Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I guess I never really understood the concept of the howling wind until I moved to North Dakotaland. For the last few days, the wind has just beaten us into submission. In fact, on Tuesday, the university closed for a “ground blizzard” which was created by 40 mph winds whipping the loose snow into an impenetrable white cloud. Wednesday was so cold and blustery that a 5 minute walk from my class to my truck left me shivering uncontrollably. Things were a bit more mild last yesterday, but I was still grateful for my COVID mask, not to protect me from The Omicron, but to protect my face from the wind. This morning, while I write this, the wind continues to bluster and buffet about.

Fortunately, I’m under a blanket and by the fire as I write this and while my day and weekend will be kind of hectic, I’ll should have time to watch some playoff football, catch some of the Sixers game tonight, and wrap up production on a book. Hecks, I might even find a few hours to read something for fun. We’ll see. I don’t want to get too crazy.

I do hope you have less wind in your day and find something to enjoy in these quick hits and varia:

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Three Things Teaching Thursday

This semester is barely a week old and feels a bit more chaotic than the last two semesters which were well and truly taught under the specter of COVID. I’ve now become used to the gaggle of administrative emails cryptically informing me that some unnamed student tested positive in one (or more!) of my classes, we’ve lost a day of class to a ground blizzard (which is very “on brand” for North Dakota), and it is so cold that I’m considering wearing a quartz watch today.

Despite these challenges, I remain pretty energized by my classes and genuinely excited to teach my rather more hectic teaching load. It also has me thinking about a few issues moving forward.  

Brought to you by the letter “C”.

Thing the First

Collaboration, Cooperation, and COVID. One thing that I want to impress upon my students is the need to find collaborative ways to adapt to the COVID situation. As the rhetoric encouraging vaccinations and mask-wearing emphasizes that these are not simply good for the individual, but good for the community as well, so I’ve been encouraging my classes to think about practices that will benefit not only their own situation if and when they are stricken with COVID and have to miss class, but also will benefit others. 

There is something about our current educational system that encourages a kind of dogged individualism. While students have slowly come around to the idea that group work and collaborative learning are viable and expected approaches in college, my classes haven’t quite come to the point where they see collaboration as a way to ensure individual success.

Thing the Second

Coping with the Cold. At first, the brutal cold of the North Dakota winter is invigorating. Then, it becomes demoralizing. Last semester, I saw students struggle in ways that I had never before experienced despite declining COVID numbers and a tentative (and fleeting) return to what we imagined to be a “new normal.” This semester feels only more fraught and I worry about my students ability to keep body and soul together during the long slog of the North Dakota winter.

I also fear that I have no solutions to helping students navigate a disrupted semester. I’ll certainly be as flexible as possible, try to pace the semester in as humane a way as possible, and communicate, but I know that their time in my classes is short and only part of their complicated lives. There’s only so much I can do beyond being understanding and patient and hope that we can find a way forward. 

Thing the Third

Coopting the Classrooms. One of the best parts about the relatively new classrooms where I teach is that they’re set up for active learning. This is also one of the greatest challenges because despite the well-known benefits of active learning, I continue to be a bit behind the curve in how I teach. I still do a good bit of lecture and discussion.

One of the things that makes this hard is that instead of a central projector that shows the powerpointers on a screen behind me, the students sit at tables that each have their own monitors. So when I’m talking about a point of architecture or putting a text up on the screen, the students are turned away from me and toward their TVs. This has the same effect as the TVs at a sports bar. It makes discussion difficult and keeps students looking back and forth from their fellow students and to me and then to their TV. This is less than ideal.

More challenging still is that I have at least one or two students on “The Zoom” and the camera for The Zoom is mounted to the monitor on the teaching station. This assumes that the class is a lecture and the best place for the camera (and the microphone) is facing the professor at the front of the room. Of course, this situation is less than ideal for any kind of active learning activities.

There’s not much one can do about this, other than continuously try to work around the limits of classroom space, but it does speak to the kinds of deep contradictions that COVID has created in our classroom.   

A Ramble on Academic Salaries

Each winter, the local newspaper does its public service and publishes a searchable list of the salaries of state employees. This includes employees at the state’s universities. Predictably, there’s a low grumble of outrage as faculty whose salaries are public record somehow find a way to object to them being made even more public. This is fine. As they say faculty gonna faculty.

I admit that curiosity typically gets the better of me and I look at the salaries of my colleagues with a mixture of surprise, envy, and disappointment. The basic patterns will be familiar to anyone in higher education these days: women are paid less than men, faculty in professional and science programs tend to be paid more than faculty in the arts and humanities, and long-serving faculty members tend to have higher salaries than more recently hired faculty of the same rank (with an number of dramatic exceptions). There is the predictable blurring of ranks with the highest paid assistant professors making more than the lowest paid associates and the same goes for the ranks of professor and associate professor. Non-tenure stream faculty generally make less than those with tenure or on the tenure track, but there is blurring here too especially across disciplinary lines. For anyone in higher education, none of this is particularly unusual even if individual salaries feel sometimes out of step with the status of a faculty member or my respect for their work.

