Friday Varia and Quick Hits

We are well and truly into the springtime thaw season. Our backyard has become a small version of the once-mighty Lake Agassiz and every puddle hold the prospect of slippy little patch of ice.


Despite the sloppy weather, this weekend has lots of fun in store. The Formula 1 season starts in Melbourne. The Aussie cricket boys are preparing for the series decider in India, and there is plenty of exciting NCAA basketball action. There are books to read, papers to write, and muddy dog paws to clean. 

And, of course, a little gaggle of quick hits and varia.

This is why Milo can’t have nice things.

Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.


Writing Wednesday

The first Wednesday after spring break is always the first Wednesday of the University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference. As usual, it has a cool poster.

WCPoster 2017

It also gives me a chance to think explicitly about writing for a little while. It’s great to see writers talk about their ideas and how their creative processes work. This is something that happens all too infrequently on a college campus where most people (who aren’t devoting all of their time to worrying about the budget) are focused on doing work rather than talking about how they do their work. 

So, on my drive onto campus this morning, I got to thinking a bit about writerly things. Here is what I thought about:

1. Writing an Introduction. My buddy David Pettegrew and I are editing the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. As part of this project, we’re writing the introduction which both frames the 250,000+ word volume and the field of Early Christian archaeology for an audience that might not be familiar with this sub-field. After puttering around on the introduction for a few weeks, we decided just to write and see where things went. We produced over 25,000 words in about two months. This will become a draft of a small book on Early Christian archaeology (we hope) and we’ll compress it down into 8,000 words for an introduction.

When we adopted this strategy, we (or maybe just I thought): “How hard could this be?”

The answer is: really hard.

2. 90% Reading/10% Writing. In a little article for Forbes, Sarah Bond related that she had always been told to spend 90% of time reading and 10% of her time writing. This doesn’t seem like good advice (and I don’t want to suggest that Sarah was advocating for this). After all, as a working academic who might only spend half of their week (let’s pretend 20 hours) doing research, this would amount to a paltry 2 hours a week dedicated to writing. This seems hardly enough to develop the skills necessary to construct convincing (much less pleasing) argument. In fact, I would think that 2 hours a DAY might still be a bit on the short side to develop any serious writerly chops. I average about 15 hours per week writing and probably about the same reading (for research). It would seem to me that a 50/50 split is better.

3. Editing and Writing. As part of my graduate historiography course this semester, I’ve asked the students to produce some kind of manifesto or “statement” on studying history and as graduate students in history. I then hope to make it available for public comments. I largely let the students manage their own production of this document intending to contribute some comments when the text was largely set.

As sometimes happens, though, students did not entirely get along during the process and one student was offended by the way another student edited her work. This is normal, of course. I can vividly recall going back and forth with David Pettegrew over a few sentences in something that we wrote together. He’d change it one way, and I’d change it back, and then he’d change it back. After doing this 20 or 30 times, one of us gave in. I don’t really remember who.

Thinking about how to respond to this little conflict, I got to thinking about the role of the editor in writing. An editor can hear how your voice should sound, while the writer hears their voice as they want it to sound. Neither of these are “wrong,” but I can’t recall an editor ever making my work worse. To be a good editor, though, you have to communicate well. An offended writer will struggle to hear how their voice should sound and will sometimes become more stubbornly committed to how it sounds in their own head.

4. Citations. I really sucks at citations. I’m going through page proofs for an article now, and it appear that, when in doubt, I just wrote a random author’s name and a random date after it. It’s really remarkable that editors put up with stuff like that. What is the matter with me?

Preliminary Thoughts on Digital Practices in Archaeology

Before you read my blog today, head over to Shawn Graham’s Electric Archaeologist and check out his critique of my idea of slow archaeology. I agree with 98% of what Shawn writes in his post; in fact, I started writing the following post prior to reading his. You’ll not that it is not a perfect response, but that’s ok.

I’ve been trying to systematize my ideas about digital archaeology in light of recent (and largely deserved) critiques of slow archaeology (for my most recent and formal publication on this, go here; for a bit of an idea how my ideas developed incrementally go here (and read this here)). This is just kind of a draft of ideas, but maybe it’s a helpful way to organize my own thinking moving forward.

