IMG_7708Doug’s Archaeology has set a new blog carnival for the month of January: The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival. 

What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?

My third response to this question is a personal one: How can I keep morale and motivation strong whilst doing the job I do and living the life I lead?

Sorry, this is going to be an introspective and rather morose answer again, rather than an upbeat ‘where’s my career going’ positive one. However, stress and depression happen to be part of my ivory tower academic world.

I am a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester. I do love my job in many ways. I enjoy teaching undergraduates and postgraduates still (I really do!). I enjoy researching medieval and modern mortuary practice (it never gets me down). I do even enjoy the administrative roles I am given, including being Programme Leader for our Masters degrees and link tutor with the Isle of Man College.

Work Niggles

Of course, balancing that with the physical, mental and emotional complexities and challenges of family life is never easy for any parent, and when illness hits, sometimes multiple illnesses of different kinds, life can be tricky and I find myself asking myself ‘what am I doing’?

In these moments, small things can hit me hard and get blown out of proportion in my mind. We’re probably all the same. Some examples from 2016 include: reading infuriating emails or listening to snide comments. Realising none of my students seem to read/listen to the news and few have read The Silmarillion. Looking at patronising memes and getting wound up by social media exchanges. Getting angry at my own minor errors or just simply feeling exhausted. They can all take their toll.

This year has had only a few specific and unique negative moments to the usual background of dross. I fell off my bike for no good reason and cut open my finger (I was actually daydreaming about archaeology at the time…). It left a tiny physical wound and yet it hit me hard in terms of morale. I’m still brooding over having one of my articles rejected by a journal. This week I made a lecture blooper – I delivered two lectures but in the wrong order!

The most annoying thing so far this year is perhaps having to miss out on an opportunity to promote the University and to cancel a class due to family illnesses. This really gets me down more than anything because, even if I give prior warning, cover is arranged or classes are rescheduled, I still feel I am letting people down and dicking them about.

Also, I’m actually also livid about Frantzen and his ludicrous#femfog and have only mustered jokey replies on social media rather than what I really think.

More than Frantzen, I’m also really pissed off about Battlefield Recovery: shame on you Channel 5!

None of these elements are mega-serious. They niggle at me nonetheless.


Thinking Positive about Archaeodeath

How do I face the challenge of the cumulative effect of these minor negative instances?

First, I think about the moments where I can definitely say I have done some good, or made some progress. I don’t mean just ‘career’ successes, but instead the small things that make it worthwhile doing what I do. Learning to laugh at my own many bloopers also helps.

In work terms, so far this year there have been a powerful cluster of really positive things. Here is a selection:

  1. I have a brand-new PhD student – Brian Costello – to join the small but diverse band of Avengers that constitute my current postgraduate researchers;
  2. I’ve been in discussions with two further potential PhD students with very exciting topics;
  3. Following hot on the heels of the success of Jo Kirton and Rachel Swallow last year, this year my doctoral student Ruth Nugent passed her viva voce examination with flying colours. Well done Ruth!
  4. I have some great MA students to teach and whose dissertations I am supervising;
  5. I am enjoying the diversity of teaching undergraduates and one student (I think sincerely but perhaps mocking my tragic humour, I’m not sure I mind either way) told me I was the ‘best ever’;
  6. I’m still enjoying editing the RAI’s Archaeological Journal, although I can’t wait for them to work out who is my replacement in 2017!
  7. A uber-senior medieval archaeologist just told me I had a ‘smart idea’.
  8. I’ve had 3 articles accepted for publication thus far this year and I have submitted 2 more for publication;
  9. My colleague Paty and I are scheming in depth about some amazing new research and likewise I have other collaborations in the pipeline that are really exciting.

So I have lots to be positive about, a lot to do with the positive successes of others. If I make a concerted effort to record it all and put it all together, I think it puts petty woes into perspective.

Getting Back to the Archaeodeath

Still, nothing can beat Archaeodeath itself for raising my spirits. Ok, milk chocolate digestives help too and sometimes a nice hot warming hot cup of tea can fill me with joy. But it is the material traces of past mortuary archaeology and spotting new things in the archaeology that really can cheer me up.

Let’s take an example from a while back: I went to Heysham, Lancashire and lay down in one of the medieval rock-cut graves there. On a striking rock outcrop, in a cemetery in use for over a millennium, next to a small Anglo-Saxon chapel, with stupendous views over Morecombe Bay to the Cumbrian fells, I looked up at the sky and mused on life, the universe and mortality.

I didn’t experience any spiritual revelation or any personal peace, but I did reflect then, as I am now, on how great it is to be an archaeologist and have archaeodeath at the heart of my research and teaching endeavours! So my advice when things get to you? Imagine you’re in a cold rock-cut medieval grave; puts things in perspective!

Getting Away from Archaeodeath

Ok, immersing myself in mortuary archaeology is only part of my strategy. It can’t all be archaeology and all mortuary, even for me!

Let’s balance that with today; I had a fabulous morning and early afternoon at Talacre avoiding all archaeology. I had the opportunity to go to the beach at Colwyn Bay in the afternoon but the kids were all ready to go by 8.30am and with multiple poorly offspring I decided the shortest drive to the beach was preferable. Just as well I didn’t, they had great fun playing on the beach, dunes and around the lighthouse but were shattered by 1.30pm!

It was so tranquil and relaxing, just playing in the sand. I also made (with help and hindrance from offspring) of some rather lame sand castles. They were regularly demolished by straying dogs and random actions of said offspring. This playing in (what my son calls) ‘custard mud’ makes life worthwhile as much as any tomb!