A Guide to Industrial Tourism in the Bakken

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

During my free moments, I continue to work on my tour guide of the Bakken. I have an idea that I’ll publish in Tom Isern’s Center for Heritage Renewal Circular Series at North Dakota State or failing that at the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Williston Type2

I posted a rough version of the introduction here. Today, I’ll include the first part of the first which runs from Minot, ND to Tioga, ND and introduces the intrepid traveler to the Bakken oil patch. I apologize in advance for the roughness of this draft!

The main point of entry into the Bakken is the city of Minot (pop. approx. 41,000). Minot is the county seat of Ward county and sometimes referred to as the “Gateway to the Bakken” Minot is served by Delta airlines, has an Amtrak station, and sits astride Route 2. Route 2 serves as one of the major arteries for the oil patch. It is the northernmost east-west highway in the U.S. and follows the route of the Great Northern Railroad and it sometimes shares with railroad the term “The Highline.” The route runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Everett Washington and the stretch from Minot to Williston, North Dakota is among the most scenic drives in North Dakota.

Proceeding west along this route takes you through heart of both workforce housing and the productive activities of the oil boom. The transformation of this corridor is historically striking. The traffic along Route 2 picks up noticeable west of Minot, and the number of fleet pick-up trucks with corporate names stenciled on their flanks will become more common as will tractor trailers carrying equipment west into the oil patch. The border between Ward and Mountrail Counties is pocked with “prairie potholes” or small lakes amidst rolling hills.

Upon entering Mountrail County, the evidence for both the economic opportunities and social and environmental challenges of natural resource extraction becomes more and more visible among the communities in this region. These communities had only limited experience with the potential and pitfalls of dramatic growth in population as well as day-to-day industrial activity and had generally settled into quiet obscurity. They had generally experienced steady decline in population from their heights in the 1950s brought about by a combination of agricultural prosperity and an earlier oil boom which was felt especially further west in Williams County. A slightly interruption in the region’s population decrease occurred during a short oil boom in the the 1980s, but this did little to interrupt the overall pattern for the region. The first places on this itinerary to show evidence for recent transformation are the small towns of Blaisdell (unincorporated) Palermo (ca. 82 in 2013), Stanley (pop. 1,458 in 2010), and Ross (ca. 109) in Mountrail County (ca. 9,376 in 2013) in Mountrail County and Tioga (ca. 1565 in 2013) in Williams County have received the brunt of the most dramatic changes. The strange contrast between the historical lack of development, investment, or visible change and the recent boom has drawn travelers, journalists, tourists, and scholars, to the area. The bustle of the road east from Minot offers just a preview of the activity of the oil patch, and the traveler might succumb to feeling like they’re heading up the river into a Heart of Darkness.

The first distinct evidence for the economic challenges of the area comes in the area of housing which appears before any oil activity. Within 3 miles of county line modular workforce housing appears. On a low rise to the north of the Route 2 approximately 2.5 miles west of the county line, in a township called Egan (pop. 64), is a group of approximately 15 “stackable” mobile housing units. The units stand 150 m to the north of the main road and are called Egan Crest reminiscent of some affluent suburb. Each unit is based on the dimension of standard “high-cube” shipping containers (40 ft or 12.19 m long and 8 ft or 2.44 m wide) with 9.6 ft (2.86 m) tall roofs. These mobile, modular apartments have been stacked two high and feature housing for 2 workers un each 20 ft crate. In the region, they’re know as “stackables” and are seen as a welcome upgrade from life in RVs or or larger more formal workforce housing deeper in the patch. The “stackables” do not have security around them are and apparently are well-insulated and comfortable. Their isolated and scenic position surrounded by rugged farmland gives them a both serenity and vulnerability.

Some 2 mile further west and immediately to the south of Route 2 is Blaisdell RV Park. This park is the first of the informal and scrappy RV parks that make up so much workforce housing in the Bakken. The leveled area of tan gravel is situated some 100 m south of Route 2 and entered at its northeastern corner. Passing a somewhat forlorn play area, there is parking in front of a administrative building with some common area. The park itself is comprised of nearly 100 small units about half of which are small mobile homes and the other half are RVs. In 2014, two large residences carved out of semi-trailers stood at the south end of the rows introducing some of the innovative architectural approaches to life in the Bakken. The units along the west side of the park are rented like hotel rooms whereas the eastern side of the park offer lots available for rent. To the south of the park is Blaisdell Rodeo which convenes each year in early August. The town of Blaisdell is north of Route 2 and is worth a short visit to see the school house and a wood-framed prairie church.

