Tuesday, August 30, 2011

undergraduate research: the basics

Many institutions - with or without graduate programs - value undergraduate research opportunities. Faculty may be under pressure to provide such opportunities, or may wish to take advantage of funding for undergraduate research to further their own research agenda. My personal experience is that undergraduate research is usually more valuable to the student (as a means of deepening their education, preparing them for grad school, etc.) than it is to the professor (in terms of providing material aid in their research). In fact, providing research opportunities for undergraduates can take a great deal of a professor's time and energy, for very little "pay off" in terms of substantive contributions to the research.

I take it as a given that we all wish to improve our students' education by giving them opportunities for independent and/or supervised research. But how do we make these undergraduate research opportunities work for us, and not against us, when it comes to our research productivity? I don't pretend to have all the answers, but my current research involves several undergraduates, so I've planned a series of posts on how to approach the issue. This first post will focus on the different ways one can structure undergraduate research opportunities, and the pluses and pitfalls of each.

1) Have some class. One of my undergraduate minions is working on my research through an independent study. Essentially, we created a class where much of the work is hands-on research. Tiny U requires that all independent studies have a written contract, which spells out in detail what is required of the student. Because this is an academic class, the contract must include readings, tests/papers or other evaluation techniques, learning outcomes, etc. If your university doesn't require such a contract, I highly recommend you create one, just to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

The pluses of this approach lie in the academic requirements of the class. My student is not only working with data, she will be required to read about the archaeology of the region, and basic zooarchaeology. She will have a much better understanding of what we are doing, and why, than students who come to the research through a different channel. Additionally, the class structure requires a research paper, and I have outlined a series of small research projects that are the right length and difficulty for a single-semester paper. My student may choose to do something else, but if she chooses one of the projects outlined, I will get part of my research project written up through her classwork. If she does a good job, I can co-author a paper with her. If she does a lousy job and I have to totally re-do the work, at least she's found some of the essential references for me and summarized the data.

The major pitfall of the independent study is that it takes some work on my part. I need to provide her with the readings, make sure she's making progress on her research paper, and generally spend some portion of the time I would have to spend were this a normal classroom course. It's easy to fall behind on discussions of the readings, or in evaluating outlines of the research project, with the result that the class is not as academically engaging as it should be.

2) Be Practical. Many universities, including Tiny U, offer credits of "research practicum". Other universities may use a different name, but basically the student signs up for 1-4 credits or practicum, and they spend that time doing whatever tasks you assign them, as long as it is related to your research. There is no expectation that this represents an academic class, so it is not required that the professor and student have a contract, required readings, or evaluation opportunities.

The pros of this approach: 1) It's easier and more approachable for the student; they don't have to commit to a major research paper or readings. 2) It's easier for the professor. Obviously, the more background and context you give your minions, the better job they can do, but the research practicum is less work to set up and maintain than an independent study. 3) It's a good way to "try out" a new minion, to see if he/she will make a good long-term part of your research team, and to ease him/her into a more active role. One of my students this semester is taking this route, and I hope to continue working with her in the future, perhaps moving her into a directed study.

The pitfalls of this approach: The only real pitfall is that you can't require your minions to do background reading, and whether or not they will engage in a semi-independent research project depends on individual negotiations with that student.

3) Work 'em hard. Federal or university work-study money can pay for undergraduate research assistants. At Tiny U, we can only use federal work study, since we have no money of our own. RAs are paid at a much higher rate than TAs here at Tiny U, but the total amount of money they are able to make over the course of the semester is the same. In other words, RAs who work the same number of hours as TAs during the week will not be able to work the whole semester.

The pros of this approach are similar to those of the research practicum, with the added benefit of supporting a student in need of extra income. Unlike many of the jobs students use to support themselves, this job will enrich their education and experience.

The major pitfall at Tiny U is the limited number of students who are both work-study eligible and qualified and interested. I have one student working for me through the federal work-study program, and she is the least qualified and least engaged of my minions. But, they are all exceptionally bright young women, so that's not saying much.

4) Road trip! This summer, I took two students to Old Graduate Town to work in the museum with me. One of the students signed up for an independent study, while the other came just for the experience. I paid for their expenses while they were working with me, but they had to pay their own way to the museum.

pros: the students were thrilled to be in a cool, new city, with opportunities to explore in the evening and on weekends. They were enthusiastic about the work, and they were at my disposal, day in day out, for weeks. They did a lot of the data entry and metrics, while I identified the bones. If you have a project with a chunk of "grunt work", having a student with you in the lab can greatly contribute to your productivity. This summer was the only experience I've had with undergraduate research where the benefits to my productivity greatly outweighed the costs.

pitfalls: depending on what you're doing, students may not learn very much from the experience. My students this summer learned their bones very well, and probably have van den Dreisch memorized (poor things), but they didn't learn how to identify the different species, and they didn't get as much background on the reasons for the project as I would have hoped.

