The Good and the . . . Weak?

Blog “5”: The Good and the Bad: Discussion of what makes articles fail and succeed by looking at an excellent article and a weak one.

I’m hesitant to begin this weeks blog post (but I have little choice if I do not want to fail). The hours of coming up with research questions, designing a research program to get data that will answer your research question and then synthesize it all together in a well-written, engaging, thought-provoking paper is (quite frankly) astronomical in my opinion. Therefore, although I think it is a good exercise to critically examine other writing in the pursuit of figuring out what works and what doesn’t for the sake of improvement, I do not want to diminish the accomplishment of people that were able to get it done.

So, I will begin with the “weak” article and will be focussing on the weaker aspects for the purposes of this post . . . (let’s get this over with!)

Julien, D. G. (1993). Late Pre-Inkaic Ethnic Groups in Highland Peru : An Archaeological-Ethnohistorical Model of the Political Geography of the Cajamarca. Latin American Antiquity, 4(3), 246–273.

To begin, the abstract is not clear about what conclusions are made by the author and why it is important, there is in fact no hook that spells out for the reader why they should care. However, he has framed his research question by juxtaposing what is known and what is still equivocal in the historical documents regarding Cajamarca political organization prior to the Inka conquest, which he is examining (although he doesn’t say how he is doing this in the abstract).

In the paper itself, the organization is somewhat confusing. For instance, he has a short paragraph at the end of the first section describing the geography of the Cajamarca region after explaining his research questions, methods, and some of the limitations of the data he is using. While his writing is good, this sudden change isn’t explained in regards to the relevance to the preceding paragraphs. The next couple sections explain some of the regional history and the archaeological phases that have been constructed largely from ceramic and settlement data. In his writing there is often uncritical assumptions made between ceramics and the centralization or influence of “Cajamarca” people. In both sections that give an overview of the types of data collected and the current state of interpretation, I would have liked some discussion on why this data was chosen to answer his particular questions before giving the overview. He then goes into the data he has looked at, but the presentation of the data consists of somewhat long descriptions of historical texts to explain how he corresponded the historical toponyms with modern place names. This section I feel could have been condensed (although some might challenge how he made these connections), but it is tough to read through because there are a lot of hard to pronounce place names and historical chroniclers. After this, he has a section on estimating population sizes, and a description of the distribution of ceramic styles. There is no clear connection made between these various data sets until the discussion and conclusion sections which is hard for the reader going through the paper for the first time to get a sense of why we have moved from one data set to another and how they all connect until they’ve already read through 80% of the paper. Overall, I think the paper needed to state upfront many of the connections between data, method, and theory, as well as their actual conclusions and findings so the reader is not left wondering how it all connects until the end.

Now that we have survived that bit we can move on to the “good” article (I put it in quotation marks, because most articles have something good about them or they would be hardpressed to make it into publication)

Dobres, M.A. (1995). Gender and prehistoric technology: on the social agency of technical strategies. World Archaeology, 27(1), 25–49.

I chose this article because I found the writing to be particularly straight-forward and engaging. She clearly explained her thought process and reasoning behind many of the ideas, assumptions, and decisions (in regards to what data she chose to collect, how she went about it, and why) throughout the paper. Why I liked this so much was because in 1995 technology studies looking at social agency in archaeology were in some ways just getting rolling. The fact that she clearly laid out how to go about doing this type of research and why we should be doing this research as archaeologists at a time when there wasn’t a lot of research like this being done I think was crucial to the success of this paper. If she had not done so, it is likely other scholars would have had many more questions (than they likely already had) challenging her ability to do this type of analysis. The relevance of this paper by Dobres today highlights just how critical it was when it first came out to the state of the literature on the topic. Furthermore, she does an excellent job of not keeping the reader in suspense. She has laid out exactly what she is doing, why she is doing it, how she is doing it, and continually makes these connections when talking about her data. Therefore, when you get to the conclusion sections you’ve already been given much of the important information where she can then talk about its application to wider archaeological concerns and interests outside of this one case study.