The critiques that have stung the most are not that I’m some kind of Luddite archaeology with my dumpy level and notebook, but that slow archaeology by appropriating the popular “slow” moniker carried with it the elitist baggage of the slow food movement or the hipster movement or whatever. From my privileged position as a tenured professor with a number of successful (let’s say) field projects under my belt, I’m changing the rules of the game when I preach the benefits of archaeological practices that privilege reflexive practice over systematic “data collection” and digital analysis. Shawn Graham delicately hints that this kind of rhetorical posturing could represent a kind of gate-keeping that excludes a vast number of good, working archaeologists who spend their days interpreting data, racing before the bulldozers in salvage projects, or living hand to mouth as an adjunct professor.

Of course, this critique horrified me!  I have always considered my interests in digital archaeology as much a work toward ethical practices as methodologies. What has become clear to me at this point is that my ideas of slow archaeology and my critiques of digital practices have become pretty muddled (probably because I’ve been working them out in a very public way at conference, on this blog, and in conversations).

Here’s another effort to systematize my ideas and to bring to the fore the ethical issues not so much in response to Shawn’s critiques, but as a kind of counterpoint that argues for slow archaeology as an reflexive archaeology of care as much as prescriptive set of practices. 

My interest in digital archaeology centers three key, but interrelated issues. To my mind (right now), each of these has their own issues related to them, but also overlap with other categories in meaningful ways. A slow archaeology – or whatever – would represent a critique that runs through all of these categories.

1. Ethics of Access.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for an AIA panel where I basically said that the digital revolution (or whatever) was pretty uneven in archaeology. Big projects could afford big, bespoke digital systems and small and midsized projects tended to use off-the-shelf solutions in ad hoc and DIY ways. At the time, I think that I imagined that this was a pretty disturbing revelation to many people (and in the spirit of Punk Archaeology). Small projects, in my mind, represented the future of archaeological work because, to my mind at the time, disciplinary and economic realities had long ago eroded the preeminence of large projects in our field.

In hindsight, I probably underestimated the degree to which big projects have set the standard for small and mid-sized projects. For example, my little project, PKAP, used a version of the Corinth Manual as a our field manual and adapted databases that had been in use for decades earlier on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS).

Despite these reservations, I continue to think that access to digital tools remains a crucial concern. In the most obvious way, we can talk about how digital tools tend to be developed among wealthier academic projects in the Mediterranean and South America rather than local archaeologists (who, as we all know, innovate in different ways). At a conference once, a colleague once said (with a bit of a wry smile) that projects that couldn’t afford iPad maybe shouldn’t be doing field work. This was directed at academic excavators and there is maybe a kernel of truth there, but most archaeological projects in the world today still do not use tablets or iPads for economic and historical reasons. In fact, the rather lavishly funded (by global standards) archaeological project in Greece, the Western Argolid Regional Project, does not use iPad, in part, because we thought that the expense of maintaining iPad for 6 or 7 field teams over a 3-year season and attendant infrastructure was too high. 

Issues of access take on a more dire cast when we consider the extreme example of how digital technologies bring the tools of the surveillance state to our discipline with all of the panoptic exclusivity that this entails. At its most extreme, we have projects using drones and satellites taking images to track the progress of looting in war torn regions. At its most mundane, we’re talking about projects using “inexpensive” drones that allow archaeologists to map out landscapes in a ways that are both arresting and invasive.

New tools from iPads to drones are shaping both explicit models of “best practice” and our disciplinary expectations in ways that embrace both the spirit and costs of technological solutionism.

An ethics of access considers how uneven levels of technological knowledge and expertise functions at the level of the dig. For example, we all know projects where senior project directors don’t really “get” the database or the GIS and this has a significant impact on how the project is run on both a day-to-day level and over time. The fragmentation of digital data (as I’ll discuss later) quite literally reinforces the fragmentation of archaeological expertise which is both a vital part of the larger professionalization process of the discipline, but also challenge and a barrier for any model of knowledge production that seeks to synthesize specialist knowledge to produce holistic or totalizing views of the past. As professionalization is – first and foremost – an ethical concern, the transparency and compatibility of various forms of specialist knowledge, whether mediated by digital practices or not, intersect vitally with issues of access.   

Finally, there are also issues of who and how much access the “public” has to our data especially when projects are funded from pubic funds.

It seems to me that these are all issues of access that are not exclusively digital (after all access to material has always been a key aspect of archaeological knowledge making), but have emerged with particular vividness in discussions of digital technologies in the discipline.

