Thursday, November 15, 2012

Impostor Syndrome at Home

You've heard about Impostor Syndrome? No matter how successful we appear, many academics feel like frauds . We think we're not nearly as smart and hard-working as we appear to be. When we're praised for our work or intellect, we think "if only they knew." 

The truth is, very few academics are frauds, we're just neurotic.

Yesterday, a colleague saw me with the littlest child and asked, "How do you do it?" I thought to myself, if only she knew

If only she knew how many dirty clothes are on my living room floor. If only she knew I yelled at my son for smearing glue on the walls (and then discovered he'd been making a card for me). If only she knew how many times I'd fed my children frozen pizza for dinner. (I did warm it up first.)

Then it hit me: I have Impostor Syndrome in all facets of my life! 

Then I had another revelation: What if I'm not the only one?

Maybe other people yell at their kids, feed them crap on busy days, and have dirty houses. Maybe we're all hiding this because we all feel like impostors!

I'm just going to tell myself that's true. If it's not, please don't disillusion me.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Go Use tDAR (the Digital Archaeological Record)

Do you all know about tDAR? You can upload data, documents, photos, etc., and share them with other researchers, or keep them temporarily private for your own storage needs. It's currently free, but will cost a fee starting in December, so check it out now.

Karen Gust Schollmayer brought tDAR to my attention when she asked for some data that was part of my first real publication, over a decade ago. I couldn't find my original files. I must have failed to transfer them during one of my computer upgrades. Understandable, but unacceptable. 

I've recently started using Dropbox (which I love) for my active files. It allows me to work from home or office without worrying that I don't have the most recent version of my document, and it stores my files in the cloud, so they can't be lost. I'm now going to upload all my old data files to tDAR. I won't make them public without permission from the project PIs, but I don't want to lose any more data.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Effective Regional Survey Courses

I teach two regional survey courses: North American Archaeology and Latin American Archaeology. I want these classes to build critical research and interpretation skills, not just introduce the basic literature.

In past years, my Latin American Archaeology class was structured around weekly themes (diet, ceramics, mortuary analysis, etc.), and my students were each assigned a region or culture to research. One class each week was a lecture and/or discussion of the class readings, and in the other class each student presented information from their region relating to the theme. Students also write a short (2-page) paper each week.

I like that the class requires independent research, but the quality of that research varies significantly. Some students track down original site reports, interpret the data through the lens of our weekly theme, and synthesizing the results; others use popular secondary sources and take the vast majority of their (overly vague) work from them. In addition to creating a more uniform research program, I'd like to incorporate public writing and outreach in this class, as I have in my North American Archaeology class. Finally, I want to build writing skills by requiring re-writes.

Yesterday, I was reading my Twitter feed, and some alternative ideas that had been percolating in my back brain came together when I saw Ethan Watrall of Michigan State University tweet that his students edit Wikipedia pages for their Egyptian archaeology class. Students write site reports for the class, and those are the basis of their Wikipedia edits.

Eureka! I'm shamelessly stealing this idea!

Instead of having students choose a region or culture to research throughout the semester, they will pick 2 or 3 related sites. Students will be required to track down the critical primary resources on those sites, and report on the actual data from each relative to that week's theme. They will get frequent feedback from me, and revise their work multiple times, culminating in site reports that pull together all of the class themes in one paper. These reports will be the basis for Wikipedia edits.

Check back next semester for reports on the success of this new approach.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Teaching Anthropology by Building Fictional Worlds

The semester is more than half-way over, and so is Teaching Anthropology through SciFi/Fantasy. I blogged briefly about my students' worldbuilding exercises, but I wanted to go into more detail here. At the end of this post, I've included the questions the students have answered so far (divided into four different exercises).

I've had so much fun with this class, I'm not sure I should accept payment for teaching it. (Well, yes, I should, but it's really been a blast.)

A few things I will do differently next time:

1) Ask students to think about social/political organization before gender. Gender is more fundamental to human societies (in my view), but many of my students chose to create small-scale societies, and it would have been easier for them to understand gender roles in those societies if we'd discussed the differences between state and non-states first.

2) Provide an example of worldbuilding. They've done a great job, but their lives (and mine!) would have been easier if they had a model to work from, if only to see the structure and scope of the exercise. It's a little late, but I've now written my own exercise to share with them. (They're now 21 pages single-spaced. I'm having a little too much fun with this!)

3) Change some questions. I'm particularly unhappy with the question about institutions in the social/political organization section. It just did not elicit the kinds of answers I was looking for. Next time, I'll probably ask about different levels of political organization (e.g. family, lineage, village, regional, etc.). If anyone has other suggestions for changes to the questions/different questions, I'm all ears (electronically speaking.)

4) Provide more immediately relevant examples. More about this in another post, but the most successful classes so far involved guest speakers who could talk from personal experience about issues relevant to the students. 

The worldbuilding questions:

Ecology and Subsistence:

Briefly describe your fictional world’s environment. What known environment (i.e., modern Earth environment) is most like the environment of your world? If you’re creating an “alternate Earth” world, this is a simple question to answer, just say “Arctic Circle”, or “Sahara Desert”. If your world is something totally unlike an Earth ecosystem, such as a space station, are there any Earth environments that may have some similarities, like an Antarctic research station?

In what specific ways (if any) is the environment in your world different from the known Earth environment(s) you mentioned above? Are there different plants, animals, day lengths, weather patterns, etc? What are the implications of those differences? (The implications may be explored more thoroughly in answering later questions.)