This did get me thinking about the problem of faculty salaries. This isn’t just about the notion that salaries are too damn low or that women deserve equal pay to men, although both of these are true on our campus. Nor is it about the disparities between humanities faculty and faculty in professional and “STEM” fields where there is more competition from the private sector (or even elsewhere in the public sector). Competition to hire and retain high performing faculty has always existed in some fields. In the humanities, however, where supply outstrips demand, the number of in demand free agents is diminishingly small. In fact, graduate programs in the humanities have long mooted the idea of restricting supply of qualified candidates as a way to increase the market value of their graduates. While I tend to find such efforts to manufacture scarcity to be distasteful for many reasons including the tendency to privilege the product of education over the process of learning, it reflects the commonly held belief that the market dictates salaries. 

And on a macro level, this may be true. 

On the level of a particular or even typical college campus, however, I suspect that the relative market for individual faculty members is only one contributing factor to their salary, and there are other far more complicating elements of setting faculty pay than whether one can leverage a counter offer to get a raise. Faculty salaries are genuinely weird. 

The first and most perplexing issue is that faculty of all ranks typically do the same job. In other words, an assistant professor and a professor of history whose salaries might be separated by tens of thousands of dollars even within the same department, do the same work. They teach, do research, and do service on campus generally at the same scale irrespective of rank.

There is, of course, a vague sense that a professor might be more efficient in their research or teaching therefore able to produce more “research products” than someone early in their career and I’ll return to this below, but I’d argue that this does not extend to teaching or service. In fact, I might even suggest that early career faculty are more effective or at least more adventurous and innovative teachers than mid and late career folks. And it is certainly the case on my campus that mid and early career faculty tend to embrace service responsibilities with greater fervor. Even if one were to argue that senior or higher ranked faculty are better at service and teaching, there is nothing in our system of promotion designed necessarily to prove this. Indeed one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that promotion reflects certain levels of efficiency or advanced competence in teaching or service. More than that, it is rare that faculty rank is considered in service or in teaching. There might be some mild preference for senior faculty in some service position and they might have a slight advantage when selecting courses, but even this is pretty rare. The systems in place on my campus, at least, tend treat faculty of whatever rank and pay as essentially interchangeable parts. Indeed our contracts tend to be more or less the same with the same percentages of our labor devoted to teaching, research, and service.

Despite the similarities in our contract and our work, salaries tend to reflect research output in some way, and I would contend that at my institution faculty who publish more and “better” stuff tend to be paid more.

But even this is a messy situation and it is unclear why this is the case in the humanities.

Perhaps we should assume that this system incentives faculty productivity. That is, it incentivized a career in which producing high impact scholarship begets more high impact scholarship. Even if we assume that this is the case in some places in the university (as we will see below), I struggle to understand how it would apply in the humanities. 

First, as I have noted, rewarding a scholar who produces more high impact scholarship at a higher rate than an inveterate grinder in the humanities as a means of retention would seem to assume that there is the possibility for professionally mobility in the humanities. In the 21st century, however, there are few opportunities for mobility with the market already saturated with faculty who have roughly similar credentials at various ranks. 

It may be that this represents a kind of incentive to encourage faculty simply to do more work. But it is hard to imagine how producing more scholarship in the humanities benefits the university in a substantive way. Maybe this practice rests on the assumption that scholars who are active in scholarly work tend to be better teachers and better colleagues. This seems improbable as my institution, at least, doesn’t tend to think of academic life in an especially holistic way.  

It seems more likely that the practice of rewarding humanities faculty for research reflects a mismatch between a system devised to reward faculty elsewhere on campus and scholarly production in the humanities. In the sciences and certain professional programs, a successful publication record manifests itself in large part in successful grant writing. Successful grant writing brings resources into the university that, for better or for worse, help expand the university’s operating budget across campus and increases the individual’s and the institution’s research capacity. Therefore there is real need to incentivize research productivity in fields where significant financial resources are at play. The tendency to encourage and reward high impact scholarship in the humanities may represent simply the importing of standards established in grant funded disciplines to the humanities. 

Faculty members in the humanities, however, have long been used to this mismatched system. 

We know, for example, that things such as “quality” are not easy to define and and the opportunities for “impact” are not evenly distributed. For example, some sub-fields (say, the archaeology of Cyprus) tend to have lower impacts than others (say, the archaeology of Greece). It is also evident that scholarship associated with the study of women, gender, and race tend to be regarded as “lower impact” than more traditional fields of, say, political and cultural history, and this surely accounts for why some women and scholars of color are paid less. Despite this variability, departments need to teach a range of subjects and to hire a range of subject experts. As a result, faculty specialties rarely map onto opportunities for producing high impact scholarship and corresponding salary advancement (if we assume this to be the case at all!).

Because the discrepancy across fields is a known thing, departments (who at my institution have some say in compensation) tend to attempt to balance for this. Even assuming the best of intentions, departmental efforts are invariably a mixed bag. This tends to reinforce the perception that salaries are arbitrary and depend as much on the willingness of a department to smooth a certain amount of disciplinary variability (or recognize the work of an individual scholar) as some kind of measurable performance metrics. 

Ok. This is all a bit of a mess. To summarize:

1. In the humanities most faculty do the same job, but get paid different amounts.

2. Since the academic job market is stagnant and opportunities are pretty limited for mobility, salaries do not correlate neatly to issues of retention in the humanities.

3. Early career scholars who are paid less are rarely less efficient or productive in teaching and service and while they may be less efficient in producing scholarship, this isn’t entirely convincing for any number of reasons. 

