Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intro to Archaeology Revisted

In a previous post, I discussed teaching the Intro to Archaeology class thematically, rather than geochronologically. This semester, I'm attempting just that, with mixed success. The "mixed" part largely boils down to an unexpectedly busy semester that is wrecking havoc with my ability to spend the many hours needed to totally reprep a class. But there are also structural problems with the class that I look forward to addressing in future semesters.

I organized the class around a series of questions, one per week. Readings, in-class activities, and labs all focus on those questions, and attempt to cover both how archaeologists know about these things (methods of excavation, lab analysis, etc.), and provide an overview of prehistoric cultures world-wide as examples. The questions are:

1. What is the point of the past? (Why bother learning any of this stuff?)
2. Who owns the past? (Ethics, stakeholders, Indigenous Archaeology, etc.)
3. What's the big picture? (An overview of major trends in human history)
4. How have humans changed the environment (and how has it changed us)?
5. Did past societies live sustainably (and can we)?
6. Why do we have different ethnic groups (and can we get along)?
7. Why did we settle down?
8. Why did we begin farming (and was it the worst mistake we ever made)?
9. Why do we have inequality?
10. Why do governments and empires form?
11. Why do we have war?

What I've learned so far this semester is that I need to re-think both the order and focus of some of these questions. For example, I believe students would be less confused in my class right now if I'd started the discussion of ancient cultures with a unit on social and political organization, rather than giving examples of band-level societies without explaining exactly what a band is. Also, these eleven questions need to be combined and rethought, in order to provide more time to cover the topic in-depth.

Next time I teach this, I'm cutting the number of questions (or at least re-mixing them), and rearranging them into a more logical order. I think it will look something like this:

Unit 1: Why Study the Past?
  1. What is the point of the past?
  2. Who owns the past?

Unit 2: What is the Big Picture?
  1. How do archaeologists know what they know? (techniques and sources of data)
  2. What are the major trends in human history?

Unit 3: Culture as Adaptation, and our Adaptation for Culture

  1. How have humans changed the environment (and how has it changed us)?
  2. Did past societies live sustainably (and can we)?


Unit 4: Why Did We Settle Down?
  1. Why did most societies around the world become more sedentary?
  2. Why did we begin farming (and was it the worst mistake we ever made)?

Unit 5: Why is there Inequality?
  1. Why do complex societies develop?
  2. Why do we have economic inequality?
  3. Why do we have power inequality and governments (and why doesn't everyone)?
This new structure leaves off two of my originally envisioned topics ("Why do we have ethnic groups?" and "Why do we have war?"). But, this semester, I had to skip those topics anyway because we didn't have enough time to cover them. With only eleven topics, I will be able to go more in-depth with each. Plus, while it may seem a minor change, arranging these questions onto units makes it easier to discuss the common themes between each of these questions.

I'm planning a series of posts on this class - stay tuned for a discussion of readings/textbooks and the perils and pitfalls (and pros) of including fieldwork in an introductory archaeology class!

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