Hacking Archaeology Academia: Breaking the Essay

Posted on November 12, 2011

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This is an idea I had, but probably I am not in the position anytime soon to implement it so feel free to use it and implement it if you can. I am currently teaching some tutorials for 2nd years as part of a larger course. The students receive about 8 tutorials of which they have to write 1000 word essays on four of the topics they are presented. It is pretty standard stuff, that pretty much everyone has done in their lives, very vanilla school work.

The problem though is that it is a bit of an awkward paper to write. They have to write about what happened in the tutorial and then expand upon some area of the topic and discuss it. Basically, two different type of papers, reflexive and research. In a traditional paper this is very awkward, as these types have to fit into a physical paper. This will require a ridging statement,  at the very least this will waste words or be a fairly awkward transition.

This got me thinking about websites and how they could offer greater flexibility that  can not be found in a hard copy paper. For example, the reflexive and research sections could be divided into separate webpages linked by a landing page explaining the the two sections. Yes, this could be done with a hard copy paper using headers etc. BUT it is such a limited media. For example, in a webpage instead of spending two paragraphs describing in detail to me what happened in the tutorial, as required by the reflexive section, what if they presented me with a video. Most students have camera phones with which they could have used to take a two min. video of themselves undertaking the tutorial work. The whole point of the having them write about what they did is really to make sure they did the work, which a video shows.

The research section could be even more amazing with hyper-linking references. With hard copy I have to physically check the students bibliography to check any sources they cite. I then have to hunt down the papers online and look to see if so and so really did say such and such. Nothing hard but if it takes me 1 min to do that and I do it five times a paper multiplied by 70 papers, that is 6 hrs of my life. If they hyperlink to the journal article, website, or google book entry then that it one second for me to check their sources. It is not a perfect system, google books do not always show partial copies of books or have every book. However this system would allow me to check a good portion of their sources.

This brings to me what I think might be the most valuable section of this sort of essay writing, making a website. I am not taking about a blog but an actual website. Having the students work with HTML and build a website. This does not mean building a website  from scratch, I am not suggesting that. There are lots of free website creation and hosting sites, I personally like Weebly. These all have easy to use drag and drop features that makes it real simple to create websites. They also offer the ability to edit the underlining html and css.

As part of the exerciser we could have them create a website for their project, using the drag and drop (no skills reuqired). Then have them change some of the css and html by pointing them in the direction of some easy to use online tutorials e.g. change the color of the body font to blue. Nothing fancy but build on this over a course or even several courses and you could effectively teach them basic to intermediate website making skills.

This I think would have profound effects on their schooling and careers:

One, it gives them transferable skills even if they do not continue in archaeology as a career.

Two, it gives them skills that will put them well ahead of their peers and increase their job prospects. Imagine going to a CRM company and saying, “hey, I can shovelbum for you and while I am at that I can update your website.” Yeah, that student may not have five years of experience as a tech but he is bringing a skill that pretty much no other archaeologists has. That is how you get a job!

Three, it means that we, archaeologists, can also start to experiment with other forms of media for disseminating our research like everyone else in the world.

Other then tradition (greatest obstacle)  and a lack of knowledge on how to do this on the part of prof. I see no reason why this should not be done. Do you? Drop me a line in the comments below if I am overlooking something.