What I learned this year…

The academic year is wrapping up this week at the lovely University of North Dakota. I try to take a little bit of time before the onslaught of grading commences to think about my classes and take some notes on what worked and what didn’t. I also tend to think of new, overwhelming, and complicated projects this time of year. Maybe it’s the looming start of all-consuming archaeological fieldwork season that frees my brain from the pressures of ongoing projects and deadlines. Maybe I just start to feel reborn as springtime spreads across Grand Forks.

Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts:

1. Untextbook. I got thinking that I might want to write an “untextbook” for faculty who are teaching introductory level courses in a active learning type classroom. Instead of presenting a body of content, this textbook would present a plan for managing student engagement with methods of researching, interpretation, and writing history. The result of a course that used my untextbook would be, a textbook produced by the students and demonstrating a mastery of basic historical skills.

I’m envisioning a untextbook made of 15 modules that introduce basic historical thinking skills, a primary source, and a writing exercise the contributes to the larger textbook project. Most of my experience in doing this or preparing this kind of book comes from my time teaching Western Civilization in UND’s Scale-Up classroom. There’s a publisher vaguely interested in at least having a conversation about the book. More on this over the next year or so, I suspect.

2. Totalizing versus Writing in Registers. Today I teach my last graduate historiography course, and our reading over the last month or so has me thinking about how we approach the larger project of history. I’ve tended to maintain, at least in my imagining of the past, that events, people, trends, and objects existed essentially in a kind of universal empty space. Arranging these things in this empty space allowed historians to make connections, trace causality, and construct totalizing narratives.

My students have kept nudging me to think of time and events a bit differently, and to think about the past in registers that do not imply clear connections between past phenomena. At the same time, thinking about the past as discontinuous does help us imagine presents and futures that are not the inevitable conclusion of the dense totality of past events. We can create new presents and futures by looking for ways to undermine the inevitability of history.

3. Stability versus Revision. It seems to me that academic life often revolves around the tension between conservative practices – following well-trod paths, embracing conventional wisdom, and resisting change – and the drive to do things in a different way, to push the limits, and to reject old ways of thinking. This year, there have been a ton of changes across campus spurred mostly by budget contingencies, and faculty have quickly adopted a bunker mentality and dug in. This is understandable because of the changes will not improve the life of faculty at UND or the quality of the university or student experience. Most of the budget cuts will make UND weaker and education at UND worth less to our students.

At the same time, I can’t help being excited about this kind of change. Maybe I was getting complacent, maybe I’m too young to realize how good the “good old days” were, maybe my life isn’t impacted enough by the budget cuts which have ruined careers, terminate programs, and created a sense of largely-unproductive tension across campus.

That being said, these budget changes have provoked me to rethink how I teach my classes. Maybe I could be more efficient and offer a bit less without compromising too much of what my classes are about. Maybe I can even do things in my daily life that save some money for UND and mitigate the impact of future cuts. Maybe I can even, in some cases, do more, and embrace contingency and find energy in the opportunity to reimagine what we do and use the urgency to regain some independence from folks who generally lack a threatening stick and now have lost funding as compelling carrot.  

Digital Humanities and the New Liberal Arts

In a productive coincidence, there was a provocative published in the Los Angeles Review of Books that subjected the Digital Humanities to rather pointed criticism aligning the darling of tech-savvy humanists, granting agencies, and university administrators everywhere with the dreaded neoliberal bugbear of our age. In short, the authors associated the rise of the Digital Humanities with the emergence of the corporatized university, vocational, tool-based education in the humanities, and decline of the traditional emphasis in the humanities on interpreting and engaging texts. I’m sure my colleagues in the #DH world will pull this article apart, but it’s hard to ignore as a good start to an important conversation. 

At this same time, my colleague, Tom Isern, down at North Dakota State University announced on Facebook that he’s working on a talk on the liberal arts to be delivered at an upcoming higher education confab here in North Dakota. The latter prompted me to think about what a forward-looking liberal arts would be (a la the New Liberal Arts), and the former provided me with a nice critical foil against which to imagine the humanities (and the larger liberal arts) in the 21st century. I think I want to write something about that in the late summer or fall. For now I have random thoughts.

