Reflections of a new lecturer on the Day of Archaeology 2013

Collaborative video about our Heritage Practice module and BA Heritage Studies students at York

I’ve participated in the Day of Archaeology** since its initiation two years ago, when my post (also see my 2012 post here) coincided very closely with my appointment at the University of York (UK). I have often struggled to summarise my day-to-day professional activities because, as I’ve discussed before, they are diverse and not evidently recognisable as the stereotype of ‘archaeology’. I adore my work because of such diversity—it is always different, it is of-the-moment, it is linked to so many exciting people (curators, designers, IT experts, archaeologists and heritage officers, media specialists, journalists, etc.), it is incredibly public, and hence it comes with a deep feeling of being engaged in something that truly impacts upon other individuals. Our great Cultural Heritage Management and Digital Heritage students have themselves been very successful in progressing to jobs with a comparable degree of variety and influence.

But the struggle to encapsulate my work has only intensified as my career has developed, owing to the fact that academia pulls you into so many administrative roles that push far beyond one’s expert interests. As a result, my days often entail (among other things) hours of email-writing and phone calls, organising courses and modules and reading lists and guest speakers, coordinating rooms and equipment and related specialist infrastructure, negotiating opportunities and insurance and accommodations and tools for the teams that I supervise, and reading drafts of others’ research.

It has been brokering this explosion in duties that I have found an especially difficult aspect of academic life, because it tends to pull you away from the very thing that is most inspiring to you—and, indeed, the thing that you are actually recognised in the wider world for: your own research. Some aspects of the job help to reinforce or elaborate your research, including preparing for teaching, in that they demand that you scour the literature and critically interrogate the emerging scholarship. But other aspects seem a million miles away from study and discovery and analysis and the other energising components of the research process.

These points have been on my mind lately as I take advantage of the couple of months of the year outside of the term-time calendar when I have more freedom to invest in my own research endeavours. I leave for Çatalhöyük next week with my great team from York, Southampton and Ege University in Turkey; our Gender & Digital Culture project is really starting to blossom (we were featured on Wednesday on the London School of Economics’ Impact blog!); I have a couple of articles and chapters now in press, and two grant applications out for review; and I’m coordinating some new projects/events for the upcoming year. But much of this work has only come together with substantial support from others: colleagues, research assistants, friends, etc.

My greatest learning experience of 2012-2013, then, has surely been in navigating this collaborative form of practice, because it has necessitated a complete shift in my intellectual mindset. As a student, I was trained to work independently—a not uncommon predicament for humanists. I would do my own study, analyse my own data, and write up my own work. However, as I’ve developed as a scholar, it’s become clear that not only is such an approach actually impossible for me now, but it was also a questionable way to have been educated in the first place. It’s questionable both because professional life demands that one be adept at collaboration, and because the best ideas and scholarship come about through learning with and from others who see the world in different ways.

The whole nature of how I intellectualise has had to change in order to accommodate this collaborative shift—and it has been a real and profound challenge for me. I’m having to teach myself how to relinquish control to others. I’m having to recognise that I can no longer do everything on my own and that I have to trust others to carry projects forward in my absence and help me. I’m having to learn to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes my role is now purely one of project manager, but that even here I can make a difference. Such a change in perspective has also meaningfully impacted on how I teach others, because I am concerned to ensure that my students don’t get educated in a vacuum, expecting that scholarly life will or should be an isolated activity. From my experience, nothing is more misconceived than the trope of the academic as a solitary figure. You are constantly surrounded by people—whether physically or metaphorically—who need things from you and vice versa. It’s a disservice to perpetuate the notion that independent, single-authored research is the paragon of scholarship, not least because even when such research is published, it always comes about through engagement with others. It’s also a disservice to budding academics to insinuate to them that such a model of practice is even plausible, because what results is real disconcertion when everyday reality—the multitasking and administrative load, etc.—proves it impossible and your whole epistemological outlook on research is then forced to change.

On this Day of Archaeology, when I’m preparing to take my team out for fieldwork next week, and working with my colleagues on multiple other projects, I’m very reflective about its collaborative essence. Collaboration is what sums up my activities today, and it’s what now characterises me as a scholar. And, honestly, I can’t imagine good research coming about in any other fashion.

