A Ramble on Academic Salaries

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

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

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

And on a macro level, this may be true. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does this leave us?

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

The Catholic Conference and UND’s Code of Life

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

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

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

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

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

To this end, I have four observations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a good look.

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

Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been chipping on a paper that reflect on the Wesley College Documentation project as an approach to teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m about two thirds of the way through the paper and thought I should probably share a draft of it.

I’m moderately happy with what I have on the page so far. The paper will be a bit backward in that I am writing from the perspective of practice that I then analyze through reflections later. This approach is both honest, in that I didn’t really have a pedagogy or a plan when I put this class together, and I suspect reflects an authentic account of how my experience in the Wesley College buildings and with this group of students shaped my understanding of teaching.

Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

Introduction

In an American context, teaching and the study of the archaeology of the contemporary world have always existed together. Schiffer and Gould’s seminal, Modern Material Culture features an article by Schiffer and Wilke titled: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” which, as the title suggests, used the material culture of the University of Arizona campus as a context for teaching archaeological methods and interpretation. Similarly, Bill Rathje’s “Garbage Project” which took place at the same institution at the same time, grew out of his efforts to introduce undergraduates both to sampling and behavioral archaeology through the systematic study of domestic trash collected from Tuscon neighborhoods. The last 40 years have continued to see a steady stream of studies that demonstrate how the contemporary university campus can provide a compelling site for teaching archaeology.

Most of these campus projects focused on using modern material and contexts to instruct students in the systematic practices associated with traditional archaeology: sampling, surface collection, mapping, recording, and stratigraphic excavation. It is notable that despite the attention to modern material and research questions significant to contemporary campus life such as the disposal of trash or locations of cigarette smokers (citations), most published efforts to use material culture to document life on American college campuses appear to have avoided methods that engage more fully with conversations in field of archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, most of these approaches did not seem to emphasize the growing role that time-based media, particularly video and audio recordings, have come to play in the archaeology of the contemporary world. I also wonder whether they have emphasized the potential of unstructured textual recording to capture the experience of both familiar and unfamiliar spaces and places. In fact, the emphasis on systematic methods, practices, and procedures as part of most archaeology of the contemporary campus reinforced the kind of modern structures that archaeology of the contemporary world has sometimes sought to critique or even subvert. The course that I taught in the spring of 2018 developed in such a way that it blended open ended documentation practices and experiential learning with archival research, public outreach, and performance to create a distinctive learning experience for students.

The following chapter will reflect on a course taught on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 2018. The course focused on two pairs of buildings on campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre Halls, which were demolished in the early summer of that year. The buildings were built between 1909 and 1929 in the Beaux Arts style as the main buildings for an institution called Wesley College founded in 19xx. Wesley College was a Methodist institution that taught music, religion, and elocution and offered housing to students in two dormitories, Sayre Hall for men and Larimore Hall for women. Students taking classes at Wesley College would also be enrolled at the University of North Dakota, a public four-year, state funded institution, and receive their degrees from UND. In 1965, a financially failing Wesley College was purchased and absorbed into UND and the four buildings served as dorms, offices, classrooms, laboratories, and the home of UND’s honors program of the next 50 or so years. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the buildings had acquired considerable deferred maintenance debt and their demolition was ordered as part of a general effort to reduce the campus footprint and refresh it public face along the main thoroughfare through campus.

The course that I taught involved exploring and documenting these buildings in the window between their abandonment as active campus structures and their final demolition. As the buildings themselves represented some of the oldest structure on our campus. the university administration treated their destruction with a certain amount of seriousness and employed a local contractor to prepare a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Type 2 report on the buildings and had the demolition contractor prepare a high resolution laser scan of the buildings. This routine, but robust level of documentation ensured that the buildings received formal architectural recording worthy of their designs and distinctive place in the history of the campus. There was less formal interest, however, in documenting their interior state which involved both numerous intervention over their lifetimes and the detritus of both their recent abandonment and their changing roles on campus. The class that I taught on these buildings focused initially on the buildings’ situations between use and demolition.