1. Backward to a Future. This semester, I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Hayden White, Marshall Salins, and Dipesh Chakrabarty with my graduate historiography students. We’ve pushed each other to think about how the kinds of pasts we imagine shape and reflect the future we desire. As I’ve started to think critically about the future of the humanities and the liberal arts (more broadly), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the current state of higher education is as much the culmination of a long-standing conversation in the humanities (that has insisted on a kind of practical relevance) as well as pressures from outside the academy to make higher education relevant to the economic (and political) needs of the community (and our stakeholders).

In other words, I wonder whether looking back to understand the liberal arts may not help us escape our current bind, where the humanities are not seen as significant to a 21st century view of higher education that is pushing universities to declare the direct impact of their programs on the economic future of the country. Can we imagine a future for the humanities that is free from discussions of methods and methodology, disciplines and professionalism, and outcomes? As someone who teaches historical methods, has published on archaeological methodology, and has thought (critically? naively?) about technology in archaeology, I feel like most of these conversations are essential co-terminus with the emergence of the humanities as a thing within the context of higher education. The seeds of so much of our current university system came not from outside academia, but from the very processes of creating academia. 

2. Integrating and Disintegrating. Part of the challenge that I face teaching historical methods and graduate history, in general, is how much do I push my students simply to try to make sense of the past versus spending time teaching discipline specific methods which range from the pedestrian (this is how we fooooootnooottteeeee) to the elusive (how do we read between the lines of the text) and practical (relational databases, GIS, et c.). The former approach is close to the heart of the discipline and evokes Mommsen’s famous advice that students in history should learn languages and, maybe, a little law. For Mommsen the key to writing good history is carefully and slowly reading texts. I want my students to be able to read a text, understand it, and draw their own conclusions from an intimate relationship with the words on the page.

For our students and our situation, this is much more challenging. Mommsen’s students were preparing for work as teachers, historians, maybe clerks, in a text based world. While I’d contend that our world is still – and maybe more so – dominated by text, our students are expected to have far more granular skill sets at their disposal. There is tremendous pressure to dis-integrate disciplinary knowledge into a set of discrete skills. While big picture skills like reading, critical thinking, information literacy, and writing remain important and, we’re told, “in demand,” skills in data management, software, programing languages, formal editing, public history skills (museum design, accounting, marketing, graphic design, et c.), audio and video recording and production, are all part of a larger package of assets that our students both want and our administrators hope that we can develop within a disciplinary context. The rise of public history programs, for example, is a direct response to pressures to develop a degree with clear and explicit skills that can be dis-integrated and “sold separately” to employers.  

3. Disciplines and their Discontents. If integration and dis-integration of skills represents a constant pressure on how we justify our practice in the classroom and in our disciplines, there is the equal pressure to dissipate and disintegrate disciplinary learning and research across the curriculum. If disciplines are being pushed to identify and develop particular skills so that they can market their graduates outside of the academy, we are also being asked to market our disciplines within the university as the industrial model of higher education reaches its natural conclusion. Each course in the each discipline must fulfill a clear and obvious function in the education of our undergraduate consumers and in the research portfolio of the university in general. At the same time, each discipline needs to articulate itself as a distinct set of skills to justify the qualifications of its graduates for work in a putative “skills-based” world.

Disciplines and their institutional analogues – namely the department – find an increasingly awkward fit with the complex and contradictory rhetoric of higher education. The cynic in me sees much of this rhetoric as a way to undermine the authority of the department within the university administration. Departments – in general – serve as the point of contact between the administration and faculty and faculty governance is most frequently manifest at the departmental level. Efforts to undercut disciplines and departments are a method to undercut faculty authority. At the same time, our own efforts at justifying our discipline and departments often result in appeals to methods that date to the earliest days of the modern university. The development of disciplinary specific methods and skills then serve the purpose of dis-integrating disciplinary knowledge.

More on The Outrage Summit

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on setting up the North Dakota University System Arts and Humanities Summit here on campus for next fall. The theme will be outrage and I hope it leads to a productive and thought provoking mini-riot. 

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To inspire critical conversation about the  I wrote this short blog post for public consumption and to inspire folks to think about outrage in different ways. It’s intentionally provocative (although not really outrageous). Check it out below:

People are mad. We have to look no further than television or the social media to find our daily dose of outrage. Outrage saturates casual conversations, seeps from the pores of the community, and galvanizes events into evidence for totalizing ideological conspiracies. At its more productive, outrage can stoke mass movements like we witnessed in the Arab Spring or in Ferguson, Missouri. Propelled by passion mediated through digital communication technology, outrage courses through the veins of our hyper-connected modern world.

