Three Calls for Papers: Slow, Public, and Craft

August 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

If you just managed to submit your abstract for the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting and still have some energy before classes start in earnest, then I have a few possible, last minute calls for papers to fill up the idle hours.

The great thing about these opportunities is that they all look to a shorter form of writing (6000 words or less!) and position themselves in the relatively uncharted (academic) territory of creative non-fiction and less formal, professional writing. 

Slow. Feel free to circulate this to your creative non-fiction types who are not archaeologists. The call is for a special edition of North Dakota Quarterly that I’m editing with Rebecca Rozelle-Stone of our department of philosophy and religion. We’re looking for thoughtful, interesting, and critical perspectives on the “slow movement” as well as fiction. I’m working on a more systematic and cohesive version of my slow archaeology screed. The contributions should be no longer than 6,000 words and will be peer-reviewed. This is due October 1!

Public. The Joukowsky Institute at Brown is hosting a competition for accessible archaeological writing and inviting everyone in the world to contribute an entry. The goal of the contest is to highlight high quality archaeological writing that nevertheless preserves the complexity and excitement associated with the archaeological process. The papers should be between 5000 and 6000 words and are due September 1. There is also a prize of $5000 for the best paper and that paper and the eight runners-up will be published. I can’t help but thinking that this is the kind of competition that should be crowd sourced. All the contributions should be made public and some kind of voting system should be put in place (perhaps like the system put in place for SXSW panels). After all, it seems like this kind of competition should be judged by someone other than the faculty and students from the Joukowsky who have generally focused on academic writing! 

Craft. Like last fall, I’m hosting a series of blog posts (short(ish) articles  on “Archaeology and Craft” here on my blog. With some luck and coordination, I hope to crosspost them over at Then Dig. The plan is to get them out as a short volume within a year via the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The contributions can be any length, but since they start on a blog, I generally nudge folks to keep them under 5000 words. Of course, we can always split longer posts into two or more parts. Drop me an email if you want to contribute. I have a few contributions already, but I like to have five or six before I start to post them regularly. 

I just realized this weekend that I’m officially under contract as of August 15, so I need to start to get focused on my official sabbatical “to do” list (and a post on that will be forthcoming). Hopefully these opportunities will give you productive distractions as the grind of semester looms!

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

August 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

With the onset of sabbatiquol looming, I’m slipping faster into panic as I try to wrap my head around 40+ weeks of uninterrupted research and writing time. I hope someone calls a meeting soon so I have something to structure my schedule.

On the other hand, that means at least 40 weeks worth of diligent web surfing to provide you with a wondrous gaggle of quick hits and varia!

IMG 0455Sometimes everything is just too much effort.

Teaching Thursday: Teaching with Confusion

August 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

I had another post all thought out and ready to go this morning, when I read this short article on the Chronicle of Higher Education site this morning. The article documents the research of Derek Muller, an Australian researcher, who has studied how confusion helps students learn. Muller argued that straight forward, clear, and concise explanations of difficult problems actually work against student learning as it tends to reinforce preconceived notions and encourage students to move on before they have completely grasped the ideas and their implications. 

To infuse his lectures with confusion, Muller created a dialogues in which two actors debate a point. Apparently, the effect of this is confusing, but the results demonstrated both greater retention and comprehension. These ideas are so cool, Muller has a TEDx video.

The idea that confusion is somehow a key ingredient to learning has gained increased traction lately. One of my favorite little studies is one in Cognition that shows that by simply using a less legible font, we can increase retention (pdf). The authors of this article argue that the feeling of confusion called disfluency is important for deeper learning. 

I think that some of these articles relate to my Teaching Thursday post from last week on gyrocopter professors. These professors feel compelled by a whole raft of institutional and social pressures to hand feed students information both about the structure of the course and its content. The pressures to make everything clear – even things that can’t be clarified without losing inherent dissonance and complexity – have resulted in a simplification of the teaching and learning process and content.  

Over the past few years, I have unknowingly, but intentionally, sowing a certain amount of confusion in my classes and despite pressures to present the course and its content as yielding clearly stated objectives. To be clear, I do value student learning and directed learning. If students in my history course, for example, concluded that we have nothing to learn from antiquity or that history cannot help us understand our work in a more sympathetic way, I’d be disappointed and adjust the class to provide the necessary structure to guide the students to conclusions that I find consistent with my view of the discipline and the world.

