Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

AAFS2013: digital growth in Forensic Anthropology

Last week, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences had its 65th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. A group of MSU Forensic Anthropology faculty and students, myself included, attended. Of these, few use social media professionally. In such a small-world field, it’s easy to  understand why. All of the more senior researchers know each other personally. Most are employed in academia and any one of them could name the handful of other employers where forensic anthropologists work (New York OCME, Harris County OME, Pima County OME, JPAC/CIL, etc.). For fields in which this is less common, such as archaeology, social media allows people working on similar things to connect when they might otherwise not.

I’ve only attended a few meetings, but there was a minimum of Twitter action at AAFS2012. This year, a few more individuals participated in the hashtag discussion. Are you surprised to know that the exhibitors were among the most-Tweeting entities? Perhaps the increase in participation will signal a trend in future years, too.

Regarding the role of digital in the presentations, there was one that stuck out. FOROST was presented to attendees as a trauma photographic database. The presenter noted the number of photographs in the most comprehensive and popular texts and suggested that this resource would quickly outpace them. It is sourced by a group of institutions and credit for the images and information in them should go directly to the individual/lab who collected the data. This, and the fact that it is free to participate, likely eased the fears of many in the audience. It reminded me of a brown bag presentation I saw of a similar database by/for archaeologists. In any case, this is probably a great new thing, and I hope it catches on.

There are my digital highlights of the Physical Anthropology section of the AAFS 2013 meeting. I was only in the Anthropology section, so did not catch any presentations that might have been in the other sections. The program was gripping in the PA section this year that I hardly made it down the hall to anyone else! Thanks for a great meetings to everyone who contributed.


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Conference: FLAG 2012

The setting for FLAG 2012 was autumn in Northern Michigan.

I recently participated in the Forests, Lakes, and Grasslands (FLAG) regional meeting of forensic anthropologists. This was a small conference with representatives from Michigan State University, University of Indianapolis, and Mercyhurst University (in Erie, PA). It’s a relatively informal meeting, with presentations for two days and other activities like a bone quiz, but lots of time built in for building relationships among colleagues.

The great thing about this meeting, is that it’s a small group. It’s regionally consolidated, since the states represented stretch only from Indiana to Pennsylvania, but also with a dense population of new scholars. Indy and Mercyhurst have Masters programs and MSU has a Masters and a PhD program. There were half a dozen faculty members present, but the remaining 40 students were all within their first five or so years of graduate school.

Presentations were varied, and for me the differences between the programs was highlighted. In 2011, each school presented its facilities and general academic program which emphasized the differences between, say, one school requiring students to understand and practice DNA testing and another cross-training in bioarchaeology. But this year, the concept of specializations and the way casework is approached was in the spotlight for me.

Lateral knee radiograph, by Flickr user akeg

Many of the early Masters program students teamed up to present field cases they had worked on, with scene photos and lab procedures featured in their powerpoints. Late Masters students and others presented full research projects with hypotheses, results, and conclusions. For many students, myself included, the latter group represented a trial run for presenting one’s research at the national meetings. I submitted my patella research to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in August and presented it at FLAG 2012.

What I found, in interacting with faculty from other universities, was that our bread-and-butter activity, namely positive human identification, is not practiced at the other schools. My research, predicated on the notion that many aspects of this work need to be quantified and studied, was seen as unnecessary. It was very surprising. But, as my first project to be presented at a conference (and hopefully my first publication submission), of course it couldn’t all go smoothly. The lesson is that a small sample doesn’t represent the field. The fact that there’s a body of literature, mainly in JFS (the Journal of Forensic Sciences) indicates that this is a valid locus of study. Nevertheless, as a junior scholar, it was a bit jarring.

Overall, the FLAG 2012 meetings were a huge success. There were dozens of interesting presentations and great socializing. I talked to some of the Masters students about whether our PhD program would be the right place for them. (If you are lucky enough to have a choice, my general advice in picking a program is that whatever decision you make, it will be the right one.) We kept it light, shared a campfire each night, and walked away knowing some of the people we’ll spend the next 40 years working alongside. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Fenton and Dr. Latham for putting this meeting together. Their early academic experiences were partly shaped by a small regional meeting like this, and I’m sure that we, too, will look back on this period fondly.

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Writing Workshop

Image from Flickr user hummyhummy, Creative Commons licensed

I attended a writing workshop held at Michigan State University’s writing center last month. It got me thinking about the writing process generally and how daunting it can seem. (It is always terrifying to me at the beginning.) Here are a few themes we discussed, and my take on them.

Writing to different audiences and in different media:

This is where tone and level of discourse come into play. All of the following platforms or media require a different touch. I forget this often– since most of what I’m reading is peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I tend to produce complex sentences with high-level vocabulary, even in quick emails to colleagues. But it’s important to recognize that the audience changes with each new “thing” you write.

  • Conferences 
  • Dissertation
  • Emails
  • Blog posts: @Captain_primate describes academic blogging as “relaxed scholarly discourse.” Somehow, maybe because I was raised to write prim and proper thank you notes to my own relatives, “relaxed” and “scholarly” have never seemed to go together. I’m working on it, though.
  • Creative writing

Finding an Audience

Naturally, there was a pitch for the Writing Center embedded in the workshop, but the point is well taken. Anything academic, especially writing, suffers from being kept isolation. Try to find someone who is at your level (graduate instead of undergraduate, for example) to read or listen to your paper, even if it’s just a draft. I ask for advice when I know I need help, so someone who is critical and gives their honest opinion works best for me. Even if this Audience is not in your field, at least they will be a listening ear. Elements like overall structure and flow benefit from an Outsider’s perspective.

On the other hand, keep in mind the structure usually seen in your field’s articles. Know what you’re aiming for stylistically (is it all prose? do you need a materials and methods section?), and don’t be afraid to speak up if the Audience doesn’t understand a field-specific technical term.

Writing centers are a great resource for such feedback. Most offer repeating appointments to keep you accountable and working continuously. There are also writing groups led by students such as @adventuresnarch – this allows you the opportunity to be on both sides of the editing table. Turning a critical eye to someone else’s work can key you in to problems that might appear in your own writing.

Writing strategies

Almost no one can sit down at a blank screen and walk away at the end of the day with a complete document. There are a variety of long-term strategies for planning out your weekly schedule and writing multiple drafts, as well as short-term solutions for writer’s block or other difficulties throughout the day.

  • Learn new strategies: books such as  Writing Your Dissertation in15 Minutes a Day include a variety of ideas for different types of people to find solutions, even in short amounts of time each day.
  • Set a  routine: try to minimize distractions during the day, or at least during your writing time. E.g. Skype with parents over meals only.
  • Join a writing group to stay accountable and create urgent deadlines when your “real” deadlines are a long time off.
  • Use organizational tools that cross platforms or software like Endnote and Zotero
  • Use a voice recorder in the car, during your commute, to “jot down” ideas to work on later.
  • Put the work aside and come back. Frustration won’t get you far.
  • Work out, cook, garden: have a hobby that allows you to take your mind off your writing in order to reset and come back with a fresh attitude.

Workshops like these are useful. They allow you to gain perspective on the topic, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and reinvigorate your process.