North Dakota is not immune to paroxysms of outrage, of course. Budget cuts across the state and in higher education and social services have prompted outraged cries. Environmental concerns associated with fracking, political posturing by politicians, an simple incompetence and corruption throughout the state has led to frustration, anger, and ultimately outrage. The intersection of local and national politics has proved particularly fraught as it has brought national attention to local affairs. Even campus events, like the canceling of a program or a 911 call can attract national anger, and the local community can struggle to negotiate tension between loyalty, local knowledge, and national attitudes.

The global media is at least partly to blame for cross pollination of local and national outrage. The ability of a group like ISIS to attract recruits from around the world demonstrates that outrage against something as ubiquitous as Western capitalism and democracy manifests itself at local levels with global impacts. At the same time, social media has allowed local outrage against a tyrannical regime or an act of social injustice to transform into mass action.

The NDUS Arts and Humanities Summit at the University of North Dakota will bring together scholars from across the university system both to express and critique outrage. Expressions of outrage are more than mere emotional catharsis which allows for the dispersion of pent up energy, but have a performative value as well. For scholars like Manual Castells, outrage motivated actions in the social media that eventually catalyzed into mass protests. It may be a more productive to see outrage itself as a medium or performative style which accelerates and intensifies the impact of various messages. Anguished, staccato, character of contemporary outrage, like a modern vox clamatis in deserto, parallels the punctuated bursts of text messages, Tweets, and Facebook posts as well as the sound-bite sensationalism of traditional media. The emotional density of outrage delivers an impact that transcends the need for an argument, for lengthy exposition, and elaborate structure. By inviting scholars to be outraged, we want to explore the potential for outrage as a form of scholarly communication. Can scholars harness the power of outrage effectively to motivate mass movements?

At the same time the Arts and Humanities Summit invites presentations and papers that consider and critique our growing dependence on outrage to motivate social change. After all, not all outrage is created equal and understanding how outrage functions in our connected world ensures that we can critically engage its impact and significance. While we should never confuse recognizing the way in which outrage functions for being about to control it, we should recognize the potential and limits of these media in a world increasingly committed to an accelerated pace of social engagement.

Outrage has already played a key role in the course of the 21st century. It has punctuated debates over race, privileged, and self-determination on an international scale and found a happy ally in the staccato signals of the digital media and our own attenuated attention. While the STEM field are on often seen as the front line for the global pandemics, war, and economic growth, the Arts and Humanities represent a bulwark against the unfettered ravages of outrage in our networked society. Our ability to communicate, to motivate, to compel, to perform, and to empathize reside both at the core of the arts and humanities and outrage. We hope that this event is the first step in a an important initiative that understands the destructive and productive potential of outrage and need to fortify the arts and humanities in North Dakota to manage its awesome power.

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It feels like Spring finally here in North Dakotaland with highs in the lower 60s and that particular light when we recognize that the sun is just a little higher in the sky.

Lots of cool stuff this week: we’re soliciting submissions for a special volume of North Dakota Quarterly on the work of Thomas McGrath; we’re moving ahead with the North Dakota Outrage Summit; a cool Kickstarter project, Intersection Journal, and some thoughts on crowdfunding the public humanities; and two pieces that reflect on slow.

It will be a nice weekend and perfect for some quick hits and varia.

IMG 4553So bored.

Crowdfunding the Public Humanities: Intersection Journal

Over the past few years, I’ve seen quite a few interesting public humanities projects float across Kickstarter, the popular crowd funding platform. As people likely know, the catch in using Kickstarter is that you set a target for the amount of money that you want to raise, but you don’t get a penny (and your backers don’t pay a penny) unless you meet that target. It’s all or nothing. 

With the slow decline in funding for the humanities and the public humanities more broadly, these kinds of crowdsourcing platforms have emerged as an alternative way to generate revenue for projects that seek to engage the public in meaningful conversations. As a small publisher and an editor of a recently-defunded public humanities journal, I’ve been drawn to Kickstarter as a way to generate funds for specific projects as well as to promote the work of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly. Whatever the strategy involved in using Kickstarter (picking achievable target, promoting the campaign over social media, and identifying desirable “rewards” for various funding levels, et c.), there are risks. The risk, it seems to me, isn’t that you don’t get funded or don’t deliver (these are real, but completely manageable risks), but that you end up contributing to an expectation that public humanities projects should be funded as commodities appealing as investments and designed to produce “rewards.” 

