Saturday, 6 June 2015

Archaeological fieldwork training in universities

This long blog entry is a follow up to a recent thread on the BAJR Facebook page about the training offered in field archaeology by universities. It originated in comments on a blog entry about US universities charging students for compulsory field training, but soon veered into a wider discussion about how universities should train their students in field archaeology and in particular the role of the field school/training excavation. As someone who is currently closely involved in running a training excavation for university students this is a debate that I’m particularly interested in.

Before I explore the wider issues, it’s important to address one particular facet of the arguments. University students should never have to pay extra to carry out field training which is a core part of their course. As far as I’m concerned if it’s a compulsory element then it should be covered in overall course fees. I am fairly certain (but I’d need to double check) that UK universities at least are not actually allowed to do this. Certainly, in my institution, all our 1st years BA/BSc Archaeology students get their field school training for free and we now ensure that our 2nd years have the chance to fulfil their field obligations for free – although if they wish to spend their own money on a non-university project that is of course their prerogative.

So, to business…

Should university archaeology degrees be vocational?
This was a question that came up several times in the thread. It all depends what one means by vocational. Should it equip a student with skills necessary for a career in archaeology- yes, of course. However, this is not the same as saying it should equip a student with all the skills necessary for an archaeological job. It can only be a first step along that path.

To take a step back  - we need to recognise that many students choose  a UG course in archaeology without ever having any intention of working in archaeology. For many, it is a good, general humanities degree, akin to English, History or Classics – it provides a sound general advanced liberal education- it teaches many transferrable skill. The bulk of our students do not go on to work in heritage, instead they follow all sorts of other career paths – teaching, law, social work, journalism, generic management posts, local and national civil service etc etc. I think it is important not to characterise these people as those  who couldn’t hack archaeology or were not dedicated enough- I believe incredibly strongly in the value of having a wider public audience for archaeology and heritage who can support, campaign and ‘cheerlead’ for the subject. I am extremely glad that there are primary school teachers, local councillors, planners, IT workers and librarians who have a background in archaeology but are out there in the wider world helping to constitute and support an informed and positive attitude to archaeology and heritage. This is, in itself, an important and valuable function met by archaeology degrees.

Yes, but what about those who do want a job in archaeology?
Agreed- whilst many students do not want a career in archaeology/heritage, there is also a significant number who do have more vocational intentions. However, inevitably, things are complicated. Much of the debate about vocational training often boils down to field experience. It is axiomatic that excavation skills are a core part of the basic archaeological proficiency one should have to work in the profession. But, and this is important, they are not the only skills. I would really resist the sometime implicit assumption that vocational training can be boiled down to ‘excavation’ with the sub-text that the only proper archaeology job is a digging job. There are lots of career paths in archaeology- excavation of course, but also, environmental archaeology, museums management, finds work, geophysics, field survey, data management (HERs etc),  planning consultancy, local and national government curatorial posts So when I hear people saying, archaeology degrees should be more vocational, my immediate response is, yes, bu which vocation?

It is of course obvious that knowing how to excavate is a profoundly important skill for many archaeology jobs– academics, finds specialist, curators and consultants should all have a good understanding of the process which leads to the creation of their basic datasets- again, this is obvious. But equally, those working in the field need to have a good understanding of finds, the sampling of environmental data (and very importantly, the interpretation of the resulting data sets) etc etc. Ultimately, archaeology is an interdisciplinary subject drawing on many different, but interlocking and related techniques, of which field archaeology is just one. We need to be very careful about bracketing field skills off, as somehow more ‘vocational’ than these other skills.
So, I hope we can agree that archaeological professionals require a variety of skills. This leads us to the next question…

Can universities provide all the necessary vocational skills for a career in archaeology at UG level?

My clear answer to this is an unequivocal NO. Can a single undergraduate degree programme hope to train a student sufficiently with all the skills required to move seamlessly into all aspects of archaeology without any further training? Of course it can’t. In fact, if one looks around at other professions (and we all like to insist that archaeology is a ‘profession’ rather than just a job) then it is the exception to find any that don’t require additional, post graduation training- teachers need PGCEs on top their UG degrees, lawyers, accountants, those working in medicine, all require further training before being allowed to fly solo. We should in fact ask ourselves, why do we as a profession insist on our field being taken more seriously and those who work in it being provided with more respect (and pay), when at the same time, we don’t seem to embrace the notion that this means putting more value on Continued Professional Training and wider education and skills development beyond a basic degree? An archaeology degree should certainly equip the student with the skills and techniques to know which area of archaeology particularly interests them, and a certain basic level of competence, but we can’t expect it to be able to provide 21 year olds capable of stepping into any of the many career paths within archaeology without any semblance of additional training.

So what basic excavation skills should a student leave an UG degree with?

This is more complex- I suspect there are many different answers. Speaking from my point of view, it is possible to come up with a basic checklist of skills they should have been taught

  •           Understanding the notion of a context and having some appreciation of how to identify and define one in the field.
  •           Understanding the basic notion of excavation e.g that we aim to excavate stratigraphically, that we try to work from ‘known’ to ‘unknown’, that we don’t wave mattocks round our heads, that we know the difference between a shovel and a spade (and some might add, the skill to construct and light a rollie in a rainstorm and how to use a wheelbarrow as an armchair)
  •           How to draw a section
  •           How to draw a plan
  •           How to take a level using a dumpy and calculate the correct height using the backsight/foresight method.
  •          How to fill in a context sheet – and understand the wider notion of single context recording.
  •           The distinction between ‘small’ and ‘bulk’ finds and an appreciation of the wider finds recording process

II’d also supplement this with a wider understanding of the development process (even if only in outline), the dubious joys of MORPHE and things like Research Frameworks (all things we teach in our Professional Training course at Durham).

