Cite this as: Perry, S. (2015). Changing the Way Archaeologists Work: blogging and the development of expertise, Internet Archaeology 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.9
Archaeologists have long pushed the limits on styles and modes of publication. From early antiquarian 'paper museums' (see Moser 2014) to more recent 'participatory' social media (see Richardson 2013), archaeological and heritage specialists have often been quick to adopt different communication tools (including image, text and related multimedia assets), drawing them into theorising, debate, promotion and methodological advancement. It is beyond the scope of this article to interrogate the reach of such tools, but disciplinary professionals are well versed in deploying, or advocating for deployment of, progressive styles of discourse, particularly written work such as biography, autobiography, fiction, and 'fictive narrative' (see, among many, Joyce 2002; Mickel 2012; Mytum 2010; Pluciennik 1999; Praetzellis 1998), and visualisation too (e.g. Cochrane and Russell 2007; Hamilakis et al. 2009; Kantner 2005; Shanks 1997).
Occasionally, classrooms and university campuses have been the breeding grounds for these discursive experiments, with various modules relating to archaeological writing, text, and imaging (see Crossland 2014 as one example), or supporting students in examining the promise of myriad forms of archaeological presentation (e.g. Lovata's (2005) production of a comic book as a component of his doctoral dissertation. Many of the earliest professional archaeologists embraced a range of tools to educate, broadcast themselves as scholars, and amplify their university-based training and research programmes, often in a complex multi-mediated fashion that wove together writing, moving and static imagery, live performance and object-based exhibition (e.g. the staff of London's Institute of Archaeology around the time of its foundation (Perry 2011)). Yet, as Clarke (2004) suggests, despite the pervasiveness of such media in the archaeological educational programme, the point and ramifications of their application have mostly been taken for granted. (note that Clarke speaks here of what she calls 'electronic media', but I extend her words to include both analogue and digital resources, as these sit along a spectrum of communicative tools, and her argument applies equally across it.) As I see it, this predicament puts the discipline and its knowledge-building efforts in a perilous position because, as Clarke (2004, 275) writes, 'the pedagogical is political'. That is, it is the seedbed of both expertise and the external valuing of that expertise – so to ignore it is to risk evaporation of the field.
The launch of the Internet stimulated further speculations about, and testing of communicative opportunities for, archaeology, some of which now read as uninspired and cautious, and others as perhaps overly optimistic (compare Harding 2007 with Joyce and Tringham 2007; McDavid 2004). In particular, web-based media were forecast as trailblazing means to decentre, equalise, liberate and democratise the discipline, advancing feminist and postcolonial agendas through their shared, multivocal, interactive, nonlinear formats. Cornelius Holtorf's (1998) hypermediated PhD dissertation, often cited as the first ever in archaeology to experiment with a web-based, digital-only presentational form, is arguably the precursor to such innovation (although see his summary of comparable initiatives preceding his own in Holtorf 1999). Here Holtorf tested the capacities of the Internet to produce nonsequentiality, intertextuality and openendedness, which he saw as both influential for education and scholarly discourse in archaeology, and truer to the nature of memory, narrative and archaeological interpretation itself (Holtorf 1999). In reviewing his work five years later, Holtorf (2004) suggests he achieved all his goals in a manner that was variously 'radical', 'beautiful', 'complex', 'challenging' and 'rewarding'.
Note 1: The social web is generally understood as the collection of online applications (from Wikipedia to YouTube and Facebook) that are crafted and maintained via the 'collective intelligence' of crowd participation (see, for example, Gruber (2008) for a critical discussion of the concept).
While the validity of this self-assessment has been called into question by some (e.g. Wheatley 2004), Holtorf seemingly set the stage for the coming of the social web to archaeology (Note 1). The problem is that such digital engagements often fall into similar traps, subject to superficial evaluation, and naiveté about their consequences, yet excessively assured of their novelty and promise.