At the same time, it’s hard to argue with the idea that people working the public humanities deserve to get paid for their work and outside the university setting there is very little space for folks doing public humanities work to make a living.

This seems like a good chance to promote, Chad Ziemendorf’s Kickstarter campaign for his Intersection Journal. Intersection Journal is a visionary forum for long-form photo journalism, and he is looking for funding to support a new campaign of photography with stories from accomplished and award-wining professional photographers. Each photographer will focus on the resilience of rural communities in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. 

He’s set an ambitious goal of $29,000 to fund the project and, for what it’s worth, the rewards are good. More importantly, the product of the funding will be publicly accessible. In other words, supporting this project does not give you exclusive access to content, but supports a product that is accessible to a wide audience. 

I supported it. You should too. 

The North Dakota Outrage Summit

A couple of months ago I floated the idea of an “Outrage Summit” as a possible theme for the North Dakota University System Arts and Humanities Summit in late September. We floated the idea around and there were no objections to it, so this weekend, we put together a call for papers and it should appear on the summit’s website this week or next.

One thing that many of the folks who saw early drafts of my outrage idea suggested is that I “keep it academic.” I thought about this a good bit and decided to ignore that suggestion. I decided that was one of the surest ways to rob the arts and humanities of their emotional power. In fact, I got a bit worried that calls for us to “keep it academic” were largely driven by people who were less invested in the distinctive power of the humanities to push human emotions, agitate the irrational, and propel people to act in ways that defy convention, overturn civility, and bring about radical change. 

So my call for papers explicitly makes room for both academic, intellectual treatments of outrage as well as genuine expressions of outrage. The humanities (and arts!) do more than just obfuscate raw human emotions or insert a layer of opaque jargon between experience and understanding. The humanities and arts can and should form a direct conduit for anger, hatred, joy, love, passion, and even OUTRAGE. This summit should, then, embrace both thoughtful, rational, academic, technical treatments of outrage, and genuine or performed outpourings of emotional anger.   

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Finally, I think we have an almost perfect keynote speaker. Hopefully we can make that announcement soon. 

Here’s a preview. 

Outrage has become a dominant feature of the 21st century. It has energized social media, shaped the global political discourse, fueled massive popular movements, and propelled candidates to public office. Outrage has accompanied and amplified mourning, it has been used to resist and affect change, and served both to reinforce authority and to subvert institutions of control. From Occupy Wall Street to the streets of Ferguson, Paris, and Cairo, outrage has become a defining feature of the public sphere.

Historically, college campuses have served as an incubator and a stage for outrage, and recent events at the University of Missouri, for example, have demonstrated that this tradition is alive and well. At the same time, appeals to civility, safety, apathy, and even inclusiveness have challenged the role of college campuses as places for the violent, uncritical, visceral clashes of ideas. The increasingly marginalized place of outrage on college campuses has stifled the often-productive impact of mass movement, spontaneous actions, emotional calls for justice, and cascading, recursive spasms of irrational anger. In many cases, these aspects of outrage are exactly those that the arts and humanities seek to validate, authorize, and instill in our society.

As a result, the Arts and Humanities Summit has decided to embrace outrage both as a form of expression and as an object of study. We encourage the submissions of papers, presentations, and projects that thoughtfully, critically or performatively engage outrage. We encourage contributors to be outraged, to flaunt civility, and to reflect seriously on why outrage matters for the arts and humanities today.

The Impossibility of a Slow Professor? (Part 2)

The problem of making a post with a “part 1” is that I feel obligated to publish a “part 2.” Go read Part 1, which is basically a review of  Maggie Berg’s and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016). In it, I suggest that the problem with their lovely little book is that many (if not all) of the conditions that produced a professionalized faculty are the same that have produced a corporatized university. We can’t be professionalized – with the clear distinction between work and life – and slow because the industrial roots of the process of professionalization are inseparable from the kind of social acceleration that has so impacted our working life. In other words, you can’t look for work/life balance without understanding the notion of “work” and “life” as products of the professionalization process.

