Teaching archaeological sediment micromorphology part 2

This semester I've been teaching archaeological sediment micromorphology, as part of a third year module in geoarchaeology. I mentioned a few weeks ago how hard it was to teach a subject this complex in only 2 hours per week, and that in future I was thinking of removing it from Geoarchaeology and turning it into a stand alone module. I still haven't decided whether to do this, as I think it's important to have some teaching of it at UG level, but a module focusing entirely on micromorphology is probably more suitable for Masters level.

Related to my frustrations, I made an offhand comment on Facebook that despite it being one of my specialist subjects, sediment micromorphology is very boring to teach. More than any other method I have studied, micromorphology is definitely the one filled with the most jargon. Don't get me wrong, I think jargon is important. We need the specialist language to describe the many complex features and processes that we see in thin section, and to make that description as objective as possible. But it does pose challenges, both in teaching the subject, and in presenting research results. In the former, you just can't get away from the fact that there is a lot of repetitive rote learning involved. In the latter, it is no use simply giving a huge table of dense terminology that means nothing to non-specialists - people must rely on your interpretation rather than being able to see for themselves how you arrived at that interpretation.

I'm not sure if I annoyed or offended anyone with the post. It was more a sign of my own frustration, wanting to be a good and interesting teacher, and also knowing that it is just a difficult subject that takes a lot of time to master. A fellow micormorphologist made a comment for example that it was unfair that students doing dissertation projects on say isotopes, got higher marks than those doing micromorphology projects. This is a genuine concern - whilst isotope analysis isn't easy, it is definitely more straightforward as it is much more focused, and data collection is relatively easy (assuming the mass spectrometer is behaving itself). Micromorphology on the other hand is highly variable, requires a huge input of time (even more so for students who are very new to it), and it would be very difficult for a UG student doing it as part of a dissertation in a restricted period of time to come up with an analysis that was comprehensive and publishable. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it would be much more difficult than with isotope data. And to get the highest first class marks, most mark schemes say that the work should be of publishable quality.

I've been trying to work around this as part of the Geoarchaeology module, by focusing students on a limited set of criteria (the ones I think are the most basic/essential), and identifying common archaeological materials (bone, charcoal, ash etc). Whilst the analyses the students do won't be 'comprehensive', at least this way it will be clear whether they have understood the criteria we focused on in class. The classes are structured with an introductory lecture, going through a set of terminology using case studies, and explaining why these criteria are important. The students have a microscope in front of them at the same time, with slides that I have chosen that best illustrate the features we are discussing that week, and after I finish talking, they have an exercise to go through and apply the descriptive criteria to their slides.

I am wondering whether I should put together all the class materials as a sort of 'teaching handbook', and get feedback from the workshop participants at the DIG2017 conference in September?


  1. Very recognizable. One of the things that I keep in mind nowadays is that all thin section series I have studied have always contained a feature or group of features that I did not recognize at first and needed more literature reading, or additional analyses. Using micromorphology is a constant learning process.

    Therefore, in the course that I am preparing at the moment, my main goal is that that the participants learn what micromorphology can contribute to archaeology and get experience in component identification and pattern recognition. IMO that is what forms the basis of practical micromorphology. Those that to continue using the method and gain more experience will have to start getting aquainted with terminology, jargon etc. - and in my case with literature in a foreign language (=English).

    Good idea to bring the course material to the DIG conference. I can do the same..

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