment. For aspiring archaeologists, this dream will not come true unless universities adequately prepare them for the working world they will enter after graduation.

Finally, Americans are constantly searching for our identity. This land of immigrants, slaves, and displaced Natives is perpetually searching for the narratives that help make sense of our ancestries and help place each of us in the world. History, ethnography, and archaeology are critically important to crafting the narratives that help us make sense of this world. Historic preservation and cultural resource management archaeology are central to the narratives at the heart of the placemaking process.

America needs preservationists, heritage conservationists, and cultural resource management professionals as much as ever. College is the place where these individuals are formed, which is why I ask you all: What do students need to learn in college in order to become the community assets our world needs?

This blog post was designed to incite a conversation about what we need to teach anthropology students to prepare them for cultural resource management archaeology. Let’s get the conversation going. I encourage you to write a comment below or send me an email.


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6 thoughts on “An education that prepares archaeologists for archaeology

  • CC

    Thanks for this article. I would add that archaeology students need basic material culture and object identification training at intro-course level. Perhaps a survey in global archaeological material culture that would show you objects you would expect to find in each region and how they have been interpreted.

    I am an archaeologist who works in a museum and we regularly get phd candidates focusing on the historic period who have never worked with objects before and who can’t tell the difference between porcelain, glass, and stoneware. This is basic stuff that you would come across with even a passing interest in the historic period in our region, but I’ve had students apply for internships and say “I don’t know what those objects are and I’m not interested, I just want to excavate” (actual quote!)

    How can they write research designs when they don’t know what they can expect to find? And how can they interpret findings without being able to identify (and date) what they found?

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      As a MA student at the University of Idaho, Historic Artifact Analysis and Lithic Technologies were among the most useful courses I took with regard to artifact identification. I ended up using almost everything i learned in those classes as a professional archaeologist after graduation. I’ve recommended them to other UIdaho students and they agree that they are very useful.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I will take your advice to heart.

  • Chess

    Thank you for another excellent read. I’ve read several of your posts, and they are always so informative.

    I am an anthropology graduate, and I am so excited to pursue graduate-level education once I get off this rock. (Stuck in Okinawa, and no MS or higher programs available to me.) I love that you are focusing on driving a CRM-geared curriculum. During my studies, my instructors focused on the cultural aspect so much, that even my physical anthropology courses were more on the cultural side. I definitely think you will excel at this, and I am so excited to continue reading your posts once you dive into instruction… providing you have time!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thank you for reading. I hope i do help students because i am extremely excited to finally get to teach my own courses. It’s only taken me most of my lifetime so I plan on seizing the moment.

  • Kate Shantry

    The main things I have learned on the job in the Pacific Northwest that my academic training did not prepare me for are:

    Dirt: neither my undergrad or graduate programs in Anthropology required me to take classes on soils, geoarchaeology, etc. this is a fundamental skill to understand the processes of deposition where trying to evaluate the probability for arcgaeology

    How to win work: when I started in CRM in 2001 I just thought archaeologists were hired b/c the law required it. I had no idea how work was won and the business development skills necessary to become a Senior-level project manager which is the most permanent job an archeo can expect unless they want to own their own business or work for a large corporation.

    Basics for recording historical archaeology: I focused on precontact arch so I imagine this is vice versa in that those who study historical arch would lack the precontact basics

    How to do a survey: figuring out things like Sampling methods and how to justify them, academics have the luxury of choosing where they dig, CRM is all about doing your homework quickly and getting just one chance to find a site

    How to serve several masters: I used to think being skilled at archaeology and being able to excavate and write up sites was the main skill required, but it is not. More often than not in CRM you are hired by people only because they are legally required to do so for compliance, so your work has to be intelligible to the layman, the regulatory environment as well as the archaeological community.

    Technology and fundamentals: methods are rapidly improving and in CRM and one has to adapt to the technological capabilities of whoever one works for at a given time so basically the more experience you have with different types the better; however fundamentals such as drawing a sketch map to scale with a compass and tape still need to be taught

    Technical writing: I passed every single writing class I ever took from elementary school to my M.A. With flying colors but Academia did not provide me with the technical writing skills required for CRM

    Research: students need to know how to navigate the internet for quality data and what is appropriate to cite as well as how to access and use primary documents and maps

    Construction industry: students need to be prepared for working with contractors under many different circumstances and the role of the archaeologist on construction sites

    Outreach: I still find that the public is either not informed or misinformed about the value of heritage management although in my experience archers have done a good job creating strong relationships with and tribes

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Man, those are all such good tips. I’m going to have to use them in all my upper-division courses. Thank you for taking the time to comment

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