4. Paying scholars more who publish more but who contractually do the same amount and same kind of work suggests that somehow publishing more creates conditions where it becomes easier to publish more. This may be the case in grant funded fields where grants can work as labor multipliers, but is rather rare in the humanities where grant funding is less common and work tends to be more individual.

5. Rewarding high impact scholarship—however defined—tends to compensate more richly faculty who work in high impact sub-fields. Departments realize this and attempt to balance for this, but this happens unevenly.

Where does this leave us?

It reminds us that academic salaries are arbitrary especially in the humanities. It removes compensation as a meaningful incentive for doing more or better or certain kinds of work. It should also build a sense of solidarity among faculty in some fields because we all do the same work and deserve equal compensation. 

The Catholic Conference and UND’s Code of Life

For better or for worse, my blog rarely deals with contemporary affairs, but occasionally a situation arises in our community that intersects closely enough with my professional and personal interests to warrant some comment. 

This past week, North Dakota’s Catholic Conference penned a letter to the Catholic parents urging them to contact the University of North Dakota concerning its ongoing work to revise its gender inclusion policy. In my memory, this is the first time that the Catholic Conference has weighed in publicly on something at UND (although I might be wrong here). They seem to be concerned about UND’s effort to make their policies comply with federal law protecting the rights of transgender and nonbinary individuals in housing and student activities. The policy is in draft at this stage and the letter urges concerned citizens to reach out to UND and to urge them to produce a policy that protects individuals who uphold the primacy of “assumption of binary, or biological based gender.” UND’s president responded to the letter pointing out not only that the current policy is still at the draft stage and that the letter itself included a number of misunderstandings and outright misstatements of fact. 

These mistakes suggest that this letter was not a good faith effort to influence UND’s policy, but is another example of a dogwhistle designed to elevate a particular group’s anxieties and to use these anxieties as an opportunity to forge a greater degree of social cohesion. Indeed, obedient to the dogwhistle’s call, a number of local conservative politicians supported the letter publicly on social media suggesting that some folks were ready and eager to take sides. 

Whatever its resonance with immediate social concerns among the state’s political, social, and religious conservative leadership, I would also suggest that this letter reflects several proximate and longstanding concerns of the Catholic Church. To be clear, I am not an expert of contemporary Catholicism nor do I have any particular insights into the workings of the local Catholic community. So this post today is a bit of me “shooting from the hip” as I try to wrap my head around this unusually public statement.

It is my effort to answer the question: why would the North Dakota Catholic Conference decide that this is worthy of a public letter?

To this end, I have four observations.

First, I suspect this letter has as much to do with drumming up support for Catholic schools, colleges, and universities as actually urging UND to violate federal law. We are at the start of spring admission season and undoubtedly college-aged students and their parents are thinking about what they will be doing next fall. Catholic institutions have recently, at least it seems to me, doubled down on the Catholic aspects of their educational missions and for many this has involved a more conspicuously conservative public face. In this context, this letter represents a bit of a marketing move designed to juxtapose public institutions with pious Catholic ones. 

Second, I can’t help but see this within the larger context of the sexual abuse scandals that have wracked the church over the last thirty years. This has not only heightened concerns about sexual morality, but, perhaps more significantly here, cast light on the relationship between issues of gender and sexuality. I’ll unpack this more below.

Third, the Catholic Church in the US has long had to negotiate the tension between the idea that the family is the heart of moral life and Christian values and the fact that the clergy and many of the most revered members of the Catholic community do not live in conventional families. This is not an unreconcilable tension, but the sexual abuse scandals within the church have resonated with long standing prejudices against men living in homosocial conditions.

To be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that priests, men, or women who chose to live with others of the same gender or sexuality are any more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. This is patently not true. 

That said, there is a perception that individuals in these circumstances are somehow sexually suspect in part because their sexuality doesn’t have the “traditional” heterosexual outlets present within conventional family life. Again: I am not saying this is the case in reality, but this argument is part of a larger constellation of homophobic rhetoric designed to mark individuals living outside of heterosexual family life as deviant. 

Thus, the Catholic Church especially in the US is in a bind. Its spiritual leaders and exempla often live outside the conventions of sexual morality that they advocate. Not only have the innumerable scandals brought this tension into high relief, but practices of Catholic clergy and members of religious orders contrasts with the situation in most Protestant churches — especially mainstream evangelical churches — which allow pastors to marry and have families. 

Fourth, even my rusty memory of the Early Church history is replete with non-gender conforming individuals. Holy women, in particular, often so thoroughly rejected their traditional gender and sexual roles that they manifest as holy men. Roland Betancourt’s recent book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (2020) offers a well curated litany of non-gender conforming saints (and there are, of course, many others: Gilian Cloke’s classic This Female Man of God Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 (1995) and, of course, the work of the late Elizabeth Clarke; for a particularly recent take on the complex issue of women clergy in the Early Church, check out Sarah E. Bond and Shaily Patel’s piece at the LARB). Some of these saints possessed such extraordinary piety that they lived in monasteries among fellow ascetics of the “opposite biological sex.” Far from being a sinful situation, this ability to shed the outward trappings of one’s gender was seen as a mark of particular devotion and faith. “Biologically male” ascetics likewise shed outward trappings of masculinity by rejecting not only their roles as biological fathers, but often in public life as well. Retreating to a monastery and rejecting the trappings of masculine ambition, whether in war, business, politics, or social life, contributed to their sanctity and their ability to be closer to God. As Matthew 22: 23-33 famously states at the time of the resurrection men and women will not be married, but become like angels, and it is clear that some achieved a similar sanctity by anticipating this moment.

