Saturday, October 30, 2010

weekly accountability: Oct 24-30

My writing goals for this week were to finish the body of the conference paper that I'm turning into a journal article and begin on the conclusions. Also, I hoped to keep all members of the family out of the hospital.

I met my writing goals (and the hospital goal, too, thank God!). If anyone is keeping track, that puts me about 3 weeks behind where I wanted to be at this point, but at least I'm still moving.

My writing goals for next week are to finish the conclusions, edit the whole paper, get the bibliography, tables, and graphs whipped into shape, and send it out to my co-authors. Then I hope to start outlining the changes to the next paper.

Friday, October 29, 2010

balance, pt 8: cross-training

I used to feel guilty that archaeology was not my only pleasure. I think that's common. We're often made to feel bad if we didn't start excavating in the sand box at the age of six, or turn down after-school TV in favor of learning Egyptian hieroglyphics. A cousin of mine in electrical engineering makes a similar complaint. In graduate school, she said, there was a sense that the really serious students had spent their childhoods disassembling radios and building printers out of Legos, and everybody else was just a dilettante. (It probably didn't help that she attended MIT.)

I'd like to make a case for mental cross-training. I was going to say"hobbies", but I don't like the term because it sounds frivolous, selfish, and pointless. Activities outside of our academic focus are useful in getting our creative juices flowing and re-charging our interest in life and in research. I honestly believe that my cross-training activities help me be a better teacher and to get more academic work done.

OK, not all hobbies are created equal, but whether you're interested in flower arranging or model trains, if your hobby makes you think creatively, and introduces you to something new and different, then you're stretching your mind, and that can only make you a better archaeologist. Personally, I write fiction (and this blog!) and do some sewing, as well as small craft/art projects with my daughter. Yes, they take time away from my academic work, and no, a new skirt or a Halloween costume is probably not worth the time it takes to make it. But, I find myself more interested in everything, more motivated, and more creative when I take time to indulge in some mental cross-training.

excellent news

I mentioned the plight of Homolo'vi State Park in an earlier post. The good news is that the Hopi tribe has entered into an intergovernmental pact with the state of Arizona to re-open the park and protect the archaeological sites. It's unfortunate that the Hopi have to pay for this, but wonderful that the sites will be protected and once again open to visitors.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


If it wasn't such an irresponsible thing to do, I would totally apply for this job. Bones, early agriculture, and London. What more could a person ask for?


This year, Excruciating Faculty Committee (EFC) is arguing for an increase in faculty salaries, as we're woefully underpaid compared to peer institutions. Since last year there was a salary freeze, and this year there was an across-the-board salary cut, I think the timing is not auspicious.

We spent a couple of meetings randomly discussing other institutions, and how their faculty make so much more money, and not getting anywhere. As one of the few members of the committee who is comfortable with actual data, in self defense I put together some numbers, showing the average salaries for our full, associate, and assistant professors, and how these compare to regional and peer institutions. The conversation that ensued shows how many of our faculty are knee-deep in the river, snapping pictures of the pyramids.

Excruciating Chair*: "Look how much money they make at [mid-level R1 school that happens to be in the same state]! How come we don't make that much?"

Maybe because we don't have graduate programs, an engineering school, a medical school, or even significant grant income?

Excruciating Biology Professor: "[Internationally known select liberal arts college in the same state] has the same mission that we do! Why do they make so much more money?!"

Uh, 'cause we're an under-enrolled liberal arts college nobody has ever heard of, in the middle of nowhere, with fairly poor student outcomes?

Excruciating Philosophy Professor: "When you look at the salaries by discipline, it looks like the math and science professors are farther from their peers than those of us in the humanities! We can't use these data!"

Me: "But those are the data that argue for the largest pay increase over-all, including for humanities faculty."

Excruciating Philosophy Professor: "But it gives the math and science faculty a bigger raise. I can't accept that!"

