The End of a Collaborative Lab

This week, Mike Wittgraf and I went through what was left in the Working Group in Digital and New Media lab on the campus of the University of North Dakota. The lab had been little used over the last few years and, in general, the Working Group has lost momentum as an organization.

This spurred me to think about the history of the Working Group, it’s goals, the projects that it supported, and, of course, the material remains of the Working Group’s lab. This all fueled my own sense of nostalgia for this group and its irregular meetings, beer fueled conversations, and creativity. At the same time, I feel like I have a growing critical grasp of whether the Group lived up to our expectations.

These reflections have also prompted me to try to find some of the primary documents that the group created and to try to archive these. For example, here’s a link to the original white paper that funded the Working Group and here are two posts that capture the conversations we were having in the year leading up to the founding of the Working Group: The Potential for Digital Humanities at UND (December 2008)GIS Day and the Digital Humanities at the University of North Dakota (November 2008), and Digital Humanities, History, and Archaeology at the University of North Dakota: First Steps (October 2008).  I archived our two formal reports from 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. I vaguely remember another report – perhaps from 2012 or 2013 – but I can’t find it in my records. I have drafts of a report from 2015 which I have also archived.  I also have some images from our 2012 showcase archived here, our 2012 open house, and our 2013 open house here, and our 2013 “Digital Lightning” Event.

The paper trail provides a partial record of the Working Group’s activities and successes, but does little to reveal its struggles with mission, the fragmented character of much of the work in the lab, and the steady decline in use of the lab space and the group’s cohesion. The lab’s abandoned condition offered a tangible sense of the Group’s unfulfilled promise. As the campus has started to talk about installing a “maker space” in the library, I can’t help but wondering how the use of these lab spaces will develop over time and whether they’ll manage to foster the kind of collaborative ambition as we hoped would come from the Working Group lab space or whether these spaces will support a kind of customer model of lab use where various clients come and use the assets of the lab for their own projects and there is limited expectation of collaboration.  

I’ve come to wonder whether such collaborative spaces as the Working Group lab don’t have their own trajectory of use with the initial investment in the space (and acquisition of technology and attendant modifications) coinciding with a wave of collaborative work. Over time, however, the competitive nature of academic work contributes to such collaborative spaces and collaborations being relatively fragile. The collaboration that brought about the initial investment ran its course and subsequent collaboration while sometimes emerging from the lab, also extended beyond its boundaries and allowed for the lab’s role as a central space to dissipate. Competitive grants, the need for distinctive tools and spaces, and the general shift in interest among scholars in the humanities and arts led ultimately to the abandonment of the lab space and the collective energy of the group.

While this might be read as a negative thing, especially as the physical space of the lab itself has declined, at the same time, I think the spirit of the Working Group continues in new and different projects, collaborations, and directions. The Digital Press is thriving, for example, even though it doesn’t make use of the lab space any longer. Mike Wittgraf continues to make digital music. Kyle Conway and Paul Worley have left UND, but continue to work along lines that they were developing while in the lab. 

From a more archaeological perspective, the assemblage in the lab reminded me a bit of the assemblages that we documented in Corwin and Larimore Halls during the Wesley College Documentation Project. I read these assemblages as evidence for “boom surfing” where individuals purchase and maintain objects that had persistent value when surplus was most available. These objects were then maintained for as long as possible and repurposed in a wide range of ways. At the same time, since objects – particularly technology – purchased with grants tend to remain in the possession of the primary investigator, they rarely entered the larger pool of surplus objects curated and recirculated by the university. As a result, pockets of objects developed around campus that were too valuable to simply discard (especially under regimes of irregular boom/bust funding) but not valuable enough to be sought aggressively by the university for repurposing (despite the fact that most objects acquired by a grant managed by a university are owned by the university).  This also speaks to the relatively rapid pace of technological change and the tendency for computer and other forms of digital tech to be disposable. The lab appears to have followed this trajectory with an impressive assemblage of relatively obsolete technology which have rather limited potential for reuse or revitalization. 