The Structure of an Article

This week’s blog will be annotations for three journal articles related to my ongoing project. The reason for this is, it will give me an idea of how to structure my article, as well as knowing who the authors are citing and the theoretical literature they draw from in relation to my research area. This will allow me to know where to situate myself within the dialogue (especially for the article from Nawpa Pacha).

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Sayre, M., David Goldstein, William Whitehead, & Patrick Ryan Williams. (2012). Chicha de Molle and Huari State Consumption Practices. Nawpa Pacha 32(2):231-258.

Summary – The authors analysed macrobotanical remains from two Huari sites (Cerro Baul and Conchopata) to examine “cultural preference” in food/consumption practices. They contrast this approach to the typical one taken in the Andes (and elsewhere) of looking at style (ceramics, architecture, burial patterns), settlement patterns, and material sourcing to understand cultural preferences. To do this, they compared different sectors of the sites that were interpreted/labelled from excavation contexts (elites, administrative, and domestic). They compared the density and ubiquity of C. quinoa, S. molle, and Z. mays. Their analysis showed that chicha de molle was preferred in Huari contexts, despite the ethnohistoric data that suggested otherwise.

Structure – The article begins with an overview of how the issue of cultural preference/distinction has been addressed by previous researchers, and the theoretical reasoning behind this approach, as well as introducing how their approach actually fits nicely within this paradigm (they therefore, do not argue that past approaches were wrong, but simply that food should also be considered). In particular, they want to argue that food consumption is an indicator of cultural preference and then they introduce alcoholic drink production/consumption as a source of “human sociality and the performance of identity”. From here they move to addressing some of the archaeological evidence used to identify production/consumption of alcohol generally, as well as specifically in an Andean context.  This section is very short, only about 1 page (4 paragraphs) total.

In the next section the authors discuss the Middle Horizon period, what characterized it archaeologically, and how food production and consumption have been under-researched to address insights into authoritative strategies (an area of great interest during the Middle Horizon because of reasons they outlined in the previous paragraph). This section then moves on to the significance of certain crops in the Andes, both as a food source and for their use in public rituals using archaeological and ethnohistoric accounts. Additionally, they discuss some of the properties of these plants, and their growth cycle to make the case that they are useful in the production of alcoholic beverages for feasts. In a short (1 page) section they discuss the significance of chicha de molle in Huari contexts and the context of the sites themselves (i.e. significance to the Huari settlement pattern and state organization).

The next sections are divided into the two sites analysed. The subheadings including: Site Description and Methods of Analysis, and Results. They begin with a description of excavations and the methods used to collect their samples, as well as the utility of such an approach to their research and how the results can be of benefit to other researchers in the region. In the results section, they describe which plants were the most ubiquitous and the significance of the context in which they were recovered from the site.

There are three final sections: Discussion, the presence of molle at other Andean sites, and the roles of molle in the Tiahuanaco and Huari states. Discussion is less than a page, in which the authors compare the two sites based on their results. This is then compared with the evidence of molle consumption in other Huari sites in a very brief less than 1 page overview. Finally, the authors end their article with an overview of the significance to molle consumption to the Huari and Tiahuanaco states. They argue that control and influence over maize chicha may have been a prime motivator in the expansion of the Tiahuanaco state. They leave with a call for further investigation of botanical remains to address avenues unexplored thus far.

Critical Perspective – Aside from the introduction (which was very brief) and the conclusion/discussion (which was also brief) the authors chose to focus on their results more than the interpretation. Despite their being an emphasis on cultural preference and practices of production/consumption their analysis was mainly that chicha de molle was produced and consumed by the Huari, which is a different practice than the chronicles depicted. However, the information was very clearly presented along with their methods, results, and significance to the state of the literature thus far. Therefore, the structure is quite useful since their focus is also on feasting (albeit the food rather than ceramic evidence) and their research followed a very similar approach to mine. Additionally, it was interesting to note which authors they were citing when talking about food consumption and identity which were the same or different from the ones I had drawn from in my MRP, such as Mintz (1985).

