Of Sharks and Syllabi

Generally speaking, the internet tells me that dipping my toes in the (shark infested?) waters of the academic job market this is not the best idea ever. The odds are never in your favor. 


This is how fun the academic job market is.

And yet, for now at least, I am doing it anyway, fully acknowledging that I’m in a privileged position to be able to go out on this particular limb. This year, several job ads requested not just the standard cover letter, CV, and list of references, but also teaching portfolios, evaluations, and sample syllabi. Preparing this last component of my applications took some time, but it was…well, actually pretty cool.* It encouraged me to reflect on my best experiences in the classroom, as both a student and an instructor, and to seek out ideas and advice for future classes. Whereas synthesizing and wrapping up the dissertation has made me excited to pursue new research, preparing course materials made me excited to pursue the teaching dimension of academic archaeology.

For the sake of collective inspiration and teaching enhancement, what were y’all’s favorite classroom experiences in archaeology? Did any whole classes stand out? Specific activities? What experiences rocked your theoretical socks off, opened your eyes to new questions (perhaps to a “grand challenge”), or best prepared you for an applied career?

From my own experience… As an undergrad at Wake Forest U, I took a four-field course called “Culture and Nature,” taught by archaeologist Paul Thacker.  A few days into that semester, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. This catastrophe and the subsequent economic, social, and political fall out provided a stark example of the ways in which seemingly natural events reverberate across human societies. As the course continued, covering the origins cultural ecology, the development of the conservation movement, and a variety of other topics, we often returned to the world of current events, reflecting on how post-Katrina discourses were informed by different perspectives on the relationship between culture and nature. By linking important concepts to a story unfolding on the news, I think all of us students gained a much deeper appreciation of the issues the course aimed to cover. 

So yeah. What was your favorite archaeology class, and what was so great about it? Let’s reminisce! 


*When it comes to the job market, it’s folly to ignore the facts. But as long as I’m going through with it, I needed a way to prevent total paralysis induced by doom and gloom realities. Finding a silver lining in syllabus prep was my strategy.


8 comments on “Of Sharks and Syllabi

  1. Meg says:

    Wow Alice, tough question! I have three categories:

    2) Favorite lecture class: Margie Scarry’s Food and Culture course. It’s a four field introduction to anthropology (that is remarkably balanced between at least archaeology, cultural anthropology and physical/biological anthropology). It explores humans’ interactions with food and looks at the complex ways that the production and consumption of food affect human behavior, sociality, and history. She really opens the students minds to the variety of food-based practices out there and shows them just how much we take our own food experiences as the norm. The final project, a paper based on eating at a restaurant or household with a different food culture than your own is really fascinating (presumably, both to write and to grade)!

    3) Favorite lab class: Vin Steponaitis’s Archaeological Ceramics course. By taking you through the whole process (from clay characteristics and selection to clay preparation, vessel formation, decoration, firing, archaeological deposition and recovery, to lab analysis…) this class really impresses upon you just how much there is to know about one particular artifact class. The hands-on nature of the class (from building and firing your own vessel to doing a research project on an archaeological collection) remarkably draws in students with wide-ranging levels of interest and experience.

    4) Favorite idea/syllabus in my job packet: Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. More-or-less subtitled, what can archaeological hoaxes teach us about how science happens? I absolutely cannot wait to teach this class.

  2. Victor says:

    Favorite classes that served to define my career: “Field School” with Mark Williams, “Hunter-gatherers and Complexity” with Dick Jefferies, “Space and Architecture” with Tom Dillehay, and “Archaeological Theory” with Chris Pool.

    Favorite classes that I’ve taught: “Archaeology of Monumentality,” Archaeology of Political Systems”, and I’m really keen on two that I’m teaching now, “Human Ecosystems” and “Ethnohistory” the latter I co-teach with Steve Kowalewski

  3. mrshlltwnmauler says:

    My favorite archaeology class was “Archaeological Ethics and The Law” at Boston University taught by Rick Elia. I took the class as an undergraduate, and it was the first class I took that discussed topics I could use outside the academy. The knowledge of laws and topics in cultural resource management laid the foundation for me to become the professional archaeologist I am today. The course also covered inportant topics such as looting and the antiquities trade.