What foods are available in your world, and what technology is typically used to capture/harvest/processes it? Examples could include bows and arrows to hunt wild animals; simple hand-powered hoes for horticulture; a giant mechano-chemical complex of technology for industrialized agriculture; spaceship hydroponics systems; computers that create everything you want from atoms of the air, etc.)

Gender, Family, and Sexuality:
What forms of human sexuality are accepted/encouraged/considered “normal” or “natural” in your world? Are there forms of sexuality that are discouraged/persecuted/considered “abnormal” or “unnatural”? What kind of variation in sexuality do you see in your world? (Keep in mind that these should relate to the gender roles and family structures you discuss below. For example, you cannot have a society that persecutes heterosexual attractions, but where the basic family unit is a man and a woman and their children.)

What genders exist in your world? In addition to man and woman (assuming you use those), are there third genders? (For ethnographic examples of third genders, research berdache or two-spirit, hijra, and/or kathoeys; there are many more archaeological and anthropological examples of third genders around the world).

What behaviors, personality traits, and occupations are traditionally associated with the genders in your world (in other words, what are the gender roles for the genders you have defined)? What variation exists or is recognized in your world? How are people taught their gender roles? What are the penalties (if any) associated with not meeting the expectations for your gender? (These roles should relate logically to the family structures discussed below and the social organization and subsistence technology discussed during your last world-building session.)

How do people recognize and discuss kinship in your world? (For more about known systems of organizing and discussing kinship, see the University of Manitoba kinship page: What are the implications of this system, in terms of who is considered to be closely related, and who is not? (Again, these should relate logically to the family structures and gender roles you have created.)

What is/are the typical structure(s) of marriage in your world? How does it/do they fulfill all of the necessary functions of marriage (as anthropologists define them)? What variation exists around the typical structure(s)? What penalties (if any) are associated with not fitting within a typical marriage structure?

Social/Political Organization:
Is your society best described as a band, tribe, chiefdom, or state? What aspects of your society make it a band, tribe, chiefdom, or state (for example, what aspects of leadership, economic structure, etc., fit within the classic anthropological definitions of a particular type of social organization)? What aspects of your society are different from most known examples of that type of social organization?

What institutions exist within your society (using the anthropological definition of institution: “any structure or mechanism governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a human community”)? How formal or informal are these institutions?

Within the institutions discussed above, what mechanisms exist to regulate people’s behavior and compliance with the rules (force, economic sanctions, shaming, etc.)? Note that the mechanisms will be different depending on the type of behavior being regulated (ex: murder vs. jaywalking), and the type of institution (ex: the family vs. the legal courts).

Who are the leaders in your society, and how do they exercise authority (if they do)? Where does the leaders’ power come from (what economic, social, religious, and/or military source)? Why do people follow or obey the leader?

Is your society hierarchical? 

If yes: what classes or castes exist, and what is the basis of differentiation (what differences in power, prestige, and/or wealth exist)? How do people in your society tell members of different classes apart? (For inspiration, try doing some research on sumptuary laws, which were ways many societies used to maintain distinctions between social groups, for example, by allowing only the royal family to wear certain colors, preventing the lower classes from carrying weapons, or binding the heads of upper-class children so they would be a different shape in adulthood.)

If no: what mechanisms exist in your society to maintain equality between people? (For inspiration, read Richard Lee’s classic article “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”)

Race and Ethnicity:
What, if any, are the distinct physical characteristics of the people in your world? Do these characteristics vary across populations (for example, are facial features different in the north than in the south, or are people different in body plan from east to west)? Are these physical characteristics adaptations to the local environments, or are there other explanations for these traits? 

Do the people of your world divide themselves and others into “races” on the basis of their physical traits or heritage? If so, what traits do they choose, and how do they determine which race a person belongs in?

How do the people of your fictional society define themselves as separate from other cultures/ethnicities? What are the objective (visible) and subjective (invisible) signs of that ethnicity or identity? (You should consider many aspects of society, such as dress, traditions, religion, language, manners, food, etc.)

Describe the traditional dress and food of your society. On the last day of the semester, you’ll be asked to wear your society’s traditional dress and brings a traditional dish to share, so please keep in mind the boundaries of U.S.-defined decency, and the constraints of both the weather and feasibility when creating your traditional dress and food!

Is your fictional world a pluralistic society (one in which many races/ethnicities live together)? 

If Yes: Are there tensions between different ethnic groups? If so, over what issues (for example: religion, historic conflicts, etc.), and how are they resolved (for example: through shared religion, shared origin myth, or intermarriage)? Are there disparities of power between ethnic groups? If so, why, and what kind?

If No: What are the relationships like between your society and other, nearby societies? Do they share the same or similar ethnicities? Are relations cordial or strained? If strained, what are the major fault lines between the groups? (For example, do the groups see themselves as having separate religions, social organizations, or histories?) If cordial, what mechanisms do they use to keep relations friendly? (Examples might include ritual trade relationships, fictive kinship, or a shared religion.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaching with Peer Feedback

IMHO, having students provide feedback on their classmate's work is one of the most effective teaching techniques. First, students tend to do their very best work if someone other than the professor is going to read it. Second, peers can provide a real and attainable model of success for struggling students.Third, analyzing another's work forces students to think about the assignment - from the nitty-gritty of writing style to the structure of the logical argument - in a very different way from writing it; this perspective can help students re-write their own work. (Forcing students to revise their writing is another effective teaching technique, but that's another post.)