Fischler, C. (1988). Food, self and identity. Social Science Information, 27(2):275–92.

Summary – Fischler is providing an overview of the social and natural sciences approach to understanding the relationship between food and humans. He then connects these two approaches that have previously been very separate domains of study. It is hard to summarize the exact conclusions, but essentially Fischler does an excellent task of showing these two approaches are not mutually exclusive and have much to offer each other because humans are unique in being both omnivorous, therefore, requiring new/different food sources, and also social/cultural creatures.

Structure – The paper has not been set up with a clear skeleton/structure. There is no abstract to summarize the purpose of the paper, but instead Fischler goes directly into discussing the interesting relationship between food and humans, and the typical way it has been approached by the natural sciences and contrasting that with the social sciences. He does this to set up his “thesis” which is to create a more integrative approach that takes into consideration both aspects. He then gives an outline to his article, stating what he is going to talk about, in what order, which theorist he is drawing mainly from, and with an explanation for why he chose to do it this way. His voice is very explicitly clear in the introduction, he has summarized, but also criticized the work done prior and then provided his take on how to address this problem. Likewise, his explicit breakdown of how he is going to go about this makes the paper unambiguous in its intent and methods. Therefore, despite not having an abstract or the goal stated at the beginning of the paper, there is no ambiguity. This paper isn’t a review, however, he spends the majority of the paper making a connection between two different approaches that have for their history been talking past each other. Rather than end with a summary or conclusion to the article, Fischler ends by considering his analysis in our modern context. Leaving us with a visceral connection to these ideas, rather than abstract ideas of other times, places, and cultures.

Critial Perspective – The article by Fischler is very useful to my research and project because he summarized and critiques many of the ideas surrounding identity formation through food (which is integral to any analysis of feasts), but contrasts this with the biological and natural sciences approach. Therefore, I have a better sense of what is being left out of mine and other’s analysis of food by taking a very social approach. In particular, what might be motivating choices beyond just the identification of certain cuisines with a specific identity. Are these choices, at least in part, formed by preferences that are based on nutritional needs and/or hazard aversion that are formed through our biological drives? He makes a compelling connection between the nutritional understanding of a food (itself in part cultural) and identity through the example of eating red meat in our culture. Red meat is thought to give strength to the individual, even if it is on an abstract level (you don’t actually just gain strength through eating it).

Bowser, B. J., & Patton, J. Q. (2004). Domestic Spaces as Public Places: An Ethnoarchaeological Case Study of Houses, Gender, and Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 11(2), 157–181. 

Summary – The authors are examining domestic spaces very differently than they have been traditionally approached. Rather than separate domestic and public/politics they are looking at how political life is conducted on a daily basis within the domestic sphere. This complements research focused on gender issues, which have in the past, placed women’s role firmly within the domestic space and therefore outside of the realm of politics. In their analysis, they are looking at multiple scales of analysis including: the organization of the community, spatial relationships within the house, and the painted designs on pottery used within the household. Their findings suggest that men and women negotiate space differently in Conambo, but women’s roles are also complementary whereby they have agency to act as mediators between the two factions in the community.

Structure – The introduction to their paper is set up by framing their particular approach by contrasting what has been done previously, critiquing this approach, and setting up how their approach will be different while also addressing some of these criticisms. The next two sections provide an overview of the context, including the village and what is known of the social and political organizations, as well as how this particular village is situated within the wider regional and temporal context. They then break down the article into the three categories they have mentioned (community organization, spatial relationships in the house, and pottery designs), treating them as somewhat discrete entities for the sake of clarity and organization. In each section they analyse the potential differences in men’s and women’s spaces, along with what women’s roles were to the political sphere. There is no clear narrative, instead there is different lines of evidence that are then combined in their conclusions to talk about politics in everyday life.

