Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Europe's first farmers

On Thursday, February 16th, the Department of Classical Studies and the Archaeology Program at UNCG hosted a presentation by Dr. Susan Allen entitled "Wetlands and Early Farmers in Europe: The Southern Albania Neolithic Archaeological Project." The event was sponsored by the Greensboro Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America as part of its lecture series.

My knowledge of the transition to agriculture is limited largely to what I teach in my introductory classes, so it was nice to hear the state-of-the-art from a recognized expert in the field (and a UNCG alumna--Dr. Allen worked on Dr. Jeff Soles's Mochlos project as an undergraduate).

Dr. Allen began by providing some basic background. The transition from foraging to farming in the West (the so-called "Neolithic Revolution") began between 11,000 and 10,000 B.C. in the Near East and the lifestyle eventually reached southern Europe sometime after 7,000 B.C. The most common domesticated plants were wheat, barley, and legumes, all of which were imported from the Near East. Perhaps the most influential explanation for the spread of farming out of the Near East and into Europe is the Wave-of-Advance model proposed by Albert Ammerman and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza beginning in the 1970s. I'm no expert, of course, but as I understand it, the main driver of the original model was population density. While agriculture increases carrying capacity, the population densities in the Near East eventually grew to such an extent that people, and their agricultural lifestyle, were forced to migrate into more sparsely populated areas. The result of this demographic process was predicted to produce a wave-like pattern of incrementally more recent dates for the arrival of agriculture (as seen in the figure below).

Wave of Advance Model (from Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza, 1984).
Dr. Allen went on to describe a number of weaknesses with the Wave of Advance Model as originally conceived. First, the diagnosis of population density as the causal factor in the movement of an agricultural lifestyle across Europe leaves little room for human agency--that is, the motivations, desires, and pressures that guide the decisions of individual human actors. Second, the model does not take into account geographic barriers like rivers and mountains, which certainly affected how agriculture spread. Closely associated with this is the built-in assumption that agriculture would arrive at more-or-less the same time across an entire area (like, say, western Turkey and Egypt as in the above figure). However, it seems likely that particular ecosystems within a region may have been targeted by populations for agriculture while others were used for foraging or a mixed agriculture/foraging economy. We'll come back to these...

The other major issue with this profound shift in human subsistence is the implicit, and perhaps misplaced, assumption that the Neolithic lifestyle was a deliberate adaptation. The adoption of agriculture, in other words, is seen in hindsight by Westerners as an obviously better and, thus, inevitable development in the march towards "civilization." (In fact, the very use of the word "revolution" when referring to the rise of Neolithic cultures implies a value judgement.) What many non-specialists don't realize, though, is that the shift to agriculture, as I teach in my Introduction to Biological Anthropology course, was (and, for some, still is) in many ways very, very bad for human health (Jared Diamond nicely summarizes this in a 1987 Discover Magazine article).

So, this brings us to Dr. Allen's work in Albania. Why Albania, you might ask? Albania was ruled under the communist dictatorship of Evner Hoxha from 1944 to 1985, a period during which the entire country was essentially cut off from the West. Although reforms were gradually introduced after Hoxha's death, communism eventually collapsed in 1989. This history had profound implications for archaeology in Albania--very little was known about this country's rich archaeological heritage until very recently (to put this in perspective, the first carbon dates for an archaeological site in Albania were not run and published until the 1990s, fifty years after the method was developed). So, the country was essentially a blank space on the map of southeastern Europe until very recently. 

Dr. Allen co-directs the Southern Albania Neolithic Archaeological Project (SANAP), which aims to help fill this void. While several sites with Neolithic components and evidence for early agriculture exist in Albania, Dr. Allen focused her discussion on the site of Vashtëmi, which, at ca. 6,400 cal BC, is one of the earliest farming sites in Europe. The paleoenvironment of the site is reconstructed to be a wetland, which seems to be a pattern among early farming sites in this part of Europe. The spectrum of domesticated plants is not identical to those that are found in the Near East, and the animal bones do not exclusively represent domesticated species. Dr. Allen argued that these observations indicate that (1) early farming populations deliberately chose to inhabit inland sites with wetlands, which are habitats known to harbor high biodiversity, and (2) humans exercised personal choice and preference when deciding which domesticated plants to bring along with them and practiced a mixed agriculture/foraging lifestyle. 

