Education Is What's Left: Some Thoughts on Introductory Archaeology

By Fagan, Brian | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Education Is What's Left: Some Thoughts on Introductory Archaeology


Fagan, Brian, Antiquity


Key-words: universities, undergraduate, teaching methods, internet, IT

Education is what's left after all you've learned has been forgotten

HERSCHBACH 1999

In over 30 years of graduate and undergraduate teaching, I have taught everything from large introductory offerings with an audience of 300, to advanced undergraduate seminars, even a graduate course for two people on writing about archaeology. In all these years, I am struck by two constants: the general enthusiasm of my students for archaeology and their startling lack of ability to think for themselves and be intellectually self-reliant, something found in every academic discipline. These same 30 years have encompassed a period of remarkable change in archaeology-new theoretical paradigms, the increasing emphasis on stewardship and management, startling and sometimes dramatic discoveries, and a quantum jump in our ability to extract fine-grained information from the archaeological record. Yet, every winter, when I step into the classroom to address another audience of impressionable undergraduates, I find everything is the same. The expectations of my colleagues and students, the university regulations surrounding testing and scoring, the questions students ask, even the distinctive aroma in the classroom on a wet day.

The way we teach, how we think about teaching, even the overall course content, has changed little over the past half-century, even if the nuts-and-bolts examples and theoretical insights shift from year to year. We have given little thought, as a discipline, to undergraduate teaching, which seems to be considered of lesser importance in the larger scheme of things than graduate training and what is euphemistically called 'basic research'. The literature on pedagogical philosophies, teaching methods generally, and the content of introductory courses is still effectively non-existent. As far as I can tell, such discussions have simply been perceived as a form of background noise to our research. In reality, teaching is about the hardest thing we do, certainly more challenging than writing many of our specialized research reports, which may be read by only a handful of people with the same interests. Teaching is hard because it involves three important variables: people, their behaviour and their expectations. And the hardest of all pedagogy is that involving beginning students, 'introductory archaeology'.

Enthusiasm

Most of our beginning students come to us with little awareness of archaeology. Many are totally indifferent to the subject. Here we meet the general public and have the mission not of training professional archaeologists, but of creating what the National Science Foundation calls optimistically an 'informed citizenry'.

I think the most important ingredients in a beginning class are ones that can only be brought to the subject by the instructor: an infectious enthusiasm and passion for the past, a belief that archaeology has great relevance to the contemporary world, a deep-felt interest in students as individuals and human beings and, above all, electric story-telling skills, the ability to explain eloquently how archaeology works. Many now-elderly archaeologists who were students at Cambridge in the 1950s remember vividly the reminiscences of Miles Burkitt. He introduced us to archaeology by story-telling, with reminiscences of pre-World War I work in French caves with the Abbe Breuil, and with huge sepia lantern slides {and they were lantern slides). Burkitt carried little intellectual baggage, for he contributed little to the original corpus of archaeology. Perhaps this was an advantage, for he brought enthusiasm instead.

We bring all manner of impedimenta to our teaching; for a start our own narrow specialities and theoretical biases, the latter sometimes a matter of considerable personal angst. Then there is the constant pressure to do original research and publish it, a particularly pervasive disease in American research universities, which make little allowance for superlative teaching. …

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