Some Digital Press Updates: Punks, The Old Church, Epoiesen, NDQ, Kaepernick, and Robinson

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is looking ahead to its most exciting year ever. Various projects are rushing to maturity in the next few months, and my schedule for 2019 is already shaping up. So this seems as good a time as any to do a quick update.

First, come and hang out with some Digital Press authors and editors on Saturday night at Ojata Records here in Grand Forks, North Dakota from 7 pm on. For conversation, books, music, and, of course awesome free gifts thanks to The Digital Press, North Dakota Quarterly, June Panic, Andrew Reinhard, Chris Matthews, and Bret Weber (and the North Dakota Man Camp Project). Special thanks to Brian Schill of NDQ who is pulling this all together.

PunksOnTrump

Next, by this time next week, I hope that the first Digital Press Edition of Chris Price’s The Old Church on Walnut Street is available for download and purchase. Here’s the cover:

OldChuchCover

Epoiesen layout is now almost complete, and I expect it to be available by the end of the month. After going around and around on cover designs, I think Shawn Graham and Andrew Reinhard have convinced me to go with some variation on this design. More on that thought process here.

Adreinhard 2017 dec 26

The final issues of North Dakota Quarterly for 2017 (volume 84.3/4) is almost ready to be mailed out to subscribers. I can take almost no credit for this volume, other than helping stuff envelopes, but as NDQ is moving into The Digital Press portfolio this winter, I’m spreading the news and excitement. Shawn Boyd’s most excellent cover design celebrates the immeasurable contributions from our retiring managing editor, Kate Sweney.

Ndq cover 2017  1

IMG 1712

The NDQ and Digital Press folks are well on our way to publishing Snichimal Vayuchil, an anthology of translated Tsotsil Mayan poetry as a print-on-demand volume. You can download it here for free.

We’re also excited to announce Eric Burin’s project on Colin Kaepernick. Eric spilled the beans on Martin Luther King day:

MLK Day seems like an appropriate time to tell folks about my latest project: assembling and editing an anthology on the Kaepernick-inspired protests. Protesting on Bended Knee will include brief essays from scholars in different disciplines (e.g., history, political science, philosophy, communications, psychology, gender studies, law, etc.) as well as pieces written by veterans, athletes, coaches, sportswriters, national anthem singers, and others. The volume, which soon will be published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, aims to elevate and expand our conversations about patriotism, free speech, and race in 21st America.

Anyone familiar with Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2016), should know that Protesting on Bended Knee will be insightful, thought-provoking, and compelling.

Finally, I’m starting to pull together various Elwyn Robinson related content including a recent forum in North Dakota Quarterly and some parts of his memoirs to create a Digital Press/NDQ version of Robinson’s History of North Dakota, which was recently released under a somewhat-open license from the University of North Dakota.There will be a to-do announcing the open publication of this book and UND’s Scholarly Commons repository sometime in late February. My hope is that we can announce our special edition of the book as just the kind of remixing that open publication can provide!

As always, stay tuned!

Wishful Thinking Wednesday: A Book Proposal for The Archaeology of Contemporary American Life

About six weeks ago, a colleague out of the blue asked whether I’d be interested in writing a book on the archaeology of contemporary American life. Because I almost never say “no” to anything, I responded: “Of course, DUH?! I mean, who wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t I?” 

I then went on a long walk or two, sat on my stationary bike, and thought about what a book proposal on this topic might look like.

My proposal started with the idea that I have two anchor case studies for the book: The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Both projects represent, in some ways, essential traditions in the archaeology of the contemporary world. The former reflects the longstanding interest in industrial archaeology, archaeology of extractive industries (particularly mining), and the archaeology of short-term or ephemeral settlement (e.g. the archaeology of camps, of homelessness, and of modern squats of various kinds). The latter looks toward both the tradition of Bill Rathje’s “garbology” and the emerging fields of media archaeology/archaeology of media, and with a nod to “archaeogaming.