Me: "mumble, forces...mumble, mumble."

Excruciating Philosophy Professor: "Don't talk to me about market forces. I do the same job as a computer science professor, I should be paid the same!"

Me: bangs head repeatedly on table.

I'm going to supplement my income by selling souvenir salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Khufu's tomb.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I had another meeting of EFC today. Every time I sit through one of these meetings, I send out another job application. Lest you think I'm just a whiner, and the people on this committee are not as bad as I make out, I want to report on a conversation I had with a colleague in Women's Studies as I was walking to the meeting. She was heading toward a meeting of her own, and complained about the crazy colleagues she would have to deal with.

Me: "You think you've got it bad? We've got [Excruciating Chair] heading the committee!"

Friend: "Good God! Who allowed that to happen?!"

Me: "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to stand idly by."

Friend: "Honestly, I feel for you. Let's send each other good vibes from our separate circles of Hell."

Yup, that just about summed it up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

faunal indices revisited

Codding, Brian F., Douglas W. Bird, and Rebecca Bliege Bird
2010 Interpreting Abundance Indices: Some Zooarchaeological Implications of Martu Foraging. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:3200-3210.

After the post on my faunal index pet peeve, I just had to comment on this article in JAS. Very roughly, the article can be summarized as "we have ethnographic data that shows that people eat more big animals when they're more common, and fewer big animals when they're rare", but with the caveats related to failure rates that you would expect, given the authors' previous publications. I have no problem with their data, their methods, or their conclusion.

My concern with the article lies in their stated opposition to alternative interpretations of large-game indices. Here's the relevant passage (from page 3201):

However, ethnographic and actualistic work has questioned the assumption that prey body size and prey rank are always positively correlated. Mass capture techniques may increase post-encounter return rates for some types of small prey, particularly fish and insects (Madsen and Kirkman, 1988; Madsen and Schmitt, 1998; Ugan, 2005a,b; Lupo and Schmitt, 2002, 2005). Moreover, under
some circumstances, larger prey may be of lower rank than predicted due to the effects of relative prey mobility, which can increase with prey size, and may lead to higher instances of pursuit failure (Bird et al., 2009; see also Hawkes et al., 1991; Jochim, 1976; O’Connell et al., 1988; Smith, 1991:230e231; Stiner et al., 2000; Winterhalder, 1981:95e96). If this is the case, foragers may attain higher overall return rates by pursuing smaller prey that can be acquired more reliably. Because foragers (often men) continue to pursue larger prey despite the acquisition risk, it may be that the actual goals of foraging vary as a function of gender (Jochim, 1988), with men focused on maximizing currencies other than the rate of resource acquisition, such as social capital or prestige (Bliege Bird and Smith, 2005; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002). Instances of such behavior represent a clear violation of one of the primary assumptions of the PCM (e.g., Bliege Bird et al., 2001; Hawkes et al., 1991; Hill et al., 1987; see also Lee, 1968).

With this critique, an alternative interpretation of abundance indices has emerged in opposition to the traditional interpretation. This alternative view suggests that high proportions of large prey relative to small prey represent lower overall foraging efficiency (e.g., Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; McGuire et al., 2007) and a gender division in foraging labor in which men’s pursuit of large prey is subsidized by women’s labor focused on more reliable resources (Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; McGuire and Hildebrandt, 2005). Accordingly, diachronic declines in the abundance of larger prey relative to smaller prey then reflect increases in foraging efficiency and an increase in the overlap between men’s and women’s resource choice, both being focused on small prey (McGuire and Hildebrandt, 1994, 2005; but see also Jarvenpa and Brumbach, 2009; Kuhn and Stiner, 2006; Waguespack, 2005; Zeanah, 2004).
The authors then state that opposing interpretations of large-game indices will lead to hypotheses about prehistoric foraging being untestable, but that Martu ethnographic data, while not reflecting all variation in hunting, can at least elucidate the basic ties between prey size, foraging returns, and hunting decisions. Their conclusion, as stated above, is that decreasing large-game use is, indeed, evidence for decreasing foraging efficiency, and not the other way around.

