Reflections of a new lecturer…

I’ve been in my post at York now for almost 4 months.  We are readying for the start of the summer term (when I’ll be teaching on the first-year Excavation module at the sites of Harewood House and Boltby Scar), and it coincides with me becoming quite reflective recently about my experiences as a new lecturer.  This reflectiveness has been prompted by many things, including a review of my teaching evaluations from the spring term (all positive, thankfully!), preparation for a talk at the Institute for Archaeologists’ (IfA) conference on Friday (of which more below), and most especially, constant interrogation by academics at various stages of their careers on how I got my job.

Such interrogation is, I believe, generally driven by well-meaning curiosity and good-humoured teasing, but its impact on me mirrors what I’ve always found most difficult to negotiate about academia.  This is the critical self-consciousness and exposure that one encounters on a daily basis when doing anything from teaching, to chairing meetings, to merely walking down the corridor to get a coffee.  It is a feeling of being perpetually on display—and hence perpetually on the cusp of laying bare your weaknesses and (intellectual) deficiencies.  I had a conversation last week about this sensation (what, I suppose, is effectively the impostor syndrome) with someone I consider to be one of my great mentors.  We discussed the hyper-self-awareness and consequent exhaustion that can come hand-in-hand with being, literally, a form of exhibition.  Given that I study issues of presentation, I’m already conscious of the power of display.  It’s interesting now to consider myself as one of those displays, having a kind of visibility (which is admittedly pretty inconsequential in the hierarchy of academia!) that can have ramifications on myself and others.

Motivated by these reflections, I dug through my digital archive on the weekend to track down a critical review that I was required to produce of my first ever teaching experience as an MA student in Anthropology back in Canada.  At the time (almost a decade ago), I lectured to 400 students (400!) in UVic’s Anth 100 (Intro to Anthropology) course, and I subsequently collected and analysed nearly 200 feedback forms.  I had to produce a 5000-word assessment of that experience, and amidst all those words, I found I had written the following:

“This experience was both conflicting and emotional, exhausting and philosophically taxing.  Indeed, the most acute observation that was returned to me via the evaluation process was one student’s simple statement (which was later reiterated by the Anth 100 instructor): “ask yourself if you could really bring that much energy to every lecture.” Reflecting on this, I am not certain if I could.  As I stood at the front of the lecture hall, I suddenly began to fathom the feeling of exposure, of vulnerability and impotence which is, perhaps, reminiscent of the experience of the anthropological subject.  As cultural critics have observed (e.g. Clifford & Marcus, 1986), to be this subject, to be the Other, to be the one open to the scrutiny and criticism of an audience, is dehumanising.  The irony, of course, is that while I was trying to sculpt a humanising pedagogy (after Freire, 1982), I simultaneously felt stripped of my humanity.”

I like to think that I still bring great energy to my presentations, but it is always pushing up against that sense of being rendered naked and alien in the process.  I am particularly conscious of such a sensibility this week, as I am scheduled to talk in a session on Graphic Archaeology at the forthcoming IfA conference in Oxford on Friday.  The last time that I spoke to a comparable audience (a majority of non-academic practitioners in 2009), I had a traumatic—and hopefully one-off—experience.  It entailed an audience member interrupting me in the middle of my talk (which centred on experimenting with modes of archaeological presentation and discussing the affordances of old media) to tell me that they couldn’t understand anything I was saying.  The implication was that I was being purposefully arcane and impenetrable; however the reality was that I was just being me: that’s how I speak.  The problem, of course, was that in exhibiting myself at that event, I learned that being me wasn’t satisfactory in certain circumstances.

Barring the emotional effect this experience had on me, from an intellectual perspective, it was revelatory.  This is a point that I’ll aim to discuss at my talk on Friday because such barriers in communication (sometimes manifesting in outright disgruntlement) are not uncommon in fields like archaeological visualisation, where specialists from many backgrounds come together to produce disciplinary outputs.  Tensions between specialists have a long history in the sciences—this is nothing new—but I think there are severe consequences if we disregard them or, alternatively, accept a status quo which entails exposing others and being exposed in the absence of any effort to adapt, actively challenge or renegotiate these practices.  Our Visualisation in Archaeology project brought to light some major disconnects between specialists that, I believe, have profound ramifications for the field—many revolving around poor dialogue, unfounded presumptions about disciplinary tools/skillsets, and fear of change.  Archaeological visualisation is evolving (as has always been the case), and as hinted at by Grant Cox in a fairly contentious talk at the CAA conference last month (which itself revealed the very communication barriers that I mention above), we can choose to expose ourselves as stagnant or we can proactively experiment with our various forms and means of exposure to create something different, something novel, something more meaningful.

I suppose it’s the latter path that I’m hoping to follow as a new lecturer too.