Knowing What We Don’t Know: Challenging the Conventional Narrative in Search of Virginia’s Colonial Plantation Landscapes
For all that archaeologists and historians have learned from studying plantations in southeastern Virginia, there…
If there’s one thing that the controversies surrounding the Diggers and American Digger reality shows have taught us, it’s that the general American public still does not know how to tell the difference between historical archaeologists, and the treasure hunters who are currently on their TV screens. Furthermore, this lack of public knowledge helps to make our protests sound like the “ivory tower elite” complaining because we are the only people who should be allowed to use the very resource of which we also claim to be guardians. We talk a lot in archaeology, anthropology—and even academia in general—about being more “public” or becoming “public intellectuals;” the reality, however, is that we are still not doing enough.
Back in September, The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker blog posted an open question to its readers: “How do you make your work visible?” The post was about the fact that we need to be able to engage people outside the academic world. We should, at least, be able to explain 1) what we do and 2) why it is important. According to the post, academia has a “self-induced opacity that makes it difficult for anyone outside colleges and universities to understand—or even care—what it is scholars and teachers do.” I think this is further underscored for anthropology, a discipline of which very few Americans have general knowledge. In fact, about the same time last fall, the American Anthropologist reprinted Jeremy Sabloff’s excellent 2010 AAA distinguished lecture “Where have you gone, Margret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectual” in which Dr. Sabloff states:
Anthropologists have important, practical knowledge, but the mainstream, public and policy maker alike, generally does not understand or appreciate our insights. But we all are in a position to change this situation. I will try to tell you why and how in the pages that follow. The title of my article—with apologies to Paul Simon—is “Where Have You Gone, Margaret Mead?,” but perhaps in a more direct manner it could have been “We Urgently Need Anthropological Public Intellectuals” (Sabloff 2011).
However, Sabloff seems to making a call for some sort of “anthropological superstar” to appear; someone who will be a pundit on all the chat shows and spar with Anderson Cooper about public policy. It feels to me like waiting for such a charismatic superstar anthropologist (or historical archaeologist for that matter) to take the stage and capture America’s hearts and minds allows us to shirk our duty to become public intellectuals. This doge is especially convenient for young scholars as the academy still does not value public outreach. As Matt Thompson has pointed out in his “We Don’t Need Another Hero” blog post for Savage Minds: “You can’t make a career publishing in journals of history, American studies, or education. If you want to be an anthropologist you are expected to publish in anthropology journals. Interdisciplinarity [and public outreach] be damned.” As Thompson goes on to say:
“What I’m trying to say is don’t sit around waiting for the next Margaret Mead…Find something where you are, some way to play a role however small and do it. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to write a grant. Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you.”
I am lucky in this regard. My job as Research Station Archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey has a sort of “built-in” public outreach component—one that dovetails nicely with my own personality and desire to interact with (and educate) the outside world (yeah, I’m an egoist that way…In fact, “public intellectual” may be a fancy buzz word for someone who, for whatever deep psychological reason, feels he/she must perform in public).
In addition to teaching, research and volunteer excavations, I have given over 100 public talks over the last 5 years (averaging a bit more than one a month). Over the past two years, I have been a part of two documentaries produced by AETN (Arkansas Educational Television)—one about cemetery preservation in the state (Silent Storytellers, released March 11, 2010) and one about why we should commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in Arkansas (Arkansas CW150, released April 29, 2011). Interestingly, although these are important outreach efforts (and efforts that are considered a part of my job), I personally feel that my use of digital and social media (listservs, blogs, Facebook and Twitter) have been a more important outreach tool for me. I get as much feedback from my on-line presence as I do the documentary TV shows, and this underscores Thompson’s point above—“Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you.”
I understand that I am blessed with a job that values public outreach, but there are many, many, many great examples of individuals in the academy, government agencies and the private sector that mange to make public outreach their business despite the heavy demands from research, teaching, setting public policy or trying to make a profit. I am grateful to these folks—from Judy Bense (President of the University of West Florida ) who hosts a very popular one-minute daily radio program “Unearthing Pensacola” on the local National Public Radio affiliate (WUWF 88.1 FM), to my friend Greg Vogel who (although an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a heavy teaching load) regularly writes newspaper columns and does a monthly interview on a morning news/talk show on WJBM 1480 AM, Jerseyville, Illinois, to our current SHA president Paul Mullins giving talks at places like Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Indiana. This last event I only know about because Mullins posted it on Facebook last week. If I may underscore my point above about social media, through the very simple and quick act of posting a phone picture, Mullins told almost 400 people who follow him on Facebook and Twitter about “what he does.” (Find other SHA members who use Twitter here).
On the larger scale, we need to change how we view public outreach in our discipline. In 2009 when PBS aired Time Team America, some of my colleagues (and you know who you are) expressed condescending opinions about the show and what they thought of as “prostituting” science for public consumption. I would urge them to rethink these views. Time Team may not be Sabloff’s “anthropological superstar,” but wouldn’t you rather have a show that taught the general public what we do, how we do it and why it is important in place of the current crop of reality shows?
We should all participate on some level in the public arena…and we need to change the structural disciplinary biases against public outreach. If we do not, others will fill that vacuum in American popular culture—others like Diggers and American Digger.
If we are unhappy with these shows (including Time Team America?), we need to ask ourselves “What should the public image of historical archaeology look like?” and “How do we get there?” I believe the answer is not in a single pop culture icon (i.e., Mead) or show (i.e., Time Team), but in all of us doing small, daily acts of outreach. So we all need to ask ourselves on a regular basis, “What have I done lately to tell people what I do, and why it is important?”…What are you doing to make historical archaeology visible?