by Tracy C. Brown
The passage of time erases memories of things that happened long ago. Several weeks ago, I was searching through my well-ordered files in the upstairs office at my home to find an old archaeological report that was filed away many years ago. My office is fairly large, but it contains a rather extraordinary number of varied and interesting items. Each item has its own special place of residence within my office, but free space is at a premium. (Yes, you would have fun in this room if you were to ever visit me.) Because of these many items and the limited space, my office was necessarily a wreck when I finally found the document. Did I say “a wreck”? No, it looked as if a bomb had been detonated in my office.
My time has been occupied by many things lately, and the time to clean up the mess in my office came late last night. One of my file drawers is in a hard-to-access location at floor level in a closet, and pulling out those files is difficult, so difficult that I rarely open that drawer. I had somehow managed to mess up the metal frame that holds the hanging file folders in that drawer. After fixing it, I looked hard at the old, yellowed papers in the files and asked the magic question, “Can I get rid of some of this stuff?” Of course, that prompted me to start looking carefully through the old files to see if anything was really worth keeping, and I found things that had not crossed my eyes in decades―things I thought were lost long ago.
A bunch of old term papers I had written for my old college anthropology and archaeology classes turned up in these files. Out of curiosity I flipped through the papers just to see what was there and happened to notice things my professors had written on them nearly 40 years ago. Most students back in those days tended to write 10-page term papers just to get an assignment done quickly and turned in so they could simply get it off their plate and make it to the Friday afternoon beer bust. My approach was a lot different―researching thoroughly, brooding at length over the parameters and ideas necessary to the topic, focusing on details, and toiling hard over my old Royal typewriter to produce highly detailed term papers that were often 25-30 pages long. It is a wonder my professors did not kill me for forcing them to read so much when they still had 67 more student papers to read before bedtime.
Dr. Geraldine Gesell, my professor for a course in Roman Art & Archaeology, wanted to submit my undergraduate term paper entitled The Pella Mosaics: A Functional Approach for publication in a classical archaeology journal. I just told her, “Thank you—but no.” That was a mistake on my part. Never turn down an opportunity to publish a term paper.
For a graduate course in cultural anthropology that was taught by Dr. Michael Logan, I wrote a paper entitled The Cultural Ecology of Mormon Polygyny. Here is what Mike wrote at the end of that 30-page term paper:
A+. This paper is of publishable quality and is one of the best student papers I have read in years. (See me winter for suggested revisions/partic. the last section.)
My response to publishing that paper was: “Thank you Mike—but no.” Again, never turn down an opportunity to publish a term paper. I did not get into any sort of trouble with faculty for these turn downs, but it would have been better to get my name in print whenever possible.
Both my happiest and unhappiest term paper experiences came with a single term paper in a graduate seminar called Method and Theory in Archaeology. This seminar was taught by my professor and fellow postage stamp collector Dr. Gerald F. Schroedl. We all sat around a long, rectangular table in that seminar, and it always seemed as if everyone (including me) around that table had a gloom and doom look on their face―like please get me a beer and a beach―anything but this seminar—and there was a good reason for it too.
I could take a couple of pages to explain it here in detail, but Gerald summed it up quite briefly and beautifully in a moment I will never forget as long as I live. He stood up at the end of the table and was holding a new book on archaeological method and theory. It was thick enough to weigh about 10 lbs., and it was written by a famous British archaeologist who was deeply into method and theory in the late 1970s. Gerald opened up the book and orally read a short paragraph to the class. At the end of his reading, he looked up very seriously at everyone gathered around the table, smiled, and said:
Anybody here know what in the Hell this guy is trying to say?
Best I could tell, no one did—including me—hence all of the glum faces that arrived every morning at the seminar table. It was not Gerald’s teaching. Gerald was an excellent teacher. The subject matter itself and the way it was written were the problems.
Many years later, after I became a professional technical editor, the crux of the matter became clear to me. Many of the people who write articles and books on archaeological method and theory are very poor writers who have hazy, partially formed thoughts they cannot express with sufficient simplicity and clarity to be understood. This is also true of many people who write mathematics textbooks. In addition, within the method and theory ranks, it has always seemed to me that there is a high premium on writing tortured, incomprehensible text designed to dazzle outside colleagues with complexity and impenetrability. For example, I once heard a female archaeology student say the following with intense seriousness:
Wow!!! I must have read this method and theory paragraph 10 times, and I still have no idea what this author is saying. He must be one of the smartest people who ever lived!!!
No, baby. He is not one of the smartest people who ever lived. Take my word for it. Better still, take the word of my friend Mr. Clemens:
The purpose of writing is to communicate clearly and coherently with the reader. If an author writes on archaeological method and theory and does so in a way that is neither clear nor understandable to a well-educated reader, then that author is not communicating. His thinking and writing are a waste of his time, and reading it is a waste of time for the reader. Today, whenever a person drops a written piece of archaeological method and theory in front of me, I take a quick look at it to determine whether it is another insufferable tome written by an archaeological illiterate lacking talent for simplicity and clarity. If it is, this is my invariable response:
It is obvious to me that this person has nothing to say, so I am not going to waste my time trying to decipher this piece of garbage.
