The Future of Collective Memory

Reposted from the Aragats Foundation blog: On the future of collective memory in Armenia.  The Aragats Foundation | The Future of Collective Memory.

Engaged Archaeology, Ithaca Edition

Elementary school students dig archaeology | Cornell Chronicle.

The week of June 15-19, professors Adam T. Smith, anthropology, and Lori Khatchadourian, Near Eastern studies, led a mini-course on archaeology at the Elizabeth Anne Clune Montessori School of Ithaca. Nine children ages 5-8 spent five mornings exploring aspects of archaeological research.

“It was an opportunity for students to learn about the research being done by archaeologists at Cornell’s Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and begin to understand the importance of studying and preserving humanity’s deep past,” said Smith….

The excavations in plastic tubs were a highlight!  More at the link.

Applying to Graduate School, an Archaeological Perspective

Having just supervised my third year of admissions into the MA program in Cornell’s Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, I’ve come to see the process as increasingly shaped by poor communication on both sides.  We, as an institution, do a pretty poor job of communicating what an ideal application dossier looks like.  And students, many of whom boast sterling credentials, nevertheless often seem to have neglected to fully consider what graduate school entails.  Inspired by my colleague Sturt Manning’s post last year on graduate admissions in Classics, I digest here a few points of advice that I seem to repeat quite often to applicants and prospective students.

The elements of a graduate school application are relatively standard across programs and universities.  Typically they include:

  • Your undergraduate transcript;
  • Letters of recommendation (3 seems to be the magic number);
  • A writing sample (usually a term paper written for an advanced seminar);
  • Test scores (usually GRE, but also TOEFL for international students);
  • A statement of purpose (sometimes misleadingly called a personal essay).

Undergraduate transcripts can be read in numerous ways.  A few attest to a goal oriented, highly motivated student who knew their chosen path from day 1.  Some tell a story of struggle and success as grades improve and courses sharpen focus over the 4 years.  Some tell of students who wander listlessly through the curriculum until they discover their passion (e.g., archaeology) and then commit themselves fully to achievement.  Some tell of students who were driven into narrow pre-professional courses by social, economic, or perhaps parental forces in their freshman and sophomore years, only to find themselves miserable until a stray course in archaeology opened a new door.  Other transcripts testify to students  who never really clicked with anything and look to graduate school as a place to kill some more time while searching for self and future.  What story does your transcript tell?  How would you want an admissions committee to narrate your intellectual development?

Often times, the story of your transcript comes out most clearly in the letters of recommendation.  Faculty who care deeply about their students will often tell us about the unique challenges applicants have faced or opportunities they have seized.  Their testimonials can often be incredibly powerful since they have the kind of firsthand knowledge that admissions committees lack.  So it is important in choosing letter writers to have established relations with faculty who a) know you and b) care about you.  This means you cannot rely on the instructor in the 500 person intro class that you did well in but who you never saw again.  That said, it is relatively rare that all three letter writers have the same kind of familiarity with students, but if one or two can speak knowingly of you and are committed to you, then chances are, that will be an impactful letter.

The writing sample is a complicated element of the process.  Presumably by the time you graduate from College, if you were in the humanities or social sciences, you will have written 4-8 term papers, by which I mean extended writings on a single topic that muster evidence to an argument (I do not include more personal or reflective essays or fiction writing, neither of which are proper material for a writing sample in an archaeology application).  I have seen writing samples evaluated generally for just two qualities.  The first is the quality of composition; is it well written?  The second is its use of evidence; does it understand the bases of archaeological arguments.  Occasionally samples are highly original, provocative, or pioneering, but these are not the expectations for a college term paper or honors thesis and so tend not to be the expectations of admissions committees either.  Of our two expectations–composition and argumentation–my experience is that the quality of writing trumps all.  Hence when students ask for advice on which writing sample to submit, I always advise them to submit the one that is best written, most polished, and most edited, whether it is about archaeology or not.  I would be far more impressed by a well-written writing sample about Georgian polyphonic singing than a second rate essay on excavations at Ur or Abydos.  Keep in mind that it is perfectly acceptable to edit a writing sample that originated as a term paper prior to inclusion in an application.  There is no need for the work to remain faithful to the original term paper, and indeed it is a good opportunity to address comments, corrections, and critiques you may have received.

It is important for students to realize then that at the time of application 3 out of 5 of the elements in a dossier are essentially out of your hands.  Your transcript was compiled over your 4 years in college; ditto your relations with faculty who will provide letters of recommendation; and writing samples tend to be (quite wisely) recycled term papers or honors theses.

