Surviving Sabbatical: Tourism, Landscapes, and The American West

The last two weeks have been a little rough and awkward here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarter. I spent much of the first 7 months of sabbatical juggling projects and trying to get enough project’s going so that I can roll them out gradually over the next 4 or 5 years. This was fun and exciting the way that new projects are always fun and exciting (or at least more fun and exciting than old projects).

Unfortunately, over the last couple weeks, I’ve had this feeling that I need to finishing something. Two articles are in the able hands of a co-writer, my PKAP 2 manuscript is probably close to being ready for our last field season, and contributors should be receiving their contracts for an edited volume sometime soon. None of these projects (barring a remarkable outburst of productivity from one particular, delay-prone coauthor… ahem, hint, hint) are likely to be completed before I return to my teaching duties. 

And then there’s the other project. On my first sabbatical, I decided right about this time of year to write a paper called “Dream Archaeology.” This paper is still in process in various forms and has been given as an invited lecture a few times. It was fun to work on, but never really matured into something publishable at a top tier journal. This sabbatical, it’s the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch, and I am committed to making this manuscript happen and it not becoming the next “Dream Archaeology” paper.

So this week I wrote a book proposal for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch, and my current plan is to submit it to Left Coast Press by the end of the month (I was trying to decide whether I should mention where I’m sending the proposal, but figured that it couldn’t do any harm, right?). I’m also working on revising a few of the chapters that can easily engoodened so that the press will receive something close to a complete manuscript for a short book (ca. 30,000 words). To do that, I’m targeting three things:

1. Landscapes. This project started as a landscape project. I love driving through the Bakken. In fact, driving through the Bakken is almost as involving for me as walking along a road or path in the Greek countryside (almost!). Like an American suburb, the Bakken is meant to be driven, and by driving along its main arteries or dusty side roads, we become part of the Bakken oil boom itself. My heroic truck blends in among the other working trucks, semis, and equipment rigs. The blurs of pipes, tanks, trailers, drilling and workover rigs (thanks, Chad!), construction projects, shelter belts, and distant farms reinforces the idea that the Bakken is both a modern non-place (in that some of the features in the landscape could be transported anywhere or could appear almost anywhere in the world) and deeply rooted in a specific place, history, and topography (not to mention the geology of shale oil and the Bakken). This intersection between the profoundly modern and the local makes the Bakken landscape compelling both as a general commentary on our contemporary world and as a moment of historical significance for North Dakota and the American West.

2. Tourism. In a fit of hubris, I decided that I could not only write a tourist guide, but also write about tourism. I felt that my time as a tourist in Greece, Cyprus, Australia, and places in the U.S. qualified me as a regular consumer of tourist literature and travel guides to engage in writing one. I think that my guide is a respectable imitation of such tourist staples as the Blue Guide or Baedekers. At the same time, my reading of a few of the classic Federal Writers Project accounts of western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and elsewhere gave me another point of reference for my project. Considering the literary luminaries who wrote for that program (and, significantly, my addiction to adverbs in particular), I can only say that I tried to writing in their spirit.  

Writing about tourism, however, was clearly a bridge too far. First off, the amount of literature on tourism is staggering (scholars of tourism need tenure too, it would appear), and even such marginal practices as “dark tourism,” “toxic tourism,” and “poorism” (the organized touring of poor and disadvantaged communities). Next, the conceptual frameworks for tourism are wide-ranging from the structuralism of Dean Maccannell to the post-modern critiques offered by John Urry and Tim Edensor.  Some of this stuff is pretty straight forward, but I feel like using tourist studies to understand landscapes (and how we in the modern world construct landscapes) in a critical way will be a massive challenge. Not only has modern tourism (whether industrial, toxic, eco, or otherwise) played a role in how we see modern landscapes, but it has also contributed to issues of heritage, archaeology (of the modern world), and conservation practices. It is pretty clear that I’m out of my depth here.

3. The American West. In my first year at UND, a bunch of us met with our dean of arts and sciences at the time. As per usual, there was a low grade panic about lack of current funds, lack of future funding, and the impossibility of compensating for previous lack of funds. When the dean asked us about our research plans for the next half decade, I muttered something about needing a local project that is relatively more insulated from financial vagaries of both local and federal funding agencies. While I’ve been lucky enough to keep funding for my foreign projects going, I’ve also worked to develop some very basic scholarly understanding of the American West and North Dakota history. I’d say that I have an advanced undergraduate knowledge of these fields.

For the Tourist Guide, I’ve had to bolster this a bit more by expanding my reading into the history of extractive industries in the West and their ambivalent relationships with communities dependent on these industries and struggling with costs of this kind of development once the extractive processes stop being fiscally viable. Some communities recognize the extractive industries as part of their history and seek to celebrate this heritage. Others have seen extractive industries as a kind of cautionary tale that requires constant revision to reinforce the critical links between industry, settlement, and the environment. This tensions can produce stories that are neither mutually exclusive nor overly complex, but this requires attention to nuance and narrative grounded in a sweeping understanding of Western and environmental history. Telling one story or the other is a far more simple task (and one that I’m probably more qualified to undertake) than trying to tell both at the same time.

So, I head to Cyprus in about 6 weeks and then I have another month or so when I get home (interrupted by family visits and another field work trip to the Bakken) to get my feet under me on these issues. Seems like this will probably be another one of those shaky sabbatical projects that lingers around my productive world like a bad smell…

One Comment

  1. Potentially of interest (re: tourism and the American West)?


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