In other words, contemporary priests, monks, and nuns, continue to live in same sex accommodations and develop deep and meaningful homosocial friendships and spiritual lives in part by through rejecting conventional sexual and gender roles. These practices contribute to a tension between contemporary anxieties about sexual morality and gender conformity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, living traditions of sanctity established by the Early Church. 

Thus, I would urge UND and anyone else who has read this letter to ignore its vaguely prurient and plaintive efforts to influence public policy and instead consider the tune played by its dogwhistle. This letter is not about the obligations of a public institution toward vulnerable members of its community, changing standards of diversity and inclusion, or even federal laws, but about the deep anxieties present in the contemporary Catholic Church.

It seems to me that we should probably read this letter more as a piece seeking to define the character of Catholic education or as a subtle manifestation of the anxieties about the relevance of the Catholic church in ongoing discussions about changes to the traditional family or even as a public effort to struggle with the place of the clergy in a world where historical notions of sexuality, gender, and justice form only a cryptic cypher for contemporary practice. 

It is particularly unfortunate that Catholic Conference chose to engage these valid, genuine, and even pressing concerns to the Catholic community in a letter misrepresenting the efforts of a public institution to protect vulnerable members of North Dakota society. 

This is not a good look.

Moreover, it suggest that some of the church leadership are more interested in forging unity through promoting an anxious view of the modern world than through thoughtful engagement with the Church’s recent and ancient past.  

Music Monday: Big Bands for a Big Book?

This weekend, I spent some time listening the big jazz bands. When I first started out listening to jazz, I enjoyed the sound of Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s band and some of the other iconic jazz orchestras. That said, I never really connected with them and even iconic recorded performances of these groups rarely found their way into my regular rotation. Maybe I had become too invested in small ensemble jazz, hard and post-bop standards, or even the easy to discern interplay between musicians? 

At some point, Mingus and some of his large ensembles forced their way into my play list. Starting with Mingus, Ah, Um (1959) and then Blues and Roots (1960), and finally The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963). At around the same time, I had started listening Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) and then his orchestra work from the early-1960s and George Russell’s two great albums Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Ezz-thetics (1961). The latter might not quite qualify as “big band,” but the former certainly is. It goes without saying that any music that evokes the sound of the space age naturally leads to Sun Ra, but I suppose I’ve blogged enough about Sun Ra lately for a while

This particular line of listening passed through the late-1960s and the wonderful Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra performances Live at the Village Vanguard (1967), the amazing Central Park North (1969), and the remarkable Consumption (1969). 

These albums are just so good, but they didn’t really prepare me for my final destination of my listening this week.

First, I returned to the Liberation Music Orchestra eponymous first album from 1970 and caught up with Carla Bley (who had recorded with George Russell between Jazz in the Space Age and Ezz-thetics). This album is the perfect balance between tight orchestration and improvisation, order and chaos, and represents the struggle for liberation as a vehicle for freedom and the foundation for new forms of social organization. Music like this deserves to be the soundtrack for a reading of Wengrow and Graeber’s Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), which I blogged about here. If you’re going to read BIG BOOKS, you might as well listen to BIG BANDS, right?

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For a long book like this, however, you certainly need more than one album. It seems that Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble’s Spanish Suite (1968) complements the LMO’s Spanish inflected scores and embraces a similar spirit of community. I blogged on Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble here.

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After listening to this, I revisited Horace Tapscott and his Pan-African Peoples Arkestra, Live at the I.U.C.C. from 1979. The groove is deep on this album and the improvisation is brilliant. Every track on this live album reward multiple listens and if you don’t feel the soul of a community here and its potential to liberate and redeem, then you can probably disregard the rest of the recommendations on this post.

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Finally, I leapt into the 21st century and listened to the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords (2020). Schneider’s intense concern with the role of the digital in our society and its potential for limiting the freedom that is present in nature permeates the compositions. That the album was released via ArtistShare, a crowd-funding platform that allows individuals to become investors in large scale creative projects, offers a 21st-century view of the kind of community building that folks like Sun Ra, Phil Cohran, and Horace Tapscott put at the heart of their music.  

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By the end of my long weekend, I had become all the more convinced that the big band remains a vital platform for articulating the ubiquitous tension between order and individualism, structure and chaos, and freedom and responsibility. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that my growing appreciation of this kind of music stems from the prominence of these tensions in our world today.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I managed to survive both physically and mentally my first week of the new semester. More than that, I’m feeling pretty energized right now. To make things even better a predicted snow storm seems to have almost entirely missed us and the Eagles are in the playoffs. 

If I were more of a night owl, I might even plan to stay up to watch the final test of The Ashes where Australia has gotten off to a bit of a shaky start. Or I might make an effort to stay up to watch the Joe Smith fight someone called Steve Geffrard on Saturday night for Smith’s light heavyweight title (after Callum Smith, Joe Smith’s intended opponent tested positive). Hecks, I could even imagine staying up to watch the second half of the NFL games on Saturday and Sunday, but I probably won’t.

