Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cite this as: Battle-Baptiste, W. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39, http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.9.com1
'to truly see - we have to DO.'
This statement spoke to me directly. I am a blogger who happens to be an archaeologist. I am also a woman of African descent living in the United States who happens to be a tenured professor of archaeology and a wife and mother of three amazing children. All of those factors led me to the practice of blogging, because I needed a space where I could share, engage and chronicle the experiences that have made me the type of scholar I am. Blogging and social media can be a very personal exercise, and simultaneously, a very public method of sharing. To think about archaeology in this space is challenging and exciting at the same time, that is why this article struck me so deeply; it spoke to the way that social media has changed my life (academically and personally).
The landscape of archaeological training is changing at a rapid pace. It is much slower than the attention span of most social media consumers, but the push to present archaeological sites and findings on Facebook, Instagram and weblogs can no longer be ignored. So, for those of us spending most of our time within the bounds of the university, we have to come to grips with the unique set of challenges that stem from teaching students from a digital generation. Our students are coming of age in a time when the Internet is a given, almost all information has its own highway (or a YouTube channel) and physical boundaries do not limit the ability to experience a multitude of things from far away places. As the experiences of our students have changed, so have their expectations in the classroom. We as teachers, think more about student engagement in our lessons, the intricate details of our syllabi, the benefits of team-based and group learning, and all of the energy that goes into creating a dynamic course in the 21st century. In my opinion, these factors all become the foundation for the future of archaeological knowledge. Archaeology, to its credit, has always been about doing and seeing, yet when these two elements are combined today, a different sense of what archaeology can be emerges. We can teach our students to think critically about process through reading, remembering, and writing. Yet, we can also imbue a level of understanding that will become a part of their knowledge base.
The strength of this article was not just in the discussion of the application of different communication tools to share information, but how the use of social media puts archaeology in the present. This approach also moves the learning process beyond the university landscape and forces us as practitioners, and the students we teach, to think of themselves as agents in the production of archaeological knowledge. What is enhanced is the idea of learning in general. What Perry demonstrates is how students acquire a sense of responsibility and ownership in their understanding of archaeology and heritage practice. As one student remarked, 'I was actually having an impact …', which as the student continued was '… something not so common in most undergraduate experience'.
As someone who has used blogging as a major part of an archaeological field school requirement, the experience was mixed. It was an excellent lesson in how to think more critically about assignments, frequency and overall training. The bottom line is that the weblog experiment did not work the way we envisioned. I know that I (it was mainly my idea) did not prepare students for the varying expectations of creating entries or facilitate real dialogue about the general nature and complications of archaeological blogging. I fell head first into the same critiques that Perry describes in her piece. Not only did I take for granted that students knew how to blog, I was reinforcing the central idea of blogging for blogging's sake. This approach also created an atmosphere of 'circular justifications about the value of blogging'. Without thinking critically about the real audience and the temporary nature of a weblog dedicated to an archaeological field school that approach will forever be encompassed in a moment and most likely never beyond. The frequency in which students had to 'share and reflect' created the same pressures as the weekly essay or critical thought piece that would traditionally be written on paper and handed in at the start of the session. There was no difference except how the students turned the assignment 'in'. I clearly needed this article a year ago, before that experience. However, I must testify in this response that I am feeling a bit more empowered now, because in reading the results, the feedback of the students interviewed helped me to see the shortcomings of my overall approach to the practice.
Another strength of this piece lay in the student interviews and feedbacks. It is often a mistake for instructors to see the idea of blogging as yet another creative exercise, and Perry demonstrates the value of highlighting the uncomfortable aspects of the writing process. Students therefore can actively learn, through real-world experiences, how social media directly exposes us to a living, breathing, and contradictory world. This exposure for many of Perry's students marked the first time there was an independent experience in doing course work beyond the traditional essay. This, in the age of instruction, testing and other forms of formulaic rubrics makes the idea of a blog an inviting and realistic form of writing.
Training students with a focus on 'future-making' archaeologists is powerful. Creating a methodology that not only keeps archaeology relevant, but also widens the scope of how archaeological theory is understood beyond the borders of academic institutions brings hope to the longevity of the discipline in an age of immediate results. Blogging can become more than an assignment, it builds confidence in how students see themselves and their role as facilitator in the process of knowledge production.
