Thursday, September 29, 2011

Grad School Geekiness vs. 101: Round 2

In a previous post, I discussed the tension between indulging one’s more esoteric academic interests while teaching 101 level classes. I do have to report a couple of major successes in getting my 101 students to dabble in a bit of archaeological geekiness.

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing the transformation of material culture from a dynamic society into the static remains of the archaeological record. In discussing this, I was employing a simplified version of artifact life histories (similar to the concept of chaĆ®nes opĆ©ratoires). As I was doing this, I posed the question of how one could decipher aspects of an artifact’s life history from what an archaeologist would find in the archaeological record. For example, how could you reconstruct the procurement of the raw material used for an artifact, how could you ascertain its method of manufacture and how could you infer patterns of its use? Three students came back with answers that clearly paralleled the “four dimensions of artifact variability” as defined by Michael Schiffer in Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. For those who don’t know, that’s a very important book in archaeological theory, even if not the most exciting of reads.

For whatever reason, I really got into formation processes and other aspects of behavioral archaeology. However, I can completely understand how some find it not the most interesting component of archaeology. But, the fact that a group of 18-20 year old students were actively thinking along those lines was quite gratifying.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Assumptions of Progress

As part of a reading group that I’m not sure is getting off the ground, I’ve started James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. I’m not even one hundred pages in, but I have been struck by the simplicity of its insightful premise. Its simplicity, however, runs counter to many still prevailing assumptions of Western culture concerning folks living “traditional” or “indigenous” lifestyles. Basically, he argues that the many “tribal” or “hill” people of Southeast Asia are not ancient holdovers of a pre-civilized era, but:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Ablow and Bono

In recent days, the latest entry into minor celebrity/cable news feuds has bubbled to the surface. Psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, Keith Ablow, caused a small stir by advising parents not to let their children watch the new season of Dancing with the Stars. Specifically, he argues that the presence and supposed celebration of Chaz Bono could impair the normal development of children’s gender identity during formative periods. Of course, Chaz Bono’s controversial personhood stems from his undergoing transsexual surgeries and hormone therapies, changing his body from looking like that of a woman into a man.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Correctness of Political Correctness

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I have a decent, one way 45 minute commute to work. While I’m not particularly happy about this, it does provide ample opportunity to observe folks’ behavior on the roads, including how social, cultural identity and values are expressed through automobiles. Nowhere is such expression more obvious than on bumper stickers. Today, I noticed one that stated, “Proud to be Politically Correct." Initially, it glossed over my conscious thought, but something about it snagged my thinking. What do folks mean with the terms, “politically correct” and “politically incorrect”?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Biology, Masculinity and Fathers

A recent New York Times piece, “In Study, Fatherhood leads to Drop in Testosterone,” on research into testosterone levels and fatherhood has recently received a lot of attention, particularly from colleagues teasing me about my children. In a nutshell, the research indicates that levels of testosterone drop once a male becomes a parent and even more when the man actively participates in child care activities. The work does represent how anthropology works to integrate biological and cultural phenomena for a more complete understanding of human beings. We’re fundamentally both cultural and biological beings and separation between the biology and culture is often largely the consequence of units of analysis used by the investigators.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grad Student Geekiness vs. Archaeology 101

Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve faced the recurrent dilemma of whether to indulge in graduate student geekiness or best serve the needs of students in introductory anthropology classes. The grad student in me loves the life of the mind and thinking about complex, interesting, and just cool topics--like the formation of the archaeological record. But, the archaeology 101 teacher in me realizes that most incoming college students just aren’t intellectually primed to engage with such ideas. Many are just coming out of “teach for the test” environments that seem to discourage thinking about big, interesting concepts.

I know it’s really not an either/or situation--getting geeky or dumbing down to a point of accessibility--but it is one where a delicate balance is needed. Sometimes, I can’t keep my inner geek down, but I have to remember to temper him.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Greeks and Romans on The(ir) Brain

It’s that time of year, when a new batch of students strolls into my class eager to learn about the wonders of the ancient world. Before I get started, though, I have to disabuse them of previously held notions of what archeology is all about. Every semester, I have students who didn’t get what they bargained for in a class called, “Archaeology and Prehistory.” I can see it in their eyes, hear it in their questions and finally in their course evaluations at the end of the semester. They expect the course to all about Greek and Roman archaeology with a bit of other European societies (what I think they hope to be the “real” Middle Earth) thrown in. That seems to be the only archaeology they think exists. They’re disappointed that I don’t really address such societies in my course. I have had several end of semester student evaluations lament my lack of coverage of Classical societies. While those ancient cultures are completely legitimate topics, I don’t cover them. Like many anthropological archaeology courses, I focus on non-Western history. And more than that, students that are ignorant of non-Western histories are just the ones that should be learning about them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The More Things Change...Saturday Night and Natural Light

My posts usually attempt to tie some anthropological perspective to some experience that’s popped up in my professional or parenting life. This post, not so much. This is just a random, wistful recollection and reflection.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying archaeology, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the passage of time. One of the most general contrasting set of contours of history is the tension between change and continuity.

As I was sitting around tonight, ideas of change and continuity came to mind. It’s a Saturday night, I’m in my suburban New York home, my wife is putting my three year old to bed and my one year old has been sleeping for an hour. As a parent of small children, I’m of course spending a Saturday evening at home.

Twenty years ago, a warm Saturday night would likely mean driving through a New Mexico desert in one of my parent’s cars, searching for an illicit party where I might get to chat with a girl I had a crush on.

Much has changed, but it’s still a Saturday night. And in both 1991 and 2011, I’m drinking a Natural Light.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Road Rage and Bubbles of Protection

On one recent morning, I was driving home from a routine pediatrician visit with my two kids when I witnessed something that unsettled me for the rest of the day. So far that morning, my activities had been the epitome of the mundane--dressing and feeding kids, driving, waiting room, exam room and driving home. All that put me deep in the grips of the behavioral auto-pilot that routine activity fosters.

But, as I was turning left at a lighted intersection, I noticed two cars carelessly pulled off to the right shoulder ahead. A stocky, blond man was stalking outside of the driver side of one car when he turned and began throwing punches through the window at the driver. After a series of small stops and starts, the driver finally pulled ahead so that the pugilist could no longer land blows. By this point, I had turned and was on my way. However, this display of violence shocked me out of my routine and unnerved me for the rest of the ride home. I began to think about why this violent act shook my sense of the world around me, which led me down the road of pondering the nature of humans, violence and society in which I live. I don’t live in a world free of violence, but I do occupy a bubble of protection that shields me from much of it.