In the end, the physical space of the lab and the larger collaborative spirit of the group have certain parallels. The tools and the networks in which the tools worked had similar trajectories of obsolescence driven, in part, by competitive and individualistic goals of academic research and the tendency of digital tools to become obsolete by the end of a project. While curation of tools, like the curation of professional and collaborative relationships, represented a useful strategy in response to the boom/bust and episodic development of research and funding, these practices preserved the collaborative structure much longer than its actual utility for any particular task at hand or project. Reactivating the collaborative relationships in a professionally productive way will most likely involve renewed investment in technology which will, once again, start the cycle of obsolescence.  

In Praise of Trucks

This is another draft of an essay for the North Dakota Quarterly blog and a case study for what happens when you have to clean up from a major thunderstorm while jet lagged. Comments, critiques, or ridicule welcome, as always!

I had been home from my summer field work for about 24 hours when I found myself in our yard, cleaning up branches from a major summer thunderstorm. For the next five or six days, I watched pick-up trucks full of fallen limbs, brush, and other debris transport their crumpled cargos to the local green-waste disposal site. I filled my 2003 Ford F-150 up with branches as well and hauled them out of my yard. In times like this, I appreciated the utility of the American half-ton pick-up truck and celebrated their ubiquity in my small town in North Dakota.

I recognize, of course, that this is not a popular position to have. Trucks are inefficient vehicles in the best of circumstances. The get miserable gas milage, their size and weight is unnecessary for grocery store runs, the daily commute, or finding parking in a crowded Starbucks, and their design language embodies a kind of hyper masculinity that puts brute strength before all subtlety in an increasingly complex world. Moreover, they’re not particular fun to drive, they don’t typically involve the latest and greatest in automotive technology, and they are designed around predictability and persistence. They’re boring and ubiquitous, and perhaps this accounts for widespread availability of parts and accessories to customize these vehicles. I can’t and won’t deny that my truck is boring, inefficient, and vulgar, but I do love it. 

I also appreciate the willingness of truck owners to take on part of the collective guilt in society in the name of a kind of situational utility. After a big storm, few would doubt the utility of the truck and value of local truck owners. When it comes time to move, pick up that big purchase at a local store, load up on mulch, buy wood for rebuilding a deck, or any of the other suburban, middle class chores that seem to never end, the neighbor’s truck becomes a community resource. When weather disasters attract national attention, there’s the ironic celebration of monster or lifted-truck owners who bring their absurd vehicles to the rescue of beleaguered suburbanites, who invariably drive lesser vehicles or hybrids. Truck drivers, in some ways, have become inverted scapegoats for their communities. They contribute during moments of particular need or crisis, but otherwise endure the criticism for their outsized and outmoded vehicles. 

As a university professor, in the humanities, at a state university, I’m pretty comfortable holding an position that is unpopular among a sizable part of the population (although probably the same part of the population who also own more than their share of trucks). In contrast to the noble truck, in the absence of crisis, humanities faculty are politely ignored and is, at worst, seen by critics as a harmless concession to tradition, and, at best, as a useful way to prepare students for the complexities of everyday life. During times of financial or ideological crisis, however, humanities faculty become the scapegoats for perceived problems in higher education or, more broadly, the profligacy of obsolete public institutions that peddle in useless factoids or convoluted theorizing of limited practical value.   

Classics as the Canary for the End of the Humanities

There’s been a ton of buzz lately about the role of Classics in the larger curriculum of the humanities and in higher education (or any education really) today. Most of the debate has been ongoing for decades and emphasizes the problematic history of Classics and its close association with the “Western Tradition.”

