An Idea for the University of North Dakota Budget

Over the last few months the University of North Dakota’s campus has absorbed the sobering reality that we will need to undergo another round of budget reductions. As with anything like this, there is much flailing, wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and slashing away at campus institutions like a drunken pirate in a beer hall brawl. In response, there are anguished letters to the editor, earnest petitions, and all manner of cluck-clucking, eye-rolling, “first world problem”ing, and other forms of cynical, ironic, and condescending rhetoric. Good times!

One of the interesting things that these budget cuts have forced me to consider is the organization of the university because there is some expectations among campus leaders (i.e. the provost and president) that these cuts are structural not simply nibbling around the edges of programs and existing departments and faculties. To stimulate thinking about these kinds of cuts critically, the university has started to make vigorous cuts both to the administration (particularly at the level of Vice President) and to departments and programs. As I’ve noted, my department (History) saw its graduate program defunded and other departments and programs are poised to be trimmed, adjusted, or combined. The deans of the various colleges (Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Mines, Business and Public Administration, Aerospace, Education, and Nursing) are responsible for most of the departmental and program level adjustments. Colleges serve as intermediaries between the upper administration and the department levels.

What is curious is that no one has suggested eliminating the colleges at UND. So that’s what I’m going to propose now. 

First, we have to recognize that two colleges – the Medical School and the Law School – need to be left untouched. In part, because the Medical School gets separate appropriations from the legislature and the Law School is largely autonomous owing the requirements of accreditation and the like. I also recognize that some programs require directors or deans with particular kinds of training and this would have to be folded into a new university system. I might be, for example, that certain programs become “schools” within the university with a director who has the kinds of qualifications that accreditors require.

Here are my rational:

1. Duplication of Work. Most universities and colleges are organized around autonomous departments which, in turn, house autonomous faculty who each fulfill a particular, typically discrete function. In other words, there is very little duplication of work or expertise at the level of departments or individual faculty. When you eliminate a department or a faculty line there is usually no-one to pick up the slack. The reasons for this are intellectual (i.e. most departments have a distinct method or epistemology that is related to disciplinary standards), externally maintained (i.e. most departments and disciplines have professional organizations that either offer guidelines or require accreditation on a national or even international level), and historically constituted (i.e. internal and external pressures have consolidated academic disciplines and eliminated duplication across campus).  

This same lack of duplication is largely the case at the upper levels of university administration as well. While faculty love to rail against the proliferation of Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents, and other administrative posts, generally speaking each position has a discrete function that is not duplicated by another position in the administration. Many of these positions serve functions that faculty do not want and protect and promote student life, manage the complexities of budgets, ensure compliance with a myriad of state and federal policies and laws, market the university to various groups, and maintain core services (email, websites, classroom spaces, offices, et c.) for everyone on campus. The talk about administrative bloat often fails to acknowledge that administrators do have functions even if these functions are seen as subordinate or ancillary to the “proper business of the university.  

Colleges are not like this. Each college has staff and administration that basically do the same (or at least a similar) job to the staff and administration in the other colleges. While I understand that some of these positions are necessary for the functioning of the university, the colleges on campus as not rationally constituted and, to some extent, arbitrary divisions. For example, certain kinds of engineering exist in the College of Engineering and Mines and in Aerospace. Political Science and Economics are in the College of Business whereas the other social sciences are in the College of Arts and Sciences. Chemical Engineering is in Engineering and Chemistry is in Arts and Sciences. Geology, however, is in Engineering with Geological Engineering. There are always local, historical reasons for this arrangement, but these are often quite contingent. In other words, the duplication of functions across colleges is not a reflection of an academic or intellectual division of labor, but of historical contingency. Colleges try to do the same thing despite being different sizes and having different resources with the primary goal of supporting the programs in the college. The limits of this goal is arbitrary and not distinct from that of the university itself.

Of course, I recognize that eliminating the colleges will not eliminate the jobs of most personnel within the colleges. At the same time, it will allow us to organize this in a rational way across campus that reflects the needs of departments and students without concern for arbitrary administrative divisions.

2. Centralization. One of the watch words of the recent set of budget cuts has been centralization of both basic functions and message: “One UND” and all that. Historically (at least since I’ve been on campus) colleges has pushed back against that pleading their uniqueness and chaffing at the idea that they would have to give up autonomy to a distant and perhaps differently motivated center. In my favorite example, one college on campus refused to use the university-wide content management system for their website and built an identical site without the CMS to demonstrate its independence. Bizarre, but true. More recently, the college deans were asked to revise their budget cutting strategies because they didn’t do enough and did not coincide closely enough with the larger strategic plan of the institution. Without impugning the motives of any particular dean, it seems safe to say that the rejection of the budget cuts reflects inherent inefficiencies in the college system as well as a bit of resistance from the college offices who are doing all they can to promote their own programs and existence. 