In addition, in my experience test scores tend to be a secondary data point in admissions.  They might reinforce a sense conveyed by transcripts or they might force a second look if not in keeping with the impression conveyed by a writing sample and essay.  But it is rare that I’ve seen test scores work as a determining force of any kind on an admissions decision when the preponderance of other evidence points in a different direction.

So that leaves just the statement of purpose as the critical contribution that an applicant can make to a dossier at the time they are considering graduate school.  As a result, it is to my mind the most consequential piece of the application.   And yet it is also the portion that students often seem to have the most trouble with.  So let me set out what I think a statement of purpose should do.

  1. It needs to  clearly define a research project.  Graduate schools is primarily about training you to do research–what will it be about? But this is tricky.  If your proposed research project is too narrow (level 3 coarseware sherds from site X) then you run 2 risks: a) no one who reads the essay is all that interested in level 3 coarseware sherds from X (or alternatively, only one person is and that is not enough support) or b) faculty will see the project as so fully developed that they have nothing to contribute.  If a proposed research project is too vague (“I think I’m interested in ancient religion or maybe politics”) then admissions committees will immediately conclude that you are not sufficiently prepared fro graduate education.  So research projects need to thread the needle between being too vague and too narrow.
  2. It needs to answer the question: “Who cares?”. It is not enough to simply have a research interest of your own, you need to make an argument for why anyone else should be interested.  Such an argument might appeal to wider anthropological theory (e.g., this project will inform accounts of state formation), or to historical questions (e.g., the data collected will clarify the political economy of late Classic Maya polities), or to specifically archaeological concerns (e.g., innovations in method, practice, theory, etc).
  3. It needs to explain why you want to come to Cornell (or anywhere else). Applications are not just presentations of your work and interests, they are arguments.  You are making an argument as to why you should be admitted to a program.  Hence you must explain why that program can cultivate the research you plan on conducting.  This can and should involve key faculty (never cite just one potential interlocutor, you will need at least 2 and maybe 3).  It can also include material resources (e.g., collections, archives, etc.).  But it should also appeal to the curriculum since that will shape most of your experience as a graduate student.  You cannot take courses from just one or two faculty, hence you need to point to ways that the curriculum as a whole can advance the method, theory, data and conceptualization of your project.

What is not on this list to include in a statement of purpose is a personal story of your budding interest in archaeology since you first found an old spoon in your grandparents’ back yard when you were 9.  Those almost never work.  Also to avoid: that time you saw a discovery channel show on dinosaurs, a general love of working outside, and, most of all, Indiana Jones.  Such appeals appear with alarming regularity–at least twice each admissions season.  Students should know that these are not read as charming, but as vacuous platitudes that do nothing to help us understand what you want to study and why we should care.  The essay, regardless of what universities might call it, is not a personal essay.  It is a statement of purpose that defines a sphere of interest and describes the graduate training you seek that will help advance that work.

One element of your experience that does fit into a statement of purpose is field experience (if you have any).  Discussing the intellectual impact of field experiences is an excellent way to show the admissions committee that not only do you have a strong sense of archaeological practice, but you have also reflected on it in a way that suggests it was not simply a lark, but a transformational educational experience.

If you can avoid the pitfalls of the overly personal and make a clear case for a compelling research project that fits well with the faculty, then your essay will have made a pretty compelling case.

This is not to say that there is not a place for a personal essay in the graduate school application process.  It is a very good idea for you to write a brief essay entitled “Why I Want to Go to Graduate School”.  In it, you should be candid.  Are you motivated by a thirst for knowledge, a sense of fulfillment that comes from empirically engaged field research?  Or are you thinking of grad school because you can’t think of something else to do?  If you can’t come up with a reason that truly convinces you that research is a calling, then you can stop right there.  If you can, then graduate school probably is for you.  And you can now get to work on crafting a compelling statement of purpose.  And you can file away the personal essay for those times down the road once you are in graduate school when you find yourself wondering, “Now why did I do this?”

Why social sciences are just as important as STEM disciplines – The Washington Post

Lance Collins provides an articulate defense of the social sciences as seen from an engineer’s perspective in this Washington Post op-ed:

Why social sciences are just as important as STEM disciplines – The Washington Post.

We will remember!

A version of the following op-ed appeared yesterday in the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank section of the Washington Wire.  I am posting the slightly longer version of the piece here.   What’s an effective reaction to Islamic State’s destruction of artifacts housed … Read more »

Archaeology as a vital US strategic interest

After a fieldwork hiatus, I’m belatedly reposting an op-ed from Fox News (!) by my colleague Sturt Manning.