5) Seminar. I've never done this, but I know people organized entire seminars around their research. They use student projects (annotated bibliographies, class papers, etc.) to cut down on their own workload. This isn't possible at Tiny U, where we only teach three archaeology classes. Even a topic as general as "zooarchaeology" is too specific to attract sufficient students. But, depending on your institution, there may be ways to make this work.

pros: Like I said, I've never done it, but I imagine the pros are the same as those for an independent study.

pitfalls: Prepping a new class, teaching, and grading is a huge amount of work. On the other hand, if you were going to have to prep, teach, and grade that number of credits, anyway, then you're robbing your teaching time to pay for your research. Sweet.

Next post: the care and feeding of your minions.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

landscape politics

If you, like me, are an avid fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates, you've probably followed his on-going debate with Matt Yglesias on whether or not the Civil War was "tragic". To summarize a complex and nuanced argument in one sentence, Coates argues the Civil War was not tragic because it is the last, blood-soaked, but ultimately triumphant chapter of a book that had been tragic up to that point: the story of African-American slavery in the U.S.

Coates' recent post features a quote from Mark Twain making a related point about the French Revolution (a.k.a "The Terror"). In his view, the real terror was the way the common people lived under the yoke of the aristocracy. Why should we mourn the vanished power of the usual reign, indeed?

As an archaeologist of landscapes, what struck me were Coates' ending lines:

This really sums up the dilemma for me. For the Civil War we have official cemeteries where presidents lay flowers. For our Long War we have nameless burial sites which people who want to build office parks routinely stumble over. For our Long War we have the Atlantic Ocean.

I've written before about the importance of archaeological landscapes to contemporary people, a well as the importance of protecting sacred places to African-American communities. Coates' article brings into stark relief how significant our choices of landscape and site preservation can be to our presentation and interpretation of our national history, and our commemoration of what is important to our national, community, and individual identities.

Cemeteries without markers and the Long Passage are neither impossible to commemorate, nor to popularize. Cathedrals can be built over the resting places of nameless martyrs. Tombs of the unknown can take pride of place in the national cemetery. The anonymity of the slaves is not the problem, the problem lies in their invisibility to most white Americans. As archaeologists, more of us need to prioritize the creation of archaeological landscapes that make every community's past visible, in all of its terrible beauty.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

toucans can be trademarked?

Kellogg is suing the Maya Archaeology Initiative because they use a toucan in their logo, and this might be confusing to children who associate toucans with Fruit Loops cereal.

In my Environmental Anthropology class, we spend a fair amount of time talking about bioprospecting, and the patent laws as applied to naturally occurring phenomenon (like human genomes, and "wild" plants). This strikes me as a similar problem. The toucans in question don't look much alike, so Kellogg wants a trademark on all toucans.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

druid repatriation case revisited

I blogged before about British druids suing for the quick reburial of remains found at Stonehenge. A new BBC story covers the end of that trial. The court found for the Ministry of Justice, which had allowed the archaeologists extra time to study the remains.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

i'm back

Dr. Mr. Palimpsest and I are back from "vacation", if that is the correct term for a week spent driving two fussy kids across the country. I had a great summer, and filled three notebooks with data. Our house needs some work over the next week or so, but once everything is more or less settled, I'll be back to blogging on my regular semester schedule.

I hope you all had a good summer!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

repatriation of faunal remains

I have a friend who works in the Hohokam area of southern Arizona. She is the faunal analyst with a long-term project whose PI recently made a deal with the local tribal representatives to repatriate all dog burials. My friend was concerned about this, as it prevents her from doing DNA studies, and future zooarchaeologists will not be able to re-study the remains as methods advance.

As I've mentioned before, I have very strong views about NAGPRA and repatriation. But I'm concerned about the repatriation of non-funereal faunal remains, and not because the world may lose critical information about dead dogs.

The argument for repatriating dog remains stems from their ritual disposal, and the meaning the animals held for those who buried them. But fauna is an underappreciated source of information about the ritual, emotional, and social lives of past people. For example, dogs are not the only animal burials found in the Hohokam area. Raptors, particularly red-tailed hawks, and wild carnivores are also found at many sites. There are also deposits of what appear to be ritual paraphernalia made of animal parts, such as deer antlers that were part of headdresses.

