Transforming archaeology through learning about sex and gender: final reflection papers

Posted on May 18, 2010

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The final reflection paper, unlike a research paper or project, asked students to integrate what they saw as key themes of the course, relating them to a book they had read independently. While these papers are too long to post in their entirety, it may be helpful to consider what made for an excellent final reflection paper. Here is the first paragraph of one such paper from spring 2008:

Upon entering this class, I questioned how archaeology could show us anything about how past cultures interacted and experienced life, let alone how past civilizations viewed sex and gender. How could archaeology reveal personhood in the past? Through an array of evidence including monuments, garbage, images, architecture, and of course documentation archaeology has been able to show that social identities and sexualities of the past can be reconstructed; giving us a deeper understanding of not only sex and gender in the past, but also the cultures that produced these identities. Following these notions the field of archaeology is also changing to answer the questions of personhood and embodiment. Laurie Wilkie states that “Recent works in historical archaeology have attempted to construct interpretations that meaningfully recognize in a multidimensional way different aspects of social identity, with mixed results” (2003: 209). Through lecture and literature I have come to discover that archaeology is more than just the study of artifacts, it is the study of a people, their beliefs, how they lived, their culture…their embodied experiences.

This is an ideal way to begin: thinking about the expectations this student had coming into the course. I count as a positive sign that participation in the class allowed this student to talk about the reservations she initially had. A student who was already positively disposed toward archaeology, the course changed her definition of the field.

The reference is to Laurie Wilkie’s book Archaeology of Mothering, which this student selected as her independently read monograph. After she reviews this book and identifies both the central themes related to sex and gender, and the kinds of evidence used– the procedures that the course was designed to reinforce– she identifies two key issues from the course that she feels the book exemplified, even though those were not explicitly referenced in the book:

Personhood can be described via bodily experience. Embodiment has been defined as the way a person experiences and perceives the world through their body. Everyone experiences their body differently; therefore, personhood will be different for everyone. … In her book Space, Time, and Perversion, Elizabeth Grosch believes that there are no universal experiences because every person has embodied knowledge. Embodied knowledge is the result of bodily differences that lead to different bodily experiences. In other words, we (embodied persons) are not all the same, we are many with many differences.

Space, Time and Perversion— one of the readings presented to students at the very beginning of the course– is one of the most difficult works for all but the most dedicated students of feminist theory who take the course, and even those students struggle with it. For this student, whose original reason for taking the course was an interest in the discipline of archaeology, to use it as a touchstone in the final reflection paper is precisely what we want to see: it means that the works read 14 weeks earlier were still intelligible to her at the end of a long, diverse, challenging course, and that students who come to the course for one reason were changed by the contact they had with work from other perspectives.

This beautifully written paper ends with citation of the final lecture of the semester, which involved detailed discussion of a case study from my own research on prehispanic figurines. Students are encouraged to cite lectures, section discussions, and group presentations, to reinforce the idea that they are actively creating knowledge through discussion and debate, not simply passively consuming already packaged information.

In her final paragraph, this student pulls together her independent reading with the theme she traced through assigned course readings:

Archaeology of personhood is the revival of a past life and everything that the life entailed. This class has taught me that archaeology can indeed reveal personhood; so I end with the same question Wilkie proposed in her book, is there a need for the archaeology of mothering? Furthermore, is there a need for the archaeology of children, of parenting, of gender? I believe that there is a need for archaeology of these things, an archaeology of personhood. I hope with further studies I can learn more about personhood and what it means to be embodied.

This is what makes for a good final reflection paper. It opens out to indicate that the topic is one that has more to offer– it ends with questions, not just conclusions. And since I know this student, I know that she subsequently continued her development of the ideas from this course in later courses as well.