Curtis N. Runnels— 1997 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award

Award Citation:

Curtis N. Runnels is the 1997 recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America's Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award. Currently Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology at Boston University and member of the faculty since 1987, Runnels has teaching responsibilities in the areas of prehistoric technology and culture, Palaeolithic archaeology, the prehistoric Aegean, and the methods, theory, and history of archaeology- a curriculum that includes a broad range of undergraduate and graduate courses.

Runnels' most popular undergraduate course is "Great Discoveries in Archaeology," with an enrollment of over 200, which serves as a humanities requirement for social science and science majors. Before Runnels took it over, this course was known as "Mummies for Dummies," the quintessential "gut" course of a large university. He has developed it into a rigorous survey course that imparts not only an idea of important archaeological discoveries, but also an understanding of the origins of civilization and the history of archaeological thought. The toughening up of its requirements has enhanced rather than diminished enrollments and the course is now a major recruiting device for the university's popular undergraduate archaeology major.

Runnels’ most innovative course is “Prehistoric Technology” a "hands-on" experience with a variety of prehistoric technologies. According to the syllabus, in this course students investigate the reciprocal relationships that exist between societies and technologies in the past, and by implication, also in the present." Students are introduced to the processes of creating stone tools, pottery, basketry, and metals, in a laboratory format that encourages their own explorations. Final projects in the course have included the production of olive oil using a replica of an ancient Roman press, the creation (using this extracted oil) of Mycenaean perfume using a recipe drawn from Linear B texts, and the processing and dyeing of wool using organic dyes. Students in this course not only learn a great deal about the history of technology, but also gain a perspective on the complexity of the cultures within which these technologies were developed.

Finally, Runnels helps to round out the undergraduate archaeology major's experience with a capstone course entitled "Methods and Theory of Archaeology," a course in which he covers the principal theoretical and methodological approaches to archaeology and their history of development.

Curtis Runnels, according to both students and colleagues alike, is praiseworthy for the exceptional breadth and depth of his archaeological knowledge, which goes well beyond his personal research interests. He is famous for his infectious, engaging presentations that immediately involve the audience. As one student described it: "It is no mystery that Professor Runnels' courses are so popular ... His lecture style, which weaves hard data, anecdotes and humor into a fascinating story, is engaging and stimulating ... difficult concepts become manageable with his clear presentation, and boring mounds of stone flakes and other debris become interesting and important with his enthusiasm.” Another likens his success in the classroom to his possessing the style of “a storyteller who weaves the facts and drier bits of information into a lively narrative that draws the students into the experience."

For his enthusiastic and engaging presentations, his innovative "hands-on" style of teaching, and his unforgettable flint-knapping demonstrations, the Archaeological Institute of America is pleased to award its Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award to that storyteller in the classroom, Curtis Runnels of Boston University.

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