If Berg and Seeber really want to understand how to embrace being a slow profession, I think they need to consider a fundamentally new model for life in the academy. This isn’t a radical proposition, actually. Most faculty in the humanities are not fully professionalized and our refusal to completely grasp the work/life division provides us with the opportunity to do meaningful work. Part of the slow movement’s core philosophy (such as it exists beyond a series of vaguely interrelated platitudes) is to live life in a more deliberate, thoughtful, and engaged way and to avoid the slick efficiencies that dominate the corporate world and its tradition of industrial speed. After all, time is money.

In the place of an industrial model, I wonder if we should think of what we do in the academy as craft rather than work. I recognize that this has risks. That standardization and professionalization of academia is part of a larger process that marginalized the kind of informal practices that made disciplines “old boys clubs” unfriendly to women, minorities, and unorthodox ideas. Professionalization has contributed to a more fair and inclusive work space by managing the grown of informal policies. The trick for the slow professor is to preserve the spirit of professionalism, the sense of fairness, the inclusiveness, and the democratic standards in university life, while at the same time grounding this in an earlier model for understanding academic life. 

1. Do work that matters. One of the great things about the humanities is that we can blur work/life so easily by simply doing work that matters to our life. We can draw on our experiences, our community, and our family as an influence on our scholarship. A walk with my wife can be a research trip, serving on a committee in the community can spark new ideas, and my experiences on a lazy early summer day can shape a published article. Live a life where it’s impossible to “take time off” from doing “work.”

2. Work with friends. One of the aspects of the Slow Professor that I really liked was their chapter on the value of collaboration in creating a more meaningful experience from research. (It goes without saying that the output of collaborative ventures tends to be better than that from the solo author… at least in my experience). I’d expand Berg and Seeber’s view of collaboration to suggest that we make a real effort to collaborate with friend. While there is always a risk of group think in these situations, I would add that there is also an opportunity to further erode the boundaries between work and life that threaten to box in creativity and to compartmentalize how we see the world.  

3. Control your work. While academics often complain about the relentless pace and expectations of university life, we can equally impatient about our work as it wends its way through the publication process. I contend that the division of writing from publishing (that is the work of publishing) locates writing as a stage in the process of knowledge production that culminates, to some degree in the appearance of a publication. The division of labor throughout this process reinforces the professionalization of academic work (as well as publishing) and it supports a system that is designed – in large part – to improve the efficiency of our work. To be clear, I’m not overlooking the value of peer review, copy editing, careful typesetting, et c., but I do think that our work should adopt more fluid models that subvert the calls for professional efficiency by exploring ways to control the entire process of knowledge production.

4. Break things. I loved that The Slow Professor recognized that the slow movement was a form of resistance. At a number of meeting on campus lately, administrators have emphasized that we as faculty need to assert authority through action. In most cases, the actions that we’re expected to take coincide with administrative initiatives. At the same time, being a slow professor does offer a strategy to undermine the “audit culture” so prevalent in the modern university. It takes a commitment, however, to slow processes down, to disengage from the pressures of both disciplinary and institutional expectations, and to break things designed to speed up, to improve efficiency, and to undermine our ability to blend work and life. Being a slow professor involves more than just embracing the virtues of a non-professional life, it involves working and taking risks to create that space within institutions designed to promote professional values. 

Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

I spent rainy and grey Sunday afternoon Skyping away to glorious Boulder, Colorado and a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group annual meeting. The papers were engaging and the conversation was fruitful. My paper is “below the fold.”

As per usual, everything is always about me, and the biggest take away that I have from this panel is that I want to explore the relationship between field practice, analysis, publication, and … branding. My ideas are still really unformed right now, but I think I want to explore the link between how we do our work and how we build our “brand” in a world that is shaped by not only the real flow of capital, but also a set of expectations that are dictated by a totalizing neoliberal (modern?) view of the world.

Anyway, the final paragraph of this paper would be a point of departure for another book that I probably won’t have time or intellectual horsepower to write, but one could imagine the chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Slow Archaeology in Field Practice
3. Digital Archaeology and the End of Place
4. Cooperative and Collaborative Modes of Publishing 
5. Slow Archaeology as Brand: Archaeology and Culture 
6. Conclusion

Anyway, I’ll add it to the queue, but see below for the paper. 

Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

William Caraher, University of North Dakota Paper
Delivered in the panel “Just Google It: Archaeology, Pop Culture, and Digital Media” at the
Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Meeting Boulder, Colorado
April 24, 2016


I had this ambitious idea to start this paper with a discussion of David Harvey’s idea of time and space, to flow gracefully into a discussion of Virilio’s dromoscopy, and then consider Harmut Rosa’s recent views on social acceleration while sprinkling my clever introduction with references to the more popular (and problematic) slow food movement. Then I realized I’m joining this panel over Skype, and this probably does more to demonstrate the peculiar situation facing traditional scholarly discourse in the 21st century than me generalizing a complex and subtle body of theory. The space and speed of scholarly conversation and archaeological knowledge production has changed significantly over the past two decades and this is having real impacts on how archaeologists do there work.

To put this in some larger context, this paper is an extension of my recent interest in technology and speed in archaeological fieldwork. I have recently tried to argue – with varying degrees of success and acceptance – that the more recent crop of digital tools have transformed fieldwork by accelerating the longstanding interest in efficiency to the detriment of an engaged, reflexive, practice. I’ve called my critique “slow archaeology” and while it hasn’t exactly caught on, it gave me an excuse to think about speed in archaeology more broadly. In fact, it caused me to wonder how much of the current interest in our ability to use the digital realm – particularly the internet – to build communities, link data, and collect and distribute knowledge freely is tied to the speed of the digital age and its impact on the complex network of social practices and technology that constitutes our world. Part of this is my sensitivities as a landscape archaeologist to place and David Harvey’s compelling observation that the time of “late capitalism” annihilated spatial barriers and fundamentally transformed the notion of space and place.

The barriers that I’ve become particularly curious about are those between the private and public work of archaeology. I am thinking about private archaeological space nestled within what Bruno Latour called “black boxes” which can range from complex and proprietary digital devices to old style analogue notebooks, casual conversations between colleagues, and correspondence that have – more or less – resisted rapid dissemination and reproduction. The public work of the discipline appears in lectures, traditional publications, site presentation, and museums. This division between a public and private archaeology coincides with a deeply modern line in the discipline that divides the collection of archaeological information in the field and the work necessary to understand it from its interpretation and publication. As our interest in gaining efficiency in the field, for example, has blurred the distinction between data collection and publication as archaeological information collected with digital tools is nearly ready for public consumption as “raw data.” The acceleration of academic correspondence has likewise introduced blurred generic divisions when conference papers circulate beyond the audience at the conference, informal academic conversation transpires in the public space of social media, and public working drafts anticipate peer review.

Speed and the Ambiguities of Publishing

Last month, the New York Times published an article in their science section documenting how a group of biologists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, “went rogue” and published pre-prints of important research on the bioRxiv site for open research. This kind of thing is hardly new, although perhaps a researcher of Greider’s stature adds some additional clout to this particular case study. The Times article observed that this kind of publishing is useful because it brings scholarly attention to pressing, immediate problems like the outbreak of the zika virus. These articles appear prior to peer review and this follows a practice common in various fields in the social and traditional sciences. Peer review, then, takes place at a later stage of the publication process and serves mostly to validate ideas after they have been subject to intense scrutiny from a wider academic audience. The audience for this kind publication is product of speed. In fact, the hashtag associated with these publications is #ASAPbio. (For more on this go here).

Archaeological research rarely enjoys the urgency of zika outbreak (and that’s probably a good thing), but we can still argue that timely publication forms an important responsibility for archaeologists. This responsibility is not as simple as just sending a report to one of the rapidly proliferating number of journals or preparing a manuscript for a publication series. Speed, of course, is a factor in understanding the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. In a traditional archaeological publication, archaeological knowledge percolates slowly through the publication processes. This pace cultivates a sense of indeterminacy that parallels the casual encounter with a site or an object. Years of research, conversation, and even arguments allow archaeological artifacts to accrue meaning. In my experience as survey archaeologist, the production of archaeological knowledge comes as a result of hours, days, and weeks of walking through a landscape and talking, thinking, and seeing. As a result, a site or an object comes slowly into view and one’s perceptions of the thing changes. In traditional archaeological practice, characterized by peer-reviewed and often paper publications, final published artifact represents the total of this deliberate process that begins in the field and culminates, often many years later, with the final publication. One might even extend this further to argue that getting access to the results of traditional publications involves a process of patient waiting for books and article to arrive via interlibrary loan or enter into a libraries catalogue. A review of a book might take another two years.