2. Ethics of Process

I originally wanted to call this the “ethics of practice,” but I supposed that issues of access are important elements of practice as well. What I’m really trying to get at with this the issue of process is how digital technology has shaped the process of knowledge making in the field. I think this is where Mobilizing the Past has made the greatest contribution and where my views on things are both most out of sync with the field, but also perhaps least clever.

With slow archaeology, I tried to argue that digital tools are transforming how we produce knowledge “at the trowels edge.” The application of slow archaeology to this process was not to tell archaeologists that digital practices were bad, but to encourage archaeologists to think reflexively about digital technologies. This largely grew out of an anxiety that there are folks who want to see digital technologies as “tools” that are somehow value neutral or who offer a simple cost/benefit binary as a the best way to understand the adoption of a particular technology. In the most simplistic application of this “toolbox” mentality, digital technologies replace existing “analogue” archaeological practices with a cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient alternative. This level of methodology is not very helpful to my mind because the “tools” we use shape the knowledge we create.

On the other hand, I probably pushed the argument too far when I started to become overly fixated on archaeological knowledge making as a holistic or somehow integrative process from the first day of planning to the final publication. Of course, viewing archaeology “holistically” (or systemically?) is important, but I suspect that my tendency to understand the entire process of archaeological work as irreducible caused me problems. Archaeologists have long devoted critical attention to the various phases in the larger interpretative project, and practical attention to how technology transforms these processes is vital to understanding how the discipline is changing.

As folks know, I see most of how we talk about digital technology being shaped by either industrial practices like Taylorism or the empiricism of New Archaeology. Both of these things tend to like to fragment archaeological processes in the field and in analysis and interpretation, and I see a parallel between these processes and the way digital technology fragments data. Maybe there’s a parallel between Wheelerian pixelization of archaeological sites into Wheeler boxes and open area excavations?

The role of Latorian “black boxing” contributes to the ethics of process in archaeology (as well as to issues of access) and real conversations about how much control over archaeological processes digital technologies offer and how fragmented we make our sites remain of interest to me. How do we understand the dense networks of technology, interpretative assumptions, historical practices, and objects creating archaeological knowledge?

Perhaps the ethical issues, for me at least, involving the use of digital technology in archaeological processes center on how we talk about these technologies. I do not see archaeology as reducible to a series of practices and tools grounded in efficiency, accuracy, and economy. I am not even sure that I see archaeology grounded in the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” (although that does play a part). After all, we regularly make ethical decisions in practice and on a disciplinary level that do not require such proof. We don’t need to prove, for example, that greater gender balance in projects produces better results, for example.

So for me, (and this is why some of these critiques have stung a bit), slow archaeology or critical attention to processes and practices is not simply about producing better results, but about producing a better, more inclusive, and more reflexive discipline. 

3. Pulling Apart Publication

So if an ethics of process asks archaeologists to pull apart archaeological practices in the field to understand how both current and longstanding technologies have shaped archaeological knowledge, pulling apart the publication asks archaeologists to think about how the same digital tools will challenge how we understand the boundary between the published and the unpublished, the public and the private, and the provisional and the final.

I think the same pressures that have fragmented archaeological knowledge production at the digital trowel’s edge are fragmenting publications as well. For example, platforms such as Open Context are highly specialized and the needs for a project to present different kinds of data within particular technological contexts will continue, I suspect to drive a kind of specialization within publishing. I am really excited about Eric Kansa’s idea of slow data as step toward conceptualizing digital publishing in practical and ethical ways. 

I think there is some interesting cross pollination between folks working on the history of the book (I was particularly intrigued by Laura Mandell’s Breaking the Book (2015), but she essentially summarized a vast (and intimidating) body of recent scholarship that has located the book (and the scholarly article as well) at the intersection of particular historical, social, cultural, and technological circumstances (which I know can be said of anything)). But Mandell’s point (among many) is that the nature of the book itself produces a kind of authority. It’s physical shape, the role of publishers, authors, and even copyright promoted the integrity of the book or article as as source of authority.

