‘Ethics IS the 101’: The Impact of the Ethics Flag on a High School Archaeology Class

Ancient vessels; Source: Free Pik
Source: Freepik

University of Texas at Austin alumna Rachel Kubitz (Bachelor of Arts, Classical Studies/Archeology, 2020) took an ethics-flagged course taught by Dr. Adam Rabinowitz during her freshman year; it inspired Kubitz to change her major to and learn ancient Greek, and eventually led her to focus on archaeology. She now teaches high school students at Austin’s Waterloo School, which encourages project-based learning meant to prepare students with real world skills.

Her experience in Rabinowitz’s undergraduate class — titled “Methods and Approaches” — also inspired Kubitz to create her own ethics-centered archeology course for high school students. We spoke with her about the impact of the course on her university experience, the critical value of ethical considerations in her field, and the way her own students interact with her newly created class.

Q: In what ways did this ethics-flagged course expand or challenge your view of the field? How do you draw on it in your professional life?

A: I had previously taken several courses that incorporated some archaeology, but this was my first course that was completely archaeology focused. We learned about the ideas behind archaeology at the same time as learning how it works; this made the course extra interesting and more relevant to a lot of fields, but it also meant that no one finished the course with knowledge of the process of archaeology without considering the ethical issues.

I think teaching the course without the ethics component would have been irresponsible, because ethics is the first thing a good archaeologist should consider with any project. That’s why I’m teaching an archaeological ethics course for high school students, instead of a more general 101 course. Ethics IS the 101.

Why is it important to make the ethics material of a course explicit — rather than simply implied — when talking about difficult material and situations?

As mentioned before, ethics should not be a side discussion in archaeology; it should be the first consideration and basis of any archaeological project. Archaeology usually involves some kind of destruction — it’s one of the only sciences that can’t be redone or repeated — so it’s very important to get things right the first time. Archaeology without ethics would just be irresponsible destruction.

In which areas of archaeological study are ethics most critical? Is it a relatively new practice to teach classes on this topic with an explicit ethical bend?

UT Alumna Rachel Kubitz

Ethics is critical to any part of archaeology, but it’s especially important when dealing with human remains, religious items, or historically oppressed cultures. Unfortunately, archaeology has not always had an ethical component, but ethics has been steadily growing more central to the field since WWII. UNESCO and most archaeological organizations have adopted ethics guidelines that archaeologists follow and update as needed.

Many archaeology classes now incorporate some version of ethics, but I think it is still a fairly new idea to make it an explicit part of the course — especially for undergraduates.

Could you share some favorite modules, discussions, or assignments that you’ve developed for your class?

As their final project in the course, my students will be writing a grant proposal for a hypothetical archaeological project; this is a modified version of the final project from Dr. Rabinowitz’ class. The grant proposal will need to suggest a plan for the project and why it will be important, but also address the potential ethical issues of such a project. This is a really practical way to study a specific site in depth, and I love how it incorporates ethics directly into the real world of archaeology instead of leaving it as a philosophical discussion.

What student feedback have you received about the course?

I just started teaching this course for the first time, but so far students are loving it and are surprisingly engaged with the ethical discussion! I think having the ethics component makes it feel more applicable to a lot of different fields, even if they are not interested in pursuing archaeology.

To learn more about the criteria for a course carrying an Ethics flag, please visit the Center for Skills & Experience Flags website.

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.