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 chaînes opératoires). 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.

That’s geeky, but it gets better. A couple of class sessions later, I was discussing kinds of discard (primary, secondary, de facto, etc.). To my surprise, several students started posing crazy hypothetical examples and wondering what kind of discard they would be defined as. For instance, one Iron Maiden t-shirt wearing student (it is very strange to me that 1980s heavy metal t-shirts remain popular) proposed something along the lines of

what if you’ve got two sites on opposite sides of a river and a rope-pully kind of apparatus connecting them. Then, you move most of the artifacts from village A to village B. Then you cut the rope. What kind of discard would the rope be?

I have no clue because that’s one of the most complicated Rube Goldberg-esque scenarios I could imagine. But, it’s incredibly cool that a student thought that much about how garbage is created.

While the grad student geek in me has to be kept in check most of the time, every once in awhile it’s nice to let him roam a bit. Especially if that geekiness can infect students with a bit of enthusiasm for learning.

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