New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!

CCF COVER Single

Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

https://thedigitalpress.org/the-library-of-chester-fritz/

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from Amazon.com.

 

Three Things Thursday: Campus, Corinthia, and Conferences

This week has become more hectic than I would have wished, but mostly it’s hectic with good things. I’m looking forward to heading to Fargo tomorrow for the Northern Great Plains History Conference and pleased that some of the work that I put into cleaning up data from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia is almost far enough along to sustain some basic hypothesis building. These two things, and the changing face of my institutions campus will be the topic of today’s “three things Thursday.”

Thing the First

UND’s campus is really changing. Over the last three or four years, the university has implemented a new campus master plan, built a number of new buildings, created elevated walkways between existing buildings, and introduced new landscaping to the campus quad that turned several roads into pedestrian only zones.

For the last decade or so the old Medical School’s “Science Building” has housed my Department of History and American Indian Studies. This has been completely renovated with new conference rooms, offices, and classrooms. It’s pretty nice and while I liked my massive office carved out of lab space, my new office feels clean, compact, and contemporary.

It also has a glass door, which is a bit odd, and the hallway outside the office is access only through door controlled by key cards (at least outside normal building hours). The hallway also has a number of cameras. The bathroom has no doors.

I get that we live in a society where control, access, and surveillance have become synonymous with power. And I also understand that privacy is not a right, but a privilege reserved for those who can afford the necessary protocols, treatments, and tactics. And, finally, I get that control over the commons (and a public state university is a kind of commons) is necessary to avoid the abuse of its limited resources.

That said, I am still bit a put off by the level of control and surveillance that exists in our new building.

Thing the Second

I’m so, so, so close to having some of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia data ready for some preliminary analysis. In fact, when I’m done a few odds and ends this morning, I plan to work on some of the last bits of data this morning. As I reported last week, most of what I’m doing at this stage is recoding information originally recorded on paper inventory cards and keyed to notebook pages to more standardized formats appropriate for digital databases and keyed to stratigraphic unit (which, in turn, can be connected to particular pages in the notebooks).

While I have some long term goals with this project — including preparing the data for publication — but in the short-term, I want to be able to do some basic analysis of our assemblages that allow us to hypothesis build. For example, it will be possible to analyze the material from various parts of Isthmia as one might analyze a survey assemblage. We’ve been doing this some with the data from Polis where we’ve been able to consider both the presence or absence of certain forms of fine and utility wares across the site. For Isthmia, the plan might be to pull together all the material from, say, the East Field or the Roman Bath and use it as a window into what classes of artifact are present in the region at various times and perhaps even in what proportion to other contemporary artifacts.

Of course, this won’t be the last word in our analysis of the material from Isthmia, but it should offer the first word and an opportunity to understand the character of the Isthmia assemblage in a more systematic, if also more superficial, way.

Thing the Third

If you’re planning on going to the Northern Great Plains History Conference this week, do consider stopping by my panel tomorrow morning. I’ll be talking about the state of North Dakota Quarterly in session 34: The State of State Journals: Past, Present, and Future with editors of South Dakota History, North Dakota History, and Minnesota History.

You can download a copy of the conference program here.

You can read a copy of what I plan to say here.

Repatriation at UND

This week has been a very difficult one for my Native American colleagues and students. The University of North Dakota announced that they had begun the repatriation process on a collection of artifacts and ancestors discovered over the last six months on campus. I’ve been a small part of this process and I’ve been overwhelmed by the experience and especially the courage and commitment of my Native American colleagues and their friends and allies in the state and on campus.

If you’re interested in what is going on at UND, here is a link to the university’s resources on the process.

Here is a link to the statement issued by Governor Doug Burgum and and Indian Affairs Commissioner Nathan Davis. 

Here is some media cover from the usual suspects and the major Native American media at ICT

Here’s a link to Sonya Atalay’s, Jen Shannon’s, and John Swogger’s thoughtful NAGPRA Comics which do a decent job explaining the NAGPRA process.

I hope that the community manages to do three things as they come to process this information. First, they recognize that our Native American colleagues, students, and friends need time to grieve, process, and understand the situation disclosed this week.

Second, they give the NAGPRA committee on campus room to work and recognize that this is the first step in a complex and painful process. This is not just work of UND or “the institution,” but a committee of white and Native American faculty and staff (and our colleagues across the state) who are doing the best they can to navigate this situation in a respectful and deliberate way. 