Arguably social media applications, including blogging, are the prototypical publication tools of the contemporary era, increasingly ubiquitous in archaeology, but still immaturely understood (for a general definition of blogging and overview of the history of weblogs, see Rettberg (2014); for a specific discussion of the definition of blogging in archaeology, see Austin (2014)). Indeed, despite overt pressure exerted by all arms of the archaeological enterprise (from funding bodies to institutional employers and tertiary sector organisations) to engage with these applications today, their nature and fallout, risks and efficacy are often glossed over or entirely forgotten (Perry et al. 2015; Richardson 2014a; Walker 2014a, b). For my purposes here, what is especially worrisome is that their impact on the larger intellectual goals and expert trajectories of the discipline is virtually unknown. Blogging offers an apt case study, as despite more than a decade of use, alongside several high-profile linked blog 'carnivals' and conference sessions (Morgan 2011; Rocks-Macqueen 2013), and a variety of emerging publications (see below), the net outcome seems to be a valuing of blogging primarily as a tool for sharing and outreach – essentially as a circulatory mechanism. There is effectively no existing rigorous, well-scrutinised appreciation of the effects of blogging on those engaged in such work in archaeology. Equally, there is little fine-grained attention to its role now in (re)shaping disciplinary epistemologies and ontologies, and therein affecting the fundamental nature of skilful practice. Moreover, as Jeffrey (2012, 555) points out, the future-orientated implementation of social media in archaeology is mostly non-existent or laissez-faire, with miniscule evidence that its proponents or users are aware of its value for the future, or of means to secure its availability in the long term. In other words, I would like to suggest that our disciplinary engagements with new communication technologies like blogging are not uncommonly presentist, fetishistic, parochial, fleeting and only surface deep. To some extent, such characteristics are intrinsic to the media themselves, but this should not excuse their careless or poorly interrogated application.
There is no doubt that blogging is a method with some promise for achieving precisely what Holtorf, and later scholars like Joyce, Tringham, McDavid, Morgan and Eve, among others, aspire to; that is, emancipative, reflexive, open and collaborative archaeological technique (Joyce and Tringham 2007; McDavid 2004; Morgan 2012; Morgan and Eve 2012). Much has been written in the general scholarship about the revolutionary potentials of weblogs (and microblogs like Twitter), with their capacities to foster subversion, protest, citizen activism, political engagement, civic networks and collective values, ultimately leading, in an ideal world, to participatory democracy and a kind of 'common humanity' (see Fuchs 2014 and Lovink 2008 for critical reflections on these capacities). Importantly, they also offer a window into the intimacies of the person, and it is telling that some suggest that 'a path can be traced from early autobiographic writing through diary writing and memoirs up to the confessional and personal diary-style blogs of today' (Rettberg 2014). They are simultaneously, then, universal and idiosyncratic, public and private, homogenising and individuating – and it is in these extremes that their major tensions lie.
As Lovink (2008) describes it, 'Internet culture is torn apart by contradictory forces that make it no longer possible to speak of general trends in either good or evil directions'. Nevertheless, most assessments of this culture are either 'techno-optimistic' or 'techno-pessimistic' in their outlook (Fuchs 2014, 202), with the more meaningfully engaged of these converging on Habermas' (2006) viewpoint that:
Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication … the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.
By such reckoning, the objectives originally championed by Holtorf (1999) for hypermediated archaeology become ineffectual and, in fact, disempowering.
However, I would suggest that these critiques are inherently problematic because they are premised upon a focus on the medium itself. I am aware of the irony of casting such a criticism while investing myself in a collapsed dialogue about archaeological blogging. But I think that in privileging the technology above a larger scrutiny of the archaeological project and the specific intellectual goals of our research designs, we will never be able to understand whether our practices are meaningful. Evaluation of effects will always be superficial, and appreciation of epistemological resonance will be minimal or misconstrued, because they are being mapped here against the medium first, rather than our professional ambitions and scholarly objectives.