The piece provides a succinct warning that a failure of a society to grapple with prehistory and archaeology more broadly comes with potentially catastrophic consequences.  Moreover it offers a stark contrast with America’s geopolitical peers (and rivals) who are investing heavily in archaeology just as the US appears to be losing its nerve.  A selection here and the full piece at the link:

For the U.S., in particular, our past is a global one: its population has come from all over the world, from the first migrants more than 12-13,000 years ago, to European settlers, to African slaves, to later waves through the present day. Most of the evidence for this long, complex past comes from archaeology.

China invests heavily on research and preservation of its archaeology and history — sometimes even controversially, such as its massive spending on maritime archaeology as part of the assertion of Chinese control of the South China Sea.

In contrast, the U.S. spends a tiny fraction of the money that China, or Europe, invests in archaeological research and preservation. Moreover, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation – the FIRST Act – that would devastate the already limited support the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides toward the U.S. archaeological effort.

Archaeology as a vital US strategic interest | Fox News.

Artifacts, Assets, & The Limits of Monetization

In a much awaited decision,  US District Judge Robert Gettleman last week provided a summary judgment on a case that threatened to force the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum to sell vast collections of … Read more »

Caucasus Connections Conference: April 4-5, 2014

Caucasus Connections, a conference sponsored by the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus, will be held April 4-5, 2014 at Indiana University, Bloomington in the Indiana Memorial Union.  the keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Harsha Ram (University of California, Berkeley) and featured Speakers include Dr. Ed Lazzerini (Indiana University), Dr. Christina Maranci (Tufts University), and Dr. Kevin Tuite (University of Montreal).

With scholarly contributions that span the humanities and social sciences, as well as pedagogy and innovative teaching, this interdisciplinary conference will focus on the institutions, languages, cultures and histories that connect (as well as divide) the various places and peoples of the South Caucasus. Presentations will cover the themes of Caucasus and Circulation, the Imagined Caucasus, Cultural Connections, and Crossroads and Peripheries.

For those of us unable to make it to Bloomington, the conference will be live streamed on the ARISC website.

Armenia and Archaeo-Tourism

A great post from Project ArAGATS member Elizabeth Fagan’s blog regarding US Ambassador to Armenia Heffern’s recent TedX Yerevan talk:

In 2013, the United States Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, gave a TedX talk in Yerevan about the wealth of archaeological remains just waiting to be excavated (and then conserved) in the modern Republic of Armenia. He argued that the vivid history in Armenia should be better known throughout the world, to bring development (i.e., tourist dollars and related construction projects) to Armenia, and also to heighten academic interest in its history, thereby also encouraging international collaboration.

To emphasize the value of bringing international attention to archaeology in Armenia, Ambassador Heffern pointed out a few somewhat recent finds from the caves near the town of Areni in Vayots Dzor, including the earliest known wine-making equipment and a remarkably well-preserved leather shoe that clocks in at 5,500 years old. He went on to discuss the wine-making equipment at length, because of its potential significance to development, as the region of Areni just happens to be the most famous Armenian region for wine production, suggesting marketing connections just waiting to be made.  Ambassador Heffern’s final exhortation to his audience was to look into the use of crowdfunding to help finance archaeological projects and conservation, and to promote the sites for education and tourism.

I am in such complete agreement with Ambassador Heffern’s main points that I have in fact spoken to audiences across the U.S. on numerous occasions about archaeology in Armenia, its origins, its history, and its current state.  In Armenia, if you walk through the countryside with one of the archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologist will point out a historic or archaeological site to your left; an artifact to the right; a series of memorials behind you; or ancient walls directly in front.  The landscape is dotted with reminders of the past, artifacts and constructions like those found in the Areni cave that tell a tale of very early times, up through material remains that teach us about the medieval period and beyond.  The very landscape tells a story, a complex story of different times and different people, and that captivating story—or really, stories—should indeed be better known.

I have even led a group of tourists through every part of the country, telling those stories of the past by providing a unique look at material excavated long ago as well as excavations that are currently ongoing. I led the tour to do exactly what Ambassador Heffern is calling for, to bring tourist money into the country while at the very same time educating people about the past directly under their feet.

And so, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the talk, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what impact crowdfunding might have on what is (and should remain) a social-scientific endeavor.  What happens if institutions like universities and organizations like the National Science Foundation are relieved of their responsibility to fund scientific projects like archaeology?  What happens if the model becomes, in fact, a business model?  Or even a privately-funded model?