In my Human Societies: Past, Present, Fact, Fiction class (aka, Teaching Anthropology through SciFi/Fantasy), I've built peer feedback into the structure of the class. Students are creating fictional worlds in groups of three to four. There are four world-building exercises in the class (one each focused on gender, social organization, ethnicity, and religion.) Here's how I've included peer feedback:

1) The first draft of each world-building exercise is shared with a workshopping partner. Although the exercises are written by the group, each member of the group has an individual workshopping partner, so each group will get feedback from three or four partners. I also give each group feedback on their exercise at this time. Workshopping partners write up their comments, but I also dedicate a day of class to talking to workshop partners.

2) After the group has gotten their first round of comments, they put together a poster presentation of their world-building exercise. These posters are put up around the classroom during one class period, so students can walk around and see what every other group is doing. At least one student needs to stay with the group's poster, to explain and discuss their exercise.

3) A few days after the poster session, the final exercise is due, incorporating the feedback.

This schedule requires eight days of the semester dedicated to, essentially, peer feedback (four for workshops, four for posters). It's a lot, but so far, it seems to be effective.

How do you include peer feedback in your classes? Or do you not find it an effective teaching technique?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Breastfeeding in an Anthropology Class

Babies show up everywhere! Here my 4-mo son 
gives his first ever academic paper, at the Society
 for American Archaeology conference, in 2010. 
No babies were breastfed during this conference paper.

I'm sure everyone has heard the kerfuffle over American University professor Adrienne Pine's decision to breastfeed her baby during a feminist anthropology class. The baby woke up sick on the first day of classes and was unable to go to daycare, so Dr. Pine brought her to work. Later, Dr. Pine was approached by the AU student newspaper, who wanted to run a story on the "incident". Dr. Pine preferred to tell her own story, so published her account in CounterPunch.

I have breastfed my three children in lots of professional contexts: meetings, my office, conferences, etc. I have had my children in class. (Last semester, my students were worried that I would literally have a child in class. They asked for a set of instructions in case I went into labor while teaching.) I have no memory of breastfeeding in class, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did, once or twice, with one of my older children.

In a nation that provides so little support for working families, but where women are more than half of the workforce, such conflicts between the personal and professional are inevitable. Academic mothers often have no partner or their partner is also an academic. We work very long hours. (I work most evenings and on the weekend.) We are not well-paid relative to our education levels, and daycare, especially emergency daycare, is expensive. 

It's hard for academic women to take maternity or sick leave. Most universities don't have a lot of redundancy in faculty. If I can't teach my class for a day - or for six weeks of leave - then someone else has to do it on top of their own job. Often that person is not particularly well qualified to teach the class (it's outside their specialty) and is working a significant over-load without pay. We're all willing to pitch in when necessary, but an untenured mother may worry that asking colleagues to help will negatively affect her tenure case down the road.

The saving grace for academic parenthood is the flexibility we have to arrange our schedules around our families' needs. If I need to, I can leave campus in time to pick my six year old up from school, and work from 8-10pm on class prep instead of 3-5. If my child is sick, or has a half-day, I can bring him or her to my office, or even to class, if necessary. Is it ideal? No. But often it's the best solution for everyone.

If I didn't have that flexibility (and if I wasn't working in such a wonderful, family-friendly environment like UMM), my best option would be to leave academia. If I had to be at work from 9-5 without the ability to bring my children when necessary, then I would look for a job that pays better and only expects 40 hours a week. I would also count myself lucky if I could find such a job, as many women have to contend with jobs that demand long hours, have no flexibility, and still don't pay well. This is a failure of the system, one that makes it very difficult for working mothers.

But the hoopla over Dr. Price's parenting decisions isn't about public policy and social infrastructure. It's about the way our culture has an instinctive "oooh, gross!" reaction to breastfeeding. That's not what people are saying, of course, because we don't want to admit that something so "natural" makes us squirmy. But it's true.

Read this Washington Post article about the "incident". Students claim they were unhappy because they were exposed to a sick child. But how frequently do students and faculty come to class with full-blown consumption? The baby was said to be distracting to the students and professor, yet the student newspaper found out about the story because a student tweeted about it during class. I find it hard to believe that the baby was more distracting than Facebook and Angry Birds.

I don't mean to minimize the potential problems. Babies are a distraction, and nobody wants to have an infant in the classroom on a daily basis. But the controversy here has nothing to do with the distractions of infants in general, and everything to do with the cultural baggage associated with breastfeeding. We have sexualized breasts to such an extent that the idea of a baby feeding from them - as happens in all mammal species - is sometimes even equated to sexual abuse of children! To many people, a woman "using" her breasts in public (to feed her child) is like a man "using" his penis in public. Even if the person is covered in such a way that you can't see the organ(s) in question, the behavior is seen as sexually inappropriate, and makes others uncomfortable. There's an "ick factor".

(Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this interview, where one of the reporters says "but you wouldn't breastfeed your baby during an interview", in the same tone as she might say "pick your nose" or "have sex". Clearly, this is seen as a disgusting, or at least somewhat shameful, act. Like peeing, we may have to do it, but it shouldn't be publicly acknowledged.)

Negative ideas about breastfeeding are very old in Western culture. In pre-Industrial periods, wealthy women hired wet nurses for their children, rather than nurse them themselves. Breastfeeding was low-class, animal, unrefined. This idea of breastfeeding was one of the reasons women in the 20th century embraced formula and abandoned nursing. Like tinned vegetables and beef, it was a sign of status and wealth.