Instead, I’ll stockpile some sleep, get some lingering projects sorted, and prepare for the second week of classes. 

I’ll also try to do a better job gathering some quick hits and varia:

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Three Things Thursday: Books, Teaching, and the Red River of the North

I’m just over 60% done with my first week of classes, and I’m settling into my new weekly scramble. As per usual, buy the half way point of the week, we life has started to fragment as I desperately flailed to capture the bits and pieces of the time, ideas, and work that had been so neatly arranged earlier in the week. 

In other words, it’s a good time for a Three Things Thursday:  

Thing the First

Because we all decided that we weren’t busy enough, Richard Rothaus, who might just be the MOST busy, decided to restart our moderately unsuccessful podcast: Caraheard. As we awkwardly come to realize, this would be our fourth season and as our tradition in the past, we kicked off the year with a discussion of our favorite books of the year with our very special guest Kostis Kourelis. 

My favorite books read during the past year were Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series published by The Dorothy Project. These books are amazing and I blogged about them last February. I also talked a bit about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I blogged about here. Finally, any survey of my annual, pandemic inflected reading had to include something about Sun Ra. I talked about the wonderfully reproduced copies of some of Sun Ra’s poetry by the Chicago gallery Corbett vs Dempsey. I’ve blogged about them here.  I’m going to need to spend some time tracking down the past seasons of  Caraheard and maybe getting them up in the Internet Archive or something. So, stay tuned.

Thing the Second 

I’m teaching a lot (for me) this semester. In fact, I’m almost teaching “for the cycle”; that is teaching a 100, 200, 300, and 500 class. I’m teaching this semester as a bit of a “teaching sabbatical” in which I prioritize these four classes over my other contractual responsibilities. In fact, I’ve reduced the percentage of my contract designated for research to almost nothing and have controlled my service responsibilities by rotation off a pair of particular onerous committee. While I know that many faculty teach four or more classes year-in and year-out, and so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to valorize by teaching load or anything of the sort. For me, however, teaching more classes and more preps creates a chance for me to shift my attention to teaching in a way that sometimes gets lost when I find myself juggling my classes as just another facet of my professional responsibilities. 

There’s something about the constant pressure that four preps places on me that keeps thinking about teaching in the forefront of mind. This has made me wonder why teaching sabbaticals aren’t a thing? Why do we tend to assume that faculty want to spend a year immersed in the research grind and freed from responsibilities to teach and to do service, but we don’t offer the same for faculty who have a significant commitment to teaching? I would love to institutionalize the opportunity to take a year away from service and research and really focus on the craft of teaching. More to the point, I also think it would emphasize the importance of teaching not only to faculty, but to the institution itself. I could imagine a teaching intensive schedule paired with opportunities to be mentored by teachers in other departments and disciplines, there could be a retreat prior to the start of the semester where faculty could focus on installing new methods, approaches, or curriculum. There could be opportunities to refresh tired classes or to emphasize major changes in medium – from in-person to on-line, for example, or from small section to big? 

More importantly, departments and colleges would not only not be penalized for faculty taking a teaching sabbatical, but be rewarded. For example, colleges and departments would still receive the full percentage of research funds allocated on the basis of that faculty member’s typical research contract. Service responsibilities will be entirely eliminated for the year as would occur during a typical research sabbatical, but departments would be given support to incentivize other faculty stepping into service roles for the duration of the sabbatical.

Thing the Third

I serve on our community’s historic preservation commission as the commission’s archaeologist, and at the past meeting, in a not entirely spontaneous gesture, I raised my had to take on a small project that was sent out to bid and did not receive any interest. I’m going to investigate whether any parts of the 1950s era flood wall still exist along the course of the Red River in Grand Forks. Fortunately, we have already done a bit of research and received the Army Corps of Engineers maps showing the 1950s era wall. I also have a copy of Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch’s book, The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood (1996).

This work will be a little more salient this year as the community looks back 25 years to the 1997 Red River flood which overran the earlier flood walls and led to the massive installations that we have installed today. While many people won’t be interested in looking back at the 1997 flood (if for no other reason than it represents a time when community cohesion, resilience, and state support provided a foundation for recovery), I feel like we have an ongoing obligation to think about how our decision to make our home on the river has shaped the landscape. 

Archaeology of Oil Production: The Bakken in Context (Part 3)

As I race toward the semester finding its footing, I’m still churning away at a few winter break projects including a paper on the archaeology of oil production. I posted the first part of the paper last week and a second part yesterday. Today it’s time for the third part.

At this point, the paper is a bit rough and I think there’s a bit of mission creep visible in the following section, but I figured that I’d better get words on the page now and I can spend some time revising and adding citations over the next week or so.

The Bakken

At this point, this contribution has probably taken a rather abstract turn or proposed an archaeology of oil that is effectively a totalizing archaeology of modern existence. The Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota offers a more tangible case study of part of the contemporary petroleumscape. The Bakken formation itself exceeds 200,000 square miles and extends from the North Dakota-South Dakota border into Saskatchewan and from central North Dakota to eastern Montana. Starting in 2012, the North Dakota Man Camp Project sought to document and analyze workforce housing in the Bakken amid the 21st century Bakken oil boom. Our work in the region allowed us to develop a familiarity with not only its history as an oil producing area but also as a dynamic, modern landscape continuously adapting to the needs of extractive industries.

