The War with the Sioux: Open Access Teaser

I’m very happy to announce that the first English translation of Karl Jakob Skarstein’s War with the Sioux: Norwegians against Indians 1862-1863 is pushed to publication. It should be available on Amazon and via a free download by the end of tomorrow! (I’m feeling super impatient right now, to be honest!)

Since we’ve been developing The Digital Press’s website as the official presence of The Press on the web, I feel free to be a bit more colloquial here about the book.

This is a watershed for me because it’s the first book that The Digital Press has published in which I don’t have a academic interest. I’m not uninterested. In fact, having read through a bunch of versions of this book, produced the maps, and laid out the manuscript, I’ve developed a bit of Oslo Syndrome with the text. I eventually ended up visiting the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield where Richard Rothaus gave me a couple of great mini-lectures on the war and now feel more at ease with names like Inkpaduta and Alfred Sully.  

I also got to work with a fine group of collaborators from our translators and authors, Danielle Mead Skjelver, Melissa Gjellstad, Richard Rothaus, and Dakota Goodhouse, to our copy-editor, Amanda Osgood Jonientz, Eirin Hagen of the Hagen Agency in Norway, and various other voices who contributed throughout the process. Jason Jenkins from the university’s legal office deserve particular commendation as he patiently worked with me through the various contracts necessary to purchase rights for the book from its Norwegian publishers and Aaron Bergstrom who created the digital back end that will allow us to count downloads the book. Unlike the other books from the press, we do not have unlimited rights to this book so we had to be more careful when it came to circulating it.

We do, however, share rights to the new introductory material with the authors, so I can make available the new front matter as a teaser for the book. Click here to download the introductions.

WwSCover2FINALCover08272015 Front

When the book is ready, I’ll update its page on The Digital Press’s website, push out a press release, and, of course, blog something here.

Funding Academic Publishing

The last few years have been relatively bleak for university presses. The decline in library funding, increased competition from for-profit presses, and the shift from longterm priorities to short-term at universities not only encourage the purchase of increasingly expensive serials, but also made the university press an appealing target of budget reallocation. As a result, presses have been asked to more independent and to develop sustainable approaches to publishing that draw new sources of revenue ranging from endowments, to grants, subventions, and collaborations. For a nice, basic history of the university press go here.

There are any number of challenges facing the university press as they look to make this transition. I’m just beginning to do research in this area, so my observations here are very preliminary, but they’re appropriate for my experiences at the University of North Dakota. I am pleased to announce that I received a small grant to support efforts by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as it looks for new and innovative forms of funding to support our digital publications and our collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly. As readers of this blog know, North Dakota Quarterly has been on a kind of life support for the last few years as it explores more sustainable funding models and adapts to new opportunities provided by digital publication.

The grant from UND provides me with some time to work with folks at the Alumni Association and Foundation to explore new sources of funding. For us to do this successfully, however, we need to discuss frankly the limits of working in a university environment. There area  few structural issues that I’d like to use this grant to find ways to work around.

First, I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to move money from sales from outside the university to within the university accounting system. From what I understand, services like Paypal are not approved by UND, and the internally approved online purchasing system is not fully functional at present (or we have not succeeded in getting it set up for us efficiently).

Second, the lifeblood of most university projects is external grant money. Most external grants have rather restrictive rules on how we can use the resources. The assumption is that unscrupulous faculty members, if not constrained by as many rules as possible, will spend all their grant money on “hookers and blow.” As a result, these funds are micromanaged in such a way that most of one’s time is spent making sure that grant money is accounted for properly rather than doing the actual work. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but having worked on grant funded archaeological projects, I’d argue that accounting takes up 10%-15% of our time in the field, and much of that accounting has to do with following university guidelines.) The greatest challenge is that most grant money serves to fund a specific project rather than to build infrastructure.  

Finally, because funds at universities are very restrictive in how they can be spend and because it is very difficult to create a revenue stream, there are few within the academy who are willing to offer “venture capital.” There is a good bit of talk about entrepreneurship, innovation, and “business models,” but our ability to leverage these concepts and approaches is hamstrung by layers of ossified bureaucracy, a “cya” culture among mid-level administrators, and fear that any situational response will produce crippling future precedents. In effect, the institutional weight hampers the kind of dynamic innovation that the university hopes to demonstrate. 

(To be clear, universities also are great incubators for projects like The Digital Press because they pay my salary, provide infrastructural support – like server space, computers, office space, et c. – and, in good ways, help manage funds and generate publicity. These things are great when a project is starting, but the burdens associated with these advantages run the risk of stifling growth.) 