So, obviously, I don't think Adrienne Price did anything wrong in bringing her baby to class and feeding her. She did the best she could under difficult circumstances. People who criticize her for the negative consequences (the potential to distract from class, for example), should think about the degree to which their cultural baggage about breasts and breastfeeding is affecting their reaction.

That said, I, personally, would not have handled the aftermath of the "incident" in the same was as Dr. Price. It's a personal decision, of course, but I would not have published the CounterPunch article, which had a rather aggressive and sarcastic tone, and I felt was unkind to the young reporters from the student paper. She said taking her child to class could be a "teachable moment". Teaching, to me, is better done in a less confrontational manner, and with more sympathy for the socially-learned reactions which are, nonetheless, very real. I do see that Dr. Price has apologized to the students, however, and I hope that this controversy can spark some national thinking about the choices we are forcing on working mothers.

I see that Becky Farbstein at the blog Serious and Not-so-serious Musings on Archaeology made similar points. Great minds, etc.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I haven't blogged much since the baby was born. Turns out that three kids under 7 years of age and a full-time job are hard work. (Gee, who would've thought it?) 

But, classes have started, and I wanted to share some of what is happening in my new class, where I'm teaching anthropology through science fiction and fantasy

I really want students to grapple with big anthropological questions, to think about patterns in human societies around the world and why they exist. In addition to reading anthropological texts and speculative fiction, they're working in groups to create fictional human societies. These worldbuilding exercises build on each other through the course of the semester, and they are the main graded component of the class.

The first worldbuilding exercise was due last week. Students were asked to create a fictional environment and discuss subsistence in their society. The mantra for these exercises is "be inspired -  but not limited - by reality". In other words, I want students to be aware of what we know about human societies, but to play with known patterns and limitations by thinking about the implications of radically different environments, technology, etc. In other words, these fictional worlds should not have vast empires based on hunting and gathering, unless they can create a reasonable explanation for why such a pattern should exist (perhaps a bountiful, high-density, and reliable source of extraterrestrial food that doesn't require cultivation.)

Yes, I realize by starting the class with environment and subsistence, I'm suggesting that human/environmental interactions are primary determinants of cultural patterns. A) I'm an environmental anthropologist, what do you expect?; and B) I have to start somewhere, and, as I discussed with my students, my personal theoretical biases led me to start with subsistence, and then move on to gender, social organization, ethnicity, and religion. I did tell my students that this was not the only way to structure the class, and I am certainly open to alternatives. In practice, the students are already including a great deal of social organization, gender, religion, and ethnicity into their worldbuilding, as it is impossible to discuss these topics in isolation.

I was truly impressed by the effort many of my students put into their assignments. I asked for at least two pages, double-spaced, and some of the papers I received were four pages, single-spaced. I hope the students are having half as much fun as I am with this class!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pertussis in Washington

In my Ecological Anthropology class, we have a section on infectious disease, and a day dedicated to herd immunity and the vaccination wars. For any students who may be interested in following up on that topic, check out this post on the pertussis outbreak in the state of Washington, which has seen a 13-fold increase in cases this year, relative to last year.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a major health risk to infants, in particular, but it's no fun for healthy adults, either. Washington is in the middle of a major outbreak, partly related to the percentage of unvaccinated people, which is really high on the Northwest Coast, although the CDC suggests that resistance to the vaccine, and a natural cyclicity in outbreaks of the disease are also to blame. 

Note that the numbers are probably underestimates of pertussis cases. Pertussis is hard to diagnose after the first few weeks, and in adults - particularly vaccinated adults - it often doesn't include the classic "whooping" sound to aid diagnosis. Also, there's nothing that can be done about pertussis, per se, so there's not much point in running the expensive diagnostic test. Doctors may assume a patient has pertussis, if the person has the symptoms and was known to have been exposed, but those diagnoses may not be reported to the CDC. 

Speaking from personal experience, pertussis can also be missed. I'm fairly certain I had pertussis this Spring. In mid-March, I developed a cough so severe that I would throw up at the end of coughing jags, turn bright red, even start to see black around the edges of my vision. Four months later, I still cough when I laugh or breathe too deeply. I was on an airplane from Minneapolis to Washington DC at exactly the right time to have caught pertussis, and Minnesota is also experiencing an outbreak this spring. But my case was never counted. The doctors assumed it was a normal cold, just made more severe by my pregnancy, and by the time it was clear that I had a bigger problem, it was too late for a definitive test.

So, these outbreak numbers are probably underestimating the true scope of the problem. Keep your kids safe - vaccinate!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Race Resources from Living Anthropologically

Since I'm revamping my physical anthropology class, I wanted to post a quick shout-out to this fantastic post by Living Anthropologically on resources for teaching race. There are some great-sounding readings that I didn't know about. I'm looking forward to checking them out.

Farming at Palmyra

Saw this lovely National Geographic article about Palmyra.

I visited Palmyra back in 2000 (alas, before my digital camera days, so no pictures!) It's a beautiful place, and very much in the middle of a desert. Like, sand-dune desert. Arid. Dry as a bone. Not a drop of water to be seen. Dry as a. . .well, you get the idea.

How did a town of 200,000 people survive in that environment? Extensive manipulation of rainwater and runoff water from nearby mountains. The article discusses new evidence for at least 35 farming villages around Palmyra, and extensive networks of reservoirs and canals. 

A very interesting example of an agricultural landscape. I'll look forward to reading more.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Intro to Physical Anthropology: The Core Concepts

As I posted, I'm completely overhauling my intro to physical anthropology class. The result will be a class that covers fewer topics, but in greater depth.  Which topics are so critical they should remain in the course, and which topics can be allowed to slide?

