On the 2nd Anniversary of my Lectureship

One of the highlights of my 2013: some of my team & the larger Çatalhöyük Research Project staff on site in Turkey
One of the highlights of my 2013: some of my team & the larger Çatalhöyük Research Project staff on site in Turkey (photo by me)

It’s the second anniversary of my academic post and I’m headed in momentarily for my annual assessment with my scholarly mentor. I continue to find the performance review process very meaningful both professionally and personally (albeit time consuming from a paperwork standpoint). This is not only because it allows me to lay out exactly what I’ve done over the course of a year and, in so doing, attempt to appreciate what is really a significant amount of work accomplished and actions achieved. But it also permits me an opportunity to reflect on all of those lightbulb moments and learning experiences that have changed me and my practice since January of last year, yet that often pass by so fast that I don’t fully recognize their impact on who I am as a human being.

2013 has been good for me, and I say this with much humility as I struggled deeply in my first year to find my way: to adapt to a new job, to new responsibilities with degrees of accountability so high they were truly frightful to me, and to a new city where I knew essentially only two people – friends from research projects – and spent a lot of time alone. More than this, I was very confused in that inaugural year on a personal level.  Andy Shuttleworth did a wonderfully candid and very resonant blog post earlier in 2013 which all new academics should read. It speaks to the kind of inner turmoil that many of us go through as we get more and more bound into our PhD and post-PhD lives – a binding that can lead you into a form of corrosive and relentless self-interrogation and absorption that is damaging both intellectually and emotionally. Escaping that vortex came, in part, for me via getting to work and enjoy time with others – students, colleagues, friends, the public, and especially my partner and family – and learning to see problems as potentially transformative moments (which isn’t easy and is an ongoing effort for me). Because of all the people that I interact with now, unanticipated differences of opinion or unexpected difficulties in implementing plans are the norm. I try to appreciate them now less as failures on my part and more as spaces for me to come out thinking in new ways – although, as per below, I will not compromise myself if these problems contradict the evidence base and my moral code.

The highlights of my year are many, and a lot of them are already documented on this blog so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. But I do want to acknowledge some of those people who have made an especial difference in my career over the past 12 months.

My students continue to be the greatest revelation for me as a new academic. I remember when I was finishing my Master’s degree back in Canada and I was teaching an anthropology tutorial to a group which was clearly not engaged with the subject matter. A member of staff told me not to get discouraged, but to rather invest my energy in the couple of students who did clearly care about the topic. Whilst this advice was well-meaning, I’m glad I never took it to heart. Because what I’ve found is that if I experiment with approaches, if I offer opportunities for students to explore the edges of their creative capabilities, if I push outside normative modes of teaching and assessment and aim to cultivate safe places for students to make and test out ideas and learn the dimensions of constructive critique, I’m actually investing energy in everyone. And those students who one might never have imagined would participate or care about the subject matter, in fact, begin to work through the most thought-provoking and potential-filled concepts. Yes, things go wrong and we make mistakes and the path doesn’t lead where we anticipated. But taking this path – I think – is critical, because in my experience (and in spite of frustrations) it leads us on the journey with the most ‘a-ha’ moments. Our reflexive exhibitionary work at Çatalhöyük is full of these twists, and I’m especially lucky to have been able to take some of our York students out this year to continue the journey during what was my best season yet (read a bit about our work in the most recent Çatal newsletter: pp. 7-8).

These collaborations with my students in the classroom and in the field are just one of a spectrum of productive working relationships that I have with a range of interdisciplinary specialists. Honestly, I couldn’t realise the vast majority of my plans without the ideas and assistance of many people, most significantly Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist), who has been central to essentially all of the digital projects I’ve done at York to date. Tom is one of the most important individuals I’ve been able to work with in 2013, and my experiences have been further enhanced by meeting Simon Davis (E-Learning Advisor) and Ned Potter (Academic Librarian). These colleagues have variously advised me, taught my students, promoted my projects and challenged my ideas. They make my job not just interesting but fun and inspiring. And they are among a community of supportive people, some of whom I only know in digital form, who often provide critical feedback and much-appreciated positive reinforcement through channels like Google Plus, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook and Twitter. On top of this, I’ve also had multiple wonderful surprise introductions to individuals in different fields of practice, like digital identity specialist Abhay Adhikari, who have helped me to conceive of my own work in new ways.