Without becoming one of those people who call everything revolutionary or disruptive, I do think that digital practices will lead us – particularly in technical publications – to publish our work in different ways as we look to adapt the concept of publication to the structural strengths of digital technologies. Maybe this will allay Shawn’s concern that by adopting the concept of “slow” from the slow food movement that we are advocating a kind of anti-technological or worse intentionally impractical approach to archaeological knowledge or attempting to drive a wedge between “digital archaeologists” and “analogue archaeologists.” Nothing could be further from the truth! At its core, slow archaeology is nothing more than a targeted rebranding of long-standing conversations in archaeological methodology and reflexive practices. Slow offered a convenient foil to calls for increased efficiency and speed so closed aligned with dominant narrative of technological solutionism and the speed of capitalism.    


Mid-Career Mentoring

This past week, I got a seemingly innocent survey asking me about my research productivity. It was circulated by our Vice President of Research and asked a series of question about what it is that we do as humanities scholars in terms of our research and creative activities. I suspect that some of this has to do with our current budget crisis at the University of North Dakota, and a renewed desire to distribute resources in a way that has the greatest impact. 

[For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3, and part 4.]

One of the final questions in the survey asked broadly about obstacles that have impeded my work. I responded that the distance between North Dakota to Greece and Cyprus slowed my research, and my limited and diminishing pool of energy. I simply can’t work they way that I worked as a graduate student or early career faculty member. I suspect that anyone who does work in a foreign country and, you know, is getting older experiences these same obstacles. At the same time, I was struck by my inability to adapt to these problems and, perhaps more importantly, not really knowing what to do to move forward professionally.

To be clear, I have plenty of ideas, projects, and academic hobbies. I even suspect that many of them are “impactful,” but I also realize that everyone has ideas, priorities, and projects and some faculty are simply more effective than others at managing competing priorities of their discipline, university, and department. I think that the current budget crisis is adding even a greater level of complication to those of us struggling to chart our paths forward professionally. Most of us at UND will have to change what we do and how we do it both in terms of research expectations and productivity and teaching and service strategies.

As mid-career faculty, we’re in a particular bind. On the one hand, we’ve invested in particular paths that usually carried us through tenure. Maybe we’re working on our second major project or setting out lines in several different directions to see what is the most productive moving forward. Generally speaking we know our craft better than when we started our jobs and we’re capable of handling more teaching, research, and service challenges. On the other hand, we have more pressures and temptations and distractions from opportunities from disciplinary or campus leadership, collaborations with other scholars, and we’re often laden with ideas for projects, methods, and approaches. While this should make us more nimble and adaptable, I wonder whether if that kind of dynamism is designed to thrive in stable environments where a certain amount of wasted diffusion of energy can be accommodated within the system as productive and creative waste. (As an example from the corporate world, when times were fat, Google could offer their famous 20% program where employees with a certain level of seniority could invest one day a week into some experimental project. As the company has felt more and more pressures (and greater expectations of profits), this program has been curtailed). So things like budget pressures, strategical planning, and instability across campus which ripple outward to affect disruptions to funding, to departmental life, and even to university culture, impact mid-career faculty in certain ways. They push us to be more narrowly productive and focused (with less productive waste) and they challenge professional habits and tendencies toward risk taking developed under certain expectations. So, at a time when campus needs innovation, faculty feel pressure to fail less and take fewer risks. 

This is a complicated place to be and one that would benefit from a kind of campus wide mentoring program to help faculty feeling this bind to refocus and find the most productive way to adapt to new professional realities.

To be clear, I’m not asking for some kind of professional hand-holding. I get that we’re hired because we can do our jobs. I also think, however, that we are living in a very dynamic period in higher education filled with opportunities and challenges that did not exist even just a few year earlier. The temptations of the digital age, the pressures to collaborate, changing expectations from administrators, legislators, and students, and a rapidly evolving funding landscape have have complicated our work. Moreover, our digitally mediated professional lives have increasingly pulled us away from our on-campus colleagues. For example, I work largely from home on days when I don’t have classes, meetings, or office hours and many of my colleagues do the same thing. The opportunities for casual conversations in the hallways have diminished and most of our conversations are less about long term professional issues and more about “shooting the wolf closest to the sled.” 

