The Future of Cultural Resource Management Archaeology, Part III

(This is the second in a 3-part series on a workshop focused on the future of cultural resource management archaeology that was given as part of the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology Centennial celebration. You can check out Part I here and Part II here.)

Advice for the future cultural resource management industry“What’s your advice to students who want to get into the cultural resource management archaeology industry?”

That’s the $34,000 question. What does it take to get into CRM? What should an undergraduate do to properly position themselves for CRM work after graduation? Or, should they even wait until after graduation?

This is not the first or even the best blog post to address this question. Last month, the folks at the blog “Habits of a Travelling Archaeologist” tackled this same question in the post “Tips for Undergraduates Interested in Archaeology.” An entire roadmap to your early archaeology career can be found at GoDigaHole. If you have time and extra cash, I recommend you grab a copy of Carol Ellick and Joe Watkins’ book “The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career.” As I mentioned in Post I of this series, there are a lot of different sources of advice for how to start out in CRM. Personally, I believe listening to advice from people who have actually made it is the best way to get information you can use to guide your job search.

This post is based on advice I heard at the Future of CRM symposium at the University of Arizona on December 4, 2015. The symposium was moderated by a collection of very skilled, very experienced, reputable archaeologists who were all U of A alumnus who came back to spread some knowledge to the university’s current students. These professionals included archaeologists who work in academia, private consulting, and government compliance. They all came to CRM from a variety of different angles and have sustained careers for decades through all troubles and tribulations.

Most of these folks have been there and done that a long time before any of us even knew how to hold a trowel or dig a shovel probe. Their advice was compounded by the breadth and depth of their experience. It was a unique experience to hear recommendations from each of these professionals.

Now, for the sage wisdom…

At the very end of the symposium, the panelists gave their advice for the future generation of CRMers who are still in college right now. Here’s what they said:

We need to train professionals if we want to professionalize the industry—It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that there is a real disconnect between what is required to be a cultural resource management professional and what is taught in college. I’ve been increasingly aware that this gap is being bridged by forward-thinking colleges like the Field Archaeology Certificate at Pima Community College, Sonoma State University, Adams State College, SUNY Binghamton’s grad program that emphasizes CRM, and a number of other schools I am not aware of (If you teach/attend/know about a school I missed, please leave a comment below or send me an email).

One of the symposium panelists noted that universities teach scholars but scholarly knowledge is not what gets you a job in CRM. He added that we need a revolution in the way CRMers are trained in college.

I second this opinion but wonder: What exactly do CRMers need to know that they are not learning? Proper field methods is the most obvious thing; however, the CRM industry is so diverse that there are dozens of workplace skills I can think of that undergraduates and grad students are simply not learning. Because a cultural resources career is a combination of humanities and business, I believe business skills are the most lacking thing we don’ learn. How many grad students learn how to create and manage realistic, competitive budgets like they will need in CRM? Of course, we make budgets for our grants but those don’t account for stuff like capitalization, profit, Liability insurance, unemployment, taxes (ahem), and all the other overhead items that need to be accounted for in the real-world.

We also do not learn how our work could contribute to historic preservation tax credits or redevelopment grants. I think, after learning historic preservation laws (next item), learning how to make our work financially sustainable is the second biggest shortcoming in a traditional anthropology education when it comes to future CRMers. Historic preservation programs like the one at Goucher College do a better job incorporating preservation finance into college curriculum, but, to date, few anthropology degrees do the same thing.

Another panelist built upon this idea by stating project management skills were also crucial for students who plan on working in CRM. He explained that graduating students need to know how a business works and the role of cultural resources consulting in the bigger picture of the local economy and community.

Additionally, he suggested students also learn how governments work. Part of learning about the CRM consulting business includes understanding the regulatory context of all levels of government—Federal, state, county, city, even down to neighborhood Homeowners Associations—because the structure of preservation legislation at these levels strongly influences the business potential in the CRM niche.

Learning the laws—A couple years ago, I surveyed a group of long-time CRMers about what skills did they most want to see in college graduates. Knowledge of historic preservation laws and solid technical writing skills were the two paramount skills CRM supervisors want to see in their new hires.

One of the panelists in this symposium seconded this truth when he said learning the historic preservation process was one of the most important things future CRMers need to learn while in college. He said students need to learn not only pertinent laws but how the entire preservation process happens, from consultation to government-to-government relationships to the actual mandates of these laws.

Understand that there are more than one way to perceive cultural resources—As social scientists, anthropology students that comprise the Freshmen class of the CRM industry come from a perspective that our way of understanding the past is the only way to understand it. This is largely because we’ve dedicated years of study toward ways of knowing the past that are rooted in “proof”. We have artifacts, pictures, notes, drawings, statistics, samples, and all kinds of “proof” that support our perspectives on the past. We feel vindicated in our decisions because of this mountain of proof we’ve amassed.

