Guest Post: Monks for the Masses

The following guest post is written by Alexis Jackson, a graduate student at Brown University in the History of Art and Architecture department.

Monks for the Masses: Why I Decided to Crowdfund

You can find my project, “Of Monks and Men” at https://experiment.com/projects/of-monks-and-men-how-medieval-construction-brought-monasteries-and-lay-communities-together.

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The Problem of Funding

In any field, one of the major challenges of graduate school (and, I believe, academic careers more generally) is finding funding for our research. Even in the most generous Ph.D. programs, reasonable funding for the summer months is limited. The problem is exacerbated for archaeologists, who are expected to travel and participate in costly excavations during the summer, often with considerably less support from universities than during the academic year. Yes, there is competitive funding available from a variety of sources, including the much-maligned NSF as well as smaller and more specific grants.

However, the majority of grants (especially those involving larger sums of money) require applications to be ABD (i.e. to be working on a dissertation project). For those in the first few years of their programs, this creates a problematic catch-22: need money to travel and research to develop a viable project, cannot apply for money without said project. Experiment.com, the scientific crowdfunding site that is hosting my project, calls these “edge cases”: situations where traditional funding structures fall short. Crowdfunding gives researchers to do two things at once: generate reasonable funding to move their research projects forward and find new ways to communicate to the public about the value of archaeology and to interest them in “real” archaeological projects.

Public Outreach and Shared Investment

How much does the public care about archaeology? The public perception of archaeology lies somewhere between the ivory tower and Indiana Jones. Public outreach is undoubtedly important, but the tone of public interaction and the form outreach takes is under hot debate: we want to spark people’s interest in history and the experiences of historical (and pre-historic) people without waving “treasure” around, as archaeologist April Beisaw argues. On one hand, we are trying to make archaeology more approachable. There is an increasing push toward open access research, which should grant a greater number of people (researchers and the public alike) access to academic publications. There are other movements among archaeologists to improve the quality of public writing about archaeology.

There are excellent websites, pages, blogs, Tumblrs, and Twitters run by archaeologists (as well as heritage groups, museums, and professional organizations) which reach out to the public. Although most crowdfunding sites, like the popular Kickstarter.com, focus on the product (“give us money and we will give you something in return”), newer academic crowdfunding websites shift the focus onto the process of research. This shift works hand-in-hand with what researchers are trying to do with the public image of archaeology: move away from splashy headlines about mysterious treasure and the rusticating corpses of long-lost kings and move toward an interest in the genuine value of archaeological research.

It is my hope that crowdfunding my project will both help me to reach a varied “crowd” that includes and interests members of the non-academic public, and that it encourages people to invest themselves literally and figuratively in the production of new archaeological knowledge.

Alexis Jackson studies the architecture and archaeology of medieval monasteries. She received her B.A. with honors from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, where she studied European History, Art History, and Classical Studies. In 2011, she participated in the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project, which inspired her interest in landscape archaeology. In 2013, she excavated with the University of L’Aquila at the site of Amiternum, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Alexis’ research interests include the study of how hospitals and monastic outbuildings relate to the greater (physical and social) monastic landscape in the Middle Ages. As an S4 Fellow with Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences at Brown, she is also interested in employing GIS applications for mapping social networks that include people, places, buildings, and objects as active participants.

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