Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

http://visualmedia-archaeology2013.blogspot.com/

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

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Heritage Field School at York

As some of you know, this term I’ve designed and launched the department’s new ‘heritage practice’ module, intended to train the first cohort of York’s BA in Heritage Studies students in the field methods of heritage work. It is the equivalent of an archaeological field school, but focused here on hands-on heritage practice and assessment of key related skills. We are in the fortunate position of being able to collaborate with the Yorkshire Museum in the curation of the museum’s new exhibition After the Ice, opening later this month (24 May). In that context, the students (in two groups) are producing two short – 3-minute – videos for display both in the exhibition itself and online.

Some of our field school team working at the Yorkshire Museum with YMT staff in designing temporary displays and recording that design process.
Some of our field school team working at the Yorkshire Museum with YMT staff in designing temporary displays and recording that design process (Photo by me).

For various reasons, I cannot post the full class outline/syllabus until later in the term, but the module has been crafted to provide students not only with experience in filmmaking, but so too with collections curation (designing temporary displays for several of the Yorkshire Museum’s display cabinets), archival research (re-presenting aspects of a large site archive which will soon go online with the ADS; as well as related media archives), qualitative and quantitative data collection and audience research (in the context of studying visitor reception of the After the Ice exhibition), excavation work itself, collaborative design (with 50 archaeology students) of interactive displays for the department’s own year-end exhibition, and full planning, promotion, and implementation of that latter event on 19 June.

The students are also blogging about their experiences of engaging with curatorial work, filmmaking and general heritage practice on two group blogs which they built and released yesterday. True to the nature of social media, we are circulating links to these blogs below so that others can follow our progress and comment – constructively – on that progress. To date, the students have been actively shaping their ideas in response to the feedback of YMT, filmmakers from around the world, other staff at York, heritage practitioners in Yorkshire, their peers and lecturers. We would like to invite you to contribute to this process of idea development via engagement with the students’ blogs. As I and others have discussed elsewhere, blogging is part of the wild side of public engagement, and my students have never blogged before nor exhibited their scholarly work in any public forum, so we appreciate your kind and constructive participation in our experimental efforts.

http://yorkstudentheritage.blogspot.co.uk/

http://tentativestepsheritage.blogspot.co.uk/

I have to acknowledge the many people who have come together to help facilitate this field school including Natalie McCaul (Curator of Archaeology at YMT), Martin Fell (Digital Team Lead at YMT), Gavin Repton (independent filmmaker), Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist at University of York), Simon Davis (E-learning Adviser at University of York), Eve Firth and team (AV Centre at University of York), my colleagues in Archaeology at York, my two stellar teaching assistants who graduated from our MA in Cultural Heritage Management course last year and both now work full-time in the professional heritage sector in Yorkshire – and, in particular, the many filmmakers from around the world who have given their time to my students including Teri Brewer, Joe Tong, Stephanie Vierow, Sarah Fletcher and her team: Raven and Teesha; plus Angela Piccini and Howard Williams who generously directed me towards these filmmakers).

As you might be able to gather, it has been an adventure in coordination to bring together this module. Whilst I have implemented a new module every single term since I started my job (and there are 3 terms per year here), this has been – by far – the most difficult. That difficulty relates not only to the time commitment, but also (1) the fact that I am the sole coordinator of the module with an associated sense of deep responsibility for its success, and (2) the lack of other heritage fieldschool models (implemented in a university context) to help shape the course. There is a real feeling – both satisfying and frightening – of crafting something new entirely out of nothing, and I continue to seek examples of other people who have done the same thing elsewhere and who might be able to share their best practice.

I originally thought that my four years of work at Çatalhöyük would have been sufficient preparation for the creation of this module, given that we do very similar things in the field each summer with a team of new undergraduate students. But what’s become obvious is that, at Çatalhöyük, I am one of two or three other supervisors who are usually present with me for a short period of time at the start of our fieldwork to help set up that season’s efforts. And, of course, on top of that, there is the entire Çatalhöyük project team – now managed by the incredible Yildiz Dirmit – to facilitate such efforts and support me after the rest of the team departs. It wasn’t until this week that I became conscious of the importance of such support, because when all the little problems that inevitably manifest themselves in the field – problems with travel to site, or a misplaced piece of equipment, or a breakdown of technology, or personal matters that affect members of the team, etc. – do indeed manifest themselves, you have a series of other supervisors to call upon. I’m lucky to have two teaching assistants helping with some aspects of the module, and a small, insightful and enthusiastic cohort of heritage students. Nevertheless, I am always looking for advice on helping to manage the many responsibilities associated with such work, so if you have any tips, success strategies, troubleshooting recommendations, etc., I’d be so keen to hear them.

Your support of both me and my students’ efforts is always appreciated – thank you so much ++

The Highs and Lows of the First Year of Lecturing

This blog post is prompted by my first ever job performance review which is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon with my academic mentor … eek!  I’ve been in my post for exactly one year, and as per our departmental requirements, I’m now obliged to sit down and reflect on my achievements, my defeats, my ambitions and goals for the future.  To be honest, it’s been a fairly simple task to draw together these reflections, as I’ve been ruminating on them for months—something that I assume is normal for anyone who is launched into a challenging post where the expectations are high and the potential to fail is equally great.  I’ve been spurred on, too, by an incredibly misconceived Forbes post by Susan Adams (subsequently amended in the wake of hundreds of critical retorts) which reports a CareerCast.com ranking of ‘university professor’ as the supposedly least stressful job of 2013.  You can read the backlash to this report in various places, including a thoughtful post (from the perspective of the American biomedical field) by another Forbes contributor and professor David Kroll. (Thanks to Will Deyamport for familiarising me with Kroll’s response via Twitter.)

