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The Care and Feeding of Archaeologists: A Plea for Pragmatic Training in the 21st Century

Joseph Schuldenrein

Over the years, the SAA Bulletin has been the premier forum for raising pragmatic issues concerning our profession. In this connection a recurrent theme is the perceived conflict between academic and CRM interests. The readership is especially concerned with the "care and feeding" of future archaeologists and the difficulties in training and financing practitioners in a university system plagued with ever- increasing budgetary limitations and cuts. I have contributed to the flow of correspondence on this matter on several occasions.

Despite increased outcries to put aside differences for the common good of archaeology, it is becoming clear that the dichotomy pitting the academic versus cultural resources (i.e., CRM) communities centers on the training of practitioners, their employment prospects, and, in a broader sense, a holistic vision of archaeology for the next millennium. As an archaeologist who has his feet firmly planted in both research and applied sectors, I feel compelled to underscore both the severity and significance of this gulf and to express my own concerns about the danger of the discipline's survival. I am stunned by what appears to be an imminent crisis, given the increasing popularity and opportunity in non-traditional archaeology and the potential for our profession to flourish to a degree hitherto unknown. At the core of my exasperation is the rigidity of an academic system that is quietly but forcefully disconnected from the vision of archaeology's future.

Simply put, it is patently absurd that the vast majority of departments continue to train archaeologists for traditional academic careers at a time when opportunities for secure tenure track lines are at the lowest ebb since the 1960s and costs for such training are absolutely prohibitive. I entered graduate school in 1973, at the tail end of a wave when major foundations were still competing to finance the education of students, from initial coursework through dissertation research. Between the mid-1970s and the 1980s these opportunities dried up quickly, but in stages. Eventually, foundation grants all but disappeared and departments of anthropology supported most of their graduate students through combinations of tuition waivers and teaching and research assistantships. By the mid-1980s assistantships became the next casualties of belt tightening, and students counted themselves fortunate to retain tuition waivers. In the last decade these, too, have gone by the wayside. Most students currently have to pay their way, covering both skyrocketing tuition and expense costs. Debt burdens are little short of prohibitive. As a result, it is considerably more time consuming, expensive, and emotionally taxing for a student to obtain a Ph.D. in archaeology than ever before. The vicious cycle is completed by the glaring absence of the pot at the end of the rainbow, as any recent Ph.D. will sadly attest.

Last week I canvassed the hallways of the Annual Meeting in Minneapolis and walked away with a sampling of cases of career woe that would have been laughable if they were not so painfully portentous. Random (but by no means exceptional!) instances ranged from a brilliant, well- published, Old World archaeologist who worked in a retail store to a budding Marxist structuralist increasingly disenchanted with a department whose vision of her professional future offered little more than a staged schedule for repayment of a loan rapidly approaching $100,000!

The paucity of traditional academic jobs reflects simple demographics. Faculties are largely comprised of archaeologists who secured positions during the resource-rich 1960s and early 1970s. These baby boomers are now at the peaks of their academic careers. The oldest of the present group are in their mid-fifties, and most are in their mid-forties. The first major wave of retirements is at least 15 years away. In the meantime, departments continue to downsize by attrition or maintain present levels through bitter intradepartmental struggles. One needs only to peruse the pages of American Anthropologist to survey the terrain. My academic colleagues report that there are scores, even hundreds, of applications for every tenure track job; dozens are lining up even for one-year replacement positions. Many of the tenure slots are wired and the possibilities of a less-than-perfectly connected graduate student obtaining a job are marginal to impossible. Moreover, even if a job is secured, the probability of achieving tenure is more limited than ever.

At the risk of painting an overly bleak picture, I would note that there are significant exceptions to the rule; in particular, opportunities for junior women are stronger. Tenacious, "student-oriented," and well- connected faculty often succeed in placing their proteges as well. Certain specializations will also pre-dispose a candidate for a competitive edge. However, the broad, overall picture for academic archaeology is quite discouraging for the next decade at least.

Lest we feel that this situation is confined to our own academic niche, I would cite results of a newly released survey of employment for recent physical science and engineering doctoral graduates by the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (New York Times, April 1995). Only 31% of Ph.D.s graduated between 1983--1990 are currently employed in tenure track positions! This is in professions that are considered more economically feasible than the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular.

