Talking About Machines and thinking about archaeology (and teaching)

One of the great things about travel is that I got a chance to read a couple of books. I finished up a fairly recent classic of modern anthropology Julian Orr’s Talking About Machines. Situated at the intersection of Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and Bruno Latour’s work on the agency of machines, Orr’s classic records the way in which Xerox technicians talk about their work, the machines they service, and their customers. In his field work, he followed a group of technicians to service calls, in the lunch breaks, and with their colleagues. The technicians detailed the both the routines that defined their workday but also the ways in which they adapted to the challenges of balky or difficult machines. The tension between repair procedures proscribed by corporate manuals and those preferred by the technicians is particularly interesting. The heart of the book is the idea that information between technicians is typically shared through informal stories rather than formal meetings, technical documents, or corporate training hierarchies.

Since its publication the book has influenced discussion of situated learning and, my new little obsession, communities of practice. Emphasizing the informal spaces and practices of learning that fed the formation of communities, Orr’s book shifted the emphasis from various well-defined structures to practice. This got me thinking in three directions.

1. Communities of Practice on Cyprus. In the paper I gave this week at the University of Texas, I rather meekly alluded to the idea that artifact assemblages and architecture might reflect communities of practice. This idea intersected with P. Horden and N. Purcell’s notion of the microregion, best developed in their substantial monograph, The Corrupting Sea. They argue that microregions are the basic spatial unit that defines social and economic interaction in the Mediterranean basin. The reason for this has to do with the high degree and intensity of regional variation across the Mediterranean and the concomitant interdependence of these microregions.

An approach that would challenge this structural understanding of Mediterranean social geography is on that sees networks of practice. Indeed, these networks could and likely did follow microregional lines as environmental conditions would clearly shape practice. On the other hand, networks of practice could easily follow the organization of craft or even social space of craft people. The difference, for example, between the distribution of certain kinds of churches on Cyprus and the distribution of certain kinds of ceramics suggests that the communities of practice constituting these two phenomena are quite different. The microregion is mediated by communities of practice that function along a range of different spatial connections that link together groups defined by shared skills, consumption patterns, and other social relationships.

2. Field Work. I was struck by how similar the stories used by Xerox technicians were to those that circulated among archaeologist. The genre of “war story” has clear parallels in both archaeology. War stories represented a way that technicians communicated solutions to particularly vexing problems, displayed technical prowess, and, ultimately, defined practice. Among archaeologists, war stories often serve established professional competence, to demonstrate the resolution of problems associated with the tricky social environment of encountered in excavations, and to communicate solutions to stratigraphic or documentation problems. While archaeologists maintain a robust body of technical literature (and technicians as a rule do not), war stories nevertheless make up a particularly significant aspect of archaeological discourse.

I can recall, for example, telling stories about a having to cut back massive amounts of scarp to protect excavators whose trench was deeper than initially expected, about having to arrange an apology to a very senior archaeologist who we offended during some of our work, and about the stratigraphic situation of some particularly significant finds. Most of these war stories are situated at the fringes of the kind of formal methodological debates suitable for publication, but do at least as much to establish professional credentials and to communicate social wisdom. Most importantly, however, are the war stories surrounding the use of digital technologies in the field and our methods for adapting technological tools for specialized use. Perhaps it is the disparate nature of archaeological publications describing and proscribing the use of digital tools in the field (or perhaps it the community in which I am a part) that leads to the prevalence of digital war stories. Whatever the reason, it certainly defies our expectations that the application of technologies will produce approaches to communicating in and about the field that rely more on practices embedded in craft than more industrialized modes of knowledge transfer.

3. Teaching. One of the things that remains baffling to me is how students organize themselves both inside and outside of class. My experience in the Scale-Up room has suggested that forced communities – at tables or in smaller pods – work to some extent, but these communities tend to be fragile and top-down.

What would be superior to these top down methods for creating communities of practice is to understand how students organize themselves and socialize outside of class. It seems to me that the most significant challenge in how we understand the Scale-Up room is how do we balance imposing classroom order against allowing students to express their own communities of practice. Among Xerox technicians, the lunch tables and the time before meetings are where communities of practice happen. The formal meetings and stylized manuals contribute very little to this discourse. 

As our university has articulated “gathering” as one of the priorities of the Exceptional UND initiative, it would be particularly useful to understand how they have conceived of student gathering and the formation of communities. My most cynical perspective on student behavior sees their communities of practice oriented  around spaces of resistance. For example, our department has a lounge space for students, but, in general, students prefer to sit in the hallway and carve out space for work and study in ad hoc ways. I know, however, that there is more to student behavior than simply defying authority just as Xerox technicians did more than simply delay the start of regular meetings with the war stories. 

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