From my perspective, this is where the major problem lies in archaeological blogging: it is treated as a class instead of a continuum of practice, meaning that its relevance to (and entanglements in) all aspects of disciplinary theory and method are often overlooked. Such a predicament leads, for example, to a situation where there is absolutely no reflection whatsoever on the very real possibility that the inclusive, co-creative, postcolonial ideals of blog work will turn into nothing more than neocolonial rhetoric and appropriation, as has already been witnessed in the so-called 'postcolonial' museum context (see Boast 2011). Equally, it engenders what I see as futile defensiveness, proselytising, and often circular justifications about the value of blogging (e.g. see some of the contributions in the blogging carnivals referenced above), reminiscent of comparable debates about the value of the Humanities. In the latter, the conversation often devolves into polemic or abstraction, without investing in actual rooted, pragmatic, constructive and traceable projects to make a difference in the world (see Belfiore and Upchurch's 2013 meaningful review of the 'value debate'). Surely the point here should be not to 'do' blogging, but to 'do' archaeology with purpose, where weblogs stand as just one means to insert ourselves into what Balsamo (2011, 6) calls 'future world-making' or what Olson (2013, 240) grandiosely describes as intervening in 'the emerging logics of twenty-first-century technoculture … shap[ing] the becoming-present of the future'.
The general scholarship suggests that much blogging takes place by academics (including academics in training) for academic audiences. De Koning (2013, 394), in his appraisal of anthropological blogging, summarises the situation as one where 'reach is limited to the extent that we appear mostly to attract fellow anthropologists in the West and that our blogs are Western-oriented'. His view is confirmed in the larger critical literature, which effectively highlights the lack of success of the democratic ethic of blogging, with access and participation proving stubbornly stratified, unequal, and in various cases crippling and oppressive (e.g. Fuchs 2014). While some of the early critiques of blogging in the context of higher education rather single-mindedly dismissed it as a form of knowledge cheapening – a process of downgrading information into mediocrity (e.g. Brabazon 2006), others have been more reflexively critical of its entanglements in exploitative politico-economics (for relevant discussions in archaeology see Perry et al. 2015; Richardson 2014a; Walker 2014a, b). Still others reduce scholarly blogging to little more than knowledge circulation, suggesting that the creative capacities of this practice are only realisable through sharing (de Koning 2013). Such baseless conclusions mark what I see as one of the many instabilities in (archaeological) media applications: cursory, decontextualised, unreferenced, and unprobed assumptions about their impact.
In archaeology, most research on blogging is perfunctory or anecdotal, demonstrating little or no effort at data collection on effects, and often zero bibliographic citations. It is commonplace to see archaeological blogs evaluated solely via reporting of hit rates and basic quantitative measures of visibility and traffic; and even where the deficiencies in such an approach are recognised, the value of qualitative measures is often dismissed, ignored or construed as impossible to estimate (e.g. Austin 2014). This matches broader trends in the university sector where, as Losh (2014, 6) notes, the effectiveness of digital media tend to be grappled with in 'easy' 'quantifiable terms, rather than focusing on the more meaningful results that are difficult for computers to calculate, such as those derived from sustained intellectual development and the application of theory to practice in real life'. Perturbingly, when such deeper understanding of practice is sought (which is rare), it tends to read more as discursive self-reflection or reminiscence, rather than true analysis, because its method for assessment is invisible or non-existent (e.g. Swain 2012). Indeed, it is normal to find evaluations of online archaeological work built without any scrutiny of the experiences of the actual doers of this work (e.g. Gonlin and Dixon 2013; multiple contributions in Rocks-Macqueen and Webster 2014).
