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.

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