The book would consider the place of the archaeology of the contemporary world within the distinctly American tradition of historical archaeology. This tradition grounds the archaeology of the contemporary world in the empirical traditions of careful and intensive fieldwork and processual archaeology. The influence of Rathje and Schiffer loom large in this work and their earnest respect for objects and things, from garbage to portable radios, anticipates what Tim LeCain has called “new materialisms” and Graham Harman’s immaterialism. I’d argue that the American tradition of archaeology of the contemporary distinguishes it from similar efforts in a continental mode that have drawn more freely on the work of Tilley and Shanks, for example, in their famous study of beer cans. Tiley and Shanks, in my mind, anticipate recent studies that consider the agential character of things drawing on symmetrical archaeology, “object oriented ontologies,” and the ANT of Bruno Latour. This distinction, of course, is not a tidy one, and plenty of cross pollination has occurred (and my recent review essay on “ontology, world archaeology, and the recent past” recognize the range of methods, theoretical perspectives, and forms of presentation that archaeologists of the contemporary world draw upon to make their arguments. Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint), demonstrates a similar diversity. 

The various approached to an archaeology of the contemporary world share an interest in objects, buildings, places, and, to steal a word from my old buddy Kostis, situations. They also share a commitment to the potential of archaeological approaches to shed light on overlooked communities, groups, and individuals, to redefine the relationship between humans, objects, and the environment, and ultimately to affect social change. 

This is where I am right now. To organize these areas into a book, I have a provisional table of contents:

Part 1: Objects and Contexts
1. Atari
2. Garbology
3. Objects
4. Media

Part 2: Landscapes
1. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats. 
2. Institutional Landscapes: campuses, military bases, and parks.
3. Industrial and Extractive Landscapes
4. The Bakken

Conclusions, Prospects and Problems

I’m open to any and all thoughts about this. My goal is for the book to come in under 100,000 words, probably in the neighborhood of 60,000-80,000, so 30,000 each for Part 1 and Part 2 and then 5,000 words each for an introduction and conclusion. 

My plan, for now, is to work out the book proposal over the next month or so on my blog! But, for now, back to abandonment… 

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 4

Three weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, and the third part here

The last section established that the university as billboard extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency. The projection of certain message to stakeholders outside the university likely makes sense, particularly in an era of increasingly jaundiced views of the role of the state in the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, projecting the idea of the university as billboard internally at the university has had created challenges. The most obvious is the tendency to promote the easily measured standards of efficiency (i.e. enrollment, income, dollars) at the expense of the more complicated outputs of learning and discovery. After all, knowledge production is messy, and enrollment and income statistics are tidy.

The penultimate section of this essay is by far the roughest in terms of ideas and execution. I’m keen to read any feedback you are willing to offer in this:

The goals of this change in public higher education are complex and, I’d contend, not fully understood even by its advocated. If we assume that spread of neoliberal attitudes has more to do with a kind of deep-seated, Gramscian hegemony than a series of compelling arguments, then it is hardly surprising to find that assumptions of (in)efficiency drive policy more than interests in outcomes. At the same time, the decline in resources of the humanities both on UND’s campus and national and the defunding of long-standing projects like North Dakota Quarterly represent more than just public relations gambits designed to make higher education look lean and market-savvy.

The humanities have always served an important role in developing the leadership class in the United States, and as a result, elites have always sought ways of negotiating access to humanities education. During periods of economic growth and social and political change like the late 1960s, humanities education expanded to train a new generation of leaders in a tumultuous time. After a decline in the 1970s, the number of humanities majors tended to stabilize at around 10% despite some fluctuations and the continued expansion of higher education. Without dwelling too long on the numbers, throughout the 20th century, the study the humanities has long stood as one of the ways for individuals to enter the leadership class in the U.S. and as higher education has expanded, especially in the second-half to the 20th century, access to an education in the humanities expanded as well. Efforts to limit access to humanities education manifests itself in the competition between universities and colleges as historically elite schools have tended to support broadly liberal arts curriculum as a hallmark of their elite status. At the same time, schools looking to ascend the rankings have had to balance the desire to imitate the schools at the top of the higher education pyramid with the need to cultivate stakeholders through billboard-style claims to their efficiency and immediate economic benefit to their communities and students. As a result, at places like the University of North Dakota has been a push-pull of support for the humanities as both a key aspect of democratic higher education and a wasteful extravagance best left to more well-heeled universities designed to produce the next generation of elite leaders. This debate between the need for a robust and expansive humanities education at UND and the need to focus on workforce development and immediate local needs has existed since the early days of the university. The current version of this debate grounded in neoliberal attitudes toward the function of the state and the goal of education, however, has transformed the conversation. If throughout most of the 20th century, a liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the humanities was a hallmark of the leadership class, in the 21st century, the political elite have come to question this very formula. Talk of preparing leaders while endorsing approaches to higher education that shift resources from the humanities to other fields, suggests a significant change in priorities. [It may be that I haven’t made this argument very well.]