The earliest history of oil extraction in the Bakken begins in the late 1920s when Big Viking Oil Company and the Standard Oil Company of California sunk a series of deep test wells into a formation known as the Nesson Anticline along the Missouri River in Williams County, North Dakota. These wells did not come into commercial production. In 1951, however, the Clarence Iverson #1 Well nearly Tioga, ND did produce at commercially viable level and the H.O. Bakken #1 well drilled in the same year gave the oil fields centered on the Nesson Anticline their name (Conway 2020 for a survey of this boom). These wells produced “sweet” easy to refine North Dakota crude oil and initiated the first North Dakota oil booms A subsequent boom in the late 1970s, triggered in part by the global oil crisis earlier in that decade, reinforced the potential viability of North Dakota oil fields, but conventional drilling had limited success extracting the oil from the “tight” shale layers of the Bakken and restricted the profitability of the Bakken formation to periods of exceptionally high oil prices. The development of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies in the early 21st century initiated the third Bakken Boom and the emergence of as fracking made it possible to extract Bakken “sweet crude” in more cost effective ways and American the Middle East . These technical improvements invariably led to growing estimates of the size and potential profitability of recoverable oil from the Bakken formation and since 2014 the state’s 16,700 productive wells have produced over 1 million barrels of oil per day, despite the fluctuations in global oil marks.

The long history of oil production in the state of North Dakota has received only sporadic attention. Various surveys in the state, for example, have documented significant well sites including the Iverson #1 Well and the H.O. Bakken #1 well, and they have acquired state site numbers. Other forms of oil infrastructure, including pipelines and gas processing plants, also have received inventory numbers in the state archives. Unlike other major oil producing states, however, none of the petroleum related sites have received nomination to the National Register of Historic Places or undergone HAER documentation. In its most recent historic preservation plan, however, the state has recognized “Petroleum” as a significant context theme for the state and that suggests that more comprehensive documentation is possible. More significantly, as has been the case globally, the history of petroleum production has shaped the archaeological landscape of the state as surveys and excavations associated with the routes of pipelines, gravel pits, well pads, and other infrastructure have provided windows into the state’s and the region’s past.

The irregular efforts to document the material remains of oil production in the state and the ephemerality implied in the concept of the “boom” motivated our research program. The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused primarily on workforce housing and the emergence of so-called man camps along major routes through the area. These temporary housing facilities served the thousands of short term laborers who arrived in the Bakken both to work in the oil industry and to take advantage of economic opportunities that Bakken oil boom created in the region. The largest and most sophisticated facilities formed massive compounds capable of accommodating thousands of workers and providing meals, recreation, and even water treatment facilities. Many more workers, however, found accommodations in smaller facilities, RV parks, or in quasi-legal camps in shelter belts, abandoned small towns, and, perhaps more famously, the Walmart parking lot in Williston, North Dakota. The camps reflected negotiation between architectural forms dictated by the requirements of mobility and the expectations of domesticity created by suburban traditions. As a result, oil not only required housing for the expanded workforce in the oil field but also influenced the form of that housing. Narrow housing units designed to travel on the roads or by rail pulled by vehicles powered gasoline or diesel literally embedded the life of oil workers within spaces shaped by oil. Worker’s efforts to adapt their RVs and mobile homes to the requirements of life in the oil patch, often involve the addition of mudrooms often made of scap wood. Set perpendicular to the narrow length of the units, the mudrooms compromised their mobility and like flotsam blocking the flow of a creek, they attempted to establish a kind of fixity during a boom defined as much by the fluidity of oil as human and financial capital.

Our efforts to document and study these workforce housing sites led us to situate them in an ever more expansive Bakken petroleumscape. At the height of the boom, towering drill rigs and more modest workover rigs, used for well maintenance, arose in syncopated rhythms across the flat prairie horizon. Fracking sites consisted of dense, low-slung nests of pipe, pumps, and trucks often in the various colors of major fracking companies: red for Haliburton and blue for Schlumberger. Once fracked, the tanks, pumps, and pipes disappear and the site gives way to familiar bobbing grasshoppers of sucker-pumps, often painted tan to blend into the low prairie hillsides, standing on concrete wellpadqs and surrounded by rectangles of gravel. Recent improvement in drilling rigs have allowed companies to drill a series of wells on the same wellpad and as a result, more recent wellpads often have more pumps. Interspersed with pumping wells are flares burning off gases associated with fracked wells, low shoulders of pipelines protruding from the ground, and signs for deep injection wells used to disposed of “processes water” used in the fracking process. Tank farms, truck stops, food trucks, man camps, and fenced yards full of well casing and equipment, cluster at discernable nodes throughout the region.

Human movement through the oil patch followed the tidy grid section line roads and major thoroughfares. Rail lines and unit yards often shadow the main roads in the area and offers more visible links between the extraction and mid-stream transportation of the region’s sweet crude oil. The regular appearance of mile-long unit trains marked with the code “1267” on the Hi Line and in various rail yards across the state connects the flow of Bakken oil with larger collection networks. The tragedies in Lac-Mégantic and explosion in Casselton serve as tragic reminders of the volatility of this cargo. While these surface routes structured our encounter with the productive landscape of the oil patch, they also obscured the flow of the various liquids and gasses from well sites. The efficient routes of pipelines for oil, gas, and wastewater in contrast run to gathering stations, tank farms, the Hess gas factory, and deep injection wells.