I’m hoping to use the recent small grant to find viable and sustainable “work arounds” for some of these issues. My hope is that the grant will help me to start to develop three streams of funding which can work around various limitations at the modern university. Maybe. 

1. Crowd Funding. Crowd funding is clearly a useful way to fund and publicize publications. By pre-selling your product, you have the funds upfront and this can serve as a kind of venture capital for a particular project. Moreover, if funding goals are set appropriately, the income from a crowd funded campaign can build re-usable infrastructure as long as project goals are met. Finally, crowd funded projects can put us in direct contact with people who are most interested in our product.  

As far as I know there has never been a successful crowd funding campaign at the University of North Dakota, and it is unclear how and whether funds from a Kickstarter could move into a university account. At the same time, it seems useful to use crowd funding as one stream of revenue for a particular project rather than the sine qua non for an undertaking. After all, an author or editor is not likely to decide whether to pursue or finish a project based on the whims of the crowd and there is always the risk that a crowdfunded project will fail. 

It is tempting to imagine a Kickstarter for North Dakota Quarterly because it might serve as an exciting way to general publicity for a particular side project, because we have a built in base of supporters, because we have some stable support from the University. It would free us to innovate without burdening the existing staff with added responsibilities.

2. Corporate Partners. The Digital Press has a series of books focused on the history of North Dakota and its various communities and a few little projects “in the hopper” that will or could cater to a popular audience. For example, our neighborhood history series uses microhistories of Grand Forks neighborhoods to celebrate the diversity and history of our small town. We also have been thinking about a smaller series of very short guides that would lead readers on interesting engagements with the local landscapes (e.g. 20 Beers in Grand Forks: A Guide to Local Watering Holes or  Grand Forks’ Vanished Past: A Guide to Destroyed Buildings.)

While we’ll have to think hard about whether we want to embrace a playfully popular series of books, there’s no doubt that this could draw some interest from corporate partners. Corporate sponsor money has the advantage of being somewhat more flexible for internal use, but also having strings attached. A good partner, who understands the Press’s mission can be a tremendous help, but there will always be that little feeling that we’ve sold out.

3. Grants. The final source of income for these digital ventures are grants. The funding that I received from UND is to help me find non-governmental grants to support our projects. Some of our local projects, for example, could find support from grants that focus on community development. We funded a recent translation project with a grant from an agency that funds the translation of Norwegian literature.

The challenge with grants is that they tend to be focused on a specific projects. These projects might be a single publication – say of reprints from North Dakota Quarterly – or – or a larger digital archiving projects – like subventing the publication of a digital site for the North Dakota Man Camp Project. It is tricky, albeit possible, to use grants to build infrastructure, but this typically involves creative grant writing.

Many grants designed to support the digital humanities, for example, are geared to large-scale projects of archiving or publication or depend on more substantial infrastructure support than we have available at UND.

At the same time, I am optimistic that my cooperative model of academic publishing might be a hook that I can use to attract support from a granting agency. Perhaps a kind of “intellectual infrastructure” including workflow, innovative approaches to marketing and distribution, and cooperative understanding might be enough to attract support from external grant money.  

Wish me luck as I go forward into these new ventures and be sure to check out The Digital Press and North Dakota Quarterly.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

At the end of a hectic week in North Dakotaland, I’ve traveled west to the might “Capital of the Northern Prairie,” Bismarck, ND for a meeting. The temperature is set to top 95 degrees reminding us that summer has a little more to offer before succumbing to golden light of fall.

Fortunately, I have a nice swarm of Quick Hits and Varia to help you beat the heat this weekend.

Milo is recovering from his cough and ear infections, but he wanted to make sure everyone knew that being a sick, 2-year-old, yellow dog is not easy.

IMG 3737

Working Space

One of the challenges this semester is figuring out where I’m going to work. While on sabbatical, I worked quite comfortably from home both in my home office, on the dining room table, and in the kitchen with my main hub of operations in my home office.

Prior to that I worked mostly in my office on campus. Last year, however, that office was occupied by my replacement. So now, I’m at a loss.

My current plan is to work five days a week at home and two days a week in my office. I want to keep my campus office as tidy as possible this year so that it can serve as a bit of an escape from the chaotic space of my home office. 

IMG 3742

Lots of goings on this time of year both on campus, at home, and in our community. My short post today is giving me some time to get a few things sorted out before blasting over to Bismarck for a meeting. 