Critical Perspective – The article is useful to my project because the authors discuss politics in domestic settings, which are relatable to politics in a feast (the serving of food, who is serving, who is receiving, in what space/context is it taking place). In regards to the narrative style, there does not appear to be a clear narrative, multiple lines of evidence are considered and a conclusion is drawn from this. Perhaps because the authors are only looking at a single time period, they are not looking at change over time it does not lend itself well to a story-arc. However, they do take an approach that views society as always in a process of becoming. Therefore, daily life is deeply political because it is constantly in the process of contestation and renegotiation of space, alliances, and histories. Their narrative, then, is one that does not have a beginning or an end.

Tedx Talks, Space Junk, and Archaeology

In this post I will be giving an overview of a conference-style presentation given by a researcher in anthropology. The purpose is to learn about their particular approach and through an analysis begin to decipher what works and perhaps what doesn’t work to engage a particular audience. For this exercise I am looking at a talk given at a TEDx event titled “Space Archaeology: Alice Gorman at TedxSydney”. The youtube video for this talk can be viewed above. The presenter is Alice Gorman, she works as a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU. She is also a member of the Space Industry Association of Australia.

As many are already aware, a TEDx conference is an independently organized event that is “created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading,” . . . [that is] designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.” As you can see in the video when it pans out, it is open to a large audience. As such, the researcher is presenting to a broad range of people with varying interests. This type of venue along with the mission statement makes it essential to appeal to many different people. This is very different than a presentation given at a conference devoted to scholars of a particular discipline where esoteric knowledge is more expected because the scholar is speaking to individuals that share a common background of expertise. That is not to suggest TEDx talks are less intellectual, but they are created with the goal of making their research and ideas relevant outside their discipline. In an archaeology conference like the Society for American Archaeology, the researcher needs to appeal to other archaeologists and relate their research to issues within the discipline. What becomes important at a TEDx talk is relating their research to broader socially relevant issues that as a society, culture, or as part of humanity we can all appreciate its significance to us. Interestingly, it is also these types of presentations that are widely accessible to a broader public outside of the conference.

Although Alice Gorman studies the material culture of space exploration and its history, with a focus on orbital debris and working to reduce the problem of “space junk” by collaboration with international agencies, her talk does not focus specifically on the problems of clutter in space. Instead, her talk is aimed at making the audience feel a connection to some of the space debris by describing the cultural heritage and stories of its connection to our own histories behind some of these objects.

Unlike many academic presentations, she does not begin with a description of her “thesis question”. The talk is designed to feel more organic and less structured despite the clear intentions of her presentation design. The style of her presentation is relaxed and semi-formal. By this I mean she is looking out into the audience at all times and engaging with them creating a more relaxed environment where her ideas appear to just flow out as if she is having a conversation. She even includes many little side notes designed to engage the audiences attention through humour. But, it is still a structured talk that has been purposively organized to carry the audience with her through a particularly constructed journey.

Her talk begins with an anecdotal account of the experience that brought her to this “light bulb moment” where her interest in the topic of space exploration from a cultural heritage perspective took shape. She pondered to herself if, given the long history of the space exploration and age of some of the satellites in the sky, was it possible to do an archaeology of space? This story gives life to the creation of the idea behind her research by pulling back the curtain for people outside of archaeology to see just how relatable their process is to everyone else. Often, people will ask archaeologists how they know what to look for. While many follow a well-trodden path it’s clear that archaeology has expanded well past its initial boundaries and new avenues to explore open up through much the same sparks of inspiration we all have experienced and can relate to. She then describes the process behind her research. What steps did she take in the pursuit of her interests? And finally how she was able to get the opportunity to do this research full-time with her new academic position.

This is where the talk really starts to take shape. The “journey” aspect of her talk becomes more clear when she actually describes a journey she wants to take the audience with her on. In this way, she draws the audience in and captivates their imaginations in the same way that she was drawn to her own research. Of course, it is accompanied with many beautiful photographs of space that never fail to amaze. Buried in there is her stated goal of the presentation: “before we actually start trying to get rid of some of this stuff does any of it actually have cultural significance for us, does it have heritage value, and do we want to do something sensible about that instead of just destroy it all without thinking?” She is able to create a connection between these objects and our own histories by describing their creation and significance. She also is able to make it relevant to present day concerns over the space exploration programs around the world. And she ends by describing a satellite that has recordings of human cultures in various languages around the world, showing that there is a real piece of humanity that is part of space, we are in a very tangible way connected to it and should therefore care about it.