The structural arrangement of the college system both inserts a degree of largely irrational, inefficiency in the administration of the university and draw upon the same pool of resources as the central administration to sometimes resist its interests. If this resistance was connected to issues of disciplinary integrity or even functional imperatives, then I’d accept or even embrace the fight, but in most cases the resistance, jockeying, and horse trading is the product of historically contingent institutional divisions.  

3. Competition. It has been popular in recent years on college and university campuses to celebrate the “marketplace of ideas” and to promote competition for both intellectual ascendency, resources, and recognition across campus. While I don’t love this particularly neoliberal approach to knowledge production, I think that many on campus have accepted it. If you’re not growing, improving, innovating, embettering, engoodening, or whatever, you’re falling behind, failing, and irrelevant.

Hierarchy tends to stifle competition and innovation by limiting the ability of individuals to operate freely (as well as inefficiency).  Colleges limit competition in very practical ways at UND. First and foremost, the current funding model provides resources to colleges based on their enrollment (among other things) and this serves as a disincentive to collaborate across college boundaries. It remains challenging to collaborate – in even very basic ways – with colleagues across campuses. Certain kind of internal grant money is awarded according to college programs. Curriculum is decided on the college level (before going to another committee at the campus wide level). 

It is a fair critique to note that these institutional barriers are not too significant and easy work arounds exist, but I am not entirely clear how these institutional barriers benefit competition, collaboration, and innovation across campus. This is all the more significant when we consider that the growing interest in collaboration between STEM field and the humanities and social sciences. At present, engineering and technology is institutionally separated from the humanities (as well as certain kinds of science and math)! The existing organization of the university reflects older views of disciplinary organization (at best) and arbitrary divisions (at worst) that reduce the opportunities for strategies that will accelerate innovation and competition across campus. 

On a more cynical level, I have often wondered how oversight and strategic planning by deans has tempered innovation at the department level. If we eliminated the colleges and deans, I suspect this would free departments to negotiate their place within the marketplace of departments and ideas on campus and move more strategically and fluidly to develop partnerships and alliances. 


To be clear, I recognize that eliminating colleges will not solve all of the university’s budget problems, but the calls for the upper administration for serious, structural changes would seem to point in the direction of improving efficiency across campus. The low-hanging fruit for this kind of change is the outdated college system. Many of the basic functions immediately relevant to students and faculty could be consolidated and centralized with some benefits in efficiency. 

I suspect it is inevitable that departments and programs form alliances to promote their interests on campus. There would also have to be a form of representation to ensure that the basic functioning of various programs. Here are my thoughts in that direction:

1. Organize by Degree. It would make sense to establish for some overarching committees perhaps organized around degrees with all the programs that offer B.A., B.S., B.F.A. degrees, for example, to vet curriculum and ensure that the degree requirements and courses existed.

2. Re-establish an Autonomous Graduate School. For the last 5 years or so, the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at UND has lost most of its autonomy. It is now largely a service division with a dean that does not have tenure in a department. This ensures that the individual colleges have a significant amount of control over graduate programs served by their departments. This is irrational for all the reasons that colleges are irrational, but made sense inasmuch as the individual colleges were responsible for the faculty who taught graduate classes and advised graduate students. A more rational plan would be for the Graduate School to gain significant autonomy and work closely with departments and programs to ensure that resources exist to support various degrees at the graduate level. In other words, organization follows the degrees rather than the arbitrary and historically contingent colleges. 

3. Faculty Leadership and Governance. There would be risk, of course, that a more dynamic and competitive university structure would be more prone to administrative interference. Deans do serve as checks on the power of the president and the provost and their various minions. They are conservative institutions that make change more difficult and reinforce entrenched views of the university. To my mind, this inefficiency has hurt our ability to deliver education and support research, collaboration, and cooperation across campus more than it has helped, but there are those who will point out that the departure of deans will leave a leadership vacuum on campus that faculty will have to step into. 

While faculty love to complain about the burdens of service and the incompetence of administrators, a university without deans and college organization will require faculty to step into this gap and to balance their own and their program’s ambition against the greater good of the university. Committees will have the responsibility of working with various administrators who do much of the work to ensure that a university can function. 

Decisions on the distribution of tenure track lines, program changes, funding for adjuncts and temporary faculty, and other responsibilities could involve the entire faculty rather than existing as deals negotiated between departments and the deans. This could, of course, get messy and quickly, but maybe that kind of messiness isn’t a bad thing when it reflects the dynamism of faculty governance rather than the arbitrary accretions of administrative structures.    

The Future of Classical Archaeology

My buddy Dimitri Nakassis is giving a paper in a couple weeks at a symposium at Smith College on the Future of Classical Archaeology. He (perhaps foolishly!) asked his rather large personal and professional network to chime in on what they thought he should include in a 40 minute treatment of this rather expansive topic.