Alas, the authors committed my number one faunal index pet peeve: they ignored context.

1) The authors cite Hildebrandt and McGuire as perpetrators of the hypothesis that increasing large game indices represent decreases in foraging efficiency. I can't speak for them, but that's not how I've read their work. Hildebrandt and McGuire (along with several other zooarchaeologists who were not cited in the article, including me!) argue that in certain contexts the increased hunting of large game represents a decrease in foraging efficiency. For example, if large game is important for ritual use, then large game may be more common during periods of high social stress, even though hunting that large game requires less efficient foraging decisions than hunting small game. Another example would be if agricultural labor constrained mobility and settlement locations, and kept hunters from easily accessing areas where large game was prevalent. There, too, an increase in large game would represent a decrease in foraging efficiency, reflecting the need for long-distance hunting as more local protein sources proved inadequate.

2) Since the argument that increases in large-game indices may reflect decreased foraging efficiency is strongly dependent on context, proving that is not the case in one context is not the same as proving that is never the case. The logic is problematic.

3) The authors state that "if both interpretations are taken seriously, competing hypotheses about prehistoric foraging are rendered essentially untestable." This is not true. The competing hypotheses are tested by looking at the archaeological context. As I stated in my previous post, faunal indices do not prove anything in and of themselves, they must be interpreted in light of their archaeological context. We must look at changes in settlement patterns, technology, and other aspects of the economy to know whether economic intensification or food stress manifest during the period in question. If we know so little about the prehistoric societies that produced these faunal assemblages that we cannot even tell if they are undergoing population growth, or community coalescence, or agricultural intensification, then we should probably re-think our understanding of the faunal indices, as well.

I will now re-state my opinion on faunal indices. Perhaps I should call it Palimpsest's First Law: Faunal Indices tell us about the timing and intensity of change, but they do not tell us the direction. For that, we need to know their context.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

weekly accountability: Oct 17-23

My writing goals for this week were to to re-write the body of the conference paper that I'm turning into a journal article and begin on the conclusions.

I did not meet my writing goals. This week, it was Dr. Mr. Palimpsest who flirted with pneumonia. Now that everyone in the family has begun or finished at least one course of antibiotics, I'm hoping we'll be fully healthy and I'll be able to Get Sh#t Done!

My writing goals for next week are to finish the body of the paper. If we can all stay out of the hospital, I'll consider that a bonus.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

too much information

I'm on the job market again, albeit in a fairly small way. I'm only applying for jobs I'd really like, so it's a rather limited pool. This is the first time I've been on the job market after having been on a search committee myself. Some practices that I thought were bizarre or idiotic in the past are now more understandable, or at least I've realized that they are often state- or university-mandated idiocies.

My number one frustration is the amount of up-front information some universities request. I'm resigned to sending letters of recommendation up-front, although I hate to ask for them, and the AAA has a statement in opposition on their webpage. Up-front letters of recommendation are common in many disciplines, and common enough in ours, that I'm not too frustrated when I see them requested. Similarly, it seems reasonable to ask for a short teaching portfolio, including student evaluations and a statement of philosophy. What drives me nuts are schools that want letters, syllabi, writing samples, transcripts (official!), and/or a complete work-up of your astrological profile before they even make the first cut.

I'm sure different search committees work differently and follow different rules, but I can't imagine any committee reading all of that material. Surely it is better to read through a fairly succinct application from everyone, and then determine which dozen or so applicants are strong enough that you're willing to wade through their extra verbage?