Many of the recent posts on Classics have a certain degree of urgency owing, perhaps, to a renewed sense of crisis in the field, some recent curricular decisions in higher education, and some flashpoint discussions involving Classics and gender, race, and class. Popular web publications like SCS blog, Eidolon, and well-regarded bloggers have framed these conversations in subtle and intriguing ways. Most would agree that Classics has a role in the modern university and in our cultural world, but most would also agree that the discipline requires ongoing critique to continue to contribute in a positive and productive way to our society.

Go read this stuff here, here, and here.

It’s hard to disagree with any of the recent critiques of the discipline which address the discipline’s tradition of exclusivity and elitism, ongoing disciplinary and professional concerns, and are appropriately tinged with a kind of anxiety about the future of Classics as a project. As I’ve read these critiques, I’ve become more and more interested in their limits. In particular, I’m trying to figure out how far Classics can be separated in formulating our “classical” definition of the “Western tradition,” and whether this entire conversation is essentially re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In other words, it’s easy enough to understand the problems with “Western” thinking – from colonialism to capitalism – and to recognize the role that certain readings of the Classical Canon and Classics as a discipline (in the 19th and 20th centuries) played in this past. What seems to me to be more challenging (and maybe more significant in the 21st century) is the role of Classics within the larger critique of humanism which, at its worst is the “Western Tradition” by another name, and at its best, the essential organizing concept in, say, the Liberal Arts tradition. This isn’t to say that humanism and the liberal arts don’t have a potentially productive role in any useful understanding of the world, but the line between a kind celebratory (or anxious) appreciation of humanism (and the weekly article reminding us all in various insipid ways that we really need the humanities!), and some of the more brutal and crass defenses of Classics is not a difficult one. We can, perhaps, extend Arum Park’s note that white supremacy and Classics (as traditionally construed) exist on the same spectrum: it is probably worth recognizing in these discussions that this spectrum also involves so many of our basic epistemological practices and assumptions which draw from the same “Western Tradition.”

It’s interesting to wonder whether (and would love to see more about) how this crisis in Classics is really the canary in the coal mine for the growing recognition that a simplistic view of Western Civilization (or the Classical canon) isn’t the issue. The real challenge is deeply nested within the fundamental organization of higher education, the liberal arts, and the humanities.

In particular, the question that I’ve been turning over and over in my head is whether the humanities and liberal arts can cope with the most pressing global problems. From global warming to the relentless advance of capital, the destruction of indigenous societies, and the celebration of “development” (however construed), the long reach of Western thought at the core of the modern academy, the humanities, and, Classics requires critical engagement that seems almost in a different universe from adding a “module” on “Mexico City” and “Harlem” to a humanities course at a liberal arts college.

When I step back and think of how I view the world, how I was trained, and what I value, I can’t help feel like the problems facing the world today remain particularly resistant to my intellectual tool kit. While I’m sure that some of this reflects the limits to my own abilities and background, I also suspect that it reflects (as many scholars have pointed out) the limits of the intellectual traditions in which I work.

I’ve started to even play with an old idea that Richard Rothaus and I become fascinated by, the suicide gene. The concept is that certain genetic experiments would have some kind of genetic modification that would make the organism die before it could promulgate out of control or cause harm. I started to wonder whether Classics could be the suicide gene not just for an outmoded and stodgy view of the Western Tradition, but for the entire tradition of the humanities in the West. For the longest time, Classics imagined itself as fundamental to understanding the West. We can roll our eyes at such an assertion, of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that it had some currency throughout the modern era. One the most simple level, we can displace Classics and dislocate the idea that certain concepts, ways of thinking, and ideas developed in a linear or even historical way, as a way to introduce ways of thinking about time, causality, and progress that stand outside of Western traditions. 