I chimed in, of course, with a flippant reply on Facebook (complete with an imagined Apple advertisement). I’ve given it some more thought over the last few days and want to expand my thoughts below. As always, my view of the future of Classical archaeology is shaped by my view of the trajectory of higher education more broadly rather than particular disciplinary concerns. This probably gives it a bit of a fatalistic tone to my view of the future of our field which contrasts a bit with Jim Neward’s response to Dimitri’ prompt.

Anyway. Here are my thoughts (which sounded a lot better in my head this morning than they look on the page!):

1. Classical Archaeology and Higher Education in the U.S. At the risk of viewing Classical archaeology as a distinctly American field, I do think that changes in higher education in the U.S. will shape how American’s contribute to the field in the future. In fact, I think that the decline of Classics and the humanities more broadly at public, state institutions has the potential to create a less democratic discipline moving forward.

Now, I understand that Classics and Classical archaeology were not the most democratic fields in the academy from the start. At the same time, strong traditions in the humanities at publicly funded state schools did a wide range of students access to Classical education even at “second tier” state institutions. This was particularly significant for expanding access to Classical education in the second half of the 20th century. While the Classics and Classical archaeology is largely dead at the second or third tier level, political and economic pressures have pushed the humanities to justify their place at top-tier, publicly funded institutions as well. There are pressures on students as well. As state funding to public education declines, it becomes more expensive to attend state schools and students take on costly student loans to pay tuition, and this serves as a significant disincentive to study the humanities in which low starting salaries and decline in positions in Classics and Classical archaeology across academia will offer a significant disincentive. 

It goes without saying that Classical archaeologists trained at state schools of the various tiers have made important contributions to the field. If students are not exposed to Classics, Classical archaeology, and the humanities at these places, it will change the field (and, I suspect, basic aspects of American society).

Elite, private institutions will continue to produce Classicists and archaeologists and these individuals will likely come from upper-middle class and upper class families. They’ll have the opportunities to participate in excavations and surveys in the summer and refine their Greek, Latin, Ancient History and Art History in state-of-the-art classrooms with access to strong libraries, diverse technologies, and a socially homogeneous community predisposed to valuing traditional disciplinary learning. As much as I was one of these students, I cannot see it as being good for the field.

My concern is that students at these institutions (whatever our pious motivations) will represent the New Global Elite ™ who will look to replace the roots of Classics in Western colonialism, elitism and nationalism with variations on globalism and neoliberalism. It’s possible that I’m underestimating the culture of critique at elite private institutions (and I seriously hope that I am), but my fear is that the future of Classical archaeology will come to reflect the views of this global class with their skepticism of the the national project, technological solutionism, and openness to the free market as a model for the production and dissemination of knowledge. Maybe this is overly pessimistic, but it is hard to ignore the growth of (largely digital) practices designed to globalize archaeological knowledge at the expense of local communities and national interests that were initially established as bulwarks against colonial practices and now serving as barrier against a more recently version of a globalizing narrative.  

I suspect that I’m naive (or if nothing else, self serving) when I see public education in the U.S. as the basis for a challenge to globalization in our discipline. At the same time, I think that ensuring Classical archaeology has a more democratic and diverse base in the U.S. would serve at least to dilute the narrowing of perspectives, practices, and attitudes within our field.

2. Professionalization. While changes in the nature of American higher education may offer a less than rosy future for Classical archaeology, I think that we can take heart in the increasing professionalization of our field. It wasn’t that long ago (in academic terms) when the most significant projects in the Mediterranean world were funded by well-healed donors and conducted by wealthy (and largely male) excavators. While many of these men were fine and broad-minded archaeologists and scholars, there persisted an “old boys club” mentality in many areas of the discipline. Pressures from changes in American academia and the democratization of higher education has slowly pushed back against many of the worst abuses – from booze-drenched field projects to womanizing, backroom deals, and political intrigues – and slowly made archaeological field work and disciplinary practice more open, welcoming, and diverse.

At the same time, there is no doubt that we have more work to do. The dearth of women project directors, challenges faced by scholars with families and fieldwork, galling breeches of professional standards during job searches, interviews, and hiring processes, and the persistence of patronage networks that privilege personal academic connections over merit continue to bedevil the field. 

As the future of Classical archaeology is likely to draw from a narrowing pool of candidates, it puts all the more pressure on the discipline to put professional priorities ahead of personal ones to ensure that we can wring whatever diversity continues to exist from our discipline. If the increasingly democratic character of the American academy drove the the first stages of the professionalization project, the next stages of the process will require even greater intentionality among the future practitioners of our field.

3. Ethical Practice. Fortunately, there are some first-class people thinking about the ethical underpinnings of Classical Archaeology these days. In fact, I suspect that the future of Classical archaeology involves an even greater investment in what we could call the “ethical turn.” This involves more than simply challenging the historical basis for Classical archaeology, but also anticipating new challenges to the discipline which range from professionalization to the potential of digital practices, the growth of salvage and rescue archaeology, the threat of looting and the antiquities trade, and the storage crisis.

