Fragments on the Tourist Guide

I had to write up a little bit of the backstory for my forthcoming Bakken book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. (Fargo 2017).

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It’s a bit conversational:

This book has a messy backstory. It derives fundamentally from the North Dakota Mancamp Project which is a cross disciplinary project focused on documenting the social and material context for workforce housing in the Bakken. Over 5 years we visited Western North Dakota regularly, talked to people there, wrote about our experiences, and made arguments for the character of housing in the 21st century and in extractive industries. Our familiarity with the Bakken led to numerous inquiries from the media, other scholars, and the general public concerning both our work and the Bakken more broadly.

One morning, while writing my blog, I decided just to start writing a tourist guide to the Bakken. This was a genuinely spontaneous project in which the writing preceded any real thinking about what this might entail or even the purpose of the book. Over a few months, on the trusty blog and then on the longform writing site of Medium, I wrote the basic narrative of this guide and got feedback from people both in the region and around the world.

At the same time this was taking shape, I was working with Kyle Conway to produce the edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. I was also working on a paper for Historical Archaeology that set out some of the main conclusions from our work in the Bakken. These two projects helped me solidify the idea that my work in the Bakken was both about the place, that is Western North Dakota, but also about the idea of modernity and something that scholars have increasingly called “petroculture.”

The realization that I was really thinking and writing about the modern world, rather than just the Bakken, and tourism represents this key element in the making of the modern world. In fact, the “tourist gaze,” to use John Urry’s famous phrase, represented as vital an aspect to creating the modern world as the rise of fossil fuels. In fact, the two are deeply intertwined with our modern way of viewing the world and tourism being propelled forward first by steam and then oil powered vehicles which allowed the new middle class to enter a world of travel and leisure. This allowed the middle class to expand the world that they called their own through both recognizing themselves in others around the globe, but also subordinating what they saw to the realm of experience, exoticism, and leisure.

Applying the lens of tourism to the Bakken, then, offers an opportunity to see the modern world as if it were a strange place filled with wonder. The Bakken embodies our age of fossil fuels and tourism while hinting at a future age of hypermobility set against oft-competing views of apocalyptic and nostalgic dreamscape. 

Shipping Containers

If I had all the time in the world, I would write an article on shipping pallets or vernacular architecture in science fiction novels or global adhocism or something.

Mostly, I do far more mundane things like tend to databases or find pot sherds in crowded storerooms. On Saturday, I found myself working as an assistant to a second year M.A. student. Good times!

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Recently, my old punk archaeology, North Dakota Man Camp project, and blogging buddy, Kostis Kourelis has suggested that we investigate the use of storage containers in a spontaneous, but structured way. What we really need is a simple application that allows a user to take a photo of a shipping container with a georeference and a small field for a description. We don’t have that yet, but we’d be open to someone developing that for us. (In fact, to make the application completely awesome, we’d have a very simple option for “shipping container,” “pallet,” or “blue tarp” representing the holy trinity of ad hoc construction material). Our users, to glom on to Kostis’s idea, would shoot photos and then another group of more committed users would use an online crowd-sourced tagging and filtering program to refine our database and to provide a foundation upon which our vernacular analysis could develop.

Since we don’t have an application or a crowd sourcing platform or even a group of committed (and insane) colleagues from around the world, I’ll just post a few photos of shipping containers used as housing from the beach below the site of Kourion. They seem to serve to house guest workers at the seaside taverna.

Here’s my contribution:

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A Critique of Slow Archaeology

I still think about slow archaeology a good bit and even more these days as I get my feet set for my 21st season of archaeological field work. So I was pretty excited to read Andre Costopoulos’s recent post at ArcheoThoughts titled “the traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” 

In this thoughtful post, he doesn’t actually refer to slow archaeology, but he argues that the personal connection between the archaeologist – and archaeological experience – and material remains a crucial (and problematic) element of the archaeological discourse. In effect, archaeologists who “know the material” continue to serve as an important level of gate keeper for the discipline. This kind of deep familiarity with a region, its material, and local disciplinary contexts authorized who can speak for and about the material. This kind of “fuzzy” expertise is often reciprocated among various experts with different areas of specialty, and it represents an important structuring discourse in the discipline. In other words, familiarity with a particular body of material, region, or practice gives an archaeologist authority and fortifies his or her own reputation. In this way, the Archeothoughts post work has similarities with a critique of slow archaeology that Shawn Graham offered a few month ago.