There has been a great deal of emphasis, as Perry points out, about blogging as a 'tool for sharing and outreach', which she sees as circulatory. Perry therefore, contemplates the effect blogging has on those of us engaged in the actual work of archaeology. Often, we do not critique the effects of alternative forms of publication on archaeology in general. Where are the checks and balances? Blogging has become a method to increase our ability to create an emancipatory and reflexive form of archaeology, which for me holds a great deal of weight. As I stated in the early portion of my response, it is through blogging that I have been able to merge the varying aspects of my own identity to give a particular tenor to my writing as an academic archaeologist. In my opinion (and I agree with Perry here), we can also use the weblog to engage in current forms of activism, political engagement, and issues that are relevant to the communities we collaborate with. The Internet, therefore, becomes a space where archaeologists from across the globe can not only share but transform how we communicate with each other and a variety of publics. Future-orientated archaeologists can use critical heritage discourse, for example, to see connections across time and space and 'think in the open'; in order to truly see, we have to DO and understand the relationships between observing and participating, looking and acting and all of the situations in between.
As Perry contends, we have to abandon the concept of simply defending the act or art of blogging, but to 'do archaeology with purpose, a means to insert us into the future', so that as archaeologists we emerge into logics of 21st-century technoculture and remain on the side of 'techno-optimism'. For this, I am so thankful for this article, this dialogue and this challenge. Blogging should and will 'constructively interfere with the past, present, and future of archaeology'. It is the only way that we will ensure that, as Perry points out, her students as hackers will 'create the possibility of new things entering the world'.
Research Fellow, Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, UK. email@example.com
Cite this as: Jeffrey, S. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.9.com2
Sara Perry's article is a timely and insightful contribution to the debate on new media in archaeology, specifically with regard to the student experience of blogging in a university context. Before making any comment on the contribution, I should be clear that my own experience with blogging has been entirely outwith the context of using blogs as part of the student experience and has focused on the use of blogs either in relation to particular research projects or as a consumer of blogs where individuals share their thoughts and ideas.
The overview that Perry provides in the opening sections successfully achieves two objectives; firstly placing blogging in the context of other forms of novel publication and/or dissemination of archaeological thought going back to the antiquarian era and secondly pointing out, correctly, that the impact of blogging has not been considered with any rigour and its integration into archaeological practice is both piecemeal and slipshod in this regard. While both the above points are well made, it could also be noted that the adoption of new forms of publication has not been consistent across all spheres of the archaeological endeavour. Some forms of archaeological dissemination have changed little since their inception and this includes the vast majority of scholarly journals which, with few notable exceptions, have been extremely slow to adopt new technologies and steadfastly defend modes of publication that are inextricably entwined with notions of expertise and authorised discourse. In addition, for the UK at least, the 1990s commercialisation of archaeology has led to the vast majority of archaeological work being disseminated in stultifying, conservative and often inaccessible forms as the practitioners have no imperative, or funds, to experiment with new forms or to adopt new approaches with a proven track record, particularly when the status quo satisfies their clients. There are of course, very notable and laudable exceptions to both these cases (e.g. Internet Archaeology itself and the work of units such as L-P Archaeology with MOLA for the Thames Discovery Programme), but in general engagement with, and exploitation of, new ways of presenting archaeological content has been the domain of the university academic. This is worth pointing out, as one of the benefits of blogging highlighted in this article is the student's sense of interaction with the 'real world', when, at present at least, it actually seems to be a particular part of the real world, academic, individual or community interest blogging.
