Which college courses helped my archaeology career?

How much of your anthropology degree is valuable?Last month, I noticed a familiar name in anthropology news. Current University of North Dakota dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Debbie Storrs, a former anthropology professor at my alma mater University of Idaho, recently proposed conflating anthropology and several other related fields into a new School of Global and Cultural Studies (https://dakotastudent.com/11695/news/smaller-departments-struggle-to-attract-students-face-consolidation/). The consolidation is a possible solution to the dwindling enrollment and resources social science and humanities departments are facing across the country.

The situation at the University of North Dakota is not unique. Enrollments at most institutions are down. Universities are cutting budgets to departments like anthropology in favor of departments viewed as more lucrative like business, medicine, and law. These budget cuts are ubiquitous in state universities and community colleges and fueled by a combination of factors: the recent populist political turn, state fiscal realities, and high profile press coverage that gives higher education a bad name. In higher ed, sexual harassment cases, NCAA coaches paying students like professional athletes, and ever-increasing tuition prices along with degree inflation in the job market are among several factors that are causing many Americans to question the value of a college degree.

Humanities and social sciences suffer because of their perceived lack of value. Recent George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan has recently posited the question on the minds of most American youth: Is College worth it? Caplan waffles between telling us we might be better off without college to acknowledging its value is only worthwhile for those who earn degrees in high-paying fields like law or medicine. In a recent interview with Caplan published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 29, 2018), the Libertarian professor explains most of what students learn is worthless. He argues that, unless you plan on going into a field that requires a college degree, most students are better off going to vocational school or forgoing higher education all together.

“To get a degree or not to get a degree” is a perennial question for cultural resource management archaeologists. While you do need a degree to meet the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Archaeology, you do not need a degree to do CRM archaeology as a field tech. I must admit it is extremely hard to become a CRMer without a degree, but it can be done. It’s even easier if you take an applied archaeology program at a place like Pima Community College in Tucson, which has an excellent reputation for training archaeological field technicians.

As an assistant professor, I am constantly trying to figure out how to teach useful skills that my students can use after graduation. I hope to train archaeologists but I know most of my students will never do archaeology. With that knowledge, I seek to teach things that are widely applicable: How to get a job, how to write an email, how to apply for grants, how to understand some of the social, cultural, historical, and anthropological mechanisms that have led us to the place in which we now stand. How many of us would go far enough to say what we learned in college is useless? Are low paying degrees like anthropology, sociology, social work, and history worthless? If any courses are useless, which ones are they? And, how can professors keep from teaching courses of little applicability?

College of today is not what it used to be

The days when simply having a college degree meant a job with a high wage is over. Students pursue college degrees because they believe a diploma will help them in the workplace after graduation.

College is the new high school. It is extremely difficult to land a job with a livable wage without a college degree as even lower-skilled jobs are asking for candidates with a diploma. The U.S. economy has shifted to a place where some sort of education beyond high school is practically necessary to be competitive. While college has been promoted as THE pathway to middle income, the demand for skilled workers with vocational training has grown rapidly. America needs electricians, plumbers, and workers with skills in advanced manufacturing. Several states are starting to invest in this need.

Whether it is a college degree or a vocational certificate, today’s youth need some sort of education after high school, especially if they plan on living in an urban area where all the jobs are. High school no longer prepares you for adult life.

College is a perennial concern on this blog for a good reason, many of which are addressed explicitly by anti-higher ed pundits.

1)  It’s expensive. When it comes to social sciences like archaeology, it can be difficult to justify taking out student loans to pay for a diploma in something that may never pay the bills (http://www.succinctresearch.com/the-archaeology-education-financing-paradox/)

2)  Sometimes the degree you are getting is simply sold to you by a public/private pseudo-corporation. Teaching positions at universities are growing much slower than administrative positions (http://www.succinctresearch.com/the-adjunct-crisis-and-archaeology/). The mission of the university system has changed; self-preservation and “growth” has supplanted education at many universities.

3)  You are not always learning skills or knowledge that will help you after graduation. This is the worst aspect of getting a college degree. Many of the classes you spend time and money attending do not contribute to your gainful employment, increase your ability to financially support yourself after graduation, or contribute to your intellectual development. You learn very little and what you do learn is not worth much for your future career. This is the crux of argument promoted by populist leaders and anti-higher ed pundits like Bryan Caplan.