Reflecting on an Ethics of Circulation

A number of my colleagues forwarded to me a manifesto (in tweets, no less) offered for discussion at a conference on the Academic Book of the Future (beep, boop, boop, boop, beep… this is the sound of the future, for those of you who don’t know). It’s titled Toward an Ethics of Circulation, and it’s smart. 

I’ll just link to it here, and you should go and read it now. 

Here are my thoughts on 5 of their 7 manifestlets as they relate to my recent efforts to become a little publisher with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and through my work on the editorial staff of North Dakota Quarterly.

2. Readers matter most!

I have to admit that I’m only now wrapping my head around the idea of readers. For example, we have a book set to be published in the next week. It’s an English translation of Norwegian book on the Dakota Wars. It’s a good book, well-translated and expanded from the original with some good, scholarly, introductory material. 

Like my books on archaeology, I’d planned to distribute and market this book via social and new media mostly as a digital book. My translates, true denizens of the Northern Plains (in the best possible way), have constantly reminded me that my readers might not all be in social and new media, and I might have to take the risk of circulating (gasp) paper, print books to get this work into their hands. Needless to say, I don’t have much of a budget for that, so I might have to rethink some of my strategy for distributing this particular work.

In the future, as I accept works for publication, I need to make sure that I have a stronger grasp of who will likely read what we publish.

3. Do not fetishize the digital. We need a mixed media ecology to disseminate our work smartly.

Whoa… me? Fetishize the digital? 

(The best, puckish comment on this was from Dimitri Nakassis who declared: “I will fetishize the digital and no one can stop me” and that “Danny Miller is not the boss of him.” Genius!) 

I’ve certainly done this, but my recent work with North Dakota Quarterly – an unapologetically paper operation – has forced me to think a bit more critically about what paper, digital, and other media mean to publications. First off, to be clear, I’m not talking about how a book feels in my hand or the “smell of books” or how portable and enduring paper is or anything like that. That’s just fetishizing the paper and does not approach the potential of media in a critical way. 

At the same time, I was utterly seduced by a project organized by student interns at North Dakota Quarterly last year. They produced a mobile-phone sized issue of NDQ in paper and filled it with social and new media length articles. I wish we could have coordinated a downloadable copy of this issue that would include pages that fit perfectly on a smart-phone sized screen. 

Richard Rothaus and I have begun to talk about Season 2 of our Caraheard Podcast. One of the great experiments in podcasting that I witnessed first hand was Brett Ommen and Joel Jonientz’s “Professor Footnote” podcast which combined narrative, academic commentary, and footnotes forcing us to engage with the potential of a hybridized media.

Paper is not just paper, digital is not just digital. The standards, conventions, and expectations of each media have reduced concepts like “the digital” to the verge of being meaningless (or being so generic to communicate nothing about the publication) … after all, almost all media these days spends time in the analogue and digital realm.

4/5. Slow Publishing and Dismantling the Academy’s fetish for single authorship. 

I love this, even though I find the concept of slow publishing a bit terrifying. In fact, my press was built on the idea of streamlining the interval from concept to page and from blog post to book, but the idea of slow publishing has lingered in the back of my head (as more than just a way to describe certain projects with certain collaborators). In fact, when the press started, Joel Jonientz and I discussed an imprint that would focus on reprinting public domain works with great attention to detail – layout, fonts, illustrations, paper, and binding. These works were more than just premium print products, but were aesthetic statements as well designed to evoke the “art of the book.” The content would be sourced from the public domain removing any urgency to move work to print. I’d like to revive this project with the right collaborators at some point, but for now slow publishing is something I admire, but don’t support.

In fact, the cooperative character of The Digital Press is antithetical to some of the core ideas of the larger slow movement. For example, slow movement has a clear relationship to craft production which emphasized the specialized skill of the craftperson. My press, in contrast, asks contributors to take an active role in the production of their books. The Press provides a template and a framework for publication and a bit of technical expertise, but operates with the understanding that the specialized skill of publishing and editing, which has preserved a division of labor that supports commercial interests as well as the need to profit from books. 

Beyond the Digital Press’s model, I can’t imagine really publishing anything as a single author again in my career. First, I don’t need to. I’m tenured, I’m productive, and if my university won’t promote me for only publishing co-authored works, then I don’t really care to be promoted (but I think they will promote me, so that’s not really an issue). Second, while I tend to write, a lot, I never write in a vacuum. Almost everything I do has a collaborative element, and (channeling my inner Latour) I can’t think of any idea that I’ve ever had that doesn’t represent simply a node in a more extensive network of conversations, concepts, and relationships. That these relationships are not represented in authorship standards is, a best, a bit dishonest, and at worst, exploitative. 