The interest in ethics is more than another “meta” discourses in Classical archaeology. My feeling is that future practice is as likely to be informed by a robust ethical critique as it is by the latest theoretical and social scientific approach. I think there is a growing awareness that practice in a fundamental way, and ethical practice in particular, is foundational to meaningful knowledge and not something limited to an archaeological ethics class or the requisite ethics panel at a major meeting. If we want archaeological knowledge to do good, then we have to do it in a good way.

So maybe the future of Classical archaeology has more to do with continuing the momentum that the field has enjoyed over the past 50 years to ensure that our work continues to reflect diverse and democratic approaches, professional behaviors, and ethical practices. Considering the challenges facing higher education and American society, that feels like a pretty tall task.

Follow-Up on Mid-Career Convergence

I had some really enjoyable feedback on my blog post from yesterday. Some of it considered the arguments that I was making in the blog, but much more of it took as a point of departure my status as a mid-career faculty member. Putting aside the arrogance of assuming that my career would continue for at least as long as it has (and recognizing that this is most uncertain in days of declining budgets and interest in the humanities), I was interested in the number of folks who expressed similar anxiety that their research had proliferated around divergent lines over the first half of their career, and they were struggling to pull them together into a unified whole.

I don’t mean this post to ask anyone “weep for tenured, mid-career faculty in the humanities,” but to explore some of the realities that readers of my blog expressed to me. This is the situation as I see it:

1. Diversified Portfolios. When I reflect the activities in which my colleagues and I are engaged, they are remarkably diverse. As we discussed on a recent podcast, it’s not unusual at all for a mid-career faculty member to have research in a number of different locations, different periods, and different topics. We diversify for a range of reasons. Some diversity is grounded in intellectual growth. Some diversity is grounded in the economic and professional realities of needing to cast the net wide to get publications, grant funding, and opportunities for advancement. Whatever the motivation, most of us are doing more than one thing at a time.

2. Skills over Substance. Part of the challenge that mid-career humanities scholars encounter is that the humanities at many universities are seen as a package of transferable skills. These could be broad and ambiguous – like the dreaded critical thinking or the condescending “advanced writing” – or could be specific and focused like GIS, particular languages, or computer coding. As a result, university culture often pushes mid-career humanities faculty to represent themselves as having particular skills, whereas disciplinary culture continues to privilege content expertise. Over time, this contributes to a fractured professional identity where what we know and what we can “do” tail off in seemingly divergent directions. For example, I am a content expert in the archaeology of Late Antique Greece and Cyprus, but I can “do” GIS, digital publishing, database management (of a very simple sort), and archaeological method.

3. Foggy Futures. When meeting with prospective majors, I tell them that a humanities education prepares them for jobs that “haven’t been invented yet” (which I always thought was a reference to a Darryl Dawkins quote about having “dunks that haven’t been invented yet” but I can’t seem to find that reference). I have no doubt that what I’m telling students is true, but as I move through the middle of my academic career I find the foggy future of academia and the humanities genuinely disconcerting. I have no idea if I will be valued for the skills that I have or the area knowledge or if I just show up on time, edutain students, and always wear pants. While I’m loath to let the whims of the university administration direct my career trajectory in its entirety, I’m not opposed to doing more to anticipate how to do my job well. The problem is, of course, no one knows what the future of the humanities holds in American universities. The devaluing of the humanities in the modern university is almost certainly a phase, but the future of the humanities is anything but clear.

Whatever one thinks of my view of convergence, the various comments that I got from colleagues across history has suggested mid-career faculty find themselves in a dynamic, if a bit confounding place in the academy. They have no lack of interests, expertise, and experience, but often find themselves bedeviled by a lack of professional direction at the very moment when they’re best poised to make a contribution to their field, their students, and their institutions. There are real efficiencies to be gained by working with mid-career faculty and helping them achieve, recognize, or just promote a kind of convergence in their work and their academic worlds. 

Graduate Education

I always forget how hectic the start of the semester is. This semester, I feel particularly caught out. I have a book that I’m publishing to appear this week (!!), another book – that I’m co-authoring – staggering out of the bleak winter writing season, a teaching overload, and the usual onslaught of early-semester meetings. 

There is one meeting in which I’m particularly interested. It is with a new “field officer” from the graduate school who is acting as a graduate ambassador. He is also the director of graduate studies for English. We’re going to chat generally about the state of graduate education at UND with particular attention to what’s going on in the humanities. For the last couple of years, I’ve been director of graduate studies in the department of history and while our program is healthy and thriving, I think that graduate education in the humanities nationally has challenges and realistic conversations on campus can at least prepare students to enter a world where an education in the liberal arts and humanities is no long prized as the hallmark of an educated individual and a priority among those seeking to guard the welfare of the republic.