How much of my higher education has been used in my career?

I’ve finished my PhD, Master’s, and Bachelor’s degrees; it took 73 college courses to accomplish including thesis and dissertation-writing credits. You can see a table of all of these classes in Table 1. Some of these courses were extremely valuable to my career as a CRM archaeologist and new assistant professor. However, it would be a lie to say that all of those courses were impactful.

I’ve been building a table describing the impact all of those courses had on my career. This has been a difficult task. How does one gauge the impact of a college class on their life? What would those metrics look like? Can this be quantified?

I have concluded that I cannot objectively quantify the impact of each college course I have taken on my life or career. But, nothing keeps me from doing a subjective analysis. As the anti-higher ed argument focuses on the fact that universities do not always teach skills and knowledge that can be used in the workforce, I have decided to measure each course I have taken based on its relevancy to my worklife after graduation.

Below is a table of all of the college courses I took from undergrad to PhD with a completely subjective, personal estimation of how much the content from those classes impacted my career as an archaeologist. The results are not exactly rosy.



Table 1: Which college classes taught me anything
CLEP Test 6 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
Archaeological Field School 6 2001 University of Idaho Undergrad Major Much Yes
Physical Anthropology 3 1997 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Concepts in Biology 3 1997 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Much No
English Composition 3 1997 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
Intro to Theater 3 1997 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
Cultural Anthropology 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
English Composition 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
Western Civ 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
Anatomy and Physiology 4 1998 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Much Yes
Intro to Archaeology 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Major Some Yes
Indians of S. America 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Geology 4 1998 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some Yes
Eastern Civ 3 1998 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Much No
Archy of N. America 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Major Some Yes
U.S. Literature 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
U.S. History 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some Yes
Intro to Logic 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Much Yes
Intro to Sociology 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
Japanese Culture/Society 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Archy of S. America 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Indians of Idaho 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Major Some Yes
Statistics 3 1999 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Cultural Concepts in Anthro 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
European Prehistory 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Some No
Applied Anthro 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Much Yes
Speech 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Little No
Technical Communication 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some Yes
Indians of N. America 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Some Yes
History of Anthropology 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Urban Anthro 3 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Much Yes
Senior Portfolio 1 2000 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Spanish 101 4 2000 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
Linguistics 3 2001 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
U.S. History 3 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some Yes
The Renaissance 3 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
American Government 3 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
Computers in Soc. Sci. 4 2001 Boise State Undergrad Major Little No
Spanish 102 4 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
African Women 1 2001 Boise State Undergrad Non-Major Some No
Anthro Research Methods 3 2003 University of Idaho Graduate Major Little No
Arch. Method/Theory 3 2003 University of Idaho Graduate Major Some Somewhat
Historical Archaeology 3 2003 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
Development Issues 3 2003 University of Idaho Graduate Major Some No
Comparative Hist. Slavery 3 2003 University of Idaho Graduate Non-Major Much No
Anthro. Theory 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Little No
Hist. Artifact Analysis 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
Cultural Resource Management 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
N. American Prehistory 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Some Yes
Thesis Credits 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
Lithic Technologies 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
GIS Primer 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Non-Major Little No
Modern Brazil 3 2004 University of Idaho Graduate Non-Major Much No
Thesis Credits 6 2005 University of Idaho Graduate Major Much Yes
Human Evolution 3 2005 University of Idaho Graduate Major Some No
Civil War/ Reconstruction 3 2005 University of Idaho Graduate Non-Major Some No
Thesis Credits 1 2005 University of Idaho Graduate Major Some Yes
Cultural Resource Management 3 2010 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Yes
Professional Skills/Ethics 3 2013 University of Arizona Graduate Major Some Yes
Archy. Interpretation 3 2013 University of Arizona Graduate Major Little Yes
Culture Contact/Colonialism 3 2013 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Somewhat
Preservation Planning Issues 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Non-Major Much Yes
Anthro Theory 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Major Little No
Archy. Method/Theory 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Major Little Somewhat
Archy of Southwest 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Major Some Yes
Conservation & Community 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Somewhat
Intro. Heritage Conservation 3 2014 University of Arizona Graduate Non-Major Much Yes
Southwest Land + Society 3 2015 University of Arizona Graduate Major Some No
Archy. Quantitative Methods 3 2015 University of Arizona Graduate Major Little No
Greek Religion/Ritual 3 2015 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much No
Dissertation Credits 6 2015 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Yes
Dissertation Credits 6 2016 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Yes
Dissertation Credits 6 2016 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Yes
Dissertation Credits 6 2017 University of Arizona Graduate Major Much Yes