As the university looks forward to doing more with less, there remains real questions about how to best do this. Some of the responsibilities will fall to administrators who have to identify priorities and distribute remaining resources in a strategic way. Some of it will fall to faculty to sort their situations out, chart their own way, and take advantage of the new situation. But if we really want to do things differently, this is something that has to happen from both ends (administrative and faculty) toward the middle and we both need to working toward these new approaches.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

We’re looking forward to another balmy early spring weekend here in North Dakotaland with temperatures kissing 50 degrees by Sunday afternoon. While I’m sure we’ll throw something on the old Weber, our eyes will be tuned to the television as the Mighty Spiders wend their way through the NIT and the rest of the basketballing elite play in the NCAA brackets. The Fighting Hawks of the University of North Dakota lost by 18 to Arizona in their first ever appearance. But if you consider that they could have scored 12% more points if not for recent budget cuts, they would have lost by a more respectable 8. On the other side of the world, I was pretty happy to see Glenn Maxwell score his maiden test century in conditions well-suited to his style of play and Steve Smith’s 178 not out is a reminder of why he is he best test batsman in the world.

So enjoy the weekend wherever you are and also enjoy this little list of quick hits and varia:

IMG 0518Spring Break Writing Companions.

The University of North Dakota Writers Conference

As winter struggles to give way to spring here on the Northern Plains, it means that it is time for the annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference. Started in 1970 as a gathering called the Southern Writers Conference of the Arts, the annual gathering of writers and readers has now gained nationally renown and is the clear highlight of the late winter in North Dakota.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Citizen” and it brings together a particularly diverse group of authors from across the United States to offer readings, to screen films, to conversate at lunchtime panels dedicated to topics of “refuge,” “community,” and “voices,” and to reflect on the use of “hydrogels for hands on learning.

Check out the featured authors here and the schedule as well.

The Writers Conference is sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the North Dakota Humanities Council (which receives its funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities). In light of this week’s announcement that these two programs are set to be cut from the 2018 federal budget, I suspect that this year’s conference will have some added intensity as the gathered writers and readers reflect on the topic of the citizen in a potential world without publicly funded arts and humanities.

Please do plan to attend!

And, if you can’t, do check out the growing digital archive of past conferences

Some Updates from The Digital Press

For the first time in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I have multiple books in multiple stages of production. It would be pretty intense if I didn’t have a great group of collaborators helping to keep all the balls in the air. The magic of a cooperative press is that many hands make light work. 

The project that I’m most immediately invested in at present is preparing the publication of an excavation manual. As several of my trusted advisors have pointed out to me, publishing an excavation manual is not something that happens very frequently. Usually, manuals are in-house documents circulated on a project to maintain consistency and rigor and, if they are made available to the public, it is without the trappings of formal publication. This is a fine and practical approach to making a project’s methodological assumptions available to the people most deeply involved in work, but it falls short of the level of disciplinary transparency that archaeology has come to embrace in recent decades. Certain, particularly thorough, manuals deserve publication as benchmarks against which changes in the field can be measured. 

In any event, publishing a field manual is tricky for lots of technical reasons. First and foremost, there is a demand for legibility both in paper and digital formats. I image this kind of document being read on phones, tablets, and in ratty paper copies strewn about workrooms. I decided to set the book in Lucida Bright at 10 points with headings being san serif Lucida Sans. Technical terms that refer to specific fields in databases or on various forms are in Lucida Small Caps. The font is BIG for clarity and the margins are generous to accommodate sweaty and dirty hands and notes. They also allow for me to put section numbers in the margins to allow a reader to find a reference section quickly without flipping back and forth to find where one is in the book.

CEM 3 12 1 01

CEM 3 12 2 01

The fussiest part about this kind of publication are the various illustrations and tables and the absence of long text blocks. I’ve been struggling to balance the need for variation in font sizes. Below is a draft of a very busy page. I’m not sure that I have it all right, but I think it’s headed in the right direction.

CEM 6 1

 As per usual, feedback of any kind is much appreciated.

As for the other two projects at The Press right now, I’ve blogged about one before. This is Micah Bloom’s Codex. You can get to know this project here. Right now we have eight short, but incisive essays in copy editing and two more on the way. The book design is being handled by Micah Bloom himself and some students at Minot State University, and I’ve been told its well underway. This project is complicated because rather than being just one book, it’s actually three. An archival, color, print copy, reproduced at a very high level and for very limited circulation, a free digital download, and a trade paperback which will be different from the color print copy but a more affordable and accessible way to get into the wondrous world of Codex.