Finally, that they hold the institution, its leaders, and the committee accountable for what they’ve promised and they see this not just as a problem to be solved (through processes, laws, and “best practices”), but an opportunity to forge closer ties with Native American communities and work to undo centuries of overt and structural (and institutional) racism on our campus. 

As a white dude (and an archaeologist), I’m always the last to figure shit out. What I witnessed this week (and over the last several months), though, accelerated the learning process for me (even though I know that it shouldn’t have taken the incredible trauma and courage this situation revealed to do this). I hope my friends and colleagues – both in archaeology and in the UND community – hold me accountable as I continue to develop as a scholar, teacher, and person. 

Quantifying Citations

One of the goals that I had in revising my book manuscript over the past year was to cite more women authors.This was partly in response to critiques from peer reviewers, but also because it is the right thing to do. Citational politics is part of academic life and the growing interest in quantitative assessment (various indices, impact factors, and so on) means that it’s not just about appearances and giving credit where it is due, but it also has direct financial consequences. 

The distribution of citations in my original manuscript was pretty disappointing with only 35% of the works in the bibliography having at least one woman as author and 77% having at least one man. This is obviously not what I set out to do when I started writing this book and it appears that an assessment of the book as very white and very male was a fair one and one that I took to heart.

After I made a series of substantive revisions over the last year, I was excited to run the numbers on my bibliography again and see whether my revisions improved the situation.

Sadly, they did not. While I increased the percentage of references with at least one woman as author to 40%, I also increased the number of references with at least one man as author to 84%. 

This was pretty demoralizing to realize. When I dug deeper into my numbers, I did notice some reasons for optimism.

First, for citations dating to 2020 or later, 48% of the citations have at least one woman author and 67% have at least one man. 

For citations dating to 2015 or later, this number stays roughly stable with 46% of my citations having at least one woman author and 67% having a man.

For citations since 2010 and 2000, the percentage of references with at least one woman author stays relatively stable at 42% and 40% respectively and 73% and 70% respectively for references with at least one man as an author.

References dating to before 2000, however, are a shit show with merely 13% of the references including at least one woman and 91% including at least one man. Some of this can be attributed to the outsized place that Bill Rathje and Michael Schiffer have in both archaeology of the contemporary world and my book, but even then, these numbers are ghastly.

This quantitative work has taught me three things:

First, over the past decade there has been a good bit of conversation about structural biases and inequality. My bibliography is a depressing example of this. Even as I honestly tried to shift the balance toward more work by women, historical traditions of practice in my discipline continue to keep a firm thumb on the scale and my own reading and writing practices. 

As my book manuscript goes out once again for review over the next few weeks, I reckon I will have one more opportunity to work on my citation practices and will continue to try to work to redress what is clearly a shortcoming in my book. 

Secondly, if and when the book is accepted and typeset, I hope that I can do some more sophisticated analysis of the content of the book. After all, it is easy enough to pepper one’s work with some throw away references as a way to shift a bias one way or another. And, of course, this isn’t entirely superficial as various automated reference searches (e.g. Google Scholar) don’t care whether the citation is a “see also” or part of a more in-depth discussion. As institutions look toward i10 and H -indices as measures of a scholars reach and impact, these numbers matter.

On the other hand, a five page discussion of a work may only garner a handful of citations in the text and may only result in a single bibliographic entry. This is particular true for dissertations where authors don’t have as substantial “back catalogue” of work that warrant referencing. I hope to come up with a systematic way to measure how much of my book is devoted to various authors, but since this will be a pretty arduous task, it might make better sense to do this at after the book is typeset and when the final references are established. 

Finally, I still intend to make this data available and include an appendix to my book discussion what I did and what I had hoped to do.

As a start, here’s a copy of my bibliography from which I collected the data discussed above.

And you can read some of my earlier writing and thinking about citations: here, here, and here.

Three Things on COVID

Like most of the world, I’m anxiously reading about the rise of the latest COVID variant, Ba.5, and worrying about how it will impact my health, the health of people in my community, and our daily life. I’m already hearing about the consequences of this new, highly transmissible variant, on the operations of summer programs, and on the fall semester.

This has spurred three poorly formed ideas that I’m sharing here mostly to get out of my system.

1. COVID and Compliance. To be absolutely clear, I’m vaccinated, boosted, prone to follow the various protocols and mandates, and inclined to express a kind of good-natured annoyance when I see people flaunting the rules, ignoring social distancing practices, or wearing the famous chin mask. 