Table Label Descriptions

COURSE, CREDITS, YEAR, INSTITUTION: While credit hours vary by institution, these categories give you an idea of the value of these classes towards my final degree. Most classes are three credit hours, while some are four or six credit hours.

UNDERGRADUATE vs. GRADUATE: Which degree I was pursuing at the time.

MAJOR vs. NON-MAJOR: Were these classes required for my major or not.

HOW MUCH I LEARNED: This is very subjective. I based this upon how much I remember from each of these classes, which I used as a proxy of the impact this class had on my thought throughout my life since I took the class.

This was divided into three categories:

Little—I remember almost nothing from this class and have applied almost none of its content in my life.

Some—I remember some stuff and what I remember has somewhat influenced my life.

Much—This class was impactful. It changed the way I think, which has influenced my life ever since.

APPLIED IN WORKPLACE: Have I ever used any of the content from this class in my career as a CRMer and, now, assistant professor? Again, this was divided into three subjective categories:

No—I never used anything I learned in my career.

Yes—I have used some course content/concepts in my career.

Somewhat—Course concepts/content was not used obliquely to my work as an archaeologist.


The value of the courses I’ve taken can be seen in Table 2. Over half of the classes I’ve ever taken in college (n=39) were not used in my career as an archaeologist, even though that was my major throughout my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD.


Row Labels No Somewhat Yes Grand Total
Graduate 12 4 17 33
Major 8 4 15 27
Non-Major 4 2 6
Undergrad 27 13 40
Major 12 7 19
Non-Major 15 6 21
Grand Total 39 4 30 73


As shown in Table 3, I actually did learn something that impacted my life after graduation in most of the classes I took in college. Based on my subjective analysis, I learned much (n=24) or something (n=25) from about 2/3 of the classes in my undergraduate and graduate education. I felt that I learned something from a much higher proportion of my graduate courses, which is probably due to the fact that most of these were directly related to my major. Unfortunately, I felt like I didn’t learn very much from almost a third of all the classes I’ve taken in college (n=24). Most of these classes where I felt like I learned very little were undergraduate courses outside my major; however, there are a shockingly high number of anthropology major and graduate courses where I learned very little.


Row Labels Little Much Some Grand Total
Graduate 7 17 9 33
Undergrad 17 7 16 40
Grand Total 24 24 25 73


So, what does this all mean?

It means anti-college pundits are at least partially correct. Students do not always learn useful information from all college courses and not everything you learn in your major will be applied after graduation, even if you do end up working in the field you studied in college.

When I think about the courses that contributed little to my post-graduation career or ones in which I learned very little, I’ve noticed several key similarities:

The class was lecture based. Lectures are boring. Three-hour long, graduate-level lectures are three times as boring. Almost every class where I learned very little was lecture-based.

If you’ve ever given a lecture, you can literally see people falling asleep in your class regardless of how entertaining you are. Students do not learn by listening to a professor talking. They learn by intellectually engaging with course materials and with each other.

Course assignments were based on “read-and-regurgitate” strategies. Read articles. Write trite essay. Hand it in and get no constructive criticism or edits. Rinse and repeat for 16 weeks. That is the recipe for a class where students will retain very little of the course content because they’re only working for the next text or essay.

The instructor wasn’t good. (DISCLAIMER: As a new assistant professor, I consider myself one of the least qualified to give other instructors, especially tenured professors, advice on their teaching skill. Nor am I qualified to evaluate the teaching of others. However, as a long-time college student, I’ve taken quite a few classes and can speak from my own experiences).

