Monday, June 28, 2010

anthropological mystery (novels)

Maybe I'm the only osteologist who doesn't already know this, but William Bass (of Body Farm fame) has teamed with a journalist by the name of Jefferson to create "Jefferson Bass" mystery novels. There are five novels, but I've only read the most recent Bones of Betrayal.

I wouldn't read them for the plot...or the characters...or, well, the writing. Agatha Christie they ain't. (Now there's someone who could write damn good archaeological mysteries.) The culprit was laughingly obvious, the writing awkward, and I was personally distracted by the idea that Bill Bass sees the tweedy Gil Grissom main character as autobiographical.

Still, you couldn't find more accurate forensics. And if you, like me, find books with bone diagrams to be irresistible, then this is definitely a series to check out.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

value of a "liberal arts" education

Our administration (and faculty members) try to sell perspective students on the value of a liberal arts education. I certainly see a value, although, as I've blogged before, I'm not convinced that a liberal arts education is the only valuable undergraduate experience.

Today, one of our faculty members sent out this link to an article by David Brooks, a rather weak argument in favor of liberal arts education. Laying aside, for the moment, the confusion between "liberal arts" and "humanities", Brooks' strongest argument is that a degree in English or History will teach you to read and write. One hopes that is equally true of all fields, but I understand his point. His strangest argument is that somehow the humanities teach you about what he terms the "Big Shaggy", the inner beast in all people. Supposedly, learning about this inner beast will make you more successful. Um, OK.

We get a lot of parents and students visiting our college, and they often want to talk to faculty members about future job opportunities. Unlike many of my colleagues, I'm not offended by the question "but what would you do with that?" Obviously, if I wasn't interested in learning for the pure sake of learning, I wouldn't be an academic. On the other hand, faculty members have to face the fact that the BA has become the union card for the middle class. Trying to sell most students on the life of the mind is a lost cause, and for good reason. The life of the mind pays for sh$t. Most students aren't in school for the pure joy of learning, and that's OK. They still want an education.

Where students (and their parents) can go wrong is in thinking that the BA education should translate directly to their career. Sure, you can get a BA in anthropology and go on to have a successful career in CRM. But the truth is that most BAs in anthropology will go on to do what most BAs in all other fields do: middle management, running a small business, bureaucratic jobs, etc. We're teaching students general skills, as much as specific knowledge. To that extent, I agree with Brooks.

But there are no Big Shaggies in any of my classes.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dave Gregory

Dave Gregory died on Sunday. I worked with him many years ago, and while he was never a friend, I greatly admired his dedication to the field and the body of work he produced. He was one of those flawed geniuses that archaeology tends to attract - people who sometimes act in self-destructive ways, but who give so much more to the world than they take away. He was endlessly curious, endlessly fascinated by the past.

His major contributions include his work at Las Colinas, a large Hohokam site in the Phoenix basin. Environmental archaeologists will be particularly interested in his study of irrigation patterns. More recently, he was one of the most influential archaeologists studying the emergence of agricultural communities in the deserts of the U.S. Southwest. Excavations he ran at Los Pozos literally re-wrote books on early agriculture in North America.

Perhaps the most important legacy that Dave left to archaeology is the way he exemplified the critical role of CRM research in forwarding human knowledge about the past. Some PhD programs in anthropology denigrate the work done by contract companies. Even those programs that enter into partnerships with local firms are seldom giving their students an adequate education for what is, after all, the largest job market in archaeology. Dave Gregory, through his work at Desert Archaeology Inc., and the Center for Desert Archaeology, showed exactly how much archaeology owes to CRM. The research he did was exemplary, and no single archaeologist at any academic institution could hope to contribute as much to the increase of knowledge in our field. Each year, CRM projects add more data - and more thoughtful analysis - to the field than this nation's universities. It's time that more academic institutions take advantage of the wealth of expertise, data, and funding opportunities available through CRM.

I think Dave would have liked that.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


It's that time of year, again. Time to choose textbooks. Every year, I consider writing my own, if only to save myself the aggravation of choosing the lesser of evils. (Yes, I know, the aggravation of writing a textbook would be much greater.) I am currently wrestling with the great, imponderable question of our time: is there no market for a cheap textbook? Honestly, nobody would assign a textbook that was, literally, a book with text - no pretty pictures, no fancy graphs, no human interest stories in brightly colored boxes? Personally, I'd like to find such a book, but instead, I'm forcing undergrads to spend hundreds of dollars on glossy-paged tomes whose content is simultaneously too detailed and insufficiently informative (neat trick, that). I understand that textbook production - like conference realignment - is driven by profit margins, but I keep thinking that some small publishing company might be able to produce a simple textbook that would sell well because it undercut the prices of all the usual suspects.

I have to admit, though, that even if I could find such a textbook, I'm not sure I would change my existing courses until after I have tenure (if then). Especially at a teaching-intensive U like this one, I really have to prioritize if I'm going to have any time to do my own research. The time it takes to prep a class can expand, like a gas, to fill the available space. A new textbook is one of the most time-consuming, yet thankless, changes a professor can make. The textbook will affect every aspect of your class from the schedule in the syllabus to which dates you use in your last lecture, but it's not a course improvement you can highlight in your year-end review. Far better to invest in adding an on-line component or service-learning project. At my institution, at least, those are the kinds of innovations that actually count toward the teaching portion of tenure review.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I'm ba-ack

I took a month off to focus on the end of the semester (chaotic) and to jump-start some summer projects, both academic and domestic (bliss). One revised chapter and re-designed playroom later, I'm ready to jump back on the blogging bandwagon.

Today's light entertainment news for archaeology - Lewis Binford now has a star named for him.

I noted at the SAAs that Dr. Binford wasn't looking very good. One of his long-time colleagues replied "that depends on how old you think he is." I, for one, had not realized he is 80. When I met him, 10 years ago, I wouldn't have thought him more than 60.

A well deserved honor.