All of this indicates that a straightforward Wave-of-Advance Model probably oversimplifies the situation, as many of the assumptions (ignore landforms, population density as the main driving force, etc.) are probably unrealistic. The spread of agriculture thus probably occurred in starts and stops, likely because it was not an obviously superior adaptation to foraging, at least in the beginning. It is also becoming clear that its spread was mediated by a variety of factors, including the presence or absence of geographic barriers, the individual choices of humans and, yes, population densities.                 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

New perspectives on the Harper's Ferry raid of 1859

On February 21st I attended a presentation by Dr. Peter Wood, an Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University (as someone who grew up in Colorado, I was interested to hear that he now lives in Longmont, Colorado). The presentation, entitled "The Harper's Ferry Five," was sponsored by the Durham Library Foundation's Humanities Society in celebration of Black History Month. This presentation is part of a broader movement within the historical community to reevaluate much of Civil War (and, indeed, American) history through the lens of the Black Experience. This change is particularly evident in explorations of the Civil War's beginning. The "White Version" is, naturally, the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861. However, one can easily trace the conflict's origins to Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, the Christiana Revolt of 1851, the Wellington Rescue of 1958 and, of course, the Harper's Ferry Raid of 1859.

Dr. Wood began by running through the relatively well known history of the raid and its major characters: John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, and John Wilkes Booth. His main focus, though, was on two less well-appreciated aspects of the raid that, to Dr. Wood's mind, help dispel common misconceptions about this important historical event.

Misconception 1: John Brown attempted to stir up a full-scale slave insurrection, a plan that was at best quixotic and, at worst, utterly preposterous. Many thus see Brown as a mentally unstable fanatic willing to risk his life and the lives of his co-conspirators (including some of his own sons) on a mission that was certain to fail.

There is no doubt that Brown couched his hatred for slavery in fire-and-brimstone religious terms that fueled his strong abolitionism. He is also well-known for his participation in violent attacks against, and the murder of, pro-slavery individuals in Kansas in the 1850s. However, Dr. Wood argued that his intentions for the raid were much more nuanced and could be traced, at least in part, to a trip he made in 1840 to Tyler County, Virginia (now part of West Virginia) to survey land plots. Brown made two very important observations about this part of the Upper South on his travels. First, it was extremely rugged and thus difficult for large groups of people to access and, second, that slaves, and slave-holding, were rare. Voter rolls and enlistment records from 1861-1865 show that northwestern Virginia was pro-Union, something that Brown may also have picked up on in 1840.

When Brown later outlined his plans to Frederick Douglass, he thought that the mountains of northwestern Virginia (the region within which the arsenal at Harper's Ferry was located) would be the key to freeing slaves, since the rugged topography could serve as a protective barrier against pursuit by militia, the military, and slave-catchers. Dr. Wood thus argued, compellingly in my opinion, that Brown's true goal was to acquire guns from the arsenal and retreat with as many slaves as possible to the protective confines of the mountains--all with little or no bloodshed. Once a safe refuge for escaped slaves had been established, Brown hoped that an exodus of slaves would lead inexorably to the collapse of the Southern economy and, ultimately, slavery itself. Of course, Brown's plans misfired badly, and he recognized that his failure left no alternative than for slavery to be swept away through the spilling of much blood.

Misconception 2. While the Harper's Ferry raid attempted to free black slaves, it was a white man's affair.

It is clear that Brown was the driving force behind the raid, and it is also well known that five of Brown's companions were black men. However, these men, both free and formerly enslaved, are often viewed as passive hangers on, rather than active agents, in the events leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid. In fact, as Dr. Wood emphasized, each of these men had very strong convictions about their participation and many were politically astute. To take just one example: Lewis Leary was born free in North Carolina and, after moving to Ohio in 1856, became a member of the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society and participated in the rescue of the fugitive slave John Price in 1858 (this is the Wellington Rescue referenced above). Dr. Wood's final slide emphasized that these men should not be forgotten. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Music and democracy in Burma

On February 3rd, the Student Anthropological Society and Undergraduate Archaeological Association hosted a presentation from Dr. Gavin Douglas from UNCG's College of Visual and Performing Arts. As an ethnomusicologist, Dr. Douglas explores music as a product of culture and how people make use of, and impart meaning onto, music. As he stated to us, this means that his interests are often more closely aligned with folks in an anthropology or sociology department than they are with those in a music department.

