Learning by doing: from student to staff

This month Campus Archaeology has decided to focus our theme and attention on learning by doing: archaeological field school.  For every young archaeologist, the field school is a rite of passage.  I have yet to meet an archaeologist who has never in his or her career participated in a field school as an initial foray into archaeology as a career.  Field schools provide so much useful practical information about archaeology, but they also force you to consider yourself within the context of archaeology.  They teach you the “how” of archaeology, but more importantly, the “why” of archaeology.  You meet great friends at field schools, some of whom you will have for the rest of your life.  Field schools really provide a multi-faceted learning experience where you gain knowledge about archaeology, but also wisdom about how you integrate into archaeology.

Time for a trip down memory lane, so gather round CAP-fans…

My own field experiences have varied from work in the American Southwest, to the Midwest, to Egypt.  My very first field  experience was when I was just 18 years old.  By some coincidence I had stumbled across the Marana Mound Field School at the University of Arizona while I was then a freshman at the University of New Mexico.  This particular field school was unique.  It offered students the chance for a semester-long field/lab experience.  As a freshman, I remember thinking how much fun it would be to spend an entire semester excavating in sunny Arizona.  Being from Chicago, the idea of being outside in February and not up to my knees in snow was (and continues to be) thrilling to no end.  So, off I went.  I spent an entire semester, January through May, learning field methods in archaeology, museum cataloging, conservation, and all of the bits and pieces that go into a successful archaeological investigation.  More importantly, I feel, I learned how I really felt about archaeology.  The days can be long, arduous, and even painful.  One has to be ever-mindful of the presence of wildlife (in our case, rattlesnakes, scorpions and a few hives of killer bees), and even keep an eye on the local flora (the cacti liked to leap out and give you a big, thorny hug if you weren’t careful).  Beyond that, I learned how to manage working with the same people day in and day out, in close proximity, for extended periods of time.  Field schools are social experiences where, as I said, you have the potential to meet some amazing friends, but it is very easy to get on each other’s nerves without even trying.  My very first field experience taught me all these things, and more.  That feeling you get when you realize you are the first person to see an artifact in hundreds of years–that ties it all together and makes the field school experience amazing.

The other side of “learning by doing” through field schools happens when one goes from being a student to finding himself or herself on the other side of the line as staff.  I have been on both sides of this line and each side is a unique learning experience.  After a few field school experiences as a student, I made the transition to field school staff a few years ago on an expedition in Egypt.  I can personally attest to the fact that as an undergraduate I had no clue what managing a field school was like for the graduate students nor the faculty directors, but I was about to get a crash course.  Someone once asked me to sum it up as succinctly as possible, and this is what I said, “field school teaching is like distilled classroom teaching with a lot more personal drama.”  What I meant was that every way we are taught to teach in a classroom setting has to be rethought, refined and redefined, and on top of renegotiating teaching strategy, there is the added component of daily social interaction with students who would normally walk out of your classroom and life and not walk back in for at least another 24-48 hours, if not an entire week.  Rarely do faculty sit down to every meal and spend all of their free time with their students, but at a field school, there is little other choice short of complete isolation.  So, what is my point?  My point is that as field school staff, we learn how to educate the students, maintain a friendly demeanor but do not go so far as to get too friendly (these are still students, remember) and maintain some semblance of our research goals.  Students do not often think about it (I know I didn’t when I was an undergrad) but faculty and staff are in the field not just to train students, but because they have a research agenda for the site under investigation.  After learning to balance all of those factors, working as staff at a field school can be as rewarding an experience as being a student participant.  I have met and trained students who I have found to be amazing people and I have no doubt will become colleagues in the future.

This all came together for me for the first time a few weeks ago while presenting at a conference.  In attendance at this conference were two fantastic people who I consider good friends, one from my student days, and one from my staff days.  The first, I have known for over ten years.  We met at my first field school and became fast friends.  Though we eventually took different career paths (she chose Egyptology and I chose Anthropology), we still have great intellectual debates, enjoy reminiscing about field school days long-past, and can pick up a conversation after months as if it had only been minutes.  The second person was a recent student at a field school in Egypt where I have been a core staff member for a few years.  She proved herself to be remarkably intelligent, driven, inquisitive and a much-needed antidote to typical field school drama.  She has a good head on her shoulders and I think she will go far.  Both of these people came into my life through very different circumstances via field schools, but I am glad to count them both among my friends.

Field schools can teach a great deal, both on the student side and staff side.  They will give you the intellectual tools to be a good archaeologist, but they will also give you (hopefully) the social tools to be a good colleague and mentor.  I highly recommend to anyone interested, even superficially, in a career in archaeology to participate in a field school.  You will learn invaluable practical skills but also invaluable social skills.  For those more advanced in archaeology: if you can swing it, I also highly recommend seeking a staff position on a field school.  It will hone your teaching abilities and give you an idea of what it takes to run a field school.  Frankly, it taught me that I am not the right person for that kind of responsibility, and that is a good thing to know now.  I am perfectly content being a research specialist and not running a field school.  For those who do run field schools: I salute you.

If you, our reader, take nothing else away from this blog post I would say take this message: field schools can be trying and difficult, rewarding and enlightening, and always remember, the best thing to pack for a field season is your sense of humor!



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