Becoming an Engaged Archaeologist (with Anxiety)

Sometimes I have to ask myself, how did I get here?* How did I come to be doing archaeology research? How did I connect with the Sugpiaq community of Old Harbor?

There’s the short elevator version: I was interested in archaeology as a kid, grew my interest in anthropology and fieldwork in college and came to grad school. I thought that I wanted to work in the Andes, but couldn’t make connections there, so I took my advisor up on an offer to visit Alaska for two weeks and fell in love with the place. The rest is history [documented on this blog].

While that version is approximately correct in the basic facts, it cloaks a lot about what actually went into building my dissertation project and, quite honestly, building myself into an archaeologist. And I think those stories are important. They situate me as a person first, grad student/researcher/archaeologist/scholar second.

The first bit is easier to talk about. After learning about settler colonialism, Indigenous erasure, white privilege…the realities of American history, I knew that I had to do a project that was grounded in community. I felt that there was no other ethical way for this middle-class white girl from Pennsylvania to do archaeology. I understood that I would likely not be working with my community’s or even my country’s history alone, and that descendants had to have voices in the conversation. That idea was cemented by my participation in the Eastern Pequot Archaeological Field School in 2015, a partnership between the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and UMass Boston. That was my first archaeology field experience, and it gave me an example of how archaeology could be done collaboratively and respectfully. It also gave me a real view into Indigenous American life, not just the patina presented in the history or anthropology books, but the emotions, the joys, the frustrations, the diversity of thought. That is not revolutionary, but it started to help me see where I had been led astray, to start to see what whiteness and colonialism had sought to blind me from. I also saw that archaeology could be a part of healing and reconciliation, certainly for the descendants, but also for those of us non-descendants lucky enough to participate in and contribute to the process. And from there, spread that healing and that knowledge outwards.

So I had that seed in me when I entered grad school a couple months later. Thanks to colleagues, mentors, and recorded words of countless others, the seed began to sprout – I acquired the language to talk about community-based participatory research and Indigenous archaeology. I made (and still make) a lot of mistakes. My advisor and my other mentors gave me the gift of believing in me and gave me the gift of opportunity: the opportunity to learn about Japanese American laborers and excavate at a sawmill town in the Cedar River Watershed; the opportunity to fill my methodological toolbox and learn more about Indigenous archaeology and pedagogy through example at Field Methods in Indigenous Archaeology; the opportunity to meet the community of Old Harbor, Alaska. That last opportunity was the impetus for my dissertation work, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the others. Learning does not happen alone. Research does not happen alone.

There is more to say about that, but I also want to discuss the more difficult bit. The personal journey that is not separate from the intellectual one described above. I have anxiety. I have had anxiety in some form for most of my life, but it didn’t really become a major force until I went to college. My anxiety has always been very embodied, as in it affects my body (panic attacks, vertigo, GI distress), but it is also very much about the state of my body (ie. sickness/health, vulnerability, social relations). This anxiety can sometimes make traveling, being in close quarters with other people, and being vulnerable (physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally) very difficult. Yet, those are also some of the requirements of archaeological fieldwork [vulnerability is not a requirement, but in my experience it always happens in the field]. I am honestly scared to go into the field. Every. Time. Still, I continue to go. I want to be there. That want is (most of the time) greater than my anxiety. Once I get there, the problems unfortunately don’t go away. I have had my fair share of panic attacks in my tent, crying over FCR in front of my advisor, dry heaving outside my hosts’ home. These things often leave me feeling that I can’t be an archaeologist. That I can’t handle fieldwork. That I can never get better.

Me not having it the morning after a panic attack in 2018. Meanwhile, Larissa looks so poised driving the boat.

But I can. I am. I wish that these sorts of stories weren’t unspoken and unshared. I have no doubt that other archaeologists have struggled with mental health in the field, but I don’t hear about it. It doesn’t make it into the literature, or even, in my experience, into the conversations on campus. I think we could better handle these problems if we knew that we were not alone. And yes, that does require vulnerability to get there.

*Couldn’t resist the Talking Heads reference 🙂

Finding Joy in Teaching During 2020

As I was planning my course for fall 2020, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I could offer the group of 21 first-year students who would be (virtually) entering a classroom to purportedly learn about writing. My worry was not about my ability to teach writing, but rather about my ability to teach writing in a moment (or an eon, so it feels) of extreme uncertainty and precarity. I myself felt precarious and uncertain (see previous post). Amidst all those feelings, I wanted the course to be meaningful beyond the mere utility of learning to write more effectively, so I tried to make it into a low stress space both for taking intellectual risks or trying new things and for just learning how to be a college student.