Unfortunately, I was on a search committee that required an obscene amount of material up-front. When I objected, I was told that requesting letters up front would "speed up the process." But we didn't want the process sped up! We were searching for a temporary position quite early in the job market cycle. Making an early decision would open up the possibility of our choice backing out because they'd received a tenure-track position. I was also told that senior members of the committee had previously found items like syllabi and transcripts to be "really useful" in making a determination. I can't imagine why, at least not before the first cut.

Problematically, we significantly decreased the number of people willing to apply for our job, even though the job market was so bad. This was a temporary, one-year position at a low-prestige school in the middle of nowhere, and we were asking for more material than the vast majority of tenure-track job postings.

The job market sucks. Until we can institute some logical plan to match people with jobs, could we at least minimize the pain by standardizing the application materials?

balance, pt. 7: grading

When I first started teaching, I spent far too much of my time grading. I commonly teach about 100 students per semester, and if that doesn't seem like a lot, I'll point out that classes here are expected to be heavy on papers, essay exams, and activities, and we have no graduate student TAs to help us with the grading.

I like to get feedback to my students as soon as possible, and I want my feedback to be substantive and constructive. As a result, my first couple of years here I would frequently be snowed under by a pile of grading. Nothing else got done, of course, and frankly the results - as measured by the usefulness of my critiques to the students - were not worth the effort.

So, I tamed the grading beast. Here are a few pointers that worked for me and for my students. These are mostly no-brainers, but they took me a long time to figure out, so I thought I might as well share them. YMMV.

Grading rubrics. An oldie but goodie. When grading an essay, paper, or presentation, I pick the 4-8 most important aspects of the assignment, and I decide how many points each one should be worth. Then I create a column for each of those items in an Excel spreadsheet and put the grades in as I read each paper. Not only can I set it up so Excel automatically adds all the points together to create the final grade, but I can use mail merge to give each student a print-out of their grade break-down with comments.

For example, let's say I've assigned a paper on gorillas, and it is worth 50 points total. I may decide that spelling and punctuation are worth 5 points, grammar and style are 5 points, coverage of basic gorilla biology is 10 points, description of gorilla social organization is 10 points, coverage of gorilla diet is 10 points, and coverage of gorilla conservation is another 10. Obviously, these topics should correspond to the directions for the assignment that I gave to my students. I put together an Excel spreadsheet with each one of those categories as a separate column. As I read John Doe's paper, I put a number in each of those columns, and in the last column I write general comments. Mail merge can then create a Word file that can be printed and stapled to the papers to be returned to the students. More frequently, I copy and paste the relevant paragraph to the end of the student's electronically submitted paper and send it back to them. The file usually looks something like this, and only takes minutes to create for the whole class:
Paper 1: Gorillas
Doe, John

Spelling and punctuation (out of 5 points): 3
Grammar and style (out of 5 points): 4
Basic biology (out of 10 points): 8
Social organization (out of 10 points): 7
Diet (out of 10 points): 10
Conservation (out of 10 points): 6

Total points (out of 50): 38

Comments: Good job on this paper overall, John, but I'd like to see more detail in your discussion of gorilla conservation. I particularly liked your section on gorilla diet, but be careful of typos. I'm pretty sure you didn't mean that gorillas eat their chests.
The beauty of the system is that you've given feedback on where the student went wrong, (John now knows which parts of the paper were strong and which ones were weak), but you don't have to spell it out for him. If you want, you can always add another comments column by each grade, and add that to the mail merge. For example, the grade for spelling and punctuation could have the number, followed by the comment "Please watch for typos. They are very distracting!" I find this system much faster and easier than trying to decide on (and justify) an overall grade without breaking it down in this fashion.

Typical-paragraph comments. A friend of mine is an English professor, has taught one bizillion sections of Freshman Comp, and runs the Writing Tutorial Center at Tiny U. She put me onto the idea of only correcting one typical paragraph, rather than trying to correct grammar, spelling, and organization problems throughout a paper. This is an absolute God-send when one of your students is barely capable of writing a complete sentence, and frequently fails to reach even that mark. My friend maintains that it's the best way to teach students how to write (when paired with the requirement that they re-write one of their essays). If you correct every mistake a student makes, all they will do is go through and make the changes you pointed out to them. If, instead, you mark the major problems in one paragraph and tell them to change similar problems in the rest of the paper, then they have to truly understand your corrections. As a bonus, it takes a lot less of your time!