Many times, all of this proof doesn’t mean sh*t to traditional communities who have their own bundle of proof. Oftentimes, this traditional proof has been maintained and built upon for thousands of years. Compared to the six-weeks we spend digging a site or mere 100 years of archaeological data, traditional knowledge has been deeply embedded in local belief systems to the point that it doesn’t matter what results we get from our archaeological study. Because we tend to work in the area that has been occupied by a certain culture for millennia, a rift can develop between archaeologists and traditional peoples unless our data is reconciled with what is traditionally known.

One of the panelists noted that anthropology students need to be aware of the fact that there are multiple narratives of the past. There is more than one way to know the past and neither way is less legitimate than the other. He noted that traditional cultures, specifically Native Americans, can have different conceptions of time, place, and identity that cannot always be verified through archaeology.

He urged today’s anthropology students to cultivate a positive attitude toward collaborating with traditional communities because this will become an important part of CRM in the near future. Certain historic preservation property types like traditional cultural properties (TCPs) and landscapes force us to move beyond the way cultural resources has been practiced in the past and incorporate aspects of traditional beliefs in our determinations. We will need to collaborate with traditional people to make coherent arguments for the preservation of these property types because anthropology as it is taught in college is not equipped to make these arguments. The recent Supreme Court decision over the Little Bear landscape in Montana is one example of this collaboration.

I believe, with Native tribes taking control of cultural resources consulting on their reservations, they will develop a corps of skilled Native American CRMers who will be able to challenge existing firms. It will be even more important to cultivate collaborations in the future otherwise we will lose our privileged position as the sole purveyors of archaeological knowledge in the United States. Either we collaborate or we suffer the consequences.

Learning how to communicate is crucial for a career in cultural resource managementWhen it comes to building a career, start locally and learn how to communicate—Several panelists said networking was essential to any sort of career in CRM. One panelist noted how students tend to focus on national conferences in hopes of connecting with some of the big names in our field. She said this was almost a complete mistake because it overlooked the potentially fruitful local connections that are more important to an early CRM careerist. Almost every CRMer on the panel started their career by getting work in the community where they were attending college or where they lived. The panelists agreed that cultivating a strong local network was more important than gallivanting across the country attending national conferences.

Developing strong communication skills, both written and spoken, were also said to be very important for anyone who plans on working in CRM. As I mentioned before, strong writing skills was one of the two most important things CRM supervisors want to see in their new employees. But, the panelists also emphasized how important it is to have strong speaking skills. They recommended giving presentations as a good way to build public speaking skills while simply talking to other CRMers at social engagements was a way of building good conversation skills.

It’s all about who you know. But, you have better odds of knowing the right people at the local level.

Become a lifelong learner—Finally, the panelists clearly stated that today’s students should maintain their love of learning. One panelist made a remark about how, every single day, she comes home from work knowing at least one more thing than she knew when she woke up in the morning. She said the potential to learn something new every single day was one of the strongest motivating factors for staying in the CRM industry. Keeping current on the latest knowledge is one method of differentiating yourself from the others.

Another panelist said students need to seek opportunities to learn more and get more experience throughout their career. This is part of the professional growing process that helps move the CRM industry forward and will keep your career from getting stagnant. We all do this because we love learning about the world around us. Archaeology is our dream. Maintaining this curiosity was promoted as important for any career in cultural resource management.

Sharing Experience is the Most Valuable form of Learning

A long time ago, an adviser recommended I find a mentor– somebody who already had the job I wanted to have and was well-experienced in the ways of archaeology. This person said I should keep this mentor in mind throughout my career and stay in touch, bouncing ideas off her/him as I plodded along the pathway toward my dream job.

I took this to heart. Today, this person is one of my most trusted confidants and advocates. He has helped me land thousands of dollars in grant money, find awesome research projects, and has edited my writing for years. From this tutelage, I have now become someone who can help him and his students find jobs and research projects. I’m sure I will be able to help him more in the future but I owe him a debt of gratitude that I cannot possible pay.

Learning from his life experiences is what has taught me the most about cultural resource management, archaeology, and turning a passion into a career. I also heard a group of experienced professionals share their experiences at the Future of CRM symposium. It was a true honor to hear this discussion and I hope I have accurately conveyed my impressions to you all. Thanks for reading this post.

It has been an honor to share what I learned from the Future of CRM symposium at the University of Arizona. Let’s keep the conversation going! Write a comment below or send me an email.

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