The first hurdle for both myself and the students was adjusting to an online college classroom. Teaching online was new to me and attending college online was new to the students. All of us had to iron out some kinks in our Zoom and Canvas practice during the first couple weeks, however, I believe that the online format did not ultimately end up detracting from our course. [In fact, my ability to wear comfy dinosaur PJ pants while teaching was a noted improvement over in-person teaching.] I chose to hold only one synchronous session a week, as opposed to the three I would have had on campus. This was ultimately the right balance, especially since most of their other courses were entirely asynchronous. The students really valued having a weekly time to come together, chat, ask questions and do group work, and I enjoyed their collegiality and the opportunity to hear their speaking voices and, sometimes, see their faces.

The course title was officially “Writing in Environmental Studies”, however we decided to focus explicitly on environmental justice. Not only is this focus critically important, it also created space for students and myself to delve deeper into recent and current events, making the course more meaningful and timely. While we spent some class time discussing environmental justice at the outset, most of the work on that topic was done by students through their own targeted reading and research and through small group conferences with me. Coming out of high school, the students were really excited to finally get to steer their own learning ship by specifically investigating environmental justice topics that were important and interesting to them.

Screen capture of our course blog, sites.uw.edu/hollism

I was very happy with the two major assignments we worked on this term and was especially impressed by the quality of work that this group of first-year students was able to produce in this trying era. The first assignment was an op-ed about an ongoing environmental justice issue. The second was was a research paper on environmental activism, where students picked a topic around which there is a history of activism, analyzed how environmental justice was (or was not) incorporated into activism around that issue, and explored the stakes and stakeholders involved. Since students all chose different topics, they were able to teach each other (and me!) about a wide range of issues such as oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Clayoquot Sound protests, gentrification of the International District in Seattle, racial injustice in New Orleans in the context of Hurricane Katrina, the longstanding consequences of uranium mining in the US Southwest, and the conservation of mountain gorillas in Rwanda (non exhaustive list). The students complemented these formal writing assignments with public-facing blog posts about their research and news items.

In addition to the work we did together around environmental justice, I wanted to make sure that these first-year students had additional tools to help them succeed in college. These skills are often referred to as the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or untaught skills that students need for success, but that they are never given a formal opportunity to learn. To address this, I created modules to talk about imposter syndrome, how to get involved with research, how to find advising in your department, demystifying academic titles, and searching for scholarships. I also invited a librarian and a counsellor from the career center to come visit us during our synchronous sessions, so the students could become more familiar with those resources. Looking back, I wish that I had spent more time actually talking about these topics with students, rather than relegating most of them to online-only modules. On the other hand, we had so much else to cover in limited time. I did not get much feedback from students about the hidden curriculum items, but I hope they are able to carry that knowledge forward with them!

I loved getting to know these students over the course of 11 weeks. The online environment certainly made that process more challenging at first, but we ended the term having made genuine connections and having learned a lot from one another. We ended our time together with a virtual celebration of all that the students accomplished over the term. We blasted music through Zoom and I embarrassed myself by being repeatedly murdered by students in rounds of Among Us. I have never laughed so hard with students before.

My Grad Student Life in COVID Times: Disciplinary Change is Coming?

My grad student life has changed significantly since my last post in March: I no longer have a physical home on campus, unscheduled interactions with colleagues in the hallways or at conferences are impossible, it is unsafe to travel for fieldwork, I am teaching my course online (often in my favorite dinosaur sweatpants). The virtual turn brought on by COVID-19 has made me feel less connected to my campus community and my research community in Kodiak. At the same time, I feel much more connected to the wider anthropology community through the huge proliferation of webinars and panels over the past several months.

As I imagine most people have experienced, I have also been anxious about the uncertainty looming over EVERYTHING. This anxiety extends from uncertainty about the health and wellbeing of myself and others to uncertainty about my ability to make progress towards my degree. What if I can’t safely return to Old Harbor for several years? Do I have to rework my research to complete a library dissertation instead? Will the pandemic change the way that anthropologists and archaeologists conduct their research for years to come? In times of disturbance and instability, there is great potential for lasting change, but I am not sure where I, or my research, will fit into those changes.