As Classics looks to complicate its place in how we think about the West – in good and positive ways – maybe the result of this isn’t a renegotiated Western tradition constructed around new assumptions and expectations, but the complete unraveling of the Western tradition entirely. (Perhaps we are witnessing an important step in the provincializing of Western thinking.)  Maybe Classics needs to assume its old place at the foundation of the West to undermine once-and-for-all the long shadow of the Western traditions in the most profound way. This might mean the end of the humanities, of the liberal arts, of “higher education,” and even such sacred concepts as “rationalism,” “critical thinking,” and historicism. By stepping away from our expectations of what the West is and means and does and did, we’re not going to save Classics or higher education or literature or whatever, but we might actually save the world.

Reflections on Joel Jonientz

It’s been four years since Joel Jonientz died. This is a long time under any circumstances, but these days four years ago feels like a completely different world to me. Maybe some of this has to do with the “sold” sign on the Jonientz house down the street. Maybe some of this has to do with just getting older. Maybe some of this reflects the relentless pace of change that even encroaches on my little corner of North Dakotaland.

Punka cover 1

Recently, I’ve been thinking about collaboration and work at the University of North Dakota, and these are things that Joel and I talked about regularly. I was particularly interested in understand what a university could do (and should do) to cultivate a spirit of collaboration among its faculty. Joel was a veteran collaborator across UND’s campus who was part of the Working Group in Digital and New Media, co-organized the UND Arts and Culture Conference, worked with the UND Writers Conference to design their posters and to moderate panels, applied (and won) collaborative grants to animate Maya poetry, and who helped me co-found The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

There were particular circumstances that allowed for the emergence of collaborative culture on UND’s campus in those days. First, there was relative stability on campus which gave faculty the confidence that collaborative initiatives would have the time and space to develop. Second, there were resources earmarked for grassroots collaborative ventures that authorized faculty led initiatives. Finally, there was a spirit of collegiality among faculty that softened our competitive instincts. In other words, there were institutional, financial, and social conditions that encouraged the development of collaboration.  

Despite the opportunities to collaborate, I remained a bit more tentative in my approach to on-campus partnerships. I had long-justified my reluctance to embrace collaboration fully as having a rather specialized set of research interests and also being relatively slow to pivot from one area of interest to the next. Joel in contrast, always demonstrated a kind of dynamism that allowed up to cultivate multiple niches from video game designer to poster maker, painter, time-based media artist, and publisher. These skills, which derive – as he used to put it – from being a “Master of FINE Arts” gave him a tool set that was both in demand and well-suited for collaboration.

(In hindsight, I probably didn’t quite understand how to collaborate on campus and how to listen as much as I spoke. I probably don’t quite have the balance for that down yet, but I’m working on it.)

One of the key things that got me thinking about Joel’s attitudes toward collaboration and the conditions that allowed collaboration to flourish among my group of colleagues is a recent post from a colleague that said, in effect, “no one should be allowed to work for free.” It echoed a quip I once heard from a faculty member in engineering. He said that over the summer, “I don’t work because I don’t get paid.” 

This struck me as a bit odd. After all, most academics work for free over the course of their careers. In fact, the entire pay structure of academia, in which some faculty make more than others for doing essentially the same job, dictates that one persons work is worth more (and worse less) than another’s. So as long as I do the same job as my better compensated colleagues, I am, in effect, doing work for free in the hope that my efforts will be recognized and, at some future time, compensated.

Joel tended to insist that he be compensated for his work, except when he didn’t. For example, he did most of the design and layout work for my Punk Archaeology project for free. I never really understood how he determined what he expected to be paid for and what he’d do because it was fun, and what he considered contract work and what he considered collaboration. I’m sure the line was blurry, but I also suspect – in hindsight – that it had something to do with how he valued the work.

Collaboration, it seems to me, involves both parties valuing the work more or less equally. It is possible, then, to “work for free” because the work itself has value outside of or beyond compensation. For this kind of system to function, there needs to be a tremendous amount of trust between collaborators as well as the practical recognition that the project will benefit all parties. This kind of trust develops most fully in stable environments, where access to resources softens the edge of competition that so much of academia cultivates. 