The core of the article is an analysis of students' experience in blogging during their time on Perry's university courses. Perry makes it absolutely clear why this type of analysis is much needed and a discipline that carries on without it is doing a disservice to their students. However, I think it is also recognised that in terms of the analysis, its scale and its methodology Perry's work should be seen as a starting point rather than a definitive statement. It would have been particularly good to have had a complementary analysis of blog readers. There is a lot of very useful and interesting analysis on the value of creating and contributing to a blog, but this to some extent must surely be contingent on the audience that the blog garners; this audience would benefit from quantitative and qualitative study. The students in Perry's analysis talk often of their connection with a broader community, yet it is not clear from this article who actually constitutes this community. This in no way diminishes the benefits to the students of blogging, but the benefits to archaeology in general could be teased out through further analysis of the audiences these blogs have. In addition, the proliferation of blogs itself poses a problem for the consumer. Blogs may arguably expand the audience base beyond the traditional archaeological readership, but few of us have time to read everything that is pertinent or of interest to them. An acknowledgement that the audience can be taxed and perplexed, not by the content itself, but the volume and diversity of it, would be useful context for this discussion (see Thomson and Mewburn 2013). This is obviously not an argument against blogging (and is probably a good argument for it), but an analysis of who is reading what and why, and particularly how recommendations, 'shares' and links between posts work in practice would, I think, make very interesting reading.
There is another filter through which the analysis of students responses should be viewed, one that is explicitly acknowledged by Perry herself when she points out that it is 'virtually impossible to isolate effects' when students are deploying multiple modes of engagement. While Perry means here the other forms of digital engagement (Twitter to Digital Video), at the same time the students were presumably undertaking more traditional academic activities. While instinctively we might like to think that the positive outcomes reported by students were a result of blogging only (or the other forms of digital engagement), it is not clear that some of the outcomes attributed to the blogging; confidence, independence, purposefulness and accomplishment, were not in fact the cumulative effect of the university experience. In particular there is a statement that blogging 'cultivated a depth of care and respect for the task to a degree that outstripped most standard pedagogical techniques'. The supporting statement is that because it would be long lasting and have a wider audience than 'just a university project' then it is more important to produce something that you are proud of. Implied in this is that the response of a broader audience is somehow more important than the outcome of an internal university project. While this is laudable in that thinking and development are being carried out 'in the open', a counter position, possibly naïve, might be that it is important that students produce work they can be proud of in all contexts, not just those in which they get the approval of their peers. Furthermore, this kind of exposure to a broader audience may not suit all students at all times and Perry rightly points out that there are some potential downsides to this type of work as a learning tool (as well as noting some of the more extreme dangers of online work in general). The student sample itself seemed wary of plunging straight into blogging and they are positive that group work and support were key in getting the most from blogging, at least at the beginning. A final point here is that, from the perspective of understanding students' response to blogging, it is also important to know what the relationship was/is between marking and grading schemes and the blogging work, if any. This relationship will almost definitely have an impact on students' responses to the work and while the dialogue around assessment is referenced, including radical approaches to rejecting traditional forms of assessment, it is not clear where the blog work under discussion here lies.
There may be an important lesson emerging from the regular references to students using blogs as a way of connecting to broader communities. Over a number of years many archaeology degree courses have been restructured to reduce the necessity for practical fieldwork experience or to reduce the time needed for this as a course requirement. This could be leaving a gap in the student experience that was more fully addressed when undergraduate degrees had significant requirements for fieldwork and students would gain experience in commercial units, museums, HERs, as well as on academic-led excavations (see Croucher et al. 2008). An important aspect of this work was exposing students to multiple aspects of professional archaeological practice and how they worked together. It would be interesting to compare the sense of engagement that Perry's students reported with the experience of students who studied under regimes with this larger work experience requirement. Looking at the enthusiastic response of the student sample in this analysis, it is possible that the undergraduate blogging experience, reaching broader audiences than just professional, might actually represent a more direct way of feeling part of a larger group/community than the previous work requirements. Indeed, one student states explicitly that the work 'bridged a gap between archaeology, heritage and the professional workplace' that was unaddressed elsewhere in her degree programme.
The sections I struggled with most in this article were those where the analysis gives rise to more idealistic and political claims about the effects and benefits of blogging. It would be impossible to criticise the framework in which Perry contextualises work, highlighting as it does creativity, courage, mindfulness and integrity, value building, collaboration, care for the past, future orientated practice and public responsibility. The student responses as presented here are very interesting in the breadth of the effects they were reporting including, consciousness expansion, the development of good citizenship and a political and activist sensitivity. Given that in many spheres (inside and outside of archaeology) much social media activity, blogging and microblogging can easily be characterised as shallow, self-promoting, insular and even narcissistic, the positive benefits discussed by the student group must arise from a particular approach. Differentiating this approach and the students' use of blogging from general usage is an important factor in understanding how these benefits arise. In particular, which of these benefits are specific to blogging rather than other engagement and teaching approaches?