Like fieldwork, academic publishing proceeds at a deliberate pace limited as much by social convention as technological limitations. Many of the technological barriers associated with traditional academic publishing, however, have come down. Today, scholars have embraced scholarly publishing tools that allow for the almost instant dissemination of archaeological information through blogging platforms, the social media, or applications designed to publish digital images of objects like Omeka, Kore, or Mukurtu. The speed with which artifacts, sites, and analysis become public has, of course, caused alarm and confusion.

For example, some countries have sought to limit how archaeological data enters the digital realm, demonstrating some real discomfiture with the character of instantaneous publication. Even archaeologists experienced with the nuances of the digital realm find it challenging to discern the relative value and generic character of new digital forms. A recent blog post by long-time blogger Michael Smith inspired a tempest of debate when it offered a less than polished critique of a paper presented by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado the night before. Whatever one thinks of the particulars of this conversation, it is clear that some of the debate focused on both sides understanding how something like a blog post contributed to academic conversation. Smith’s blog appeared quickly, embraced an informal language, and demonstrated a kind of eagerness to engage and critique that most academic writing lacks. The response from the anthropology department – disseminated via Facebook – demonstrated some offense to Smith’s blog post citing in particular that “Small children often see things and instantly want them… Smith never learned the kind of discipline/impulse control that they had acquired by the time they were perhaps 8 years old…” The intemperate character of Smith’s response was related to its speedy appearance and that paragraph of the response concludes with a blanket statement about blogging: “But blogging on the internet does evidently does not require understanding, a sense of professional courtesy and ethics, or much thought of any kind.” 

It is clear that some of the anthropology department’s critique stems from a particular understanding of blogging as a medium. For example, they suggest that “most people who by their own admission did not understand a lecture would refrain from commenting on it.” Perhaps the authors of this statement meant “would refrain from commenting publicly on it,” and that would make clear that public nature of a blog distinguished it from the kind of private scholarly conversation that often occurs after a lecture where scholars try to make sense of complicated ideas and invariable misunderstand or admit to incomprehension. The problem with Smith’s blog then was its immediacy and how this immediacy is more frequently restricted to private space of conversation than the public space of the published word. (For more on this go here and here).

Speed and Slow Data

Even if we accept that the rapid publication of opinions about public lectures falls to the margins of significant scholarly expression, most archaeologists can agree that the timely dissemination of archaeological data is a disciplinary responsibility. It is almost possible to publish data directly from the field (and in effect, some projects do this when they push data from tablets to servers from the field), and this practice would reduce almost all latency between field work and publishing.

Recently, however, some scholars have suggested that instant data production may not represent the ideal. Eric Kansa, for example, has argued for “slow data” as an alternative to hyper-efficient models designed to collect “big data” sets. Kansa suggested that slow data stands at the intersection of thoughtful collection, curation, and dissemination practices. While Kansa’s soon-to-be-published work will develop these ideas more fully (he has posted a draft on Github), he articulates “slow data” as the digitized aspect of slow archaeology. In my toying with ideas related to a slow archaeology – that is an archaeology that is explicitly aware of how our desire to accelerate and become more efficient influenced practice – I considered how speed has influenced the kind of data that we collect in the field and suggested that some forms of data are still not suitable or useful for rapid digital dissemination. The more complex the data sets, the more curation is required and the slower the pace from trench or survey unit to published data set. Curation is the private work of archaeology carried out within a kind of Latourian black box, “behind the scenes” that serves as a buffer between the private experience of field work and the public world of publication.

If pushing out an overly-informal blog post less than 24 hours after a public lecture demonstrates the potential risks associated with almost instant publication, Kansa’s work and the ideas behind slow archaeology seek to understand how the generally positive attitudes toward more efficient and timely archaeological publication entail certain compromises as well.


Speed is changing the nature of archaeological publications, and the changing landscape of archaeological publishing is accelerating and transforming the discipline. There now seems to be legitimate – and at times heated – debate concerning the speed with which ideas and objects should move from the mind of the scholar or some archaeological context to the public. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. As recent thinkers about speed have recognized, certain expectations of speed and the disciplinary underpinnings of archaeology share a profoundly modern view of the world. The speed of the digital world, in particular, is breaching divisions between public and private space within a disciplinary discourse. Harvey described the “annihilation of space by time” in the flow of global capital. We might apply this idea to the space of the academic discourse where the speed with which ideas can circulate has undercut the various modern boundaries that have compartmentalized the disciplinary practices.