The course ran as a one-credit add on to a class on that focused on the university budget. After several decades of regular budget and enrollment increases, the University of North Dakota was enduring a painful period of contraction with several high profile program cuts including our star-studded women’s ice hockey team and the nationally recognized music therapy program. At the same time, the university was implementing a new internal budgeting model that regularly bore the brunt of campus-wide frustrations regarding the distribution of resources. Instability in administrative leadership, the increasingly populist and often anti-intellectual political culture of the state, and challenges associated with communicating effectively across a wide range of campus stakeholders contributed to confusion and at times anger toward the university administration. A course on the university budget was meant to create an opportunity to engage with the changes on our campus in a way informed by a more detailed and accurate understanding to the actual mechanisms of funding, the national conversation about higher education in the US, and the particular historical developments at our campus. The course on the university budget prompted student interest in changes on campus and this, in turn, prompted me to offer a course on the buildings scheduled for demolition later that year. This was done without much planning or thought about what this course would look like.

The spontaneous creation of the course focused on the Wesley College buildings discouraged any particularly formal structure. The course was offered for one academic credit, which is the lowest academic value possible for a course on our campus. In fact, its spontaneity and low academic stakes allowed the course to operate at the very fringes of the panoptic perspectives of campus administrators. It both eluded the gaze of the technocrats whose authority rests on structures associated with assessment and fell outside the purview of the faculty committees who also seek to establish authority in the contested space of the American college classroom. In this way the course existed outside administrative oversight which allowed us a significant amount of freedom in class design. As significantly, the buildings themselves occupied a strangely liminal status between abandonment and their final destruction. The university had turned off all but emergency utilities, had locked the outside doors of the buildings, and faculty and staff has removed all the objects from the building that could be reused or repurposed on campus. Thus, my students had free rein within the buildings, and the university facilities staff was only too eager to help students explore what was under the carpeting, behind walls, and above false ceilings. Because the buildings were slated for demolition, there was no concern for their material condition and all the interior rooms were unlocked and accessible to student curiosity. A liminal class that existed in a liminal space seem ideally suited to approaches that are typical of archaeology of the contemporary world.

The Class

The class itself began with a brief introduction to the building, their history, and the archaeology of the contemporary world. We then set about to explore the structures armed with notebooks, a few cameras scavenged from departmental and personal supplies, measuring tapes, and their mobile phones. Since this class was quite spontaneous, we did not have any idea exactly what we would find in the buildings. The students were immediately taken by the level of access that we had to the building. Students could enter faculty offices, laboratory spaces, classrooms, and maintenance spaces that in most active buildings on campus had access restrictions. The ability to move through a building without any barriers is something that most faculty take more or less for granted, although we would like pause before barreling into a colleague’s or program’s laboratory space uninvited or into an active classroom. It was clear, however, that for students, these spaces was far less familiar and part of what drew them through the building was a sense that they were transgressing traditional campus boundaries. Because we had not arranged for any storage space or study area where we could scrutinize objects more closely, we came to realize that we could not systematically collect artifacts from the building. Instead, we decided as a group to focus on describing the objects left behind in situ in our notebooks according to each office. At the same time, we devised a method of taking photos and using phones to take videos of the rooms in the buildings as we went. We also concluded that we should start with Corwin/Larimore Hall, which had been entirely abandoned, and then proceeding to Robertson/Sayre Hall, where staff were still moving out of their offices.

Almost immediately, we encountered rooms with massive numbers of artifacts left behind. These ranged from office and classroom furniture to laboratories with masses of cables, computers, and equipment used in psychological testing that appeared utterly foreign to the students. In some cases, offices appear to be frozen in time. A single late-20th century Apple iMac computer stood on a desk as if frozen in the year 2000. In other cases, office and laboratories look like they had been rooted through during a burglary. Other rooms initially appeared carefully abandoned only to reveal during documentation some kind of intimate trace that connected the empty office to its earlier occupant. The situations in these offices, labs, and classroom, drew student efforts to delve deeply into the contents of rooms. They looked inside desk drawers, documented the patterns of adhesive tape left on the back of doors, and explored the spaces above acoustic ceiling tiles. One student, Wyatt Atchley, an avid photographer, prepared a photo essay that drew out the traces of the building’s recent past and connected it with recent discussions of austerity that we were having in the sister course on the university budget. The intimacy of his photographs reflected the growing commitment that the students felt not only toward this course, but also toward these building.