Continuing west along Route 2, past the turn off to Palermo …

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

August 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had a hectic week, you know, by sabbatiquoll standards. I got some writing done, did some reading, and have an exciting trip to Bismarck for a State Historic Preservation Board meeting tomorrow. Fortunately, the fall weather this week has made me feel more in the academic mood.

Anyway, college football starts this weekend, the NFL next week, we’re getting into the heart of the NASCAR and Formula 1 season, and there’s a bit of intriguing cricket right now in Zimbabwe in the South Africa, Australia, Zimbabwe tri-series. So I have lots to do to distract me in coming weeks (plus a relentless series of academic deadlines to keep me in line).

To start the long weekend right, here’s a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

CanWePlayNowCan we play now?

Teaching Thursday: Teaching Naked and New Class Design

August 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked my way deliberately through Jose Antonio Bowen’s Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. (Jossey-Bass 2012). It is a nice, single volume, highly accessible summary of the last decade of thinking on how technology has changed teaching. Nothing in this book is revolutionary or even counter-intuitive (despite the provocative title), but it was the perfect read as I began to think about designing a new class over my sabbatiquol

My course will be a mid-level survey of the ancient world. The course has a few strategical goals within our curriculum. First, it is designed as a more in-depth treatment of Greek and Roman antiquity than I offer in a 100 level “Western Civilization” survey course. The hope is for it to provide a more solid foundation for both majors and non-majors who want to take upper division courses on the ancient world. Second, I am anticipating the time when the department will no longer support the teaching of 100-level Western Civilization courses. This year, we have begun to offer World History, and it is clear that old-heads like me who cling to their Western Civilization courses will soon lose the battle. Since Western Civilization classes make up 40% of my teaching load and I’m not qualified (in particular) to teach World History, I need to find a new course to teach each semester. My hope is that this ancient history course will be my bread and butter. 

The book is pretty rich with ideas, but I found four compelling take-aways as I move forward in my course design.

1. Bloom’s Taxonomy. My colleague, Eric Burin, has been using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a road map for a series of assignments in his upper level history courses. Bloom sees learning (to simplify radically) moving from simple forms of thinking, like remembering, to more complex, creative tasks. Bowen, too, likes the way that Bloom thinks about learning, but supplements it with the work of L. Dee Fink. Fink stresses the institutional and personal context for engaging Bloom’s taxonomy. Collaborative learning – like what I’ve done in the Scale-Up classroom – creates a learning experience that could help facilitate or even accelerate the moving from one point in Bloom’s taxonomy to the next in our effort to produce more sophisticated reasoning. (Even if you don’t buy Bloom’s whole deal, most teachers recognize the value of moving from simple tasks to more complex tasks over the course of a semester long class.)

2. Commenting without Grades. I was heartened to see that Bowen advocated making comments on work without providing grades. I’ve started to do this more and more and used it as key part of how I guide students in the Scale-Up class. In this class, students work in 9-student teams to write a chapter for a Western Civilization textbook. I only provide comments on the first few drafts of their chapters and only (very reluctantly) offer a tentative grade on the penultimate draft (after succumbing to student pressure to tell them “what they would get if they turned it in like it is now.” Generally, I give them 2 letter grades lower than I think it deserves since these grades are meant for guidance). In general, commenting without grades has worked to encourage more attention among students (and myself, frankly) to the process and less on the product (i.e. the grade). Students will still complain that I comment too harshly, but they much more frequently ask how to fix the problem in their paper rather than asking me to reconsider my comments.

3. Low Stakes Work. The past few years, I’ve had a genuinely ambivalent relationship with low stakes work. In my Scale-Up class I used weekly quizzes that were not worth many points to keep students focused on tasks. While students generally found these annoying, they found it annoying mostly because they did not want to stay on task rather than finding difficult or annoying the little exercises worth a small number of points. The downside of low-stakes work is most students still value grades over learning and it requires me as a faculty member to dedicate more energy to work that is not worth much in terms of grades while still keeping a high level of consistency and attention on graded work. In other words, student culture means that an attention to learning has to exist alongside their own interest in grades, not in addition to it. 

4. Role of Lectures. My original design for the class involved dividing the semester into 5, 5-class modules. Each of these modules will include two lectures, two guided, primary source discussions, and a short project that is begun in class. This makes time in class for lectures, but the balance remains shifted toward discussion and creative work. While I’ve slowly moved away from traditional lectures in classes, this past fall, I tried a lecture based upper level course with the hope that student interest in the topic and a more flexible “conversational” lecture style would make students excited about the topic. In general, this approach was a failure despite having pulled it off successfully in past years. Students today don’t have much time for in class lecturing. 

