About two years ago, we were contacted by Caroline VanSickle (@cvans), the author of this special guest post, who had an idea. A great idea. She wanted to incorporate TrowelBlazers in the undergraduate classroom, and has now done so, twice. Below, she explains her educational goals, methods, and outcomes – one of which includes the creation of a number of group-authored posts for our website. Over the next two weeks, we will post a new trowelblazer each day, each carefully researched and authored by her students, some more famous than others, but all new additions to our site. We are glad to see TrowelBlazers having an impact in the classroom this way, and hope that others might use or adapt Caroline’s pedagogy – and let us know about it. Many thanks to the students who contributed these pieces, and thank you Caroline!

The standard story of hominin fossil discoveries, present in nearly every introductory textbook, has its customary cast of characters, including Eugene Dubois, Raymond Dart, Davidson Black, Robert Broom, Louis Leakey, and Donald Johanson. Absent from this list are any of the women who have been instrumental in discovering evidence of human evolution. Indeed, one might get the impression that only men work in paleoanthropology, only men organize the sorts of archaeological digs that yield hominin fossils, and only men write peer-reviewed articles about human evolution. Those of us who study the subject know that this isn’t the case, yet this is the version of our field’s history that we often find ourselves teaching in class.

I’ve been an avid reader of the TrowelBlazers website since it got its start, a start that I watched happen on Twitter and have been excited about ever since. TrowelBlazers tells the other side of the story, the one where women have been an important part of paleoanthropology (and related fields) since people first started digging up fossils.

When I had the opportunity to teach a class on human evolution, particularly one that focused on gender and sex in human evolution, I knew I wanted to incorporate a more gender-balanced and accurate history of the discipline, because representation in science matters. TrowelBlazers became my go-to resource for adding stories about how important fossil were discovered by people who were regularly missing from my students’ textbook. My favorite TrowelBlazer story is how some of my favorite Neandertals (I’m looking at you, Tabun) were discovered by a team of women led by Cambridge’s first woman professor Dorothy Garrod. The Tabun skeleton was discovered by a woman whose surname remains a mystery, but I am thankful for Yusra’s expertise.

I decided that in addition to sharing trowelblazers’ stories with my students, I wanted to give them an opportunity to really engage with a woman researcher or excavator from the past. I developed a class project that assigned groups of students to research potential trowelblazers and then write an article appropriate to submit to the TrowelBlazers website. I taught this same class twice, and while I tweaked a few of the assignment specifics, I had both classes write articles with great success.

Each semester I started by introducing the website. Students were required to explore the website and read multiple articles to prepare them to share their favorites with their classmates. After this exploration phase, we discussed in class what made a “good” TrowelBlazers article; generally, the students preferred posts that were shorter and focused on one aspect of the woman’s research. With this agreed-upon criteria in mind, students working in groups of 3-4 started researching a woman paleoanthropologist I assigned them. After a few weeks, groups submitted an annotated bibliography showing that their research had been successful (something I’ll admit I was initially concerned about since the whole point is that these women are difficult to research). Yet my students always seemed to find a way to locate the information they needed – their bibliographies included articles authored by the subjects themselves, biographies, C.V.s or personal websites, and in some cases obituaries. At the end of the semester, students gave an in-class presentation on their subject and turned in a written Trowel Blazer-style article on their subject, along with an annotated bibliography to demonstrate the research they did.

Students received extra credit for including a photograph (complete with contact information so that the TrowelBlazers team could gain permission to use the photograph on their website). I also gave extra credit for suggesting future research subjects. Both semesters I received between 15-25 names of potential trowelblazers that could be researched in the future. My students learned some of these names from other courses they’d taken and learned about others while researching their subject. Many were names that even I was unfamiliar with. To me, this indicates that this is a viable project to continue including in the future, as there appear to be plenty of people that still need to be researched.

Student commented that they enjoyed the project and learned a lot about women in paleoanthropology, even beyond their group’s subject. One of the most valuable aspects was that my students had the option to submit their writing to an actual webpage for publication; not only did they learn about the history of paleoanthropology, they contributed to a public understanding of that history as well. This kind of assignment is important in paleoanthropology because women become more interested in science fields when they learn about women role models in those fields. Men are more willing to recognize women as scientists when they are exposed to women in science. This project does both while also uncovering the history of hominin fossil finds that may have been obscured due to past sexism in the academy.

Once we’ve completed the series, we’ll link back to the trowelblazers posted as part of this project below. So far we’ve posted on:

Leslie Aiello
Carol Ward
Adrienne Zilhman
Katerina Harvati
Mary Leakey

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