Screenshot of responses to Forbes posting on CareerCast.com's jobs ranking
Screenshot of responses to Forbes posting on CareerCast.com’s jobs ranking

Needless to say, I dispute CareerCast.com’s ranking.  My own experience of the job of lecturing is one of exceptional unsteadiness; of moving from a state of complete confidence and control in one instant, to total uncertainty and debilitating self-doubt in the next.  I would like to think that my PhD studies prepared me well for such transience, particularly as I taught and worked on multiple extra projects simultaneous with writing my thesis.  But until I was launched into the world of full-time employment, I couldn’t have known just how demanding the job could be.  As I see it, this relates fundamentally to the issue of accountability, because prior to last January, I was always a student or a researcher working under someone else’s guidance—in other words, I had my teachers’ support to prop me up in my weakest moments.  The second I stepped into my new post, however, others’ perceptions of my authority and, indeed, my own perceptions of myself changed.  And my sense of my level of responsibility—responsibility for my students, for my department, for my university, for my field of practice, and for myself and staying true to what I value and believe in—grew exponentially.

I love many things about my job.  I have developed an absolute adoration for teaching and mentoring students—the inspiration and complete awe that can be generated from participating in the process of learning is something quite profound.  I don’t know that I totally understood the profundity of this activity until I implemented some of my new modules over the past year.  Yes, there were moments of terror and lonesomeness when things didn’t go according to plan and I was left solitary—yet surrounded and exposed—in the middle of the classroom.  But those moments were outweighed by the wonder of watching the intellectual transformation of my students (and myself) as we worked through, for instance, the development of the students’ blogs, or as we managed to create an engaged critical debate about aspects of archaeological exhibitionary practice amongst a class of c. 40 Master’s students.  Just as these experiences were intimidating and sometimes very fleeting, they were also revelatory for me as a teacher and as a person.  The students’ reflectiveness forced reflectiveness in myself, such that a really clear feedback cycle presented itself which will impact on future iterations of my classes.

The other major thing that has been facilitated by my job has been the opportunity to meet and connect with inspiring researchers and genuinely wonderful human beings from around the world.  This year alone I contributed to a series of projects in Canada, the USA, Italy, Britain and Turkey, and I’m negotiating a couple of new collaborations for 2013 (fingers crossed).  I’ve been approached to run two different skills workshops in Canada and the USA with my anthropological colleagues, and I’ve been communicating with others – for instance the excellent Kristina Killgrove (University of West Florida) – about developing new curricula.  To be able to advise on such projects, to partner with such researchers, to share ideas and methods across disciplinary and international lines, is truly humbling.  It’s also possibly the greatest source of stress.  Because it’s in these moments when you realise that other people think you have expertise and understanding to offer.  It’s then that you feel the weight of responsibility for what you know and how you know it.  It’s then that the pressure to prove yourself kicks in, and, for me, that pressure can feel crushing.

I think I felt it most deeply when I met a student in the springtime during my office hours and it was clear that they were nervous to speak to me.  I found this a bit of an agonising experience, because I used to be in that position: I was the one who would go to others for guidance and input; indeed, not two months before, I was that very student, sitting in the chair during office hours, nervously speaking to my supervisors.  Now, however, I had become the person who was supposed to supply the advice.

I believe that the stressfulness of this situation is exacerbated by the number of obligations that one needs to fulfil on a daily basis as a lecturer.  Not only are you responsible for knowing all about your area of speciality and for helping students to grapple productively with that speciality themselves, but so too are you responsible for running your different undergraduate and Master’s programmes, and completing your various other administrative tasks, and publishing and getting grants and holding it all together flawlessly and discreetly—as though you’re an expert at everything.  The array of tasks for which you are accountable is breathtaking, and the predicament is made worse by the fact that you are answerable to so many different stakeholders simultaneously (both inside and outside the university).  This means there are very many opportunities for failure, and far fewer opportunities for being recognised for your successes.  Praise is fugitive in this line of work, and I think that’s perhaps the greatest travesty of the academic system.  It is very difficult to measure your progress given that for every recognised achievement (e.g., publishing an article; implementing a new class; etc.) there are innumerable other achievements that go unrecognised (e.g., responding to hundreds of emails a day), or that don’t go to plan (submitting a document that is demolished in the peer review process), or that are otherwise delayed whilst you’re busy with the rest of your work.  The most apt Twitter posting that I’ve read in the recent past was one on New Year’s Day, 1 January 2013, which said something to the effect of “Retweet this if you’re an academic and you’ve already missed a deadline for 2013.”  Nothing is more disheartening than this–nothing is more draining than completing one project but then having no time to appreciate the accomplishment because you’ve got multiple other overdue or pending assignments to attend to immediately.

I would like, then, to see better structures initiated for consistently and habitually commending scholars for their varied activities.  Such praise can go a long way towards managing feelings of inadequacy, of deluge, of self-consciousness and defeat – all symptoms of the imposter syndrome which I’ve blogged about before, and which I struggle with on a regular basis.

I am also convinced that the experiences of women in academia are fundamentally different to those of men.  This subject is one that I’m becoming increasingly passionate about owing to circumstances that I will blog about in the future; but I feel great concern about equipping female academics with the tools necessary to help them better navigate their day-to-day working relationships and plan for their careers in the long term.  I’d like to connect with others who are involved in women’s scholarly networks, so any recommendations or contacts you might have would be much appreciated.

I have great room for improvement as a lecturer, and I learn best from others’ experiences, so if you’d be willing to share your stories of success (and of negotiating failure), I’d be keen to hear them. I appreciate your support, your kind suggestions, your collaborations and general goodwill.  I couldn’t do this job without your help; I am endlessly grateful for it.