So, as I thought about this meeting on the way onto campus, I came up with three or four things that maybe could frame our conversation:

1. Creating Advocates. Without eschewing our own responsibility to advocate for our students, we could do things that help our graduate students become advocates for their disciplines not only on campus here, but more broadly. To do this, students have to understand more clearly the culture of higher education in the US, the institutional structures that shape their university experience, and how to use their new positions as “consumer of educational products” to push for change on campus that benefits their futures (especially if they plan to go on into academia) as well as the future students.

2. Disciplinarity. We’re in an interesting time for the disciplines. On the one hand, disciplinary integrity is now needed more than ever to protect the autonomy of academic departments, fields of study, methods, and branches knowledge. At the same time, we are being pushed – not just by malevolent forces – into thinking outside the disciplinary box. In fact, we interdisciplinary thinking is a hallmark of a careful thinking in the humanities. For students to grasp interdisciplinary thinking and its potential, however, they need to have both a secure understanding of their own disciplines (and that is best achieved at the department level) and regular contact with folks from outside their disciplines. To do this we have to make it easier for students to interact in an academic setting with folks outside their disciplines.

3. Hands-on Experiences. One of the greatest challenges we face in our two-year master’s program is finding ways to give students hands-on experiences without undermining the rigor of their academic training. For example, we would love it for students to gain work experience at a local museum, in an archive, or with work publishing at a press or an academic journal. These could be developed as internships – for credit – or as part of their graduate teaching assistantships. The former involves asking our students to do work for nothing, whereas the later involves an infusion of funding either from UND or from collaborating institutions.

4. Collaboration across Institutions. We live on an island here in Grand Forks, ND in the primordial lake Agassiz. We’re surrounded by pitch black farmland and connected to other centers in the state by narrow ribbons of highway. These other centers are islands too and many of these islands have college campuses. The Department of History already collaborates with North Dakota State University in offering a joint Ph.D. in History, and I don’t see why this kind of collaboration might not be expanded to bring more isolated, but engaged minds together. And this doesn’t just mean collaboration with institutions of higher education. There are numerous cultural institutions across the state – North Dakota Humanities Council, The State Historical Society, The State Library, et c. – that could offer meaningful collaborations with the various islands across the state.   

4. Culture, Not Contract. One of the changes that I’d love to see on campus is less attention given to the contractual aspects of higher education – paper work, programs, deadlines, requirements, et c. – and more given to the cultural aspects of graduate education on our campus here. For example, it remains difficult to convince students to meet less formally or to attend invited speakers or to forge meaningful academic contacts across campus. These kind of informal activities take place when there is a healthy academic and intellectual culture on campus and when programs are seen as opportunities to engage with big and difficult questions rather routes to degrees.

New Year’s Resolution: Trust the Process

I know that New Year’s resolutions are a bit silly and all, and most involve middle aged men and women trudging off to the gym at 6 am for a couple of weeks in January, but I’m not the only academic to indulge in this annual opportunity for personal and professional introspection.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a ton of fun. I have enjoyed working on projects quickly and, frankly, a bit obsessively. I’ve enjoyed the staccato beat of deadlines both self-imposed and external, and the regular appearance of completed projects.

Recently, though, I’ve struggled to get back to or even deal with a few more involved and long term projects. For example, I have only returned the work on a volume documenting our excavations at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria largely because the task of moving it completion seemed a bit overwhelming. I have been reluctant to start John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge 2014) because it seems too damn long (and I have no idea how Kostis Kourelis convinced me to pony up $20 for Alan Moore’s Jerusalem: A Novel (New York 2016) other than it’s economical $0.017 per page cost!). I have a 100,000 word textbook manuscript that needs sustained attention and an online History 101: Western Civilization class (upon which the book is based) that requires revision, updating, and change and a largely still-born untextbook projectI have 10,000 photographs from the Bakken that a begging for some kind of analysis or, at least, organization. Most of these projects require more than a couple of weeks of sustain attention. I can’t bang them out over a long weekend fueled by excitement and coffee, and they’re unlikely to leave me with a sense of general satisfaction because – other than reading a book cover-to-cover – research doesn’t work like that.

Over the life of this blog, I’ve frequently written about process and even more frequently about slow, but maybe I’m more interested in process and slow and taking my time in theory than in practice. Over the last couple of years, at least, I have paid more and more attention to getting things done and the excitement (and addictive stress) of racing toward a deadline. I love looking at a “to do list” and thinking “how on earth will I get all this happen?” And even when I fail to get through the list or things fall through the cracks or the quality of my work isn’t what I hoped it would be, I have convinced myself that this is no worse than failing at a self-imposed work-out goal or feeling the sting of a favorite team losing a game that I predicted them to win.

Maybe this year, I need to get back to really believing in the process and take the time to nudge these long term projects along.

