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.



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 ++

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.

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.