In this broader context of sites and movements, workforce housing appears as momentary nodes in the network of human capital. These nodes reflect the consolidation of labor at the intersection of financial resources and the physical and historical environment in much the same way as drill sites, pipeline crews, and railyard crews. The ephemerality of these sites reflect the insistent present created by the speed of capital in global markets and its ability to subdue the intransigency of millennia of geology, the remoteness of the region, and the variability of the seasons. In other words, the spatial reach of financial capital, labor, and ultimately the oil itself facilities the rapid consolidation and dissipation of the material traces of human activities in the region.

The protest camps that emerged at the intersection of the Missouri River and the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrate how alternate forms of temporality can disrupt Bakken petroleumscapes that extends hundreds of miles from the source of oil. On the surface, the DAPL protest movement crystalized around the vulnerability of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation water intakes to the route of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River. Nick Estes’s thoughtful analysis of this protest, however, emphasized that it represented not a single response to a particular event, but part of a history of indigenous resistance to colonial control over the land and resources and a responsibility to preserve indigenous landscapes that embody ancestral knowledge, contemporary life ways, and future generations. In this context, the pipeline made manifest the rapacious desires of the present overwhelming the indigenous past. The capital that funded the pipeline anticipates and requires the continued flow of oil from the Bakken despite the proximate risks associated with oil spills and the longer term vulnerability of the world to the destabilizing impacts of climate change.

Archaeology of Oil Production: Petroleumscapes and Oil Time (Part 2)

It’s the first day of classes and I’m pretty excited to begin my “teaching sabbatical” this semester and focus my attention mostly on teaching. Like most sabbaticals, however, just because I’m shifting my focus, doesn’t mean that my other responsibilities will vanish. In fact, I’m working on wrapping up a paper on “The Archaeology of Oil Production” that’s due sometime this spring. 

You can read the first part of the paper here and below is the second part of the paper. 

I’m pretty happy with it so far (especially consider that I am working a bit to a deadline) and would love to get some feedback on it. Feel free to post thoughts, criticisms, or outright ridicule in the comments below. 

Petroleumscape and Oil Time

Efforts to reconcile the spatial locations associated with oil and oil production and the broader context of oil as the key commodity of global capitalism have long occupied scholars. Zigmut Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity appears, albeit indirectly, to owe some of its conceptual power to the liquid state of oil which constitutes the defining element of its value in modern markets. The ability of oil to flow and be stored in a liquid state made it easier to transport to market than coal or natural gas which require more substantial investments. The liquidity of oil parallels the concept of liquidity in economic terms where the ability of human and financial capital to move quickly in response to market pressures and opportunities has become a ubiquitous metaphor in contemporary capitalism. Philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze (1992), anthropologists such as Anna Tsing (2015), and geographers such as Deborah Cowen (2014), have produced probing and critical works laced with the concept of flow as the defining characteristic of late capitalism, modernity, and contemporary life.

Thus oil exists within a conceptual world that encourages archaeology to follow its flow both literally and as the manifestation of dense networks of human, financial, social, and political capital. In this sense, the concept of the assemblage has emerged as a useful tool to understand the interplay between various actors, technologies, and systems that describe the production of oil. While much of this remains tacit among archaeologists studying oil production, scholars outside the discipline are working to establish a robust framework for more sophisticated archaeological interventions. For example, historian Katayoun Shafiee (2018) has drawn upon science and technology studies (STS) in her effort to interrogate the development of Iranian oil industry in the first half of the 20th century. For Shafiee, the physical infrastructure such as drill rigs, pipelines, and the massive Abadan oil refinery exists only within an equally expansive assemblage of intangible diplomatic, financial, and racial infrastructure. The sociotechnical devices that define these relations dictated the colonial character of the material culture (and physical infrastructure) of the oil industry, such as the company town built for Iranian, British, and Indian workers at the Abadan refinery, but also created spaces for resistance which included strikes by Iranian oil workers, nationalization by the Iranian state, and volatility in the diplomatic landscape among oil producing countries. Similar works approaches have sought to unpack the significance of certain forms of technology, such as pipelines, in shaping the geography of oil and forging new political, economic, and social relationships. For example, the massive Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, both became the center of disputes over their technical and material capacities that made visible the complexities of the assemblage associated with oil production. In no ways were the environmental, political, and social subordinate to the technological, material, and economic character of the undertaking.

Carola Hein’s notion of petroleumscapes offers spatial vocabulary tailored to fit the often totalizing landscapes of produced by the petroleum industry. From the oil fields themselves characterized by wells, pumping stations, tank farms, and pipelines to the cluster of refineries and industrial facilities associated with global port cities such as Houston, Rotterdam, Philadelphia, Gujarat (India), and Singapore. Likewise the rise of the automobile and the design of urban space to accommodate the needs of personal and commercial transportation extends the petroleumscape from restricted spaces of industrial production to our everyday lives. An archaeology of oil production that stops short at considering oil’s distribution and use, for example, might overlook evidence for how oil producers created demand for products that resulted from oil refining methods and technology or supported visions of the world that assumed abundant petroleum based energy. At the same time, the idea of the petroleumscape has proposed form of oil heritage which articulates the significance of individual sites within historical networks of production. The sites associated with the now largely closed refineries around the port of Dunkirk in Northern France reflect the city’s century-long place in the global oil industry and includes the refineries themselves, but also ancillary industries, worker housing, and polluted soils that will invariably shape the community’s future. In many ways, abandoned petroleumscapes represent spaces of supermodernity where, as Alfredo González-Ruibal has observed, the hyperabundance of both visible and invisible material created forms of ruin carved out from the nearly incomprehensible scale of the flows produced by the liquid, late modern world.

