“They Pick You”: Maintaining Integrity while Blogging Archaeology


   
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This spring, I will be taking part in a session at Society for American Archaeology Conference entitled “Blogging Archaeology”. In anticipation, there are a series of questions being asked by the session organizer, Colleen Morgan (@clmorgan), on her blog, Middle Savagery, regarding archaeology and blogging, to be answered by archaeology bloggers. Each week for the next four weeks, I’ll be doing my best to answer these questions. If you’d like to participate, here’s the gist of it all. If you missed my answer to last week’s question, check here. To see last week’s Carnival, visit here!

Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

There are a number of problems and bad consequences that can come from blogging, or any other form of social media. Some are unique and specific to archaeology, while others are more pervasive or dependent on the context of your personal career.  However, I think they can all be mitigated by remembering two things:

1. Anyone can read what you write.

2. You represent something bigger than yourself.

I try to ask myself a number of things as I sit down to write a post, compose a tweet, or put a picture on Facebook: Does this reflect who I am as a professional? Does this give the right impression about how I feel about my discipline? Is there anything in this post that may put me in a position that is going to hurt me professionally or personally? Is there anything in this post that may bring harm to my profession, an archaeological site, or a person or culture that I’m studying?

As I discussed in my response to question 1, I believe we all have a responsibility to share our thoughts about our discipline to the public. At the same time, however, we should remember who we are and who we represent. Being the visible face of a discipline, in this case Archaeology and Anthropology, is an enormous responsibility. Anytime I put on my archaeology hat, so-to-speak, I am representing a whole host of institutions and people. By choosing to write a blog, we are taking on that responsibility: we are opting in. As a member of the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Society for American Archaeology, two prominent professional organizations in archaeology, what I say and write is a reflection of my discipline to the public and other professionals. Whether or not this is a “personal” blog, I’m still writing as an expert in my field. This is a big responsibility.

On top of that, we all represent other institutions that demand our consideration when we write. It might be a university, a museum, or a CRM firm. In my case, I am a representative of Michigan State University, it’s Department of Anthropology, the MSU Campus Archaeology Program, Historic St. Mary’s City, and Colonial Williamsburg. I’m doing research at or with all of these places, and they are supporting me in one way or another. Whether or not these institutions are linking to my blog, or whether or not I’m writing “for” them doesn’t matter. I see what searches people use to get to my blog. The names listed above are some of them. I need to make sure that they are seeing the great work of these organizations through my posts, and demonstrate that my expertise is a reflection of their expertise. I owe them that, at least.

Being aware of the fact that anyone can read what I write is particularly important for me because I am a graduate student. I don’t need something I write here to emerge in a department faculty meeting. I have worked hard to develop good relationships with my faculty and with others at my University or throughout my profession. Calling people out on my blog is not the way to continue forging and maintaining relationships that are important to me both professionally and personally. I have a future to consider, and being questioned negatively about what I write during a job interview is not something I want to experience. Do I hope my blog is read by potential employers? Yes, and I hope they see the value that it has brought to me, our discipline, and to the public. What I don’t want is for them to find a reason to not hire me.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about things that could be better in archaeology (which I do write about, just in a “looking to the future” kind of way, not through brazen attacks), or opinions about how the organizations I work for could work better. I do. Lots of them. And I do share them, just not on my blog. I can pick and choose who I share these opinions with. I do this because I know these people personally and I can trust them. This is very unlike writing a blog: while I’m sure most of you are outstanding citizens and would be trustworthy friends, you only need to peruse a couple comment sections on the web to realize how many unsavory types there are out there. I don’t need that in my life.

Then, of course, there are the archaeologically specific things you don’t want to share because “anyone could be reading”. We are professionals, and we have an ethical and moral obligation to the people, cultures, and objects we study. You don’t want to talk about that gold ring you excavated, and you certainly don’t want to post a geo-tagged photo of it on Flickr. You might return to the field for your next season only to find the place looted and valuable data destroyed. We need to be careful about writing about informants or other people we’ve interviewed or worked with, and be respectful of the cultures, both past and present, that we’re writing about. Not only will it reflect poorly on us as professionals, but it could seriously harm the reputation of our discipline. Understanding that it is more then the integrity of ourselves, but the integrity of our science that is at stake is something not to be taken lightly.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t continue to use this platform to raise awareness about poor (or dangerous) archaeological practices, or the dissemination of misinformation. Blogging is one of the best ways to do this. We just need to be careful in making sure that we do so in a professional way, that steers clear of being harmful or hurtful, and reflects the institutions we represent. In the same way that we would offer constructive criticism at a conference or in a Q and A after a presentation, so to should we interact in the blogosphere.

So, I’m careful. If I ever think, “eh…I’m not sure about that”, then I usually don’t post it. It doesn’t go up. Same for tweets. Same for Facebook. Same for comments on other people’s blogs. If I even get a tingle of hesitancy, then I don’t post it. Because once it’s out there and someone reads it, there’s no taking it back. It could reflect poorly on me, on my discipline, or on an organization I represent. Anyone can read it. With blogging, you can only pick and choose the topics you write about and the words you use to do it. You can’t pick and choose your audience. They pick you.

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About Terry Brock

Terry is an archaeologist who lives in Virginia with his fiancee and is writing his PhD at Michigan State University. In his spare time, he writes for Gradhacker, an Inside Higher Ed Blog, and tweets @brockter. His favorite thing he's ever written is Swimming Buddies and a Pipe Cleaner Necklace.