The literature on classroom-based online media engagement in archaeology is further characterised by a shocking lack of referencing of either pedagogical theory or critical theory/media studies more generally, hinting that there is minimal interest in developing learning through good practice – or, perhaps, that such practice is understood as common sense. Virtually all published commentaries on educational archaeological blogging are devoid of apposite citations, shrinking the conversation to didactic description (e.g. Cosgrove et al.'s (2013) unreferenced, four-sentence-long account of the Australian TARDIS programme blogging; or Gonlin and Dixon's (2013) comparable account of field-based blogging). Such a trend sets a poor baseline for others who arguably then also feel no weight of responsibility to produce rigorous, supported assessments of their blogging projects. Even where investment has been made in constructing an intellectual architecture to frame and compare these projects in archaeology (e.g. Rocks-Macqueen and Webster 2014), and where contributors recognise the weaknesses of working without that architecture (e.g. Rocks-Macqueen 2014), these efforts are undermined by what comes across as rushed, unedited, and thus unconcerned-seeming outputs. The first – and much-needed – academic volume on blogging archaeology, Rocks-Macqueen and Webster's (2014) similarly-named e-book, currently downloads with editorial notes still visible to readers. While one might argue that these are traces of the electronic legacy of the document, they read more like an unfortunate publication oversight. The cumulative effect is a sense that such engagements are slapdash. The specific fallout, in my experience, is that blogging is then scorned and rejected as an illegitimate tool for knowledge-making and expertise-building. As one of my colleagues said to me in response to my defense of weblogs as a means of pedagogy and student development, 'blogging is so last year'.
Richardson's (2014b) recent review article is among the few to attend to methodologically robust deconstructions of blogging in archaeology, specifically Shawn Graham's and Ben Marwick's separate analyses of the topical outputs of the blog-based Day of Archaeology project (www.dayofarchaeology.com). As Richardson (2014b, 440) highlights, Graham's and Marwick's studies focus on the thematic content of blog posts, and 'Whilst this information cannot indicate how useful the project has been for the creation of online communities of practice, it does demonstrate very clearly the educational resource that the project website provides, and the amount of mineable potential in the data contained within'. What is important to me about Richardson's observations here is the recognition that blog work has relevance beyond outreach and sharing alone. While thematic analysis is outside the scope of my interests here, it is one dimension to blogging that pushes past its often facile, technologically deterministic exploitation in archaeological higher education contexts. In other words, it has the promise to illuminate and, in fact, drive forward disciplinary change, epistemic reorganisation, and networks of expertise (e.g. see Marwick 2014) – as well as to redefine our individual professional sensibilities.
Despite lack of meaningful evaluation, a not insignificant number of archaeologists are now using blogging in their teaching and training programmes to equip the next generations of practitioners. Examples, among many, include Capilano University's archaeology field-school blog; Michigan State University's heritage visualisation field-school blog; and Carleton University's Digital History: Games & Simulations for Historians course blog. My own application of blogging in my undergraduate modules at the University of York (UK) has been motivated not by a technological fixation on weblogs themselves, but by a series of personal pedagogical goals and professional ideals focused on creativity, courage, mindfulness and integrity, value-building, collaboration, care for the past, future-orientated practice, and public responsibility. I see blogging as a means to realise these objectives, and therein, borrowing from Rabinow (2011), to 'assemble the contemporary' in the sense of honing new practitioners who are conscious of their implication in knowledge production in the present, and of the ethical and intellectual imperatives that come with such privilege. However, I also recognise that blog work is inseparable from a range of related engagements, including with other social media, presentational forms, humans and other things. As such, I have deployed it in two of the six university courses that I lead as just one component of a larger epistemic programme of critical thinking and making. More detail on my design and the roll-out of these two courses, the final-year undergraduate module Visual Media in Archaeology, and the first-year undergraduate module Heritage Practice since their inception in 2012 and 2013 respectively, is available on my own blog (see http://saraperry.wordpress.com).
