Monday, December 2, 2013

Including Fieldwork in an Intro to Archaeology Class (Yes, it's possible! But it's not easy.)

This Fall, I was honored with a very special opportunity: a historic pioneer cemetery near town was, sadly, destroyed, and I was approached by one of the descendants of those buried there to see if I could help relocate the graves and, ultimately, restore the site. (Just to be clear, the project did not involve excavating any graves, merely locating the grave shafts without disturbing the burials.) If you're interested, there's more on the site and the project here and here.

For various professional and personal reasons I was excited and inspired by this opportunity. But there was one problem: I really wanted to include this excavation as a service-learning project in my Intro to Archaeology class. One of the main themes of the class is that the past is important to the present; we don't study Archaeology because of some esoteric interest in long-dead people, but because we learn something about ourselves and the human condition. This project, focusing on a topic of interest to the local community, illustrated that point beautifully. The site is important to the community because it is part of our history and identity, and the outpouring of support for the project made that very clear to the students. Similarly, the controversies surrounding the situation (there is an on-going legal case related to the destruction of the cemetery), illustrate the importance of the social and political context in the study of the past, another major theme of the class.

And, of course, actual excavation experience is an invaluable way of introducing students to basic archaeological methods.

That just left the practicalities: I didn't have equipment, I didn't have a permit, and I had never included a fieldwork component into a regular lecture course, much less an introductory class, before. With a lot of help and some luck, I was able to to pull it off. I learned a lot by implementing this project, so here are some tips for anyone who may be interested in something similar:

1. Get a good (academic) team on your side. I could never have done this without the enthusiastic support and help of many people: Leslie Meek and Terri Hawkinson in the Division of Social Sciences at UMM provided critical monetary and logistic support, particularly getting the equipment we needed ASAP. (A special shout-out to Stoney Knoll Archaeological Supplies, who rushed our order of screens to get them to us before our field project started. The screens are of superb quality, too!); Argie Manolis and Barb Hesse in the Office of Community Engagement at UMM handled the transportation problem and provided support for our academic and service goals, including advice on how to integrate student reflections on the project into the class; Scott Anfinson, State Archaeologist, helped a neophyte to quickly handle the permitting process (and provided great field advice); and, last but definitely not least, my husband not only took care of the kids while I spent all weekend in the field, but also helped me decide on equipment, decipher the incomprehensible total station instructions, and generally pull it all together.

2. Get a good (community) team on your side. I can't say enough about the support, information, encouragement, and professionalism of the community members and leaders who were involved in the project, from Scott Boerner, who represented the Boerner family and provided invaluable information about the history of the site; to Grant County Sheriff Dwight Walvatne, and County Attorney Justin Anderson, who arranged access to the site and lead me around the legal barriers to the excavation project. I'm profoundly grateful.

3. Give students options. The class includes a lab component, which normally meets for two hours on Friday. Students were given the option to exchange one eight-hour day in the field for four lab sessions. There were a number of field days (on both Saturdays and Sundays), and three field days could be used in exchange for all of the lab sessions for the semester. In other words, students had the flexibility to choose which days they wanted to be in the field (so the whole class wasn't there on the same day), and what mix of lab days and field days they wanted to use to fulfill their academic obligations.

4. Don't give students too many options. The problem with #3 was that some students attended every lab and never did fieldwork. Others never attended lab. In a logistic sense, this worked well. It allowed students a lot of flexibility to accommodate their different interests and busy schedules. From an academic perspective, however, this was a nightmare. I couldn't require students to know any of the material from the labs (because they were not required to attend any particular lab session), and I couldn't require students to know anything about the excavation project (since they weren't required to do fieldwork). I couldn't include any of the material on the exams. I couldn't include certain activities in the regular class period. I definitely need to re-think this approach in the future.

5. Hammer home the academic worth of the project. All of the students who participated in fieldwork wrote a paper in which they discussed what they had learned from the project and how it fit with the goals and themes of the class. This paper was useful as a way for students to see how the project fit the class (no, we weren't just out there randomly digging trenches, it really did help us reach our academic goals), but also it let me see what the students had taken away from the project. The papers gave me some ideas for how to better integrate the fieldwork into the classroom, by frequently asking students to tie what we are learning about methods or theory in the classroom to their fieldwork experience.

6. Never, never, never try to get this kind of project off the ground during the semester that you're totally re-prepping two courses, serving on seven different committees (including a search committee), and have three children under the age of eight at home, unless you want to drive yourself into the ground with exhaustion. OK, I think this one needs no further explanation. :-)

There were certainly some rocky moments during this semester (actually, the whole thing threatened to capsize on more than one occasion, for reasons outside our control). But this was a highly valuable experience, for me and my students. From an academic, research, and service perspective, I the project was extremely enriching, and the feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive. I'll share some of their feedback (with their permission) in a later post, along with some of what we found. I'm honored to have been a part of this project, and I'm looking forward to continuing it next year.

1 comment:

  1. I did a service learning project for the first class I taught ant-101. I had the class of 50 choose two separate volunteer experiences that connected with two different subx-files. A letter from the volunteer supervisor confirmed volunteer hours and term papers provided something to grade. It was a very diverse group of papers very difficult to grade but everyone seemed to enjoy it.