For González-Ruibal there also exists a temporal dimension of supermodernity as an archaeological period which embodies the overrepresentation of the present which endeavors to destroy not only the evidence for other periods, but also the latent potential that the past possesses for different futures. Thus, the present formed by petroleum extraction, production, and consumption accentuates pasts that invariably culminate in a world made possible by fossil fuels. Alberto Toscano, for example, has argued that the presence of oil often produces “retropolitical” conditions that dictate a nation’s or a community’s political and economic development. In these situations, wealth derived from oil effective short circuited developmental models (e.g. Chakrbarty xxxx) that assumed wealth derived from increasingly industrialized labor would also produce concomitant social and political “improvements.” Thus, oil like so many supermodern developments located so-called petro-states in a present where they are “always-already failing” which justifies colonialist attitudes, interventionist policies, and rapacious economic strategies designed to liberate these states and regions from the source of their misfortune. From an archaeological landscape, the petroleum industry sees the past and the future primarily in terms of its value in the present. Contemporary attitudes toward archaeological sites, for example, represent them as cultural resources of value to the present or available for destruction in the name of economic and political strategic interests. Thus, oil has the capacity to transform archaeological remains from the past into fungible resources that occupy the same balance sheets as technological, political, and social costs involved in the extraction, transportation, and distribution of oil. The cultural resource management operations supported by oil, then, represent one element in the larger process of oil production, and a broadly defined archaeology of oil production should also include a critique of how oil in the present dictates the value of the past. This process is fundamentally similar to the way that  oil reserves primarily represent value as collateral for present wealth.

Music Monday: Neil Young’s Barn and Crafted Immediacy

This past week, I split my time between trying to wrap up winter break writing projects (say tuned!) and trying to prep for the coming semester. On the best days, I did a bit of both, and some of that was inspired by Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s latest album Barn. Musically, it’s a follow up to their 2019 album Colorado which received the (in)famous “generally positive reviews.” I prefer Barn to Colorado, but not for any very good reason. Maybe Barn feels more random and raw than Colorado and that suited my mood (or even the mood).

IMG 7057

A review of Barn over at Pitchfork offered a bizarre take on this album as a lede: “Neil Young’s decision to prioritize immediacy over craft in his later years means these tunes arrive lovingly weathered, but rarely go anywhere in particular.” 

There is a lot to unpack in this statement. First, I was struck by the idea that immediacy was the opposite of craft. This seems to me to be the kind of statement that improvised musicians have pushed back against for years. An especially uncharitable reading would note that the criticism of immediacy as lacking craft often finds itself mixed up in a kind of racial rhetoric of Black music and art as unrestrained emotion or “unschooled” in comparison to finely crafted and deliberate white art. Obviously this doesn’t apply to Neil Young who is not only white, but Canadian, but the legacy of this kind of critique is a bit problematic.

In fact, the statement gets muddier still when the author acknowledges that tunes are weathered. The patina attributed to the tunes suggests that these are not spontaneous compositions bursting from the Young and Crazy Horse’s surplus emotion, but songs, ideas, and styles long exposed to the elements. The immediacy of these tunes is a studied immediacy. Or better still, we can resolve the tension between immediacy and craft by saying that these tunes reflect the crafted immediacy of a group who knows how to conjure a mood by deploying deeply familiar sounds. The best example of this is the dirty guitar at the start of “Heading West” which is about as weathered as this album gets and if it’s not a deliberate reference to Crazy Horse’s harder, guitar rock days in the 1970s, then I’m not sure what is. 

As for the critique that the songs don’t go anywhere “in particular,” this is what Neil Young songs do. His songs hang out down by the river (where, for some reason or other, he shot his baby), amble along prairie highways, or embody melonymic meditations with only fuzzy references. Part of Young’s power as a songwriter is that his songs consistently articulate rudderless surfeit of passion. He’s the archpriest of the kind of hopeless, directionless, wandering that is not quite without purpose or values (after all, Young imagines himself a principled man and can be outspoke), but often finds itself on a tour bus or outside a tired midwest town or alone, on stage, performing for an audience that changes every night.  

In other words, if Neil Young is anything, he’s pure craft. The weathering, immediacy, and songs that go nowhere is fundament to Young’s musical legacy. Moreover, it’s clear that Neil Young knows this and the regular alternation of unreleased, re-released, and new material reflects a sense of timelessness that complements the directionlessness of his lyrics and songs.

By the end of Barn, you get the feeling that albums like this are the Neil Young’s response to his most famous lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” (or even “better to burn out than it is to rust”). His career appears resistant to rust or burn out owing to its own irreducible consistency. His crafted immediacy ensures that while there is better and worse Neil Young, there will never be bad or great Neil Young.