I’m still working on collaborative projects. Eric Burin and I work together to publish timely works at The Digital Press. Paul Worley and I have been working with a group of editors to keep North Dakota Quarterly thriving. I work with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, Amy PapalexandrouDimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and others every summer on archaeological projects. I’m enjoying tremendously the collaboration with students and colleagues on the Wesley College Documentation Project. My work with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is a source of constant excitement.

I like to think that these collaboration share Joel’s spirit in some ways, but I also can’t help but wonder whether there would be more or different opportunities if Joel was still around. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Letters of Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times.

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below:

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935

Preface

This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

Today is one of those super hectic days that’ll run from before 7 am until after 8 pm with barely time for quick bites to eat and think between obligations. These obligations are almost all good and fun, but “wowf” will today be full.

There are three things on my mind about NDQ this week, though, and I present them here.

The First Thing

I worked this weekend on trimming and streamlining my contribution to the NDQ special issue on Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I did four things. First, I tried to make it all a bit more direct a bit less like an academic paper. Whenever I try to write for a public audience, I find myself being dragged back into academic writing. So I cut out the most egregious examples of academic writing (including the more or less dreadful bibliographic paragraphs). This helped focus my article on NDQ as an example of the situation in the humanities on a national level. Third, I tried to develop my concept of the billboard and the factory a bit more clearly. To my mind, this is really the heart of the paper and whatever its flaws, I think it offers a genuine perspective on my view of higher education. In a sentence: we’re are too interested in demonstrating the efficiency of our methods (this is the billboard which is constantly telling our stakeholders that we’re efficient, careful with public funds, and open to private partnerships) and not interested enough in selling the product (which is education, research, and various non-market advantages to society). Maybe the metaphor is a bit weak or tortured, but I’m sticking with it. Finally, the original version of the paper ended in a depressing way. While I still feel pessimistic about the future of the current version of higher education in the face of the long trajectory of American (and, really, global) political culture.

If you’re interested in how the sausage is made, check out the newest version of my paper here.

The Second Thing

In my class on the UND Budget (Cuts), I’ve become pretty interested in the idea of privatization and value. Christopher Newfield has argued that privatization has cost public higher education dearly in that most ploys to privatize aspects of university life has lead to greater costs for students, fewer resources for faculty and teaching, less efficiency and fewer opportunities for innovation. In other words, privatization is more about transferring public wealth to the private sphere and less about any real benefits for higher education.

UND is poised to see several major private initiatives on campus in the coming months. Like most public universities we have already enjoyed some of the opportunities from public/private partnerships and seen privatization nibble along the edges of university life with private dorm-style apartments ringing campus, private vendors leasing spaces in the student union, private companies handling key function like email, course management software, and the technology help desk. In many of these cases, the private sector has leveraged economies of scale and experience to provide a superior solution than could be achieved in house (but at an obvious cost). At the same time, each contract has eroded some of the university’s autonomy to function and made it a partner both in generating wealth for shareholders who have no real interest in the mission of the university and in producing the next generation of students as consumers. In particular, privatization reinforces the idea that the market is the main measure of value.

This of course, leads me to the terrifying topic of value. For most of my academic career, I’ve looked at the concept of value with fear and admiration. On the one hand, the folks who speak most fluently on value are clearly steeped in Marx and Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy (and elsewhere). It’s complicated and to acquire even a basic familiarity with the ideas requires sustained commitment to a dense body of literature.

Despite these challenges, it seems essential to understand value in the context of higher education. What is higher education worth and how do we measure it?

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

This is still a bit of a secret, but only a little bit of a secret. Next week at the Associate of Writers and Writing Programs, the University of Nebraska Press will announce that they have reached a verbal agreement to become the publishing partner with North Dakota Quarterly. This will be a big step for NDQ which has since 1911 been published in house at UND.

Part of me is happy and relieved that Nebraska will take on NDQ and help us expand our reader and subscriber base, to manage subscriptions and distribution, and to help with production.

