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Preparing for the Future:
Student Participation in National Curricular Reform

Jerrod Burks and Melissa F. Baird


What skills are necessary for archaeology students today to survive in the progressively changing job market? How does the call for a change in the national archaeology curriculum affect students? More importantly, how can students become involved in the development of a new national curriculum currently being assembled by the Society for American Archaeology's Task Force on Curriculum?

The realization that many recent graduates lack certain skills required by today's job market has been a major topic of discussion at workshops and symposia over the last decade, beginning with SAA's "Save the Past for the Future" working conference in 1989. At a follow-up conference in 1995, "Save the Past for the Future II," the need for national curricular reform was formally recognized and the groundwork was laid for SAA's firºst workshop devoted entirely to addressing curricular change. In February 1998, a diverse body of academic and applied archaeologists gathered in Wakulla Springs, Florida, at the "Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century" workshop, where they established a plan to revise the national archaeology curriculum [1998, see S. J. Bender and G. S. Smith, SAA's Workshop on Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century: Promoting a National Dialogue on Curricula Reform, SAA Bulletin 16(5): 11-13].

One of the primary results of this conference was the identification of six principles for curricular reform: Stewardship, diverse pasts, social relevance, ethics and values, written and oral communication, and basic archaeological skills. These are based on the principles of archaeological ethics outlined by M. J. Lynott and A. Wylie in Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s (1995, Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.), and which represent the core of our discipline. Feedback from prospective employers evaluating new archaeology graduates of all levels demonstrates that certain aspects of the core principles are not receiving enough emphasis in the classroom. For example, many archaeology programs in the United States do not stress archaeological conservation and preservation. If students are to effectively perform their future roles as stewards of the past, then they must have a solid understanding of archaeological and historic preservation legislation.

SAA's commitment to reform is not unprecedented. Many colleges and universities have developed programs addressing some of SAA's principles of curricular reform. For example, the Archaeological Research Facility (ARF) at the University of California-Berkeley manages a public outreach program that facilitates direct contact between its faculty, students, and the public through a variety of programs: workshops, "mini-digs," mentoring, multimedia, the Web, and in-class visits. Most importantly, UC-Berkeley requires its graduate students to participate in and contribute to the outreach program.

Apart from public outreach and education, many universities, such as Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, have long had anthropology programs that provide training in cultural resource management. Some smaller colleges and universities, such as Hocking College in Ohio, are even developing programs in consultation with cultural resource management firms, state agencies, and the academic community to produce graduates specialized in cultural resource management.

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Preparing for the Future Here and Now

In many schools, the archaeology curriculum has gone unchanged for decades. How can their students prepare for the future in this time of curricular transition? Most liberal arts colleges already stress some of the areas of archaeology curricula that need improvement. Thus, students should seek elective classes, perhaps outside of anthropology departments for the moment, that promote skills in these areas, including writing for popular audiences, public speaking, and teaching. Workshops hosted by public libraries, universities, and organizations such as SAA also represent a valuable learning resource for students. For example, there will be a number of useful workshops and roundtable discussions at the SAA Annual Meeting in Chicago where students can interact with professional archaeologists and increase their job marketability.

Other skills not part of a typical liberal arts education can be found outside the university. If your university or college is not currently offering a formal course in laboratory or field techniques, most Ph.D. students and faculty who are active in the field have plenty of work for eager and committed volunteers. Many museums, culture resource management firms, national and state parks, and historical societies support internship programs or gladly accept students as volunteers. Through volunteer work, a student can gain experience, establish connections to professionals, and potentially work his or her way into a paying job. The key to success lies in overcoming shyness and creatively seeking new experiences. The Web is an excellent way to find paid and unpaid field and laboratory positions, particularly the ArchNet and American Cultural Resources Association Web pages.

There are aspects of archaeology beyond the classroom for which students must be prepared as well. In the area of public education and outreach, students can take the initiative to engage and involve the local community in their work. This can be effected through an existing university outreach program (e.g., local chapters of Sigma Xi or the scientific society), or by creating a rapport with local schools. Or students with expertise in Web page design could help create Web sites for use by local K-12 schools. Recognizing the importance of public outreach and interpretation will help introduce younger students and the public to the goals of archaeology. Furthermore, it fosters a sense of community and respect for cultural diversity and our nonrenewable cultural resources. Any effort at making archaeology relevant to folks outside the "academy" is productive, engaging, and rewarding to all involved.

Consultation and collaboration with Native groups, descendants, and host communities also are important areas in which students should become comfortable. Working with these groups will not only facilitate communication and improve relations, but it also will enrich our interpretation and understanding of archaeology. However, such connections require long-term investment and commitment from those involved and may require repeated attempts. Establishing a working rapport, built on mutual trust and respect for differing worldviews and opinions, is vital for these relations to evolve.

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Students Can Make a Difference

Reforming the national archaeology curriculum is a very big and important task. The SAA's Task Force on Curriculum has made a concerted effort to seek out the input of a diverse body of archaeologists, including students. The student perspective is especially important as we are the ones currently in the trenches; we represent the next generation of archaeologists responsible for implementing the reform now under development.

There are numerous ways for students to contribute to curricular reform and help shape their future. An open forum will be held at the Annual Meeting where students and others can express their ideas and concerns. There also is a SAA sponsored online bulletin board for submitting suggestions and opinions (see the SAA Web page). Another avenue for the expression of your ideas and concerns is through your Student Affairs Committee (SAC) campus representative. If your institution is currently without a representative, be proactive and join the SAC by becoming the representative to your school. To join, email Student Affairs Committee Chair Jane Eva Baxter at

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Now that the necessary first steps have been taken to update the national archaeology curriculum for the 21st century, it is evident that as students and future archaeologists, we must become involved. It will take the dedication and commitment of all involved in archaeology to meet this challenge. Students, faculty, and professionals--at all levels--must work toward the common goal of restructuring archaeology to meet the challenges of the changing workplace.

The long-held misconception of archaeologists as romantic adventurers or esoteric philosophers is slowly changing due to the efforts of many who interface and work with the public. For continued success in this area, we need students to be active in the shaping of our discipline's future. Our challenge, then, is to establish precedents and policies that will ensure archaeology's success in the 21st century. Getting involved is easy, and making a difference is the reward.


The authors are grateful to George Smith for his encouragement and copies of documents produced during the Wakulla Springs conference.

Jarrod Burks, a student at The Ohio State University, is a Student Affairs Committee campus representative. Melissa F. Baird recently graduated from the University of California-Berkeley.

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