    The course was so valuable that several of us petitioned the Archaeology Department to make the course a requirement for the major. (We realized at the time that more archaeologists work in CRM than the university.) Though our effort was unsuccessful, I would encourage all students to take an ethics and law class if one is available in their Department. I would also encourage more professors to incorporate lessons in archaeology law and ethics into their courses when possible.

  4. JB says:

    When I first started my undergrad I was fully prepared to pursue a career as a journalist (apparently, I’ve always been attracted to professions where the chances of getting a decently paying, stable job are about on par with winning the lottery). I think I’d read a book the summer before in which the protagonist was an archaeologist, and so when I was choosing my electives at McGill I picked Mike Bisson’s Prehistoric Archaeology class. Looking back on it as an instructor the level of effort that man put into the class was insane. Each year, he came up with an entire coursebook devoted to one Paleolithic site, that included all kinds of site overviews – maps of artifact scatters, zooarch reports, counts of artifact categories – that we then had to analyze from a paleoanthropological perspective that was assigned to us, one that made an assumption about the cognitive capacities of neanderthals. It required a significant amount of work, from both students and the professor, and it taught students a valuable lesson about the impact of extant theoretical bias on purportedly objective assessments of the archaeological record. Needless to say, I was hooked, and from that point forward devoted my energies to pursuing an entirely different (though equally uphill) career path.

    Another standout at McGill was Steve Chrisomalis’ Archaeological Methods course. This was an innovative quantitative methods class in which Chrisomalis used contemporary material culture – things like the morphology of dollar store coffee mugs, or the spatial distribution of bilingual stop signs – to teach us how to analyze artifacts in the real world. I also took an upper level theory seminar taught by Nicole Couture called Social Life of Death that really sparked my interest in mortuary archaeology (and made me less frightened of social theory than I otherwise would be). McGill is actually a great program for undergrad archaeology – there are a lot of well-developed courses and engaged faculty. I was pretty lucky to land at a school where professors gave a lot of thought to undergrad education.

  5. dover1952 says:

    Way back in 1976, I was an undergraduate student in anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UTK)—straight “A” student headed toward summa cum laude graduation and already known for being an English/journalism-quality writer. The Department of Anthropology had gone through a long and administratively grueling process to have the Tennessee Higher Education Commission approve a Ph.D. program in anthropology. Soon after it was approved, a number of 6000 (Ph.D. level) graduate courses were offered, and one of those courses was a rigorous, in-depth graduate course on the archaeology of the eastern United States. It was the kind of in-depth survey course I had always dreamed of taking—a true heart’s desire. My motivation in wanting to take this course was purely educational—simply to learn more about something I loved. So, I decided to ask my major professor (who was the course teacher) if I could formally take the course for undergraduate credit or at least just sit in without signing up so I could learn more.

    My professor put a big smile on his face and said, “Why sure!!! Why not!!! Sign up!!! The more the merrier!!!” (or something to that effect). Well, not too long after that, a student in the department pulled me aside and said, “Don’t you know what’s going on?” Of course, I knew nothing about what was going on—just an innocent bystander. This student then began to tell me that a number of graduate students were extremely angry about me signing up to take the course. Best I could understand from what I was hearing, they felt that the graduate program had gone through a lot of Hell to get approved, and they felt that only graduate students should be allowed in graduate courses—especially Ph. D. level courses. I was further told that they had formally organized a committee of graduate students to go directly to my professor to file an official complaint and formally demand that I be removed from the class. More than one person mentioned this to me at the time, but no one ever named the graduate students involved. Now, whether all of this ever really happened or not, I do not know. All I had to go one was what other students who were my friends were whispering into my ear. Naturally, I was shocked that anyone would behave that way, and my feelings were hurt too. However, I still wanted to take the course and refused to feel intimidated—so I did not withdraw from the course.

    To this day, all I know is that I did not receive a rejection notice from my beloved professor—who I still love to this day in his retirement years. When I showed up the first day of class, my professor seemed glad to see me, and all of the graduate students (if they were fuming about my presence) were doing it quietly. The course went very well. I did all of the required work, and made an “A” in it. My favorite part was doing in-depth research and study on the prehistoric cultures of the South Atlantic Coast and in the Ohio Valley (particularly Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). Although my dorm room bed would hold only one person, it felt as if i went to bed every night with Henry Clyde Shetrone, Thorne Deuel, Glenn Black, Thomas McKern, Robert Wauchope, and a host of other past and more recent archaeologists. It was a lot of fun, and I probably learned more in that one course than in any other anthropology course I took during my entire time at UTK, except maybe for Bill Bass’s human osteology course and his 5000 graduate seminar in forensic medicine, which I also took for undergraduate credit. If you have not been taught osteology and forensic medicine by William Marvin Bass III, you have missed one of the most marvelous and entertaining learning experiences on this planet. It’s like eating the best cheesecake you ever had with tons of gooey strawberry stuff on top.

