Teaching Assistant Internship


As a teaching assistant for ANTA 362 Historical Archaeology, I gained a greater appreciation of the difficulties of creating a class exercise that is concise, comprehensive and comprehensible to all of the students in the class. The class exercise consisted of two parts: data collection in local Garfield Cemetery and analysis. I created a cemetery data collection handout intended to prepare students to collect all of the information from the gravestones accurately, and a data analysis handout intended to clarify the parts of the assignment, illustrate the three different topics the students could explore, and specify the type of analysis we expected from the students. I think that each cemetery field trip was successful and was a good experience for the students. Judging from the student papers I read, I think the exercise overall was a success, but some aspects of both the data collection and the analysis could be clarified. Even though I worked with Professor Kruczek-Aaron to eliminate as many potential problems for the students as possible, I realize after reading their papers that they were still left with unanswered questions. My greatest frustration with this exercise was that none of the students came to me for help during my weekly office hour, even though some of them needed advice and guidance. The experience of designing this exercise will be valuable for me in the future, because I plan to teach in some capacity.

The intended purpose of the assignment was to give the students a chance to experience data collection and analysis in an authentic but controlled situation. I would always rather have students using real data rather than invented data, because they are more likely to encounter the ambiguities of real-world research, and are more likely to find their work meaningful, because it relates to the lives of real people in the past. However, the challenge with this exercise was to make the project manageable for the students by clearly defining its limits and providing as much support as possible. I also wanted the students to get a chance to experience a form of archaeology that uses non-invasive techniques to study historic period artifacts, because many people are more familiar with the standard prehistoric archaeological excavation.

When this exercise was still in the developmental stages, I visited the Garfield Cemetery with Professor Kruczek-Aaron to decide if it would work for our project. We decided that it had several advantages for our project, including its proximity to campus and its variety of stone shapes, sizes, and symbols, but that it was too large for a class to cover completely. Over winter break, I did as much research on the cemetery as I could. I found a plot map from an old cemetery census in the archives of the Potsdam Public Museum that formed the basis for the plot map we used in the data collection. I also found the names of the people who currently operate the cemetery, Jim and Elaine Garfield, although they did not know much about the history of the cemetery. I also spent time thinking about the dimensions of the gravestones we would record, including the size, type, shape, material, and condition of the gravestones, as well as the name, date, symbolic decoration, and inscriptions carved into the stones, and how those would be defined in a way that the students could easily record. A key resource in developing the exercise was the book Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period by Harold Mytum, which particularly influenced the analysis topic focusing on family relationships in the cemetery.

Before the field component could be carried out, I had to prepare both the data collection handout and the basic guidelines for the data analysis, because we asked the students to choose which topic they would pursue before they collected data. For the data collection handout, I listed the categories that the students would be recording. I thought that the size of the stones and the textual carvings on them would be easy for the students to figure out, but I tried to explain the possible values for each of the other categories. I found pictures of the various materials that stones were made from and the shapes of slabs for the students to use as references, and Professor Kruczek-Aaron found an image showing the various types of stones. We articulated the condition of the stone as good, average, or poor, with descriptions of each condition. I also adapted a list of points of cemetery etiquette from the packet of example cemetery exercises that Professor Kruczek-Aaron gave me. I included a description of the symbols found on gravestones and their meanings from the Association for Gravestone Studies, so that the students could familiarize themselves with the types of symbols they might see. I also typed the information from the four-page, handwritten plot map from the Potsdam Public Museum into an Excel sheet so it fit on a single page for convenience.

To carry out the field component, we had the students bring notebooks to record their individual data and copies of the data collection handout. We supplied measuring tapes, graph paper for drawing sketches of plots for the family ties question, plot maps, and handheld Personal Digital Assistant computers, and Brian Carroll and Jessica Vavrasek each had a digital camera to take pictures of the stones. Professor Kruczek-Aaron had Excel sheets with the categories the students would record loaded on to each PDA. I think that the PDAs were a good idea, but in practice, I think that they slowed the data collection down. They all worked properly, despite my fears that there would be a technical malfunction, but the students seemed to have trouble adapting to using them. Some of the students used them successfully. Some of the students decided to record the information in their notebooks and then enter the data in the PDAs, while others decided to do some extra work after the field trip and enter the data onto an Excel sheet on a desktop, rather than using the PDAs. I think the method that the students came up with when they found the PDAs cumbersome, recording the information on sheets of paper and then entering it into the computer, was the method that should be used in the future. Some of the students on the first field trip commented that they could work faster if each group had its own plot map, rather than having to wait for a leader with a plot map, so we brought enough plot maps for each group on the second trip.

I believe that the simpler procedures we used in the field trips worked best. The first field trip started off a bit slowly, and I was worried that the students would not complete many of the stones in the sample, but the students worked more efficiently as they learned how to do the data collection. Given the number of students in the class, we divided them into groups of three. The students said that this group size worked well, because two of the people puzzled out the inscriptions together and measured the stone, while the other person recorded the data, either on paper or in the PDA. In my role as teaching assistant, I tried to circulate through the groups and check on their progress instead of waiting for them to call for help. I found that whenever I approached a group, they had a fairly simple question to ask that they would not have felt like "bothering" a leader with by asking for help. I also caught some simple mistakes that would have hurt the students' data. I found that one group was measuring in inches, for example. I think that having one or two students with digital cameras to photograph any stones the students wanted to record was very helpful, because it created a reference for students whose memories were fuzzy and allowed them to put pictures in their papers.

I think that the two cemetery field trips went quite smoothly in general. The students collected all of the group data from the sample portion of the cemetery that we had selected, and the information was fairly accurate, although one stone was recorded in inches rather than centimeters, fortunately with the units of measurement clearly marked, and some of the groups had trouble defining the material of the stone, which could be quite tricky. The part of the field trip that I feel was less successful was the individual portion. Some people, perhaps tired by the data collection for the entire class, seemed confused by the individual portion of the data collection, and there was no clear time when we had the students do their individual projects. In one of the six anonymous final papers I read, the student did not understand what we meant by "sketch ten plot maps on graph paper," because we must not have explained it clearly. Instead of making maps, the student drew ten rather good sketches of individual stones. With more supervision or direction, the student would have known what to do. I liked having the individual data collection in the exercise, because it added depth to the final papers without creating too much extra work, but next time maybe we should have the students do the individual data collection on a different day than the group data collection.

I created several class materials to help the students with their analysis. In addition to the main analysis handout, I also created materials to help the students in their specific topics. For the social status topic, I recorded the incomes of a large sample of Potsdam residents in the 1870 census to calculate an average, so that students could contextualize the incomes they found by comparing them to the average income in Potsdam. Also, for this question, I retyped the gravestone price index from the packet of cemetery exercises that the professor gave me, and Professor Kruczek-Aaron added some specific advice for the analysis. I also held a HeritageQuest session for the students, separate from my office hours, but only one student came, so I created a document with step-by-step directions and the advice I had learned to help the students use the online census search. I created a short summary of the history of settlement in Potsdam and included a link to a website with more information, in case the students wanted to know when the different churches were established in Potsdam, for example.

In the first part of the analysis, we asked the students three questions: "A. What features do cemeteries have that make them useful to study? B. What kinds of information can we get from cemeteries? C. How have the archaeologists you have read about this semester used gravestones as part of their analyses?" The first two questions encouraged the students to generalize about the different aspects of cemeteries that we can analyze and the information that we can get from them. Many students combined these two questions in their overview, which was fine, but I think that both questions were necessary to make sure that the students covered both the advantageous features of cemeteries and their potential uses. We also asked them to link their project to the theoretical knowledge they got from the articles they read on cemetery analysis, including studies by James Deetz, LouAnn Wurst, James Garman, and Lynn Clark. The summaries of these works served as a brief literature review for the students' papers. I envisioned the first section only taking up about three pages out of ten, but many of the students' papers I read included long, detailed summaries of the articles, taking up five or six pages. I realized that we had never indicated how long each section should be relative to the other, and since the assignment was split into "Part I" and "Part II," the students were smart in assuming that the parts should be of equal length.

Through many discussions, Professor Kruczek-Aaron and I worked out three topics that the students could pursue- social status, family relationships, and symbols and beliefs. Much of my time went into developing a set of questions in each topic to give the students guidance. Some of the students chose to focus on only one or two of the questions in their topic, but most of the students addressed most of the questions in their papers. Even though we tried to make each topic seem equally interesting and equally challenging, most of the students seem to have chosen the symbols topic. This could be because despite our efforts, the symbols topic seemed easier and more interesting than the other topics, or it could be because as anthropologists, we are all inherently fascinated by symbols. The social status question may have sounded harder, but that was just because it set out each of the steps to answer it more clearly, and I think it got the most interesting results. I read two papers on the status topic, and I found it interesting that by using different samples of five men's gravestones to compare to the 1870 census records, the students drew the opposite conclusion about whether wealth in the census was related to expenditure on the gravestone.

Despite the minor problems, I think that the exercise met our goals, because it did give the students the chance to work with real data and draw their own conclusions from it. The student papers generally exceeded my expectations. Many of the student papers I read showed that the students had worked hard on their papers, crunching numbers and making comparisons. I think that the students really stretched themselves to answer the larger questions about causation, rather than just comparing the relative percentages of values for their stones. I was particularly impressed with the students who used graphics in their papers, such as tables, bar graphs, or images of symbols. Next time I would emphasize that aspect more strongly, because it made the papers seem much more professional. As a tutor at the Writing Center, the grammar and spelling errors in the papers distressed me. That was an aspect of the paper that I could have helped the students with, if they had chosen to use my office hours. Next time I did this exercise, I would supply the students with one of the better papers as an example for them to follow. For example, I think that the paper on social status that was divided into clear sections like a professional academic paper, including a section on each of the five men the student profiled, would be a good example for the structure and organization of the paper. I hope that the experience left students more interested in doing original research, cemetery studies, and historical archaeology.

I think that this exercise was a successful learning experience for the students, and preparing it certainly taught me a great deal. Professor Hadley Kruczek-Aaron and I worked hard to anticipate every possible question or problem that the students could have with the exercise. The results show that some aspects of the exercise were still somewhat ambiguous and confusing, but I think that in general, the students did remarkably well. I think that the field component to the exercise went as well as could be expected for the first time doing this exercise, but next time I would bring enough plot maps for every group and use paper instead of PDAs to record the data. I would also change the individual data collection, perhaps to another day or time. In the analysis component, next time I would specify the approximate number of pages for each section in addition to the overall number of pages for the project to keep people from writing article reviews rather than analyses. I would also work to make each topic seem equally appealing to the students so that there was more of a variety in the final papers. During my internship, I learned how much of themselves professors put into their projects and how anxious they are to see the outcomes. Creating this two-part class exercise reemphasized my respect for teachers, who struggle to create engaging, challenging, and realistic projects for their students, and reaffirmed my desire to teach, either formally or informally, in my future career.