More importantly and nefarious, this shift in the basic expectations for the functioning of higher education presupposes an outcome. As the de-emphasis on the humanities has served to limit access to the leadership class by shifting resources elsewhere under the guise of efficiency and competition, it has also served to reify the existing social order as the product of similar forces. In other words, by privileging competition in the present, the current state of affairs including political leadership, disciplinary priorities, and social order, is presented as the outcome of similar competition and similar ground rules. Part of the hegemonic character of neoliberalism is that it presents itself as a historical reality rather than a set of constructed expectation in the present. 

Whatever the longterm goals for higher education, the billboard constructed by current leadership is not only an argument for how much more efficient a university can become, but also for their own position of authority. Diminishing the role of the humanities, then, becomes not just a result of a practice, but the natural result of competition which has forged the current leadership as well as their ideas. While this might represent a descent through this essay into position of pure cynicism, the consistency of the rhetoric both on campus and in the larger public sphere hints otherwise. The ultimate goal of neoliberal attitudes is not to make the public sphere more efficient, but to fortify the position of private capital in society.

Contingency, Roads, and Formation Processes in the Greek Countryside

This last week I’ve been working on transforming a paper that Dimitri Nakassis and I wrote from the 2016 Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting. The paper was for a panel organized by Deb Brown and Becky Seifried on the topic of abandoned settlements. Dimitri and I wrote not so much about settlements as about roads and routes through the Greek countryside using the Western Argolid as an example. 

As I’ve worked to transform the paper into a proper article, I’ve started to try to weave together two complicated little strands related to regional level intensive pedestrian survey. One strand understands the countryside as contingent and dynamic and challenges the perspective that rural Greece was backward or unchanging guide to ancient practices. The view of the Greek countryside as stagnant and conservative drew heavily on both contemporary Western views of conservative rural life as well as Orientalist ideas that the East was resistant to change and, as a result, and unreceptive to the forces of progress (and perhaps resistant to the transformative power of capital). The most obvious expression of this among Classicists was the tendency to look to rural life and practices as a place that preserved ancient culture. Efforts to conflate ancient places with modern villages by the modern Greek state reinforced the plausibility of a conservative countryside. This, in turn, supported the nationalist narrative advanced by both the West and the Greek state itself that the modern Greek nationstate had it roots in the Ancient Greek world. By changing Slavic, Albanian, or Turkish place names to the names of Ancient Greek places, the modern state sought less to overwrite the more recent history of the region and more to restore the authenticity of the Greek countryside.

For archaeologists, this confidence in a stable Greek countryside arrived with the early travelers who took ancient texts as their guides and consistently noted practices that evoked those in ancient sources. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, intensive pedestrian survey and processual archaeology had begun to produce evidence for a more dynamic view of rural settlement patterns where even major settlements expanded, contracted, appeared, and vanished over the centuries. Attention to the Early Modern and Ottoman Greek landscape by the Argolid Exploration Project and in the Nemea Valley demonstrated that far from being ossified and unchanging, rural life, economic strategies, and settlement in the northeast Peloponnesus was in constant flux as denizens of the countryside adapted to local and regional economic and political opportunities. To put their conclusions in starkly contemporary terms, scholars like Susan Buck Sutton demonstrated that precarity of capitalism was alive and well in the Greek countryside throughout the Early Modern and Modern periods. While this may initially feel like something to celebrate as it makes clear that Greece was not an Oriental backwater, it should also give us pause as it reminds us that the self-sufficient farmer so celebrated for their independence was every bit a product of larger economic forces as any kind of individual will. Removing the condescending (and racist) burden of the Oriental conservatism from the backs of the Greek peasant and replacing it with forces of capital does not, necessarily, impart more agency in the Greek villager, farmer, or pastoralist. Agency within the capitalist system may appear more “modern,” but in some ways, it is only an inversion of an Orientalist reading of Greece by hinting that the instability, contingency, and precarity of rural life anticipates progressive modernity.  

