Three Things Wednesday: Fake News, Grass Kings, and NDQ

This week has ended up being a bit more hectic than I wanted, but it’s a good kind of hectic — a dry hectic, and when better for a good kind of hectic than the weeks running into the start of the academic year. So, today will just be three quick things that are hanging about my head as I gain momentum heading into the new semester.

1. Scale-Up and “Fake News.” One of the things that I’ll miss this fall (and this year) is teaching in UND’s large “Scale-Up” style classroom. I’m starting to work on ways to scale-down my large History 101 survey classes from 150-180 students to closer to 40 or 50 students. At the same time, I’m starting to think a little about how recent concerns about “fake news” could offer an interesting critical foil to how we think about the past. This could be further fueled by the reissue of James Loewen’s modern classical Lies My Teacher Told Me this fall.

There seems increasingly to be two views of the past: one is true and the other is fake. Anyone who knows anything about studying history realizes, of course, that our reading of the past is rarely (I’d contend never) black and white, and always shades of grey. This realization, however, isn’t really the problem. The problem is how do we arrange our shades of grey into a coherent image of the past. Any given issue might be fake or true, but the onus on the critic should always be oriented toward the relationship between a given point (or points) and our larger image of the past. 

Approaching the past in this way does two things. First, it shifts the conversation from authority (i.e. we know this thing because we trust this person) to argument (i.e. we know this thing because it makes sense). And, secondly, it emphasizes the causal relationship between events in the past and perspectives from the present. We’re constantly aware as historians how our own view of the past requires cohesion that is grounded in present understanding. Historians (and archaeologists) know this, of course, but I think that we sometimes forget to teach this to our students. 

2. Grass Kings. My buddy Kostis Kourelis sent my a copy of Matt Kindt’s and Tyler Jenkins’s graphic novel Grass Kings (2018) this past week. I’ve only started it, but one thing stands out to me. The plot revolves around the tension between the denizens of an autonomy trailer park kingdom (the Grass Kingdom) and the nearby town of Cargill. So far, the book has been a meditation on what it means to be free and what day-to-day conveniences are worth sacrificing for freedom.

The most striking thing to me about the book, though, is that the Grass Kingdom consists largely of refitted trailers, RVs, and at least one houseboat (as well as some old houses). This setting should be familiar to anyone interested in near future science fiction: William Gibson’s The Peripheral is set in and about an elaborately modified Mercedes RV and a heavily insulated 1970s airstream camper. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) similarly sets part of the action in “the stacks” which is a landscape of old RVs and trailers stacked in metal frames.

This view of the future has eerie echoes of some of the conversations and experiences that I had on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The rows of RVs set up on the North Dakotan prairie represented relative freedom for the residents especially compared to the more corporate “work force housing facilities” because they could live more as they pleased enjoying company, beers, and opportunities for self expression. They also could up and leave moving their dwelling and possessions with them if greener pastures presented themselves. On the other hand, life in the cold prairie winter in an small RV designed for short-term summer excursions seems like quite a sacrifice compared to the comforts offered by housing designed for more long-term or even permanent occupation.

What is clear is that in the near future (and perhaps today) housing and freedom are intimately related.    

3. Moving NDQ. I got the email last night and it would appear this week is moving week for North Dakota Quarterly. Over the past few months things have been slowly churning forward with NDQ as we move to a new publisher, prepare volume 85 for publication, and issue 86.1 (2019). The wolf closest to the sled these days is moving NDQ to a new office down the hall from our current digs in historic Merrifield Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. The new offices are a bit smaller, but we hope to put them to good use with a pretty vigorous publication schedule planned and a revived internship program in collaboration with UND’s program in writing and editing. 

As I’ve quipped on the Twitters, most of my responsibilities at NDQ editor involve putting books in boxes and taking them out! But sometimes, I do get to celebrate the successes of our authors (and by extension, our editors)

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