Getting your archaeology PhD in a world of stupid politicians

Thinking about my second year as an archaeology PhD studentThis is a summary of what I learned from my second year as an archaeology PhD student. Sometimes it feels like the world is falling down around us and the only light at the end of the tunnel comes from the opening where we entered this subterranean realm.

Human beings do not learn from books. We learn by DOING. Not hearing. Not seeing, but doing.

This is the central fallacy of the existing university system. It attempts to be the catalyst for a higher level of education while using the same techniques that have created the mediocre educational system we enjoy today. Except for archaeological field schools and research projects, archaeology graduate school is no different.

With all this technology and interconnectivity, why are university courses still doing the same sit, listen, read, regurgitate method created hundreds of years ago?

I learned a lot about archaeology during this last year, but I learned the most from the class that forced the most interaction with other students—an archaeology statistics class. I probably will never use any of the things I learned in that course, but the fact that I had to do my homework assignments in a group setting meant I had to apply myself more and actually absorb the concepts.

I was also forced to finish most of the assignments in that class by watching YouTube, Khan Academy, and other online videos. The videos weren’t required but they were the only way we could actually figure out how to do our assignments because the in-class discussions focused on clarifying concepts from the readings.

This stats class showed me the true value of the internet as a vehicle for democratizing learning. I owe the “A” I received in statistics to the dozens of stats teaching assistants and math teachers who uploaded YouTube video screencasts of their SPSS lessons. Many thanks to you all.

Last spring, I wrote a brief summary of my experiences as a first-year PhD student. The second year is over and I’ve finished all my coursework. Now, I’m headed to Boise, Idaho to do my PhD research project and will spend most of my “free time” doing readings for my comps.

I gave myself a week to reflect on how this year treated me.

Here’s what I learned in my second year:

(CRM fieldwork + Report-writing Experience) Years Worked = An Easy “A”2—As I learned last year, working as a CRMer makes graduate school so much easier. If you can write a CRM technical report and get it past your company’s editors on time and on budget, you can definitely crank out an excellent 20-page term paper in a weekend. You should also be able to skim a 300+­page book and write a reading response in about 3-4 hours.

I’m still amazed how much time it takes to do PhD schoolwork, but CRM archaeology made schoolwork that much easier.

Moms and Dads can still do it— This year I realized I wasn’t the only grad student parent in my department. I’d been slogging on in solitude for most of the first year, but, this year, I started noticing the students around me. Some of the grad students became parents this year. Others, like me, continued being parents.

Graduate school is difficult but, then again, so is being a parent. There is never a better time to go to grad school or become a parent than right now (unless you’re a teenager still living at home, of course). Might as well get your grad degree out of the way while your kids are still young. That way you have the rest of your life to be a parent and an MA or PhD.

Graduate Students do amazing work—I have also been very impressed with the excellent work that many of the students in my cohort are conducting around the world. And they’re getting these projects published. My friend and recent PhD graduate Matthew Pailes published a recent article in American Antiquity on Hohokam social network analysis. A group of University of Arizona professors and grad students published another American Antiquity article on pre-Hispanic social networks. Virtually the whole department traveled to #SAA2015 to present either a talk or a poster on their research.

I know this is Arizona and it’s not like other anthropology departments, but I never cease to be amazed with the work the other grad students around me are doing.

The anti-intellectualism of our government/society is crippling higher ed— I don’t know why but it seems like the United States government is waging a war against education. Arizona leads the nation in higher education cuts and tuition hikes, but the trend of defunding universities is nationwide. Funding cuts cause tuition hikes, which fuels student loans and increases the total debt of the entire United States. The attack on higher ed continues as I write.

This goes beyond simple political partisanship. Quality public education is the reason why the United States enjoys its current quality of life. It would be easy to say our prosperity is because of businesses and entrepreneurs but who do you think creates all these products, devises the financial schemes, and builds the objects in the world around us? High school dropouts cum millionaires? Bootstrapping entrepreneurs that made a mint all by themselves? Not by a long shot!

This country’s prosperity is built upon the collective mental strength of its educated, creative class. And most of these people went to college. Our economy, quality of life, and intellectual fortitude loses out when we defund universities.

Part of this is the University’s fault—Every state has at least one state university. Each of these schools has begun admitting more students than they should, partially as a means of supplementing the state funds that have been withdrawn but, in the case of the brand-name schools like Arizona, it is also part of a business-esque growth strategy.

As a result, students that should not be going to college are taking out thousands of dollars in loans to pay for a degree they are unlikely to get (some estimate less than 50% of each incoming undergraduate class actually gets a degree). Colleges have to skimp on teaching in order to provide flashy amenities that will attract undergrads (new stadiums, rec centers, gyms, rides home from the bar, ect.). At some state universities, more than 70% of all undergraduate instructors are adjuncts.

This “growth über alles” approach to university administration is having a far-reaching effect. The increasing cost of a college education is getting difficult to justify. A college degree is still one of the primary avenues to a middle-class lifestyle, but it’s getting harder and harder to demonstrate the value of high-priced degrees.

In our world, if it can’t be quantified it doesn’t exist. Students are getting less and less for the degree they earned, which means there are fewer people to defend the existing university system. Poor people are virtually locked out of college today. The system isn’t working. This is why governments are gutting our higher ed system.

I have seen the future of the college classroom and know it is good—I took a part-time position next semester working with Dr. Bryan Carter in the University of Arizona’s Africana Studies Department. Dr. Carter is an amazing person. His focus is digital humanities but, based on my conversation with him, he is really at the forefront of using the digital classroom to introduce complex topics in an engrossing manner that actually helps students absorb and remember what they learn. I am thrilled to work with him.

He infuses low-cost or free mobile and desktop applications into the classroom in order to help students effectively learn and research. The use of tablets, laptops, and mobile devices is encouraged. Class assignments include recording video and audio responses to readings, working in small groups to complete digital assignments, and group lectures via Google Hangouts. Students receive extra credit for giving presentations to the class virtually. He even plans on using a drone in the classroom to record student group work and project their conversations on the projection screen at the front of the classroom so students can see what is going on in the other groups!

I feel privileged to work with Dr. Carter. This is truly the future of the university classroom. I’ve battled ADD for my entire life and this is the type of class I wish I’d taken as an undergraduate.

You can create archaeology projects from thin air— My dissertation project is the confluence of imagination, timing, and a lot of grant writing. Last year, I started the River Street Digital History Project. This year I will add to that with the River Street Public Archaeology Project.

This is the project I always wanted to do in a place that sorely needs this type of work. Boise, Idaho is not known for diversity. It also isn’t well known for historic preservation or history, for that matter. The River Street Project seeks to help remedy these deficiencies.

I memorized Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template and put it to good use. So far, this one resource has netted me a lot of money. I haven’t been awarded even a third of the grants I’ve applied for, but I believe the only reason I’ve gotten anything is because of this single webpage.

Grantwriting is a lot like CRM proposaling except it can be used to do the projects we want to do rather than whatever project we can get. This makes all the difference in the world.

Start small and reflect often—I never thought I’d have the chance to get a PhD. Hell, the way I was living my life as a teenager I never even thought I’d live to see my 30th birthday.

I don’t know how I’ve gotten to where I am today, but I do know it has been the sum of so many seemingly unrelated actions. The education I enjoy today is the fruit of so many small actions.

Whenever I get overwhelmed thinking about the daunting task of finishing my degree, I just take a few minutes to think about where I am now and where I came from. It’s been a long journey. I can’t wait to see how it ends up.

This year has truly been a blessing. I would love to hear your perspectives on higher education, graduate school, and archaeology. Please, write a comment below or send me an email.

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