As they did this work, the students invariably started to notice various construction scars throughout the building and started to piece together the history of these buildings adaptations over time. One of the challenges that we faced in studying these buildings is that the original blue prints were not preserved. In fact, as we started to recognize that complex histories of these buildings we decamped to the University Archives where we poured through various collections in an effort to trace the changes made to the buildings over time. This was not guided by a kind of architectural fundamentalism, but by questions that originated in the space of the Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre halls. Questions that emerged through the students’ relentless exploration of the space triggered their interest in piecing together how they changed over time through photographs, technical plans, and any other sources of information that might reveal their histories. For example, the students and I quickly recognized the large classroom in Corwin Hall with its distinctive low arched ceiling as the former recital hall of Wesley College’s music program. When the building was modified to accommodate offices and classrooms, the builders truncated room’s north side, where the proscenium would have stood, and replaced it with a wall and chalk boards. Despite this modified condition, the students and some colleagues across campus understood the potential of recording the acoustics of this space as both a gesture to the room’s history as performance space and as a chance to document the building’s acoustic signature. We have published the results of this work in collaboration with some of Atchley’s photographs in Epoiesen.

In Sayre Hall, the students and I were confused by a strange pattern of wood slats affixed the the ceiling of a room in Sayre Hall but hidden by the drop ceiling. These wood slats once supported a coffered ceiling and revealed the room to the formal sitting room of the Sayre Hall dormitory. The photographs that the students found in the University Archives revealed turn-of-the-century space worthy of the “jazz age” tastes of pre-depression America complete with potted ferns, an elaborate fireplace, and terrazzo floor with mosaic inlays. A return visit to the room led us to tear up the institutional wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal the more elegant flooring beneath. Efforts to find the fireplace, immured over the course of innumerable renovations to the space, were less fruitful, but nevertheless engaged the students’ curiosity.

Time in the archives led the students to perhaps the most spectacular find associated with the Wesley College buildings. Amid the various record associated with the soliciting of funds from donors and the construction of the buildings was a folder associated with the relationship between the Sayre family and the long-serving president of Wesley College, Edward P. Robertson. In these papers was the story of A.J. Sayre’s son, Harold Holt Sayre, who had died in World War I. In 1918, Roberston honored the request of A.J. Sayre and changed the name of Sayre Hall to Harold H. Sayre Hall as a memorial to his son’s sacrifice. Included in the folder associated with this correspondence was a four-page poem, ”At the Grave of a Dead Gunner” written by Horace Shidler. Sayre was the gunner in the plane that Shidler had piloted. This touching tribute affected the class deeply and transformed the process of documenting these buildings from one driven by curiosity to one driven by a sense of deep respect for not only Sayre’s memory, but the students, faculty, administrators, and staff who had passed through these buildings. Later that week students discovered names carved into a pane of window glass in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. These students lived in room in Sayre Hall before going on to careers in law, higher education, and business. One of the students, however, died in France in World War I and once again connected this building to centennial reflections taking place in both the US and Europe to mark the conclusion of the “Great War.”

Students produced all these discoveries, and they became increasingly motivated that our work do more than simply document these buildings in their abandoned state. Through ongoing conversations both in the buildings and in the University Archives, we came to recognize that the ongoing use of these buildings served to keep the memories of Sayre and Wesley College students evergreen and the demolition of the buildings would break the connections between the lived space of campus and the Great War. To mark this transformation the students helped coordinate a final event for the buildings and invited the university president, representatives of the city of Grand Forks, the campus Reserve Officers Training Corp, and, perhaps most importantly, the commanding officer of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to speak at a ceremony recognizing the loss that these buildings will mean to campus memory. A colleague in the department of history provided a brief historical survey of the Great War and a colleague from the department of English played bagpipes to amplify the solemnity of the occasion. The weather cooperated and on a brilliant spring day, we recognized the buildings and those who they honored.