Teaching Thumbelina

On the recommendation of a commenter on this post, I read Michael Serres’s Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. (2014). As readers of this blog realize, I’ve been struggling with the growing gap between my expectations as a teacher and the expectations of my students. In particular, I have come to recognize more and more of the daily annoyances – refusing to read, refusing to follow directions, irregular grammar and style, modest levels of classroom engagement – have less to do with laziness, lack of preparation, or even just apathy, and more to do with active strategies of resistance. I find the approach to teaching has led me become more sympathetic with student attitudes and less likely to devise strategies that undermine their autonomy as learners (even if I find that their learning styles run counter to my own expectations in the classroom). In short, I’ve become more inclined to meet students where they are – bored, restive, resistant – than force them into a form that I have created.

Serres’s book is empowering because it recognizes the remarkable character of the millennial generation and suggests that it should be celebrated. In particular, he embraced the desire of millennials to be connected and to talk to one another and work and plan together rather than to lectured. For Serres, Thumbelina talks with thumbs that blur across mobile phone and table screens. Chats with multiple people simultaneously and exists within a dense network of connections. Unlike Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which presents a desperate and isolated generation only superficially connected through digital media, Serres offers a more uplifting view of a densely networked generation and any superficiality intrinsic in this form of networking as a generally positive rejection of such superficial identifiers as race, nationality, and even – to some extent – economic disparity.     

More importantly, this densely networked generation has a world of knowledge at their fingertips (or thumbs) and is no longer anxious to be told things by authorities. In fact, they are eager to discover connections – links if you will – on their own using their own networks to bring together disparate bits of information into a unified whole. In other words, they don’t need us to tell them what to do because they already do it. So when they are chatting away on their phones and laptops during our lectures, they’re not distracted, they’re working. They’re figuring life out, creating connections, and de-centering knowledge that we remain desperate to re-center.

In fact, Serres indicts the generations that constructed the modern university as the same who brought (in my words, not his) war, colonialism, neoliberal ideologies, and authoritarianism. Our students are actively resisting systems that privileged the authority of the teacher as the keeper of the knowledge and while we grow frustrated talking at them, the students are building new communities of knowledge on their own in defiance of our droning voices heavy with the past. What we need to do is meet our students where they are and enter their networks as legitimate partners in learning. (This is easier said than done in that we carry the burden of generations of privileging and commodifying access to information and we still claw at the vestiges of authority fortified by these practices, but Serres (and I) think it’s possible. In fact, it’s necessary because the next generation with their tools, techniques, and communities will continue to subvert how we do things.)

The book is short and has done more to fuel my imagination than to solidify some particular line of argument. More than that, it’s overwhelmingly positive. I’m increasingly fatigued by articles that tell me that I need to slow down (and to realize that I contributed to this is painful), to read less, to say “no,” and to savor the moment. I wonder if I share more with my students than the authors of these works. I want to read more. I want to speed up. I want to do less with more things. And most importantly, I just want to do stuff. I get tired to talking about things, building skills, practicing, planning, and learning. Maybe this is why I found Serres work so refreshing.  

New Views of the Humanities in Higher Education

This weekend, I finished Gordon Hunter’s and Feisal G. Mohamed’s edited volume A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Education. (Rutgers 2016). The book is positioned as a response to The Heart of the Matter a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and published in 2013. The editors felt that this report and others like it which worked to articulate the growing sense of crisis in the liberal arts and humanities overlooked the experiences and situation present in America’s public universities. 

The book is divided, roughly, between folks intent of articulating the historical situation of the humanities in pubic universities in the U.S. and the present political and economic situation facing public universities and colleges. The papers detail the well-know story of declining state support, but more importantly locate this within larger historic trends in public education. Various authors point out that by shifting the focus of public education toward professional degrees and the unrealized promise of STEM fields, they make it more difficult for lower income students to pursue the promises articulated by the humanities both in terms of develop critical reasoning, writing, leadership, and problem solving skills (and the higher, long-term incomes that these produce) and in terms of the quality of life and cultural literacy that humanities degrees offer. Policies that explicitly discourage humanities degrees at public universities such as those articulated by the governors of Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin in favor of support professional exacerbate the existing divisions between graduates of private colleges who tend to be from more economically privileged background and have access to high quality humanities education and those who attend increasingly underfunded public universities. For some contributors this represents an example of how the public education system has broken the American promise of upward mobility and equality of opportunity for those willing to be productive. In some ways, as a few contributors have noted, the promise of publicly funded higher education dates to the Morrill Act’s establishment of land-grant institutions in 1862. The underfunding and marginalizing of America’s community colleges represents another example of this same trajectory.

While the papers are relatively strong in their contextualization of the current state of the humanities, they are less compelling when it comes to offering a “new deal” that would reverse current trends or offer a viable alternative. On the one hand, this speaks to the tragic, if fundamentally realistic, perspective offered by many of the papers. The problems with the humanities in public higher education are deep and profound and potentially intractable.