Codex covers i copy

Codex cover digital press no micah

The final project is perhaps the most exciting and the most rapidly approaching (like a run-away freight train!). As local readers of this blog know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic Red River flood of 1997. This flood wrecked Grand Forks and prior to Hurricane Katrina required the largest peace-time evacuation in U.S. history. The memories of the flood remains quite vivid and raw for many in the community, and, despite the resurgence of Grand Forks in the two decades since the water retreated, there remains an ambivalence about the memory of the flood. This year a group of advanced students in the writing, editing, and publishing program here at UND have been putting together a book that brings new material and documents together about the flood under the guidance of David Haeselin. Dave and his students are doing great work so far and we’re looking forward to presenting a teaser for the book early in April.

In the meantime, I’ll put up a couple of cover mock ups and provisional titles just to keep you curious:


Haunted by Waters


Reflection on High Water 2

Tourism, Enclosure, and Extractive Industries

About a year ago I submitted a manuscript to a university press that purports to be a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch. Longtime readers might remember some of the posts here that fed into this project, and while my publisher wanted me to pull down most of the content produce prior to writing the book, I’m still producing content.

This weekend I read big chunks of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard 2011). It’s really good. The book made me understand some things about my own work that I probably didn’t get when I wrote my tourist guide. It’s not enough to make me want my manuscript back, but enough to make me want to start to build a new scaffolding around that texts that makes it less “clever” and make more sense.

(I have to admit that I was too enamored by the gimmick of a tourist guide and its quaint generic conventions, and not thoughtful enough about what I was trying to do with the genre and the gimmick.)

Nixon brought to my attention work by Jamaica Kincaid, Njabulo Ndebele, and June Jordan, who explicitly connected tourism with practices of exclusion (and race). For my purposes, I’m more interested in the link between tourism, exclusion, and labor. Tourist resorts in the Caribbean and game lodges in South Africa each depend upon practices associated with exclusion. They not only limited where tourists can (or should) go but also hides from sight the places set aside for the labor that allows for tourists to have a tidy experience. Tourists, in effect, come to place and extract from it an experience built in part upon local labor (or, in some cases, natural beauty). Moreover, tourists are short term visitors who arrive, are shuttled to their destination, and whose encounter with their environment is strictly managed.

In my tourist guide, I make an effort to reframe our encounter with the Bakken as tourism but I’m not sure that I understood how deep these parallels extended. Workforce comes to the Bakken to extract oil and in doing so encounters the landscape and the place in a strictly managed way. The worker in the Bakken experiences the partitioned encounter between the secure confines of workforce housing and the clearly delimited worksite. In many cases, the worker has very little to do with the relatively unstructured world of longterm residents in the Bakken counties. As with most extractive industries, the workers engagement with the landscape leaves both physical scars and waste as well as social disruption in its wake. To be fair, the oil industry in the Bakken also provides wealth and opportunities to the communities that it impacts, but these opportunities come at a cost of dependence on outside capital and workforce at least for the foreseeable future. And since transnational oil companies do not come to North Dakota (or anywhere) to share their revenues, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the communities impacted by the Bakken boom are left better off than they were prior to the most recent boom. Evidence for this comes from communities impacted by extractive industries around the world  which have shared only unevenly in the benefits of oil and shouldered most of the short and longterm environmental, economic, and social burdens. The controversial protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the recent budget short falls (and ensuing fiscal chaos) at the state level clearly point in this direction. 

The same, of course, can be said about tourism. The tourism industry thrives on the low labor costs, neatly managed (and insulated) experiences, and outside capital. The social, economic, and political costs of this structured dependency are well known.

Chronicling Budget Cuts: Narrating Institutional Memory in the 21st century

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts thinking about the recent round of budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Go read part 1part 2, and part 3 if you find this interesting.

One of the little things that working on the Bakken oil boom has taught me is that history is awkwardly situated to deal with the 21st century. Historians have long preferred to think of themselves as working in the “long present,” but the speed of change (and capital) in the 21st century has pushed us to think harder and work faster to keep relevant. Our long-standing practice of deliberate reading and our veneration for documents feels upset by the ephemeral blur of digital communication and the decentralization of media. If the speed of the present and the distributed and ephemeral nature of historical evidence aren’t challenges enough, we are also beset by a crisis of agency which has opened the door to objects, people, groups, even such abstractions as the environment and time has exerting agential weight in the construction of the future. As someone with largely philological training and still prone to look to the “Classics” to understand the two centuries worth of modernity, the changes have been bewildering. 

That being said, history has to adapt, and I’ve got to thinking that the budget crisis at the University of North Dakota offers an opportunity to figure out how our discipline can move at the speed of the present. The current (and by current, I mean the last couple of years) budget crisis offers a few key challenges and opportunities.