7. A publication is not simply a closed or bounded object or commodity. It lives on and proceeds into an uncertain world. 

Another great observation. As the Digital Press develops (or maybe within NDQ (?)), I’d love to create an environment that encourages our work to be remixed, expanded, developed, rejiggered, and demolished. I get that not every publication and every author will allow this kind of approach, but as I write this I’m listening to covers of Phosphorescent’sSong for Zula” (it’s a pop song… and I’ve loved Ryan Adams’ long standing practice of covering songs). This is common practice in music. Whatever you think of these songs, the covers give the original new life, they have a life of their own, and they make explicit the potential for a work of art or a publication to become something new and to develop a new network of relationships and meanings. By recognizing a publication as less of an act of freezing an object and more about setting an idea or a text free, we can create an environment where the object can move into new positions, develop new meanings, and continue to grow.

Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Class Film Strip

I am back on campus for the first time in almost 15 months and looking forward to thinking more about teaching this semester. One of the first challenges will be the 140 smiling faces tonight in the Scale-Up classroom. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching in the Scale-Up room for  few years now (you can read more about it here), and have been moderately successful porting a History 101: Western Civilization class into a collaborative learning environment.

During my year away, the folks coordinating the use of the Scale-Up room asked that faculty using it be a bit more explicit in articulating the philosophy behind the room and its attendant benefits. So I decided that I would do a brief presentation on the history of active learning in history during my first session in the Scale-Up room tonight.

Oh, and I thought it would be cool if I organized it like a film strip mostly because I like the BEEP noise in the recording that would advance the film strip to the next image.

So here’s my opening film strip in 25 slides.

Slide 1: 

In the beginning, there was the seminar.


Slide 2: 

It was invented by historians in German and imported to the U.S. in the late 19th century.


Slide 3:

The typical seminar involved a group of 8 to 15 students arranged around a table (the seminar table).  


Slide 4:

This group of students studied original documents that they called “primary sources” and shared their research with one another in a critical environment.


Slide 5: 

The best seminar rooms provided access to basic reference works, maps, and specialized works of history to help the students understand ofttimes difficult documents.


Slide 6:

The goal of the seminar was collaborative, active learning in the service of history.


Slide 7: 

The seminar arrived at the University of North Dakota in the early 20th century at the hands of renown historian Orin G. “Orangey” Libby. 


Slide 8: 

He had learned history through seminars at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of Frederick “The Frontier” Jackson Turner.


Slide 9:

At UND, the seminar thrived and produced the first generation of historians of the state of North Dakota. 


Slide 10:

While it was mainly designed to educate graduate students in history, it was quickly adapted to other history classes.


Slide 11:

As the university grew and history attracted more and more students, the seminar became difficult to maintain, because it was such a hands-on learning experience.


Slide 12:

With the rapid growth in university enrollments both at UND and around the country, new methods for teaching students history emerged. 


Slide 13: 

These methods sought to refocus student attention from hands-on learning from “primary source” documents and specialized libraries to building massive factual repositories in their heads.


Slide 14:

The best way to give a large number of students the tools necessary to think about history without giving them access to “primary sources” was to fill their brain with raw material for history: names, dates, places, battles, dynasties, and countries.


Slide 15:

This could be done at an impressive scale and this led to the famous “lecture bowl” style history classrooms filled with bored students. 


Slide 16:

This method created the impression of knowledge – students could recite the names and dates of important people and events – without the substance derived from working together to read primary source documents.


Slide 17:

The professor went from being an experience guide and resource who led students through the difficult work of reading primary sources, to a fact dispensing machine tasked with filling brains with the most important bits of knowledge.


Slide 18:

Needless to say, this system sucked for both the professor who became Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and for students who began the annual tradition of claiming they’re not good at remembering dates. 


Slide 19: 

It also led to the rapid growth of the textbook industry which sought to make it easier for students to learn names and dates while at the same time presented a watered down version of historical analysis. Unfortunately, showing someone how to tie a knot is not the best way to teach someone to do it. 


Slide 20:

Textbooks are expensive and usually make money for big corporations. 


Slide 21:

The Scale-Up room is a modified return to the seminar system.


Slide 22:

Each table will function like a small seminar in which participants will work together to produce historical analysis.


Slide 23:

Instead of the specialized libraries, we will use the internets and the resources available through UND’s library. 


Slide 24:

Instead of buying an expensive textbook, we’ll make our own textbooks.


