My VU Classroom

This year at Vanderbilt University (VU), I’m teaching two courses – Intro to Archaeology and an advanced seminar on The Collapse of Civilizations. The educational gap between these two classes is causing me intellectual whiplash, but seeing the impact of my teaching, from intro to advanced, is something that I feel privileged to encounter.

Heard Library framed by fall foliage. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University).

In Intro to Archaeology, I try to blow their minds from a philosophical perspective. I enjoy using archaeology to broaden my students philosophically by incorporating ideas of human nature, development of state, and different worldviews in order to push my students to reconsider their understanding of their own society. This class is very exciting because archaeology (and for most students, a broader understanding of the world and society) is brand new to them. It’s amazing to see how much I’ve impacted my students, bringing them into the worlds and sites that I’ve built (and dug) my life around. And yet most of the time, I must perform archaeological improv and share my most fascinating dig stories in order to keep their attention!

My other class, the advanced seminar on The Collapse of Civilizations, is a course including self-selected undergrad and graduate students who are on a whole other level. This class is much more intellectually involved, which I appreciate, but what I really enjoy is having the time and space in this smaller classroom to get to know my students and their specific archaeological and anthropological interests on a more personal level. VU does an amazing job of placing top professors in small classrooms, creating a space where both the students and the staff can further their education through discussions and relationships they begin in the classroom.

(Vanderbilt University)

I’ve found that bringing my own experiences into the VU classroom has helped me to lead more interesting and in-depth courses, no matter the academic level. Many professors have a more strict syllabus that is guided by method and theory. I prefer not to do that, because I’ve found that if you divorce method from the story and from reality no one will pay attention to the boring, strictly scientific sections.

My syllabus is guided by the great civilizations, with method and theory woven throughout. It’s much more difficult to teach this way, but I have so much dig experience – Maya, Aztec, Inca, Angkor, Pagan – that I have at least one personal experience for every major concept. As for the other major digs that I was not a part of, I compensate by knowing the top people in my field, the geniuses who also happen to be my closest friends. I have numerous anecdotal stories about digs all around the world, but I also have stories of intellectual battles at academic conferences, all of which I’m able to sneak into class discussion as we go along. I also encourage my teaching assistants to give examples of their own research and experiences. It would be a shame not to share our specific knowledge with young minds who could be following in our footsteps.

As much as I can, I like to show my students my work on research design and dig sites, especially my current work, directly from Cancuen. I try to fit everything in as we go along. Some of it is funny, but what I’m really trying to convey is a sense of immediacy. I really have worked all over the world and am in touch with the top researchers. I hope to be a resource for all of my students, present and past. My pedagogy of speaking from experience is entertaining to my intro course, but vital to my advanced seminar. My advanced students take interest in field experience, but also my ongoing contributions to conferences such as The Symposium in Guatemala City, Tulane’s Wenner Gren Workshop, and upcoming events such as Yale University’s Climate and Collapse, and Kyoto University’s Rupture or Transformation of Maya Kingship? From Classic to Postclassic Times. My professorship at VU has allowed me the privilege of sharing my mind with the minds of our next greatest archaeologists and anthropologists.

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