The Media Is Not Always the Message

I continue to slog my way through revisions on my book project which I’m now calling “the world’s longest Master’s thesis.” This week, I’ve started to revise my chapter titled “Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology.” You can read the original version here.

As part of my effort both to emphasize the American experience more thoughtfully and to trace more specifically the networks and relationships that form what we consider the American experience. In my effort to revise my chapter on media and archaeology, I take as a point of departure the rather mundane appearance of the Atari E.T. game cartridge and contrast it with its rather frustrating game play and its relationship to the blockbuster movie. A narrowly archaeological perspective focused exclusively on the materiality of the game might find little of particular interest in the hard plastic cartridge, the circuit board inside, or the adhesive paper sticker (although see Guins 2014). To understand the significance of the game, one would have to understand game play, the digital code, and the devices that made game play possible.

In the introduction to this chapter I draw upon two musical examples. First is the excavation of an assemblage of records from Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived in the late 1960s. These records demonstrate the eclectic and diverse taste of the Dead at the point in their career when they were transitioning from being a more free flowing psychedelic rock style to a style characterized by more intricate folks harmonies, melodies and lyrics. The second example is a reading of the work done by John Cherry and Krysta Ryzewski in documenting the George Martin’s AIR studio on Caribbean island of Monserrat. The first example allows us to consider the impact of consumption patterns on our view of the late-1960s counter culture typified in some ways by The Dead. The second example allows us to reflect on the networks of colonial relationships that informed the music produced at Martin’ AIR Studios in the 1980s. Both examples rely less on the materiality of the records or the studio space and more on the music that these records contained and the AIR studio produced. 

Here are the three most relevant paragraphs:

Micah Bloom’s Codex project (Bloom 2017), which we detailed at the conclusion of the last chapter, likewise explores the fate of media cast out of context by the Souris River flood in Minot. Bloom demonstrates how the topics and titles of the abandoned, damaged, and forlorn books create subtle ironies, emphasize their abject state, and communicate the intimate potential of media. E. Breck Parkman’s excavation and cataloguing of the vinyl records recovered from excavations of the burned remains of Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived as part of a larger commune for almost 2 years before a fire destroyed the rented mansion in 1969 offers another example of how media offers a particularly vivid window into the recent past (Parkman 2014). The discography recovered presented a wide range of collecting and listening habits from July Garland to Doc Watson, Frank Sinatra, recordings of Broadway musicals, and jazz artists. The presence of lead and asbestos in the debris required extensive remediation before archaeologists could document and study the material. Like so many of the books recovered by Bloom’s Codex project and the Atari games collected from the Alamogordo landfill, the records were largely unplayable, but nevertheless told the story of the “eclectic and contradictory” tastes of the commune surrounding the Grateful Dead. Parkman noted how the assemblage of records spoke to the diversity of tastes present in the Olompali commune in the late 1960s and complicates a narrow view of late 1960s counter culture.

John Cherry’s, Krysta Ryzewski’s, and Luke J. Pecoraro’s work at the Sir George Martin’s AIR studios on the Caribbean island of Monserrat offers another example of how traditional archaeology intersects with the archaeology of media (Cherry et al. 2013). The studio hosted the recording of any number of famous albums from its establishment in Monserrat in 1979 including significant albums by the Police, Duran Duran, Dire Straits, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. It was abandoned after hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1990 and, five years later, the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano blasted the studio with a pyroclastic flow sealing its fate. Since then, the studio has stood in an exclusion zone surrounding the volcano and succumbed to vegetation and the elements. Cherry and colleagues explored the studio space in 2012 and documented its current condition and the dispersal of key elements of the studio – such as its bar, its recording console, and its sound system – around the island and the world. They also reflected briefly on how the studio’s distinctive layout, design, location, and recording technology shaped the music that the studio produced. While their efforts to document the studio did not reveal any recoverable media or direct links to the studio’s audible output, the archaeology did emphasize that the compact design of the studio and its location on a small island promoted a kind of intimate and intensive practice which contributed to its successful output.

Much as the selection of records in the Grateful Dead’s collection revealed challenges to our expected pattern of consumption associated with counter culture movement. The list of bands produced by George Martin at the AIR studio is almost entirely white, with the exception of Luther Vandross and Ziggy Marley. The status of Monserrat as an British overseas territory serves as remind of the British colonial expansion and its key role in creating the Black Atlantic as a political, cultural, and economic institution. The development of reggae music, for example, among Black residents of the British Caribbean and in the Caribbean diaspora in the UK led to its incorporation into the sound of punk and post-punk bands such as the Police, who by the 1980s traveled to the Caribbean to record their music. The appropriation of blues and R&B music by British bands such as the Climax Blues Band, The Rolling Stones, and Dire Straits, further traced the spread of Black music beyond its origins in the United States through the sale of records. In the context of the AIR studios, the genres of music and the lines of influence follow the recursive flow of Black culture through the Atlantic world and complicates the reading of the studio itself. If “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” offered a compelling caricature of the excesses of the American society in the 1970s and 1980s, it is useful to remember that “rock ’n’ roll” (like many of the more popular drugs of the same period) often traced long-standing colonial lines of exchange. These patterns of exchange also continued to appropriate the creative forces of the Black Atlantic for the benefit of colonial powers. The physical remains of Martin’s AIR studio in Monserrat might ultimately become an important landmark in the islands late-20th century history. The media that this studio produced, however, traces a far more global reach and situates the studio in a longer and more complex history of colonial relations, appropriation, and power.  