In previous years, I've followed the topics laid out in a standard intro textbook. I've used two different textbooks in the past five years, neither of which I love, and the problems with (and costs of) the textbooks are another reason I want to change my approach to this class. 

In a quick brainstorm session, I wrote down all of the topics that I cover in the intro course. I then whittled these down to 15 topics (more or less one for each week of the semester)*. Here is my list of core concepts that must be covered in an intro to physical anthropology class. Some of these are pretty broad, so I'll have to cut them down in order to cover them in-depth. Also, nothing says I have to cover a new topic each week. Perhaps the class would be better if I spent longer on one, and dropped another.

What's missing? What's not worthy of being included on this list? I welcome feedback and suggestions! 

Core concepts:
1) "Nature vs. nurture" (I don't like that phrase, but, generally, I cover the flexiblity of the genetic code and how the environment and our genes work together. Much of this is aimed at improving students' media savvy, when it comes to claims about "a gene for...").

2) Adaptation and evolution (these are key background concepts students should have gotten in high school biology, but often have not)

3) The four forces of evolution and how they work (ditto)

4) Modern human biodiversity, why it exists, what shapes it (finally, some actual anthropology!)

5) Race as a cultural concept/more on physical differences between populations

6) Primate adaptations (shape of teeth and bones, biomechanics, sexual dimorphism, and other physical traits related to particular adaptations)

7) Primate social adaptations (reproductive strategies, altruism, etc.)

8) Speciation (more key background information)

9) Cladistics (with a focus on how relationships are determined)

10) Bipedalism (origins and function of)

11) Tool use (origins and function of)

12) Encephalization (origins and functions of)

13) Cooperative breeding/human social organization (origins and functions of)

14) Origins of modern humans

15) Origins of behavioral modernity

Next up: What are the core skills that should be taught in an intro to physical anthropology class?

*The class has lab sessions, and those sessions will cover some Mendelian genetics (pedigree analysis, etc.), Hardy-Weinberg, human osteology, primate skull identification, and hominin skull identification

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Physical Anthropology: Total Overhaul

I've decided to completely re-prep my introduction to physical anthropology class. I plan to blog the whole process, hoping that I can get comments from readers to improve my plans. In this post, I lay out the reasons for re-doing the class. More brainstorming and planning posts will follow.

Physical Anthropology has always been one of my favorite classes. Although it's not my field, I love it, and I'm very enthusiastic about the subject matter. Plus, my zoology/paleontology background makes this a natural fit for my interests. My enthusiasm used to be enough to turn a large lecture course into a class that many students enjoyed. But two years ago, we switched the class meeting time from early afternoon to eight freaking o'clock in the morning. This has a deadening effect on the entire classroom. At times, I feel like I'm lecturing to zombies (which I am, given the hour!), and the average grade on the exams fell by ten percent. Clearly, changes need to be made.

That's not the only reason I want to overhaul the class. There are certain concepts that I think are critical for students to understand, and I'm not getting through to as many of them as I want. For example, I spend two weeks talking about race, but a significant number of students still don't understand what I mean when I say race is a cultural, and not biological, category. I've tried different types of lectures and activities, I've tried different analogies and explanations, but I still feel that I'm failing.

My goal is to create a more experiential, hands-on learning experience, where students participate in the scientific process, and are able to explore concepts in more depth. The class already has lab sessions, but I plan to shift the regular classroom focus away from lectures to a discussion- and activity-based classroom experience. This necessarily involves trade-offs. I won't be able to throw as much information into my lectures and expect students to memorize it. On the other hand, those topics I do cover will be covered in greater depth, and hopefully the average students will learn more, the struggling students will struggle less, and the top students will gain the skills and context they need to truly excel.

Next post: What are the core topics that any good introduction to physical anthropology course must cover? 

Comments on Inside Candidates

I had some comments on my post about inside candidates. I wanted to share this one from Jen Pylypa: 

I agree with the spirit of your comments here, and they are certainly appropriate given the current American context. Beyond the specific context of your comments, it might be interesting, though, to contemplate that there are other hiring models in the world. Here in Canada, where unions have more power, it is not necessarily assumed that inside candidates are not 'owed' a job. At my university, the collective agreement has various provisions that prevent departments from hiring and rehiring temporary faculty on short term contracts without providing them the respect and job security of permanence. For example, at least in theory preference IS given to an inside candidate if they are 'equally qualified' given the job ad description (although arguments over the notion of 'equally qualified' may ensue). Also, faculty hired on a one year term and renewed annually for 5 years (adjuncts) must after 5 years be 'confirmed', which means that they get a permanent teaching (non-research) position. The logic is that if you respect someone's work enough to keep them in residence over multiple years serving the department, you DO owe them permanence rather than ongoing, economically exploitative, precarious employment.

This is a good reminder that the exploitation of adjunct faculty in US institutions makes the "inside candidate" issue more complicated. 

I would not consider the cases I have been involved with to be exploitative. When I was the "inside candidate" for my present position, I had only been at the institution for a short time (began teaching in August, was hired by the end of April). But, in cases where someone has worked at a university for many years, I am very open to the argument that the institution does owe that person a permanent position. In that case, though, I hope they would consider a targeted hire, rather than run a fake nation-wide search when they plan to hire their long-term colleague.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Teaching Anthropology with SciFi/Fantasy: Book Suggestions

I received a lot of book suggestions from my post on teaching anthropology with SciFi and Fantasy novels. Some of these were in the comments, but others were on Facebook or through e-mail, so I thought I'd share them here. Any comments on these, or other suggestions for my summer reading?