I think what makes this presentation so well done is her flawless ability to flow through many different sections of ideas seamlessly, all while adding details, descriptions, and personal anecdotes that, rather than take away from the main ideas, contribute by breathing life into the talk. She clearly knows her audience and has done a great job of relating the significance of her research to broader concerns and present day issues, all while teaching the public about some of her work. One problem I had was a lack of “well what now?” she created a very strong appeal to keep these objects for their connection to our history and the human experience, but what other value can we get from keeping them in space? Given that there is no room for Q&A after the talk these types of questions cannot be addressed through a dialogue with the audience. Finally, I think for her specific audience it was very well done. If she were speaking at a more formal conference her stated objective would need to be more upfront and clear, with a description of her methods, results, and interpretations/conclusions. None of these were particularly necessary when trying to simply engage a broad public about the significance of a particular area of study.

 

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Obligatory gif for getting through the blog post with me! 🙂

Annual Reviews and the Information Overload: road maps to avoid the sharp turn into the ocean

Academics, the inexperienced and veterans alike, face the problem of information overload. In an age where the internet connects us all to a plethora of sources at our fingertips we are limited only by time and energy, not resources. However, it’s not simply a matter of spending more time reading through an ever expanding corpus of information. The internet has also, to some extent, democratized knowledge. Thus, not only is there too much to read, there are fewer barriers to information that “mark” the authoritative sources from the rest. In a Google Scholar search you will likely have a starting point from which to navigate through your topic, with numerous scholarly peer-reviewed articles. But, what isn’t readily apparent, is not all articles are made alike, there are sources that one simply needs to read to be considered knowledgeable in a given research area. Aside from the number of times an article has been referenced there will be little information in your Google Scholar search to sort through the most important and key articles for your particular topic.

This is where articles in the Annual Review become crucial to navigating your way through the key debates and players of your field/topic. In this blog I am going to look at Michelle Hegmon’s article “Archaeological research on style” in the Annual Review of Anthropology. The purpose is to describe how she goes about not only summarizing, but reviewing the knowledge of a particular field, providing a critical analysis of what has been done so far using her expertise to provide others with a road map.

Hegmon, M. (1992). Archaeological research on style. Annual Review of Anthropology21, 517-536.

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Blastin’ through the literature at a leisurely pace

Her article covers the subject of “style”, which in archaeological research covers a very broad range of meanings and uses from the very inception of the discipline. She provides a brief introduction to the topic and her initial thoughts of some of the broadly shared features of the use/definitions of style she recognized while doing her literature review. She noticed that archaeologists generally do agree on what style means at the very least providing a “common ground”, and furthermore the definitions of style all have two basic tenets: “style is a way of doing something”, and “style involves a choice among various alternatives” (pp.517-18). This lets the reader know that there is a common element between various approaches that they can look for when doing their own research. It also says, despite what may be variation in the literature, the differences do not mean the literature is mutually exclusive. In other words, researchers can and do “talk” to each others data and it’s possible to find aspects you will agree or disagree on without disregarding an entire body of literature. Hegmon also explicitly highlights certain aspects that have become so pervasive within the discipline that they are “taken-for-granted”. For instance, Wobst (1977) information-exchange theory on style was a pivotal turning point in the literature, but the idea that style can convey messages, or meaning is generally accepted that Wobst is no longer always cited.

Another important aspect of the review article is to mention explicitly where researchers have recognized problems or critiques of previous perspectives/theories that they are actively addressing. For instance, Hegmon (1992) mentions that researchers have had difficulty bridging the gap between human activity/behaviour and material culture variation in studies of style. This problem has not gone unnoticed, she cites authors that have been actively engaged with solving the issue as well as summarizing how they are going about it. Not all researchers are solving the issues in the same way, and she has organized researchers into three “camps” that are following similar approaches. What this does for the new scholar is give them a road map. They can either pursue one direction or another, or if they have already read an author mentioned by Hegmon they are able to know which other authors are doing similar research, and which authors (despite looking at style) are taking a very different approach. Therefore, the new scholar has a better idea of where to focus their attention, limiting the amount of sources required (which really, let’s be honest is everyone’s goal).