I am sure there are additional things others people might add to this and I’m open to haggling. Having completed these skills would they be able to go an operate autonomously on a professional excavation? Of course not. In practice, during most excavations, whether commercial, research or ‘other’ these are the basic skills – but as we are all aware, it is one thing to know the basic principles, but quite another to be confident in their day to day use and having the wit to be able to cope with the complicated, unexpected or plain bloody confusing. This is because, at the end of the day, field archaeology requires experience- it involves being exposed to variety, complexity and the mundane, day after day after day. Working in the field is a continual learning exercise – we all know that. Universities can provide the basics, but strong field skills derive from continued explicit training and implicit practice-based experiential learning.

[NB: the question of whether all universities do provide the basic training checklist I’ve outlined above is a different question – at my institution we strive to- I’ll leave it to my students to comment on how successful we are – and if any of them are reading this, I’d genuinely like to hear your perspectives]

The devil is in the detail…

In this final section I want to address some of the pragmatic issues that impact on university fieldwork training- and look at some of the practical problems that arise when fine aspirations meet the friction of reality.

First- the timing of field schools- when should they be held? This was something that arose in the FB thread. The traditional model has been to hold the training excavation during the Easter or more commonly summer vacation. There are very good reasons for this- summer is when the weather is better- of course that’s when most people would rather dig. No matter how refined and perfect your programme of excavation training is, no matter how carefully devised your  skills passport / checklist is, you are are going to be right royally shafted if it pisses down for the four weeks of your dig. And before anyone kicks in with ‘in my day we were expected to work through rain/tsunamis/plagues of locusts’ – I have two responses – firstly, “No you weren’t” – I had plenty of experience on training digs in the early 1990s and I spent a lot of time in wet portacabins doing the Guardian crossword and watching the puddles grow outside. Secondly, if you did, its grossly irresponsible and dangerous- working through a bit of drizzle is fine, but if  you want to make students push heavy barrows of clay spoil up slippery planks in the pouring rain, then your attitude to basic health and safety suggests that you should probably not be working in archaeology.

There are other pragmatic reasons for the timing of excavations during the vacations- it’s when the staff are free. Academic staff don’t just teach a single year, they are usually committed to teaching at all three UG levesl, at PGT and PGR level plus having loads of admin jobs- it’s often not feasible to go into the field during the term time – unless that field happens to be within 20 minutes of University.

Nonetheless, increasingly universities seem to be moving towards holding excavations during the term time. This is precisely because there is a strong pressure (indeed increasingly an obligation) that all compulsory teaching should take place during term time; which I think is fair enough. One particular issue is that with the advent of university fees, there is a far greater pressure for students to take paid work during the vacation. I’d feel very uneasy about forcing a student into financial difficulties by preventing them from earning money outside term time (although of course, the other problem is that some students wok during term time- it’s a Catch 22).
There are other pragmatic issues revolving around running field schools. If they are run during term time, then there are other constraints. For example, at my institution, and presumably others as well, the students all pay for their accommodation termly. They cannot get rebates/reductions/refunds if they are not in residence during a field school, this means that in practice the project has to be run within easy coach distance from campus, which obviously seriously limits the choice of sites.
There are also the basic problems that sites are infinitely variable- as I noted above, we’ve tried to ensure all our students check off the list of skills I outlined above. In an ideal world every student would follow the process through seamlessly from defining a context to excavation and recording. But it’s not always that easy- what if a student does not find a single small find during their time on site? or there are not enough cut features for everyone to draw their own section? In practice, this leads to individuals having variable experiences even on the same excavation in the same year with the same supervisors.
There are other issues – costs – that old chestnut. Want to provide a ten week summer excavation experience for UG students who want to gain lots of excavation experience? knock yourself out! We’ve run long seasons on our field training project, but that’s only because we’ve had additional income streams though overseas partners and grants- we have been very, very, lucky in this respect; it is not something that can be relied on. And don’t forget, the longer you dig, the bigger the post-ex costs – how are you going to pay for that?

One suggestion I’ve seen is that students ought to be able to work on commercial digs. Again, a wonderful idea in theory, but very tricky on practice. I know it does occasionally happen, but the circumstances are few and far between. There is a big difference between seizing opportunities for this kind of thing when they are presented. But it’s a very different thing to put this kind of thing into a regularised framework. How can you guarantee that there will be enough opportunities, at precisely the right time and for precisely the right number of students? There are also all the wider problems with having non-professionals on site – insurance, Health and Safety – who is going to pay for the students to get their CSC card for example and how will this be timetabled? I suspect that it wouldn’t be long before there would also be complaints that student volunteers were doing the jobs of professionals and taking jobs.

So to conclude this unexpectedly long blog entry. Do UK universities turn out perfectly formed diggers? No, and nor can they be expected to. Being a good digger involves much more than learning the basic skills- it requires experience and it requires time. A good university field training can set people on the right tracks and equip them with an understanding of the basic principles and some practical familiarity with the process, but they cannot and more importantly should not be in the trade of providing a complete vocational training for fieldwork or indeed any other aspect of archaeological professional practice. Can we improve what we do provide? Almost certainly, although as I hope I’ve shown there are quite a lot of practical issues people may not appreciate. Do all universities provide good field training? Probably not, although in my experience most do.
Where we need to do more as universities and as a wider profession though is expectation management. We need to make it clear to prospective students that we can set you on the path towards professional training, we can provide you with the basic tools and concepts, but that as with any proper career, progression into the profession involved building on those skills. In some cases that may be through post-graduate training within Universities, but if we want to be taken seriously as a profession, the commercial sector also needs to take part of the responsibility of supporting and nurturing its workforce.