Not everybody is cut out to be a college professor. Not all professors want to teach. Not all professors are good at teaching. This is noticed by students. Both students and universities have little quality control over tenured professors, but the impact of a poor instructor cannot be understated.

They were part of efforts to create a “well-rounded” education. The classes where I retained the least were largely classes I was taking just to fulfill degree requirements. Mix this with a bad professor who uses “read-and-regurgitate” assignment strategies and you get a bad course where students don’t retain course materials.

I actively chose not to apply what I learned. Things learned in courses like Speech, Spanish, and Sociology could have been applied as a CRM professional or professor, but, for whatever reason, I have chosen not to use what I learned in those classes. I learned how to speak some rudimentary Spanish as a teenager, pero he elegido no usar la mayor parte de lo que aprendí porque tengo mala gramática. I could have definitely used Spanish more in my career but chose not to because I was embarrassed that I wasn’t good at it. I’ve probably done the same thing with what I learned from other classes as well.

It is likely that much of what we learn in college isn’t applied in the workplace after graduation because we either forget what we learned or we simply don’t do it. Nobody is 100% efficient. There is no way we would learn everything in every instance at work. However, this does not get us past the fact that, in some classes we really don’t learn much–even from ones in our major.

Which courses taught me the most?

The courses where I learned the most were directly related to my major, had an applied aspect, and were on a topic I knew little about but found interesting. Most of these were graduate-level courses. Here are some commonalities between the course where I learned much:

Dissertation/Thesis: The value of these “classes” is understated but they are the foundation for what any CRMer will eventually have to do—sit at a desk and write on command about something for which you’ve probably lost any passion. I loved the topics of my Master’s thesis and dissertation but grinding those documents out and past the university was a grueling exercise in technical writing bureaucratic navigation. Their end result was definitely applicable to my career in CRM and as a professor.

Applied classes: Archaeological field schools, artifact analysis, and applied anthropology classes were like test runs for what I would later in my career. They were definitely impactful and valuable.

Courses with assignments applicable to to the real world: Classes like Anatomy and Physiology, Technical Communications, and Introduction to Logic had assignments that taught skills that were applicable outside the classroom. The ability to think and write logically based on data is invaluable to any CRM archaeologist. Those exercises with syllogisms have helped me dissect the writing of others and construct solid, logical prose of my own. Several courses had applications to almost all white-collar industries including CRM.

Ones taught by excellent professors: Sometimes we take classes with charismatic, engaging instructors that leave an impression long after graduation. A few college course have stuck with me because of the instructor.

How can we make an anthropology degree more useful?How can we fix this?

The following discussion on how we can provide a more useful education includes several assumptions. I assume students, professors, and administrators care about delivering an education that actually helps university graduates after graduation. I think universities actually believe in the mission of providing education and furthering intellectual dialogue. I also feel like universities consider themselves one of the vectors through which society improves itself and that university employees actually want the world of the future to be better than it is today. Therefore, I assume university administrators and professors want to make sure students get what they pay for: An education that makes them better, brighter, and more functional citizens who are able to tackle the complex issues facing the world today.

I also think universities are realizing that they need to provide the sort of education that will help their graduates get jobs or, at least, survive in the modern economy. I strongly believe my job is to help prepare students for life after graduation. For archaeologists this means teaching them the skills they will need to work in cultural resource management, for non-profits or government agencies, or in academia. I also recognize that most of my students will never work in archaeology. Thus, the skills I teach need to be universals—things I’ve found help people in many different industries.

Here are some of the things I believe will help anthropology classes be more relevant, educational, and memorable. They are also things I will continue to do in my classes:

Make assignments applicable to real-world tasks. The real world is the best classroom. Class assignments should mirror or replicate tasks performed in the world outside the classroom.

Less lecture, more discussion and projects. Students are really paying for the chance to interact with the professor and the rest of the class. Face-to-face interactions are the only aspect of going to college that can’t be replicated anyplace else. That’s what they can’t get from the internet. Applied classes that encourage group interactions have the potential to be more impactful than static, lecture-based courses.