I am spurred on, in part, by a concern over the lack of exposure that students generally have to interested individuals and professional activities beyond the walls of the classroom. Their pedagogical efforts seem often to be centred on producing orthodox outputs (essays, group projects, oral presentations) that are seen by, and have effects on, no one other than a handful of academe-bound instructors and peers. While this system has benefits in terms of safety and accountability, it arguably has an equivalent number of drawbacks, including an insistence upon honing skillsets that are not commonly employed outside of the university (e.g. formal essay writing) and a tradition of insulating students from the very audiences that are most likely to hire them after graduation (e.g. commercial firms, public organisations).
Note 2: These display spaces are, for the most part, still accessible via the links below. Students were tasked, either independently (final-year undergraduates) or collaboratively (first-year undergraduates), with building up visibility for an archaeological/heritage project through their blogs. That project was either self-defined (final-year), or centred upon critically reflecting on the process of drafting, making, installing and evaluating a short film for the nearby Yorkshire Museum (first-year).
First-year Heritage Practice blogs here and here
Final-year Visual Media in Archaeology blogs here
For some students, their experimentation with digital technologies in my modules has marked their first independent experience in doing written class work that goes beyond traditional essay preparation. These experiments have not always proceeded without problems, for what the students have been doing is developing– in real time – online public display spaces which, by their very nature, are revealing and perhaps uncomfortably candid (Note 2). In this sense, they have been invested in experimentation as Ingold (2011, 15-16) describes it: 'to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors … [to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things'. As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that the students have mostly never experienced before.
Beyond simply exposing students to the 'real world' of critique and public engagement, however, this project is important because, to borrow from Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. In the Humanities it is not uncommon to be taught only to deconstruct other people's outputs – a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of invention and making. Ingold (2011, 224) puts it nicely when he says that the 'spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind'. In other words, to truly understand a type of practice – to truly see – we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because one is conditional on the other. It is arguably dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation – we cannot carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.
There is a significant amount of academic and public dialogue on the implications of digital technologies for progressive education, some of the most provocative of which comes from current blogs and online editorials. These variously – and, with varying degrees of validity – reject traditional forms of assessment (e.g. Schuman's (2013) complete repudiation of the essay) and propose alternative modes of classroom production, including what Bryant (2013) calls a chaotic and discontinuous digital pedagogy. Scholarly discussion of the creativity that is made possible through digital media work is recognised within educational (e.g. Smith and Burrell 2013), media studies (e.g. Gauntlett 2011; Losh 2012) and archaeological (e.g. Morgan and Eve 2012; Richardson 2013) circles but, as noted above, among the latter the conversation is primarily driven by professional rumination without the benefit of extensive and reflective student input. The digital humanities literature on 'critical making' or 'building' as a form of scholarship and training is more advanced (e.g. Ramsay and Rockwell 2012; Ratto 2011), with some scholars adamant about the importance of embracing the 'hacker ethos' in our practice – a programme 'that is useful, that is geared toward effects, not just interpreting and critiquing the human condition, but toward making, unmaking, and remaking the social and material conditions of (human) existence' (Olson 2013, 239).
To understand the impact of attempting to breed the foundations for a similar 'hacker ethos' in my classrooms through simple blogging and related digital/social media-making, I conducted a series of interviews with 19 of my current and former students, 17 of which played out over semi-structured, one-on-one, 30-to-60 minute digitally recorded meetings in local cafés or neutral meeting spaces, and two of which were conducted via structured written correspondence (owing to an inability to schedule face-to-face meetings). Students signed informed consent sheets, and while their identities are anonymised (via pseudonym), it is notable that all were comfortable with their names being released for publication (as I have done in the acknowledgements below). Students were emailed a series of conversational prompts in advance of our interview, all of which focused on the highs and lows of their experiences with digital media in my courses, their previous training with such media, their current perceptions of their digital skill levels, and the significance of media to their everyday lives. These offered the launching pads for an open discussion that often, but not always, attended to the impacts of blog work.