    In the end, it seemed as if the graduate students in my archaeology course were happy with me too, and they very much enjoyed my presentation topic that I had worked on all quarter to organize—with a little associated stand-up comedy and human warmth during the presentation. Lessons Learned: Go after what you love simply because you love it with learning experiences. Refuse to be intimidated by anything or anyone.

  6. Shane says:

    Hmmm…I remember my very first semester of grad school, I took David Anderson’s “Peopling of the Americas” course. The very first day, he asked, “Does anyone in here know anything about webpages?” Answering yes to that question was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.

    Best classes? Gerald Schroedl’s “Archaeological Resource Management,” Schroedl and Anderson’s “Southeastern Archaeology,” David Anderson’s “Hunter-Gather Archaeology and Ethnography,” Steve Kuhn’s “Ecological Anthropology,” Mary Stiner’s “Quantitative Methods in Zooarchaeology,” Steve Lansing’s “Complexity and Anthropology,” and Vance Holliday’s “Quaternary Geomorphology,”

    Also, a MASSIVE SHOUT-OUT to Sarah Sherwood’s “Intro to Geoarchaeology.”

  7. victoriagd says:

    In no particular order:

    Richard Jefferies – “Mid-Range Societies” – All the basics plus significant discussion with my cohort on the validity of classifications. I took this my first year of graduate school and it was critical to my scholarly development.

    David Hally – “Eastern North American Archaeology” – It was a small class (6 people, I think) and Dr. Hally was incredibly thorough and wanted to make sure we understood the classic ideas in ENAA. Plus, he put in some extra information on Hopewell archaeology because he knew I was keen on the topic!

    Scott Hutson – “Identity” – This class pushed me so hard outside of my comfort zone, but I loved every second of it. I came out of this class enthralled by the idea of examining identity in the deep past and a couple of years later I decided to make it the crux of my dissertation research.

    Chris Pool – “Ceramics” – We made pots, learned about statistical assumptions, designed and conducted our own analyses, and read the really difficult discussions of style (Carr and Nietzel 1995, anyone?) I never worked harder for one class.

    Mark Williams – “Archaeology of Georgia” – This is the first archaeology class I took and it was probably the most important for the development of my career. During the course of this class, Mark suggested that archaeology might be a good route for me, hired me to work at the Georgia Archaeological Site File, and 10 years later I am still on this path! In fact, research in Georgia just keeps drawing me in. Something about Mark’s stories really took hold in this student 🙂

    Steve Kowalewski – “Complex Societies” – I took this as a graduate course when I was a senior undergrad and the small course size and the relationship with the other graduate students was a major step in preparing me for graduate school. Plus, I got to spend the entire semester examining the nuances of Mesopotamian development! It was critical work that helped me develop my first syllabus, “Origins of Old World Civilizations”

    Victor Thompson – “Collapse of Civilizations” – This was my first small, seminar class and it was a wonderful experience! This was about the time of my undergraduate career (junior year) that I recognized that I was going to need to improve my reading comprehension – anthropology is tough!

    And because I’m a nerd, I’ll also give a shout-out to these awesome classes: “Environmental History of America” with Paul Sutter, “Environmental Anthropology” with Lisa Cliggett, “Anthropology of the State” with Diane King and “Landscapes” with Richard Schein.

    I’d also like to add that it was often no just the classwork, but the social learning environment of the classroom that made all of these experiences so productive and special. So, aside from the instructors above, I also want to give a shout-out to my comrades who pushed me so much every class meeting:

    Zada Komara, Kyle Mullen, Ryan Anderson, Rachel Hensler, Ellen Burlingame, Nathan White, Gavin Davies, Nick Laracuente, Meg Mauer, Carol Colannino, Ben Steere and many, many more….

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