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget and they invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing associated with “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. Slow archaeology critiqued the outsized role of efficiency in contemporary society. The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. This coincided with the role of archaeology and cultural resource management in a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration.” In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that supermodernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more maintenance by dint of their age alone.

The methods taken by my students and I anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus with its emphasis on the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Whitmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Whitmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by supermodernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. It goes without saying that it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course especially since the book appeared two years after the course was over. That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

Writing Like a Scholar

For the last decade, I’ve been teaching our department’s historical methods class and the final weeks of the that class are almost always devoted to encouraging students to think about their writing. In a practical sense, this involves urging students to write clear, well-organized prose. Like thousands of other teachers, I stress the need for a thesis statement, a clear introduction, and body paragraphs that make clear the link between evidence and argument.

A few weeks ago, I read Rebecca Solnit’s piece on writing titled “In Praise of the Meander: Rebecca Solnit on Letting Nonfiction Narrative Find Its Own Way.”  And, at the same time, I’m working on revising a book manuscript that one of the editors of the series called “discursive” and one of my reviewers suggested showed a struggle with organization. An editor recently called a rough draft of an article that I let her see for comment “almost random.”  

I’ve long felt pretty self-conscious about my writing style. I tend to write on the edge of what I understand, as readers of this blog are surely away. I also tend to write more than I read and my writing often drives my research. The result is what we used to call “a hot mess” where I move from idea to idea and then backfill connective fabric. Arguments, when they do occur, tend to emerge organically from the primordial soup of free associations and coalesce for moments before dissipating again under the relentless pressure of awkward grammar, syntax, and structure. When I teach about writing, I constantly tell students to write as I say not as I do and tell them nearly every class that most of my writing tips reflect my own struggles with words and ideas as much as anything that I see in their work.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of editing a literary magazine, North Dakota Quarterly. This has given me the chance to read a good bit more poetry and fiction than I would have read otherwise. I’m constantly struck by how hard it is to read poetry. Poetry seems to resist easy interpretation. It doubles back on itself, contradicts itself, and sometimes flat out lies (albeit in the interest of truth). Fiction likewise meanders about dispensing loose ends and false starts and abjuring balance and order in the name of pacing, emphasis, and tension. In fact, the disorder of poetry and good fiction is often what draws us to it especially if we’re drip-fed on a constant diet of academic writing, journalism, and mainstream creative media. In this context, the obstinance of poetry, the disorder of fiction, and the meandering prose of Rebecca Solnit force us to trust the authors and to take a break from the need for efficient knowledge transfer and entertainment.

Of course, trusting Rebecca Solnit or an accomplished poet is very different from asking an academic reader to trust me, and I get that. But I also have started to worry that our need to read and write efficiently is turning research and scholarly production into a kind of assembly line. Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself here, but I know that I rarely have the luxury of reading an entire book or article at a leisurely pace. At best, I pour through it looking for how it might intersect with my own work. More usually, I read looking for specific arguments, evidence, or positions that will contribute to something that I’m working on right now. In my professional reading, I have very little time for meandering or the kind of productive confusion that poetry can create.

Maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps academic writing should be clear, well organized, and efficient. Maybe we shouldn’t try to mix reading for work with reading for pleasure and respect the contested borders between work and life. That said, it’s strange there is a growing genre of academic writing that adopts journalistic conventions which, if anything, tend to double down on efficiency and privilege the communication of information over stimulating the imagination.  

At the same time, I wonder if our commitment to efficient reading and writing speaks to a kind of distrust of the author. The desire for transparency in argument is obviously a key part academic work. Our citation system reflects a writerly economy that is built upon acknowledging our intellectual debts. Thus we tend to write in such a way to allow a reader to see how our ideas stand in relationship to both other ideas and our sources. Sometimes, I feel like when I acknowledge other scholars’ work, that I’m also proving that what I’m saying is valid or relevant. There’s a constant need for me to secure the reader’s trust that I’m not wasting their time.

It’s hard to imagine that this is a good thing for academic writing.  