Slide 25: 

Instead of memorizing a bunch of names and dates, we’ll actually learn how to write history.






Some Thoughts on Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity

I read Andrew Martin’s relatively new book, Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity with great excitement! His book promised to provide “a stout defense of an archaeology based on the ideas of Bruno Latour.” Since I have been particularly interested in Latour’s work lately and, particularly, his positions as an alternative to the turn of the (21st) century fascination with Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. As readers of my blog know, I’ve been curious about Latour eagerness to look at the way in which the tools we use in our research – as well as the complex network of social relations and the objects of scientific study – collude to produce scientific knowledge. Latour seemed extraordinarily attuned to the interplay between various actors (both human and otherwise) and this seemed ideally suited for both archaeology as a discipline and the archaeology of the discipline.

On a more practical level, I’m reading this book along with a few others for a multi-book review article on recent trends in archaeology. Last winter, I posted on Bjørnar Olsen’s and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Ruin Memories for an individual review, but, now, this review will be rolled into this larger project.

The first half of Martin’s book is a relatively careful examination of Latour’s important early works – Science in Action (1987) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993) – oddly missing is any discussion of his slightly later work Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996). For Martin, the key contribution of Latour is his critique of the division between nature and culture. Latour’s careful study of scientific procedures in a Nobel prize winner’s laboratory led him to argue that the division between nature and culture obscured the real work of science by reducing scientific arguments to descriptions of a natural “fact” rather than arguments based on expansive, but ultimately defined observations. Science works through the continual adjustment of definitions serving to define expansive bodies of observations rather than the testing of some pre-conceived hypothesis as suggested by Karl Popper.

If Latour’s science is the work of description, rather than hypothesis testing, then the reality of nature is not subjected to a “thought up” theory, but rather the product of a set of objects arranged according to shared characteristics. This understanding of science removed culture as an organizing principle, and, instead, relied upon empirical characteristics to define relationships. Objects, in other words, can object to groupings that do not produce compatibility. As a result, objects form an active nexus in the relationship between the scientist, other objects, and whatever tools the scientist uses to document, describe, or measure the object. The mutual compatibility of all these objects, persons, tools, spaces, and relationships is necessary for a coherent network of knowledge to exist. For Latour, the hypothesis, then, is description of mutual compatibility between all parts of the experiment which is periodically – and artificially – published in scientific papers.

For Martin (and Latour) this approach is radically different from what social scientists do in the production of knowledge. Instead of patiently gathering observations and arranging groups of similar objects, events, and combinations to create large complex, but compatible datasets, social scientists attempt to reduce natural complexity by explaining objects, events, or relationships through preconceived theories which they associate with culture. By maintaining a divisions between the conceptual and abstract world of culture and the natural world of objects, social sciences not only rendered objects passive, but also departed from the practices fundamental to scientific work. When Latour famously claims that “we have never been modern” he refers directly to the premodern failure to separate the cultural from the natural that persists in modern science. The difference between “modern” science and its premodern predecessor for Latour is simply the vast scale and number of observations possible in modern science, but not in the basic operation. The myth of a modernity made up of passive objects understood only through universal theories applies only in the social sciences which, then, falsely grant their work authority through appeals to the scientific method. So far, this is great stuff. Anyone interested in how and why Latour constructed his symmetrical view of scientific knowledge production should spend a day reading the first 100 pages or so of this book.

In the second 100 pages or so witness the application of these theories to two archaeological data sets: burials in the Wessex culture of Early Bronze Age England and in North American Hopewell Indians. Both of these contexts have certain “controversies” or inconsistencies in the material culture that defy traditional efforts at analysis. For Martin, “controversies” (which is a Latourian term) appear in archaeology when objects resist being reduced to patterns established by existing systems of explanation or, in the case of the social sciences, structures.  

This part of the book was less convincing in large part because, as Martin admitted, there was no room really to develop the observations and objects that he intended to present as case-studies for applying Latour to archaeology. As a result, Martin does very little with the process of archaeology and more with the objects themselves and their archaeological “context.” The main point that he attempts to make is that the “entire context” for archaeological objects must be considered by the Latourian archaeologist: not just typology or sub-groups of artifacts selected according to pre-existing notions of kinship, ethnicity, or social structure. Order comes to these assemblages not through an existing theory but through statistical combinations which produce patterns that suggest social, political, and economic relationships. As he presents this in practice, there is little new here or exciting. Archaeologists are always looking for new ways to understand objects and assemblages and while we often approach sites with preconceived ideas of the processes that create artifact assemblages, I question whether we are as enslaved to “cultural” explanations as Martin supposes. 