The Princeton study concluded that most Ph.D.s are finding better paying, more relevant, and, surprisingly, more secure employment in "applied sectors." It stressed the university's obligation to reorient graduate training to the needs of emerging growth fields in the private and public sectors. Archaeology's counterpart in the "emerging applied sector" is CRM. Despite ominous signs from Washington, over the long term opportunities should expand as the domains of compliance archaeology quietly extend from public to broad private sectors and abroad.

It is estimated that over 80% of all archaeology currently undertaken in North America is under the aegis of contract programs. The Finance Committee of SAA reports that between 60% and 70% of SAA membership belongs to the CRM sector. Yet our training programs rarely provide the broad range of skills required to implement even the most basic CRM projects. Academic archaeologists still inundate students with their brand of theoretical, often out-dated biases, evading the needs for applied methods and compliance courses and programs. Most professors are ill-equipped to furnish such training because they never had it themselves. There are only a handful of departments that offer comprehensive programs to serve the needs of fully 80% of the archaeology that is and will be undertaken in North America in the foreseeable future. While several such programs were introduced by universities in the mid-1980s, most of them fell by the wayside because of poor management or because old-line faculty appeared to either feel threatened or viewed such programs as detracting from departmental prestige. This is absolutely shameful, given the surplus of unemployed archaeologists currently confronting career crises!

No less shameful are the claims of university archaeologists who maintain that the requirements of contract work--business, accounting, public relations, proposal writing, public education--are beyond the domain of archaeology and somehow undermine the profession. Counter to their claims, it is no longer possible to simply "pick up such skills" over the course of project work. It has been my experience that numerous newly minted Ph.D.s cannot break into the senior CRM management positions they feel their academic achievements merit, because they are simply not familiar enough with the workaday world of contract archaeology. The tools required to perform CRM at high levels of proficiency are sufficiently complex as to require a steep learning curve. CRM companies can neither afford the luxury, nor can they be expected to support "on the job training" and bring on senior staff-- higher level M.A.s and Ph.D.s--insufficiently knowledgeable in compliance law and in the logistics of CRM archaeology. Students must be trained appropriately. It is clear that they cannot acquire such training in traditional anthropology-archaeology programs.

There remains the uncanny paradox of a surfeit of senior positions in CRM that go unfilled and a deficit of academic positions that will never exist because of the law of supply and demand; the archaeology world no longer requires an endless supply of researchers in esoteric domains increasingly irrelevant to the workaday world. The dual irony is that if we begin training students in applied archaeology, traditional programs will only benefit. For example, CRM is at the forefront of high-tech applications in archaeology (i.e., GIS, GPS, sampling theory), and an influx of students will solidify the financial base of departments and concomitantly furnish pure researchers with the technology to undertake surveys and excavations with state-of-the-art equipment.

On the plus side, there are several innovative departments that have adapted to the changing working world of archaeology and have begun to retool students to the nascent "applied marketplace." Foremost among these are hands-on CRM programs at the University of West Florida (Pensacola), the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Sonoma State University. These institutions, perhaps because they service urban, working-class student populations and address pragmatic concerns, are among the few that see the handwriting on the wall. Anthropology departments aligned with institutionally based CRM operations may be the best contexts for training students. However, even when universities support successful CRM programs, departments of anthropology have refused to formalize the program at the graduate level as a real course of study. In one such case, senior staff of an established, university- based CRM program developed a curriculum for a CRM track at the M.A. level, obtaining a commitment for outside funding, only to be turned down by the department three years in a row.

The message is simply to modernize departments of archaeology. Drastic measures may be warranted that would include overhauls of curricula to emphasize method and application, perhaps (perish the thought!) at the expense of theory. I would suggest further that universities adopt the "leaner and meaner" mentality that pervades corporate America, reducing payrolls and making training more affordable to students. Generic downsizing, early retirement, and reconsideration of the tenure system are steps that are being implemented everywhere else in the country. While the victim of such programmatic reorientations may be the stolid research positions that have been the backbone of a department's reputation in the past, it is clear that such positions can no longer be borne indefinitely. Accountability has to be the order of the day. Obsolescence and security are no longer affordable commodities.

I close by pointing out the chilling similarities between placement advertisements in the Anthropology Newsletter today and those of 20 years ago. Calls for the odd Mesoamericanist or Middle Eastern specialist or lithic expert still dominate the paltry few pages. The difference is that 20 years ago the same number of positions played within an exponentially reduced player pool. Yet opportunity continues to knock for individuals bearing skills acquired through applied archaeology and despite outmoded university training. When will we learn and take the necessary steps to secure the survival of this profession?

Joseph Schuldenrein is with Geoarchaeological Research Associates

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