Twenty Years After: Graduate Students

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb "to claim" is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction.  - Adrienne Rich

I approached my first graduate class in over twenty years, Archaeological Methods, with an open mind and an open syllabus. The class included first and second year students, all of whom were ultimately aiming to write a thesis to complete their MA.  

I have long experience in graduate teaching and I have created two MA programs. However I did not know these new students. So I relied heavily on my prior experience, which  has taught me the primacy of mentoring students to think like an archaeologist in order to do archaeology. To me this translates into learning how to design research,  the hardest part of which  is formulating well-defined and answerable questions.

I was also guided by the practical concern of helping these students begin their careers. The Masters degree can be a highly marketable degree.  I have dozens of students who have had highly successful professional careers (some of whom have actually retired, while I still teach!). I assume and totally respect the personal and financial commitment graduate anthropology students have to  make to become professional anthropologists. The key to a successful professional graduate program is a curriculum that prepares students: 

  • To think originally

  • To apply disciplinary and interdisciplinary methodologies

  • To write professionally and accessibly

  • To present one's findings in dynamic and accessible ways.

The Syllabus

The syllabusfollowed a research design template that required students to: 

  • Define a topic of interest

  • Create an original question that speaks to their interest

  • Set out hypotheses (i.e. hypothetical and testable answers to their questions)

  • Define the type of information they would need to answer the question(s)

  • Design a methodology to collect and organize an appropriate sample of  data  to provide the needed information

  • Choose the appropriate qualitative and/or quantitative analytic techniques necessary to test their hypotheses

  • Interpret their analytical results

  • Write-up and present their results

The Seminar

Most of the students had not been asked to do original research. They knew how to write term papers that summarized and  synthesized what other people knew about a topic.    A few had had experience excavation, survey and basic data collection, and some had analyzed artifacts or databases. But  they hadn't been asked to do something original with this information. I viewed this class as their opportunity to  claim their own education. 

The class met once a week for three hours usually broken into 3 segments. We held this seminar around a conference table that we had to re-configure from a lecture classroom of smaller tables every week.   (In a sense this physically primed the students for discussion).  The first 3-4 weeks of the class concentrated on having students work on their research questions.  This resulted in a lot of conversation among the  students, which of course I encouraged.  For my part, I 'shadowed' student progress reports and their ensuing conversations with stories of my research,  that of  my previous students and classic archaeological projects and the readings.  I also used our excellent multimedia classroom to bring in the internet. In some cases, I planned particular videos, while in others I was able to queue up a video spontaneously in response to a question brought up in class.   I relied mostly on Ted Talks and Khan Academy lessons. The Ted talks provided outstanding illustrations  of original research through accessible and dynamic presentations. 

The Khan Academy lessons on probability and statistics proved invaluable for  discussions on methodology. Most students  had the  universal fear of statistics. They had little experience in sampling either quantitative or qualitative data and what experience they had  seemed to yield more fear than understanding. All of the students  needed to understand the concept of randomness as the foundation of sampling whether they were interested in measuring bifaces or interpreting interviews of children's interest in museums. They also needed to be exposed to some of the most widespread statistical concepts such as correlation, association and inference without being strangled by their formulas and calculations.  The Khan academy provided a series of excellent illustrations that I built upon to help students to apply  sampling and statistics to their own projects. As students refined their sampling and analytical methodology they in turn revisited their specific questions they were asking.

The Reading 

Student reading revolved around  Joan Gero's recently published archaeological case study "Yutopian." Gero  deconstructs the way archaeologists build knowledge through discussion of her Argentinian field research. The monograph provided students with a detailed reflective account of original research from its conception to its completion.   Students also read, "A Very Short Introduction to Archaeology" by Paul Bahn, which offers an historic context of the field.   Since all of the students were focussed on Public Anthropology, they read a beautiful little monograph, "Anguti's Amulet". This  illustrated  booklet  beautifully portrays the prehistory of an Inuit community through a  folk story as it relates to an indigenous archaeology community project  undertaken with the support of the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Program. Finally, Peter Haggett's iconic "Locational Analysis" was assigned as  a reference on spatial analysis.

The Writing

Students were required to write and re-write outside the classroom almost every week.   The writing assignments were kept short and focussed on each student's progress on their research design. I intensively edited the writing for its argument and its formal written structure.  The students quickly grasped my assertion that "there is no such thing as a good paper that is poorly written." Students learned  to take responsibility for  their writing and above all else understand that writing and thinking are creatively linked.  

I found critique in two areas to have the greatest positive impact on student writing.  The first was voice.  Most students wrote in passive voice.  I explained (until they were tired of hearing it) that in most cases passive voice buried their arguments.  I closely edited much of their writing into active voice. Second, most students had great difficulty in keeping antecedents clear. I emphasized that it was their responsibility to clearly reference  pronouns. Writing, editing and re-writing was a continuous semester long process. 

The Final

I used the final to pull the class together by having students write a cover letter application to a real job advertisement. I asked them to  describe their professional capabilities in terms of the job requirements.  I distributed a list of 15 job openings that were published on the internet for which they would be qualified after completing the program. The jobs ranged from project director to tribal anthropologist  (both of which were selected). They had a week to to write a cover letter (maximum 500 words) to apply for one of these jobs. Student presented their letters during our our final class, where we had a   freewheeling discussion on the intellectual and practical aspects of being a professional anthropologist.

Did the Class Work?

I can say this:  I learned a lot from this class and  greatly enjoyed mentoring the students and being kept on my toes by them.   

I would make the following observations on the effectiveness of this class for students. First, I believe the course gave the students a safe environment to learn how to think originally.  Their confidence grew as they began to understand that they were capable of doing original research and becoming a professional.  Their (final exam) job application letters clearly demonstrated a growing belief in the abilities. 

Second, I think that requiring students to develop their own research interests helped them grow in confidence.  Some students began afraid to air their interests. Many of them questioned the importance of their potential contributions. And all were pretty shy about their ability  to tangibly approach original research.  By the end of the semester, all of the students had at least a clear topic of interest and set of research questions, which they wrote in the form of a research design and presented to their classmates. 

Finally, I was pleased with the improvement of each of the student's writing. Most of them struggled indicating to me the centrality of writing and close editing in graduate education.   

How well did the class work?  When asked if he was a good teacher, Confucius responded: "How are my students doing?"  Time will tell.  Next semester: cultural anthropology.