American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy 2

It’s the end of the semester and I’m running on fumes. Unfortunately, my enervated state does not dictate my deadlines and the end of the semester is always a cruel juxtaposition deadlines and exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I continue to plug away at various projects with the vague hope of gaining momentum once grading is done and grades are submitted. Below is a revised version of the concluding discussion to my paper. It’s … not great, but the ideas are finally all there. I’ve been slogging on this for so long that I really need to put it aside for a bit and come back to it with a fresh editing pen and clearer eyes.

You can read the first part of the paper here. Just stop reading at the Reflections and Discussion section and come to this page.

Feedback is always welcome! 

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined or content oriented outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget. We noted in particular the rise of incentive based budget models and the arguments that these models reward efficient production of outcomes and results. This emphasis on efficiency invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing at this time associated with the concept of “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. In this way, it sought to critique the role that efficiency has come to play both in archaeological methodology and across contemporary society (e.g. Alexander 2008). The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. In the late-20th and early 21st century, a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration” (McNeil 2014) has stressed the need for speed and efficiency in archaeology not only to keep pace with with development (Zorin 2015) but also to document the transformations wrought by rising sea levels and climate change. In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that super modernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more upkeep by dint of their age alone.

The status of the Wesley College buildings as schedule for demolition and largely abandoned created a sense of urgency in our work, but, at the same time, we understood that the university had made arrangement for a more formal documentation processes. This process, however, tended to emphasize the architectural and design elements of these buildings rather than the evidence for their everyday use. As a result, some in the preservationist community fear that formal and procedural aspects of documentation have failed to engage the emotional, social, and dynamic aspects of historic architecture (for a recent summary see: Kaufman 2019). Thus, the class’s work in these buildings offered a counterweight to archaeological and resource management approaches driven by methods or formal requirements. By starting our study of the buildings with the things left behind rather than methodology or procedures, we foregrounded the role of curiosity and interest in archaeological practices. As James Flexner has argued in his recent calls for “degrowth“ in archaeology developing practices that foreground a shared interest in the past between practitioners and the public as a way of subverting product and outcome oriented approaches to field work (Flexner 2020).

This approach resonated with the students in my class who likewise occupied a middle ground between being insiders to the college campus and as outsiders to the inner workings of the university made them particularly motivated collaborators. In fact, the entire course relied on the students’ eagerness to transgress the traditional limits of student movement on campus and enter into spaces typically reserved for faculty offices and laboratories. Students were also allowed to explore the buildings in far more physical ways than they would other buildings on campus where the administration would discourage tearing up carpets and punching holes in walls. While we often assume that college campuses are the domain of students, in reality however, university administrators and faculty often design campuses to restrict student movement. In some cases, this involves small scale barriers which delineate faculty office where students might occasionally venture, but rarely stay for long, from classroom and public spaces where campus authors expect and encourage students to gather. Campuses also contain numerous spaces accessed only by administrators, maintenance and facilities personnel, housing and dining staffs, and other specialized employees whose collective work to keep campus warm, safe, clean, and functional was kept out of public view. Students efforts to document spaces associated with service areas, faculty, staff, and departmental offices, and laboratories provided a kind of material analogue to more bureaucratic and procedural discussions that we were having in the course of the university budget.

By allowing student interests to start with the objects and spaces that they encountered in these buildings, the class anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. Witmore’s chorography foregrounded the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Witmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Witmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by super modernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. Of course, it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course (especially since his book appeared two years after the course was over). That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

In a general way, offering students access to buildings that were caught between abandonment and demolition and spaces that were both part of campus and often hidden from their view supported my unstructured pedagogy of the course and our collective decisions to eschew formal standards of archaeological documentation. The class deliberately operated at the edges of archaeological methods, expected pedagogical practices, and the history of campus itself. These conditions allowed us to understand how archaeology of the contemporary world could engage actives sites, political fraught spaces, and approaches that push the discipline of archaeology itself to reflect more deliberately on its own methods and goals. Of particular significance was how our class provided an opportunity to produce a plan that not only adapted to the character of the buildings but also the interests of the students. This allowed for priorities to develop on the fly and for the students to shift their interest seamlessly from the materiality of the buildings and the assemblage left behind in various spaces to the archives and performance.

