Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy 2

It’s the end of the semester and I’m running on fumes. Unfortunately, my enervated state does not dictate my deadlines and the end of the semester is always a cruel juxtaposition deadlines and exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I continue to plug away at various projects with the vague hope of gaining momentum once grading is done and grades are submitted. Below is a revised version of the concluding discussion to my paper. It’s … not great, but the ideas are finally all there. I’ve been slogging on this for so long that I really need to put it aside for a bit and come back to it with a fresh editing pen and clearer eyes.

You can read the first part of the paper here. Just stop reading at the Reflections and Discussion section and come to this page.

Feedback is always welcome! 

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 or content oriented 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. We noted in particular the rise of incentive based budget models and the arguments that these models reward efficient production of outcomes and results. This emphasis on efficiency invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing at this time associated with the concept of “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. In this way, it sought to critique the role that efficiency has come to play both in archaeological methodology and across contemporary society (e.g. Alexander 2008). 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. In the late-20th and early 21st century, a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration” (McNeil 2014) has stressed the need for speed and efficiency in archaeology not only to keep pace with with development (Zorin 2015) but also to document the transformations wrought by rising sea levels and climate change. 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 super modernity (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 upkeep by dint of their age alone.

The status of the Wesley College buildings as schedule for demolition and largely abandoned created a sense of urgency in our work, but, at the same time, we understood that the university had made arrangement for a more formal documentation processes. This process, however, tended to emphasize the architectural and design elements of these buildings rather than the evidence for their everyday use. As a result, some in the preservationist community fear that formal and procedural aspects of documentation have failed to engage the emotional, social, and dynamic aspects of historic architecture (for a recent summary see: Kaufman 2019). Thus, the class’s work in these buildings offered a counterweight to archaeological and resource management approaches driven by methods or formal requirements. By starting our study of the buildings with the things left behind rather than methodology or procedures, we foregrounded the role of curiosity and interest in archaeological practices. As James Flexner has argued in his recent calls for “degrowth“ in archaeology developing practices that foreground a shared interest in the past between practitioners and the public as a way of subverting product and outcome oriented approaches to field work (Flexner 2020).

This approach resonated with the students in my class who likewise occupied a middle ground between being insiders to the college campus and as outsiders to the inner workings of the university made them particularly motivated collaborators. In fact, the entire course relied on the students’ eagerness to transgress the traditional limits of student movement on campus and enter into spaces typically reserved for faculty offices and laboratories. Students were also allowed to explore the buildings in far more physical ways than they would other buildings on campus where the administration would discourage tearing up carpets and punching holes in walls. While we often assume that college campuses are the domain of students, in reality however, university administrators and faculty often design campuses to restrict student movement. In some cases, this involves small scale barriers which delineate faculty office where students might occasionally venture, but rarely stay for long, from classroom and public spaces where campus authors expect and encourage students to gather. Campuses also contain numerous spaces accessed only by administrators, maintenance and facilities personnel, housing and dining staffs, and other specialized employees whose collective work to keep campus warm, safe, clean, and functional was kept out of public view. Students efforts to document spaces associated with service areas, faculty, staff, and departmental offices, and laboratories provided a kind of material analogue to more bureaucratic and procedural discussions that we were having in the course of the university budget.

By allowing student interests to start with the objects and spaces that they encountered in these buildings, the class anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. Witmore’s chorography foregrounded 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 Witmore 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 Witmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by super modernity. 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. Of course, 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 his 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.

In a general way, offering students access to buildings that were caught between abandonment and demolition and spaces that were both part of campus and often hidden from their view supported my unstructured pedagogy of the course and our collective decisions to eschew formal standards of archaeological documentation. The class deliberately operated at the edges of archaeological methods, expected pedagogical practices, and the history of campus itself. These conditions allowed us to understand how archaeology of the contemporary world could engage actives sites, political fraught spaces, and approaches that push the discipline of archaeology itself to reflect more deliberately on its own methods and goals. Of particular significance was how our class provided an opportunity to produce a plan that not only adapted to the character of the buildings but also the interests of the students. This allowed for priorities to develop on the fly and for the students to shift their interest seamlessly from the materiality of the buildings and the assemblage left behind in various spaces to the archives and performance.

Archaeology of the contemporary world’s attention to dynamic, active, and changing sites has invariably led to a wider range of field practices as well as a deeper engagement with stakeholders who exist outside of the traditional purview archaeology as a discipline. The sites of homeless squats, music festivals, protests encampments, and the movements of undocumented migrants often leave either intentionally ephemeral material traces. Assemblages associated with the ongoing pandemic, for example, appear to change daily or even hourly in response to community attitudes and official policies. The contingencies associated with “fast urbanism” have likewise complicated the applicability of conventional archaeological methodology and procedures to documenting complex assemblages. The various communities associated with this material also have distinct views of their own identities and their materiality that reward approaches anchored in collaboration rather than abstracted ideas of methodology and practice. My one-credit course represented an effort to explore the pedagogical potential for a collaborative archaeology of the contemporary world.

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