1. Evidence. The body of evidence explaining the budget cuts is highly distributed and ephemeral. Last week, for example, each division and college released another round of draft versions of their budgets here. But this clearly is not an archival location (and these are the second drafts of their budgets; I have copies of the first drafts, but I’m not entirely sure that they are still available publicly). These are pretty basic documents, but I’d struggle to find the budgets released just a year ago (although I’m sure it’s possible) for the first round of budget cuts. Moreover, these “official” documents only tell part of the story.

A simple search of my email for the word “budget” has produced thousands of documents and the prospect of a public records request to the institution for, say, all of the President Schafer’s and President Kennedy’s emails on budget cuts would produce literally thousands more. This is not even considering the correspondence at the level of the deans and departments and divisions, and various documents – minutes, agendas, memos, and the like – that spew forth from complex institutions on a daily basis.

More essential yet is a recording of the human cost of budget cuts. Since the “cutting time” began last year, there have been heartbreaking testimonials offered at public fora, outbursts at faculty senate meetings, and innumerable stories, anxieties, and conversations in the hallways, offices, and conference rooms across campus. Particularly high-profile stories sometimes appear in the media, but most of the impact of budget cuts on individuals do not make it into the Grand Forks Herald or an official email.

Fortunately, there are easy – and anonymous – ways to collect the stories of the budget crisis. One of my favorite digital history projects of the past decade was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank which used Omeka to collect people’s stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. Similar projects have used Omeka to document the stories of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, and the developers of Omeka have shown a strong awareness of the need to protect user anonymity

The trick is with any project like this to get people to contribute.

2. The Narratives. Producing a body of evidence will not be enough, of course. Individuals will have to take on the task of using this evidence to produce narratives of the budget cutting process. There will not be just one story, and it will not be a story that can accommodate all sources of evidence. From the perspective of historical methodology, the immediacy of the crisis, our commitment to institutions and individuals, and our larger view of the goal of higher education and the state will undoubtedly shape the kinds of stories that we can tell.

The plurality of voices, stories, and perspectives is the key strength of a project like this. As a historian, I recognize that our values and commitments appear through how we speak about the past both informally and as professional practitioners. By navigating, however selectively, the deluge of evidence, we present more than simply a view on how the budget cuts happened, but we seek to identify the key moments in the process and outcomes that we hope will shape future considerations. Historians, through analyzing the record of complex events, produce a template for future actions. Identifying through analysis and narrative, the problems and successes within the process will shape the future.

3. Memory and Forgetting. As I began to mull a project like this over in my head, I looked around for recent models that presented university budget cuts as more than simply a policy and planning issue. I wanted something that introduced a more open-ended and multi-vocal oral history or even ethnography to budget cuts in higher education and didn’t find much in my admitted hasty literature search.

What struck me is how crucial institutions and institutional records are to the process of remembering and forgetting things like the trauma associated with budget cuts. Laws and rules ensure that policy decisions get recored carefully and archived in their overwhelming detail, but the human cost is often lost to the informality of the moment. As a result, budget cuts appear in the administrative record as impersonal policy decisions without the complexities of their human cost. This is an intended consequence, of course, of institutional work. It occludes pain and emotional through the rationality of its structure, and while this structure is necessary, as a historian, I can’t help but think that our responsibility is to complicate the neatness of administrative authority.

The additional benefit of the personal side of budget cuts is that they can make the massive deluge of administrative evidence legible for the future. In effect, the personal side of budget cuts can curate the administrative evidence by marking those documents that had an impact on individuals within the university community. This curation would function as a way to ensure that we both narrate and remember the unfolding of the budget crisis in a way that will inform future decisions both in North Dakota and elsewhere, communicate the human cost to a wider audience, and make the experience of the budget cuts accessible to a future generation.

Finally, years ago, I wrote a history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, and it was very much an institutional history. The reason for this is that the university archives are a trove of administrative documents, but preserve very little in the way of personal encounters with UND’s campus, institutions, and individuals. This is both sad and rectifiable, but we have to think of our experiences at UND as contributing to the history and fabric of the place. This involve being proactive and making sure that they are recorded, curated, and narrated.

If you’re interested in being part of a project to document the budget cuts at UND, drop me a line here or on social media or over email. You know how to find me.