Archaeology of the contemporary world’s attention to dynamic, active, and changing sites has invariably led to a wider range of field practices as well as a deeper engagement with stakeholders who exist outside of the traditional purview archaeology as a discipline. The sites of homeless squats, music festivals, protests encampments, and the movements of undocumented migrants often leave either intentionally ephemeral material traces. Assemblages associated with the ongoing pandemic, for example, appear to change daily or even hourly in response to community attitudes and official policies. The contingencies associated with “fast urbanism” have likewise complicated the applicability of conventional archaeological methodology and procedures to documenting complex assemblages. The various communities associated with this material also have distinct views of their own identities and their materiality that reward approaches anchored in collaboration rather than abstracted ideas of methodology and practice. My one-credit course represented an effort to explore the pedagogical potential for a collaborative archaeology of the contemporary world.

Free Books for Cyber Monday!

I can think of no better way to spend the digital hellscape that is Cyber Monday, than downloading and reading free stuff from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

To make this easier and a bit more fun, we’ve put together some download bundles full of good books that you can download absolutely free:

First, you can grab all of our archaeology titles with one click here including Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Siegfried’s latest book, Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Download it here.

Then, you can grab all our titles that have to deal with North Dakota with one click here including Kyle Conway’s innovated volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. Download it here.

Then, you can check download all of our books that deal with critical issues including Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s historical and savory edited volume Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook! Download it here.

Finally, if you want to think more broadly and creatively about our world, check out this packet of books from The Digital Press and our creative partners at Epoiesen and North Dakota QuarterlyDownload it here.

Oh, and if you just want all the books that we’ve published ever. Click here for a 1.6 GB megapack.

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If the very idea of cyber anything gives you hives, you can always get books from The Digital Press at Amazon.com and most of our titles are available from Bookshop.org as well.

Bookshop.org allows you to support local bookstores when you buy a copy of Deserted Villages, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust, and One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.  

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Finally, if you want something really cool to make you cyber Monday less obnoxiously consumer, check out this preview of Rebecca Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Get it here.

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

A cold Thanksgiving provided a nice enough opportunity to develop a thicker fat layer for the winter ahead! It also reminds us that for all the meteorological and experiential data, Thanksgiving well and truly is the start of winter whether it feels that way or not. This means it’s seasonally appropriate to watch this new YouTube series: Ornament Histories.

In keeping with the seasonal change, I will make sure the savor the last tastes of fall rituals. Tomorrow, of course, is The Game (Ohio State vs. Michigan) and the rest of the weekend is lousy with other college rivalry matchups. There’s a warm-up match between Australia and England next week to decide the last few open spots for The Ashes (including, it would appear, wicketkeeper, and the number 5 batsman which will both likely play a role in supporting the sometimes fragile Australian top order). The only other thing on my sports calendar for the next few days is the overhyped and much delayed Teofimo Lopez vs. George Kambosos fight. Lopez will likely make short work of the game Australian, but in boxing one is never quite sure.

Other than that, I have plans to work on grading, to think about syllabi for next semester, and to maybe squeeze in a bit of reading and writing to put myself in a good place for what will invariably be a hectic month between semesters and an even more hectic spring!

I hope your Thanksgiving was enjoyable (if you’re in place that celebrates) and that you enjoy some quick hits and varia: 

 

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Live Blogging Music, Reading, and Cooking on Thanksgiving

I’m going to try a bit live-blogging this morning to document my Thanksgiving day adventures. There’s nothing particularly exciting about my morning, but there is something vaguely archaeological about the intersection of reading, cooking, and listening to music. Hopefully this live blog will bring some of that out. 

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6 am

The turkey is in the smoker and sitting at about 210°. 

I’m hunkered down by the fire reading Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains and listening to Lee Morgan introduce the band for the Friday, July 10th 1970 performance at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California.

I’m reading with significant interest Ryzewski’s account of how her work at the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit involved negotiating with an HGTV program for access and collaboration. While I’ve just started reading this chapter, it’s struck me as not entirely dissimilar to the negotiations conducted by Andrew Reinhard to get us access to the Atari excavations at Alamogordo. 

I’m aware that Lee Morgan does not have any particular connections to the Detroit jazz scene, but the 7.5 hours of music (starting with pianist Harold Mabern’s “The Beehive” which features a scorching “post-Coltranesque solo by Bennie Maupin, one of the underrated voices of late-1960s saxophone. Morgan’s solo is so slick and smooth.)

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6:15 am

As Morgan introduces the band members and heads into the Bennie Maupin number “Something Like This,” a quick check on the smoker shows that the temperature has dropped to about 160°, so I reopened some vents. It’s about 2° F outside so keeping the heat up today might be a challenge!

It seems fitting that I’m fussing with the grill temperatures as reading about Pewabic pottery manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century in the stable behind the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit!

6:30 am

A quick update shows the temperatures have settled to about 210° F and another Bennie Maupin composition “Yunjana” is on the stereo. It’s quieter and a bit more settled which makes it an appropriate complement to the stabilizing temperatures on the grill.

7 am

I’m cutting out on Bennie Maupin’s lovely flute solo on the first track of the second set from July 10th, “I Remember Brit” to check the heat and maybe start some more coals. It’s now 1° outside!

