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Digging Deeper: Anthropology Faculty Bring Research into Classroom
For several weeks this summer, a junior professor found herself knee-deep in the muddy countryside of western Belize, sifting through soil for Mayan artifacts. Meanwhile, eight thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean, one of her colleagues carefully climbed into sea caves on the South African coast to examine how early Homo sapiens survived harsh climate conditions.
For these faculty members of the anthropology program at The University of Texas at Arlington, it’s all in a day’s work.
“Our faculty are excellent researchers and teachers,” said Dr. Shelley Smith, Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “They’re able to bring the excitement of research into the classroom … and show why the research is important and relevant. It’s all about understanding the human species.”
As the University marches toward Tier One status as a nationally recognized research institution, many departments have amplified their pursuit and creation of knowledge, scraping money together for research projects and student scholarships, and staking a claim in the frontier of discovery. Their hard work and effort are paying off with peer and press recognition as well as national and international awards – a flurry of activity that should make university officials, faculty and staff, students, donors and alumni proud.
And the anthropology program has plenty to be proud of: in the past year, graduate student William Nutt won a coveted research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the collapse of Bronze Age kingdoms in the Mediterranean and Middle East; Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Callaghan was part of a team that made national headlines with its discovery of possibly one of the earliest Mayan kings in Guatemala; and Assistant Professor Dr. Ritu Khanduri won a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship to study how newspaper cartoons helped form social knowledge in colonial and postcolonial India.
The recognition and acknowledgement is a clear commentary on the value of faculty research at UT Arlington.
“It’s a very strong measure of the worthiness of the project,” said Dr. Karl Petruso, Professor of Anthropology and Dean of the Honors College. “When we receive grants and fellowships … those are awarded by peer review within the discipline. One acknowledges the strong connection between research, the production of new knowledge and the quality of teaching we do at the undergraduate and graduate level. It’s a case we make all the time.”
Out in the Fields
Dr. Angela Keller spent most of her summer digging in dirt and sifting through the debris of 2,000-year-old Mayan homes in Belize. At a site called Actuncan, near the Guatemalan border, the assistant professor and her team battled tropical rainstorms and relentless insects to detail the rise of royal kings in this Central American region. Using artifacts, physical structures and burial sites, Keller said the goal is to piece together how a centuries-old system of government came to be.
“We think we know what’s going on with kingship and the way in which rulers were established in the Classic Period,” said Keller, “but we don’t know exactly when that happened. They were doing something that, at that moment, would have been highly experimental.”
Keller’s team includes Drs. Lisa LeCount and John Blitz from the University of Alabama as well as UT Arlington undergraduate Krystal Craiker and several graduate students from the universities of Washington, Southern Florida and California-San Diego. Nearly three dozen local workers were hired to assist in digging, washing and sorting artifacts. The team spent two months in the field, then an additional two weeks cataloging items.
In addition to gathering information about early kings, Keller said she hopes the evidence will support her theory that these rulers controlled an emerging economic system much earlier than most of her peers believe.
“There’s been a long debate as to whether the Maya had a market economy,” she said. “I’m interested in the moral economy of the Maya, that you could include a market system that … was intimately tied to these kings who rise up and control the market trade. It’s part of what they had to offer their people; they could offer things from all over the world that their people couldn’t otherwise get. In the Mayan world, there was an understanding that the government was supposed to control the markets so ordinary people weren’t taken advantage of. Most Mayanists believe that the market economy doesn’t come into existence until the Post-Classic period [after 1,000 A.D.]. I think they’re wrong.”
On the other side of the globe, Assistant Professor Dr. Naomi Cleghorn and graduate student Chris Shelton scoured sea caves near Pinnacle Point in South Africa. The two were part of a larger expedition led by Dr. Curtis Marean, a professor from Arizona State University and featured speaker at the Ben and Trudy Termini Distinguished Anthropologist Lecture event this past spring. Marean has spent several years at the coastal site and published a number of papers suggesting Homo sapiens escaped extinction from a global ice age more than 125,000 years ago by living off the vegetation and shellfish the ocean provided. Cleghorn said she wanted to be on-site this summer with Marean’s team to get a better sense of the organizational effort involved in putting a large-scale field event together.