This road map is given more detail and navigation signs by specifically talking about the authors that are key players and/or instrumental in the development of new ideas, or authors that build off of and/or directly critique previous authors. In Hegmon’s article she highlights Dietler & Herbich (1989) for “devot[ing] considerable effort to criticizing the information-exchange approach” of Wobst (pp. 521). She then describes the research and conclusions that allowed them to test the hypothesis/assumptions of the information-exchange theory, finishing with highlighting important aspects that were produced through this dialogue. In this case what was recognized is that information-exchange theory does not account for all variation, but is not invalid. Also Dietler & Herbich’s (1989) critique recognize that production and perpetuation of style was overlooked in the initial theory, therefore bringing in learning and tradition perspectives to the study of style.

Hegmon, in her review article, provides more detailed signage, with a critical description of the different terms for looking at variability in style. Different researchers have created terminology to better define their approach to looking at variation in style. Macdonald, for example, draws from Wiessner’s terms emblemic (distinct referent) and assertive (vague referent), and tweaks it slightly and redefines his term as protocol (group identity) and panache (individual identity). What Hegmon’s analysis does is provide, not only a description/summary of the various terms, but how they are different and similar, and also makes connections between the researchers (who is building off of whom’s work).

In final, Hegmon’s review provides the reader with information about, who the key players are, and what the key sources are that had a significant impact on future research, what that impact was, and in which directions other researchers took by responding to the introduction of the new perspective. Essentially, it is a road map that allows a new scholar to navigate through an overload of information of both relevant and less relevant sources with far more road signs than they would have if they were set adrift in the sea of literature provided by a Google Scholar search.

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Watch out for that wrong turn!

References

Dietler, M., Herbich, I. (1989). Tich Matek: the technology of Luo pottery production and the definition of ceramic style. World Archaeology. 21:148-64.

Hegmon, M. (1992). Archaeological research on style. Annual Review of Anthropology21, 517-536.

Wobst, H. M. (1977). Stylistic behavior and information exchange. In For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin, ed. C. B. Cleland, pp. 317-42. Ann Arbor: Mus. Anthropol. Anthropol. Pap. 61, Mus. Michigan.

First Journal Article

I have already put very many hours into my MRP (Masters Research Project) and want to get at least one publication out of all that work. My MRP was a study of ceramics at Huaca Colorada, Peru, a Late Moche settlement. I did a statistical analysis (chi-squared) of the distribution of ceramic types (style and forms) looking at the difference in culinary practices (and feasting) between the more domestic sectors and the ceremonial architecture at the summit of the Huaca. I was in charge of data collection of around 6,000 sherds which I organized into categories to test their various distribution. This means that I have a lot of data which I think is a good place to start for an initial journal article, and then to build from there for future publications.

Nawpa Pacha is the journal I am intersted in publishing in.

http://instituteofandeanstudies.org/publications.html

With a note on publishing style:

http://instituteofandeanstudies.org/style.html

Nawpa Pacha is a strictly Andean archaeological journal with lots of data and some interpretation. But, it does not focus heavily on theory which for a foundational article for myself I am happy with that decision. There also seems to be a lot of room for images which is important because I have to describe ceramics that have received little attention previously and there are few examples of in the literature to date. The articles are not very long, about 8 pages of text and around 15 in total with illustrations and references.

My timeline is to follow the course since that gives me incentive, otherwise I will probably put it off. To start, I would like to look at my data and decide if there are pieces that are not integral to a short paper on feasting, since I did probably more analysis of the ceramics than were required for a single question. I’d then need to trim the corresponding theoretical and interpretive analysis out and narrow in on the one topic. After that is done it will all need to be rewritten to fit with the format, but also because it would need to be a cohesive paper. My writing needs to be less rambling, as well. I had a lot more room to elaborate on ideas, even if they were somewhat tangential to the core of the thesis. My weekly goal is to devote 2 afternoons a week ~4 hours each (Monday and Wednesday) and Sunday morning ~3 hours to writing. I am pretty concerned I won’t stick with this schedule, since I rarely stick with any schedule. Luckily, I don’t need to devote a lot of time to research since I’ve already done that, I think the hardest part will just to get STARTED!