At the same time, a reputation and authority grounded in this kind of particularistic knowledge discourages me from presenting my knowledge in a transparent and open way. If I give away what I know – even through traditional publication, but especially through practices that make the link between practice, evidence, and knowledge making transparent, I run the risk of undermining my own authority and potentially my ability to gain more specialized knowledge. (I used to joke that a certain type of Greek archaeologist would refuse to publish a certain amount of their material so they could attack other (usually junior) scholars on the basis of “unpublished material” from their own dig or other secret knowledge.) This kind of “knowing the material” contributes to the key role of apprenticeship in the discipline where learning archaeology often involves learning techniques as well as gaining special access to material and sites based on personal relationships with master practitioners.

I read this, in some ways, as an important critique of slow archaeology. First, I’ve insisted that slow archaeology depends upon deep familiarity with a site and its material. This kind of knowledge resists the kind of neatly-organized and regimented transparency that is sometimes presented as open science (although, to be fair, open science types have recognized the value of slow data). If we argue that archaeological methods and practices (and the knowledge that it produces) is more similar to craft and communicated through personal networks, apprenticeships, and experience, then it would seem that it is resistant, to some extent, to open science.

At the same time, openness is not absolute, and archaeology will always be a funny kind of science. There is a kind of embodied knowledge that passes down through the discipline that will likely resist the kind of openness that certain kinds of bench sciences celebrate. There are, however, ways to mitigate the unintended consequences of the knowledge gain through archaeological experience, deep familiarity, and various ways of “knowing the material.” I will continue to contend that part of the way in which slow archaeology contributes is through a critical engagement with all aspects of knowledge production. It may be that critiques like this one are crucial for understanding the function of open science within academic life, and, perhaps, is some ways, this blog post (and other arguments like it) is as valuable for framing a disconnect in archaeological knowledge making as offering a clear solution.

Sounds of Cyprus

It’s 4:00 am and I’m sitting in my bed listening to the sounds of the night in Polis-Chrysochous, Cyprus. I’m jet lagged.

I started the night with earplugs in hoping to silence the mosquitos in my room and to create a little bubble where I could recover from jet lag and get some rest from the din of a Cypriot village. I woke up a 2:30 am and the silence was disorienting, and I felt like I was being smothered in a vacuum.

So I took the ear plugs out and the let the sound of the village wash over me. Lying still I could hear dogs warning anyone who would listen, distant car tires slipping on the asphalt, frogs, bugs, the wind, a disoriented bird or two, the strange sound of water as well as the irritating buzz of the mosquito.

It was really amazing how much sound and hearing shaped my late night (early morning?) experience. The air was suddenly cooler as I heard and felt the breeze, the air was lighter too. I felt like I was immersed in the world.

(And now I have to find and kill that fucking mosquito.) 


The Digital Press on Longreads

While I’m settling into my summer research in Cyprus, I’m still thinking of some of my projects this spring. Some good news from my colleagues at The Digital Press.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce that Josh Roiland’s story, “It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now” in David Haeselin’s edited volume, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017) has appeared on the iconic long-read internet site, Longreads, this week.

Go check it out, and if you like their work (and their support of a wide range web publishing), click the Support Us button and give them some support. At very least, click through to their page and support their mission by reading.

Or, click through to the Haunted by Waters page and download the book or buy it in paper!



It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It is supposed to hit 80 degrees here in Grand Forks this weekend and will be only a few degrees cooler than Larnaka, Cyprus. I can’t explain how amazing these early summer days are here in the Northern Plains. Clear skies, low humidity, and pleasant breezes after the cold winter.

As I wrap up my semester, I want to remind folks to check out the little book that my graduate students prepared in the aftermath to cuts in our graduate program, Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto, and while you’re at it, please do check out the expanded content added to the Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 page at The Digital Press.

It might also be fun if you checked out these various quick hits and varia:

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Let’s get this party started!

Three Things on a Teaching Thursday

This semester provided me with significant food for thought. There was campus budget chaos, new priorities in our department, and likely changes to my family’s income (not to mention developments in our local and national political scene). These things got me thinking about about my experience teaching this year and how certain national and local trends have shaped what I do and what is expected of me in the classroom.

My ideas are a bit chaotic at present, but I think most of them can be summarized around three points.