Part of my is a bit bummed, though, as it makes the end of an era of independent publishing of NDQ on our campus and it feels a bit like we’re selling out. Of course, selling out is, as always, relative. UNP is a non-profit, academic press, so it’s not like we’ve sold to Pearson or some profit-driven publisher. And while we will, inevitably, lose some autonomy and independence, our editorial independence will be maintained. And, we’ll have a partner to help us expand our reach and our impact.

After all, the goal of NDQ isn’t just produce a journal, but to produce a journal that matters.

How to Rate Research: A Strange Little Proposal

This weekend, I got to thinking about how scholars in the humanities might rate their research productivity and quality. This line of thinking was prompted by both a new university mandate that scholars in the humanities and social sciences figure out how to rank or evaluate our publications and a reading of I. Stengers’s Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science (2018)

The problem is a long-standing one. First, as scholars a pecking order already exists, largely in our own minds, for what constitutes a good publication and what may not be. In general, this follows the basic contours of journal and publisher quality but also is riddled with meaningful exceptions and ambiguities that are significant when evaluating research for a relatively small sample like a department. Over time, I think most of us would agree that top tier journals (e.g. the American Historical Review or American Journal of Archaeology) generally publish better articles, especially over time, but this does not exclude the possibility of good articles appearing in less well regarded journals. The latter becomes particularly important when, say, reviewing the research of a smaller department, like ours, whose annual output might not map neatly onto long-standing patterns of quality. Moreover, having a nuanced system that goes beyond the typical lists of journal rating makes it possible to rate  the quality of highly specialized work that might not fit into the broad purview of many top tier journals, but is nevertheless significant. Decisions to publish specialized work destined for specialized audiences are often shaped by considerations of “fit” rather than overall ratings of journal quality. (And this will likely better accommodate the growing mandate to shift our research focus to so-called “Grand Challenges” which may reward more specialized foci that are different from larger trends in our specific disciplines.) Finally, in a small department with a rather irregular output, an ideal system will allow for the occasional misfired article or publication that has higher quality than the ranking of a publication. Over time, such exceptions will become outliers as most of the best article appear in most of the best journals, but with an annual review based on a small sample, these exceptions might have a meaningful impact on efforts to evaluate a department.

Here’s my proposal.

Each publication receives five scores provided by the scholar (who, in a department like ours, is the only person really able to judge the character of the field).

1. Rank. 25 points. This is the most standard evaluation of publication quality. Better quality journals and publishing houses get higher scores with the standard gaggle of top tier journals and publishing houses (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, et c.) scoring in the top quintile and so on. This should be most susceptible to the “smell test;” that is we should be able to smell an overrated or underrated journal or publishing outfit.

2. Type. 25 points. Generally speaking the gold standard in my corner of the humanities are peer-reviewed books and articles as a result these would occupy the top quintile here. The next quintile would be peer reviewed book chapters or edited peer-reviewed works, with the third quartile representing book chapters and other solicited articles. I would rank review essays, non-peer reviewed popular pieces or editorials, next and then book reviews and shorter conference proceedings in the bottom quintile. By allowing for some wiggle room in each quintile, we can distinguish between, say, a peer review in a top tier journal and one in a small regional outfit. We can also allow for various exceptions. Obviously, a 6,000 review essay in a top tier journal might be more significant and impactful than a short review essay for an online publisher. Again, most of this should follow the smell test.  

3. Fit. 25 points. One issue with the general journal rankings is that they tend to be biased toward traditional fields of study and research accessible to a large audience (and therefore sweeping and generalizable). In some ways, this is a good thing, but it also tends to overlook the daily grind of folks working to produce significant specialized knowledge, to explore overlooked periods and places in the past (cough… North Dakota or Cyprus), to chart new subfields (archaeology of the contemporary world, for example, or UAS), and to develop methods or theory of most use to specialists. A fit score allows us to reward articles that appear in places where they are likely to find a receptive audience rather than simply appearing in the “to ranked” journals. Again, for a small department like ours, this rewards on an annual basis work that might not find a home in a top tier journal but has an obvious and interested audience. This would reward, say, an article in an edited volume dedicated to a narrow topic, specialized research that tends to appear in less prestigious regional or specialist journals, or even books that appear in a series developed by a regional press.  