It looks like no new coals are needed and while I missed most of Lee Morgan’s lyrical solo, I’m thoroughly enjoying Harold Mabern’s piano work on “I Remember Brit.” The long tail of bebop makes a great backdrop to Ryzewski’s chapter on the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit where bebop found a home in Detroit’s musical landscape in the late 1940s.

7:20 am

The temperature is still a steady 210° and there’s been a car accident outside our house. The cops are on hand and they have a dog working to try to find the driver of the car, which was apparently stolen. It’s a bit dramatic, but the cops seem very intent on getting it sorted.

Jymie Merritt’s bass solo at around the 15 minute mark in his “Absolutions” is pretty great. 

I’m enjoying reading about Paradise Valley in Detroit and its vibrant music scene and thinking about it also as the place of origins for the Nation of Islam which would developed in the decade before the bebop heyday of the Blue Bird Inn, but which would go on the exert an influence over music (and especially jazz) in its own way especially when it relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s.

Now, I get to fret about when to start a fresh batch of coals. There’s no need to add them if the temperature hangs at 200°-ish.   

Wrapping up the second set of July 10th with another rollicking version of Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” before the 3rd session of the night begins with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “416 East 10th Street.”

8:00 am

I had some breakfast and started a new chimney full of coals. The temperatures are dropping from 210° to 200°. hit the turkey with the first round of smoke. I’m going with cherry wood and a just a bit of hickory. 

I’m listening to Lee Morgan’s classic “Sidewinder” from the 3rd set of July 10th. It’s scorching and the absolutely outer fringes of hard bop just as it should have been in the 1970!

Back to reading about the Blue Bird Inn and the state of both Black owned entertainment venues, recording, and music in late 1940s Detroit.

8:30 am

Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” from Set 4 on Friday, July 10th feels even a bit more “out” than the version at the end of Set 2. It was hard to drag myself away from it to check on the bird in the smoker. Temperatures are still around 210° with the addition of wood chips adding just about 5° to the heat. I probably started the additional coals prematurely, but better to be prepared, I guess.

The work of various stake holders on the Blue Bird Inn is fascinating. I appreciated the performance of music in the venue once again by some members of the Wayne State music program and would have loved to hear a recording of their set. I wonder how it would compare to live recordings made in the venue in the 1950s (with Phil Hill’s band apparently). My work in the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus included working with Michael Wittgraf to record in the Corwin Hall recital space and to think of these recordings as a way to preserve not only the original use of the space, but its changes over time. It was a small offering to the debates 

I’m now onto Set 1 from July 11th with begins with Mabern’s “Aon” which is very much hard bop and feels just right to get the audience ready from the more adventurous offerings to follow.

9:00 am

I finally had to add some coals to the fire to keep the heat closer to 210° than to 180°. Temperatures outside were about 2° so this seems reasonable. 

Fortunately, it’s warm by the fire inside and Bennie Maupin’s lyricism is on full display during his opening solo on his “Yunjana” from the first set on July 11th. Lee Morgan’s reflective solo complements Maupin’s perfectly and keeps the mood going.

The slow, but not sluggish lyricism of these songs is a lovely backdrop to Ryzewski’s work of “slow archaeology” at Gordon Park in Detroit where she and students conducted repeated pedestrian surveys to chart how the park established to mark the start of the 1967 uprising in the city changed over time and endured episodes of neglect and revitalization.

9:30 am

There’s a point my operating the smoker where I can’t quite figure out if the best way to keep the heat up is adding more coals or adding more air by opening the vents. I opted to add a bit more coals and restrict air flow right now with the hope I can open the vents and stretch the coals until close to noon where I’ll take the first temperature of the turkey. 

The second set of July 11th opens with Mabern’s “I Remember Brit” and it’s lovely round based on “Brother John” (or Frère Jacques) that eventually gives way to steady dose of a hard bop melody. You can similarly hear the musicians trying to manage the heat of their sets. You need to keep it warm enough to pull in the listener, but too much fire and the entire show begins to combust too soon and too hot. “I Remember Brit” does just that and it’s a suitable backdrop to the start of coal management work in my smoker. Of course, things get hotter after that with Mabern’s “busy” track “The Beehive.”   

10:00 am

Temperatures are cruising along at around 210° and Lee Morgan’s quintet is finishing Set 2 on July 11, 1970 with “Speedball,” before starting Set 3 with Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “Neophilia.”

I’m just getting into Ryzewski’s chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit which witnessed a wide range of remarkable shows. She’s focusing on its history as a rock music venue and its subsequent history of neglect, abandonment, and deterioration. I’m just getting into the chapter and was pleasantly surprised to see the reference to “punk archaeology”! I’m looking forward to reading about the kinds of archaeological documentation deployed in working to understand and interpret this significant building.

The first temperature check on the bird will happen at around noon, and until then, we’ll be in coals management mode!

10:30 am

The heat is too high!! So I closed some vents and opened the ones on the lid to bleed some heat, but this is a good sign for the rest of the morning because I can conserve coals and cut the heat down to low and slow.