1. Teaching, Trust, and the Syllabus. I’ve been teaching more or less the same History 101: Western Civilization online class for the past five years or so. The core of the class is a series of podcast lectures and primary source readings. The main assignments are a series of quizzes, discussion board posts, and three, 3 page papers. Instead of making things due weekly, I make everything due at the end of the semester, but urge student to stay on top of their work and get things to me over the course of the class. The result has tended to be that I have more time to work with students who are engaged in the course (and who turn in work over the course of the semester) and students who are just taking the course for the grade and turn in their work at the end receive correspondingly less attention (because of grading deadlines and the onslaught).

This arrangement is based on a few interrelated things. First, students have to read the syllabus. Second, they have to trust that I understand how to make the course work for them. Generally speaking about half to two thirds of the students (so 40-50 of the 60-80 student class) turn in papers over the course of the semester, get feedback, and improve their work. The other half turn in everything at the end. This works for me.

This semester, however, something rather bizarre happened. Students didn’t read the syllabus. Not just the usual small gaggle of harried students, but a bunch of them. At first this meant I received about 25 emails asking about due dates. I posted an announcement clarifying on the class’s page, and continued to receive emails. Students not only didn’t read the syllabus, but didn’t read my announcement. How bizarre.

Things got weirder still. Students write three types of papers: source paper, a diversity paper, and a cumulative paper. For each paper type, they have four or five options associated with particular weeks. As long as they write one paper of each type, I don’t care which paper they write over the course of the semester. (In fact, if they turn in a paper and don’t like their grade on it, they can write another of the same type to try to improve their grade.) What happened, though, was strange, a number of students wrote every paper. So instead of writing 3, 3 page papers, they wrote 16, 3 – page papers. I haven’t changed the syllabus substantially in 5 years and this has never happened before. Suddenly, this year, students stopped reading the syllabus to their own detriment and did orders of magnitude more work for this class than I required.

When this started, I wrote a few announcements reminding the students that they only needed to write three papers (one of each type). This may have stopped some folks from this misunderstanding, but not everyone. A group of students continued to write each paper and these papers were generally poor and showed signs of stress and haste.

What was causing this?

At the risk go getting political, I have a theory. The rhetoric surrounding education (and higher education) in North Dakota and nationally has become a bit toxic. The calls for efficiency, questioning of expertise (and even competence), and the language of disruption, transformation, and crisis has reached from the legislature to the college classroom. I wonder whether this rhetoric has fueled a culture of distrust among students. Instead of looking to faculty to guide them through an educational process, they question whether current practices in higher education make sense. On the one hand, I admire any student’s willingness to pave their own way and take their education into their own hands. (After all, I did the same thing in the 1990s when there was increased pressure to get a practical degree and I decided to become a Latin major!). On the other hand, if this breakdown in trust leads students to ignore the syllabus and make more work for themselves, I wonder whether they’re likely to encounter some unintended consequences of their independent mindedness. I’ll admit to having some sleepless nights even now about my decision to be a Latin major rather than majoring in marketing or something sensible.

2. Practical Learning versus Concepts. One of the most interesting challenges that I have encountered this past year is the growing tension between the classroom as a place for practical learning and the classroom as a place of conceptual and theoretical learning. I understand, of course, that some classes are designed to impart practical skills especially in fields like studio arts and in professional programs. At the same time, I tend to view graduate courses in history as having less of a practical edge and more of a focus on big picture concepts.

This year was the first year where I felt that students really wanted to learn practical skills rather than engage with big ideas. I’m skeptical whether a class can really teach the core skills necessary to be successful as a professional historian. Rigor in argument, skill in writing, and the ability to approach research in a thoughtful and efficient way are skills that practitioners learn through experience rather than following some set of rules or instructions or best practices. Classroom time, however, is about encountering ideas and manipulating them, evaluating and critiquing concepts, and interacting with challenging and often opaque texts. Time outside of class is about skill building and honing one’s craft. 

I suspect that some of the shifting attitudes toward the classroom comes from larger trends in higher education that see the college classroom as a practical training ground for employment rather than a place to engage ideas. The former is exceedingly limited because whatever skill you – at best – introduce will still take a lifetime to develop. The latter, however, is immediately productive and catalytic because it opens new ways of thinking that are really challenging to close. Classes should do more to undermine and destroy expectations and ways of seeing the world, than lay foundations for for some future competence.

3. Learning from Crisis. While there is a good bit of “crisis fatigue” on campus these days, I think most of the comes from faculty and administrators (and staff), rather than students. Some students, few I’d guess, remain blissfully unaware of the feeling of criss on campus, but many do. What has struck me as interesting and valuable is how the budget crisis has prompted a new set of conversations across campus. These conversations involve a wide-ranging critical engagement with the purpose and function of the university and the character of knowledge.

