Blogs as Anthropological Outreach

In the winter 2011 (volume 34, number 4) edition of the Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin, Gordon Rakita, a bioarchaeologist at the University of North Florida, wrote a commentary on public outreach and blogging in bioarchaeology.  I'm just going to cut-and-paste it, since it's short and sweet, but you can get the entire volume here (PDF):
Of late, there have been several calls for anthropologists to reach out and engage the public. For example, Jerry Sabloff (2011), in his distinguished lecture at the American Anthropological Association's annual meetings, strongly urged us to actively speak and write to a public audience and develop mechanisms (at least within academia) to reward those who do so. In particular, he suggested (p. 414) that ―One of the most promising areas of outreach—and perhaps the launching pad of the future for public intellectuals in anthropology—is blogging. 
Sabloff is just one such prominent anthropologist to advocate for blogging. Likewise, paleoanthropologist and blogger himself, John Hawks (2010, 2011) has continued to advocate for anthropologists to reach out to the public through blogging or other forms of public discourse. 
Writing as I do from a public university in the state of Florida, I am keenly aware that the public and our elected officials often have a clouded understanding of the nature of our discipline and our contributions to society. Certainly we make such contributions, but we often fail to tout or otherwise advertise these contributions. As a result, we often have to play catch-up when others define who we are and what we do. In the wake of Florida Governor Scott's comments regarding anthropology, many rushed into the public debate to emphasize the scientific aspects of modern anthropology. None were more effective than the presentation developed by Charlotte Noble and other graduate students at the University of South Florida. 
But I can't help but wonder if this entire incident would have happened, or if such a response would have been necessary, had anthropologists been more active in communicating the value and knowledge of our field to the public. This is especially true for scientific archaeologists who both seek public funding and require public laws to preserve the cultural resources that we know are so important to our communities. For this reason, I want to highlight several blogs that are dedicated to bioarchaeology or bioarchaeology themes. 
These are the blogs I've tuned my RSS feed reader to:
Each of these regularly discusses exciting new finds or developments within bioarchaeology. They help me keep up with the literature, make connections between disparate research threads, and (perhaps most importantly) remind me why I decided to be a bioarchaeologist in the first place.  
So if you're interested in the field of bioarchaeology, tune in, and don't drop out. And if you're not interested in bioarchaeology but some other aspect of scientific archaeology, then I guarantee there's probably a blog for it out there. If not, then why not start one yourself.
References Cited
  • Hawks, John 2010 Public engagement | john hawks weblog.
  • Hawks, John 2011 Blogs, academic discourse in economics | john hawks weblog.
  • Sabloff, Jeremy A 2011 Where Have You Gone, Margaret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals. American Anthropologist 113, no. 3: 408-416.
So, Rakita points out that blogging is a valid and powerful method of public outreach, a way to tell people what it is anthropologists do.  He cites Jerry Sabloff, whose AAA keynote I covered on this blog a little over a year ago, as a prominent anthropologist who thinks blogs are awesome and who thinks that public outreach should be rewarded.  I'm quite honored to be included on Rakita's list, particularly as an example of what Sabloff was talking about.  It's always nice to be recognized by one's peers.

What's interesting about Rakita's list of bioarchaeology bloggers, though, is that not one of us has a tenure-track position.  Katy is a PhD student, David is working on his master's, and I have my PhD but haven't found a permanent position yet.  Don't get me wrong - there are some awesome job-having bio- and archaeo- bloggers out there like John HawksKate Clancy, and Rosemary Joyce.  But many of the heavy-hitters in anthro outreach blogging, like Krystal D'Costa and the Savage Minds crew, are from various levels of academia as well as outside it.

The revolution in public outreach - particularly in bioarchaeology - seems to be coming from the Young Turks.  This is especially interesting, since we (Katy, David, and I, for example) aren't even required to engage in public outreach or in service activities like tenure-track faculty are. Still, there is a growing conversation about the place of blogs in CVs, cover letters, and promotion-and-tenure files, suggesting more of us are starting up blogs and using them as a way to... well, that remains an open question, one that we each answer at an individual level.

I blog because I find it rewarding - there's excitement in knowing that people who probably wouldn't touch my journal articles are reading about my work and about other developments in bioarchaeology; there's joy when I get emails from up-and-coming researchers, as young as middle schoolers, who want advice on how to make bioarchaeology a career; and there's the interaction with my readers that doesn't come across in the unidirectional, static medium of a publication.

Blogging is an exercise in writing for a different public, an exercise in taking all that jargon you learned in your coursework, distilling it, injecting your own ideas, and making it interesting.  Writing a blog has helped me refine my research and my prose, and I think that my public lectures and my successful grant proposals in particular have greatly benefited from the practice.  I always wish I had more time to blog.  There's just so much cool stuff out there to talk about, and so little time to write...

(Thanks to Katy Meyers for the heads-up on Rakita's article!)