Whatever the larger metanarrative at play, contingency is now a significant paradigm for understanding Early Modern and Modern Greece, and understanding the process of abandonment plays an important roles in recognizing change in the Greek countryside. Attention to abandonment involves a greater commitment to reading artifact scatters in the countryside as the products of archaeological and natural formation processes rather than palimpsests of settlement or other rural activities. As we come to privilege the contingency and dynamism of the countryside more, we also lose some of our confidence in assigning tidy functional categories to rural survey assemblages. Low density scatters of artifacts, for example, may well represent short-term habitation, low intensity rural activities, or even redistributive practices like manuring or dumping.

For our paper, the significance of contingency and our reading of formation processes intersect in our analysis of two seasonal rural settlements in the process of abandonment and the routes that connected these sites to larger networks of travel in the region. In traditional reading of the landscape of the Inachos Valley and the Western Argolid, scholars have tended to see modern routes along the flat valley bottom as more or less following ancient routes. In this context (and putting aside the role played by topography and geography, for example), long-standing roads serve as indicators of persistent patterns of movement, settlement, and the political relationship between places. A more contingent view of the countryside, however, forces us to consider the more ephemeral routes through the landscape that leave only fleeting traces in the landscape and connect less persistent settlements. 

Moreover, and this to my mind is really neat, roads and routes through the countryside also shape the formation processes at individual sites. For example, the proximity of an structure to an unpaved dirt road seems to have influenced whether that structure was maintained and used for storage or provisional discard. The dirt road, however, may not have any relationship to the earlier, simpler path that originally connected the settlement to other places in the region. Access by modern dirt road shaped the formation processes at play in the settlement. Structures only reached through footpaths tend to see less modern activity.  

For our paper, we present an example from the Western Argolid to demonstrate the presence and significance of these contingent routes through the countryside, to unpack the relationship of roads to formation processes at abandoned settlements, and to suggest that the contingent countryside is not simply about places, but also about all the interstitial spaces that define social, economic, and political relationships in the changing landscape. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s cold and snowy and cold here in North Dakotaland, but we all have plenty to do between snow removal, the start of classes, and good ole North Dakotee-Style keepin’ busy. 

As I continue to ponder the future of this blog and various bits and pieces of my computer infrastructure, I’m wondering whether any of my dedicated readers can give me tips for web clipper program. For years, I’ve used Evernote, which used to be great, but now is a bloated catastrophe of bugs, useless (and unsupported) features, and memory. I just want something simple that lets me save pages for my quick hits and varia from my phone or my laptop into the cloud. 

In the meantime, here are this week’s quick hits and varia:

IMG 1660Milo was here.

IMG 1626Spare Paws.

Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

Punks on Trump

Next week, I’m going to hang out with some pretty fun guys and talk about punk rock in the  Trump era at Ojata Record in Grand Forks. The event is partly to celebrate the publication of Brian Schill’s new book, This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts (Indiana University Press, 2017), which we chatted about over on the North Dakota Quarterly page in November and the book that Bret Weber and I wrote, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017). 

There will be bands: June Panic and the Semaphores and Mistaken Thieves.

There’s a free book: Punk Archaeology (The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota 2014).

Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. The press release is below the flyer.

PunksOnTrump

Local authors and bands to talk “Punk in the Trump Era”

GRAND FORKS—On Saturday, January 20, 2018, a handful of current and former UND faculty will occupy the stage to discuss “Punk in the Trump Era” at Ojata Records in Grand Forks. 

Representing the fields of history, music, archaeology, social work, and cultural studies, Bill Caraher, Chris Gable, and Brian Schill will hold an open conversation about what, if anything, punk subculture contributes to contemporary political discourse in the United States today, especially with an eye toward the current American President.

“For all its dissonance and noise, punk rock music has always offered some salient commentary on contemporary politics,” Caraher says. “With the world seemingly more and more chaotic and dissonant all the time, today seems like a readymade opportunity for those who think about punk seriously to stoke this conversation.”

According to Schill, the panel very much expects audience participation in the free, public event, which will be moderated by UND Social Work professor and Grand Forks City councilperson Bret Weber.

“While the politics of punk are often stereotyped as left-leaning, they’re often much more ambiguous,” adds Schill, who performed in punk clubs across the country with a variety of bands in the late-1990s and early-2000s. “Some punk bands have joined the so-called resistance movement, but there are a lot of Trump supporters among those who also identify as ‘punk,’ including former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten and the punkier members of the alt-right.”

The event doubles as a book release party of sorts as each of the faculty are promoting recent scholarship they’ve produced on (post)punk, politics, and North Dakota:

·       Caraher is co-author of The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press, 2017) and published the title Punk Archaeology (The DigitalPress@UND) in 2014

·       Weber is Caraher’s The Bakken co-author and has studied the social impact of North Dakota’s oil boom

·       Gable is the author of The Words and Music of Sting (Praeger, 2008) and The Words and Music of Sheryl Crow (Praeger, 2016)

·       Schill is the author of the literary history of punk and postpunk music, This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts (Indiana University Press, 2017)

The panel will serve as the opening act for performances by two local punk/indie bands: June Panic and the Semaphores and Mistaken Thieves.

The event, sponsored by Ojata Records (aka Dogmahal) and agricouture.org, begins around 7 p.m.

###

Brian James Schill
Founder, agricouture.org
agricoutures@gmail.com

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 3

Two weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here, and you can find the second part here

I’ve argued over the last two weeks and austerity and neoliberalism have pushed universities to present themselves fiscally and operationally as market driven enterprises. This follows an assumption that public institutions with state funding become, over time, morally compromised because state funding insulates them from the purifying fire of market competition. As a result, universities have started to privatize core functions in order to demonstrate a willingness to optimize their operations and to promote their operational model as one that rewards competitive, efficient, and socially responsible (at least within a neoliberal model of society that views with a jaundiced eye all state sponsored activities). The efforts to promote the internal working of the university as efficient and competitive creates a situation where the university is more of a billboard for external stakeholders than a factory for knowledge production and education. 

On a superficial level, this is not entirely objectionable. After all, creating a compelling billboard for the activities at a university whether through intercollegiate sports, slick marketing material, or a commitment to external relations, celebrates the impact and significance of faculty, students, and staff, builds a sense of community and pride, and attracts resources to university from a range of sources including alumni, prospective students, and legislators.

At the same time, the view of the university as a billboard can spill over into the internal workings of the university as a factory. On the simplest level, a billboard promotes a product whose manufacturing process is only relevant inasmuch the produce fulfills consumer expectations. Because state university receive funding from a range of sources including state legislators, alumni, students, and granting agencies, there is an interest in the process that creates the well-educated student or faculty research. In other words, the billboard needs to represent both the successful outcome of a university education or faculty work as well as the efficiency of the processes that produced these outcomes. Within a society increasingly dominated by a kind of neoliberal hegemony, the state-funded university almost always presents an essential opportunity for rooting out complacency by subjecting individual, programs, and processes to competition and market forces. The university as billboard, then, extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency.

In this context, a public humanities journal like North Dakota Quarterly must has a sustainable business model or be consigned to the ranks of inefficient and complacent university functions best optimized by forcing the journal to engage in the market by applying fiscal austerity. A sustainable business model that included state funding were mutually exclusive because the latter created conditions that made the former impossible or at least very unlikely. Successful competition within the crucible of the market represented the only way in which a journal like North Dakota Quarterly could be a successful to the university billboard. 