Dr. Douglas has conducted research in Myanmar, or Burma (there is an interesting, and complicated, history on the country's name) for nearly 20 years. I admit that I knew almost nothing about this country before the presentation, so I learned a ton. In the 20th century, the country was under colonial rule until 1948, when it secured independence from Great Britain under the leadership of General Aung San. A military coup in 1962 overthrew the government, and the country was ruled by a military dictatorship until 2011. While the country's single name suggests that it is a unified Burmese cultural entity, it is in fact home to ~135 ethnic minorities.

Map of Burma. From the Centers for Disease Control.
The thrust of Dr. Douglas's presentation revolved around the use of music in Myanmar as a way to both legitimize and undercut the military dictatorship. In the former case, the government threw funding (even though it was essentially bankrupt) into institutions that revived the court music of the kingdom that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. This can be seen as a mechanism of national defense: the ruling regime built up its own legitimacy by supporting music (and other customs) that was disassociated with, and thus untarnished by, Western colonial oppression, The state-run media was quick to publicize the attendance of the government's military leaders at every event that showcased this music (essentially, they were proclaiming "look at us, we support 'real' Burmese culture!").

Music was also used to destabilize the regime. An underground movement of hip-hop artists, some of them smuggling tapes into Burma from Thailand, used music to protest and undercut the government's legitimacy.  One of these artists, Zayar Thaw, is now a member of the Burmese parliament. General Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was educated in the West, became the unofficial leader of a pro-democracy movement during her 15 years of house arrest (U2 was among her biggest supporters). Her instrument of choice, the western piano, also became a symbol of defiance and resistance.

The power of music... 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Teaching students how to learn

On December 6, 2016, UNCG's University Teaching and Learning Commons (UTLC) sponsored a workshop entitled "Teaching Students How To Learn." The workshop's keynote speaker was Dr. Saundra McGuire, a Professor Emerita of Chemical Education at Louisiana State University. She has over 40 years of experience teaching chemistry, and has more recently become interested in student learning strategies. Dr. McGuire is a wonderful speaker, and I learned so much from this workshop, some of which I'll share below.

Her first presentation was entitled "Metacognition: The Key to Intentional Learning." Metacognition is, in short, thinking about thinking. It is, of course, more than that, and includes things like:
  • Being consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver (this helps get students out of the "victim," and into a proactive, mentality). 
  • The ability to monitor your mental processing (e.g., do I actually understand this, or am I just memorizing it?).
  • Accurately judging your level of understanding. 
  • Knowing what you know and what you don't know.
The problem, Dr. McGuire argued, is that these skills often are not required in high school, so incoming students simply do not have them. She showed some data from 2008, 2013, and 2014 showing how incoming freshman answered the following question: "At what level of Bloom's Taxonomy did you have to operate to make an A or B in high school?" There was some variation between years, but a majority (anywhere between 81% and 94%) never progressed beyond Level 3 (Application), and over 50% never progressed beyond Level 2 (Understanding). So, only a minority of students were required to analyze, evaluate, or create anything in order to receive an A or B in high school. What was interesting, though, is that when these students were asked at what level they would have to operate to make an A or B in college, well over half responded that they would need to at least be able to analyze (if not evaluate or create). They know, in other words, what they need to be able to do in college−they just can't do it!