What Do We Mean By “Digital” and “Publishing” When We Say “Digital Publishing”

This week is the annual meeting of the American Schools of Overseas Research in Chicago and unfortunately for the second year in a row, I won’t be able to attend in person because of the dumb COVID pandemic. If you wonder why I’m not going to Chicago, this article appeared as if on cueYou can check out the full program here.

Fortunately, the workshop  in which I’m scheduled to participate, “Best Practices for Digital Scholarship” has an impressive line up and the organizers of the panel have been particularly accommodating and I have some hope that I will be able to participate in the panel in some way.

That said, my take on the issue of best practices for digital scholarship is probably not really what they had in mind, but I hope it nevertheless contributes in some way to the conversation. In sum, I try to suggest that digital practices in archaeology and the  

This very brief paper offers a two casual observations on digital publishing based on my position as a sometime archaeologist and sometime publisher. For the last six years, I’ve directed a small (perhaps better ”nano”) scholar-led press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, which has published over 20 books on a range of topics from the history of the Northern Plains to Mediterranean and world archaeology. The books are open access and available as digital downloads or as print-on-demand paperbacks.

My experience working as both an archaeologist and a publisher informs my first observation which I developed more fully in my contribution to a volume edited by Kevin Garstki that is currently in page proofs! (Here’s the conference paper on which this contribution is based.) In this chapter, I argue that digital practices in archaeology have increasingly blurred the line between field work, analysis, interpretation, and publishing. We now use databases that can seamlessly publish our data to the web. Most GIS software integrates with web-based interfaces or allows us to produce publication quality maps if not literally in the field, then at our laptop. Illustration software is at home in the lab as it is in the publisher’s office. And it seems to me, at least, that document preparation software such as LaTeX, which is increasingly standard in scientific publishing, is even blurring the distinction between word processing and typesetting in some contexts. The way in which these digital tools have shaped our archaeological workflow anticipates a time when such classic scholarly conceits as the “final report” become indistinguishable points along a continuum of digitally mediated knowledge making.

The second observation is more polemical (and I’m willing to make some of these claims because I’m not attending this panel in person!) and derives from the first. If the line between research, writing, and publishing is becoming more and more blurry, what is the ”value add” that comes from traditional academic publishing? Of course, publishers often ensure that our publications look elegant, professional, and attractive, but surely this is not enough to justify their role in academic life.

We might point out that publishers manage the peer review process, but most scholars would agree that contemporary peer review standards and practices are neither unproblematic nor entirely fair and probably do less to guarantee the quality and “truth” of a publication than we would hope.

We might note that many academic institution require academic publications for tenure, promotion, or merit raises, and this requires academic publishers. But as tenure, promotion, and raises become increasingly less common in academia it seems like this will not justify their existence.

We might point out that academic publishers facilitate the distribution of scholarly knowledge. But as institutional budgets dwindle and library funding declines, it is hard not to see this role as at least partly parasitic as it draws resources away from the very institutions committed to producing new knowledge. As institutional funding does not appear to be trending toward more equality either in the US or globally, it is difficult to imagine how the existing system will pivot so as not to continue to exacerbate the divide between a very small number of ”haves” and a growing number ”have nots.” Moreover, the recent impact of the COVID pandemic has shown that current system used to disseminate academic knowledge could be fairly easily subverted (or even replaced) by peer-to-peer networks of file sharing.

These observations may appear to be peripheral to the issues that this panel wants to discuss, but I would argue they’re not. On the one hand, digital tools, technologies, and methods are changing our ideas of fieldwork, analysis, and publishing in fundamental ways. On the other hand, the structure of archaeology as an academic (and professional) discipline and the role that publishing plays in institutional and professional standards and practices is (or at least should be) changing as well. In other words, when we ask questions such as: “what can individuals, institutions, and professional societies do to better support data publishing?” we might want to attend to the larger question of how individuals, institutions, and professional societies imagine the role of both digital and traditional publishing in our changing institutional and professional world.

