Experimenting with archaeological presentation in class work

Visual Media in Archaeology @ York – webpage screenshot

I’ve designed and am currently teaching a new third-year undergraduate module at York called Visual Media in Archaeology.  I wanted the class to allow students an opportunity to interrogate the intellectual and practical consequences of archaeological visualisation, but also to give them a chance to experiment with their own forms of production for various audiences.  In light of logistics, I decided to assign them the task of each creating their own blog on which they were to craft a narrative about an object or site of their choice.  I’ve been inspired by efforts like My Life as an Object and A Rock’s Story and York’s own Richard III Museum’s fictional Richard III Twitter feed: I wanted the students to think about how archaeologists tell stories, about what kinds of stories we can or could tell, about what stories we don’t or might not want to tell; and I wanted them to have the freedom to construct the narrative however they wished—fictional or non-fictional; image-driven or not; loose in structure or tightly woven; etc.

Several of my students have permitted me to blog about their blogs, and circulate links to the latter here (see below).  Whilst York is unique in having students put together an exhibition at the close of their first-year undergrad fieldwork season, for most of my third-years, these blogs represent their initiation into independently-authored, highly-public forms of presentation.  The group exhibition at the close of Year 1 is fundamentally different to these blogs for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons: the former is a group effort (meaning a collective of individuals is accountable for the output, as opposed to just one person), it’s based at a specific site (in King’s Manor) on a specific day (usually a Wednesday at the end of the summer term) for a specific audience (students, staff, other interested locals), and its brief is very specific (using a particular medium of presentation, with a defined amount of text and image space, on a fixed subject).  Conversely, the independent blog is unwieldy, accessible to a large and completely undefined audience, and it subjects its creators to a level and degree of exposure whose consequences are hard to predict.

We have talked a lot about the implications of making work visible and critique-able by others via the web, and the potential fallouts of laying bare your ideas and self in an open forum.  These debates aren’t new, but they’ve been on my mind lately not only because of some questionable experiences I’ve had to deal with in the last couple of months (I’ll blog about those another time), but because of a talk that I was completely captivated by last week at the American Anthropological Association conference.  I immediately returned to York and told my students about it, as it entailed the anthropologist and NPR.org blogger Barbara King making a case for the ‘unafraid blogger’—someone who uses blogging as a form of journalism; who was prepared to accept that unfinished posts are not inherently disreputable or worthy of attack; who would try to resist the urge to take immediate offense to critique; and who would push the boundaries on traditional measures of success.  Barbara gave several fascinating examples of her own varied experiences in blogging for NPR.org (she talked, in particular, about this post and this post), and suggested that the commentary engendered by blogging stood at the “wild edge” of engagement.  Given that ‘wild edge’, one might instinctively want to run away from the process of blogging, but as I understood Barbara, the blog’s wildness is the very thing that we might capitalize on—embrace and experiment with.  In accepting its unpredictability, we are forced to rethink our work and ideas and our engrained ways of doing things, and out of that acceptance might come something extraordinary.

Below are links to 6 of my students’ blogs.  One of the students has already won a competition via her blog, and the students still have a couple of weeks left to develop and hone their content before they give their final presentations in December.  I post these links in the hopes that you’ll browse through the students’ work and, if you’re so inclined, comment – constructively – on what they’re experimenting with here.   This is their first time being exposed to the ‘wild edge’, and I appreciate you taking the time to participate productively in the ever-evolving process that is blogging.

Confessions of a Christmas Bauble

Student Life at the JBM Library York

A Complex Curiosity

The Incomplete Life of Dinosaurs

A Penny for your Thoughts (Children’s Blog)

The Diary of a Crystal Skull: What I Saw Today…

3 thoughts on “Experimenting with archaeological presentation in class work

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I like the idea of being at the wild edge of engagement. I think of this as robust conversation. As a lifelong Liberal and therefore reader of John Milton and John Stuart Mill, I have a passionate belief in freedom of thought and speech. This is what should fuel academic (and other) debate. Be unafraid to air your own opinions, be unafraid to take criticism and counter-opinion, and be unafraid to admit you’re wrong and change your mind in the light on argument and evidence. On the other hand, does academia really value this in practice, as opposed to thinking within accepted norms or following the ideas of a fashionable guru or theory? More generally, in the present day world of political correctness, is open free discussion actually possible? One final thought, are students ready to accept criticism and can they robustly argue a point verbally (as opposed to in writing, and I would argue that a blog is verbal communication rather than written) using logic and evidence – these are not skills they tend to learn in education?

    I’ll shut up now, and let my over-active mind wind down!

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Don – I love your thinking because I believe it meshes with mine in the sense that I want to test out how we can change the culture of academia; how we can encourage people to challenge the academic status quo and come out on the other side with something different and more productive. The blogging project has been especially interesting because everyone (including myself) was tentative about implementing it & opening up the normally very private process of scholarly thinking in the undergraduate environment to a wider audience. Some profs have been doing for ages (e.g., Michael Wesch – http://mediatedcultures.net/), so one would imagine it wouldn’t be so difficult. Hmmm.

    While verbal, I also see the blog as visual communication – both in that we engage with it via our eyes, and we use multiple forms of visual media to make it possible. Because I do want people to experiment more with these visual dimensions, I might change the blog next year to a tumblr project… Although I have to think more about it.

    Your great comments are always appreciated. Thank you!!

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