My graduate student waded into these waters with their brief collection of manifesto-y essay that we pushed out on this blog on Monday. Check it out here. It was probably the most intriguing project that I’ve managed in a graduate course in my decade of teaching at the University of North Dakota, and I credit it largely to the sense of crisis across campus. Who knew that teaching during a crisis could be so rewarding?

Updates from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters and the Corinth Excavation Manual

Some good news today from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

David Haeselin’s Haunted by Water: the Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 is now available in print from Amazon for the low, low price of $20! We’ve also added a few supplemental pages that developed during the editing and production of the book. One offers some additional reading on the Red River Flood of 1997 and other provides some useful insights into the class that produced this fine book.

If you haven’t already downloaded this book for free. You really should. And if you like it enough to add to your analogue paper book collection, do it, and leave a little review. It helps others make good decisions where they spend their $20 and bookshelf space.

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The other bit of good news is that the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual is on pace to break all of The Digital Press’s download records. It has been available for a little over two weeks and seen almost 500 downloads! 


To celebrate this, we’ve made it available for purchase through Amazon for $9.99 for the rest of the month (it’ll take a little time for the price to change on Amazon. In the meantime, you can buy it here for $9.99 or be patient!). I can think of no reason not to go and grab a copy. If you like it and find it useful, it’s great for the Digital Press if you leave a comment! 

Finally, if you have an excavation manual that is gathering digital dust on your hard drive and think it’s pretty good and useful, drop me an email. When I first began work on the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual, I had this idea that it might be the first in a series of published field manuals. A few people expressed some interest and I’d be keen to get a sense for whether other projects might be interested too!

Codex Project: Formation Processes, Floods, and Books

This spring saw the publication of two new books from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. A third will appear this fall with a limited edition print publication appearing of the course of the summer: Micah Bloom’s Codex. For more on that project, go here.

Below is my first draft of the preface for the book and a sneak preview of the contents:

Archaeologists study formation processes. These are the various natural and cultural processes that transform human activity into archaeological sites. To make meaning from the physical traces of the past, archaeologists disentangle the various events that create what we see in the present. The result of this work is both an appreciation for the complexity of time and experiences as well as an emphasis on objects and contexts that co-produce meaning. 

Micah Bloom’s Codex, here expanded with a series of new essays, is about formation processes.The surging waters of the 2011 Souris River flood left the city of Minot coated in mud and strewn with debris and Bethany Andreasen’s contribution to this book provides a sweeping overview of those events. Micah Bloom’s camera, however, focused on the books that the river deposited across the landscape. Robert Kibler the work of the flood and Bloom’s work has produced hybrid that embodies both natural and human transformations. As Ryan Stander shows, each photograph echoes both the book-littered landscape of the post-flood Souris and the myriad photographic images that have gone before.

I became familiar with Blooks’s project during its installation at the North Dakota Museum of Art in May of 2015. Laurel Reuter’s essay provides a perspective on that event from her position as director of the museum. The exhibit combined his photographs with various approaches to dealing with the damaged and waterlogged books. Some approaches were archaeological and featured careful indexing, systematic photograph, and scientific precisions. Others approaches embraced a religious cast manifest in a neatly-arranged book cemetery commemorating each volume lost. As Brian Prugh’s essay notes, books are special objects. 

In many ways, formation processes also produce books. Thora Brylowe reminds us that books themselves emerge from natural processes mediated by human intentions. Sheila Liming’s essay reveals that books are always in the process of decomposition as both the physical objects and the ephemeral containers of ideas. Bloom’s lens presents the blurred words and water soaked pages and encourages us to recognize that the intent of the book is, as Justin Sorensen notes, part of what gives it meaning. Books are to be read, but even when they’re not readable, they still speak to us as artifacts. The meaning of the books in Bloom’s photographs compels us to take their materiality seriously and to recognize, using David Haeselin’s term, that they are constructed.

This book too was constructed in a very particular way. The contributors hail from around the U.S. and, as this brief introduction has shown, bring a range of perspectives from the fields of history, literature, art history, and criticism to Bloom’s work. These essays were copy edited by the students in David Haeselin’s writing, editing, and publishing course at the University of North Dakota. Micah Bloom supervised the design of the book with the help of Marissa Dyke at Minot State University. The book is published by Bill Caraher’s project, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with funding from both UND and Minot State University.

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.