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.


  1. I like this idea too! One issue I have with having long student presentations is that it often seems as though the student doing the presentation learns a lot but the rest of the class doesn't learn so much. Having people do shorter reports like the ones you describe sounds like a good way to minimize this downside.

  2. I've been happy with the short presentations. The students also write short papers, and share those with the rest of the class. All students need to know the material from these papers for the exams. The exams are take-home essay exams, so they can look up the material from other student's research, but they still pay attention in class. In practice, the exams consist mostly of comparative questions, like "compare and contrast the role of warfare in the development of state-level societies in any two societies of your choice". That lets students use their own research, and then compare it to someone else's research. I'll have to change things a bit, with my new focus on sites rather than regions, but I think the basic ideas will apply.