Friday, November 11, 2011

Teaching New World (pre)History

One of the persistent dilemmas I’m faced with as a teacher is how to get across important information in a way that makes a difference, both for a student and the larger society. As a professor at a community college, I don’t see my primary professional obligation as producing new anthropologists. Instead, I’m out to promote an understanding of other peoples and other ways of life through a critical examination of ethnographic and archaeological records.

Other People Had History Too
This post serves as a kind of sequel to an earlier one about a speech I give to my archaeology students that my version of the class doesn’t focus on Greece and Rome, but has a heavy New World emphasis. I’m now at that point in the semester where we begin examining specific case studies with particularly detailed look at Southwestern archaeology. In a class that’s as generally titled as “Archaeology and Prehistory,” a good amount of academic freedom through editorial decision making is needed to cover anything with any kind of analytical attention. My graduate training was in New World archaeology, so it’s what I know best.

Legitimate criticisms have been made about the colonial nature of anthropology, or the problems with a bunch of white guys (like me) teaching others about the pasts of non-white peoples. To be pragmatic, however, a white guy like me might be the only person with any decent knowledge of New World archaeology that these students ever encounter. I make an honest effort to include such criticisms in my classes and to note the important stake and say that living Native Americans have in the process and products of archaeology.

But, I have taken some cures from my students in the particular way I approach these case studies. There are plenty of ways to approach the archaeology of a particular region (culture-ecology, political economy, etc.). In my course, I tend to focus on the history of the region. By history, I mean a focus on people, some powerful, doing things with each other, to each other, and in competition with each other. This means that I often neglect environmental variables. While Steve Lekson’s iconoclastic style often annoys Southwestern archaeologists, I have found his recent book, A History of the Ancient Southwest, to be an invaluable resource for crafting lectures that focus on the dynamics of people who once did live and did live in times of change and conflict. He argues that a history of the Southwest should be “an eventful history, a history in which things happened” (Lekson 2008:3 emphasis in the original).

In general, students perk up much more in class and ask many more questions when I use this approach. I’m not dumbing down the material, it’s just that a lot of archaeological discussions that focus on traditional processual interests seem to bore students and doesn’t get them excited about the big picture of these ancient societies. Students seemed more primed to engage with history than with systems or environmental adaptation. I’ll also note that when I use the term history, I’m not talking about archaeological culture history--phases, sequences, etc.

I can imagine some objections from other archaeologists that I’m not well representing, or even misrepresenting the discipline. In some ways, that may be the case. But, every semester, I’ve got a small window with a handful of students, and most will never go on any further in archaeology. I try the best I can to engage them, so that they will now and in the future appreciate archaeological knowledge and the histories of diverse peoples. So far, the approach I’ve mentioned here has been the most effective.

Outside of the Classroom
Besides trying to create lectures that students engage with, I also hope to do something of larger social worth by communicating that Native peoples of the New World do in fact have a “history,” and those histories are quite like the histories of Western cultures. For the most part, my students are primarily of European descent, and initially don’t feel like they have much in common with Native Americans. Much of this stems from the essentialized, noble savage, ecological-Indian image that pop culture has assembled over the years. Focusing on people, power and change helps my students to think of ancient Native Americans as once living people and not dead stereotypes. It becomes difficult to fall back on stereotypical understandings when you realize that another group has dramatically changed over the years. Once people understand that other folks have their own history, it’s easier to think of those people as equals that deserve attention, respect and autonomy. By talking about history, I believe that my students are better able to see the similarities between their lives today and the lives of Native Americans of a millennium ago.

Closing Thoughts
All in all, I see my course in archaeology as a way to do a couple of things. Introduce students to histories of peoples that they often know nothing real about, hopefully making them realize how fascinating and relevant those histories are. And, show them how those “other” people are really just like them.

References Cited
Lekson, Stephen H.
2008 A History of the Ancient Southwest. SAR Press.

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