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First International RPA Ethics Bowl at WAC 2022

9 Sep 2022 10:10 AM | Dina Rivera (Administrator)

 A short review of RPA’s activities at WAC-9, the 9th World Archaeological Congress, held in Prague, Czech Republic, between 3rd and 8th July 2022 by Register Ethics Chair Kenneth Aitchison

WAC-9 had been twice delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic; it was originally scheduled for summer 2020, then summer 2021, before finally being delivered in hybrid form in 2022. There were approximately 350 delegates at the conference, with a truly global range of participants. At any given time, there were eight simultaneous sessions running.

Prior to the congress, Kenneth Aitchison (as Chair of Ethics Committee) and Deb Rotman (the then RPA Executive Director) had discussed the potential to organise an Ethics Bowl, in the same style as those supported (and organised by RPA Ethics Committee members) at SAA and other conferences. SAA Ethics Bowls involve considerable organisation, with teams of students representing different universities entering and competing in a debating competition format. A cash prize, funded by RPA, is normally presented to the winners.

We saw the organisation of an Ethics Bowl as a good way to raise RPA’s international visibility and to promote the Register to new audiences.

The session was accepted on to the conference programme, as the “WAC Archaeological Ethics Bowl“.

Prior to the WAC congress, Deb Rotman’s period of employment with RPA came to an end, and it was proposed (and agreed) that the two other members of RPA’s Ethics Committee, Katie Chiou and Danny Perez, who organised the successful Ethics Bowl at SAA 2022 in Chicago, would attend WAC-9 in addition to Kenneth Aitchison to organise, promote and manage the WAC Ethics Bowl.

In the month immediately prior to the Congress, Kenneth Aitchison was contacted by the Congress Local Organising Committee to ask if the event we were organising could be in some way combined with a WAC Student Ethics Debate. This had apparently been a regular fixture at previous WAC Congresses, but was not actually proposed for WAC-9. After some discussion with the Local Organisers and the WAC Student Committee (including that Committee’s representative to the WAC Board), it was agreed that the session would go ahead as planned, that WAC Student Committee (none of whom would actually be able to attend the Congress in person) would help to prepare cases to be debated in the session, that RPA would consider providing prize funds, and that RPA would seek to formalise a relationship with WAC that would encompass RPA supporting future Ethics Bowls at future WAC Congresses (these Congresses are organised on a four-year cycle, but because WAC-9 had been delayed by two years, WAC-10 will be in 2024). Trish Fernandez, as RPA President, wrote to Koji Mizoguchi, WAC President, to confirm this.

There was then further confusion about the size of room that we would be allocated; in the week before the Congress, it was finally decided that the session would be held in the Congress Centre’s Board room, rather than one of the lecture theatres, and would be timetabled for a whole day on Thursday 7th, the third day of the Congress. This room could accommodate a maximum of 15 people, and so it was decided that we could not stage a competitive Ethics Bowl, but rather an Ethics Debate. This would be in the style of an event RPA ran at AAA 2021 conference, where delegates discussed the issues presented in a series of cases, but did not present arguments and counter-arguments to be judged

Danny Perez and Katie Chiou selected eight cases from previous SAA Ethics Bowls that we could use as discussion cases in the session.

After arriving at WAC, in the days before the session we actively encouraged people to attend and contribute – we had printed business cards with the details and handed many out.

The session ran successfully, over the course of a full day. Delegates were free to join the session as they saw fit (moving in from, or out to other sessions at breaks through the day).

We led discussion of seven cases, with between 45 minutes and an hour spent on each. For each case, discussion was preceded by presentations of RPA and RPA’s objectives in terms of ethics, of what ethics bowls and debates in archaeology are, and an explanation of how each case would be run. The case was read out, colleagues in the room also had paper copies, and a small number of online contributors followed the discussion.

For each case, between six and ten WAC delegates contributed to the discussion, with a total of approaching 20 colleagues attending in total. Representatives from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, China, Korea, UK, US, India, Australia, Canada, Germany, Bulgaria and Lebanon all contributed in the room across the day.

Discussion was remarkably free-flowing, with participants confidently presenting a wide range of well-considered different perspectives, experiences and opinions on each case study. Every attendee was able to actively contribute, and throughout discussion remained cordial and open – at one point, after hearing the case, one participant exclaimed ‘that was me!’ – they had been in a very similar situation, and felt able to discuss just how that had affected her and how she had dealt with it. Another delegate shared their feeling that it was a safe place to express their opinions in front of strangers, which they had not expected to be able to do at a high-profile academic conference.

At competitive Ethics Bowls, we have found that the student teams tend to focus on Codes and Standards as canonical articles of faith, and all arguments are presented in terms of these, with an intention of presenting a solution (all cases set out a scenario that a fictional individual is in, and all end with – ‘what should X do?’); here at WAC, we found that the discussion was much more exploratory, considering the situations in much more detail without paying as much attention to presenting a neat ‘resolution’.

The conversation was remarkably energising, and didn’t flag – which left the three organisers simultaneously exhilerated and exhausted when the session ended.

We were able to collect a number of email addresses, and many people expressed interest in finding out more about RPA.

Claire Smith, the former President of WAC, attended one of the cases and told us that she was really impressed, and that this was definitely the sort of thing WAC should be supporting. She encouraged us to propose a publication about Ethics Bowls to the WAC One World Archaeology series.

A couple of the doctoral students who attended the Ethics Bowl told Katie and Danny that our session was the best part of their attendance at WAC-9.

We feel that the session was a considerable success. RPA made a very positive impact at the WAC Congress, and on WAC Officers past and present, and we should ensure that this relationship is maintained and that momentum is not lost. 

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