Is University Just More #freearchaeology?

Posted on February 11, 2014


  • PhD holders that don’t know how to use a compass.
  • PhD holders that have never drawn a plan view.
  • PhD holders that don’t know how to rent a car or hotel room.

Those are just a few of the examples that Bill, at the Succinct Research, has come up with in his long laundry list of things card carrying PhD Archaeologists can’t do but that are essential for a job in archaeology (some I would say, ‘are needed to be a productive member of society’ too). This post has gotten people talking. Just this morning, I was following conversation between @clmorgan, @DrDonnaYates and @James__Dixon on twitter about the post. One of my favorite quotes, there were many, was:

I’ve seen PhDs say “I have six years experience in the field” when they mean six summers.- Colleen

In his post, Bill mentions something that caught my attention –

“College is no longer simply an intellectual pursuit. If you want intellectualism, just follow Chris Guilebeau’s advice– create a 30-day Semester of Improvement for yourself. Take 30-days and intensively study any topic you’re interested in. I mean, scour the internet AND your local libraries. Read hundreds of books and articles. Contact and converse with professionals and recognized leaders. Start doing your own homework projects. Treat it like you were in school and put aside 6–8 hours a day, 5–6 days a week intensively studying every aspect of something that interests you and I guarantee you will learn much more in 30 days than you would in an entire semester of studying that topic in a university. With the freedom and interconnectivity that exists in modern society, you can embark on intellectual pursuits anywhere, anytime. You don’t need a college for that.”

That got me thinking about #freearchaeology. For those of you new to the concept it was started by this blog post from Emily and deals with the subject of volunteering in archaeology. It is a broad topic but some of the highlights are: the use of unpaid internships to do the work of professionals; the need to have extensive experience to get job which can usually only be obtained through volunteering, the problems with only having some people privileged enough to afford to volunteer, etc. Essentially, it comes down to the concept of pay to play. You have to pay through volunteering (which costs money e.g. lost wages, pay for digs, pay for transport) to get enough experience to get a job.

What I think has been missing in the #freearchaeology discussion so far is the pay to play policies of University. Bill raises an interesting point about learning and Universities. With University you are essentially paying to be able to get a job, thus it is #freearchaeology. We might not think about it because most people finish a degree in archaeology before looking for a job. You already fulfill the requirement on the job advert- “degree in blah blah” and now you are concerned about the “needs X amount of experience” part.  Some of you might be thinking, “ha, I got a scholarship or I went to school when it was free or I got a scholarship”. Yes, you might have paid less but you still paid to play at the University. Universities do not just let anyone in or give out scholarships because you exist. You usually have to have some sort of formal education e.g. grade and high school, have to show some sort of academic achievement, take tests, apply to get in, etc. etc. All things that you probably did for free. Unless of course someone paid you to go to grade school, lucky you.

Thinking about what Bill said about learning and #freearchaeology I did a little math. Taking England as an example it now costs roughly £9000 per year in tuition to do an undergraduate degree (Wales and Scotland are different). Multiply that by the three years it takes to get a BA in England and it will cost you £27,000.That does not take into account the £900 per month the UK government estimates a student needs to cover living costs ( at least for us foreigners). It also does not take into account the lost income you incur during your studies. Yes, you can work part time but it is unlikely you will be able to work full time. Lost income might come out to £6000 a year if you work for minimum wage and still work part time. But for our calculations let us just stick with £9000 in tuition.

What would £9000 a year get you in alternative education. Well let us assume you wanted to take an unpaid internship to gain experience and learn about archaeology. Lets take the £900 per month in living costs that you might have to pay while you work for free. Easy one year’s tuition at university will buy you 10 months of an unpaid internship. So instead of a degree you could have 30 months of work experience. 30 months of experience will probably get you any entry level job in whatever sort of job you interned in, unlike a degree.

