The War with the Sioux: The Book

It’s a good day! The English translation of Karl Jakob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux is finally published. Go here for the links to download the book.

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The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the publication of the first English translation of Karl Jakob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux: Norwegians against Indians 1862-1863. Associate Professor of Norwegian Melissa Gjellstad and UND alumna Danielle Mead Skjelver translated the text and Dr. Richard Rothaus and Dakota Goodhouse provided new introductory material.

Skjelver noted that “”I first encountered Skarstein’s riveting narrative on the US-Dakota War in 2007. I had never read anything like it. Translating this work was fascinating and rewarding because of the book’s unique focus on a specific immigrant population, and because Skarstein admirably attempts to get at the action and emotion of the many sides of this conflict.”

Skarstein’s narrative focuses on the Dakota War of 1862-1864 which stands as one of the most overlooked conflicts in American History. Contemporary with the American Civil War, the Dakota War featured significant fighting, tactical brilliance, and strategic savvy set in the open landscape of the Northern Plains in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Karl Jakob Starstein’s The War with the Sioux tells the story of the Norwegian immigrants, American soldiers, and Lakota and Dakota Indians as they sought to protect their ways of life. Skarstein drew upon largely untapped Norwegian-language sources for life on the Northern Plains during these tumultuous years.

Prof. Gjellstad remarked “The American experience of Norwegian immigrants has been a red thread that has woven through my scholarship and teaching in Scandinavian studies. It began early in my childhood, growing up in rural North Dakota, and has spun into rich, new connections thanks to the collaborations of fellow scholars from the Northern Plains as we worked to bring Skarstein’s volume to an American audience.”

The translation of the book was funded by the Norwegian government’s NORLA: Norwegian Literature Abroad program and is available as a free download or as a paper book on Amazon.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a creative reimagining of the traditional university press. It publishes innovative and timely works in archaeology and on topics intersecting with life in North Dakota and the Northern Plains.

To get the book go here.

An Open Letter to the Empire Theater

Over the last week I’ve been active in initiating a conversation with the Empire Theater regarding their decision to host the anti-Muslim firebrand Usama Dakdok for the second time this calendar year. To be clear, the Empire did not invite Dakdok to speak, but they agreed to rent the theater to the group who invited him to town.

When Dakdok spoke in the spring, there were some protests and some behind-the-scenes expressions of disappointment at the Empire’s decision to host a speaker who advocated intolerance in our small town. It was all the more disappointing since Grand Forks has a small, new Muslim population and people are working hard to make help manage their transition into our community. Many of us felt that hosting a speaker like Dakdok did little to encourage the kind of acceptance and tolerance that our town needed at this moment in its history, but were heartened when many of those opposed to Dakdok message worked to create alternative events which brought Christians and Muslims together. In fact, Dakdok’s return engagement is “in response” to the events held after his last visit. Considering the success of these events and ongoing efforts to promote tolerance and diversity, we can certainly understand why someone of his predilections could justify a return engagement.

Dakdok’s approach is particularly painful to those of us who study the Late Antique world and religion. He insists on a selective reading of Muslim scripture that portrays Islam in an unfavorable way, and asserts personal authority grounded in his knowledge of Arabic and upbringing in Egypt. Any religious can be made to look bad when subjected to a selective reading of scripture backed by personal authority. Certainly there have been instances of Christianity being subjected to similar attacks. The goal of Dakdok’s lecture is not to understand the history of Islam and their scripture, but, as his website says: “to warn all Americans about the deceptive methods being used by Muslims that lead so many into the cult of Islam.”

Dakdok’s intentionally misleading approach to Islam is hardly the basis for a compassionate and tolerant engagement with another faith.

This letter, however, is not about Usama Dakdok. This letter is directed to the Empire Theater and their decision to provide a venue for Dakdok’s visit twice over the course of the year. In the lead up to his first visit, the Empire and other institutions in our community deflected criticism leveled against them for allowing Dakdok into our town with appeals to freedom of speech.

I’m not a legal scholar or a philosopher, but I am not convinced that hosting a speaker whose goal is to sow intolerance and suspicion is an effective time to appeal to freedom of speech. To my mind, freedom of speech is one of those pesky freedoms that ask us both as individuals and institutions to make compromises for the good of others. As individuals we regularly refrain from confrontation, recognize decorum, and, sometimes, remain silent when exercising our right to speak would do greater harm than good. Moreover, we recognize how positions of authority can lend speaking greater weight and positions of weakness can prevent even the most earnest speaker from being heard. Balancing the authority we grant to those in power against the need for dialogue is vital to preserving practical freedom of speech in any community. This is why we have rules and laws preventing consumer fraud, limiting the public use of profanity, restricting access to adult themed movies and events, and enforcing decorum. Finally, both private and public venues have standards and expectations ranging from noise restrictions to discretionary judgements regarding what is appropriate at a given site. Freedom of speech is always situational.

The Empire Theater is in a uniquely privileged position in downtown Grand Forks. They have a productive and meaningful partnership with the University of North Dakota as host of its art collection and that relationship is proudly advertised on its walls. Associating the venue with the University, even if this is just relationship of convenience, gives the Empire prestige and authority and this extends to speakers in its venue. It may not be Carnegie Hall, but events hosted at the Empire gain legitimacy and prestige from the venue. Moreover, the Empire represents a meaningful anchor of the downtown hosting entertainment, civic events, and celebrations throughout the year. It is very much part of our local civic fabric and has contributed to recent downtown renaissance. The Empire occupies a position of authority through its associations with both the University and the downtown community.

With this position of authority come certain responsibilities. I can perhaps forgive the decision to host Dakdok one time. While Dakdok does not obscure his mission, it may be too much expect an institution like the Empire which hosts hundreds of events a year, to vet every speaker carefully.

To host Dakdok a second time, however, is simply inexcusable. Granting Dakdok the legitimacy of a prestigious venue contributes to his authority and the legitimacy of his message. This is clearly not the intent of the Empire’s board or management, because by authorizing his message, they are authorizing a message that hinders communication between Christians and Muslims in Grand Forks. The Empire must hold itself to a higher standard and recognize that hosting a speaker like Dakdok undermines the efforts of many in Grand Forks to make lives better for the Muslim minority.

In fact, by allowing a speaker into our town bent on depicting a group within our community in a misleading way, the Empire is hindering opportunities for open dialogue between Muslims and Christians. They are not promoting freedom of speech in this situation, but making it more difficult for members of our community to speak freely and honestly. The Empire is helping to silence members of our community by contributing the prestige of their venue to a speaker who misrepresents the message of both Christianity and Islam.

The Empire must recognize its position in the community and use the prestige associated with their venue in a more responsible way. If it cannot do this alone, then those institutions that have partnered with the Empire must encourage and support the Empire as they try to do better or divest themselves of this partnership. It is not acceptable for the name of the University of North Dakota to be associated with a venue in which Dakdok is speaking. It is not acceptable for a venue that serves as a cultural anchor of our downtown and our community to lend its reputation to a speaker like Dakdok. 

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.