So, I am thinking about preparing the 10 lectures that I’d give over the course of the semester as podcasts and give them to the student to listen to outside of class. This would then free up 10 class meetings per semester. As Bowen has noted, lectures can easily be moved outside the classroom opening up class time to discussing narrative and content, exploring sources more carefully, and more complex and possible collaborative in-class “active” learning activities. 

Now getting students to listen to podcasts is another matter entirely…

A Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch

August 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, I’m thinking about writing something that starts like this:

The Bakken oil patch ranks among the great achievements of the contemporary age. The arrival of fracking technology in Western North Dakota has led to an industrial renaissance that transformed sleepy farm communities into the crucial cogs in the global extractive economy. Today, the area has become a global destination for roughnecks, petroleum engineers, pipeline “cats”, truck drivers, carpenters, contractors, and electricians as well as journalists, adventure scientists, academic scholars, photographers, and filmmakers. Low-unemployment, the bustle of extractive industry, and a landscape of dramatic contrasts holds forth an magnetic attraction for the adventurous traveler. Pack your camera, your sulfur dioxide sensor, some steel-toed boots and a Carhartts and get ready for a unique journey to the land where industry and nature meet.

The patch itself is a bewildering sight to the unprepared visitor on account of its vast area alone (over 100 sq miles) and can quickly overwhelm any simple approach to apprehending its significance or visiting the most meaningful sites. This short guide is meant to direct a tourist to a sampling of the many remarkable sites in the “Bakken” with a particular emphasis on the work and life of the new communities in the area with some reference to other sites of older historical significance. As with any tourist guide, this is not designed to be exhaustive, but to identify characteristic types of sites in the region by providing easily navigated itineraries across the region. Since the practice of industrial tourism remains in its infancy, this guide will also seek to bring to the fore some thought questions for the educated visitor to the Bakken both to stimulate discussion and to guide your explorations of this region of unprecedented industrial, historical, and natural beauty.


Route 1: Minot, ND to Ross, ND

The main point of entry into the Bakken from the north is the small city of Minot. Minot is served by Delta airlines, has an Amtrack station, and sits astride Route 2, the famous “The Highline”, that runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Everett Washington. It is the northernmost east-west highway in the U.S. and follows the route of the Great Northern Railroad from which it takes its name. The route from Minot to Williston, North Dakota is among the most scenic stretch of the Highline, and communities in North Dakota along this route had been in decline for two generations prior to the most recent oil activity. 

Informal Practices and Space in the Bakken

August 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

This weekend I read another selection from the Kostis Kourelis Book Club: V. Mukhija and A. Loukaitou-Sideris eds., The Informal American City: Beyond Food Trucks and Day Labor. MIT 2014. The book is packed with astute observations on practices that shape the informal (as opposed to formal, regulated, and standardized) life of American cities. These range from gardens in vacant lots, perpetual yard sales, hidden apartments, and spaces beyond the reach or interest of formal zoning policies. 

The book got fueled my excitement about housing practices in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota which is rife with informal practices motivated as much by the absence of regulation (or personnel to enforce existing regulations) as the need to adapt existing institutions, spaces, and places to the needs of a dynamic workforce.

Over the past 2 years, I have been working on a team that is documenting workforce housing in the Bakken. I have been particularly romanced by the architectural invention that takes place at what we call Type 2 camps. These camps typically consist of RVs and trailers arranged in lots with power, water, and sewage. The informality of these spaces comes from the ad hoc efforts to winterize the units, the techniques done to articulate spatial boundaries, and, most dramatically, the architectural additions designed to expand the space of the RVs and to make them more suitable for longterm habitation.

Peter Ward’s contribution to this volume, “Reproduction of Informality in Low-Income, Self Help Housing Communities,” caught my attention and opened up some new questions about life in Type 2 camps. Ward’s article looks at colonias and “informal homestead subdivisions” in the US. These are subdivisions which often lack utilities but are sold to low-income individuals and families at low prices and with irregular financing arrangements. They are typically associated with Hispanic communities in the borderlands between the US and Mexico, they also appear throughout the US at the periphery of cities where underdeveloped land is inexpensive and unskilled labor opportunities exist. While these settlements differ from our workforce housing camps because the residents actually own their land, they are similar because the residents typically engage in all sorts of informal architecture ranging from shacks built from plywood to RVs and mobile homes. In most cases, these practices represent an effort to gradually develop their property and housing with limited resources. The use of blue tarp, scrap wood, pallets, and other material that could be rearranged and reused for other purposes ensured that the investment was both modest and the structure itself served as a kind of provisional discard conserving useful material for other projects as needs change.   