How about field school experience? Prices differ from field school to field school so it is not an easy question to answer. Moreover, as noted in the Twitter conversation quality varies between field schools. So lets take this one as a base line- The instructors have decades of commercial experience and I personally know that they are top of line teachers. They charge £695 for 12 days which is basically £58 per day but it includes accommodation too. That means we need to take into account the £900 per month in accommodation you would spend at University (8 months x £900 = £7200) on top of the 9k (7k+9k=16k). At that rate, one year of tuition would get your 267 days (about 9 months) at a Rampart Scotland field school (if they lasted that long). As the field school works in a progressive manner within a month or two that would probably count as professional experience. 24-27 months (actual) of digging experience will probably get you a tech job, unlike a degree.

Now when you consider an internship comes with some oversight (quality of internships vary but hopefully you have picked a good one that trains you) and a field school come with 6-8 hours of instruction and help, the 10-15 hours of contact time you get with University (in England) does not look as great. However, let’s use Bill’s example of self-learning by going to the library or using the Internet to see how learning without instruction costs. This is a bit hard as Libraries are free and most everyone has the internet anyways so that would be in your normal utility costs. In my case it would cost about £3.50 per day for a round trip bus ticket to make it to the National Libraries in Scotland. A copyright library that has a copy of every book published in the UK so selection is not an issue. At that rate I could go to the library for 2,570 days or about 7 years for one years worth of tuition.

To make this a little more fair I will assume that going to the library is a full time job and that I need to spend £900 a month to live. I could go for about 269 days straight to the library (£30 per day to live and £3.5 for bus) for £9000 in tuition (yes, I am ignoring the living costs for University) . Here is were it gets fun, how much could I read it that time. Well everyone reads at different speeds but I have found some quotes of around 250-300 words per minute. Depending on how much time you spend reading in a day you could read the following number of words in a day-

 Words in a Day 200 wpm 250 wpm 300 wpm 350 wpm
1 hour 12000 15000 18000 21000
2 hours 24000 30000 36000 42000
3 hours 36000 45000 54000 63000
4 hours 48000 60000 72000 84000
5 hours 60000 75000 90000 105000
6 hours 72000 90000 108000 126000
7 hours 84000 105000 126000 147000
8 hours 96000 120000 144000 168000

Now journals articles are around 8,000 words and books 60,000 so with those numbers you could read the following number of journal articles and books in that time (269 days).

Articles 200 wpm 250 wpm 300 wpm 350 wpm
1 hour 404 504 605 706
2 hours 807 1009 1211 1412
3 hours 1211 1513 1816 2118
4 hours 1614 2018 2421 2825
5 hours 2018 2522 3026 3531
6 hours 2421 3026 3632 4237
7 hours 2825 3531 4237 4943
8 hours 3228 4035 4842 5649
Books 200 wpm 250 wpm 300 wpm 350 wpm
1 hour 54 67 81 94
2 hours 108 135 161 188
3 hours 161 202 242 282
4 hours 215 269 323 377
5 hours 269 336 404 471
6 hours 323 404 484 565
7 hours 377 471 565 659
8 hours 430 538 646 753

Now, I don’t think I could read for eight hours a day but four or six seems is doable. If you were at the lower end of the average reader in terms of speed (250 wpm) you could get though 250-400 books or about 2-3000 journal articles or a combination of the two. Imagine what you would know about archaeology if you read that many books on the subject ( personally I don’t think even with school I have read more than a few dozen archaeology books). You might even be able to read something on how to work a compass.

Quality Vs Quantity 

Of course these are back of the hand calculations and the picture is much more complicated. For one, there is the issue of quality. Yes, you can read more on your own than in school but will you learn more? I could spend 5 minutes being instructed how to use a compass but take 3 hours to figure it out from a book or vice versa. My personal thoughts are that University, Library, Field Work, etc. should be an option for everyone and they get to choose what is the best for them, be it University or the Library. Except, as Bill says,

You do need a college for the degree, which is a form of social proof that demonstrates you can and did learn something about a specific topic. That’s the one thing colleges have going for them. “

Which pretty much makes this discussion academic. That is until someone figures out a way to by-pass or change the social proof that comes with a degree. If that I happens in my life time I will be very interested to see how it all turns out/watch the mushroom clouds.

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