I might even the nudge these ideas a bit further. Objects, landscapes, data, and knowledge can now circulate the world at the speed of light; a 3D print of a scanned lithic artifact retains enough of its physicality to be identifiable. The use of low-cost and efficient 3D structure-from-motion imaging is close to allowing entire contexts to be analyzed, reconstructed, distributed, and critiqued. Speed is undermining concepts of ownership grounded in a physical possession, context, or an archaeological sense of place.

In my work on slow archaeology, I argued that archaeology should remain critical of practices designed to increase efficiency in the field. As I think about disciplinary speed more broadly, however, I wonder whether current efforts to renegotiate the expectations of time and speed facing archaeology today demonstrate more profound challenges that extend beyond the discursive limits of archaeology as a discipline or a method and ask us to consider the larger place of archaeology within culture as a whole.

Collaboration, Community, Memory, and Joel Jonientz

Two years ago today, my buddy Joel Jonientz died. I’ve posted about him on this blog before, but I urge anyone who cares about creativity, collaboration, and collegiality to surf around my archive of posts on Joel and his impact on my little community of friends and colleagues.

Go and look at this.
Listen to this song while you look at it.
I dare you not to cry.

Then to feel better, check out his podcasts with Bret Ommen, check out some of his insane videos, or head over to his website.

I didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but Joel’s passing marked a significant changing of the guard here in Grand Forks and at the University of North Dakota. There was this crazy moment from about 2010-2014 where it felt like a group of us had genuine synergies on campus across the arts and the humanities. I was lucky enough to hang out at the periphery of this group and watch them create podcasts, animated films in Mayan, video games, public art, some sweet posters, and other collaborative endeavors. Joel was instrumental in so many of these collaborations and was the co-founder of the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me and Kyle Conway. He designed Punk Archaeology, which remains the most widely distributed and cited book from the press. We dedicated the book to his memory. Download a copy. Then, go write a review on Amazon, then buy a copy to support our little press, and give it to a local library!

As I looked back on those years, I feel intense nostalgia, especially today, but I also worry. I worry that we’ll forget the impact of Joel on our lives and on our community. After all, we’re busy, some of us have moved away, there is (always) a crisis on campus, most of us are overcommitted. I worry that is emblematic of a more alienated, individualistic, and atomized campus culture that recognizes community as only a manifestation of administrative structures, shared financial priorities, and ranks as faculty, staff, administrators, or whatever. Maybe we cling together when there’s a crisis and it seems mutually beneficial, but disperse to our private priorities and responsibilities when the crisis has passed. I know I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I remember Joel, I become aware of how much less generosity there is in my world since he’s left. There is less collaboration, there is less mutual understanding, and there is less collegiality. More importantly, there are fewer bad plans. 

A few weeks ago, I was out for drinks with Mike Wittgraf, who was a close friend of Joel’s and a longtime and inspiring buddy of mine. Toward the end of the night, he said, “When I’m done my current crop of projects, I want to do something collaborative with you.” I was sort of stunned by this. I didn’t have any ideas of what that could be. The next day, I felt bad. This is the kind of thing Joel would have embraced in the most creative way possible. I need to get my act together. I need to understand that remembering isn’t just feeling bad, marking the date, or making sure I check in with old friends, but actually keeping alive some of the lessons that he taught me. Fuck.

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North Dakota Quarterly and Budget Cuts: What Can You Do?

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We’d like to thank everyone who has sent notes of support, word of encouragement, and thoughts our way as we begin to look ahead toward a new future for North Dakota Quarterly

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The image at the top of this post is painting by Elmer Halverson from Wheelock, North Dakota. Wheelock is a small, nearly abandoned town in the heart of the Bakken oil patch and this painting is of the North Dakota badlands. The oil boom has put pressure on the badlands, briefly re-invigorated small towns like Wheelock, and is partly responsible for the current financial challenges across the state. This painting was on the cover of NDQ 24.1 (Winter 1956) which was the first NDQ volume to appear after a 13 year hiatus during the Great Depression and World War II.