A burnin’ ring of fire: Four Stone Hearth 115

Ring of Fire / Johnny Ainsworth

Welcome everyone to the 115th Four Stone Hearth Blogging carnival! (my apologies for the Johnny Cash reference).

For the uninitiated, the Four Stone Hearth is:

a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focussing primarily on four lines of research:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

The Hearth is an important institution among anthropology bloggers, and dates back to somewhere around the early Holocene (2006) when anthro blogging began to get serious.

It’s an interesting exercise to browse through some of the earlier editions of the Hearth, which were run by many bloggers who are still around today: Anthropology.net, Afarensis, Aardvarchaeology, Hot Cup of Joe, Greg Laden, John Hawks and many others. If you’re not familiar with the Hearth, I would urge you to browse through some of the earlier editions to get a taste of what it’s all about.

Some say the Hearth is diminishing in its appeal, and if so I’m not exactly sure why. I suspect part of it is due to a more diverse social media that has reduced the need for anthro bloggers to congregate and chat around a central Hearth, so to speak. This edition is relatively strong and I hope it continues this way into the foreseeable future. It’s too great an institution to let it languish .

We have a range of topics today with contributors reflecting on themes as varied as space archaeology, Christian religious rituals, stone artefact caches, gambling, and much more. Please take the time to read through what our contributors have to offer; I’ve tried to keep my overviews of their posts  short in the hope that you visit their blogs and read what it is that they have to say.

So please enjoy!

(more…)

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Four Stone Hearth 115 this week

A gentle reminder about the upcoming Four Stone Hearth blog carnival that I’m hosting here this week. The post will go up on Wednesday/Thursday Australian time, so please try to get your contributions to me within the next few days. I’m collating them now, so if you have something that you have written yourself, or a post that you have found that you think should be included, contact me on twitter or via my contact form.

This is the first time that I have hosted 4SH here. I briefly toyed with the idea of a themed carnival however it seems to have been a proposal that regular contributors either missed or may not have agreed with, so I am looking forward to seeing the usual diverse range of posts from across the anthropology ecosystem. If you have a post that you would like to promote that relates broadly to anthropology (in the American sense) please consider posting it here. It’s very easy and takes no time at all…

To be frank, I’m a little ambivalent about 4SH and I wonder if the carnival is diminishing in its appeal. I suspect this is in part due to changes in the way anthropologists are using the web; a few years ago, blogging was the key mechanism that anthropologists used to build and participate in online communities however an increasingly diverse social media has perhaps diluted the importance of these kinds of carnivals. Does 4SH need to shift a little to keep up?

In this edition I’d like to include contributions in the form of collections of twitter posts. Thus, if you’ve been using a hashtag to tweet about a  conference, field trip, or project that you are involved in please point it out to me or (even better) write a blog post that pulls them together.

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The risks of professional blogging

Colleen at Middle Savagery has been facilitating a discussion about archaeology and blogging for the past few weeks and this week the question she poses is:

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?

I thought I would participate in the discussion this week by considering blogging in relation to University students and recent graduates. In my experience, a large proportion of those who actively use blogs to write about research are students or recent graduates and I think there are specific risks associated with this (there are also many benefits, but I’ll come to that!).

I fall into a category that is sometimes termed the ‘early career researcher’. I’ve worked as a professional archaeologist for about a decade or so, have recently completed a PhD and I now teach at an Australian University. I have blogged since about 2005 however I have never been a prolific blogger because I’m often very busy with other things.

There is one standard that I have tried to maintain in my blog writing for the past couple of years: is the post professional? By that, I mean is it ethical, accurate, logical, well written and appropriately sourced? Writing unprofessional posts is a very risky business, regardless of how established you are in your chosen career. We simply do not know who will be reading our work: academic colleagues, members of committees (ethics, jobs, funding), community members, developers, school students? If your work does not meet basic professional and ethical standards of the discipline in which you work, then what is the message that you are sending to them?

People who are well established in their chosen career usually have a clear sense of just what is unprofessional and the kinds of impacts that unprofessional work can have when released into the public domain. I think this is less so for recent graduates with limited experience of professional life. However, as we might all  agree, the media landscape today is not the same as it was even ten years ago and there are umpteen opportunities for professionals to get their message into the public sphere and to interact with each other via various kinds of new media. This is a new problem – and opportunity – for archaeology.

There are several key risks associated with students or recent graduates who maintain blogs. First, there is the risk that they unwittingly post material that is unprofessional and that this will negatively impact on their career. We all know that an unprofessional post in your archives that was not very widely read at the time may come up in a web search two or five years later when you are applying for a grant or job. Most bloggers whose work I have time to read are very cautious about what and how they write; however, this may not be the case for those who are new to writing professionally and whose sense of professional standards may not be very well developed. If you seek a career as a professional and you run a blog you will be judged (in part) according to the professionalism of your blog, whether you want to be or not.

Second, there is the risk that an unprofessional post can be influential and attract a great deal of attention. A blog post about a research result or heritage management project that is controversial, for example, may attract the interest of mainstream media outlets or simply be promoted widely through social media: we all see examples of poorly researched and inaccurate popular archaeology stories that are uncritically promoted by dozens of people using social media. Also of concern though is the potential for inappropriate information to be released into the public sphere. For example, a blog post containing information that is culturally sensitive (e.g. about Indigenous heritage), commercially restricted or that includes results that have not been through a peer-review process could potentially have very significant ramifications. I’m not aware of any examples of this occurring in Australia, but very few archaeologists bother with blogs here so that is not entirely surprising.

Some may argue that the beauty of blogging lies in the way that peer review occurs in the comments and that the flaws of unprofessional posts are quickly pointed out by readers. I agree that this can be the case, but it is not consistently so. For most archaeo/anthro-bloggers, our audiences are very small and a problematic post may not be subject to very much criticism at all. Further, it may not be the correct kind of criticism, since readers of blogs may themselves not have the appropriate skills  to identify flaws and may not necessarily even be aware of relevant professional standards. One way around this may be to create a ‘research blogging’ style blog where  posts are to some extent peer reviewed in relation to an editorial policy (see my suggestion about Four Stone Hearth here). But I digress.

I am certainly not suggesting that students and recent graduates should not blog. Learning how to write good research blog posts is almost as important as learning to give a  conference presentation or prepare an academic poster. Blogs are clearly not recognised as a form of academic publishing, but the benefits of writing them are diverse and significant, particularly for students. However, students and recent graduates face unique risks when they decide to start blogging and as such, they should be learning about blogging at University level and encouraged to write and critique blog posts in a sheltered and supportive learning environment. That doesn’t mean telling students to simply “go write a blog”, but rather, incorporating it into the assessment process, providing feedback and helping them to develop and improve their skills. That way, when they do go out into their various professional careers they will better positioned to use blogs professionally rather than as professionals who use blogs poorly.

Edit (16 March):

You can read Colleen’s wrap of contributions on this question here. Some great work, including some contributions from a few CRM/heritage management archaeologists that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a post from Terry Brock on maintaining integrity in archaeological blogging. However, I don’t tend to agree with Colleen’s implication that maintaining a professional stance means writing boring, dry blog posts – I think the best kinds of blogs are those that are engaging and of wide appeal, provided they don’t send the wrong messages. Colleen’s own blog is a good example of an engaging style that sends the right kinds of messages to readers. Let’s face it, blogging doesn’t count for anything in relation to measurable academic outputs, and so there’s not much point writing posts that 10 people might read. Better to write openly and accessibly so that others might enjoy reading your work and to learn about archaeological ethics and professional standards.

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