Dr. McGuire then outlined a number of learning strategies and how we, as teachers, can help inculcate them.
  • First, students need to understand the difference between studying and learning. There was some variation among faculty in how this distinction is made. Everyone agreed, though, that they are fundamentally different and that the ability to apply knowledge outside of the strict context in which it was presented is key. 
  • For which task, Dr. McGuire then asked us, would a student work harder: to make an A on an exam or to teach the material to the class? Everyone agreed that students will typically work harder for the latter scenario. Therefore, assignments or activities that require students (individually or in groups) to review and present material to the class is often a very successful learning strategy (consider the skills from the above metacognition list that such an exercise requires). 
  • For those students that have trouble with reading comprehension and retention, Dr. McGuire suggested a strategy called "Active Reading." Here are the basics:
    1. Preview. Scan the text for section headings, boldface print, italicized words, and any charts or graphs. Why? This gives the brain a preview of what's about to be read and provides important context for what is to be learned.
    2. Questions. Come up with questions that the reading should address. Why? This provides motivation, or a reason, to do the reading that taps into a student's (hopefully) inherent curiosity. 
    3. Paraphrase. Now that that the brain knows what to expect and is sufficiently curious, begin reading. Read the first paragraph, then stop. Now, paraphrase that single paragraph in your own words. Move on to the second and do the same thing, except this time, when you paraphrase, add in the information from the first paragraph. Continue this process for each paragraph. Why? This breaks the information down into manageable chunks. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. However, this strategy takes less time than the alternative, which typically involves the reading of entire chapters only to realize that nothing was retained and thus must be read again (and again...). 
  • Dr. McGuire presented some pretty impressive data showing test scores before and after these strategies were taught (either to individuals or to entire classes). The timing of this workshop turned out to be quite good: I just completed a short (5 1/2 week) online Winter Session course here at UNCG, and I almost immediately had the opportunity to implement some of these strategies. After the first exam, I received e-mails from several students who were concerned with their grades and wanted some advice on how to better retain information. Well, well, I said, I just so happen to have learned about a strategy called "Active Reading." While I can't be sure that each student followed the strategy entirely, the before and after intervention scores are pretty interesting:
    Student Exam 1 (before) Exam 2 (after)
    1 43% 69%
    2 75% 80%
    3 61% 88%
    4 67% 66%

  • It is important to provide these interventions after a comprehensive assignment or exam, since students will not listen until they've received grades well below their expectations!
  • Strategies for studying, doing practice problems, and group work were also summarized, although I have not yet implemented them.
  • Dr. McGuire concluded this session by asking who is primarily responsible for student learning: the student, the instructor, or the institution? While there was quite a bit of discussion of this among the faculty, she argued that "when all three of these entities take full responsibility for student learning" significant increases in learning and graduation will result. What does that mean? Well, students should learn within an environment that (1) teaches them how to learn; (2) makes learning visible; (3) does not judge potential based on initial performance; (4) encourages persistence in the face of initial failure; and (5) encourages the use of metacognitive tools.
Her second presentation was entitled "Increasing Student Motivation: Strategies that Work." In the context of education, "motivating" means stimulating interest in a subject to produce a desire to learn it.

One of the biggest roadblocks to student motivation is "Learned Helplessness," which is the feeling that, based on prior experience of failure, no amount of effort will bring success. The figure below, which Dr. McGuire also used, nicely illustrates the problem:

From Psychlopedia.wikispaces.com

It is therefore important to recognize that perception of ability has the most influence on the amount of effort a student will expend on a task (this meshes nicely with the "Growth Mindset" made so popular by Carol Dweck and others). Dr. McGuire then outlined three "levers" that influence motivation:
  • Value. The importance of the goal.
  • Supportive environment. The instructor is approachable and support is available from peers and others.
  • Efficacy expectancies. Students believe that they are capable of identifying and executing a course of action that will produce a desired outcome. 
As Dr. McGuire conceded to the audience (composed mostly of faculty), most or all of this information is well known to student outreach centers on university campuses, including the Student Success Center at UNCG. Great workshop. Here are some useful online resources:

Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University
HowToStudy (this one even has some anthropology specific resources)
Var-Learn (a self-quiz on learning styles)

Check out, too, Dr. McGuire's recent book on the subject (I won the raffle for a free copy!):

McGuire, S.Y. (2015). Teaching Students How To Learn. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, VA.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bioarchaeological perspectives on societal "collapse"

On November 30th, 2016 (yes, I'm that far behind on my posts...), UNCG's Student Anthropological Society and University Archaeological Association sponsored a talk by Appalachian State University's Gwen Robbins Schug, a bioarchaeologist who, among other things, explores social change in first and second millennium BC South Asia.

The idea of societal collapse, and how past societies either fail or succeed has, thanks to popular works from scholars like Jared Diamond, entered the mainstream media in recent years. Gwen argued that these works (which are often written not by anthropologists who study human-environment interactions but by non-specialists) perpetuate misconceptions or even outright myths about the "collapse" of societies. One of the most pervasive is that the process of societal disintegration invariably results in competition and violence. Gwen also questioned the use of the word "collapse." If, by invoking this term, we mean the total collapse of a political structure, then history and archaeology tell us that true "collapses" are actually not that common at all. What is needed, Gwen went on to argue, is a shift from the idea of violent collapses to human resilience in the face of major socio-ecological change. What happens, in other words, to those people who remain, and how do they do it?