Bassist Jymie Merritt’s “Nomo” appears in Set 3 of the July 11th performance of Lee Morgan’s crew. It has a loose, but deep groove and Morgan really shines on his solo midway through the track. It’s clear that funk, soul jazz, and the spirit of late hard bop come together in this track. 

The chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit is really remarkable. Not only did the work from Ryzewski’s crew show how survey methods can be adapted to document standing buildings in ways that reveal their transformation over time, as well as their main phases of use. Interweaving the discoveries from the building and its history helped me appreciate the role of John and Leni Sinclair in the musical history of Detroit. I’ve appreciated Leni Sinclair’s photography of jazz musicians and her work for Strate Corporation on their cover art and now I can connect her and her husband to the rock and proto-punk scene fueled by the MC5 (who John Sinclair managed) and bands like the Stooges who performed regularly at the Grande Ballroom.

11:00 am

The heat has settled back into the acceptable range, and I’ve added a bit of cherry wood to add some smoke. I’ve also recalled a certain yellow dog from his turkey guard duty as the temperatures outside hang around in the single digits.

Lee Morgan’s guys are into Set 4 on Saturday night and playing Bennie Maupin’s “Peyote” with a kind of comfortable intensity that feels like it should naturally lead into Jymie Merrit’s “Absolutions” as the final number of the night.

I’m also onto the final chapter of Detroit Remains which involves documenting a 19th century log cabin which was quietly preserved in the frame of a 20th century house in a Detroit neighborhood.  

11:30 am

The smoker is just chilling at 200° and my hope is that we’re well on out way to a smoked turkey. Stay tuned for a temperature check in about 30 minutes.

Set 1 from Sunday, July 12, 1970 begins with Bennie Maupin’s “Something Like This.” While this set’s performance may lack the fireworks of those recorded on the 10th and 11th, it certainly has a copious amount of feeling and soul. It was worth the wait.

The final chapter of Detroit Remains, likewise offer a healthy dose of feeling as it deals with the demolition of the log house discovered in Hamtramck by the Detroit Land Bank despite efforts made to preserve and move the building. As someone who has seen any number of significant historical buildings demolished in my community, I can empathize with the disappointment expressed by the authors and stakeholders.     

12 pm

The first temperature check and, miracles of miracles, the bird is done: 165° on the dot.

IMG 6899

Happily, my reading of Detroit Remains is done for the day too. Ryzewski’s reflections on Section 106 reviews in the aftermath of the Hamtramck log house demolition resonated with my own experiences on the State Historical Review Board and our local Historic Preservation Commission. While locally we continue to see innumerable 106 reviews, we also recognize how much these remain dependent upon the collective good will of the city, contractors, developers, and the community. Raising awareness of historical preservation issues always involves threading the needle between being outspoke about the value of the past in general and navigating the complicated interests that establish the value of specific pasts to specific communities and stakeholders. 

Finally, “I Remember Brit” from Set 2 on Sunday, July 12 is playing in the background and I sort of feel like pressing pause on this track and listening to the final performance during dinner in an hour or so. And this probably means pressing pause on this bizarre experiment in live blogging.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      
 

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been chipping on a paper that reflect on the Wesley College Documentation project as an approach to teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m about two thirds of the way through the paper and thought I should probably share a draft of it.

I’m moderately happy with what I have on the page so far. The paper will be a bit backward in that I am writing from the perspective of practice that I then analyze through reflections later. This approach is both honest, in that I didn’t really have a pedagogy or a plan when I put this class together, and I suspect reflects an authentic account of how my experience in the Wesley College buildings and with this group of students shaped my understanding of teaching.

Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

Introduction

In an American context, teaching and the study of the archaeology of the contemporary world have always existed together. Schiffer and Gould’s seminal, Modern Material Culture features an article by Schiffer and Wilke titled: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” which, as the title suggests, used the material culture of the University of Arizona campus as a context for teaching archaeological methods and interpretation. Similarly, Bill Rathje’s “Garbage Project” which took place at the same institution at the same time, grew out of his efforts to introduce undergraduates both to sampling and behavioral archaeology through the systematic study of domestic trash collected from Tuscon neighborhoods. The last 40 years have continued to see a steady stream of studies that demonstrate how the contemporary university campus can provide a compelling site for teaching archaeology.

Most of these campus projects focused on using modern material and contexts to instruct students in the systematic practices associated with traditional archaeology: sampling, surface collection, mapping, recording, and stratigraphic excavation. It is notable that despite the attention to modern material and research questions significant to contemporary campus life such as the disposal of trash or locations of cigarette smokers (citations), most published efforts to use material culture to document life on American college campuses appear to have avoided methods that engage more fully with conversations in field of archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, most of these approaches did not seem to emphasize the growing role that time-based media, particularly video and audio recordings, have come to play in the archaeology of the contemporary world. I also wonder whether they have emphasized the potential of unstructured textual recording to capture the experience of both familiar and unfamiliar spaces and places. In fact, the emphasis on systematic methods, practices, and procedures as part of most archaeology of the contemporary campus reinforced the kind of modern structures that archaeology of the contemporary world has sometimes sought to critique or even subvert. The course that I taught in the spring of 2018 developed in such a way that it blended open ended documentation practices and experiential learning with archival research, public outreach, and performance to create a distinctive learning experience for students.