There is much to agree with and much food for thought in this fascinating analysis and it is important that such a potentially significant change in the teaching and learning practice as the formal adoption of blog work is better understood. Perry's analysis starts us along this journey by providing an important insight into the response of her students to this type of activity. Anyone thinking of embedding blogging in their teaching practice should benefit from this analysis. I very much hope that this is the first salvo in a conversation between and among students and educators on the values of blogging, a conversation that will be based on further direct analysis of its impacts.
I am very grateful to my reviewers Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Stuart Jeffrey for their thoughtful, considered and critically-engaged responses to my article. I deliberated for several weeks on whether or not to reply to their comments, in part because I did not feel that it was necessary for me to have the last word in this exchange. Indeed, as Jeffrey notes, I do see it as simply a 'first salvo in a conversation between and among students and educators on the values of blogging', and hence I was conscious of the possibility that I might immediately shut down the conversation by attempting to reassert my argument or otherwise prioritise my experience over those of my reviewers.
That said, I also see this discussion as one that goes beyond students and educators alone—an exchange that, as Battle-Baptiste acknowledges, encompasses the entire profession, and in fact, pushes beyond the profession into general efforts at future-making and 'current forms of activism, political engagement, and issues that are relevant to the communities we collaborate with'. Blogging, as I and my students have applied it, is just one mechanism for participating in such future-making. I do not believe that it should be the only mechanism. I do not believe that it works in isolation from other forms of practice and thinking. I do not even necessarily believe it is the most robust means of achieving the types of social, intellectual, experiential and cooperative outcomes that sit at the core of my own (and, I think, Battle-Baptiste's) pedagogical ideals. But I do believe that we are currently in a predicament where lack of concern for evaluation and a serious dearth of critical analysis of impacts mean it is near impossible to even initiate—let alone sustain—a meaningful conversation about archaeological blogging's (and the larger social web's) relationship to professional development, to knowledge-making and to world-building more generally. I have been inspired, then, by my students' engagements with their weblogs, because—of their own volition—they have stretched these engagements far beyond anything that I might have anticipated. Indeed, the structure of my modules is such that students were not actually directly assessed on their blogs, but rather on summative reflections on the process and effects of their blogging. This assessment style meant that students could have potentially invested minimal effort in the blogs themselves. However, for the most part, what became obvious is that they deeply invested themselves in developing their online forums—some going on to produce associated academic articles about their merits (e.g. see Harper's 2014 piece on 'blogs as knowledge-making space'); others connecting to new audiences and communities of practice who, in turn, facilitated publication and active participation by the student in varied activities that extended far beyond academia and beyond archaeology itself (e.g. Reilly's 2013 invitation to publish in the Mitford Society's annual book).
The latter point is especially important, because it challenges Jeffrey's contention about the narrowness of the students' 'real world' interactions, and it complicates the view that 'real world' archaeological work does not typically include blogging. A not insignificant number of our students move, upon graduation, into careers outside of archaeology—politics, law, marketing, etc. Their weblogs are arguably means, then, to explore these extra-disciplinary opportunities whilst still enrolled on their degree programmes. Their performances here enabled connections, considerations and actions that might have set the stage—and perhaps even better prepared them—for their transitions into different fields of practice. Even where students might have gone on to more traditional archaeological occupations, their blogging efforts represented to them engagements with what they felt 'real world' archaeology should entail. Whilst "stultifying, conservative and often inaccessible forms" of publication might be, as Jeffrey says, the "status quo" in the discipline, I am not convinced that my role as a pedagogue should thus be to teach students to reproduce that status quo. If the university is outputting new professionals who have no skills to rethink or rework traditional publication forms, no training in the use of tools that are relatively ubiquitous in other fields of practice (including in everyday life), and no appreciation for how media experimentation can affect expertise, disciplinary development, or the world at large, then one might argue that we are setting archaeology up for obsolescence.
Blogging is clearly not a panacea, but it provides one method by which students (and others) can potentially enlarge themselves and, at once, critically consider the dimensions of the profession, its impacts and its audiences. It is literally a conversation starter, and I look forward to seeing this conversation mature.
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