Pick your battles. This is another tip from my friend the English professor: don't try to fix everything. Whether the paper is excellent or excruciating, pick no more than three problems for the student to fix. Those three things may be the details that turn a good paper into a great one, or they may be things like "try outlining your paper to improve organization", "please craft a legitimate thesis statement", and "for the love of all that is Holy, learn how to write a complete sentence!" It can be tempting to try to fix all of a student's problems, but if you dump all over a paper, the criticism will just be overwhelming. I don't mean that in a touchy-feely, don't-damage-their-poor-little-psychies-by-using-a-red-pen kind of way. What I mean is that too many problems to fix will lead to no problems being fixed. Many students will just give up. It's just not possible to overcome the failure of 12 years of pre-college education in the two weeks before the next paper is due. But if you give them two or three specific tasks to accomplish, they can master those before moving on.

The internet is your friend. I have created an on-line component to all of my introductory classes. Pre-labs, reading quizzes, exams, and activities can all be put on-line using a Moodle or Blackboard system. The initial set-up is a bear, but once they are up and running, many of these activities can be automatically graded by the computer and the grades put in the student's online grade book. Presto - no more grading! Obviously, cheating is easier under this system, but I've moved toward open book and open note exams, with the result that average grades have actually dropped! Why? Partly because students think they don't have to study if it's open book, but also because I can skip a lot of the easy questions and focus on questions that really test comprehension of the basic class concepts. (Yes, it is possible to test comprehension using multiple choice and matching questions.)

An added bonus of creating an on-line component to your class is that students can upload their papers and written assignments to the class web-page, which allows you to request electronic manuscripts without having your e-mail box fill up. The papers are conveniently located in one area on-line, and you won't have to hear any more excuses about failed e-mails.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

visiting scholar conference 2011

Southern Illinois Carbondale's annual Visiting Scholar conference will be on "Narratives of North American Diversity, 1400-1700", with a focus on indigenous and slave experiences of that transformative period, independent or and/or interwoven with European perspectives. It looks like an interesting conference, and if I were in the area, I would definitely attend, although it is well outside my personal research interests.

Actually, that's not completely true. I have a deep interest in the adoption of Old World domestic animals by Native Americans. There are so many interesting stories out there - everything from simple adoption of herding, to the hunting of feral domesticates, to pigs as the cause of the Pequot war, to attempts to create Lapp-like reindeer domestication with Inuit and caribou. Some day, when I've actually written up all the extraneous data from my own research that I still have floating around, I'd love to start research on the movement of Old World domesticates in the New World. I'm not holding my breath until I have time, though.

Abstracts are due December 20, for anyone with an interest in the topic.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

british nagpra?

This article has a very interesting discussion of a relatively new mandate in the UK requiring that all excavated human remains be reburied within two years. Apparently, the regulation of archaeology was transferred to the Ministry of Justice in 2008 (the article doesn't say why). The Ministry decided that archaeologists should be subject to a Victorian-era law that covered the excavation of old graveyards during suburban development.

I've written before about my strong views on NAGPRA; I'm not generally opposed to quick reburial for human remains. That said, I fail to see the purpose for this mandate. I may be wrong (please correct me if I am), but I'm not aware that Britian has a significant problem with power differential between those-that-dig and those-that-are-studied. Perhaps most archaeologists are ethnically English, and they're running roughshod over the pasts of the Welsh, Scotts, and Irish, but I've never gotten that impression. So what is the purpose of the law? Have there been any actual complaints from local communities?

weekly accountability: Oct. 10-16

My writing goals for this week were to re-do the data graphs and tables, and to re-write the body of the conference paper that I'm turning into a journal article.