The following chapter will reflect on a course taught on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 2018. The course focused on two pairs of buildings on campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre Halls, which were demolished in the early summer of that year. The buildings were built between 1909 and 1929 in the Beaux Arts style as the main buildings for an institution called Wesley College founded in 19xx. Wesley College was a Methodist institution that taught music, religion, and elocution and offered housing to students in two dormitories, Sayre Hall for men and Larimore Hall for women. Students taking classes at Wesley College would also be enrolled at the University of North Dakota, a public four-year, state funded institution, and receive their degrees from UND. In 1965, a financially failing Wesley College was purchased and absorbed into UND and the four buildings served as dorms, offices, classrooms, laboratories, and the home of UND’s honors program of the next 50 or so years. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the buildings had acquired considerable deferred maintenance debt and their demolition was ordered as part of a general effort to reduce the campus footprint and refresh it public face along the main thoroughfare through campus.

The course that I taught involved exploring and documenting these buildings in the window between their abandonment as active campus structures and their final demolition. As the buildings themselves represented some of the oldest structure on our campus. the university administration treated their destruction with a certain amount of seriousness and employed a local contractor to prepare a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Type 2 report on the buildings and had the demolition contractor prepare a high resolution laser scan of the buildings. This routine, but robust level of documentation ensured that the buildings received formal architectural recording worthy of their designs and distinctive place in the history of the campus. There was less formal interest, however, in documenting their interior state which involved both numerous intervention over their lifetimes and the detritus of both their recent abandonment and their changing roles on campus. The class that I taught on these buildings focused initially on the buildings’ situations between use and demolition.

The course ran as a one-credit add on to a class on that focused on the university budget. After several decades of regular budget and enrollment increases, the University of North Dakota was enduring a painful period of contraction with several high profile program cuts including our star-studded women’s ice hockey team and the nationally recognized music therapy program. At the same time, the university was implementing a new internal budgeting model that regularly bore the brunt of campus-wide frustrations regarding the distribution of resources. Instability in administrative leadership, the increasingly populist and often anti-intellectual political culture of the state, and challenges associated with communicating effectively across a wide range of campus stakeholders contributed to confusion and at times anger toward the university administration. A course on the university budget was meant to create an opportunity to engage with the changes on our campus in a way informed by a more detailed and accurate understanding to the actual mechanisms of funding, the national conversation about higher education in the US, and the particular historical developments at our campus. The course on the university budget prompted student interest in changes on campus and this, in turn, prompted me to offer a course on the buildings scheduled for demolition later that year. This was done without much planning or thought about what this course would look like.

The spontaneous creation of the course focused on the Wesley College buildings discouraged any particularly formal structure. The course was offered for one academic credit, which is the lowest academic value possible for a course on our campus. In fact, its spontaneity and low academic stakes allowed the course to operate at the very fringes of the panoptic perspectives of campus administrators. It both eluded the gaze of the technocrats whose authority rests on structures associated with assessment and fell outside the purview of the faculty committees who also seek to establish authority in the contested space of the American college classroom. In this way the course existed outside administrative oversight which allowed us a significant amount of freedom in class design. As significantly, the buildings themselves occupied a strangely liminal status between abandonment and their final destruction. The university had turned off all but emergency utilities, had locked the outside doors of the buildings, and faculty and staff has removed all the objects from the building that could be reused or repurposed on campus. Thus, my students had free rein within the buildings, and the university facilities staff was only too eager to help students explore what was under the carpeting, behind walls, and above false ceilings. Because the buildings were slated for demolition, there was no concern for their material condition and all the interior rooms were unlocked and accessible to student curiosity. A liminal class that existed in a liminal space seem ideally suited to approaches that are typical of archaeology of the contemporary world.

The Class

The class itself began with a brief introduction to the building, their history, and the archaeology of the contemporary world. We then set about to explore the structures armed with notebooks, a few cameras scavenged from departmental and personal supplies, measuring tapes, and their mobile phones. Since this class was quite spontaneous, we did not have any idea exactly what we would find in the buildings. The students were immediately taken by the level of access that we had to the building. Students could enter faculty offices, laboratory spaces, classrooms, and maintenance spaces that in most active buildings on campus had access restrictions. The ability to move through a building without any barriers is something that most faculty take more or less for granted, although we would like pause before barreling into a colleague’s or program’s laboratory space uninvited or into an active classroom. It was clear, however, that for students, these spaces was far less familiar and part of what drew them through the building was a sense that they were transgressing traditional campus boundaries. Because we had not arranged for any storage space or study area where we could scrutinize objects more closely, we came to realize that we could not systematically collect artifacts from the building. Instead, we decided as a group to focus on describing the objects left behind in situ in our notebooks according to each office. At the same time, we devised a method of taking photos and using phones to take videos of the rooms in the buildings as we went. We also concluded that we should start with Corwin/Larimore Hall, which had been entirely abandoned, and then proceeding to Robertson/Sayre Hall, where staff were still moving out of their offices.