Gwen used her work with human skeletal material that dates to just after the "collapse" of the famous Indus Valley Civilization as an example of this approach. Just before 1000 BC, or about 1,000 years after the Indus "collapse," skeletons in the area showed statures (a proxy of overall health) comparable to historical populations with access to sophisticated health care. She then showed that while there were exoduses from major settlements after 1000 BC during times of environmental degradation, many people also remained. Life expectancy plummeted, skeletons showed signed of stunted growth, wasting, and more porous bones, and economies shifted from agriculture to hunting and gathering−but people survived.

The most interesting aspect of her presentation revolved around leprosy in the ancient city of Harappa. During the Early Urban period, the burials of people with leprosy differed little or not at all from the burials of unaffected individuals. However, during the later, Post-Urban period, people with leprosy were buried without their feet. Gwen suggested that those suffering from the disease during the Early Urban period were not seen as social outcasts, while during the Post-Urban period a process of "othering" emerged as people with the disease were recognized as different but, perhaps, not yet treated as unclean social outcasts. Much of these ideas are laid out more fully in a volume that Gwen recently co-edited.    

I also learned that night that Gwen was promoted to Full Professor. Well done and well deserved!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Network analysis in archaeology: post 1

The Archaeology Program here at UNCG applied (largely through the suggestion and hard work of our program chair, Dr. Maura Heyn) to host an Ashby Dialogue for the 2016-2017 academic year. The purpose of these endowed dialogues is to bring together students, faculty, and the community to investigate an interesting topic in an informal setting (I've was involved in another one of these in 2014). The archaeology faculty thought it might be interesting to explore network analysis in archaeology, largely because none of us had any idea what the heck it really was. Essentially, it gives us an excuse to get together and informally discuss something that is currently hot and that might inform our own research. The official theme: "Exploring Connections in the Past: Archaeology and Network Analysis."

For our first session, held on Friday, Nov. 4, was meant to introduce everyone to network analysis. Dr. Heyn, who moderated the session, chose an article by Tom Brughmans (2010). We had a great turnout, including many students and our colleague Art Murphy, who utilizes network analysis in his work on the responses of contemporary human populations to disasters. We spent a lot of time discussing what network analysis actually is and defining basic parameters like m-slices (apparently, this is a smaller network within a larger network). A couple of key points that arose:
  • Network analysis, contrary to what I had originally thought, is not really concerned with space (in the geographic sense). Social networks, shared artifact types, and other data types are more common in the approach.
  • It's important to remember that once you throw your data into a network analysis, the resulting pattern is not meaningful in and of itself: what it all means depends on a host of other contextual data.
  • Several different types of networks can result from the same data; it all depends on the parameters originally put into the construction of the model. It is up to the researcher to decide which one makes the most sense.
  • While it may seem a bit unscientific, it can be valuable to just throw your data into a model and see what emerges. It is certainly possible that otherwise obscure, fuzzy, or unknown relationships may emerge from a so-called "exploratory analysis." 
Looking forward to the next session!
References:

Brughmans, T (2010). Connecting the dots: towards archaeological network analysis. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 29, 277-303.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Plants in space

The RISE Network at UNCG periodically hosts STEM-based presentations, and I was able to attend one recently (9.27.16) on "Space...the final frontier...for plants" by the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, John Kiss. Kiss spoke about his work with NASA on plant biology. The highlights:
  • He started off by describing the importance of space as a laboratory for plant biology. Long distance (and long-term) space travel will likely require some sort of bioregenerative ecosystem, so it is critical to understand how plants grow in space. What's also interesting is that plants, by providing a tangible connection to Earth, appear to have a positive psychological effect on humans in isolated contexts (like space). 
  • While the space travel angle is all well and good, Kiss's academic interests lie in the effect of zero- and micro-gravity on plant physiology. More specifically, he and his colleagues are looking at a phenomenon called "red light induced phototropism." Phototropism is simply growth in response to light; we see this all the time when plants grow "towards" a source of light. As I understand it, most modern plants, especially flowering and seeding plants, are sensitive to the type of light that they respond to (light in the blue area of the spectrum seems to be preferred). Ancient lineages, on the other hand, appear not to care much about the wavelength. The effect may be very slight, however, and can be confounded by gravity. Kiss and his colleagues are using Arabidopsis in a zero gravity environment to determine if red light induced phototropism is present (it appears as if it is).
Fun stuff...