Taking a step back from clearly ritualized deposits, animals that were eaten also played a critical role in ancient rituals and belief systems. In Hohokam sites, it is quite common to find that the vast majority of ungulate remains come from only one or two features, frequently on platform mounds or in plazas. Their unusual distribution suggests they were part of communal feasts and rites, rather than obtained and consumed by individual households.

Taking another step back, we need to recognize that food is intimately tied into all belief systems. The meaning of a particular type of food can depend on who is eating it, when, and where. We can think of many examples within our own cultural context. How much meaning is tied up in the simple line, "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou"? And yet, that same wine and bread, when consumed in the context of the Catholic mass, has a vastly different, if just as profound, meaning.

What constitutes the sacred in "our daily bread"? Most of us would recognize that eucharistic bread has a legitimate claim for respect, even if we don't believe it to be the body of Christ. Out of respect for other people's beliefs, we would refrain from treating eucharistic bread as if it were trash. (OK, with the notable exception of PZ Myers.) But the Wonderbread on a sandwich is not worthy of special treatment. Or is it? Surely, if one is part of a belief system that sees some bread as sacred, then even Wonderbread has that potential, or at least is linked in one's mind with that which is sacred. Bread takes on a special meaning, one that equates bread with all of the food we eat, as a stand-in for all the bounty gained through the blessings of God.

My point is not that Wonderbread should be repatriated (or dogs, or ungulates), but that all food, and animals in general, are intimately wound into belief systems. To determine which animal remains should be repatriated on the basis of their close emotional or social ties to ancient peoples would require drawing an arbitrary line. I feel the tribal representatives should be the ones to draw that line. But using the arguments that were made to justify the repatriation of dogs, one could extend repatriation to a large number of faunal remains, and to many other artifacts, as well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

wild mustangs and the fallacy of environmental baselines

The always fascinating Sociological Images has an article about wild mustangs that reminds me of some on-going debates between environmental archaeologists and environmental policy makers. Early conservation in the U.S. was all about protecting so-called "virgin" landscapes, or, alternatively, restoring non-virgin (promiscuous?) landscapes by keeping exotic plants/animals out, or reintroducing plants/animals that had gone extinct.

There is nothing inherently wrong with excluding exotics, or reintroducing native species. But these decisions are too often made through a baseline perspective on landscapes. That is, a perspective that assumes all landscapes have a single "natural" baseline state. In this view, human activity disrupts the "natural", and it must be restored by returning the plants and animals to the original baseline.

We now know that the landscape of North America wasn't "virgin" at the time of European contact. (Loewen's line in Lies my Teacher Told Me is something like "it wasn't virgin, it was recently widowed.") Declaring any time period after the initial peopling of the Americas to be the environmental baseline would be arbitrary. Such thinking also ignores the human/environment dialectic, even though people are part of the ecosystem and we play our own part in creating and maintaining it.

Baseline views of landscapes are also misleading and fail to meet our environmental policy needs. Asking what the "baseline" environment should be is like asking which molecules of water are in a river. One could flash-freeze a river and measure each individual water molecule, but the dynamic and flow of the moving water is far more important for understanding how the river functions. So, when conservationists or wildlife managers make policy decisions that lead to some animals or plants being introduced or removed from particular landscapes, sometimes they're making the best decision for the health of the ecosystem, and sometimes they are not. But often their stated purpose is, to extend the metaphor, to restore the exact molecules of water that once flowed in the river, rather than to ensure that the river's overall dynamics are healthy.

Which brings us back to the feral mustangs of the West. There are plenty of arguments for getting rid of the mustangs from a "baseline" landscape perspective. After all, they are exotic animals, introduced originally by the Spanish. There are also arguments for keeping them. Social/cultural factors are influencing our policy decisions. Unlike many exotic species, such as zebra mussels or emerald ash borers, mustangs are charasmatic megafauna: easy to love, and to build a PR campaign around. The mustangs are a tourist attraction, and a symbol of the West. Their relationships with humans, symbolic or physical, are critical to understanding our current policies toward the species.

From an historical ecology perspective, the arguments surrounding wild mustangs are complex. The horse is an exotic animal, but at the same time it is native. Horses were part of the North American landscape during the Pleistocene, and were only extinct in the West for some 10,000 years, a blink of the eye, evolutionarily speaking. The Western grasslands coevolved with ruminant species, many of which are now extinct, but their Old World cousins, in the form of domestic horses and cattle, are filling in the ecological niches those ruminants once filled. Horses became a critical part of the cultural landscape, as well, fulfilling many different social, ritual, and economic roles for many different cultural groups.