Almost immediately, we encountered rooms with massive numbers of artifacts left behind. These ranged from office and classroom furniture to laboratories with masses of cables, computers, and equipment used in psychological testing that appeared utterly foreign to the students. In some cases, offices appear to be frozen in time. A single late-20th century Apple iMac computer stood on a desk as if frozen in the year 2000. In other cases, office and laboratories look like they had been rooted through during a burglary. Other rooms initially appeared carefully abandoned only to reveal during documentation some kind of intimate trace that connected the empty office to its earlier occupant. The situations in these offices, labs, and classroom, drew student efforts to delve deeply into the contents of rooms. They looked inside desk drawers, documented the patterns of adhesive tape left on the back of doors, and explored the spaces above acoustic ceiling tiles. One student, Wyatt Atchley, an avid photographer, prepared a photo essay that drew out the traces of the building’s recent past and connected it with recent discussions of austerity that we were having in the sister course on the university budget. The intimacy of his photographs reflected the growing commitment that the students felt not only toward this course, but also toward these building.

As they did this work, the students invariably started to notice various construction scars throughout the building and started to piece together the history of these buildings adaptations over time. One of the challenges that we faced in studying these buildings is that the original blue prints were not preserved. In fact, as we started to recognize that complex histories of these buildings we decamped to the University Archives where we poured through various collections in an effort to trace the changes made to the buildings over time. This was not guided by a kind of architectural fundamentalism, but by questions that originated in the space of the Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre halls. Questions that emerged through the students’ relentless exploration of the space triggered their interest in piecing together how they changed over time through photographs, technical plans, and any other sources of information that might reveal their histories. For example, the students and I quickly recognized the large classroom in Corwin Hall with its distinctive low arched ceiling as the former recital hall of Wesley College’s music program. When the building was modified to accommodate offices and classrooms, the builders truncated room’s north side, where the proscenium would have stood, and replaced it with a wall and chalk boards. Despite this modified condition, the students and some colleagues across campus understood the potential of recording the acoustics of this space as both a gesture to the room’s history as performance space and as a chance to document the building’s acoustic signature. We have published the results of this work in collaboration with some of Atchley’s photographs in Epoiesen.

In Sayre Hall, the students and I were confused by a strange pattern of wood slats affixed the the ceiling of a room in Sayre Hall but hidden by the drop ceiling. These wood slats once supported a coffered ceiling and revealed the room to the formal sitting room of the Sayre Hall dormitory. The photographs that the students found in the University Archives revealed turn-of-the-century space worthy of the “jazz age” tastes of pre-depression America complete with potted ferns, an elaborate fireplace, and terrazzo floor with mosaic inlays. A return visit to the room led us to tear up the institutional wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal the more elegant flooring beneath. Efforts to find the fireplace, immured over the course of innumerable renovations to the space, were less fruitful, but nevertheless engaged the students’ curiosity.

Time in the archives led the students to perhaps the most spectacular find associated with the Wesley College buildings. Amid the various record associated with the soliciting of funds from donors and the construction of the buildings was a folder associated with the relationship between the Sayre family and the long-serving president of Wesley College, Edward P. Robertson. In these papers was the story of A.J. Sayre’s son, Harold Holt Sayre, who had died in World War I. In 1918, Roberston honored the request of A.J. Sayre and changed the name of Sayre Hall to Harold H. Sayre Hall as a memorial to his son’s sacrifice. Included in the folder associated with this correspondence was a four-page poem, ”At the Grave of a Dead Gunner” written by Horace Shidler. Sayre was the gunner in the plane that Shidler had piloted. This touching tribute affected the class deeply and transformed the process of documenting these buildings from one driven by curiosity to one driven by a sense of deep respect for not only Sayre’s memory, but the students, faculty, administrators, and staff who had passed through these buildings. Later that week students discovered names carved into a pane of window glass in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. These students lived in room in Sayre Hall before going on to careers in law, higher education, and business. One of the students, however, died in France in World War I and once again connected this building to centennial reflections taking place in both the US and Europe to mark the conclusion of the “Great War.”

Students produced all these discoveries, and they became increasingly motivated that our work do more than simply document these buildings in their abandoned state. Through ongoing conversations both in the buildings and in the University Archives, we came to recognize that the ongoing use of these buildings served to keep the memories of Sayre and Wesley College students evergreen and the demolition of the buildings would break the connections between the lived space of campus and the Great War. To mark this transformation the students helped coordinate a final event for the buildings and invited the university president, representatives of the city of Grand Forks, the campus Reserve Officers Training Corp, and, perhaps most importantly, the commanding officer of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to speak at a ceremony recognizing the loss that these buildings will mean to campus memory. A colleague in the department of history provided a brief historical survey of the Great War and a colleague from the department of English played bagpipes to amplify the solemnity of the occasion. The weather cooperated and on a brilliant spring day, we recognized the buildings and those who they honored.