At the same time, it makes the book unsatisfying. Several authors call for more advocacy and less willingness to accommodate the continued undermining of the public university. Other authors see changes in the relationship between the humanities and STEM disciplines, including the rise of the Digital Humanities and fields like medical humanities. Others look for support among well-heeled and influential humanities graduates not to fund humanities programs (because most authors are clear that private donors and support cannot replace the systematic defunding of public higher education), but for reinforcing the value of humanities education to the workforce, civic institutions, and society. A few appear to hope the awareness of the plight of the humanities enough to change the existing funding priorities, or that change will come from reiterating the value of the humanities in negotiating an increasingly diverse, complex, and ethically fraught world.

None, as far as I could tell, advocated for anything subversive or any form of transformative resistance to the current state of affairs. Of course, the model of a “New Deal” reflects the idea that change will be top down rather than bottom up, but it remains difficult to recognize who in higher education today will initiate the kind of sweeping changes a “New Deal” would anticipate as the contributors seem to all recognize that the American political culture on both sides of the aisle have lost interest in funding higher education. More problematic still is the absence of a triggering crisis – like the stock market crash in 1929 – that would reverse current trends. In short, the book is calling for a New Deal despite the absence of any consensus among the political class or the public at large that there is, in fact, a Great Depression.

At the end of A New Deal for the Humanities, I felt rather defeated. I kept hoping for a call to action that I could engage on a daily level, in my classes, research, and service at a publicly funded university, bit it was strangely absent. I’m glad my students in our introductory level graduate course in history will get a chance to read these contributions because they do offer the tragic vision of higher education today. My hope is that they will not despair, but look more closely for opportunities to shake-up this narrative as they move forward in their careers.

Entrepreneurial Humanities

Every now and then I get an idea that percolates through my head on a run or a walk on a sunny fall afternoon. Usually these ideas dissipate with my growing exhaustion or once I return to the distraction of daily work. Mostly they’re just bad ideas. 

Anyway, I’ve been turning over in my head an idea to connect entrepreneurial practice to the humanities in an explicit way. I suspect this came from reading an endless series of books on the crisis of the humanities. These books are as disheartening as they are facile, but they can – if taken in the right doses (almost homeopathically) – stimulate thought.

So here’s my idea:

There is pretty good evidence that humanities majors make more money in the long run than students with professional and pre-professional degrees (although the results are complex) and are competitive in the long run with folks with various STEM degrees. Because the humanities do not provide a neatly defined set of skills that transfer directly to professional context, they have suffered particularly at state universities where short-term student debt, local economic pressures, and the political agendas of various stakeholders encourage the  immediate value of professional disciplines often trumps the more complicated and politically risky, long-game of the humanities. 

Most professional humanists will concede that the larger project of the humanities has little to do with income, earnings, or professional training. At the same time, most of us exist in a world where certain aspect of market capitalism holds sway. We get paid to do our jobs, leverage our accomplishments for various forms of advancement, and even hold professional degrees (the Ph.D.) as a defining credential. As a result, we become deft navigators of the world of capital, learn to develop our ideas, and balance the demands of an increasingly neoliberal academy while recognizing our privileged positions, our responsibilities, and the limits of the system in which we work.

These challenges have not discouraged people in the humanities for being entrepreneurs in both a conventional sense and within academia. In fact, projects like organizing a national writers conference, producing a regular radio show on public philosophy, publishing a struggling literary journaldeveloping a digital press, or conducting collaborative research projects all involve entrepreneurial skills and real world challenges all mediated by a persistent commitment to humanistic practices and inquiry.

My idea would be a monthly, TED-style presentation from a humanities entrepreneur. The presentation would be brief, talk about challenges, risks, and decision making and followed by a question-and-answer session that’s either moderated or free form.

The goals of this program would be three:

1. To demonstrate in a real world context how advanced training the humanities prepares people for the challenges, risks, and opportunities of entrepreneurial enterprise.

2. To make clear that being a entrepreneur involves understanding neoliberal practices in the academy and the society, but not necessarily accepting them or advancing them. Being an entrepreneur can be subversive.

3. To share basic entrepreneurial skills and strategies developed in the context of humanities project with the larger community.  

Finally, this is a low-investment program designed to demonstrate, broadly, how humanities education can prepare students and faculty not only to survive in the current economic climate, but to change it for the better. As the program expands we could invite similarly trained entrepreneurs from the community to participate, develop an online video archive, and even coordinate social events that bring together like-minded people from the community to meet and share ideas.

What do you think?

Introducing Graduate Students to Graduate School

Last year I became the director of graduate studies for the history department at the University of North Dakota. This was not a natural fit as I have had relatively few graduate students during my 10+ years at UND and few of them earned their M.A. without some kind of drama. That being said, we’re a small department and everyone has to take their turn doing departmental service.

As part of my responsibilities as graduate director, I both introduce the students the administrative and bureaucratic side of graduate school through a one-hour meeting, but also run our required graduate methods course which introduces students to historical methods and some advanced research and writing skills. For the latter course, about a third of it is occupied by guest lectures from my colleagues. The rest of the course – say 10 sessions – focuses on big picture issues that face all graduate students.