The crucial work of the movement for Black lives has spurred discussions about what it means to do anthropology and archaeology ethically, with care, and in an accountable and respectful way. These large-scale discussions are long overdue and I believe that they will change the discipline for the better by making community-centered work the norm.

On the other hand, I worry that the economic crisis coupled with the turn to virtual learning will speed up the ‘adjunctification’ of universities in the United States – meaning that more classes will be taught by underpaid and overworked contingent lecturers rather than universities investing in teaching and research faculty. In other words, I wonder what kind of jobs will be available if/when I do finish my PhD, especially as someone who wants teaching to be a continued part of their work.

As I have been waiting for some certainty to return, I have spent a lot of time educating myself in Indigenous Studies, Black Studies and Indigenous Archaeology. Scholars and practitioners in these and related disciplines have done tremendous work to critique and challenge the ways and conditions under which knowledge is produced. If anthropology and archaeology are going to come out of this pandemic changed, I want to do what I can to make sure that they are changed for the better. I want post-pandemic anthropology to be more equitable, inclusive, accountable and centered on the needs of the communities with whom we study and serve. While the pandemic is a disaster on all levels, from the personal to the global, I am grateful that quarantine and the slowing of my dissertation research has given me the time to dig into this essential work.

Why Can’t I Write?

This post is slightly modified from my response to a prompt in Writing and Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington. We were asked to examine our various forms of resistance to academic writing. As part of my new project to be less risk-averse with my writing, I decided to make this response public. I invite other folks to engage with this post and share their own experiences with resistance to writing and strategies for overcoming resistance.

I experience a lot of resistance to writing, especially writing connected to my dissertation proposal and research. In watching a webinar from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity called “Moving from Resistance to Writing”, I could see myself and my behavior in discussions of perfectionism, avoidance and vulnerability. That helped me understand that I tend to view writing as a “risky” endeavor, which is the root of my resistance.

Until now, I have not given a lot of thought as to what my resistance is. Instead, I have just felt shame about not working hard enough and not getting enough done in a given period of time. I find it hard not to compare myself to others and become jealous of my colleagues’ progress when I should be celebrating them. While I know that I have come a long way since entering graduate school, often times I feel like I’m still a tiny fry, fresh out of college, and thrashing around in a big pond of academia – just trying to absorb everything while giving a deferent berth to the bigger fishes. Why do I feel unable to engage with other researchers through academic writing?

I worry that I am not qualified to have an opinion or do research, especially not research with Indigenous peoples. This fear slows down my writing as I second-guess everything I put down on the paper – not wanting to say something potentially hurtful or wrong but also wanting to signal my engagement with the appropriate theoretical literature. I worry that I am not aware enough of my privilege as a white woman and other times that I am being hyper-aware of it and sinking into apologies or guilt rather than action. These feelings have paralyzed me time and again over the past couple years. Only recently have I started to understand the significance of my journey, which has eased the paralysis somewhat. I don’t need to be fully formed and the most woke in every piece of writing or expression. There is value in the process of learning and slipping up and making mistakes. My writing should (and will) ultimately reflect that.

Blogging has been one area of writing that has allowed me to experiment a bit more, even if I don’t end up posting everything that I draft. Free writing and blogging allow me to feel less constrained by the real and imagined rigors of academia, although I know that I do not make enough time for them. As much as writing for thinking is touted, I still can’t seem to give it the same weight in my mind. It can still feel like I’m wasting my time when I’m not working on “serious” writing projects.

So why can’t I write? Because I suffer from imposter syndrome, anxiety and perfectionism, all of which invoke personal shame over a sense that I am not writing or doing enough. I don’t want others to figure out that I’m not as good a writer or researcher or person as they thought, so I don’t give them opportunities to scrutinize my work. I don’t often face criticisms and have little experience with academic failure, so I fear those things most of all. In reading that last sentence over, I again consider my privilege, and perhaps the insulation that others have given me throughout my career. Maybe this writing resistance is caught up in something much larger – my struggle, through my research with the Sugpiaq community of Old Harbor, to reckon with my history and my identity and come out on the “good” side of things. Writing about research is as much a personal exercise as it is a professional one.

No wonder writing feels risky.