Learning a Practice versus Learning to Be a Practitioner: Teaching Archaeology in an Honors Context

Article excerpt


This paper is a case study in teaching archaeology as part of an honors curriculum. It uses the example of one course, The Legacy of Ancient Technology, and the general goals of an honors program to examine how discipline-specific knowledge can be taught to non-majors. This paper explores the differences between students learning about a field of study versus those learning to become practitioners in a discipline. It posits that courses can be successfully built from a disciplinary foundation and still serve a diverse body of honors students when seminars focus on non-foundational knowledge, collaborative learning, and a discipline's existing attempts at public outreach.


The University Honors Program (UHP) at the University of New Mexico is an independent academic unit within University College, which houses a diverse array of departments like the retention-focused Freshmen Learning Communities and the student-directed Bachelor of University Studies. The College's two missions are "to function as an academic home for incoming students and to provide an administrative structure for several important interdisciplinary programs" (University of New Mexico 2006: 579). UHP courses are meant to offer experiences not available to undergraduates in their traditional home departments and are "designed to increase opportunities for liberal arts education for highly motivated and academically committed undergraduates from all University of New Mexico colleges and schools" (University of New Mexico 2006: 589). To do this, in part, the UHP has a permanent cadre of professors tenured in Honors rather than the many and specific disciplines in which they were trained. Their courses are interdisciplinary examinations of specific topics as opposed to honors versions of standard classes. The Legacy of Ancient Technology is offered instead of an honors version of Archaeology 101. The instructor's primary role is not to serve majors but to "highlight the social and ethical dimensions of [the course], as well as help students understand connections among a variety of academic subjects" (University Honors Program 2006:2). In fact, the current section of this course has no enrolled anthropology or archaeology majors, and fewer than a quarter of the students are undeclared majors who might even consider majoring in the discipline.

Students in The Legacy of Ancient Technology conduct hands-on experiments making and using technologies commonly encountered in the archaeological record. These range from firemaking by friction to stone tool manufacture, atlatl throwing, cordage weaving, and the casting and laying of adobe blocks (figures 1 through 3). The curriculum was developed by an instructor grounded in North American archaeology. Yet, as will be explained below, it is important to note that the syllabus includes a broad array of technologies tied to no single time period or geographic area. A full syllabus of this course was previously published in Honors in Practice (Lovata 2006). Briefly, the class is based on the practice of experimental ethnoarchaeology. Ethnoarchaeology is a form of archaeology through analogy. Its practitioners attempt to understand the archaeological record and the peoples who created it via the study of the contemporary manufacture, use, reworking or recycling, and disposal of material culture (Cunningham 2003:392). First-hand experiments with, and ethnographic observations of, contemporary people are meant to lend an understanding of the physical and cultural contexts in which tools operate (Stiles 1977:90). They also highlight the contrasts between contemporary scholars and both the past and present peoples they study. This process, then, exposes the ways in which knowledge is constructed. Students in The Legacy of Ancient Technology act at different times as both participant and observer. They are given the opportunity to see, and assigned the goal of seeing, the same behaviors from different perspectives. …