Saladin Ahmed - Throne of the Crescent Moon

Eleanor Arnason - Ring of Swords and A Woman of the Iron People

Iain M. Banks - The Algebraist

Elizabeth Bear - Dust

Orson Scott Card - Speaker for the Dead

Suzy McKee Charnas - The Slave and the Free

Ted Chiang - Stories of Your Life and others

Samuel Delany - Dhalgren (and other books)

Nalo Hopkinson - Brown Girl in the Ring and Skin Folk

Ursula K. LeGuin - Left Hand of Darkness

Laurie Marks - Elemental Logics series (multiple recommendations)

Elizabeth Moon - Remnant Population

Km Stanley Robinson - Mars Trilogy

Dan Simmons - Illuim and Olympos

Neal Stephenson - The Diamond Age

George R. Stewart - Earth Abides

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What do we owe the "inside candidate"?

I was an "inside candidate"* for my current position (though it by no means guaranteed me the job), and it looks  like I'll be serving on a search committee for a tenure-track position to replace what is, currently, a position held by a temporary faculty member. So I've been thinking about what a search committee owes to a colleague serving in a temporary position in their program who has applied for a tenure-track opening. 

I, personally, had a good experience as the "inside candidate". My colleagues were very professional, respectful, and upfront about the hiring process. But, I've heard a number of horror stories from friends. This is an awkward situation, under the best of circumstances.

First, let me say what the search committee does not owe the inside candidate. They don't owe them the job. This means that at any point along the process, the inside candidate may find that they are not in an advantageous position. This may have nothing to do with the relative merits of the inside candidate herself.  The committee may decide, when they meet to write the job advertisement, that the program has a gaping hole in the field of Purple Gerbils, but the temporary person currently teaching in the program specializes in Orange Lettuce. Or, if the committee does decide to hire in Orange Lettuce, they may find that the applicant pool for a tenure-track job is much stronger than it was for a temporary job, and therefore there are people with much more impressive CVs than that of the "inside candidate". (OK, so it's hard not to take that last situation personally, but the committee needs to make the best decision for the long-term needs of the program, to the best of their ability. This isn't a reflection on the candidate's worth as a person or researcher, merely a reflection of what the committee believes is the best fit under current circumstances.)

Similarly, the search committee does not owe their temporary colleague an interview, not even a "practice interview". There's nothing more heartbreaking than a hopeful candidate giving the interview their all, only to find later that they never had a chance at the job.

What does the search committee owe the inside candidate (especially if you aren't going to hire the person)?:

1. Courage. Most horror stories I've heard are the result of search committee members who were too cowardly to look a candidate in the eyes and tell them they hadn't gotten the job. Don't let the candidate hear they haven't been granted an interview by "accidentally" cc-ing them on the e-mail announcing the three finalists. Don't let them discover their interview was unsuccessful by announcing the final hire for the first time at a campus-wide faculty meeting. If you can't face the candidate in person (and, honestly, it might be better not to), then send them a personal e-mail or call them. 

2. Honesty. Tell the candidate exactly where they stand in the search. Don't lead them on, and don't offer them sops (like a "courtesy interview") just because you're too afraid to tell them you don't want to hire them (see #1). Yes, I know there are privacy concerns about discussing a search committee's work, but an inside candidate already has a lot more information than other candidates, just by virtue of being in the department, seeing the posters for the job talks, etc. Be rational and reasonable in what you can tell them. For example, there's no reason not to fess up if a long-list has been made and everyone who is on it has been informed. 

3. Respect. This should go without saying, but it's particularly important not to mock, denigrate, gossip about, or undermine an inside candidate with their colleagues or students. If you have a critique of their job talk that you wouldn't feel comfortable saying to their face, don't say it to a colleague, unless it's a substantive point that should be discussed during a confidential search committee meeting, and nowhere else.

4. An understanding of the job market. The job market sucks. There are far more qualified candidates than there are jobs, so getting a job is a crap shoot. Don't treat an adjunct faculty member as a second-class citizen who is unworthy of a tenure-track job, just because they took an adjunct position. These days, most of us end up with an adjunct position at least once in our careers. Recognize, too, that applying for jobs takes a lot of time and emotional energy. Don't eat that time and energy by leading the candidate to believe they have a shot at the job when they don't, let them focus their efforts on jobs for which they might be a better fit.

So what does the inside candidate owe to the search committee? Professionalism. The horror stories I've heard about inside candidates haven't just come from temporary faculty, they've also come from search committees and tenured faculty members who saw unsuccessful "inside candidates" behave in a completely inappropriate manner. Don't take advantage of your position on campus to demand special treatment or to aggressively lobby for your hire. Don't make everyone feel awkward and uncomfortable by coming to the other candidate's job talks and heckling them. Don't organize student protests if you are not offered the job. Don't try to sabotage the career of the person who was chosen in your place. You're more likely to sabotage your own. 

*To clarify, by "inside candidate", I mean someone who currently holds a temporary job, but is qualified for a newly opened tenure-track job in the same department. This post doesn't apply to situations where the search committee is clearly targeting a particular individual.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Scientific Outreach at Liberal Arts Institutions

I enjoyed these posts by Kate Clancy and Scicurious about scientific outreach. At most universities, as they point out, outreach isn't valued and isn't what we're paid to do, so any outreach is done on our own time and can actually be detrimental to our careers.