The data from the interviews were then examined alongside my formal university course assessments from 2012-2014, survey and focus group data from a related project conducted with my students by my colleague Simon Davis (2013), and reflections embedded in the written work of students themselves (both blog and essay based). Taken together, I believe they speak to the promise of blogging for nurturing the ideals (listed above) behind the rigorous, conscientious archaeological practice and engaged scholarship that I see as defining the contemporary era (for a discussion of the politics of scholarly engagement in archaeology and anthropology see Mullins 2011). By no means was all the feedback that I received positive – every student suggested changes to aspects of the blog work; some struggled with the purpose and my conceptualisation of the projects; no one spoke of the medium of blogging in a decontextualised fashion, detached from the other analogue and digital devices that they were simultaneously weaving into their efforts (from Twitter to digital video), which makes it virtually impossible to isolate effects; and many were clear that such practice should always be done collaboratively for those new to weblogging. Nevertheless, even among some of the more penetrative criticisms of the coursework, every student recognised its influence on their reconceptualisation of the subject matter, their mastery of archaeological method and theory, their expert skillsets, or – of especial interest – their understanding of themselves as human beings and moral actors. In other words, such responses go far beyond the impacts that are typically used to characterise academic blogging (e.g. dissemination, participation, networking, etc.; see Kjellberg 2010).
Here, for instance, we see that the visibility of the students' work cultivated a depth of care and respect for the task to a degree that outstripped most standard pedagogical techniques. As Jen (first-year student) described her efforts,
We wanted to be more professional, more than if it was just a university project because you know that it's going to be long lasting … quite a lot of people will see it. So you don't want to produce something that's just going to be, 'Ah it's ok'. You actually want to be able to be like, 'Yeah I'm proud of that'.
Moira (second-year student), reflecting back on her experiences of blogging in 2013, spoke of the intimacy and personal resonance borne of her work: 'I hope that people saw it [the blogging] because it's something that meant a lot to us … [it was about] trying to get across how much time and effort and how much love has gone into this project'.
Such comments are echoed by many who saw it as a pathway to confidence and independence – 'Helped me with my confidence in my own abilities to no end' (anonymous module feedback by final-year student) – or to realising a sense of purposefulness and accomplishment – 'This was one of the modules where everything made sense. Everything we've done seems to have been done with a purpose and we have got something out of it …' (Mary, first-year student).
Bound up in this engagement is an inspiring feeling of awe, wonderment and intellectual stimulation over its promise. From the perspective of Dave (final-year student):
there is this huge marketplace that I was not previously a part of that's like really quick, really ease of access … this new wealth of information. It's like a new marketplace of ideas which I really like … there's a new way to talk to people and transfer ideas … It's exciting; it makes it more personal … I understood: implementation, variation, multimedia. That's what I took away.
Tony (now a Master's-level student), in reference to his use of microblogging on my modules, says, 'It leads you towards things, it gives you interesting points to think about … You find something interesting and then you follow it up'. And Steph (final-year student), speaking of her application of Blogger.com in class, notes:
The blogging stuff: it felt like I was actually having an impact, which as an undergraduate, you want to think you can have, but your research is never really going to be that groundbreaking … It also showed to me that anyone can input into heritage. I think we'd learned that before, but never really implemented it ourselves, so it shows that view that everyone talks about that everyone can make their own heritage. Actually, this is a way – this is a very real and tangible way of doing it … It's like a stepping stone …
She goes on to describe the enjoyment involved – '… you learn through play … You want to go to class because something fun's going to happen …' – and the kind of liberating, creative craftwork that comes with moderated risk-taking in the classroom:
I think it just instils the fact that you can do stuff, and if it's not right, you just take it down … I don't think I knew where I was going to go when I started, and then as you go on then you kind of get a better feel for it … you can do whatever you want on there … it's good because you can just go and run.