The problem with the university as a billboard is that whatever the advantages of promoting the university are, the message of the billboard too often spills over into the inner workings of the university. While, I’m hesitant to suggest that universities currently function at optimal efficiency – any complex institution has areas where optimization is possible and desirable and areas where it is not, promoting competition across campus is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline university functions. For example, the long-standing model of higher education that models student learning an assembly line where each program, department, and class imparts a particular set of concepts, methods, and content requires coordination and collaboration across campus. It may be possible to imagine an optimized process where each class contributes the exactly the same energy into the educational process, but such Taylorist fantasies are probably misguided, if not delusional. Students aren’t uniform blanks when they arrive at the university, previous education, aptitude, and commitment levels vary widely and, whether we will admit it or not, certain subjects have higher threshold levels than others in our current educational environment and require a greater investment of energy from both students and faculty. In other words, the assembly line approach to higher education rewards cooperation among various parts of the process and accepting that some parts of the system are less efficient than others.

As faculty, administrators, and staff internalize the message of the billboard on campus, the spirit of competition is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline processes. Competition for students tends to lead to duplication of marketing and outreach efforts. Funding models that seek to recognize research or teaching excellence or even rein in wasteful competition between programs or departments become systems to be gamed. The long-standing and historical divisions on campus, whether colleges or departments that serve to protect academic and intellectual freedom and distinct disciplinary traditions become barriers to cooperation and collaboration rather than efficient incubators of distinctive methods, practices, and approaches to problems. As a number of recent commentators have noticed, by projecting the billboard internally and promoting the appearance of competition, we distill the dynamism and diversity of higher education (or as David Labaree calls it the “perfect mess”) down to two closely related metrics: dollars and enrollments (which are really just another measure of dollars). As Gary Hall has recently considered in his work on the “uberficiation” of the university, the growing ability to trace precisely the flow of capital – whether its student tuition or faculty labor – has created a system that is pennywise and pound foolish. Our ability to use dollars and enrollments to recognize efficiencies at the individual and department level has superceeded the messier project of attempting to understand the product of the higher education factory whether that be new ideas or high quality students and graduates. 

In short, the billboard approach to higher education promotes efficiency and competition at the expense of learning and discovery. And, as much as competition evokes long-standing fantasies of the academic meritocracy and satisfies the hegemonic attitudes that equate all waste with indolence and sloth, it rarely corresponds neatly with the actual work of students and faculty at a university. For many stakeholders, however, the product of the university as factory is only as important as the revenue it can generate.

For others, however, the promotion of the university as the product of market competition offers both a useful cover and a historical model to justify the expansion of certain programs and the contraction of others. The disconnect between the external promotion of evident efficiency fortified by competition and the difficulties associated with judging the final product of higher education, student learning and discovery, provides a space for administrators and faculty to advance values closely tied to reinforcing the dominance of the market in wider society. This means articulating the value of higher education in economic terms which tends to be most crudely presented as “workforce development.” Despite persistent efforts to calculate the economic value of a degree in the humanities, in most cases such efforts are incompatible with the goals of a humanities education. Whether this correlates to the efficiency of teaching and research the humanities within the university or even its non-market value to society at large is irrelevant. The billboard that promotes the work of the university to its stakeholders must be made to represent outcomes consistent with the neoliberal expectation that structure the billboard itself.  

If efficiencies resulting from competition optimize the structure the university in the age of austerity, then graduates and research at the university should likewise feed this world view as well. 

Bruder’s Nomadland and Briody’s The New Wild West: Mobility and the End of the Suburban Dream

I grew up in a house on Wheatfield Drive in a northern suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. I lived there until I was 18 and then on-and-off during the next few summers while I attended college. Growing up, I never moved.