The last highlight of 2013 that I’ll mention now has been the funding, data collection and preliminary reporting of our Gender and Digital Culture project. I am so deeply fortunate to have the privilege of collaborating here with Dr Lucy Shipley and (soon-to-be Dr) Jim Osborne – honestly, they are extraordinary people and I completely lucked out in getting them to work with me. We are all indebted to Dr Graeme Earl whose initial belief in the project provided us with a small amount of seed funding. In just 9 months time, that little seed has led to the launch of our project blog and Twitter account; to the full implementation and analysis of the data from our survey; to presentations at the Australian Archaeological Association’s annual conference, the University of Rochester’s Decoding the Digital conference, and the Integrity Project’s How to be a Public Intellectual conference, and an informal presentation to the University of York Feminist Society; to features in the Times Higher Education and the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog; to web-based and print publications in press or already released for Anthropology Now (forthcoming) and Forum magazine, plus a well-read blog post for Savage Minds. On top of this, we ran our online, multi-institutional seminar in November at York and Southampton; and we have an op-ed piece, two journal publications and another (maybe two more) talks already scheduled for 2014.

It is a testament to just how much can be accomplished when you have a collaborator (or two) and a few resources to help you out.

This is where some of my frustrations begin to surface, because I couldn’t have done any of that project on my own, without Southampton’s seed funding and without Lucy and Jim. I would never have wanted to do it alone, but this wouldn’t ever even have been a possibility: I just don’t have the time owing to the fact that it is consumed with endless other tasks that constantly interrupt your thinking, pulling you out of meaningful reflective moments and making it seemingly impossible for you to string together something coherent on your own. The greatest disappointment of 2013 is surely the 10 funding applications that were submitted for various projects and academic schemes on which I was either a PI or CI, but which were successful in only 3 instances. I am positive that part of the problem here lies in my lack of time to invest in the full intellectual development and refinement of these applications.

This is the demoralising catch-22 of the academic sphere (or one of them at least): I’m finding it hard to set in motion full research projects because I don’t have the time, but I can only find the time if I win sufficient money to buy me out of my other duties and fund research collaborators. But…I need time/support to articulate those funding bids in the first instance. That bit of money that Southampton offered to us led to two subsequent and successful applications to other funders, which speaks again to what might be achieved with the tiniest amount of investment up front. It is profoundly frustrating to recognise that, firstly, such miniscule investment is so elusive, and yet that, secondly, I must somehow secure it to ensure my own career progression.

I’m clearly not the only person struggling with this problem, but it leads me to another concern that surfaced in 2013: namely the now incalculable requests that I’ve received for myself or my students to offer their creative labour for free for causes that aren’t linked to any explicit learning objectives or to demonstrable and equal benefits for them. My partner is an artist, so this predicament is sadly not new to me, but it hasn’t been until recently that, via my field of expertise, I’ve also gained the status of creative producer and teacher of creative producers. In my despair about what seems to be exploitation couched as ‘good experience’, I’ve begun to do some research on the subject (which has been studied by many – amongst the better known as regards unpaid digital work is possibly Tiziana Terranova’s (2002) Free Labor – but also see the critiques being outputted now by archaeologists themselves, like Sam Hardy’s unfree archaeology blog and Emily Johnson’s #freearchaeology hashtag on Twitter). I’m distraught by the idea that in the seemingly ubiquitous search for funds and time, some (many?) heritage practitioners and practitioners-in-training appear to be taken advantage of as unpaid labourers who produce outputs that others then use for profit without providing any genuine reciprocity or compensation for such labour. Whilst I believe in the value of volunteering, I don’t want to reproduce this process, and I’m committed in 2014 to ensuring, where I can, that students volunteer their time to tasks with fair, equitable and well-defined goals which are truly pedagogically and intellectually meaningful. Ultimately, I see this as an opportunity, because long-term equal collaboration that intertwines creative producers with other professionals is a highly constructive pursuit on multiple levels for all parties involved. Indeed, this is the very subject that the last 10 years of my own research has centred upon.

I’ll end by saying that 2013 was made better for me by the many of you who, like Andy Shuttleworth, put your experiences out there for all the rest of us to learn from. Howard Williams’ reflections on the sub-Z-list celebrity status that comes with academic life was similarly meaningful to me. Please don’t hesitate to share other links and ideas!

I head into my review today feeling hopeful for 2014: committed to continuing to make a small difference in the world and, most importantly, standing up for my students, my research collaborators and motivators, my friends, family and my ethics.

Fingers crossed it all goes okay. Thank you so very much for your continuing support.

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.