This is where some of the more poignant outcomes of such experiments in mediation begin to manifest themselves; in particular, their capacity to collapse the theory-practice divide, allowing practitioners to witness first-hand when high-level intellectualising in archaeology intersects with on-the-ground action, and offering an opportunity, then, to intervene in the messy, real-world reconciliation of these pursuits. Amy (now an alumna) expresses it succinctly in saying that blogging 'bridged a gap between archaeology, heritage and the professional workplace that I hadn't found in such depth elsewhere in my degree programme'. Similarly, returning to Moira: 'I felt a bit out on a limb – not really knowing what I'm doing – but in retrospect I'm glad it went that way because I'd much rather have the experience of finding out these things for myself and kind of getting practical hands-on skills than just being spoon-fed the information'.
Jill (now an alumna) amplifies these observations, eloquently reflecting on her blog work, and in so doing harking back to Steph's comment above:
it almost pulls it into a more postmodern idea of what heritage is … [bringing into focus] how it is actually used in the modern world as opposed to how we theorise and idealise heritage practice and enquiry … there's a lot more … to think about … you come into contact with an actual audience … I felt impassioned by it, and also a bit disillusioned at the same time. It's a real flux … very rarely … are you asked to produce something creatively … [most modules] discuss all these ideas, but there'd be no structure to it or any kind of sense of where we're starting, and where we're trying to finish. And when you're asked to produce something then you come up with … you actually understand the subject better because you've gone through the process … that's been a really happy thing, and I think it's all brought us together … beyond your fieldwork … there's not a lot of coming together as sustained groups, and I've really enjoyed that.
Note 3: I think it is worth reiterating that I am not naïve to the dangers and threats of such engagements, having myself been subjected to online abuse (Perry 2014). I have invested in studying the nature of these threats; in means to prevent and protect against them; and in procedures to expose and discipline perpetrators (Perry et al. 2015). This work is subject to lengthy discussion and debate with all my students throughout our pedagogical interactions, and I have systems in place to monitor and report problems, as does our department more largely (see its social media pages).
This extends into what I see as enskilment of students in building trust, faith in humanity, and appreciation of others, hopefully leading into a valuing of and investment in reciprocity (Note 3). As Steph meditates about her blogging, 'I think it just reinforces the fact that if you just ask people for help, and you ask the right people, and you ask them in the right way, then they are willing. If you seem eager or excited to learn about something, then people want to help you out. So maybe it's just reinstalled that faith a bit …' Indeed, such work seems to effectively expand one's consciousness of the world around them, in some cases reinforcing that sense of awe noted above. Returning to Moira's reflections, 'it made me realise that there was such a bigger world to be a part of in the heritage sector … and now that I know it's there, I can see it more easily and more clearly. Once you know it's there, it's quite clear'. Lori (final-year student) describes it most thoughtfully:
… it was really encouraging me to think a lot more widely … I feel like … this is going to sound really cheesy, but I feel like I learned something about me. You know what I mean, I learned something about what I am. And I think that's the same for so many people because we could have gone anywhere [with the blogs]. So many people took something from the module, but I feel like it was completely different for everyone.
Her experiences resonate with those of a student (in this case of high school level) on Jensen's (2012, 223) blog-equipped research project, who indicated that his participation in it would 'make him a better father'. At stake here, in my opinion, is self-betterment, social wellbeing and the crafting of what Sennett (2008) calls, good citizenship. My now Master's-level student, Charles, explains his learning in precisely these terms: 'I think it's informed a sense that I've recently come to that I'd like to do something that gives back to society, that isn't just working for a company, 9-to-5 or whatever. I want to contribute something to the world around me and I guess [the media work] has informed that quite a lot'. By this account, such work has motivated in Charles a kind of political or activist sensibility (following the discussion in Mullins 2011), pushing him towards his implication in the development of a just society.