What I will admit, however, is that we tend to see objects and relationships as the object of study and very much separate from the tools, people, and organization of archaeological work. Martin’s book replicates this separation by presenting the archaeological material with very little commentary on how it was produced. As a result, objects associated with the archaeological method were not given space “to object” to the arguments and relationships formed by the artifactual assemblage. This is consistent with the arbitrary break between the publication of scientific knowledge and the methods used to produce it, but this arbitrary split does little to break down the division between nature and culture that Latour and Martin regard as so problematic for social scientific knowledge. If the book’s goal was to produce a genuinely Latourian approach to archaeological knowledge production, then Martin needed to unpack both the social and the physical objects in archaeology. Objects in archaeology fit into both ancient (or, in Martin’s terms “original”) context which reflect their production, their distribution, and their use in a primary context, but also through their place in the context of archaeological practice. For objects to “object” to archaeological interpretation they have to intersect with the work of archaeological practice in a meaningful way.  

What is required to produce a Latourian archaeology, then, is not just a published study of an archaeological assemblage (which suggests Latourian practice, but does not really demonstrate it), but a new ethnography of archaeological work. 

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s the calm before storm as classes start on Tuesday and students show up on campus this weekend. Fortunately, there’s the final test of the Ashes, Formula 1 is at Spa, NASCAR is at Bristol, and NFL preseason has entered its very brief, interesting phase.

While I’m taking the weekend to gather my thoughts and energy before the semester begins, I’ll pass along some quick hits and varia for your enjoyment.

IMG 3716The Mighty Milo is under the weather today,
but he promises to be back to his vigilant self as soon as possible.

The Real History of Assessment

It’s been a long time since I’ve let myself be annoyed by something in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I take some pride in that because one of the Chronicle’s chief purposes is to keep us all informed where, when, and for what reason the sky is falling.

Yesterday, Prof. Joan Hawthorne, the Director of Assessment and Regional Accreditation at University of North Dakota wrote a short article in defense of assessment with reference with UND and, in particular, our history department. Prof. Hawthorne is far too humble in her abbreviated history of assessment at UND. 

The true story is that the first assessocrats came to the Norther Plains in the late-19th century. They were fresh from their time in England where they had improved the efficiency both of industrial mills as well as of various luddite groups in their effort to undermine industrialization across the country. In the “new world,” this small, but dedicated cadre committed their energies to demonstrating that “doing” is the goal of a university education and offered unique guidance in helping outmatched university administrators achieve this goal.

At UND, the first assessocrats where there in shadows when the university decide to hire a Ph.D. historian after almost a decade of history courses being taught by a theology professor. The first assessocrats huddled with the leaders of the the university – Webster Merrifield and Henry Montgomery – and guided them through major curriculum changes and faculty selection to ensure UND entered the 20th century with proper respect for learning outcomes. 

When Orin G. “Orangey” Libby, the first trained historian appeared on campus, the assessocrats met him at the train. Immediately on his arrival, they urged him to discard the small pine box that he brought with him from the University of Wisconsin. The pine box provided him with a bit more height in the classroom so he could “profess” more effectively. In its place, the assessocrats told Libby about a technique called the seminar that his advisor had learned at Johns Hopkins University on the far away East Coast. Some very early assessocrats in Germany had developed the seminar and then carried this method around the world by them. In the seminar, students did not just passively learn history, but actually engaged primary source documents to write history. Libby, grateful for their advisement, installed the seminar at UND and made it vital part of history education for a century. As the seminar developed at UND, the assessocracy encouraged Libby to offer students opportunities in professional development ranging from work compiling a new archive of material vital to the history of North Dakota and publishing short studies based on this material in a newly created history journal. He would never have done this had the assessocrats not told him to approach student learning in a thoughtful way.

Libby’s successors, of course, would have lost their way had not the assessocrats gently pushed them to adopt the newest teaching techniques. Needless to say, beloved professors like Elwyn Robinson and Robert Wilkins would not have spent the time to create an archive at UND for our students to gain experience with historical documents had not the assessocracy urged them to do more than merely profess their own knowledge to their classes. In fact, historians like Robinson and Wilkins were likely to have expected students to learn history through quiet reading or listening passively to colleagues present their research. Clearly, these methods are untenable and would have resulted in the end of any possible understanding of the past.