My experience growing up on a suburban street named after the rural vision of the Wheatfield may be one of the quintessential expressions of 20th century, middle-class. In this context, the RV, the mobile home, and the camper represented a respite from the banal conformity of suburban living. While my family never camped or had an RV, we nevertheless recognized the freedom to travel and live untethered to a single place – even the idyllic wheat field – as an appealing fantasy. My dad long talked about getting an RV and rolling across the American West, stopping wherever the spirit moved him, and seeing the sights and sites of the country. As recently as this summer, as my wife and I saw the campers lining the route of the Tour de France, we fantasized about renting a camper-van in Europe and touring. In fact, my wife did just this on a walkabout year in Australia when she and a friend cruised the Australian coast finding seasonal work when money ran low or opportunity presented. Life in a camper van was a temporary departure from the conventions of middle and upper class life. Life in the suburbs represented being part of the establishment – the modern equivalent of the yoeman farmer – who connection to a place demonstrated economically, physically, and socially his or her connection to a community.

Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century (W.W. Norton 2017) and The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017) tell a different story. These two books tell the story of people who live in RVs, mobile homes, camper vans, their trucks and cars between short stints on the couches of friends and relatives. If Mathew Desmond’s Evicted sketched out the persistent challenges of housing for the urban poor whose constant struggles against eviction thwart their efforts to climb out of urban poverty and garner the social, economic, and political benefits of a stable life and address, Briody and Bruder present a group who have slipped downward from the stability of middle class life in suburban and rural homes in the U.S. and are living in vehicles designed for occasional and recreational uses or the transport of good or people.

Briody’s book explores life around Williston, North Dakota, during the most recent Bakken oil boom in The New Wild West. The cost of housing in boom time Williston made apartments and homes prohibitive for most people who came to the region to reap the benefits of the boom. As a result, Briody’s characters live in RV parks, public parks, camp grounds or most famously, the Williston Walmart parking lot. She joined them living in an RV while doing the research for her book. This paralleled the experience of our research team when we first visited the Bakken at the height of the boom in 2012. We had to plan well in advance and found that accommodations a modular man camp outside bustling Tioga, a more affordable and convenient alternative to a hotel. 

The characters in the New Wild West lived in their RVs on a less voluntary basis and often without the security of a home somewhere else. They had come to the Bakken as a result of troubled lives, desperate circumstances, and, in many cases, the economic and mortgage crisis of 2008 which led to millions of foreclosures and contributed to the growing group of workers who lived in RV and other forms of temporary housing. For some of Briody’s characters, the Bakken was a chance to recover what they had lost. At the same time, the struggle to make a living in the Bakken is always present and optimism is a commodity far more precious and rare that the oil that fueled the Bakken boom. This doesn’t necessarily square with our research in the Bakken, where the optimism was so ubiquitous even as late as 2016 when the boom was well in decline that we called it Bakktimism. For Briody’s denizens of the Bakken, no matter how good the money, the American dream appeared increasingly fragile.

Bruder’s Nomadland tracks the fates of a group of older Americans who likewise lost the fixity of the suburban home and took to life on the road. Bruder’s work is a more subtle book than Briody’s The New Wild West. Her sensitive reading of the modern nomads is particularly evident in the tensions between kind of optimistic adaptability of these RV dwellers and the rough realities of life on the road. Many of Bruder’s character had lost their jobs and, then, savings in the financial collapse of 2008. They experienced the reality of the “jobless recovery” in the unforgiving job market for experienced and well-educated adults in their 50s and 60s. Then, they lost their homes. To adapt, they became nomads living in RVs, modified vans, cars and trucks and supplemented their social security benefits by traveling the U.S. managing campsites, staffing amusement parks, working at Amazon’s distribution facilities during the Christmas rush, and retreating to Quartzsite, Arizona each year winter to escape the cold and recharge.

Bruder describes this loose tribe brought together by circumstances who form communities through social media and share both philosophical and practical tips on the nomadic life through blogs, discussion boards, and listserves. Many of her characters maintain a fragile optimism about their golden years, and draw upon an anti-consumerist philosophy that sees their material losses as an opportunity to experience true freedom. Ironically, these modern nomads often survive by working for the ultimate purveyor of American materialism, Amazon, as well as other short term employers across the U.S. who value the optimism, adaptability, experience, and mobility of these modern nomads. The irony of this situation is further driven home by the practice of these nomad maintaining campsites for people who continued to see RV, campers, and tents as escapes from the fixity of everyday life.