At the same time, I’ve used open-ended assignments with only the most superficial explanations as standard assignments in my upper level and graduate history courses. The only thing that I require is that these assignments have a thesis and use primary sources to support an argument. The arguments and character of the papers is up to the students to decide. There are no leading questions, rubrics, or templates to structure the papers. 

Graduate Historiography Paper. Over the course of the semester, you have maintained journals based on our weekly reading.  Using these journals as a “primary source” present an argument related to your understanding of historiography or historical epistemology.  

Undergraduate Source Paper: Using one or more of the primary sources from class, present a critical argument (i.e. a thesis supported by primary source evidence) related to the history of Byzantium. 

These rather open-ended assignments invariably cause consternation, if not genuine confusion, but they also push students to think as much about what makes a good historical argument (in a generalized way) as specific arguments associated with the subject matter in the class. To prevent despair, I assure my classes that the discomfort they feel is, in fact, what it feels like to learn. As most readers of this blog know, real learning is pain and student resistance is often a good indicator of learning taking place

The challenge from a pedagogical perspective is that so much of our students’ university experience has become defined by rubrics, templates, and well-defined learning goals ensures that the confusion threshold in the classroom is very low. This either makes it easier to create the disfluency necessary for deep learning or suggests that some of the basic mechanisms of higher education run counter to its most cherished goals.  

Images from the Bakken

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t usually just post pictures (oh, wait, I guess I do), but I thought I would today as I recover from a few days of Bakken adventures.

An abandoned man camp near Tioga:


Another near Wheelock, ND:


An abandoned “dry” camp:




I know we shouldn’t call them “man camps”:


Communal space:


Work and flares:


Another reminder that we’re not the first newcomers on the northern plains:


Dynamic Settlement in the Bakken Oil Patch

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent the last couple of days revisiting some of the North Dakota Man Camp Project study sites in the Bakken Oil Patch, and like every trip into the wild west, I’ve learned more about how North Dakota communities are adapting to the Bakken Boom, and how the men and women who work in the industries related to and impacted by the oil boom are carving out a life for themselves in North Dakota.

So, as we wait for Bret Weber to finish his summer semester grades, I’ll offer a few quick observations on the changing nature of the settlement in the Bakken.

1. Settlement is changing. We’ve noticed that the number of Type 2 camps (which are RV parks with electricity and water/sewage) have disappeared. One of the most interesting sites in our research was the town of Wheelock in which a Type 2 man camp had developed in and among the few remaining houses. Over the past 18 months, the number of units in the town center declined and a small settlement of largely Hispanic workers from Utah had grown up on the outskirts of town. This summer, both the camp in the center of town and on the outskirts had been abandoned. A similar trend seems to have taken place in the town of White Earth where two of the RV parks remain full, but another, situated around the old school in town, seems to have lost about two-thirds of its residents. When I asked an avuncular tweaker in one of the remaining camps why so few units were around the school, he looks hazily at the sky and said: “winter is coming…” As new, better housing becomes available, members of the workforce formerly satisfied with living in an RV can now do better.


2. Settlements are changing. One of our favorite camps is a Type 2 camp just outside of Williston called Fox Run. This came had over 300 units in it last summer and showed a tremendous amount of architectural innovation with elaborate mudrooms, well-kept spaces around the units, built decks and platforms, and residents describing a genuine sense of community. In our visit this summer, the material conditions in the camp had clearly changed. There were fewer elaborate mudrooms (and more mudrooms in reuse), the areas around units were less well-kept, and the sense of community had palpably changed. There were far more open lots than we had seen before. It seems like the character of the facility had changed and, while I use this word guardedly, the camp seems to be in decline. We’re contemplating writing a history of Williston Fox Run and have begun to look into county and state records for the parcel. The Type 2 camps are attracting a different kind of resident as more permanent (or semi-permanent) housing is made available for workers looking to reside in the Bakken for more than a single season.


3. Settlements and Capital. In our “almost ready for publication” article we noted that man camps represented a way that industry managed the need for a contingent workforce who could move at the close to the same speed as global capital. A meeting with the development office in Watford City complicated our picture a bit by pointing out that man camps themselves are also a product of the global (or at least national) flow of capital. Camps like Williston Fox Run were built by developers and maintained by companies with investors who live far outside the region. In other words, the development extractive industries in the Bakken and the housing requirements for workforce all derive from the same pool of non-local capital and predictably respond to the needs and expectation of investors, managers, and pressures that have only practical concerns for local communities. This is unsurprising, but we had not explored this aspect of the Bakken boom in past field and research seasons.