4. Quality. 25 points. This will likely be the most controversial category in my ranking system, but I contend that most of us can be honest about the quality of our own work. In other words, we know when we write a good piece or a mediocre one, but we also know that there are times when an article or chapter simply isn’t as good as we wanted it to be (but still good enough for publication). This self-awareness also serves as the counter-balance to poor fit. For example, one of my favorite and best articles ever appeared in rather obscure Hesperia Supplement. While my fit score would be pretty low and the type and ranking of the publication, for example, would be middling, the quality of the article is high. The same could be said for my “Slow Archaeology” article in North Dakota Quarterly. Some other articles of mine trend the other way, of course, and represent rather low quality offerings in very good journals.

5. Other Considerations. 10 points. Like any system, there needs to be some flexibility to take into account considerations that the existing publishing and academic system does not cover. For example, a book that makes innovative use of published data, an open access publication, or even a more conventional work, like the publication of a series of lectures, that might not correlate neatly with our established categories. It would also allow for us to mark particular involved pieces of research or to denote research that has won awards or other distinctions. The considerations will have to be spelled out.

~

To be honest, I’m not sure that a system like this will satisfy my colleagues or the powers that have requested this kind of ranking, but to my mind, this kind of system, that takes into account rankings, types of scholarly output, fit, and quality. It allows for nuance, while at the same time offers an easy to read “quantitative” score that fits the limited attention span of the assessocracy. Finally, including “fit” and “quality” responds to some fo the factors that people like Stengers or Gary Hall’s Uberfication of the University. (2016), which critique our tendency to conform to rankings systems imposed on us from outside of our programs, disciplines, and departments. It seems to be, at least, that a system like this that is both reflective of our own values (as individual scholars) and larger trends in academia (which despite what we say, do matter) offers another path toward understanding what makes us good scholars.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:

Introduction

In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 3

Two weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here, and you can find the second part here

I’ve argued over the last two weeks and austerity and neoliberalism have pushed universities to present themselves fiscally and operationally as market driven enterprises. This follows an assumption that public institutions with state funding become, over time, morally compromised because state funding insulates them from the purifying fire of market competition. As a result, universities have started to privatize core functions in order to demonstrate a willingness to optimize their operations and to promote their operational model as one that rewards competitive, efficient, and socially responsible (at least within a neoliberal model of society that views with a jaundiced eye all state sponsored activities). The efforts to promote the internal working of the university as efficient and competitive creates a situation where the university is more of a billboard for external stakeholders than a factory for knowledge production and education. 

On a superficial level, this is not entirely objectionable. After all, creating a compelling billboard for the activities at a university whether through intercollegiate sports, slick marketing material, or a commitment to external relations, celebrates the impact and significance of faculty, students, and staff, builds a sense of community and pride, and attracts resources to university from a range of sources including alumni, prospective students, and legislators.

At the same time, the view of the university as a billboard can spill over into the internal workings of the university as a factory. On the simplest level, a billboard promotes a product whose manufacturing process is only relevant inasmuch the produce fulfills consumer expectations. Because state university receive funding from a range of sources including state legislators, alumni, students, and granting agencies, there is an interest in the process that creates the well-educated student or faculty research. In other words, the billboard needs to represent both the successful outcome of a university education or faculty work as well as the efficiency of the processes that produced these outcomes. Within a society increasingly dominated by a kind of neoliberal hegemony, the state-funded university almost always presents an essential opportunity for rooting out complacency by subjecting individual, programs, and processes to competition and market forces. The university as billboard, then, extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency.