Edit to add:

My outline is very tentative still, this is my rough draft of my outline:

Abstract: 100 words

Introduction: 1-2 pages

– Description of time period and site and the relationship to the broader regional trends at this time. In particular that the Late Moche period is one of flux and change, how my research contributes to this discussion.

Description of ceramics

– What we found and why it is important. Huaca Colorada is significant because we found large quantities of highland ceramics in this coastal settlement, but there is also coastal hybridizations of highland ceramic styles.

Analysis of Ceramics

– Describing the chi-squared analysis of the ceramics and the results as they relate to feasting and ceremonial/political practices at the site.

Interpretations

– What do the results of the analysis tell us about wider regional patterns happening at this time.

My (Writing) Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude Secrets

This weeks post is a reflection on my writing process and what I need to get those term papers, grant proposals, and thesis statements finished. You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Superman, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

From undergrad, to masters, to PhD my writing process has, not surprisingly, changed. It used to be that I could sit down and write a 15 page paper in a single night and hand that in for an A, no problem. Of course, in undergrad I rarely worried about whether I was citing the “right” author and I especially never worried about an instructor judging my intellect based on a single piece of work. Typically my main concern was whether my writing was “good”, that is, was my thesis clear, did I support my thesis with enough/adequate evidence, and was my spelling/grammar passable?

This all changed for me, and I suspect many others when they started Graduate School. Now in addition to worrying about my writing style and skills I worry about whether I have enough sources researched (and the correct ones), whether I’ve properly understood their arguments, not only whether my argument makes sense, but does it contradict or confirm the prevailing thoughts within the discourse? This is in truth only a partial list of the things I worry about during the writing process. This change in attitude has affected my writing process. I tend to spend a lot more time on the research phase, convincing myself that I am not ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until I’ve read a few more sources. This works all right for term papers, but will not serve me well when writing my thesis later on. There’s no possible way to do “all” your research before writing and then expect to sit down and hammer out a few hundred pages. The second-most important change has been how closely I refer to other sources while writing. In undergrad I read the sources and thought about how I could make them talk to each other, then I sat down and did it. Now, I have to constantly check and double-check what the authors said to carefully include their thoughts into the prevailing topic of the paper. This often means having the source up on my screen during the writing process.

One thing has remained fairly constant, however is: My Writing Fortress of Solitude.

In order to mentally prepare myself for the task I require an environment that is my own sanctum. This is why I can’t write in libraries or at my office, typically I prefer writing at home where I feel the most comfortable. More than that, though I need a large block of time (preferably the whole day/night) that is devoted to myself and my writing with no concerns about interruptions. This is typically the biggest obstacle because as you can imagine finding an entire day, let alone multiple entire days, where minor distractions or errands don’t come up is more than a little wishful thinking. What tends to happen is I will ignore those minor distractions as much as possible, for as long as possible. BUT, those minor distractions can be used as an excuse to derail my writing process when my desire to get that paper started early trumps my desire to, well, NOT work on that paper. Plus some things can’t be ignored such as when you get an urgent e-mail requiring your immediate attention.

solitude

I’d like to keep my fortress of solitude and not have it go the way of the “ancient relic”. It’s comforting to have my material possessions around me to look at while I write as a minor distraction from the inside of my brain. It would, however, be nice to sit down when I have even a couple hours and work on my writing assignment. I’d get little bits done over a longer period of time that would improve not only my mental state, but my writing as well, because it would give me time to think about what I am writing/have written.

I could go on in minute detail about my writing process, but these are some of the major issues I encounter that I will be attempting to tackle before getting too far into my PhD and finding that my old ways are too antiquated.