Back to the Bakken

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week, I’m headed back out to the Bakken to revisit some of our study sites and to think a bit about a fun writing project for this fall. Tom Isern, at NDSU, and Bret Weber, my co-direct at the North Dakota Man Camp Project, received a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council to fund a series of public workshops, called the “Man Camp Dialogues” focused on our work in western North Dakota. Richard Rothaus, Bret, and I will be involved and we hope to rope in some of the other participants in our project 

Tom suggested that we produce a study guide for these workshops and publish it as a Circular (no. 2) in a new series produced by his Center for Heritage Renewal. We can then make the study guide available for our talks around the state and, perhaps, for a show scheduled this winter at the Plains Art Museum that will focus on art and the oil patch. Apparently these circulars run 15-20 pages, so this is not a huge writing project, but one that will require a certain amount of thought. Right now, I’m thinking about how we can present the man camps of the Bakken as a kind of living archaeological site of our contemporary age. (I am not sure I’d want to encourage tourism of workforce housing, but the amount of through traffic on Route 2 through the heart of the oil patch makes a certain amount of curiosity only natural. Folks who live in historical homes or in historical neighborhoods have experienced this kind of tourism for over a century.) 

So as I revisited many of our study sites, I began to think about how to present our research to a diverse public audience. I figure the circular would start with a basic description of our work and our study sites. We’re probably introduce our now (in)famous typology and some of the challenges associated with doing archaeology of the contemporary world.

I think then I’d like to introduce four ways of talking about workforce housing in the Bakken.

1. Stories of the Boom. One of the most interesting thing that we’ve encountered are the various ways that people have talked about the oil boom in North Dakota. The media, for example, loves to tell stories of people taking risks to make their fortune as well as folks who found only disappointment in the Bakken. The Bakken is narrated in so many different ways and workforce housing, man camps, are typically part of these stories. We could imagine directing a visitor to the Bakken or someone attending one of our workshops to consider the various ways that people have told the story of the Bakken boom and how the place where many of these new North Dakotans live contribute to these stories.

2. Objects and Arrangements. A key aspect of living in workforce housing is that “home” is often somewhere else. On a practical level, there is workforce housing provides less space for the kinds of objects that most of us associate with him. On a philosophical level, this reduced assemblages makes it more difficult for residents of the man camps to express their own identity through their objects located in and around their residences.  In this context, then, it is useful to consider the objects associated with workforce housing. They typically range from objects associated with domestic life – grills, coolers, refrigerators, lawn or camping furnitures – to those associated with work. The latter category becomes all the more common when the line between the space of sleeping and eating overlaps with the space for working.  

3. Architecture and Innovation. Despite the limited assemblage of material present in many of these camps, there is nevertheless innumerable examples of innovation as residents of the Bakken work to transform RVs from season and occasional vehicles to spaces for longterm habitation. Elaborate mudrooms, platforms, and barriers to block the cold and wind, expand and refine the limited space available in the standard recreational vehicles. Large camps, have a vibrant trade in recycled building material and, in some cases, additions that allow residents to customize their spaces to suit the distinct needs of year-round life in the Bakken. The growing prevalence of mobile housing and the needs of an expanding contingent and transient workforce is ushering in a new chapter in the history of vernacular architecture.

4. Images of Home. Most of the world has encountered the Bakken oil boom through the often-spectacular images published in the national media. These images show a range of experiences associated with extractive industries, but images of the workers in their domestic space are relatively rare. The national media then characterizes the Bakken primarily as a place of work with short-term habitation being a curious, but underrepresented footnote. This has the risk of dehumanizing the residents of the Bakken by making them seem an appendage to work rather than individuals who struggle to make a comfortable, secure, and balanced life just like the rest of us.

Today, we’re going to revisit a bunch more of our study sites around Watford City and Williston and I’ll post an update tomorrow. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

A week into the frog days of summer brings a sense of serenity. It stays light until around 9 pm and the leaves on the trees give morning a smooth calm light. I only wish I was being more productive. I guess that’ll come with time.

I was happy to see that our long awaited piece on the Atari Excavation appeared yesterday on The Atlantic’s website. It’s pretty fun and unlike some of the other media coverage of the dig, its in our own words! Check it out here.

Once you’re done with that, feel free to enjoy this nice little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 1832

A Wet Dog


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