That said, I have this growing feeling that the way we talk about COVID and compliance is evocative of how we talk about capitalism especially in the 20th century. In particularly, we are told that compliance with  the expectations of capital will led to not only personal prosperity but also economic growth and collective prosperity. Thus, in the so-called “neoliberal” regime that has emerged since the 1980s, the state has worked hard to eliminate policies and practices that run counter to capitalism even if this involves cutting away the social safety net, removing the guard rails from the market, and, at times, working to suppress alternatives that might offer viable ways of life outside of he capitalist regime. The inducement for these policies is that some social, economic, and political discomfort now will yield a better life for individuals and society in the future.  

It’s hard to know whether the continued roiling of the COVID pandemic will lead to renewed mandates and protocols as schools reopen in the fall. To be sure, we’ve been told that if we just comply with various policies, including vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and, if need be, lockdowns, the possibility exists that we can return to normal pre-COVID practices. Not only does this seem increasingly unlikely, but also calls into question whether “the science” behind efforts to reduce the spread of COVID provides a sufficient foundation for real world policy making.    

2. Migrant COVID. Over the weekend, I read most of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). One observation that Chabrabarty makes is that displacements associated with modernity, capitalism, and globalization extend well beyond humanity. As the deer happily munching on the hostas in our garden know, displacements extend to local megafauna who often depart from habitats increasingly encroached upon by development and the privatization of property. As many local gardeners know, the only way to keep deer from grazing on delicacies destined for human palates is to fence off gardens. Thus the borders between human and “natural” habitats, if such a designation makes sense in the contemporary world, become increasing hardened. Traditional migration routes become “wildlife corridors,” traditional ranges become “preserves,” and living things that stray from their designated environments become invasive. 

Obvious the COVID virus is not the same as megafauna, but efforts to contain its spread seem in some ways to echo our efforts to constrain the movement of both fauna and, more tragically, humans displaced environmental destruction, climate change, economic and political colonialism, and war. 

It has become almost a bit cliche to speculate on how we might blur the division between the human and non-human world. It seems like our global response to COVID, that so often focuses on efforts to disrupt the movement of the virus between context, between communities, and between people, offers a vivid example of how various routes of displacement long used by more visible species are also suitable for less visible and less living creatures. 

3. COVID and Time. Finally, earlier in the pandemic, I speculated a bit on COVID and time (here, here, and here). One thing that reading Chakrabarty’s book has pushed me to think about is how much time makes a difference in how we experience crises in the contemporary world. For example, it is well understood that the rate of change associated with global climate change has made it difficult for political institutions much less individuals to make decisions and policies necessary to avert what is almost certain to be catastrophic climate change. 

COVID in contrast is doing what viruses do. It is adapting and surviving, but as we continue to struggle to keep pace with its changes and its movement. COVID testing often lagged behind outbreaks and new variants of the virus have outpaced our ability to produce new vaccines (much less policies). It is often imagined that the time of “nature” is slower than “human” time, but we also need to acknowledge that the time of nature can be much faster than human time. The COVID pandemic is a tragic reminder that our ability to understand and respond to our surroundings is as much a matter of time as a matter of conditions.

Reflecting on Slow

Last week, I got together with an old buddy for dinner and he asked me to talk a bit more about the idea of slow especially in light of my post “Slow at 50.” Since I’m restarting the archaeological fieldwork aspect of my professional (albeit as a study season), it seemed like a reasonable time to write a little bit about slow more broadly.

When I started thinking about slow in archaeology, I imagined it as a tonic to a growing fixation on archaeological efficiency and its dependence on digital tools. Slow archaeology wasn’t so much a rejection of the benefits technology, but the critical engagement with how our tools shape the knowledge that we produce. As I thought more broadly about the implications of slow for archaeology or academia more broadly, I started to hope that an emphasis on slow might shift our emphasis from doing more to doing better and in this way, we might change the character of academic work.

For me, this would involve critical reflection on academic work and perhaps even an impulse to parse how modern, industrial practices have informed standards of professionalization in academia. I am particularly interested in unpacking the roots of certain academic work patterns in craft. For example, teaching practices associated explicitly with the hands-on learning or grounded in apprenticeship tend to cleave more closely to craft models of knowledge production than those informed by industrial practices. Industrial education, especially at the university level, seems to emphasize the fragmentation of learning into interchangeable chunks which over time produce a well-rounded student.

More broadly, I wonder whether how I started to think about slow some 6 or 8 years ago has now evolved into something wider, but still distinctly rooted no in the literal idea of slowing down, but in the notion of living more deliberately. This involves thinking more carefully about the things I do and making sure that they align with what I value rather than the various expectations foisted on me by colleagues, institutions, and situations.