Three Things Thursday: Epoiesen, Teaching, and NDQ

It’s Veterans’ Day today and it would appear that we’re going to get a the first snow of the season (so check back later for my traditional “first snow” post!) As per usual this time of year, a day off from teaching isn’t so much a break as a chance to catch up on other work that has been moved to the back burner as the semester reaches a fevered pitch. 

In light of this chaotic time of the year, it feels like a decent time for a short three things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m genuinely torn about the ever increasing role that crowd funding plays in higher education. In its ongoing effort to develop new revenue streams to cover everything from student scholarships to innovative research, crowd funding has become a common fixture in the higher education landscape. 

On the one hand, I’m interested in the way in which crowd funding can serve to build new relationships between projects and “stakeholders.” At its best, crowd funding platforms like Patreon have allowed “independent creators” to create communities and the work of groups like The Sportula have backfilled the decline in public (and private) support for working class and disadvantaged college students. It is hard to argue that crowd funding isn’t a useful response to the current funding situation in higher education. 

This is all a long prologue to my shout out to the a new crowdfunding project designed to support the journal Epoiesen. For those of you who don’t know, Epoiesen, is what it says on the box: “a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology” founded by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Epoiesen as both a contributor and a the publisher of the paper version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Their crowdfunding project is here and its goal is to support ongoing efforts to professionalize the journal, improve its web interface, and increase its reach. Even a casual visit to Epoiesen will make clear that the journal is not some pie-in-the-sky dream but is already a substantial publication that is making a contribution to the academic conversation. Adding polish will only increase its impact.

This is as good a cause as any and offers a way to close the gap between revenue generated traditionally through subscriptions and expenses associated with production. And, whether we like it or not, crowdfunding is now a key way to help innovative ideas succeed.  

Thing the Second

As the semester winds down, I’ve been thinking more and more about the model that I use in my introductory level history courses. In these classes, students work together to write a series of 2000-2500 word essays on various topics. They draw on the textbook and various primary source collections for evidence and submit outlines and multiple drafts over the course of a four week module. The results are generally pretty decent and almost always better than the traditional essays or papers that I used to require in such a class.

This got me wondering whether the traditional reliance on single authored papers and tests has only limited utility in the college classroom. After all, lab sciences have long relied on group work and applied sciences and professional program often encourage students to work as teams to solve problems. While writing is usually a solitary task, I’d contend that most academic papers are co-authored even if this remains less common in the humanities than in other fields. In other words, there is a strong tradition of collaborative work not only teaching across the university, but also in our research lives. 

The emphasis on sole authorship, then, feels a bit old fashioned and might, in fact, reflect attitudes toward education that emphasized its role to rank and sort students rather than to ensure that students develop the diverse skills necessary for them to thrive. Creating projects where students to work together on writing and research encourages students to work together and contributes to an environment where students who have better writing, reading, and research skills work with and support students who might not be as advanced. This isn’t a pious fantasy, but something I see every night as groups wrestle with the complex task for thinking though, researching, organizing, and writing their essays. This kind of environment has the added bonus of creating spaces where students who might feel isolated have opportunities to work together with their peers and form practical (and perhaps even social bonds). 

I don’t think the collaborative writing will even supplant the single author essay or paper (and there are always some students who think that they can do better on their own), but I’m starting to think that collaborative writing might actually be a way to develop writing intensive classes at scale without the massive burden of individual grading and comments. In other words, this system might be both better for students and better for faculty work loads.   

Thing the Third  

In about 15 minutes, I’ll have to turn my attention to the final steps in preparing North Dakota Quarterly for publication. At this point of the process most of the heavy lifting has been done by our publishing partners at the University of Nebraska Press, but my contributors have eagerly completed their proofing the typeset pages and I simply need to pull together their edits. It’s a testimony to the work at the University of Nebraska Press and my diligent authors that we tend to have very few errors at the proof stage. 

One of the most exciting stages of the publication process is the issue cover. This issue’s cover features art by Reinaldo Gil Zambrano, a Venezuelan print maker who now works from Spokane, Washington. In an era where compliance has increasingly taken on an ominous meaning, it seems almost redundant to title a work “malicious compliance,” but Zambrano’s cover nevertheless stands a provocative reminder of how compliance culture can so easily devolve into violence and pain.