Here are my topics and some of my readings. I’m open to additions and suggestions particularly for the section on the public humanities and history in the public sphere. I’m looking for something general and sophisticated (and not just “we need to talk to the public more…). Thoughts?

1. Perspectives on Graduate Education in the 21st Century:

L. Cassuto, The Graduate School Mess. 2015. (I have mixed feelings about this book.)

2. Perspectives on History and the Humanities in the 21st Century

G. Gordon and F. Mohamed, A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education. 2015. 
Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto. 2015. (My thought here.)

3. Advanced Library Research

4. Reading and Writing I: The Article Review

5. Developing a Digital Workflow

Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, Writing History in the Digital Age. 2013.

6. Reading and Writing II: The Book Review

7. Public Humanities and History in the Public Sphere

Reading: TBA 

8. Reading and Writing III: The Prospectus

9. Alt-Ac Careers and Professional Development

Reading: A. Grafton and J. Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” Perspectives (October 2011).

10. Time Management and Work/Life Balance

Reading: M. Berg and B. Seeber, The Slow Professor. 2016. (My ambivalent thoughts here and here.)


I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading lately. Some of it comes from a stalled summer reading list. Some of it comes from the growing awareness that I don’t really read enough. I’ve been shamed lately when I hear about the prodigious amounts of reading my colleagues do and recognize more and more that I’m struggling to keep up with recent developments in my field.

I’ve also become aware that my reading has largely become practical. I read manuscripts that I’m peer reviewing. I read books that I’ve been asked to review in publications. When I do read, I tend to read rather surgically, ferreting out specific types of information, arguments, and even just mining for citations (which I then read for more citations. It’s really just citations all the way down.)

Finally, I’ve started to embrace serious reading on digital devices on a more regular basis. This summer I made my first effort to read an academic book on my Kindle and I’ve slowly converted most of my reading list to pdfs. 

My thinking about reading has led me three places.

1. Find Some Focus. One of the challenges I’ve faced lately is my research has become too disparate stretching from the Northern Plains to Cyprus and Greece. I need to find a way to refine my focus to prioritize at least some of my reading. For example, I’ve been carrying around a copy of Thansis Vionis 2013 book on the Medieval Cyclades. Clearly, this is a priority for my work in the Argolid and even on Cyprus, but for whatever reason, the book in its unread state has come to represent my failures as a serious scholar. 

I need to establish a list of works and prioritize my reading not because I want to my focused, professional reading to take over my reading universe, but to help to put some limits on my surgical reading and free up time to read more broadly.  

2. Read to Read. I tell my graduate students that most of the habits that I’ve formed over my academic career developed either during my preparation for my comprehensive exams or during the most intense stages of dissertation writing. In fact, I suspect that comprehensive exams are less valuable for what you read and remember, and more valuable for the habits that you form. 

When I was reading for comps some 20 years ago (!!) I read a couple books a week for around 18 months. I took some notes on them, read some reviews, and generally tried to think broadly about works that fell far outside my area of research specialization. In other words, I developed the habit of reading to read, not toward some specific and practical research goal (putting aside the goal of passing my comprehensive exams). I need to get back to doing that, and so I’m going to try to embrace the act of reading as an end to itself. Maybe I’ll even try one of those “book-a-week” deals. 

3. Read Differently. Despite my broad interest in digital media and digital history and archaeology, I usually read my books on paper. As I tell my friends, it’s like driving my Ford F150. I just love the feeling of driving a truck. I love the smell of wet dog, dirt, spilled coffee. I rolling through town at 5-10 mph below the speed limit with my yellow dog (and soon, my puppy). I know that in many ways trucks are obsolete dinosaurs, but I just love driving mine. I recognize that paper books are similar to big trucks: impractical, emotional, and moving invariably toward a kind of practical obsolescence. Who wants to carry three months worth of books overseas? Who has the patience to wait for a new book to arrive when an instant download is a click or two away? Who has the space to store papers books and the time to organize them? I know some people do have the passion for paper, but like my truck, it’s largely irrational and typically a luxury for folks who don’t read for a living.

This isn’t to say that trucks don’t have certain value. Last night a storm brought down several large branches in my yard, and it’ll be nice to just chuck them in the back of my truck and drive to the green waste disposal bins. 

This summer I tried to read an academic book on my Kindle. The reading part was fine, but I found myself myself struggling to navigate backward and forward in the book. The probably wasn’t the intuitive controls on the Kindle or even the bookmarking function which worked well. The issue was that I tend to be a (to paraphrase my undergraduates) a very “visual reader.” I tend to remember the structure of pages: the paragraph breaks, subheadings, and even the location of passages on either odd or even pages. The Kindle removes those kind of visual cues from my memory and when I change the font size or jump around in the book, the pages repaginate making it hard for me to remember just where I read that passages that I didn’t highlight when I read it, but want to highlight later.

In pdf versions of books, the page structure remains largely intact even if visual cues like the binding are absent. As a result, I tend to remember the location of key passages and, invariably, content of the book better.