I understand that this is a kind of privilege afforded to a very small number of tenured faculty who simultaneously find ways to operate at the fringes of the system and reap the benefits of the system, its resources, and its protections. That said, I do hope that reflecting deliberately on the opportunities that my position has allowed me ensures that I do more with what I have than rather than less.

Three Things Thursday: Plagiarism, Laptops, and the End of Antiquity

I submitted grades, my summer plans are coming into focus, and I’m almost ready to decamp for the Mediterranean for the first time in two years. I feel like everything is going on at once, and this is more or less a good thing and it feels like a solid backdrop for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, there was a moderately interesting long Twitter thread in response to an incident of plagiarism in academia. The situation was discovered at the peer review stage and other than a bit of outrage, the harm seems to have been minimal. That said, whenever someone talks about plagiarism in academia, they tend to complain about the crime rather than the underlying system that makes plagiarism both unethical and problematic. To be clear, I’m not condoning plagiarism and I realize that I’m writing from a position of privilege. At the same time, I wonder whether our tendency to become outraged at incidents of plagiarism serves to reinforce a system that is fundamentally toxic. Stoking outrage at incidents of plagiarism in academia reinforces as system that seeks to commodify knowledge and connect the public good that might come from new ideas, processes, and products to private gain.

Of course, we all like it when a colleague recognizes our contribution to our field and citation, in its simplest form, represents a kind of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, over the past seventy years, institutions and the market has weaponized this gesture of collegiality and turned it into a way of measuring and even quantifying impact, reach, and significance. As is so often the case, publishers and institutions have found ways to leverage our desire for collegiality and recognition to support a system designed to generate profits and prestige. The rise of i10 scores, h-indices, and journal rankings that leverage citations to track impact and influence is yet another effort to sort and rank academic labor and to find new ways to profit from both the media through which scholars gain influence and the tools that measure such influence and reach. Plagiarism in this context is as much an economic crime as a breach of scholarly decorum.

By sounding off about plagiarism, then, we both reinforce an age old system of academic recognition, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also bolster system that allows individuals and institutions to profit from the working of scholarly networks. To my mind, over the last 30 years, the tail has come increasingly to wag the dog with the desire for measurable accomplishments increasingly shaping the landscape of academic work. At the same time, academics celebrate the call to be “against cop shit” in our classrooms and finding ways to subvert the status quo. We also have brought critical attention to the way that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the world. Maybe it’s this recent willingness to consider burning it all down that has made social media outrage over plagiarism ring a bit hollow or at least leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Thing the Second

You might not be able to tell, but I’m writing this post on a Dell laptop rather than my trusty MacBook Pro. For better or for worse, I’ve been an Apple guy for the last 15 or so years and have appreciated the tidy integration between my phone (and especially its camera) and my laptops. Each summer, though, I switch over the my PC which I need to run Microsoft Access and ESRI’s ArcGIS which don’t have native Mac implementation. Usually, I bring along a MacBook Air when I go to the Mediterranean and use it for writing and blogging and to access my Apple ecosystem more easily and natively. My MacBook Air is pretty long in the tooth these days and while it can do what I would like it to do, it’s battery is no longer what it was, its pre-Retina screen is pretty underwhelming, and it’s tiny hard drive makes it more like an early-21st century netbook than a modern laptop. I just wonder whether this year is the year that taking my PC and using it for my writing.

This is a bit nerve wracking because I can’t help but feel that abandoning my Mac will make some part of my work more difficult, even if I’m not entirely sure what part of my work it will negatively impact. I suspect this reflects the success of the Apple ecosystem in making us feel dependent (or at very least comfortable) in their world. What is the most remarkable thing to me is how it descends to the gestural level. My years of working on Macs has shaped how I interact with the keyboard, touchpad, and applications and these habits are profoundly hard to break!

Thing the Third

Yesterday, I posted my annual “Summer Reading List” post and a number of friends reached out and said, in various ways, “whoa! so little ancient history!” This was mostly an oversight. I have considered reading Jack Davis’s new book: A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Civilization in Mycenaean Pylos (2022) which is available Open Access from the University of California Press. I also want to read Alex Knodell’s newish book: Societies in Transition in Early Greece: An Archaeological History (2021). If I had all the time and energy in the world (and just a modicum of discipline), I would certainly read Nathan Arrington’s latest: Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World (2021) from Princeton.