NDQ 88 3 4 cover pdf 2021 11 11 06 46 03

Three Things Thursday: Peer Review, Being Busy, and Fiction from the Archive

It feels like it’s about the time of the semester for a Three Things Thursday. So here are some thoughts on peer review, being busy, and a little fiction from the NDQ archive!

Thing the First

This week, I was vaguely annoyed by a well-meaning twitter thread about peer review. The author of this thread argues that journals are being overwhelmed by low quality submissions that are unpublishable and many of these, she argues, come from graduate students. She quite reasonably suggests that graduate programs and advisors take more time to mentor graduate students on the publishing process. This is all commendable, but I take a bit of issue with the premise that the problem with low quality submissions is that graduate students are being told to send manuscripts to journals before these manuscripts are ready.  

To my mind, the problem isn’t the submission of low quality manuscripts, but peer review itself. I’d argued that in the contemporary humanities peer review has become so capricious that it has undermined any common standard for what constitutes a publishable manuscript. I have published consistently over the last decade and worked with a wide range of experienced colleagues, and I know that we still feel a bit unprepared for how reviewers will react to our manuscripts. Some of my weaker articles sail through with minimal calls for revisions while some of my more carefully reasoned and vetted pieces have received rather unfavorable responses for reviewers. When I was a less seasoned scholar, these vagaries frustrated me, but now, I realize that this is just part of the unpredictability of the academic publishing process. As a reviewer I’ve also had the experience of providing careful feedback to articles and then seeing these works published with hardly any changes. And I’ve favorable reviewed articles for one journal only to see the appear in a different journal. I’ve also been struck by the different levels of anonymity in the review process, the different levels of editorial guidance, the different deadlines expected for reviewers, and the sometimes overwhelming number of asks from a small number of publications followed by radio silence. As a reviewer, I constantly find myself second guessing my reviews, the journal’s expectations, and the attitudes of journal editors.   

The rise of the infamous “Reviewer #2” is just a symptom of the randomness associated with the review process. Some of this invariably has to do wide range of epistemologies, methods, and approaches that currently contribute to knowledge making in the humanities. The plurality of understandings of what constitutes meaningful knowledge makes consistent critique of articles challenging and determining which article crosses a bar .

Some of this also has to do with the growing pressure on academics to publish across all stages of their careers. This not only means that scholars have a greater diversity of experiences with the publishing process (and mentoring could help alleviate this diversity of experience, if that is thought desirable), but more importantly a range of access to libraries and resources vital to the task of thinking, reading, and writing. A contingent faculty member teaching at four institutions, a PhD student juggling between teaching and research, a tenure track or tenured faculty member at a lower tier state institution, and a faculty member at a SLAC or R1 will all have different resources at their disposal. More than that, they’ll also have different kinds of academic communities with different expectations and different approaches to critique. To me, this diversity is a good thing in academia. 

Peer review, however, struggles to accommodate epistemological diversity and the kind of institutional and social diversity which has only been exaggerated further by the COVID pandemic and ever more incisive cuts to library funding. In fact, I’d argue that peer review was a fine too for managing a largely homogeneous academia, but has perhaps struggled to adapt to the growing heterogeneity in our ranks.

In this context, it is not so much that manuscripts are “unpublishable,” but that our sense for what constitutes a publishable manuscript has become so helplessly muddled that suggesting graduate programs somehow clarify to students what constitutes publishable seems almost an example of “punching down” and pushing graduate directors and advisors to resolve a situation that is fundamentally outside their control.

Thing the Second

I would like to propose a moratorium on people declaring themselves busy in academic setting. This isn’t meant to diminish the anxiety that people feel about their workloads or the current situation. Nor I am trying to deny that people are actually very busy. And I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from making known that current workloads, in addition to the challenges associated with the seemingly endless pandemic, are not sustainable. People are busier than ever, it creates genuine anxiety, and we need to reinforce that this is not a sustainable situation.

