Bad Advice for Archaeologists

[ UPDATE: See comment # 5 for clarification and added detail about the Childs talk that I discuss below. Now I wish more SW archaeologists would weigh in…but most of them don’t read blogs, as far as I can tell.] Craig Childs advising archaeologists on how to write for a popular audience is about as useful as Steven Spielberg advising them on how to make movies. (So you don’t like Indiana Jones…well, here’s how you can make your own movies…) There are very, very few scientists who have the inclination, much less the ability, to write for both an academic and general audience. In fact, I’d argue it’s damn near impossible to pull off. I’m not sure I’d even suggest archaeologists waste their time trying unless they had a passion to write. And they knew how to use the literary tool box.

Then there is this fact: scienitsts who have demonstrated the requisite motivation and writerly skills usually devote the majority of their time to communicating with a popular audience. They cease being active scholars.

Buy Ambien Online Europe Via Gambler’s House, I hear that Childs cites Steve Lekson as a shining example of archaeologist as popular communicator. No, that wouldn’t be accurate. I say that as a big fan of Steve’s. What Lekson does is write grand narratives that help archaeologists broaden their perspectives. (And instead of being appreciative, they criticize him for it.) To really communicate to a popular audience, Lekson has to take it to the next level and start emulating Jared Diamond, E.O. Wilson, Carl Safina, Oliver Sachs, Carl Sagan, et al.   These are the real popular communicators of science; they are synthesizers, storytellers and literary talents. They are also a rare breed; if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know whether you have what it takes to join that club.

Instead, what I would suggest is that archaeologists learn from Gambler’s House and become bloggers.  And they need not possess the literary chops to reach a wider audience. Just look at the success of Real Climate. It’s an influential group blog, comprised mainly of climatologists. They play a big role in the public climate debate.

Another good example would be Savage Minds, an anthropology group blog. They don’t have the same reach as Real Climate, but that’s because their areas of interest don’t intersect with controversial political and policy issues.

Still, the success of both sites suggests it is possible to communicate to your fellow scientists and the outside world. Maybe in a few years, Gambler’s House will be returning to Pecos to give a talk on how it’s done. Meanwhile, if GH could write a post about the elephant in the big tent at Pecos, I’d be much obliged.

5 Responses to “Bad Advice for Archaeologists”

  1. teofilo says:

    Wait, so blogging isn’t writing?

  2. teofilo says:

    Can You Buy Ambien Online Legally As for Blanding, my <a href=””>latest post</a> has some information on the contexts within which it arose.  It was discussed at least a little during the business meeting, which I only saw bits and pieces of, and a few of the talks mentioned it as well when it was relevant.  Otherwise, it was something of a constant but unspoken background presence throughout the conference.

  3. teofilo says:

    Huh, I guess you don’t have html enabled in the comments.

  4. Keith Kloor says: Teofilo, Yes, blogging is writing. But it sounded to me that Childs was recommending archaeologists pen their own articles geared to a general audience. Perhaps I was reading too much into your interpretation of his talk.

    What I’m suggesting is that blogging is a more suitable medium for archaeologists to speak to readers beyond the readership of Kiva, American Antiquity, et al. As for html links, yes, there is an icon on the tool bar for this. It should be visible on the right hand side.

  5. teofilo says: Yeah, that’s my hasty summary of Childs rather than what he said himself.  Basically, there’s two issues here, both of which he discussed: whether archaeologists should be engaging with a popular audience, and if so, how they should be doing it.  His answer to the first was definitely in the affirmative, and he made a good case, but I’m not sure I totally agree with his arguments.  Most of the talk was about the second, though, and the advice he gave was phrased mainly in terms of writing because that’s what his expertise is in, but he explicitly said that it doesn’t have to be written, and much of the advice (which I maintain is good general advice) applies with slight modifications to other contexts as well.  Certainly several of the presenters the next day explicitly referred to his recommendations, and their talks were much better than many of the ones the previous day.  He didn’t mention blogging at all, but I think his advice works just as well in a blog context.  He also mentioned trying to incorporate this advice into scholarly writing as well, which he conceded would be difficult given the conventions of scholarship, but given the atrocious quality of most archaeological scholarly writing any improvement would be worth it.

    Generic Ambien Buy Online He did get some pushback from the audience about the contention that archaeologists themselves should be doing the outreach, and while he held his own, I’m still on the fence about this.  Certainly it would be easier for archaeologists to produce the data and make it available to people like me and Childs to translate for the public, but there’s a very real risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation in that process, and Childs has gotten a lot of criticism for just that.  The problem, though, is that archaeologist usually have neither the time nor the skills to do quality popularization.  You’re right to note that this isn’t really what Lekson does, since his audience is mostly other scholars, and Childs was citing him as an example of good prose style rather than public outreach, but precisely since he’s such a good writer his stuff is understandable, and even entertaining, to the public whereas similar things written by his peers are impenetrable.  So yeah, I think you make a good point that high-quality popular writing isn’t something most archaeologists are going to be able to do.  I’m not sure blogs are the answer, though.  There are shockingly few archaeologists who blog in any way; I don’t know of any southwesternists, and the only Mesoamericanist blogger I’m aware of is Mike Smith.  (Ah, there is indeed a toolbar!)  There do seem to be more European archaeologists in the blogosphere, but archaeology is kind of different over there.  Part of the answer might be for archaeologists to just start blogging and see what happens, but blogging does take time and effort, less than writing for formal publication but still a non-negligible amount.  Also, archaeologists really just aren’t very good at writing, in general.  It’s not part of their core skill set.  Childs’s advice, then, while good, is unlikely to take most of his audience beyond “barely passable” in the quality of their writing, which would be an improvement but is nowhere near sufficient for the kind of outreach he’s envisioning, blogs or no.

    So I don’t know.  This is a tough nut to crack.  Maybe it is all up to me and Childs.

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