Instead, thanks to the assessocrats, historians at UND created classes focusing on the “craft” of history which emphasized the production of history over the rote memorization of names and dates. Faculty reinforced and expanded the skills learned in this class throughout the curriculum. The assessocrats insisted that this culminate in a capstone course which provided undergraduates with a chance to demonstrate their mastery of these skills. Without the guiding hand of the assessocracy, it is not an exaggeration to claim that history as a discipline would have ended with the last historian blandly intoning one final lecture (perhaps on the Battle of Hastings) to an empty classroom.

Prof. Hawthorne modestly overlooked the long tradition of assessocratic guidance and influence at the university level. Without directors of assessment, associate VPs of tabulation, and offices of assessment and evaluation, the modern university would be mired in an endless loop lectures, textbooks, and almost empty classrooms.


We should not be naive. Hawthorne’s oversimplified claims that before assessments professors “professed” stiff-legged behind the podium reading from a textbook, is not just an oversimplification. She has overwritten a long, disciplinary history of teaching and learning and replaced it with an administrative myth. In this myth,  assessment and the crusading administrators who implemented these techniques created a 21st century university that was responsive to student needs and prepared to lead the world in facing new challenges, new opportunities, and, perhaps most importantly, new opportunities for economic gain. This narrative is not only insulting (especially considering the long tradition of fields like history in pioneering “active learning”), but also an obvious ploy to undermine disciplinary practices in favor of centralized administrative control.

More frustratingly, her article attacked the most vulnerable fields at the modern university. She does not use as an example the professional disciplines which starting with law, medicine, and education developed their own accreditation bodies that stipulate assessment practices. These professions and disciplines have sufficient authority to push back against the growing power of the university administration. In contrast, the national and international professional organizations for the disciplines in the humanities have embraced a diversity of practices, methods, and goals, and do not have accreditation standards which can stand up against the university administration. As a result, it is easy to pick on these disciplines despite their role as pioneers in “learning by doing” practices that the assessocracy has only recently sought to generalized across the entire university. 

Recent objections to assessment from these fields is not resistance to learning-centered or student-centered teaching. Most university disciplines have long judged their success or failure in the classroom. In fact, goal of teaching in the modern university has always been to produce practitioners of the discipline. The success of teaching history is easily assessed by evaluating the quality of historical work produced by our students. As professional historians of some standing in our discipline, we are uniquely qualified to determine whether, in Hawthorne’s words, we are producing students who can “do” history. 

I’d contend that most objections to assessment come from the idea that the central administration discovered assessment techniques, according to Hawthorne’s article, sometime in the late-1990s and must now share them with hopelessly out of touch (and possibly lazy) faculty who had never considered “learning outcomes” as worth exploring. 

I recognize, of course, that the university of the late-20th and early-21st century is a very different, more diverse, and more complex place than it was a century or so earlier. The competition for faculty time and energy is higher, the range of disciplines, methods, and best practices is greater, and the student body more diverse. In fact, I’d accept the need for the dedicated administrators and staff who do their part to lift the burden of bureaucratic responsibility from faculty, navigate the Byzantine policies of federal and state oversight, ensure the physical (and digital) infrastructure functions optimally, and maintain the outward face of the university through marketing, design, and accessibility. 

At the same time, the rise of this administration in its glorious complexity has clearly contributed to a sense of alienation among both students and faculty, and I suspect that this, more than anything, has led to a loss of purpose, a growing skepticism toward administrative initiatives, and perhaps even a certain resigned complacency. Moreover, I’d suggest that the rise of the administrative assessocracy has only compounded this alienation. Hawthorne’s willingness to overwrite the long history of discipline-specific teaching practices is typical, and will not help encourage faculty accountability in the classroom. Hinting that without assessment faculty would revert to professing on a pine box or teaching from a textbook does not suggest that the assessocracy respects disciplinary practice or even understands the critique. It creates a barrier between the assessocracy, the administration, and faculty that will not be easily breached. Centralizing assessment will continue to generate faculty resistance and rhetorically weak efforts to dismiss it will lead to greater alienation.

On this blog, I have argued numerous times that students are capable of genuine resistance in the classroom. Failure to follow directions, read the syllabus, complete assignments to spec or on time, or be engaged in the classroom is not a student problem, but a teacher problem. As teachers we have to first respect these forms of resistance before we can address them. Resistance to assessment is not a faculty problem that can be solved by rewriting history or offering patronizing views of faculty motives. It’s a structural problem with the modern university, and it deserve to be taken far more seriously that Prof. Hawthorne did in yesterday’s Chronicle.

