Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology?

Taken in 2009.

In 2008 I wrote a fairly shiny, wide-eyed treatment of the use of Facebook in the classroom, arguing that it provided an opportunity to discuss online privacy and a unique way to engage with archaeology. I gave the option for students to create a fake profile for a 19th century resident Zeta Psi fraternity house, a subject of research for one of the classes, when one could still do such a thing. To wit:

A critical pedagogical engagement in archaeology offers the potential to serve as an emancipatory practice, in that dominant political and historical narratives are challenged with the material record, providing a way for students to examine these narratives within their specific historical context and provide their own interpretations (Conkey and Tringham 1996; Hamilakis 2004).

Social media was a great way to get students to translate taught material and research into a sphere that they are more familiar with and use it to query the historical and archaeological record. Great, fabulous…I wrote the short piece for a teaching prize, which I didn’t get. Oh well, add it to my failure CV ala Shawn Graham.

Fast-forward a decade and I receive a notification specifically calling for examples of innovative use of social media within the classroom. Always too early. Oh well. Anyway, I’ve used social media ever since to disseminate archaeological information in various ways, to an almost tedious extent. This autumn I taught a course called Communicating Archaeology wherein the students used blogs as a platform to host archaeological media that they created themselves. I don’t consider this to be radical in any way, just a convenient way to cohesively host content.

….except. Except that I’ve asked them to use WordPress. I quite like WordPress, perhaps obviously, but my (and my students’) content creation provides their bottom line. I can justify this to a certain extent with my own work in that it is a bit like (wince) academic publishing. Would I feel the same if WordPress was funded by adverts and posts actively helping to undermine elections, ala Facebook? Do I know that they are not?

Would I feel comfortable asking my students to perform their content on Facebook or Twitter these days? I’m not entirely sure. There has been some discussion regarding the ethics of use of social media amongst archaeologists, several of which are linked from my department’s webpage, but none of it engages with the fact that we are assigning students to create monetized content on for-profit platforms, OR that by making our students engage with these platforms they are getting their personal information harvested and re-sold. Never mind that, during an untold mental health crisis amongst our students, we are encouraging them to engage with media that actively makes users feel worse about themselves.

During my last lecture of Communicating Archaeology I emphasized to the students that on social media, the product is YOU. If you choose to engage with social media you may as well try to use it in a way that will benefit you, as those companies are profiting from your participation. For now the pedagogical balance may fall on a structured, critical engagement with social media, but any use in the classroom needs to fully consider the monetization of content and personal information provided.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

7 thoughts on “Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology?”

  1. I appreciated reading this post, as it circles something I’ve been mulling over recently as I worked through a post mortem for the course I taught on digital archaeology and heritage last fall. As a relatively small assignment in that course I asked students to critically evaluate the websites/social media of various “fantastical” sites devoted to heritage and archaeology… the usual of exploring underlying intent, messaging, envisioned and “real” audiences, etc. I’ve done this before in the course, but in 2017 it was beyond easy for the students to find an ocean of examples, and tease out a wide range of underlying messaging and social media behaviour that readily mirrored more mainstream tendencies in 2017 of Trumping, conspiracy, and equating facts with opinion and vice versa. By the end of the course we were all a little demoralized by the depth and breadth of what we explored. Being overwhelmed week after week by site after site of insular and circular discourses about ancient aliens, archaeological heritage as racial supremacy, speculative personal opinion as certain fact, all offered as counter elite conspiracies, truth suppression and “quackademic” wrongness, either for fairly explicit and venal profit or to advance earnest personal conviction, was just a little soul crushing that came to colour a lot of our broader class discussion through the term.

    And of course, the students’ research, and my follow up during marking, all skewed the social media algorithms on the the various devices and accounts we each used for the project… a lingering whiff of that disquieting world we were plunging into each week. Abstractly, we all knew those rabbit holes were out there… but really didn’t get to appreciate how deep and how full they were until we kept plunging back in the next week.

    I still think it is critical for students to critically evaluate social media and digital communication practices around archaeology and heritage, to explore those underlying intents product/person constructions at play. But perhaps next time they can critically explore intent of messaging within local and community archaeology groups! I know my bruised soul might appreciate the shift in tenor!

  2. Interesting post! Some time back I gave a talk for colleagues on the subject of ‘the Social Media Minefield’ where I had all kinds of things to say about having students use Twitter, blogs as coursework, online portfolios etc., but I was questioned as to why I hadn’t said anything positive about Facebook in education. I could only really say that Facebook “felt wrong” to me… but in this post, you’ve nailed it. I don’t see how a departmental ethics process could approve of Facebook being used in education, nowadays.

  3. It’s an interesting issue. I volunteer with a charity which funds archaeological projects and do some of the communication. To bridge the gap between technical reports and the general public I go to social media, but it’s not without reservation as there are similar issues to teaching with it. I hope that what we do contributes to the good side of social media, but it doesn’t directly tackle how social media can be detrimental to some people. In the past we used promotions on social media to share our work but in the future we’ll have to consider whether it’s appropriate.

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