A huge part of a person’s grade in Gerald’s seminar rested on writing an original term paper on a personally selected topic in archaeological method and theory. Coming up with a topic alone was sheer torture because in my mind it had to be a topic that I could write about coherently, sensibly, and clearly. Given the usual murkiness of archaeological method and theory reference sources, writing it was going to be no easy matter. I felt anxious about it for most of that quarter, and the pieces of what I was going to write were not falling into place easily or quickly in my mind, as they usually did with other writing assignments.
In fact, for most of that academic quarter, I felt severely under the gun like Daffy Duck did in his award-winning cartoon short where gangsters kidnap him, wrongly believing that he has laid a golden egg. They try to force him at gunpoint to lay a golden egg for them. After a grueling, soul-grinding effort infused with great fear and much sweating, Daffy actually lays a golden egg at the end of the film and says with great relief: “Well, whatdaya know???!!!” Then a gangster sticks a gun on Daffy’s bill, points into a large room with empty egg cartons piled high to the ceiling, and says, “Fill’em!!!”
Toward the end of the autumn quarter, I accompanied a close friend to Columbus, Ohio, for a Thanksgiving celebration, and this gave me an opportunity to spend several days in the campus library at The Ohio State University. The reference sources on their shelves afforded me an interesting topic, and the pieces finally started falling into place. I began writing the paper soon afterwards and had only a little bit left to write the evening before it was due. That evening turned into an all-nighter for me as even more pieces fell into place while I was writing. By dawn, every cell in my body was absolutely worn out, as were those of my apartment mates who had stayed up all night with their end-of-the-quarter assignments. The title of the finished term paper was A Logico-Deductive Minimizing Approach to the Use of Ethnographic Analogy in the Interpretation of Specific Aspects of Great Basin Prehistory. Feeling half dazed, I walked slowly over to the seminar room in South Stadium Hall, deposited the paper in Gerald’s hands, and hoped it would pass muster.
A few days later, Gerald returned the graded term papers, and everyone in the seminar room tensed up. My paper was written clearly and coherently—something I knew for sure—but I was most afraid that my thoughts and ideas would not be understood and well received. On the last page of my term paper, Gerald had written the following:
Tracy – Well thought, well organized, well written paper. Paper A. I am disappointed that you didn’t contribute more to our class discussions. The paper makes it obvious that you could have made a substantial contribution. Class participation B. Course A.
With driving worry, deep thought, and great effort across an entire academic quarter, I had somehow laid the golden egg. (Yes, I did not say much in classes back in those days. I was a shy kid—painfully shy. Nowadays, as often evidenced on this blog, the professor might be unable to stop me from talking in a seminar.) I will close with a short sermon for undergraduate students and new graduate students in American archaeology.
Term papers are not professor-devised instruments of torture to be shed quickly and with as few pages as possible so you can make it to the beer bust on time. Term papers are essential learning experiences that teach you how to research, think, and write. If you are planning to be a professional archaeologist one day, most of your future is going to be all about researching, thinking, and writing in detail. Start work on your term papers early in the semester, and do your research thoroughly. Do not just slop a bunch of quick thoughts onto paper and leave it at that. Think deeply. Brood over the nuts and bolts of your term paper, and do it long and hard, looking at your content from every angle. Be detailed because archaeology is all about precision and details. Roll it all over many times in your mind throughout the semester. Never prepare a term paper just to get by with a respectable “C” or an honorable “B.” No “C” is ever respectable in undergraduate academia. Getting a “B” in a graduate school course should be a rare event.
Finally, learn how to write term papers with excellence. Take those college English courses seriously and concentrate hard on them. Take some extra ones beyond the required few, particularly courses that focus on English vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and writing skills. You must make it a high priority to think clearly and write clearly in American archaeology. Clear thoughts should translate into clear text on paper. As one of my favorite writers (a Princeton University alumnus) said:
It is not cleanliness that is next to Godliness. Clarity in writing is next to Godliness.
Never be one of the fog-bound method and theory illiterati in American archaeology. Never be like Lewis Binford, a famous American archaeologist whose writing was so poor and incoherent that his first wife had to be on constant standby to clean it up so his readers could understand it. (That is what Sally Binford actually said in her infamous published interview back in the 1980s. I read the full original text of that interview.) Yes, it is all hard work, but if you will just focus on it and do it, it will pay off in spades for many decades to come. The students picked to receive Graduate Research Assistantships in archaeology, and all of the money that comes with them, are often the best writers in the department.