Ward’s rather quick discussion of these forms of informal vernacular got me to wonder how certain practices – like the construction of mudrooms and other plywood and scrap wood additions – move around the country. Perhaps it is borderland colonias that developed this important, sustained tradition of ad hoc, vernacular architecture, and it moved northward to the Bakken following the route of oil patch workers from the Texas oil fields to those elsewhere in the US. 

During our last trip to the Bakken, we talked with the new management of one of our study sites, and they explained that they were trying to standardize and “clean up” the spectacular array of mudrooms present at their site. They argue that the large mudrooms are safety hazards and often act as extensions to the RVs to accommodate more people than they are designed to accommodate. During our visit, we noticed an abandoned mudroom that was set up for just this purpose. Note the use of blue tarp, the sale price of $1000, and the bed. There were two rooms in this mudroom both set up for sleeping.




On the one hand, we suspect an actual concern for safety in the camp as plywood mudrooms can represent a real fire hazard especially when they feature irregular wiring, are heated with gas heaters, and have inadequate insulation and ventilation. On the other hand, it is in the best interest of the camp to reduce the number of residents per unit. This not only increases the amount of rent collected per resident, but also lowers population density of the camp taking pressure off the basic infrastructure (trash removal, water, electric, parking et c.) and making keeping order in the camp easier. It was a useful reminder that safety, order, and regularity are not incompatible with profitability. The formal American city, like the formal man camp in the Bakken, is not without economic motives. 

Late Roman Economy and Formation Processes

August 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

I’ve spent some quality time with the most recent volume of Late Antique Archaeology this past month in preparation for writing a short contribution with David Pettegrew on connectivity in the Late Roman eastern Mediterranean. We plan to compare the Late Roman assemblages produced by two survey projects:  Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Project and Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeology Project. An important component of both assemblages is Late Roman amphoras: EKAS produced substantial quantities of Late Roman 2 Amphora probably produced in the Argolid; PKAP produced quantities of Late Roman 1 Amphora produced both on Cyprus and in southern Cilicia. We hope to discuss how the concentrations of these common transport vessels reflected and complicated how we understand economic patterns in the Late Antiquity.

Over the past half-century two basic models for the Late Roman economy have emerged. The earlier models saw the state as the primary engine for trade in antiquity. More recently, however, scholars have argued that the core feature of ancient trade is small-scale interaction between microregions across the Mediterranean basin. While there is undoubtedly some truth in both models, the latter has substantially more favor among scholars at present and the volume dedicated to connectivity focuses on the kind of small-scale interregional exchange that created a network of social, economic, and even cultural connections that defined the ancient Mediterranean world. The classic question introduced to complicate our view of ancient connectivity is: if the ancient Mediterranean is defined by these small-scale connections, then why did the political, economic, social, and even cultural unity of the communities tied to the Middle Sea collapse with the fall of Roman political organization in Late Antiquity?

Figure4 18

This is where David and I want to introduce the complicating matter of formation process archaeology. The substantial assemblages of Late Roman amphora represent the accumulation of discard from two “nodes” within the Late Antique economic network. These two nodes, however, are particularly visible because of the substantial concentration of a class of transport vessel.

These transport vessels most likely served to transport supplies to imperial troops either stationed in the Balkans or around the Black Sea, or in the case of the Eastern Korinthia, working to refortify the massive Hexamilion Wall that ran the width of the Isthmus of Corinth or stationed in its eastern fortress near the sanctuary of Isthmia. The visibility of these two areas depends upon a kind of artifact associated with a kind of exchange. As David has noted the surface treatments associated with LR2 amphora make them highly diagnostic in the surface record. LR1s, in turn, have highly diagnostic, twisted, handles that make them stand out from a surface assemblage dominated by relatively undifferentiated body sherds. In other words, these amphora assemblages represent a visible kind of economic activity.

The impact of this visible type of economic activity on our understanding of Late Roman connectivity is complex. On the one hand, the kind of persistent, low-level, economic connections associated with most models of connectivity are unlikely to leave much evidence on the surface. The diverse and relatively small group of very diverse amphoras, for example, found upon the coasting vessel at Fig Tree Bay on Cyprus would have been deposited at numerous small harbors along its route. Moreover, the fluidity of the networks that characterized connectivity would have made the routes of caboteurs irregular and contingent on various economic situations throughout the network of relationships. This variability and the small-scale of this activity is unlikely to have created an archaeologically visible assemblage at any one point on these routes. More than this, overland trade in wine or olive oil may not have used amphoras at all further impairing the archaeological visibility of the kind of low-level connectivity characteristic of Mediterranean exchange patterns. Between ephemeral containers and variable, low-density scatters, the regular pattern of archaeological exchange characterizing connectivity will never be especially visible in the landscape.

