DePaul University

What Does an Archaeology Professor Do All Day?

When I was a very little girl, one of my most favorite books was Richard Scarry’s, What Do People Do All Day?  I spent hours looking at anthropomorphized cartoon animals learning about what it was like to be a farmer, or a tailor, or a police officer, or an airline pilot. My parents thoughtfully saved the book for me, and it sits on a shelf here in my home office as I write this. It’s an apt title to adopt for a Day of Archaeology post, because that’s what this whole project is about- giving people a lens into what archaeologists really do all day.

Looking at the book now, as my academic self, I’m tempted to critique the contents for promoting stereotypes about gender, family, and labor much like I did earlier this year in a post about the media coverage of the Happisburgh footprints for the anthropology blog Savage Minds. From another perspective, however, it’s easy to see my attraction to this book in childhood as a perfect foreshadowing of my career as an archaeologist. The question of, “what do (did) people do all day?” has kept me fascinated by archaeology since I first discovered fieldwork on a Girl Scout program at age 15 (1986).

I study the recent past, because I’ve always wanted my work to be directly relevant to contemporary communities, and I involve local communities in my research as an integral part of every project. Geographically, I work in the Bahamas and in Chicago and my work engages topics such as childhood, gender, labor, migration, slavery and emancipation, and identity. What brings all my work together is a commitment to use archaeology to tell the stories of people whose lives are not well represented in documentary sources, and through the telling of those stories create a richer and more nuanced picture of our shared history. I am also a very passionate teacher, and I enjoy sharing my love for archaeology with students, as well as thinking critically and creatively about teaching archaeology (and related fields) in the classroom and in the field.

manor house 11

Taking notes at Kerr Mount Plantation, San Salvador, The Bahamas.


Working with DePaul University students and community volunteers at the site of the Pullman Arcade on Chicago’s far south side. Photo by E. Ken Carl

So, what does an archaeology professor do all day?

Most people think university faculty members have it pretty easy- we teach a few classes and then are awash in free time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, July 11, I am officially not working as I only have a contract for ten months of the year. But today, like most days, I am working anyway. My job description involves a combination of teaching, research, and service. While some combinations are viewed more favorably than others by administrators and the like, one of the very real perks of an academic job is that they are largely self-defined regardless of how individual choices might be perceived by others. In other words, my day as an archaeology professor in the summertime probably looks very different than any other professor’s day today- and that’s just fine. Interestingly, it works out that today is a combination of all three “official” parts of my job. So let me break down how I am spending my time today.


I am teaching an overload this summer. Why? Honestly, to make some extra money. I am teaching an online course in World Prehistory, where I am shepherding 25 undergraduates through several million years of prehistory in just five short weeks. Today students are completing a module on hereditary inequality, the idea of (and problems with) chiefdoms, and a case study of the site of Cahokia. I’ll be checking in on student discussion boards, corresponding with students, and making a few news posts with additional resources (including information about the Day of Archaeology!). I’ll also be doing some preparation for our department’s senior seminar course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. This course involves bringing in (in person or via Skype) anthropologists working in a variety of professions to expose students to the diversity of what an anthropologist can be. I also invite expert speakers to work with students on the kinds of skills they need to leave college and enter the job market (interviewing, social media “branding”, resumes and e-portfolios, financial strategies etc.). I’ll be contacting some of those people today to get them scheduled for the autumn.


It’s very hard to do fieldwork in the Bahamas in the summertime, because it’s hurricane season there. In the summer, I usually conduct excavations in Chicago, but I wanted to work on some writing before beginning another research project. So, I am not in the field this summer, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing research-related activities. The first research-related task of the day is to have a phone meeting with a fellow archaeologist about a collaborative project for next summer, particularly the excavation of a WWII POW Camp for Germans that was on the north side of Chicago. It will take me almost all year to get all the necessary planning completed to begin my field project next summer.  The second research-related task of the day is completing a prospectus for a book I’ve been asked to write for the University Press of Florida on the Historical Archaeology of childhood in America. The Day of Archaeology is my self-imposed deadline for this project, and it’s looking like I’ll meet it! Finally, I am organizing a panel for the Society for the History of Children and Youth’s 2015 meeting in Vancouver on “Children, Identity, and Material Culture”. I’ve pretty much got it together, but there are a few emails that have to be sent and responded to in order to finalize our group of scholars and their presentation topics.


I really enjoy doing service, and I choose to do most of my service work for the broader profession and in public contexts rather than for my college or university. Right now, I have two big service projects going on that will take some time today. I am the Program Chair for the Society for American Archaeology’s 2015 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, which means I’ve put together a committee to review all of the (3500 or so) abstracts that will be submitted for the conference and I’m in charge of scheduling the program. The deadline for paper and panel submissions is drawing near, which means every day I am getting several emails asking questions about program rules and scheduling, as well as colleagues making special requests. Today will be no exception. I try to be very prompt in my response to these queries to make the process as easy as possible for my colleagues.


I am also organizing an international conference for the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past that will be held in Chicago in September 2015, and I need to spend some time today developing the conference theme. This last job involves some serious brainstorming, and my hope is to do some thinking while hiking with my dog, Fifi (a 13 year old Bahamian Potcake I brought back to the U.S.). One of our favorite trails runs right through a 19th century house foundation (above). She checks for squirrels, and I look (but don’t collect!) to see what the latest rains have washed to the surface. This time outside makes for a perfect way to get some ideas going for a conference theme. So, if all goes well I’ll get to spend a little time in the field after all.