In this context, a public humanities journal like North Dakota Quarterly must has a sustainable business model or be consigned to the ranks of inefficient and complacent university functions best optimized by forcing the journal to engage in the market by applying fiscal austerity. A sustainable business model that included state funding were mutually exclusive because the latter created conditions that made the former impossible or at least very unlikely. Successful competition within the crucible of the market represented the only way in which a journal like North Dakota Quarterly could be a successful to the university billboard. 

The problem with the university as a billboard is that whatever the advantages of promoting the university are, the message of the billboard too often spills over into the inner workings of the university. While, I’m hesitant to suggest that universities currently function at optimal efficiency – any complex institution has areas where optimization is possible and desirable and areas where it is not, promoting competition across campus is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline university functions. For example, the long-standing model of higher education that models student learning an assembly line where each program, department, and class imparts a particular set of concepts, methods, and content requires coordination and collaboration across campus. It may be possible to imagine an optimized process where each class contributes the exactly the same energy into the educational process, but such Taylorist fantasies are probably misguided, if not delusional. Students aren’t uniform blanks when they arrive at the university, previous education, aptitude, and commitment levels vary widely and, whether we will admit it or not, certain subjects have higher threshold levels than others in our current educational environment and require a greater investment of energy from both students and faculty. In other words, the assembly line approach to higher education rewards cooperation among various parts of the process and accepting that some parts of the system are less efficient than others.

As faculty, administrators, and staff internalize the message of the billboard on campus, the spirit of competition is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline processes. Competition for students tends to lead to duplication of marketing and outreach efforts. Funding models that seek to recognize research or teaching excellence or even rein in wasteful competition between programs or departments become systems to be gamed. The long-standing and historical divisions on campus, whether colleges or departments that serve to protect academic and intellectual freedom and distinct disciplinary traditions become barriers to cooperation and collaboration rather than efficient incubators of distinctive methods, practices, and approaches to problems. As a number of recent commentators have noticed, by projecting the billboard internally and promoting the appearance of competition, we distill the dynamism and diversity of higher education (or as David Labaree calls it the “perfect mess”) down to two closely related metrics: dollars and enrollments (which are really just another measure of dollars). As Gary Hall has recently considered in his work on the “uberficiation” of the university, the growing ability to trace precisely the flow of capital – whether its student tuition or faculty labor – has created a system that is pennywise and pound foolish. Our ability to use dollars and enrollments to recognize efficiencies at the individual and department level has superceeded the messier project of attempting to understand the product of the higher education factory whether that be new ideas or high quality students and graduates. 

In short, the billboard approach to higher education promotes efficiency and competition at the expense of learning and discovery. And, as much as competition evokes long-standing fantasies of the academic meritocracy and satisfies the hegemonic attitudes that equate all waste with indolence and sloth, it rarely corresponds neatly with the actual work of students and faculty at a university. For many stakeholders, however, the product of the university as factory is only as important as the revenue it can generate.

For others, however, the promotion of the university as the product of market competition offers both a useful cover and a historical model to justify the expansion of certain programs and the contraction of others. The disconnect between the external promotion of evident efficiency fortified by competition and the difficulties associated with judging the final product of higher education, student learning and discovery, provides a space for administrators and faculty to advance values closely tied to reinforcing the dominance of the market in wider society. This means articulating the value of higher education in economic terms which tends to be most crudely presented as “workforce development.” Despite persistent efforts to calculate the economic value of a degree in the humanities, in most cases such efforts are incompatible with the goals of a humanities education. Whether this correlates to the efficiency of teaching and research the humanities within the university or even its non-market value to society at large is irrelevant. The billboard that promotes the work of the university to its stakeholders must be made to represent outcomes consistent with the neoliberal expectation that structure the billboard itself.  

If efficiencies resulting from competition optimize the structure the university in the age of austerity, then graduates and research at the university should likewise feed this world view as well.