I have other questions about the talk, such as why there was no mention of the many internationalcollaborations already going on in Armenia, some of which have lasted for many years.  There was not even a mention of the teams at UCLA and University College Cork who work at Areni, although to be fair, Armenian archaeologists also hardly figured in the speech except to be seen in the photo at the Institute.  My point, however, is that collaborations and academic interest in Armenia already do exist; why not lend support to these projects, which already have the relationships and even infrastructure in place that will allow them to expand their efforts to illuminate the archaeology and history hiding in Armenia’s soil?

In the end, TedX talks are meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily problem-solving. This talk certainly made me think, but largely, about the proposed solution to the problem of funding archaeological research, and about the problems that the solution might in turn raise.

With the 2014 founding of the new ArAGATS Foundation, whose mission is to promote the co-development of regional archaeology and economic development, Ambassador Heffern’s approach is timely and extremely welcome. We look forward to more conversations on this very important issue here in the future.

Civilization, the Barbarian, and Crimea

Detail of Gold Scythian Vessel from Kul-Oba Kurgan, Eastern Crimea

Detail of Gold Scythian Vessel from Kul-Oba Kurgan, Eastern Crimea

To read dispatches from the ongoing geopolitical conflict occasioned by the revolution in Kiev and Russian military intervention in Crimea, one might understandably think that the world was facing what the late Samuel Huntington called a “clash of civilizations”: a quintessentially late Modern form of conflict where traditional nation-state rivalries are sublimated into epochal battles between rival systems of beliefs and values.

Indeed, this impression has been ably stoked by many of the key players.  Referring to a planed referendum on Crimean independence, the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Andrei Yatsenyuk recently declared: “No one in the civilized world will recognize the results of a so-called referendum carried out by these so-called authorities.”  Here, “civilization”  denotes Europe and the West; Russia, the sponsor of the Crimean referendum, is explicitly excluded, consigned to the role of the barbarian, civilization’s long-standing antithesis.

Russian leaders are using much the same language.  Vladimir Nikitin, a member of the Russian Duma, framed the Crimean struggle in distinctly Huntingtonian terms, writing “The main battle of World War III is under way in Ukraine….  The aggressor is Western civilization, which includes the U.S. and Europe.”

But the circulation of tropes of civilization and barbarity on the Crimean Peninsula is hardly a novelty of late Modernity.  It is instead a highly unoriginal revival of a very old device.  The ancient Greek term barbaros (βάρβαρος) was used rather indiscriminately to describe non-Greeks, but was rather emphatically deployed to describe the peoples who occupied the Black Sea coast where Greek colonies encountered very different ways of life.  Scythians in particular became a kind of “type site” for working out the idea of the barbarian and hence of civilization.   Subsequently, the Romans came to see the people’s of eastern Europe and the Russian steppe as quintessential barbarians pressing against the margins of “Civilization” and forever seeking to blot out its achievements (take your pick from the threatening dotted lines on the map below: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, etc.).

Routes of the Barbarian Invaders

The ancient description of the barbarian carried with it a sense that those outside of Civilizations warm embrace were historical fossils or anthropological “primitives”.  Interestingly, we see this too in the current discussion of Crimea.  President Barack Obama has argued that the Russian military incursion into Crimea was a “violation of international law” which put Russian President Vladimir Putin “on the wrong side of history.” The right side of history is of course the path that leads to us while the wrong side leads to uncomfortable and undesirable futures.

The leader of Britain’s liberal democrats, Nick Clegg, effectively spliced the geographic and historical dimensions of the civilizational trope when he demanded that Moscow enter into a “civilised dialogue” over Crimea, arguing that the Russian leader had a “KGB mentality rooted in the Cold War”.

What is compelling about the redeployment of old tropes to the Crimean conflict is not simply the coincidental geography of its return, but its remarkable unsuitability.  The terms, always imprecise and obscurantist, now seem as tattered and torn as the flags on the barricades of Maidan Square.  It simply makes no sense–rhetorical or political–to claim a civilizational mantle when for both sides the interests are largely strategic: a warm water port for one, an expanded European sphere for the other.  And quite likely, uses of civilization have ever been thus.  The exclusivity of the civilizational club providing nothing in the way of social or cultural content but simply an opportunistic politics.  We might hope then that the absurdity of the civilizational rhetoric now swirling around Crimea might not be a harbinger of either a civilizational clash or World War II, but of a moment when the concepts lost their power to draw lines.