Speed and the Academy

This week’s Twitter query leading up to the next week’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future conference is: what new technology are you hoping to experiment with in the upcoming field season? You can reply to their query on Twitter using #mobilearc

1. Time. It’s not new technology, but as I’ve thought more and more about my slow project, I’ve become increasingly interested in think about how to document the process of field work. I realize that there are fine archaeological ethnographies already exist, and I have neither the time, training, or interest to document every movement a field team makes as they document a survey unit. That being said, I am curious where efficiencies our field work processes could occur and where it is in our best interest to create incentives to slow down our field processes in the name of greater nuance and analytical value. While I recognize that an approach that seeks to quantify the value of time and efficiency during a field day or a field season evokes dreaded efficiency studies, I do wonder how carefully we have considered how long it takes for a project or a site to negotiate the complexities of an archaeological workflow.  

Of course, I recognize that not all technological innovation in archaeology promises efficiencies. Some technologies offer ways to collect data more accurately and consistently, whereas others facilitate the presentation of data by producing easily interpreted images or tables. These types of technology do not in themselves improve efficiency in the field or in the interpretation, but they allow us to recognize archaeological patterns. What I want to understand is how an object, survey unit, a stratigraphic unit, or a trench, makes its way from field observation to published analysis. 

2. Bakken Research and the Speed of Academia. I’ve been anxious since the work began to spread that layoffs were hitting the Bakken. From the start, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has looked ahead to documenting the abandonment of workforce housing in the Bakken counties. At present, however, we don’t have the funding necessary to complete a full field season. More than that, it’s difficult to imagine how we could get the funding together necessary for more than short term field trips. The funding cycles even at a relatively small university like UND tend to run over the course of years rather than weeks or months.

More than that, the modern academic research is busy. We fill our schedule with conference, papers, deadlines, and classes. Our institutions reward work that requires advanced planning and commitment, so it is difficult to drop everything and race out west. In contrast, as the price of oil drops, workforce in the Bakken is a liability for large multinational companies that rely on maintaining profit margins to reward investors and remain competitive. For the workers, there is little incentive to hang around North Dakota during the winter where life becomes more difficult and the opportunities outside of extractive industries few and far between. Since many live in RVs or pay high monthly rents rather than long term leases, staying on in the Bakken as hours and opportunities decline has no appeal. The Bakken can ramp down in weeks, but it’s impossible for a modern research project to ramp up over the same amount of time.

My colleague Richard Rothaus spent a day out west and checked on some of our long-term study sites. He noted that some of the larger camps have significant vacancies and captured an evocative video of an abandoned RV. He and I will talk at greater length about what he saw out west when we record next week’s podcast on Saturday, and I’ll finally make my way back to the Bakken the first week of March with the hope that I can manage a couple of days of field work.

3. Slow. This past week, North Dakota Quarterly volume 80, number 2 came out. I co-edited this volume with Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and it’s dedicated to exploring the slow movement. I’ve posted on this rather extensively over the past year or so, so I won’t go into great detail, but there are compelling essays on the slow teaching movement, the slow church, and ways to simplify life to gain better focus on things that matter.  

Front Cover 802


I’d urge anyone who is interested to subscribe to the Quarterly here or drop me a line and I’ll send along my slow archaeology contribution.  

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