Their perspective on outreach is colored by the expectations of major research universities. Small liberal arts colleges, and particularly my small liberal arts college, provide a very different context for scientific outreach. U of MN Morris not only has a culture that encourages outreach (we have a science blogging celebrity on the faculty), we actually have an Office of Community Engagement with staff to support outreach in many forms, from service learning to student volunteerism. This is one of many reasons I love my job here!

My own experience with outreach (other than this blog, which won't count unless/until I gain an audience!) suggests that liberal arts professors, at least, can integrate outreach into their research and teaching in ways that benefit all. The higher value placed on teaching, student engagement, and pedagogical innovation makes this much easier at a liberal arts institution than at an R1.

For example, last semester I taught North American Archaeology. Outreach was part of the class. Rather than write a term paper, my students posted annotated bibliographies on the class blog. The hope is that these posts will be a resource for other students and researchers in the field. OK, so the blog posts are of varying quality, like any set of student assignments, but the potential is there, and this is a form of outreach that can be included in a class without adding any more work than would be required by regular papers.

In the same class, the students created lesson plans on archaeology and Native American culture for preschool and early elementary school children. These lesson plans are posted on the class blog for teachers to use (our Office of Community Engagement is publicizing this resource to teachers throughout the state), and my students also implemented these lesson plans in classrooms here in Morris (with the supplies all paid for by, yes, the Office of Community Engagement). Sure, implementing the lesson plans took some time out of my schedule (at the very end of the semester, when I was 8.75 months pregnant!), but creating the lesson plans was an academic exercise for my students, and, again, didn't take any more time out of my schedule than grading any other paper.

The quality of my teaching will be a huge part (about half) of my tenure decision next year. Innovative approaches, student and community engagement, and outreach count as "pluses" in my portfolio. No, a class blog won't make up for abysmal student evaluations or a total lack of publications, but outreach is valued and can help create a strong tenure package at institutions where teaching and engagement are encouraged.

So, while I agree with the points Katy Clancy and Scicurious made on their blogs, I just want to point out that many (most?) PhDs don't work in R1 institutions. For those of us at liberal arts colleges, outreach can be an asset.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Teaching Anthropology through Science Fiction and Fantasy

Book orders for the Fall were due today, and I turned in my strangest list ever: nine science fiction and fantasy novels. I'm teaching a new class that introduces students to anthropology through speculative fiction, my first foray into teaching with literature. 

The class covers four major topics: 1) gender roles, sexuality, and family structure; 2) social organization and governance; 3) race, ethnicity, and culture contact; and 4) religion, ritual, and belief. For each topic, we'll read theoretical articles and ethnographic examples of documented cultural variation (past and present), as well as two novels. The students will analyze the novels for the unspoken assumptions by the authors (for example, based on the plot and characters, did the author believe certain gender roles or racial classification systems to be inherent to human societies?), and compare those assumptions to the ethnographic and archaeological literature. In the process, the students will have to consider their own assumptions about what traits make us human.

The class project is a world-building exercise. Students will create their own speculative human societies, with specific focus on our four major topics. They will have to justify the choices they make through reference to the anthropological literature, so they aren't given unlimited license for creativity. Students must engage big questions, like "are there inherent social differences between males and females?" or "what rules, if any, govern and limit human behavior and social organizations?". Our focus on speculative fictions means that students can think about how technology, or alternative rules of physics, or magical powers could change these limits and rules (what happens to gender roles if men are biologically capable of bearing children? what happens to racial classification systems if people are capable of changing their physical appearance and/or their very genes at will?) This class project is similar to the world simulation approach to Intro to Cultural Anthropology described by Mike at Savage Minds, but without the simulation, just the world-building. 

Picking the novels was hard. I wanted both science fiction and fantasy novels, both classic and new books, and a diversity of authors (to the extent that's possible). I limited my choices to books about human societies, so as not to confuse our discussions with the addition of aliens. The final reading list is a mixed bag of books I love, books I like, and books I don't care for much, but which I chose because they will generate discussion. 

Here's the list. I'd love suggestions for future editions of this class!

Gender roles, sexuality, and family structure:
Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my all-time favorite authors)
Glory Season by David Brin (not my favorite book, but good for opening discussions about family structure)

Social organization and governance:
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (just read my first Banks novel. How could I have missed this?!)
The Earthsea Cycle  (first two books), by Ursula K. Le Guin (Le Guin's not my favorite author, but I had to include her. You do know the K stands for Kroeber, right? As in the daughter of Alfred?)

Race, ethnicity, and culture contact:
Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor (Okorafor needs to write more adult fiction)
Beguilement (The Sharing Knife Book 1) by Lois McMaster Bujold (Bujold again!)

Religion, ritual, and belief:
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (An oldie but goodie. Actually, finding appropriate books about religion was hard. Either the books had an ax to grind - think Philip Pullman - or were proselytizing - think C.S. Lewis - or, in the case of many fantasy books, the existence of supernatural forces was eminently provable, in the form of gods walking the earth or legitimate prophecies. I think the nature and function of religion would be quite different in a society where people frequently sit down to tea with their god, so I avoided those books.)
Dune by Frank Herbert (another classic)

So what gems of literature did I miss?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Looting at Kincaid Mounds, Southern Illinois

I spent a wonderful year as Visiting Scholar at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, back in 2006-2007. Their yearly Visiting Scholar program is a wonderful opportunity for recent graduates, and has led to some excellent conferences and publications. (Here's a shameless plug for my own edited volume, The Archaeology of Anthropogenic Environments.)