I did not meet my writing goals; I only got about half of it done. As I mentioned in my last post, things fell apart around here the last two weeks (topped off by another doctor's visit this morning and another course of antibiotics, this time for Bunny). I'm just glad I got anything done! As an example of the power of clean living and high thinking, however, yesterday the deadline for this article was extended, so I'm not in as much of a rush as I thought.

My goals for next week are to finish the body of the paper and begin on the conclusions.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

balance, pt. 6: losing it

I've been sick since early September. First it was a cold, then it became a secondary infection, then a sinus infection so intense I couldn't move my head without throwing up. Meantime, Little Boo had an ear infection and Dr. Mr. Palimpsest had a cold. We were muddling along alright, until Dr. Mr. Palimpsest caught the flu, and then gave it to our daughter, Bunny. This just happened to coincide with the move-my-head-and-puke phase of my own illness, so everything pretty much went to hell in a handbasket for a while.

Just as many middle-class families are one paycheck from poverty, so are most professional women one set-back away from total chaos. I was never more aware of how precarious is our family balancing act until it was disrupted so radically by a simple illness. But, there we were: our house filling with trash (mostly used tissues), our laundry piling up, our meals going uncooked, and our classes barely getting taught. I didn't do a writing accountability update last weekend because I got absolutely nothing done the week before. I'm lucky I didn't have to cancel classes. This week, it's taken me until today to get caught up and return to a normal routine, a process that was not helped by Bunny staying home for two days from preschool because of the flu.

It's been a tough time, but strangely enough, the last two weeks have made me incredibly grateful for all that I have. I am grateful for the help I receive from my husband (when he's not bedridden). I am grateful for those productive moments of peace in the office when the kids are at daycare. I am grateful for the energy I have (when I don't feel like death on toast) to get stuff done, day after day.

Thank God for a return to balance!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

weekly accountability: Sept. 26-Oct. 2

My writing goals for this week were to re-write the introduction and background sections of the conference paper that I'm turning into a journal article.

I did meet my writing goals this week, more or less. I have a rough draft of the introduction and I have all of the sample/site descriptions written. This section of the article will need more editing than I like, but the draft is done. I'm honestly surprised I managed to meet my goals this week, since I lost two days to incipient pneumonia. Bleck!

My goals for next week are to re-do the data graphs and tables, and to re-write the body of the conference paper that I'm turning into a journal article.

Friday, October 1, 2010

balance, pt. 5: cleaning house

I said in my first post about life balance that I hate cutting from my to-do list, because I love everything I do. That's not 100% accurate. There is one thing that I really don't enjoy at all: cleaning the house.

I'm not a hyper-clean person under the best of conditions, and long work hours and two small kids are not the best of conditions. Still, I have some standards, low as they are. I know the clean-as-you-go method is the best, but I've never managed to pull that off. Dr. Mr. Palimpsest and I tried a designated a clean-up day (Saturday morning), but too often something else interfered and we were left with a filthy house.

My current system is working fairly well, within limits. I designate the cleaning of certain rooms to particular parts of my daily routine. For example, while I'm helping Bunny to brush her teeth and change into pajamas, I do a quick pick-up of the bathroom, her bedroom, and the playroom (which is conveniently located in-between). Similarly, when I feed our two cats (Orangey and The Brain), I also pick up the mud room and take out the compost (both located near the cat box.) Theoretically, I truly clean these rooms on the weekends (mop, vacuum, scrub, etc.), but that doesn't happen as often as it should.

This system works well for every room except the kitchen, which is the room that gets the dirtiest, and therefore just takes too long to clean. It can't be delegated to a quick pick-up in the middle of some other daily task. Once Little Boo is old enough to amuse himself, I'm sure it will be easier to find the time. Until then, does anyone have suggestions for keeping the kitchen clean?