Lisa (second-year student reflecting on her experiences as a first-year) draws it all together in her observation that:
you had the chance to be creative and think outside the box of what heritage and archaeology have been built up for you to be … it gave me more confidence … we produced something at the end which we were all really proud of … And also I talked to people outside our sphere of the degree course … What was great about it is that we were given the task … and we just ran with it. It was great to be given the opportunity to do what we wanted with it, and I think that definitely gives you ideas for the future …
Here is encapsulated what I see as many of the distinctive advantages of academic/pedagogical experimentation with critical (digital) making, particularly as traced out in the broader humanities and social sciences literature. It is grounded in ethically conscious but still 'joyful' play, where hands-on creative practice is recognised as directly relatable to the development of one's sense of agency (Losh 2014, 227, 231). Such practice depends, in part, upon a privileging of 'risk taking and managing controlled failure' (Losh 2014, 10). It appreciates, as per Dewey (cited in Rabinow 2011, 101), that 'Genuine intellectual integrity is found in experimental knowing'. And it is unapologetic about the fact that these forms of knowing are not achievable within the confines of the university alone (Rabinow 2011, 117).
Moreover, such experimentation puts its doers at the heart of practice, honing experts who, in fact, do not differentiate between theory and method, but instead value them as entangled together in 'the very stuff of social life' (Savage 2013, 4). Accordingly, it equips them with means (both material and immaterial) to explore the unknown, positioning them to drive forward interpretative change in the messy world around them (after Law 2004). In this rendering, blogging and related media work are part of a process of cultivating future-orientated practitioners in archaeology – speculative designers who are generative of new roles, networks, expectations, obligations and hopes for the discipline (after Galloway 2013).
I am also hopeful, then, that this work will contribute to and challenge the existing discourse on field schools/field work in (and beyond) archaeology (e.g. Mytum 2012). As Wilk and Schiffer (1981, 17) wrote over 30 years ago:
If good fieldwork is an interaction between theory and technique and is also a process of forming and testing hypotheses, then field school students are only trained to do half the job in a profession where half a job is worse than none all. In most cases, training in interpretation or in making informed choices between techniques is sporadic or entirely lacking. Part of the problem is that field school activities alternate between hard manual labor, the numbing tedium of labwork, and listening to the most abstract lectures on theory … Lacking the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to unique, specific problems, the usual field-school graduate tends to be an overly narrow technical specialist.
Conversely, the open, online, student-authored environment arguably offers its makers that productive meeting space between interpretation, hypothesis-testing and technical application that Wilk and Schiffer advocate.
As I see it, then, blogging is a means to directly and constructively interfere with the past, present, and future of archaeology. It sets the stage for rearing the very hacker ethos that is at the core of the emancipative society sought after today by a growing transdisciplinary body of scholars. Such experiments with mediation are, I would argue, the wellspring of a lively discipline; they are crucial ingredients in the recipe for a reflexive, informed, continuously relevant and impactful archaeology. Nurturing experimentation means nurturing critically engaged risk-takers – those with an informed confidence in hacking; in 'learning to make decisions, testing out identities, and seeking truth' (Losh 2014, 24). Our students are these hackers, and investment in their expert development has deep consequences for the discipline, because to borrow from Wark (2004, 2), 'Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world'.
None of my digitally mediated pedagogical practice would be possible without the support of my colleagues Tom Smith and Simon Davis. Tom and Simon provided the architecture for this work, and that architecture was then tinkered with and transformed by my inspiring, supportive and always-engaged students. Special thanks go to those who contributed their time and opinions to this study. I'm deeply grateful to Lucy Adams, Dakota Bagley-Sweet, Alice Baines, Emma Carr, Jess Courtney, Joel Fagan, Andy Henderson-Schwartz, Hannah Kaemmer, Sian Jones, Flo Laino, Cheolhoon Moon, Olivia Morrill, Bridy Parsons, Rachel Quinn, Jenna Tinning, Nik Vasandani, Lou Verroken-Jones, Taryk Welburn, and Lucy Wheeler. May you forever be hackers.