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.

Pedagogy and Facebook

I was pretty chuffed to receive an Outstanding GSI (read – Teaching Assistant) award for teaching Introduction to Archaeology last year.  There isn’t a prize awarded initially, but you can enter a one-page essay describing a teaching problem you have encountered and what you did about it to get an additional prize.  Sorry about the citations–I don’t usually like to use them on blogs, but, y’know.

For your perusal:

You have a friend request.”  This email notification has become a standard occurrence in my email in-box. I had been on the social networking site Facebook for about six months, networking with my fellow graduate students and professors, joining groups related to my profession, and even planning a conference event using the popular site. At first I did not recognize the profile photograph of the person requesting my friendship, as his face was obscured by a beer keg, but I instantly recognized the name: it was a student from one of my sections. Was this request an invasion of my privacy, or an honest attempt at extending the open, informal attitude I valued in my classroom to an online venue? Where were the boundaries between personal and public in the technologically enhanced social realm of the university? Further, could we use these potentially invasive technologies to help teach our students?

After experiencing this odd disconnect between a more traditional teacher-student relationship in the classroom and becoming “friends” online, I wanted to identify the exact dimensions and repercussions of this new challenge in teaching. 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). Would connecting online help foster a community of practice within the discipline (Lave and Wenger 1991) and offer reciprocal relationships in place of the traditional banking model of education? While there is already an element of self-disclosure in the classroom on the part of instructors trying to communicate concepts regarding a discipline that is largely based on field work, research has shown that students who interact with instructors on websites (O’Sullivan, et al. 2004) and social networking sites (Mazer, et al. 2007) attain higher levels of affective learning, but this needs to be accompanied by an active process of privacy management (Mazer, et al. 2007: 4-5).

Given the potential for an enhanced engagement with students, I chose to address social networks on three fronts: in my section syllabus, in the maintenance of my online presence, and as a research topic for students. In a single line, crafted to avoid insulting students or to exclude all possible future interaction, I stated, “As a rule, I do not accept Facebook or Myspace friend requests from current students.” In class I elaborated upon the importance of maintaining privacy and professionalism, emphasizing this necessity to an audience who might have not thought about current and future ramification of complete self-disclosure. On the social networks I went through the security options, allowing students a certain amount of access to my profile while keeping other, personal interactions private. I was able to capitalize on my detailed knowledge of these sites by giving students the option of creating a Facebook profile for a 19th century resident of the former Zeta Psi fraternity house on campus. The fraternity was the subject of research by anthropology faculty and is used as an object lesson in Introduction to Archaeology. Students who made a profile had to form a narrative around a research question, using excavation data, photos and other evidence. Designing a mock profile made the students ask questions about the day-to-day life of individuals in the past, a primary goal of the course.

Unlike last year, I have not had any friend requests from current students. The process of evaluating and maintaining these boundaries caused me to critically assess my own presence online, and to emphasize the potential of destructive self-disclosure with my students.  Integrating social networks into assignments fostered a level of enthusiasm, creativity, and engagement with archaeological topics absent in the more traditional essay format. The potential to establish communities of practice in broader academic life through social networks is an enticing venue of research, provided that boundaries are maintained.

Conkey, M. W. and R. Tringham
1996    Cultivating thinking/challenging authority: some experiments in feminist pedagogy in archaeology. In Gender and Archaeology, edited by R. P. Wright, pp. 224-50. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Hamilakis, Y.
2004    Archaeology and the politics of pedagogy. World Archaeology 36(2):287-309.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger
1991    Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge England ; New York.


Mazer, J. P., R. E. Murphy and C. J. Simonds
2007    I’ll See You On “Facebook”: The Effects of Computer-Mediated Teacher Self-Disclosure on Student Motivation, Affective Learning, and Classroom Climate. Communication Education 56(1):1-17.

O’Sullivan, P. B., S. K. Hunt and L. R. Lippert
2004    Mediated Immediacy: A Language of Affiliation in a Technological Age. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 23(4):464-490.