California has also continued its long tradition of publishing novel and significant works in the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity. Since it’s open access, I’d be keen to check out Mary Farag’s What Makes a Church Sacred: Legal and Ritual Perspectives from Late Antiquity (2021).

I also have a copy of Michele Salzman’s The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity (2021) from Cambridge which is not open access, but would help me think about my class for next spring on Late Antiquity.

At 50: The Future

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about  Fun and on Wednesday, Collaborating”, on Tuesday Slow at 50 and on Monday, Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to how thinking about the next stage in my academic career and life.

Hopefully by this time next year I’ll have buried my book project and hopefully done the best that I can to wrap up the two other dangling projects that refuse to resolve themselves. I’m not sure this will necessarily give me a sense of accomplishment or simply relief, but I do feel like a certain phase of my career might be officially over.

As I muttered about on Wednesday, I discovered that I really don’t care for sitting around and thinking and writing stuff on my own. It’s not only lonely and boring, but also unrewarding. I also have started to think about working to resist my unhealthy urge to produce words and shift my attention toward consuming the words, ideas, and approaches of other people. Lately I’ve let my compulsion to write get in the way of my need to read. 

It’s not that I don’t have ideas. Over the last couple of years, I’ve thought about writing a book on slow archaeology, writing a book on the archaeology of oil, or even just finishing the second volume of the PKAP series. I even played with the idea of creating an untextbook for Western Civilization classes. I don’t think I’m very serious about any of these projects.

In fact, I’ve started to feel a bit uncomfortable by the relentless churn of scholarly production that I see among some of my well-cited and prolific peers. I worry about how their work maps onto asymmetries of opportunity, workloads, and resources in academia and how those of us with the time and energy to write can create intellectual logjams as ideas cultivated in similar spaces of professional privilege jostle with one another for attention. At its simplest level, the question is: does the world need another book from a tenured, middle aged, male, professor at a R1/R2 institution? 

(This is something that concerns me about my blog as well. How do I justify my share of our digital attention span and what other voices struggle to get heard over my my incessant drone.) 

A few of my closest colleagues both here in North Dakota and elsewhere have modeled alternate forms of academic life that focus on service, collaboration, and ceding space on the academic stage to other voices while working hard to amplify the voices and opportunities for others. Of course, teaching plays a key part in this well.

So as I look to my future at 50, I am trying to think about my habits in more critical ways and ask how my professional habits contribute to the kind of world that I want to exist and live in.  For example, I can’t very well complain that I can’t keep abreast of recent scholarly develops in my various fields while I continue to churn out scholarship at breakneck speed and push serious reading into the margins of my week. I also can’t complain about new systems that seek to quantify academic work or its impact while internalizing habits that make these systems both necessary and effective.  

I’m not sure what the next 20 or so years of my academic career and personal life will bring, but I hope I find ways to do more for others and worry less about my own place in the professional ecosystem.

~

I hope that the last week of blogging hasn’t come across as too self-indulgent, but does continue to blur the line between my professional voice and my personal one. If a blog can’t do that, then I’m not sure exactly what a blog is good for these days. Next week, I’ll return to regularly scheduled (and somewhat less solipsistic) programing!

At 50: Collaborating

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being Slow at 50 and on Monday, Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow.

This year has been an odd year. I’ve worked on five projects and all but one of them have been solo affairs including the revisions on my book and chapters on the archaeology of oil, on the teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world, on archaeology and climate change, and on the archaeology of Polis in the long late antiquity (nominally co-authored with Scott Moore, but essentially a single author article).

This is not normal for me. 

First, I increasingly dislike writing on my own. I find it a lonely business and it certainly doesn’t bring out the best in my thinking or writing. Of course, I understand that peer reviewers are, de facto, collaborators on most academic work, but their collaboration is fairly passive (with a few exceptions) and at worst, they represent a critical audience as much as a colleagues invested in helping to realize the potential of an article or argument. 

Second, I feel like the COVID pandemic has disrupted collaborative projects in ways that I had not anticipated. It really has reminded me that most of my collaborations have emerged from face-to-face interactions either during field work, at academic conference, or on campus. As the pandemic made these kinds of interactions difficult or impossible, I found myself drawn back into my own work and more prone to set priorities that privileged my own work over those that I am doing with others.