So I was sad to see this article that reports looting at Kincaid Mounds, a site in southern Illinois that has been excavated for many years by SIUC faculty and served as a fieldschool for a number of students, including one from my own program here in Minnesota. I hope no significant damage was done.

Friday, May 25, 2012

More on Shipman's dog/human/neandertal hypothesis

This article in the New York Times discusses Shipman's hypothesis that dog domestication was a critical component of modern human success (see my previous post below). The author, James Gorman, interviewed Greger Larson, who says, more or less, what I said in my post: It's a really interesting theory, but depends on evidence for early dog domestication, which so far we just don't have.

Larson cited a paper I had not seen yet, in press at JAS, by Crockford and Kuzmin, that is critical of the Belgian evidence for dog domestication. It looks like their argument is a more thoroughly argued and better documented version of mine: the Belgian "dogs" could be part of the natural variation within wolf species.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Homo sapiens sapiens: A species that has gone to the dogs?

Pat Shipman has a provocative new comment in American Scientist suggesting that  the energetic benefits of hunting with dogs gave anatomically modern humans (AMH) a significant advantage over Neandertals, and led, as some newspaper headlines have suggested, to the "extinction" of Neandertals. (Neandertals and other premodern humans didn't actually go extinct. Their genes live on in descendant Eurasian populations. It is clear, however, that AMH were demographically more successful than their chinless contemporaries.)

If so, then the unique, co-evolutionary relationship humans have with dogs could be a critical component of behavioral modernity, like art and ornament, composite tools, or fishing. The question remains, why did this relationship develop when and where it did? Other "modern" behaviors occur only sporadically prior to 50k years ago, and are not correlated to biological changes. For example, art was created by both premodern and AMH populations, and many populations of both show no evidence for art. If a domestic relationship with dogs was a critical aspect of AMH adaptation, why did it occur after 50k years ago, and not before? What would have prevented Neandertals or other premodern humans from forming the same relationship with canids?

Shipman's article is thought-provoking, although speculative (as she acknowledges), and I hope will inspire further investigation. Her suggestion relies heavily on evidence for early dog domestication in Europe, but evidence for the location and timing of dog domestication is hard to pin down. Genetic studies have been contradictory, suggesting East Asian or Middle Eastern origins for dogs, and failing to identify a clear time of origin, partly because of on-going gene flow with wolf populations (Pang et al. 2009; von Holdt et al. 2010). 

The archaeological data is somewhat stronger, with evidence of dog-like characteristics in some canids as early as 33k years ago (Ovodov et al. 2011), but still not conclusive. Germonpré et al. (2011) argued for dog domestication 26k years ago at Předmostí, in the Czech Republic. Their work is thorough and well-documented, but the site produced only a few specimens that they argue to be dog, and an MNI of over 100 canids, most of which are wolf. The large number of wolves is problematic. Finding a few domestic dogs among so many wolves is like finding a few flakes in a pile of naturally broken rocks: are we sure the (arguably) domesticated finds aren't within the expected natural variation? Such variation must have existed within wolves, in order to be selected for during the process of domestication. The remains were clearly modified by humans post mortem, so I'm not convinced that  Germonpré et al. are wrong, I'm just not convinced they're right, particularly given the small number of dog remains that have been found from the Paleolithic, and the complete lack of dog remains dating to the critical time period of Neandertal/AMH overlap.

Shipman argues that the use of canid teeth for ornaments suggests they were not seen as prey, but red deer teeth are commonly used as ornaments in Upper Paleolithic Europe, and they clearly were prey. Similarly, equating the absence of art depicting canids to the absence of art depicting human figures is an interesting contention, but not, in itself, very strong evidence for a special relationship with the artists. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Shipman's argument is her documentation of the significant energetic savings that dogs could have provided AMH hunters. The evidence she cites comes from modern ethnographic work, of course, which may or may not apply to mammoth hunting (the main prey species found at Předmostí). Shipman notes that moose hunting yields are increased by the use of hunting dogs who corner prey and hold them until their human partners can arrive. But mammoths are much bigger than moose. Could dogs hold them at bay? Shipman also cites evidence that prey encounter rates are greater for hunters who use dogs, but these studies mostly focus on small-game hunting. A dog's tracking ability may always be useful, but encounter rates for mammoths would have been less affected by vegetation cover than is the case for small prey in tropical environments. Mammoths don't get lost in the underbrush!

I'd be the last person to argue that human/animal relationships are less than crucial to understanding human ecology, despite my reservations about Shipman's proposal. Although Paleolithic dog domestication is well outside my own research focus, I hope to hear more about this hypothesis, and see more work done on the relevant faunas. She's raised a lot of very interesting questions!


Germonpré, M., M. Lázničková-Galetová and M. Sablin
2012 Palaeolithic dog skulls at the Gravettian Předmostí site, the Czech Republic. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:84–202.

2011 A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS ONE 

Pang J-F, Kluetsch C, Zou X-J, Zhang A, Luo L-Y, et al. 
2009 mtDNA data indicate a single origin for dogs south of Yangtze River, less than 16,300 years ago, from numerous wolves. Molecular Biology and Evolution 26: 2849–2864 

vonHoldt BM, Pollinger JP, Lohmueller KE, Han E, Parker HG, et al. 
2010 Genome-wide SNP and haplotype analyses reveal a rich history underlying dog domestication. Nature 464: 898–903.