Group projects where students address real-world problems. I’ve always hated group work but, with the right grading scheme, group projects are one of the best learning incubators. They replicate what happens in real workplaces: some people do very little, a few individuals do most of the assignment, bosses don’t care how it gets done as long as it gets done on time and on budget, ect. These are aspects of being part of the working world that will never go away. These realities are also why the hated group project is a great way to learn.

It’s even better if the project is grounded in the real world and has the potential to help improve the quality of life for an actual community. After all, today’s students are the ones who have to fix tomorrow’s problems. Why not start practicing now?

Partner with communities to provide real-world experiences. Rather than making up “hypothetical” projects, why not address real problems through class activities? This would make universities community assets and anthropology departments could play a vital role.

No more useless assignments. Each assignment needs to have some sort of utility or students won’t learn from it. All of the most vivid experiences from my undergraduate and graduate career were all applied in the real world.

For example, as an undergraduate I took applied anthropology classes that all focused around a campaign to extend minimum wage franchisement for farmworkers in the State of Idaho. We recorded interviews with farmworkers and lobbied the state congress to extend minimum wage laws to farmworkers. I will never forget using videos of interviews with Hispanic farmworkers in my Spanish 101 and 102 class essays. The law passed soon after I finished my undergraduate degree, partially because of our advocacy. I also helped catalog and analyze an orphaned CRM artifact assemblage in my historical archaeology and historical artifact analysis classes as a Master’s student, building a familiarity with historical artifacts that I still use today.

Conversely, I remember taking midterms and final exams in a South American archaeology class that I remember nothing about. Everything I know about South American archaeology came from the readings and research I did after finishing my Bachelor’s. It would have been much better to do a group project focused on a research design for a proposed archy project in South America. This would have helped me realize what goes into doing work in South America and how archaeology projects are designed.

If I don’t use it in my career, is it worthless?

No. Nothing you do in college is worthless. It just may have not been an efficient application of your time and money.

It’s easy to have an emotional response to arguments against social science and humanities degrees. Those of us with those degrees want to defend our decision. We claim that what we learned has changed us as individuals. It made us who we are today even if we don’t use what we learned in our current job. But, it’s hard to defend the way college is executed today. I ended up using my anthropology degree to make a living but I would be lying if I said every class I took was worth it.

I think I used even more of my degree than others because I did end up using it in CRM. Today, millions of Americans use even less of their degree in the workplace because their job is in no way related to the field they spent tens of thousands of dollars and multiple years studying. My mom has degrees in medical sciences and culinary arts. She’s ran a custom tailoring business for over 20 years. She never uses any of those degrees in her business. My brother has a history degree but is a productivity and sanitation consultant in the food production industry (he makes sure Clif Bars and kettle corn are produced efficiently and cleanly). He never uses his degree at work either. My wife and I are among the minority of adults we know that use our degrees in the workplace.

Much of what we learn in college has nothing to do with coursework. College is when most of us take off the training wheels so we can become functional adults. There is no way to value learning how to pay bills, navigate bureaucracies, live on our own, relate to other humans as an adult, and prioritize the activities necessary to keep an adult household running. For most of us, this involves being gainfully employed while also taking rigorous classes. I never cease to be amazed at how much work undergraduates have to do for all their classes while also working part-time (or full-time in some instances) and navigating extracurricular relationships. There is still much to be said about soft skills learned in college that may not be directly applicable to job but are still useful.

This blog post is also only coming from my own perspective. I am a very analog person; To me, things either are or they are not. Something is useful or it is not. Other people do not think about college the way I do. For many students, foreign language, the arts, physical education, and archaeology classes change the way they view the world. To them, these experiences are necessary even though they do not contribute to workplace skills. You’ve got to take my perspective with a grain of salt.

I believe anthropology departments could increase their enrollments if they shaped their curriculum around being community assets and teaching workplace skills that have broad applications throughout the economy. Along with learning how to work in groups, anthropology classes could emphasize technical writing, research, and analytical skills. These are all things necessary for any cultural resource management archaeologist but they are also applicable throughout white-collar industries. Emphasizing these things would also stave off the attacks of pundits who think social science and humanities departments don’t need to exist.

How much of your anthropology degree is valuable? Let’s keep the conversation going. Write a comment below or send me an email.


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