Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why study archaeology as an undergraduate?

The vast majority of students who are majoring in one thing or another in college will not--WILL NOT--go on to have a job at least nominally in that field. Not always, but it's pretty common for people with degrees in one thing to go on to do something else. Does that mean that the degrees and the fields themselves are meaningless? Absolutely not. After all, even in very practically oriented fields, like architecture, interior design, engineering, etc., the amount of post-school, on-the-job-training is heavy. Of course, people who are at war with liberal arts educations or the humanities would like us to believe that they are useless and should be eliminated. I wish more of my more hardcore STEM colleagues would reflect somewhat on the fate and importance of the humanities and the arts. But that's another conversation.

For now, I think that training to be an archaeologist can offer you skill sets that are incredibly valuable as any person moves on to a job in any field. And I don't just mean a richer understanding of Classic Maya settlement patterns or the structure of the Inca empire. These are obviously important too--and not just intrinsically but in terms of critical thought and understanding how the world works. Anyway, here is a quick brainstorm list of vital, transferable skills that you can get training as an archaeologist more than almost any other field. Seriously.

These two are probably the most important transferable skills you can learn by being an archaeologist:

1. How to develop goals and achieve them.

We could reframe this more scientifically: How to develop a research question and how to answer it. This of course is key to any kind of science or field requiring knowledge claims. But there is something else more important here. A question is a goal. To answer the question you have to learn how to mobilize all kinds of resources, people, knowledge, etc. Isn't that also how you achieve goals? Do you achieve goals by sitting around all day doing nothing. Of course not. Doing something like this within the confines of archaeology also reveals to you that there are multiple pathways to achieve goals but that it is doable. And once you've achieved one, you can move onto another.

2. How to manage.

Students who work with me in the field can find me to be very demanding. Why? It's because management is one of the most important skills you can learn in archaeology. I demand that students develop management skills--that they develop the kind of self-awareness one needs to see over the chaos enough to effectively manage. As a student, you likely are managing less than your professors or TAs, but you still are managing. In archaeology you can learn how to manage well. You can learn how to develop life-hacks to increase the efficiency without reducing quality (this is a huge task that many people do not learn how to do well). And of course, in managing many things, you are also learning how to do things, some of which take some people years of on the job training to learn.

Just to give you a sense, here are some of the big, systemic things that archaeologists manage, and this is just during the operation of a project:

A. How to organize and acquire materials you need to do work
B. How to organize people working and how to delegate
C. How to manage money
D. How to properly organize and maintain information
E. How to organize and manage housing
F. How to manage vehicles and transportation
G. How to interact with local communities
H. How to interact with local, state, and federal governmental officials
I. How to navigate and manage the various personalities, insecurities, and egos of the people working with you
J. How to maintain consistency in all the specific work tasks you have to do throughout the day and the season
K. How to acquire and prepare food
L. How to live and work as a group in positive ways
M.  How to teach
N. How to report on your findings (not just to the scientific community, but to multiple stakeholders in your work).
O. How to speak another language (and how to do all of these things in another language)

Notice I did not include all the other cool things and transferable skills in archaeology:

A. How to use GPS receivers
B. How to fly drones
C. How to use geophysical equipment
D. How to use survey intruments
E. Practical geometry and trig
F. How to use a range of computer applications, from image analysis, databasing, statistical software, spatial analysis software, etc., etc.
H. How to take professional photographs
I. How to identify human bones
J. How to identify different kinds of stones, clays, animals, plants
K. How to understand geological processes in soil and sediment
L. How to make professional drawings
M. How to understand air photos and satellite data

I am sure I could go on and on (i.e., how to stop someone from bleeding, how to siphon gasoline out of a gas tank, etc.). Every day as an archaeologist is a either a new skill, sharpening an old one, or figuring out how to do other things better. So, if I could pick a Number 3 to go with the ones above it would be:

3. How to constantly learn.

This is one of the easiest, but it is also one of the most difficult for students (and frankly professionals) to realize. It goes to the heart of one's insecurities and sense of self. You have to become more comfortable with what you DO NOT know than what you do know. How often do you work with someone with insecurities that limit productivity? Their insecurity prevents them from taking the steps they need to learn. This kind of insecurity is a downright disease in many fields.

I am constantly forgetting how to do things that I used to be really good at doing. Just this summer I was looking at some pottery from an Aztec site. I had this realization that I had not actually handled Aztec period pottery physically in about six or seven years, other than a handful of sherds. Should I worry or brush up on what I forgot? The absolute worst thing that a student or grad student should learn is that somehow they are going to learn everything they need to know. That sentiment can create an attitude that almost is intolerable; it can be destructive both to the individual and to the group. I would prefer 1000 % to work with someone with little knowledge but with the maturity to learn than with someone who is really knowledgeable but whose knowledge becomes a comfort zone they cannot escape. Often these people can foster a systemically negative climate within the group in many ways. When I reflect on the skill to learn, and it should be viewed as a skill, I realize that it is one of the most important. But it is one that many do not learn. You can sense the lack of this skill in someone like a dog can smell fear. These individuals are frustrating. They can be utter liabilities as they learn to be slave to their insecurities. These individuals are not just students: PhDs, untenured professors, tenured professors, professionals, etc. also suffer from the socio-psychological illness that allows insecurities to inhibit learning. Maybe we all do to a certain degree, but we should not be happy about it.

Archaeology is such a dynamic, multi-disciplinary field that it's impossible to learn everything, and even harder to remember everything. We should passionately and enthusiastically embrace all that we do not know. What are just some fields that archaeologists integrate, methodologically and theoretically?

Anthropology, including cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and even linguistics
Statistics and math

It's impossible to be successful in any field if you are too afraid to learn because you are too afraid to appear ignorant. Archaeology is fundamentally oriented around the idea of not knowing. We literally do not know what is under our feet!! Learning is about discovery, and archaeologists are really good at that.