One of the things that Bruder’s book helped me to see more clearly is the deep irony of my little book. Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. By intentionally ignoring the traditional tourist sites in the Bakken – for example, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park –  and privileging RV parks and man camps, I transformed the temporary settlements in landscape of Western North Dakota and tourism from the space and experience of leisure to the space and experience of work. In the same way, Briody and, especially Bruder, demonstrate how the suburban dream is giving way to a more mobile reality. 

Both authors recognize that the quiet growth of this mobile population represents a seismic shift in the structure of American democracy. It seems hardly ironic that the growing anxiety concerning “voter fraud” (as just one example) has led to policies and practices that will make it more difficult for mobile voters to have political representation. The anxiety about refugees and migrants represents the recognition of these same trends in a global context. I wish I had developed this connection a bit more in my little article in the most recent Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. (I’ve made a preprint available here.)

Book Notes for a Travel Day

For reasons that remain a bit hard to understand entirely, I’m heading to Boston this afternoon to spend a day at whatever is left of the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting. I’ll get to see some old friends, have a couple business meetings, and be in a place where its safe to for exposed flesh to be outdoors for more than 5 minutes. 

For those of you who didn’t catch it, one of the two papers that I was scheduled to present is posted here.

Along the way, I have a few books that I started with the vague hope that I could have them read by the end of winter break. Part of the reason I’m still willing to trek out to Boston today is that it gives me some time to finish one of two of these book en route.

First, the finished book: Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017). While this book certainly represents another volume for the Bakken Bookshelf, I’m not entire sure that I enjoyed it. The book lacked a certain sense of irony. The author clearly positioned herself as a coastal elite by starting the book in her apartment in Brooklyn, and then traveling with her parents to North Dakota from California. The subjects of the book who have come to the Bakken to try their luck in the boom, all hail from broken homes, troubled relationships, and hard places and times in rural America. Briody tells the story of their struggle with both personal demons and the precarity of the boom (and the 21st century American economy).  Their stories are compelling, but I’d hate for these stories to be read as representative of all the newcomers to the Bakken during the boom. They run the risk of confirming the long-held (but rarely articulated) belief that being a part of the working class involves some kind of personal tragedy or flawed character. Briody’s book seems to tell us that people end up working in the Bakken because they had no other choice.

I’m tempted to write a review comparing Briody’s book to Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century. (W.W. Norton 2017).  While I’m only about 40 pages into the book, it seems to describe the experience of precarity among older adults in the U.S. The individuals Bruder follows move around the U.S. living in mobile homes taking season or occasional work. The juxtaposition between retirement-aged Americans living their “golden years” in mobile homes out of economic necessity and those who enjoy the freedom of a mobile home for leisure evoke certain connections that we made during our research in the North Dakota Man Camp project.

I’m also reading Dietmar Offenhuber, Waste is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (MIT Press 2017).  While working on my book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), I became fascinated by infrastructure. So much of the activity in the Bakken over the past five years has focused on infrastructure. The Bakken boom has been as much about improving roads, building pipelines, creating oil storage capacity, drilling produced-water wells, adding rail yards, and building permanent and short-term housing. Of particular interest is the unseen infrastructure of pipelines and wastewater disposal wells. Offenhuber’s book analyzes the movement of waste – essentially trash – in U.S., in part, through the use of GPS trackers places in various kinds of trash discarded in Seattle. Offenhuber argues that making the movement of trash visible and legible allows communities to make more informed decisions in how they organize the hidden infrastructure that is every bit as vital for their social, economic, and physical well-being. 

So many recent debates about the Bakken center on moments when the hidden infrastructure suddenly becomes visible in a moment of crisis or controversy. The controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and both recorded and undocumented waste-water and oil spills demonstrates these moments when the literally buried infrastructure became visible and compelled the world to take notice.