The Fate of Walls

From a recent op-ed: For five millennia, politicians have proposed walls like Trump’s. They don’t work.  From The Washington Post, Sunday July 29, 2016.

The opening:

Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico to block the flow of migrants has been justly criticized on moral, economic and political grounds. But while the Trump Wall (as he has called it) is the most provocative proposal of the election season, it is not particularly original. Over the past five millennia, politicians have repeatedly turned to large walls to solve problems. We should look carefully at the track record of this ancient technology before we invest what some estimates suggest could be $25 billion in construction costs for a 2,000-mile-long wall, plus millions more in annual maintenance.

And the conclusion:

What is most captivating about barrier walls, like the Trump Wall, is neither the scope of their construction nor the resoluteness of their strategic vision. Rather, they are powerful symbols of a particular kind of hubris, the conceit that the translation of mania into masonry can alter the decisions, fortunes and futures of countless others through architectural intimidation. Here, the Berlin Wall should still live in all of our memories as a potent symbol of how walls and totalitarian politics often find common cause. Barrier walls are not simply clumsy, imprecise solutions to problems of population movement, past and present; they also represent a catastrophic failure of political imagination endemic to totalitarian thinking.

Click on the link above for the full op-ed.

Skill and the Liberal Arts

A rising chorus of voices, mostly emanating from the Republican congress, has been stridently attacking research and teaching in the liberal arts. The assault on research has been led most persistently by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Rep. Lamar Smith. On February 10, the Committee released a press release decrying the use of taxpayer money to support projects ranging from archaeology and anthropology (my disciplines) to literary studies and history. The problem, they suggest, was that such research does not help create jobs or new technologies. Not surprisingly then, the attack on teaching has tried to pit the liberal arts against the so-called STEM fields, suggesting that only the latter foster the skills students need to get jobs and benefit society. As presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio put it last November “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers” (NYT 11/11/15). One thing is clear, Rubio’s campaign could use a grammarian or two.

The Republican case for less of the liberal arts and more technical training seems to arise from a profound misunderstanding of “skills”, those abilities that we cultivate through education and deploy in the course of a lifetime. Smith, Rubio, and others possess a surprisingly narrow understanding of skill, limited solely to a single job. Skill in welding is an excellent thing and can secure a job. But a successful welder might well decide to start a small business, for which very different skills are needed. Education in welding would not be enough. What if that business had international aspirations? That would require still other skills. And after not just a job, but a career, perhaps our welder might enter politics to serve the public good. Does that not require still more skills beyond welding?

Two things are surprising about the blinkered sense of skill embodied in Republican attacks on the liberal arts. The first is that they value job preparation over career training. The latter requires a far more diverse array of skills than any single technical aptitude. The second is that the jobs they want to prepare citizens for do not include preparation to lead the country as citizens or public servants. In other words, many of our leaders want students to be prepared for a job, just not their job.

It is a fundamental tenet of modern democratic politics that all citizens must be prepared not only for a job, but for careers that will demand a lifetime of many different skills. We must train our students how to understand the human condition (anthropology), to assess the importance of the past in contemporary problems (history, archaeology), to think about the relationship between general solutions and particular problems (philosophy), and to encounter humanity with empathy for others (literature, arts, etc.). In doing so, we also prepare them for a lifetime of citizenship, arming them with the tools to assess the claims of those in power, evaluate the programs of those who seek it, and reflect upon their own ability to contribute to the common good. It would be quite fitting then if one day a student of the liberal arts took Mr. Smith’s or Mr. Rubio’s job, since neither of them appears to understand the preparation required.

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, 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 that 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, their letters will be impactful.

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 school 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 for 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 a specific 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.