Cleghorn’s own research typically finds her several thousands of miles northward in the Caucasus Mountains region of Europe or in a lab in St. Petersburg, Russia. Last fall, she and several colleagues suggested that catastrophic volcanic eruptions may have killed off the Neanderthals. In a study published in the October 2010 issue of the journal Current Anthropology, her team claimed several volcanoes erupted in quick succession nearly 40,000 years ago in Italy and Turkey. Modern humans, they said, survived the devastation, thanks to fallback populations in Africa and Asia.
Stories about the controversial theory and the team’s evidence appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times. Cleghorn said the national media spotlight sparked conversation among her peers.
“It was very gratifying that there was so much interest in it,” she said. “I hope we can continue to interest people in that site and work. The ideas we proposed were beginning points for a general hypothesis which we hope will be more widely tested.”
While not a primary goal, department chair Smith said, having one’s work discussed in the general public, beyond university campuses, is a positive result of quality research.
“When you get that kind of outside attention,” she said, “it shows you’ve gone beyond the typical science media outlets and you’ve offered something people [of a wider audience] are interested in.”
Making the Case
In today’s economy, available resources for research are shrinking. Universities and colleges across the nation are streamlining budgets. Foundations are scaling back much-needed grants and fellowships. There’s plenty of uncertainty for faculty and students alike.
Which is why qualifying one’s research is so important.
“There is no substitute for being in the field and being a part of a team,” Petruso said. “Taking students along is very formative in what those students will do from then on. All of us [as faculty] have had that experience [as students]. My experience was something that was central to my entire career. … It’s difficult to overstate the impact that taking students on research projects can have.”
Cleghorn sees faculty research as a value-added element in the classroom.
“If we weren’t researchers, we would just be talking textbooks,” she said. “The thing we bring to our classes that makes them worth attending is our own perspective on the research. Our students could just read about it in their textbook, but the research is incredibly important.”
The biggest challenge these professors face is connecting the research to things that are applicable in this day and age. A chemist who studies alkaline efficiencies in portable batteries may produce work that immediately benefits consumer and business sectors: a longer-lasting power source for your iPod or cell phone. But how does a cultural anthropologist or an archaeologist pull back the curtain on the window to the past and help us recognize and understand those things that matter today?
“It’s always difficult to make something that’s happened so long ago directly relevant to our modern world,” Cleghorn said. “But it does put our own capabilities into perspective. Politics has always been a human endeavor. Bureaucracy goes back farther in time than most people expect. Suddenly you can see how people have had similar experiences for a long time, but with different technology and different political and economic systems.
“Our ancestors developed some strategies that were very successful despite very difficult circumstances. Our ingenuity isn’t a new thing.”
What also isn’t new is the altruistic pursuit of knowledge, and sharing that knowledge with whoever might be willing to listen.
“One of our responsibilities as archaeologists is to disseminate information to the public, not just our colleagues, but to the world,” said Keller. “It should be a bigger part of what we’re doing: getting the information out there. It’s not information that only some people should have. Everyone should be able to enjoy the work and the results.”
“There are all kinds of knowledge and many different ways in which we contribute to new knowledge,” said Petruso. “They are all important in their own way. The public might not see a project that contributes to our understanding to the history of a culture. But that doesn’t mean they are not significant discoveries in their own right. It’s all about how we get to understand the human mosaic.”
In Belize, that human mosaic came together piece by piece. Keller sifted through dirt and rubble with a fine screen, careful to not lose or damage any of the micro-artifacts her team might find. Any item of significance was bagged and tagged and sent to a laboratory a few miles away for processing. It’s tedious work, dirty work, but work nonetheless worthwhile, the archaeologist said.
“It’s about finding little bits and pieces of our past that you didn’t know were important,” she said.
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