In contrast, imperial provisioning requirements, fueled for example by the quaestura exercitus, would present exceptionally visible assemblages of material. The interesting thing, to me, is that the amphoras visible on the surface in the Korinthia and at Koutsopetria  are not what is being exchanged, but the containers in which exchange occurs. The material exchanged, olive oil and wine, are almost entirely invisible in the archaeological records on their own. The visibility of these two places reflects the presence of outlets for a region’s produce. The produce itself, however, leaves very little trace, and we have to assume that networks that integrated microregions across the Mediterranean functioned to bring goods from across a wide area to a particular site for large-scale export.

The collapse of these sites of large-scale export during the tumultuous 7th and 8th centuries did not make trade between microregions end, but it made it more contingent and less visible, as I have argued for this period on Cyprus. The absence of large accumulations of highly diagnostic artifact types in one place represent a return to our ability to recognize normal patterns of Mediterranean exchange as much as the disruption of this exchange. The decline of these sites both deprived archaeologists of visible monuments of exchange and ancient communities of a brief moment of economic stability within longstanding contingent networks.

Writing and Publishing

August 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’ve spent a good bit of time this past month preparing the Punk Archaeology volume for publication (hopefully within the next week or so) and laying out the volume dedicated to a series of short posts from last year’s 3D Thursday series of blog posts.

At the same time, I was thinking about this year’s series of posts on craft and archaeology, and it occurred to me that the process of managing a book from writing, to contributors to lay-out, represents an artisnal approach to production. As the artisan, I’ve managed just about every step in the process layout, with the appreciation that my late friend Joel Jonientz did much of the basic conceptualizing of the punk archaeology, cover design, and laid out the first draft, and Andrew Reinhard and Brandon Olson have done more than their share of copy editing for Punk Archaeology and 3D Thursday respectively.

PunkA cover 1

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Book layout is hard. It has taken me endless hours of fussing (and still more on the horizon) to get the basic layout of the book right. Things like gutters, margins, and overset texts have become a preoccupation. I still can’t get pagination right: who realized that chapters almost always start on odd numbered pages? It has taken me weeks of fussing to get things right for even a relatively simple book design. If the technical details are not complex, the execution is.

2. Book production is invisible. While I’ve been laying out my own books, I’ve also been editing page proofs for Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town for the ASOR Archaeological Report Series. As I’ve carefully re-read the text and made small corrections here or there throughout, I got to thinking how relatively invisible book designers, layout people, and even copy editors are within the system of academic production. So many of us academics consider ourselves sensitive to the various inequalities intrinsic to the various systems at play in our worlds. At the same time, I’ve never seen a particularly spirited defense of those folks who participate in the publishing industry below the levels of the clearly evil corporate overlords who spend their days converting the fruits of academic labors to the fruits of their table.

(With not a little embarrassment, I remember enabling a co-author to rewrite a good chunk of an article at the stage of page proofs, and the editors and production folks, through gritted-teeth, accepting our requests. As someone who is now spending time on the production side of publishing, I am becoming more and more aware of how our late-game creative decisions do not exist in a vacuum.)

3. The Heterotopia of Independent Publishing. Over the past few years, the potential of self or independent publishing has emerged as a largely unrealized threat set against the worst abuses of the academic publishing industry. As a blogger, I’m sure that I’ve expressed and even acted on some of those threats by pushing out pre-prints, sacrificing time that I could be spending producing products for publishers to make my ideas accessible on my blog, and by, finally, using my blog platform as an incubator for content that I will eventually publish with my low-fi press.

New Digital Press logo

At the same time, by actually following through on becoming an independent/self-publisher, I’ve realized how much time and energy goes into the production process. The time and energy involved in preparing a manuscript for publication redirects my work flow from writing toward editing, layout, correspondence, and even financial matters. The result of this reassignment of energy is that I will be a less productive scholar – at least for the foreseeable future. 

If our concern is making scholarship accessible to a wide audience in an efficient way, self and independent publishing represents a way of streamlining the appearance of scholarly works in print and cutting through a certain amount of corporate overhead. On the other hand, it shifts the burden of production closer to the hands of the author (and much of this burden is invisible in traditional, corporate model of academic publishing). 


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