The question is not whether exotic species belong on the Western plains, or to what "baseline" environment we should restore our "wild" places. The questions are: are the grasslands healthy? What constitutes health? What policies (for fire, hunting, provisioning of mustangs, reintroduction of wolves, etc.) will ensure a healthy, dynamic, resilient ecosystem, despite, and because of, the constant changes that have occurred in North American environments over the last 500 years?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

unexpected benefits of standing up

Sitting is Killing You
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

Have you seen this public service announcement about the dangers of sitting at work all day? This summer, while doing lab work, I've tried to stand for at least 4 hours of my workday. It turns out to have some unexpected benefits:

1) I work faster. I'm working in a lab with a wonderful comparative collection, but if I'm sitting down, then I constantly have to jump up and run to the correct drawer. I'm faster standing in the middle of the room, with my work on a box on top of a table, and just taking a step to one side or the other when I need a particular skeleton.

2) If I need a drink/walk/stretch in order to regain my concentration back, I don't have to fight inertia. I find that I can only do a few hours of lab work before my eyes start to cross. If I take a short break, walk outside, get a drink, then I am ready to start again, fresh. But, if I'm sitting with my work around me, I find it hard to get motivated to stand up and walk out of the room, even though I know it will make me feel better. When I'm already standing, I can do a little stretching, walk around the room, and find it easier to concentrate.

3) It's far easier to supervise students/volunteers if you're lurking over their shoulder - even while working - than when you're sitting at a different table in the same room.

4) I feel like I've earned my lunch. Desert? Sure, why not?

Monday, August 8, 2011

bison=tires, who knew?

There's an interesting story out of the University of Arizona about the use of old tires to simulate bison at jump sites. Actually, I remain unconvinced that tires are a very good stand-in for bison, but I'm not sure it matters. What's more interesting about the story is the work being done on fire history in the region, and how fires to drive bison and to clean the hunting site may have impacted the local environment. I'll be looking forward to the publications.

Friday, August 5, 2011

13th Southwest Symposium

The theme of the 13th Southwest Symposium (University of New Mexico, January 14-15, 2012), is "Demography, Movement, and Historical Ecology". The Historical Ecology session, in particular, sounds fascinating (of course). I'd love to go, but will have to see what my travel funds look like for the year.

commensals in the making

An interesting story about hyraxes and their invasion of villages in the Galilee. They have become major garden pests, but it turns out they aren't attracted to the gardens, per se, but to the piles of boulders that are left over from excavating house foundations. Those boulders create underground caverns similar to those the hyraxes inhabit in the rocky cliffs.

I'm surprised this issue didn't come up before. Natufian pithouses probably created boulder piles, too. But perhaps those boulders were incorporated into the homes, and therefore weren't as likely to attract these animals. On the other hand, I did document a significant increase in hyrax remains in the latest, and most intensive, period of occupation at at PPNB site in the Jordanian desert. I argued that small game was part of a risk-management strategy, but perhaps it was commensalism all along.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

are we meant for a savanna landscape?

An article in this week's Nature, by Cerling et al., discusses the use of chemical isotopes in soil to to determine a 'paleo-shade' measure for ancient environments. They suggest that the early hominin sites were primarily in savanna environments (defined as having less than 40% tree cover). This has some interesting implications for landscape use among early hominins.

I can't get access to the actual article, so I'm relying on this NSF summary. The summary raises two questions that I hope will be answered in the article:

1) Are there changes through time in the landscapes where we find hominin remains? Other indicators of local environments (microfauna, paleobotanical remains, etc.) suggest that many of the earliest fossil sites were in forested environments. Does this analysis suggest otherwise? What accounts for the discrepancy?

2) Is the concentration of hominin remains in savanna environments a reflection of landscape use, or do we have a taphonomic problem? Tropical forest environments are among the least likely environments to produce fossils, due to the rapid decay of organic material. How do we know hominins weren't using the forest, but in death only found in less humid environments? Will future alien archaeologists say of us "They lived in open or lightly wooded meadows, in long rows of boxes, buried six feet deep."?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

doggies of Siberia

This PLoS ONE publication by Ovodov et al. discusses a 33kya domestic dog from the site of Razboinichya Cave in Siberia. The evidence is pretty strong that the individual represents an early domesticate. The analyses included length of the snout, teeth crowding, tooth size, and various cranial metrics.