Mick Morrison said…
Nice post. I agree with your point about the value of blogging and that established people don't seem to have much of an interest in it. Why I don't know, perhaps it might shift with generational change as more blog saavy students move through to academic posts. In my own institution, academics are being forced (often reluctantly) into non-traditional media outreach through University or Departmental blogs/twitter/facebook etc activity, and if the value of that activity registers with the senior academics who run the place then it might also see more formal acknowledgement of blogging as public outreach. Time will tell, no doubt a lot more blog posts to come on this issue!
Becky said…
Really good points here. As a new blogger, and another post-doc in search of a permanent position, I definitely echo your sentiments here.
Lena said…
I fully agree with you that if there were more hours in the day, I would have time for more posts. I find blogging to be a good way to reach people who, while interested, are not part of the professional/academic in-circle. And after all, we are to much extent dependent on the good-will of the public for our continued work, archaeology being "interesting" rather than crucial for modern life.

There are quite a few professional Scandinavian archaeologists who blog, but that may very well be part of a "generation" change (probably less to do with actual generation, but more to general blog savvy and online life). But what I find strange is the lack of zooarchaeology blogs. I know several good archaeology and human osteology blogs (your own among them), but I haven't come across another blog focussing on animal bones. I hope I'm just looking in the wrong direction, because I can't find a logical reason for their scarcity.
Mick - that's interesting that some of your faculty are being forced into social networking and blogging. Nothing like that is happening at my grad institution. I'm not even sure that our PR office knows that professors and grad students have blogs...

Lena - Good point on the lack of zooarch blogs. The only one I can think of is an awesome blog by a Scottish grade-school kid, Jake: If I had had half his knowledge of comparative anatomy at that age, I'm sure I'd be ruling the osteological world now... :)
Anonymous said…
Here is an interesting use of blogs by students

linked from this site

An example of blogging being used in relation to students.
Thanks for that tip, Anon. It's definitely an interesting blog. The students' reports are well-written and paint a good picture of what they've learned from the class. One of these semesters, I will assign a blog for my students. (Last semester's wiki assignment didn't quite land...)
Katy said…
Thanks for the shout-out. It is interesting that in our field the leading blogs are by individuals who aren't yet in 'safe' tenure-track jobs. Traditionally we would be the ones strictly adhering to the proscribed methods of promotion and tenure rather than spending time on blogging and digital scholarship.

One quick thing, I'm not actually ABD yet! Just a second year... hopefully by next fall I'll do my comps and defend my proposal!
Katy - Oops, I'll go fix that. I assumed since you were looking at skeletal series in other countries that you were already ABD. (Sounds like you're on the ball in terms of a project! I was ABD for nearly a year before starting fieldwork. It took a while to get access to a collection.)
ingellen said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rosemary Joyce said…
As one of the gainfully employed (and tenured) bloggers mentioned here, I want to comment on the relationship noted here between seniority and using this medium. I began blogging in response to a political crisis (not at "Ancient Bodies"; this was in one of my other lives). That led to Berkeley inviting me to be one of their bloggers on the Berkeley Blog. "Ancient Bodies" was my response to my publisher being unable to imagine how to get the news out about the book. By then I realized the medium would reach people. That led to the invitation from Psychology Today to do "What Makes Us Human".

The two most common things my established peers say are "how do you find the time" and "the comments on...[a newspaper they read, a blog they read, etc.] are so nasty".

I explain that blogging is something I do while watching the news or waking up in the morning. I note that you get comments from good people also, and you just need to pay attention to them.

I think, though, that the issue isn't the medium or these specific things. Economics has very senior bloggers. So does political science. These are disciplines with an established tradition of scholars writing commentary in print media. Blogs expand access to that voice for these disciplines.

Anthropology has no living tradition of this kind. Margaret Mead wrote a column in Redbook, a woman's magazine. But she is the exception-- an exception in many ways.

Now, to enter in that public domain, established scholars need to master a new technology and enter a forum where anonymous strangers can tell you that you are an idiot. You have to adjust to that. I am not sure how far I would have gotten-- despite a history of innovation in hypertext writing-- if my first blogging had not been political activism...

For those entering employment today, I think the key thing is that established faculty support valuing of the work blogging does, so you can get credit for it. That is where Sabloff's article is critical.
Thanks for sharing your blog-origin story, Rosemary! Although I've been blogging since at least 2004 (with the current site up since I started fieldwork in 2007), it wasn't until the Gay Caveman media debacle a year ago that I realized people other than my friends would read my posts.

The Gay Caveman showed me that there was a significant need for anthropologists to trumpet their own work and the work of others, and to provide a check on the media, who always loves a good story about ancient skeletons and often gets it spectacularly wrong.

So I've been science-blogging for about a year. My posts are often a reaction to a media report, but they're also threads of research that I'm working on and interesting stuff I've read. Many of these posts in a way replace or bring to the public the conversations I would be having with colleagues and peers, were I faculty somewhere. This type of blogging helps me, as an independent scholar, work through ideas, get feedback, and - I hope - heighten the public's awareness of what anthropology is and what anthropologists can do!

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