To exacerbate my tendency to focus what limited free time I have on my own project, I got the distinct sense that other people have started to do the same thing. Maybe it has to do with the sudden instability of our daily schedules, the challenges individuals and communities faced when negotiating pandemic related trauma, or even the greater sense of responsibility felt by individuals untouched by the pandemic to shoulder more of the load. The end result was that I became more selfish in my focus on my own work at the same time that my colleagues pulled back from collaborations themselves. 

My experiences over the course of the pandemic and especially over the last year have helped me recognize how much I value and prefer collaborative work. It has also made me consider whether the pandemic exaggerated some of the latent tendencies in academia, or at least in the humanities, toward privileging individual work at the expense of more collaborative undertakings. Perhaps academia, with its traditional focus on individual accomplishments, was primed for the pressures exerted by the pandemic which pitted individual desires to be safe, to operate with a minimum of constraints, and to maintain control over their own bodies against the safety, economic prosperity, and integrity of larger communities.  

It feels like my academic work has more or less paralleled these trends with my rather insistent focus on my own projects over the past year or 18 months reflecting an almost epidemiological desire to isolate and insulate. 

It feels intensely unsatisfying.

So as I look ahead to my next 20 years in academia, I have come to recognize that I prefer collaborative projects. And I anxiously hope that I can rekindle some of the collaborative relationships that I found so productive prior to the pandemic. I know that they bring out the best in me and I want to believe that they also bring out the best in other people.

At 50: Slow at 50

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being Not Full at 50 and today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow. 

Over the last decade, I’ve been thinking a good bit about ideas relating to the slow movement. I produced an edited volume of a literary journal dedicated to “slow” and published a little gaggle of articles that consider “slow archaeology.” This work, as any reader of this blog probably knows, tends to focus on the idea that slow, focused, and often embodied work, while often inefficient by contemporary standards, produces substantively different outcomes than work that privileges efficiency. These conclusions lean on scholarship that unpacks the distinctive character of certain kinds of slow work from hand drawing to walking the countryside, long form descriptions, and excavating.  

Recently, I’ve been talking with a few graduate students about work load expectations in graduate school and these conversations align neatly with recent debates about faculty work load. There is no doubt that many faculty members and students are feeling overwork and the last two-years of pandemic-inflected work has exacerbated this feeling. A few students have told me that it is hard to find the time to engage in the slow processes that are necessary for their creative work and argued that their workload is making it impossible to find a healthy work/life balance.

I don’t disagree with their assessment and worry a good bit that student workloads at the undergraduate and graduate levels are no longer reasonable in light of changing students responsibilities both in school and outside of school. In one of the more thoughtful critiques of “slow,” Shawn Graham reminded me that working slowly is often a privilege that relies, at worse, on other people scrambling to pick up the slack, or, at best, is a luxury afforded those who have a certain amount of material and professional security. This assessment however tends to see “slow” as less productive or efficient than “fast” work rather than substantively different.

Recently, I’ve started to realize that my work habits are very slow indeed. However, they don’t really involve the kind of deliberate, contemplative practices that we so often associate with slow work. Instead, I tend to work on a number of projects simultaneously. I flit from one project to another over the course of a week and often spend time simultaneously writing, reading, doing email, and surfing the web. I am, of course, familiar with the literature that has argued that these work habits are bad for our brains and our ability to concentrate and focus, and suspect that there is real truth to these claims. At the same time, I rarely find that I prefer to work and particularly write in a distracted way. I find taking a dozen small breaks over the course of an hour consistent with how my brain works. In fact, I find forcing my brain to remain locked onto a single task incredibly exhausting and unpleasant. Sometimes, when proofreading or revising a sustained argument this kind of concentration is necessary, but even then it’s rarely pleasant.

This got me wondering whether the effort to normalize this kind of focused concentration has more to do with expectations of efficiency than more expansive views of how our brain and our lives work. I’ve started to think that my version of slow work, then, reflects my own distracted approach to my work as a scholar and teacher. Instead of focusing on producing predictable outcomes, I’m becoming more and more interested in figuring out sustained and sustaining practices, and for me this involves leaving myself open to distractions and putting aside well-meaning, but often misguided arguments for working and life.

So as I turn 50, I’m trying to embrace my own slow workflows and recognize my unique work habits as sustainable and healthy. Rather than seeking some kind of work/life balance or seeing time (or hours) as a measure of how much work I do. Instead, I’m trying to embrace my own slow habits as an antidote to certain expectations of efficiency. My hope is that these approaches will help me develop more sustainable habits that not only allow me a sense of satisfaction with my daily life, but also keep me productive in my career and as a good collaborator, contributor, and colleague to my various communities.