A Literary Journal in the Digital Age

This afternoon we have our first North Dakota Quarterly meeting of the year. NDQ is a small, proud, and once influential literary journal published at the University of North Dakota. For over a century, the Quarterly has appeared four times (or somewhat less) per year filled with poetry, fiction, and commentary. The last few years, however, have not been particularly kind to NDQ. It has lost subscribers, lost its longtime editor, and somehow missed out on the digital era. As a result, support from the University of North Dakota, which remains vital for its survival, has wavered, and a new editorial board of which I’m a part has a mandate to save the journal.

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My contribution to the “Save NDQ” project focuses on helping the journal find its way in the digital world. In fact, I’m giving a little presentation on a few possible digital initiatives. As per my usual practice, I’m going to use my blog to get my thoughts together.

1. Digital Legacy. One of the first things that NDQ must address is its legacy. NDQ has over 400 issues and thousands of pages of content and almost none of this is available online (other than the first 20 or so issues digitized as part of the Google Books project) even now that our issues are born digital.

As part of bringing NDQ’s legacy to the digital era, we are going to start a series of thematic reprints of public domain content and make them available on both paper and in digital forms (in collaboration The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!). In other words, we’re going to use digital media to organize and celebrate the legacy of NDQ in new ways.

For issues that remain under copyright, we’re in a unique bind. Because NDQ published for year without author contracts, and the most recent author contracts limited the republication of individual submissions to NDQ, we are going to have problems producing thematic reprints for volumes still under copyright. My gut feeling is that for articles published before 1950, we might be safe doing some thematic reprints, but for more recent content, we probably need to simply release digital copies of the entire volumes.

We will also contact Jstor to see if they are interested in distributing NDQ, but we might also look to other online depositories to ensure that digital NDQ circulates as widely as possible.

2. Beyond Paper. As readers of this blog know, I’m always willing to experiment with the newest in new media (well, not the newest, but once it becomes a bit tired, I’m all in!). I even joined Ello. Part of what we need to do with NDQ is to bolster its presence online through the new media. We will unveil a new website in the coming weeks, and, hopefully, this allows us to engage with timely matters in a more efficient way. 

We’re also in the exploration stages of a series of Podcasts, an Instagram account, and even some low-key (gasp) e-marketing (like a regular email newsletter or even a subscription drive?).

At times, NDQ feels like it exists in a sepia-toned bubble, but, in fact, the Quarterly serves as a filter. We get hundreds of submissions for each volume, and we publish only the most interesting and exciting each quarter. This filtering function is all the more important in the 21st century, where the abundance of new and traditional media choices for the educated reader is almost overwhelming. And we think that our editors, readers, and supporters could collaborate in filtering the the wild world of the web. So, I’d like to introduce a quarterly NDQ list of the best things to read both on the web and on paper. I know there is a good bit of competition in this field, but I also know that our contributors, readers, friends, and colleagues are a formidable filter. I think a quarterly email with our favorite reads could become a complement to the print version of the Quarterly. We also think that this is a great way to build bridges between the various quality publications both online and in print that our editors, contributors, and subscribers enjoy.

Podcasts offer another way to expand the audience for NDQ. Reading is great, but the amount of hours in a day never allow for as much time for thought-provoking engagement with quality media as anyone would like. I am always surprised by the number of folks I know who listen regularly to podcasts. If journals like NDQ, were the quality popular media of their day, then perhaps podcasts fill that gap now?

Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat (!?). I mean, seriously? Do these media have potential? Poems on Snapchat? Cover art on Instagram? I don’t even know what we could do with Vine, but these light-weight media options exist and are popular and have a tremendous reach. They’re ripe for experiment.

3. Transmedia. As much as I can imagine NDQ using new media to extend its reach, I can also imagine us engaging new media in different, critical ways. For example, I’d love to see NDQ offer a critical take on music. Fortunately, YouTube, Vimeo, and streaming services like Spotify make it easy to integrate music and text online.

My colleague Sharon Carson, also on the editorial board at NDQ, is committed to renewing the genre of book review, I wonder if complementing that should be an effort to revitalize the genre of music review?

Even the most rudimentary blog platform now allows for us to integrate video and and photography and take the genre of review from a cross media exercise to a transmedia encounter where art, music, video, and text share the same space and blur the line between viewer, listener, and reader. 

4. Paper. All this is not to marginalize the tradition of paper publication at NDQ. In fact, by exploring digital media while remaining committed to paper, we recognize the unique character of paper, printing, layout, fonts, and all the other craft elements of traditional publication that our growing addiction to web reading and digital publication has gradually eroded. By crossing media boundaries, we are compelled to consider more carefully what makes print unique and to celebrate it.