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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

An Academic Hidden in CRM

This blog is written about my experience this summer working in CRM along with the experiences I have had while interacting with the academic side of archeology. Although I am only a masters student, and I am still a baby in the field, I have noticed some intercrossing in the attitudes of both public and academic archeology. It must be noted that these observations are based on my own experiences and interactions within the field; someone else could have had an entirely different experience!



An academic archeologist is an active researcher in the field, usually with an explicit research question or hypothesis. Academic archeologists oversee “the analysis and interpretation of projects and publish the result of their work” (https://www.saa.org/about-archaeology/archaeology-as-a-career). Dr. Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, accessed “the views of some 20,000 academics, and found "considerably higher" levels of psychological distress than in the population as a whole.” (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university). Thus far, I have been extremely fortunate in that my mentor advocates for a healthy, balanced lifestyle rather than just WORK WORK WORK. Despite my good fortune with understanding professors, I still struggle under the weight of what is expected of me and I fear the day I have a professor who de-validates my experiences.



Our graduate students (myself included) are seriously struggling under the weight of what is expected of them. The hazing attitude that previous generations of scholars have had towards their graduate students, namely ‘If I had to go through this, you should too’, leaves a physical presence of the mountain you are going to have to climb to gain respect. We are obviously passionate about our research, hence the one million years of school, and some people do not understand how difficult it can be to detach your sense of self from your academic accomplishments. We are here because we want this so damn bad we are willing to put ourselves through hell to be here!


We are willing to put multiple parts of our identity on hold. Meanwhile, we watch our friends start their careers and families, we are still eating ramen noodles at 4am trying to finish an essay. It’s not easy to pick your career over your personal life, and yet on some level, being an archeologist requires you to commit yourself to your career at an early age. Being an academic archeologist is, by nature, a very demanding field. However, the intense environment of competition within the field tends to aggravate its demanding nature.



Dr. Allan Swan, of Imperial College London, blames the demand for “increased product and productivity” for the rising levels of mental health problems among young academics (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university). Since I took my first Classics course, something archeologically has always been on my ‘to-do’ list. The worst part is that I know I have done my part in perpetuating this attitude of work before self. There have been so many times where I have neglected my mental and physical health for the sake of my work. Even now I am writing this blog off of 6 hours of sleep. Why? Because I have this burning feeling of guilt every time I feel I am not doing something productive. I know my colleagues feel my struggle.


It is no secret that you have to have thick skin to work in any type of high academia, after all, your paper is eventually going to be put on blast by an entire conference! However, the disregard of mental health in the field must change! In the Guardian’s interview with Dr. Swan, he described the attitude as “There’s still a degree of ‘If you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here’” (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-universityhere”).


This summer I got a seasonal job as an Archeologist II at a CRM firm. For those academic archeologists who are unfamiliar with Cultural Resource Management, it is a different world than academic archeology. A majority of archeologists today work in CRM. ]CRM is the practice of managing heritage assets: “CRM companies are responsible for the archaeological research done to follow federal historic preservation laws. Archaeologists employed in CRM firms may work as temporary field or laboratory assistants... After collecting data, they are responsible for writing reports and other publications to share the results of their research” (https://www.saa.org/about-archaeology/archaeology-as-a-career).



My experience in CRM archeology was extremely eye opening, even though it was for such a short period of time. Similar to academic archeology, there was a sense of ‘’if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen’ type of vibe. I felt as if this ‘toughen up’ attitude greatly affected my limited time in the field in a very different way than the pressure of academic archeology. Management showed a disregard for the archeologist's time and safety. The concrete example I am thinking of is when I got stung by 40 bees and didn’t even get a phone call! In this sense, the management’s ‘cold shoulder’ or lack of involvement cultivated a sense of competition to bring yourself above the fray. In order to look like a good employee, people would not speak up if there was a problem. It felt like this led to an unspoken rule that only certain people, those of which were deemed worthy of the company’s investment, could voice an opinion to management about sentiments of the crew. Other than these chosen few, management had limited interaction with the field crew. This led to an environment where the crew felt uncomfortable speaking up, which resulted in a ‘if I went through it you have to too’ sentiment between new and old hires.


When I walked into the office the first day, I quickly tried to make friends with the people who knew what was going on. I had never worked in CRM, barely understood the job description, and knew that I’d have to do a lot of learning real fast. If I hadn't made friends with my team, I simply wouldn’t have been trained. Despite my friendship with the crew, I knew I had to prove myself as a new person. It doesn’t matter who you are, your background, or how much experience you had to begin with… you lose perspective of all of that when you are working for ten days straight in difficult terrain and, all of a sudden, all you care about is proving how tough you are. I was afraid to say I was unfit to work after my wasp hornet incident for fear that my coworkers would deem me a ‘baby’ during my first 10 day.

There was a palpable sense of the need for new hires to ‘toughen up’ if they wanted to prove that they were ‘real’ archeologists. I once was told, “if you can’t handle snakes how are you going to be an archeologist?”. To be clear, whether I screamed like a baby if I saw a snake or attacked it with my trowel, my reaction to the snake would have no impact on my archeological skills. Meanwhile, in the academic field, I’d gotten the sense that Professors in undergrad looked at my resume and immediately thought “oh what do you mean you didn’t major in anthropology, how are you going to be an archeologist?”. Or at least that's the impression they gave me. And, to be fair, both these examples are given from people who were taught they HAD to major in anthropology to be archeologists or that you HAD to be able to handle snakes to work in the Southwest. However, my time in CRM reconfirmed to me more than anything that the field is changing before our eyes. And it's an incredible change.


My time in CRM, despite my new deep fear of hornet nests, showed me how incredibly resilient and determined women are to claw their way into this field. In both academics and CRM, the environment of competition and hazing the new guy are coming to an end. During my time this summer with the field crew, I realized that I was fortunate enough to witness this change before my eyes and to be a part of it. In the company, all the management were older white males while 98% of the field crew were women. The women I worked with in CRM each had their unique story and their individual specialty. And yet, the one thing everyone could agree on, was change was coming. My coworkers would tell me stories of the things they had been through in ten days and how they planned to prevent these instances one day once they managed their own crew or excavation. We would talk about how the intensity and competition of the company and field affected our mental health, and ways we could support each other. I am excited to be part of the generation that can discuss the harmful attitudes of previous generations in the open and how they influenced our field today. I have faith that the next generation of badass archeologists will be just as badass as us-- not because of their resilience to endure the trials that we have-- because we can all give them the resources and training to focus on their mental health while preparing for their career.


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