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget and they invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing associated with “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. Slow archaeology critiqued the outsized role of efficiency in contemporary society. The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. This coincided with the role of archaeology and cultural resource management in a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration.” In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that supermodernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more maintenance by dint of their age alone.

The methods taken by my students and I anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus with its emphasis on the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Whitmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Whitmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by supermodernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. It goes without saying that it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course especially since the book appeared two years after the course was over. That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

Music Monday: Soundtrack to Detroit

This weekend, I started to read Krysta Ryzewski’s new book Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places (2022). I’m no far enough into the book to offer any impressions or commentary yet, but I’m enjoying it.

More importantly (for now at least), it got me thinking about Detroit music. A few week’s ago, I blogged about the late Dr. Lonnie Smith and the Club Mozambique and made reference to the work of the Detroit Sound Conservancy which seek to preserve and conserve the legacy of music in Detroit and the Music Origins Project which seeks the more modest goal of geolocating important venues. The Concert Database is another interesting project that seeks to document venues and performances from throughout Michigan.

To be clear, I’m not an expert on the amazingly rich Detroit music scene. In fact, I’m not an expert on anything, but I do like what I like and have this kind of weird faith that perhaps if I post some of it here, other people will find some things that they like. (I do want to read Mark Stryker’s book Jazz from Detroit (2019).

I also believe that most books deserve a soundtrack.

So for Detroit Remains, I’ve selected music from two 1970s jazz labels: Strata and Tribe. These are not the most prominent or “important” labels from the Motor City. They also didn’t necessarily feature the best known or even more influential artists. Part of their charm is that they feel like they embody a kind of grassroots music anchored in the community building, often Black identity (especially Tribe), and ownership of music rights. They also appear to have relied on the availability of session gigs with MoTown (for example Larry Nozero, despite being an active participant in the Detroit jazz scene for years and contributing to any number of class Strata tracks is best known for playing the saxophone solo in the open bars of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) and on the vibrant network of local music venues.

Here’s my playlist. 

First, one of my favorite examples of Detroit soul jazz is the Layman Woodard Organization, Saturday Night Special.  It’s an absolutely fantastic blend of jazz, funk, and R&B sensibilities with just a little something exotic (which feels characteristic of the Detroit jazz scene). The cover is also pure Detroit in that it’s a photograph taken by Leni Sinclair (co-founder of the White Panther Party). It apparently was a photo of the contents of Layman Woodard’s pockets after the show where the album was recorded.

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The other Strata Corporation album that I can’t quite get enough of is pianist Kenny Cox’s Clap, Clap! The Joyful Noise. Cox was one of the co-founders of Strata who had recorded with Blue Note and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet but founded Strata in the early 1970s as a way to get more control over his music and creative vision. Clap Clap! is brilliant and like Saturday Night Special, it evokes an understated exoticism with Latin and Caribbean sounds (complete with the gentle wash of the waves on the albums opening track)! Is this a form of escapism, like the Club Mozambique? Set against the backdrop of Caribbean nationalism is it a subtly encoded aspiration for greater political autonomy?

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Tribe is another of the great, local Detroit labels of the 1970s and like Strata, had a deep engagement with the local situation. They not only released albums by stalwarts of the Detroit jazz scene (including the incredibly influential Marcus Belgrave), but also a magazine that tackled key political and cultural issues for the Black community. While the label was short lived, like Strata it captured a moment in time.

Belgave’s Gemini II for example, blends space jazz, fusion, and soul into a post-bop statement album. Belgrave didn’t record often although he played out constantly throughout his career. More importantly, he mentored a new generation of Detroit musicians included the superstar Kenny Garrett.   

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Almost as good as a soundtrack is trombonist Phil Ranelin’s The Time is Now (which also features Marcus Belgrave).

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Maybe I’m just romanticizing these labels and this period. I recognize, of course, that Detroit in the 1970s was a complex, racially torn, and economically vulnerable. But that said, there’s a kind of defiance and power in this music that seems to align with the view of Detroit in my imagination. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s winter in North Dakota with cold winds, old snow, and a warm fire. The early and late winter are always the hardest. In November, our bodies haven’t quite adjusted to the cold temperatures and icy wind making the 20s and 30s feel like 10 below. By April, we’ve just gotten tired of crusty snow piles and endless days without warmth. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of things happening this weekend to keep us distracted as we adapt to the new season. The Formula 1 guys will try out the Losail International Circuit in Qatar to a chorus of protests. My Ohio State Buckeyes will face Michigan State for another must win game against a highly ranked opponent. And tomorrow night Bud Crawford gets the high profile opponent that he’s been asking for in Shawn Porter as the headliner in a solid night of boxing. 

In and around sporting events, I’ll be working on syllabi for my spring semester classes, doing some reading and writing, nudging a new book into production, walking the dogs, and trying to catch bits of the ASOR annual meeting

I’ll also be on the look out for some quick hits and varia: