Category Archives: General musings

Building a community of scholarship

One of the best things about the twenty-first century has to be how our ability to research and keep in touch with colleagues has changed dramatically. I’ve been trying to do my part to help build community amongst scholars who study the South Caucasus. As one project meant to work on this goal, I co-chair an annual session on the archaeology of the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, at the ASOR annual meeting. At the 2015 meeting, we crowdsourced ideas for an online community, and so I’ve built a forum on this website as a beta test, before going live on the American Research Institutes of the South Caucasus site, where the forum will eventually be housed.

More on crowdfunding science from Science Friday

I had the most useful laundry day ever. Spacing out, folding t-shirts, and suddenly Science Friday’s discussion reaches my active brain through the laundry daze – they’re talking about crowdfunding science projects! The interviewee started a website,, where scientists can appeal to funders for their projects. Some of the projects are ridiculous (“does potato salad taste good” earned its PI $104!), but the choices also include many interesting-looking social science projects. While I wonder about a crowdfunding bubble, the possibilities seem boundless right now, and especially important when governmental funding is in danger.

Reflections on a teaching conference

This week, the Chicago Center for Teaching held its annual two-day teaching conference designed to help graduate students learn to be effective teachers and TAs. Today’s plenary lecture was on “Teaching is not learning,” given by Jean-Luc Doumont, who works for a company that specializes in effective communication. The talk was a dynamic introduction to how to think as an instructor and how to create a learner-centered classroom, and I hope the new instructors found it helpful. I found that Jean-Luc provided some bon mots that are useful and/or thought-provoking, so I thought I would share them.

  •  “You can take care of the students, or you can take care of the material.”

facilitating vs lecturingWhat Jean-Luc meant by this is explained by a diagram he had in his slideshow. In it, he dichotomizes (perhaps too starkly) facilitating vs. lecturing, where lecturing is supposed to be the mode of transmission used when the content is most important – “I have to get through all this content!” The other side of the diagram is “facilitation,” or how you create an atmosphere and construct a course to facilitate student learning – “I have to get these students to learn!” A new instructor might not see the difference between those states – isn’t getting through all the content going to cause the students to learn it?? The answer is, well, probably not.  Not if you don’t think about the mode of transmission, and it’s very easy in your first class to focus almost exclusively on the material, rather than considering its reception (and absorption). Lecturing has its place as a pedagogical tool, Continue reading

Should we crowdfund archaeology? Regarding US Ambassador Heffern’s exhortation to develop archaeology & tourism in Armenia

In 2013, the United States Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, gave a TedX talk in Yerevan about the wealth of archaeological remains just waiting to be excavated (and then conserved) in the modern Republic of Armenia. He argued that the vivid history in Armenia should be better known throughout the world, to bring development (i.e., tourist dollars and related construction projects) to Armenia, and also to heighten academic interest in its history, thereby also encouraging international collaboration.

To emphasize the value of bringing international attention to archaeology in Armenia, Ambassador Heffern pointed out a few somewhat recent finds from the caves near the town of Areni in Vayots Dzor, including the earliest known wine-making equipment and a remarkably well-preserved leather shoe that clocks in at 5,500 years old. He went on to discuss the wine-making equipment at length, because of its potential significance to development, as the region of Areni just happens to be the most famous Armenian region for wine production, suggesting marketing connections just waiting to be made.  Ambassador Heffern’s final exhortation to his audience was to look into the use of crowdfunding to help finance archaeological projects and conservation, and to promote the sites for education and tourism.

I am in such complete agreement with Ambassador Heffern’s main points that I have in fact spoken to audiences across the U.S. on numerous occasions about archaeology in Armenia, its origins, its history, and its current state.  In Armenia, if you walk through the countryside with one of the archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologist will point out a historic or archaeological site to your left; an artifact to the right; a series of memorials behind you; or ancient walls directly in front.  The landscape is dotted with reminders of the past, artifacts and constructions like those found in the Areni cave that tell a tale of very early times, up through material remains that teach us about the medieval period and beyond.  The very landscape tells a story, a complex story of different times and different people, and that captivating story—or really, stories—should indeed be better known.

I have even led a group of tourists through every part of the country, telling those stories of the past by providing a unique look at material excavated long ago as well as excavations that are currently ongoing. I led the tour to do exactly what Ambassador Heffern is calling for, to bring tourist money into the country while at the very same time educating people about the past directly under their feet.

And so, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the talk, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what impact crowdfunding might have on what is (and should remain) a social-scientific endeavor.  What happens if institutions like universities and organizations like the National Science Foundation are relieved of their responsibility to fund scientific projects like archaeology?  What happens if the model becomes, in fact, a business model?  Or even a privately-funded model?

I have other questions about the talk, such as why there was no mention of the many international collaborations already going on in Armenia, some of which have lasted for many years.  There was not even a mention of the teams at UCLA and University College Cork who work at Areni, although to be fair, Armenian archaeologists also hardly figured in the speech except to be seen in the photo at the Institute.  My point, however, is that collaborations and academic interest in Armenia already do exist; why not lend support to these projects, which already have the relationships and even infrastructure in place that will allow them to expand their efforts to illuminate the archaeology and history hiding in Armenia’s soil?

In the end, TedX talks are meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily problem-solving. This talk certainly made me think, but largely, about the proposed solution to the problem of funding archaeological research, and about the problems that the solution might in turn raise.

Millennials: is it even possible to characterize an entire generation?

It’s interesting to me that my brother, Charlie Anderson, and I interact with the same generation, though in vastly different settings.  I get the millennials between 18 – 22 years old in the classroom, and he picks up where I left off, training them at his consulting company, Boom Lab.  I’ve wondered before just how accurate the pseudo-psychological characterizations of a whole generation could be, considering how many contexts there are for rearing the children of that generation.  (Are the sweeping generalizations supposed to be of the sort of middle-of-the-road, middle class, median group?  How “entitled” could the millennials raised in poorer environments really be?)  And in my experience, even with a segment of the population likely to be middle or upper class, there’s a wide range of attitudes, abilities, and aptitudes.

Charlie has clearly given a lot of thought to how this generation of new workers interact in the workplace, how to harness their particular skills, and maybe rein in certain tendencies.  Rather than a pseudopsychology of the millennials, he demonstrates how to evaluate people between 22-25 years old in the very real context of their jobs.  It’s an interesting read, thought-provoking and careful to avoid stereotypes:

Independence Day, Armenia-style

On September 21st, Armenia celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.  There were concerts, dance performances, and a general party atmosphere all over the center of Yerevan.  In the evening, Republic Square was transformed into one large concert- and show venue, where a full orchestra played while dancers danced, singers sang, and a visual history of Armenia was projected onto the History Museum of Armenia as well as the two government buildings flanking it (the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance).  I’ve never seen anything like the light show played on the buildings; these photos don’t do it justice.  It was really remarkable.

The History Museum of Armenia

I had spent the evening with a couple of friends, talking, eating fruit and treats, drinking cognac and rose liqueur, and I decided I needed to witness the events in Republic Square.  A 20th anniversary only comes around once—and I figured that such a milestone would be perceived a little differently than, say, our 235th anniversary of independence.  I started my investigations into the holiday by talking with friends and colleagues, asking what they thought of the anniversary—both in general, and specifically, of the celebrations the government was planning.  The celebrations had clearly been in the works for a long time, including not just that day’s activities, but also an entire printed campaign with signs proclaiming “Hayastany Du Es!”, or, you are Armenia!, as well as a music video that played frequently all summer: . Continue reading

Warm receptions

When I last wrote, I started by saying that I missed the food in Armenia while I was away, which kind of makes me sound shallow (if you haven’t tried it, that is).  I can’t let another entry pass without mentioning my friends, though.  Armenia, like its neighbors, has a tradition of hospitality.  The very first time I came to Armenia, in 2006, I was immediately treated like family (the fact that I kept hurting my ankle probably helped: I was fussed over and cared for like a clumsy child—although probably the cognac remedy isn’t tried out on kids).  But while anyone entering another’s house would be treated to Armenian coffee and treats, possibly an entire meal (how they manage that with surprise visitors is remarkable), my polite acquaintances quickly became fast friends.  Every get-together (or at least, every get-together with archaeologists; I’m not sure about generally) involves toasting, by the hosts and/or by the guests.  Now, it seems like I nearly always give a variant of the same toast, thanking my hosts, and in the case of my closest friends, thanking them for becoming my family in Armenia.

One example of Armenian hospitality is the egg lunch that my husband and I were treated to last week.  He and I don’t eat meat, and while some meat-loving Armenians shake their heads at us, our friends understand—and remember.  After not seeing us for a year, our friends remembered that we don’t eat meat, and so perhaps contrary to the typical pattern of hospitality, instead of meat, they made two different egg dishes as the main courses.  And of course, like everything else, it was fresh and delicious (I even enjoyed the fresh peas, despite the fact that I don’t really like peas—they squish unpleasantly).  Another friend knows I’m lactose intolerant, and she always goes out of her way to bake splendid dairy-free treats or prepare amazing dairy-free dinners.  I’m very lucky to have such thoughtful friends.

This post was supposed to be about my friends, and how I missed them, and somehow, it’s become about food again.  It is true that socializing nearly always involves food, or at least, drinking coffee—even the work day is punctuated by breaks to prepare Armenian coffee (even as I write this, a colleague just asked, “Elizabet—surtch kuzes?”, Elizabeth, do you want coffee? Yes, please!).  I guess food and friends are inextricably linked in my experiences here, so perhaps it’s not so bad to discuss them both in one breath.

Reflections on a return

figs in the window

I started to write a little bit about the things that I’ve missed in Armenia since leaving last year, but it quickly ceased to be “a little bit,” and so instead, I’ll talk about one of the most important things I’ve missed: the fresh fruit and vegetables.  I love my neighborhood produce store in Chicago, don’t get me wrong, but the summer produce here is incredible: peaches as big as softballs and as sweet as honey, watermelon that melts in your mouth, juicy figs that don’t cost an arm or a leg (maybe an ankle, but they’re worth it), and the tomatoes.  Oh, the tomatoes.  Juicy, bright red, tender, flavorful—not picked green and then sent to a warehouse.  All summer, before arriving here in August, I would look at even the organic tomatoes at my store in Chicago and sigh, reminding myself that true vine-ripened tomatoes were waiting for me in Armenia.

Armenia’s fruit- and vegetable-basket is the Ararat plain, a mountainous plateau that has been at the heart of Armenia since time immemorial.  Armenia has a number of inactive volcanoes and calderas in and around it, and it seems that the volcanic soil has a near-magical ability to grow a wide (and delicious) variety of fruits and vegetables.  One of the traditional dishes here is khorovats, or barbecue, where pieces of meat are placed on skewers and cooked over coals.  The meat is accompanied by whole peppers (spicy or not), eggplants, and tomatoes, all of which are also skewered and barbecued.  There might be a variety of side dishes as well—sauteed eggplant slices with garlic and walnuts, fresh herbs, homemade yogurt and cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, a million kinds of salads—but the simple preparation of the barbecued vegetables is mouthwateringly fantastic, with its combination of the charred exterior and the tender, juicy inside.  I don’t eat meat, but I’ve never left a khorovats dinner without being stuffed.

When I first stayed in Yerevan in 2008 (before that, I had only lived in a smaller town called Aparan), even the large supermarkets had mostly seasonal produce.  That meant that in the winter, there’d be primarily squashes and root vegetables, but it also meant that everything was fresh and not designed for optimal transportation.  Now, you can find quinces from Moscow, lemons from Georgia, and, to my surprise (and error) last week, apples from New Zealand.  I meant to buy some tasty local apples for my husband, but clearly, I should have been suspicious when I saw stickers on the fruit.  The last New Zealand apple is still on our table, while we’ve eaten our way through peaches, figs, and local apples.

fresh herbs and lettuce, all for less than $2!

There are many traditional dishes available in Armenia, but my tastes are quite simple and tend to revolve around the fresh, delicious produce.  I also find that I’m spoiled and rarely even buy some of these fruits and vegetables back in Chicago, preferring to avoid the mediocre and wait for the fantastic, when I come back to Armenia. I’m lucky that I get to come back frequently; scurvy isn’t fun, from what I hear.

in medias res

It’s hard to know exactly where to begin, or how to introduce this blog.  If a blog reflects the interests of its writer, then this one will be difficult to categorize.  There will be some ruminations on history and archaeology; thoughts about friends and relationships; information about beer and tasty food; pictures of various journeys; and anything else that pops up, really.  I studied all the liberal arts in college (at a “Great Books” school), I debated between psychology, philosophy, and history for a career, and now I find myself pursuing a dual degree in anthropological archaeology and ancient history.  In some ways, it seems like I’ve been all over the map, trying to figure out what I find most compelling, what I want to do in life.  But through it all, I realized that at the center of my investigations, driving my curiosity, is an interest in people: in our history, in the ways we tell each other about what we think is important, in the ways in which we build our lives and our cities or environments that reveal our values, in personal relationships, and in societal structures.  This blog is perhaps an attempt to synthesize my longstanding interest in people and the world we make (and how we write about it), an inquiry into (and observations about) the social, and the science.