**This post is reblogged from the Day of Archaeology site: www.dayofarchaeology.com

Day of Archaeology 2012

I have been shamelessly absent on my blog lately, and such absence has been weighing on my mind because it defeats the point of this medium of expression.  But it happens to be the 2nd annual Day of Archaeology, as well as the end of my first academic year as a new lecturer, so it seems an ideal time for reflection.  You can read my Day of Archaeology post on their blog, or view it below.  I hope to become a bit more diligent at updating my own blog over the summer given that there will finally be a moment to breathe!…

End of the academic year at York

Today seems a very opportune moment to blog about my life as an archaeologist, as it’s the final day of the academic year at York, and everyone is revelling over the coming of summer.  I have something more to celebrate as well, as I’ve finally had time to sign the contract that turns my currently fixed-term position at York into an ‘open’ (permanent) lectureship.  Yay!

I have looked back at my contribution to the 2011 Day of Archaeology, and this has led me to reflect on the incredible changes that have presented themselves in my life since then.  Exactly a year and one day ago I graduated with my PhD in Archaeology from Southampton, and then left for fieldwork at Çatalhöyük.  I started my post at York in January, and at the same time as launching into the design and teaching of a series of new classes and modules, I closed off some research projects (e.g., our Wellcome Collection Brains exhibition – see photo below!) whilst embarking on others (e.g., the Urban Cultural Heritage and Creative Practice collaborative).

Me, June 2012, basking in the glow of my little acknowledgement at the Wellcome Collection exhibition, Brains: The Mind as Matter

Amidst all this activity, though, there has been one clear constant, and that is the relentless pace of scholarly life.  At any given time an academic is torn between a seemingly infinite number of obligations, and it would be difficult to accurately characterise the amount of multi-tasking—and the ever-increasing number of emails and responsibilities—that come with the job.  It’s such diversity and challenge that makes this lifestyle energising and inspiring for me—but it is also indescribably demanding, and there is a consistent concern in the back of my mind that I may have missed or skipped over something critical to my work in all the frenzy.  Today alone I had 3 student meetings and a departmental meeting to attend; I am negotiating the start-up of two new projects, and am analysing data from an ongoing project at King’s College London; I am preparing documentation for our fourth season at Çatalhöyük this summer; I am arranging a qualitative methods workshop to run in a couple of weeks, as well as helping to facilitate some filming at the Archaeology Department here in York around the same time; I have a book chapter that demands completion, along with an unspeakable number of emails in my inbox that require attention.  Even as I write this list, I can think of at least a half-dozen other tasks that need consideration.

But whilst the scale of the workload could be paralysing—or, at a minimum, disillusioning—I have moments every day where I think how fortunate I am to be doing what I’m doing.  Most often, these moments present themselves in my interactions with students and in teaching, something which I never would have expected given that so many people seem to disparage the experience of being a teacher.  For me, however, the enthusiasm of the students at York, the chance to watch them develop and experiment with their ideas, and the opportunity to see them present their work and gain confidence in themselves and in their intellectual capacities, make my job extraordinary.  The relentless nature of academia could easily consume you, I think, but it’s in those conceptual and material engagements with others that the frenzy slips away and you’re left with a sense of real inspiration.  Indeed, for me, it’s not just inspiration, but hopefulness and excitement about what’s to come tomorrow.

Day of Archaeology, 29 July

Screenshot by me of http://www.dayofarchaeology.com home page

I wanted to make a contribution – however brief! – to the incredible Day of Archaeology.  It’s been organised by Lorna Richardson, Matthew Law, and many other colleagues whose engagement with digital media, including blogging, is truly pioneering.  Check out the hundreds — literally HUNDREDS — of amazing pieces that have been added by archaeologists from around the world.  What Lorna, Matt and team have accomplished here is actually completely overwhelming and awe-inspiring.  It’s worthy of so much praise.  Here’s a link to my little post…

I’m heading off to Çatalhöyük very soon, so I’ll aim to blog about the experience of our third field season when I return to Southampton in September.  You can read our report on last year’s work here (pp. 117-123) – we’ll be building on these activities again this year.  See you in September!