I'm not terribly surprised to see an early domestic dog in Siberia. We've long had evidence that dogs were domesticated in east and central Asia from at least 20kya. What I find interesting is the authors' acknowledgement that dog domestication in pre-Late Glacial Maximum contexts is controversial. There has been a tendency for archaeologists in general, and zooarchaeologists in particular, to ignore the evidence for early domestication in eastern Asia and to focus on the evidence for dog domestication in the Middle East, although that is much, much later. Why?

1- More English-speaking and/or Western archaeologists work in southwest Asian than in eastern Asia. Therefore, the literature on Middle Eastern domestication is more available in the West. Also, I do believe there is a tendency by some archaeologists to trust the literature produced by Western archaeologists more than the literature produced by non-Western archaeologists. These biases are blinding, and the lack of a common language is limiting.

2- A 12kyo Middle Eastern origin for dogs fits better with the narrative many textbooks and Intro to Archaeology professors are selling to their students. This narrative tends to be smoothly progressive (unlike the reality of dog domestication, which the Ovodov article suggests took place 33kya in Siberia, and then was abandoned, only to be taken up again much later.) The narrative also tends to be heavily focused on the Middle East as the cradle of domestication and "civilization", which in these texts is synonymous with Western civilization, regardless of the data. (This can lead to massive confusion among undergrads. I used a textbook for Intro to Archaeology that presented a standard narrative about southwest Asia as the earliest center of domestication, but in a table gave dates for domestication in East Asia that were earlier than those for southwest Asia. My students had no idea what to believe. I explained the "Middle East First" narrative was traditional. Like including a section about Lamark in a biology textbook.)

3- Even within zooarchaeology, only specialists in domestication spend much time thinking about the different ways that animals can be domesticated. We focus too much on the "neolithic package", the whole suite of interrelated plants and animals from a particular region. We do see developments of "neolithic packages" in some parts of the world. The Middle East is a good example, as is the Andean region. But dogs aren't part of that neolithic package. Their relationship to humans is significantly different from that of goats or llamas. The concept of the "neolithic package" can be useful if you're interested in the development of particular types of herding/farming economies, and the spread of those economies into new regions. But we shouldn't expect all plants and animals to be part of a package. Animals were domesticated for food, transportation, companionship, trash disposal, and reasons of commensality, among others. I hope the doggies of Siberia will help move us toward a more nuanced view of domestication, and a recognition of its spatial dispersion in its earliest stages.

Ovodov, Nikolai, et al.
2011 A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS ONE

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

balance pt. 11: summer

Many of my Tiny U colleagues complain bitterly that they are only paid for 9 months of the year, yet they are required to do research in the summer. This is not a complaint I share. In my mind, a summer to do research is a perk of an academic job. Plus, I may be one of the lowest-paid faculty members at one of the lowest-paying universities in the lowest-paying region of the country, but my salary is still pretty damn good, whether you consider it to represent 9 months or 12 months. Sure beats McDonalds.

That said, summer is a time when everyone needs to find some balance, parents in particular. Our wonderful daycare provider takes every Friday off during the summer. (All of her families are teachers, so she knows we can handle this.) She's very wise. The "family Friday" ensures a slower pace, and more together time, when it can be too easy to forget that you're on "vacation".

This summer, I'm in Old Graduate School Town, so I'm not using that daycare provider. I do have the kids in daycare all week, but I've made an absolute commitment to cut my workday short and pick the kids up in the mid-afternoon. I've cut back on all non-essential professional activities (like this blog). I refuse to think about class preparation. I've given myself some time for leisure and relaxation. It's helped that I have great friends here in Old Graduate School Town, and it's been wonderful to revisit all my old haunts and explore the area through my children's eyes. It also helps that I'm doing museum work this summer. Fieldwork is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish, and probably a good topic for its own post. (That post will be entitled: "fieldwork with kids: or how I learned to stop worrying and love white rooms with rubber walls.")

I won't lie. If I were here alone, I would probably get a lot more data collected. But I'd also be a lot more stressed out and unhappy. Sometimes, children give you the push you need to find balance in your life. Non-parents may have different needs, but we all have jobs that are vocations. We don't leave them behind at 5pm. They pervade our thoughts, invade our weekends and evenings, and permeate all aspects of our lives. Usually, that's because we love what we do.* But we all need to find some time to let go, slow down, and enjoy the summer.

What do you do to crate balance in the summer?

*Yes, I am fully aware that an archaeologist's all-pervading love of dead things is less than attractive to normal members of society. But identifying the bones in one's Thanksgiving turkey is not a busman's holiday, it's a joy.