At the same time, faculty have to recognize their audience, pick the opportunities, and channel their anxiety into collective solutions. In at least a few recent occasions, I’ve felt that faculty have directed their sense of busyness onto their colleagues and this feels like a deeply counter productive approach and one that is more likely to produce a kind of defensiveness than a sense of solidarity. I know I have increasingly come to feel that declarations of busyness are often ways for certain individuals to say that they are a busier than other individuals (even if that is not their intention). 

I have a modest proposal: instead of repeating mantra-like statements of how busy we are to all and sundry (including fellow travelers!), perhaps it would be more useful to direct these anxious statements in more collective and unified ways toward those who can actually impact our workloads. At the same time, assume that everyone is busy at the table might create a space where it is easier to find temporary solutions to our collective sense of being overwhelmed.  

Thing the Third

If all this is too structural and academic, do check out this week’s post over at NDQ! It’s a short story from the archives that involves dancing and joy.

As the author of the story, Bábara Mújica, has one of her characters say: “Celebrate when you can. Be happy when you can. Rejoice in the moment, and look for reasons to be glad.”

Three Things Thursday: Rhys Carpenter, Digital Archaeology, and Work

It’s been a long week and I’m looking at a day filled with meetings, teaching, and other adventures. In light of this, it seems like a good time for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Last week, while having a conversation with one of my old Greek archaeology buddies, he casually mentioned that Rhys Carpenter had written poetry. I suppose this not a secret to the cognoscenti, but I didn’t know. Of course, I knew Rhys Carpenter as an architect and an archaeologist who had worked at Corinth and contributed in a powerful way not only to the development of a rigorous and diachronic American archaeology in Greece, but also in the systematic study of post-Classical and Byzantine remains. During my first year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as an aspiring archaeologist, I enjoyed the Rhys Carpenter fellowship (although I only gradually came to understand how cool a privilege to have his name associated with my career (albeit posthumously) was). 

In any event, a couple books of his poetry, published in the 1910s, is available via the Internet Archive. Check out The Sun-Thief and Other Poems (Oxford 1914) and The Tragedy of Etarre: A Poem (New York 1912)  The poetry falls just shy of feeling stuffy to me, but it is perhaps a bit too formal for contemporary tastes and it is unlikely to appear in a standard 20th century poetry survey course. That said, it does feel palpably modernist in its rather impersonal aspirations to the universal, in this case, cloaked in its Classical allusions and formal structures. Perhaps this style is appropriate for an architect and archaeologist who recognized the value in all periods (and even the beleaguered Byzantine) while still privileging Classical period. My colleague Kostis Kourelis, who introduced me to Carpenter’s poetry, make a similar argument in an article that he wrote several years ago now on the role that the archaeology of the Byzantine period in Greece played on Modernism and the avant garde. You can read it here

Carpenter also wrote a travelogue of a trip he took to Central America in the early 20th century. So it appears that his quest for the modern world in antiquity was not limited to areas and cultures traditionally articulated as the antecedent to modern European civilization. 

Early Candle Light (1914)

The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.
When autumn falls and withers every leaf,
When daylight shrinks and stormy nights grow long,
When winter-wind and winter-cold are strong,
And sorrow holds the weary heart in fief,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

When golden love lies bound with iron thong,
And noble tales but mock our dull belief,
When mirth has garnered every radiant sheaf
And all the sickly world is harsh and wrong,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his invocation of the seasons seemed appropriate today as I look out the basement window of the NDQ offices onto the Collegiate Gothic quad and watch the timeless movement of students against the fading green of summer.

Thing the Second

About 20 (almost 25!) years ago when people talked about “The Digital Archaeology,” I, like many people, assumed that this was simply a temporary trend that traced our collective effort as a field to negotiate technological change. But here we are.

This past week has produced a bumper crop of works on the use of digital technologies in archaeology. These range from field oriented considerations of low-cost and DYI approaches to digital tools. Check out Edouard Masson-MacLean and colleagues’, “Digitally Recording Excavations on a Budget: A (Low-Cost) DIY Approach from Scotland” or in the JFA. For an approach to field recording that is more prog than punk, check out the most recent from the FAIMS team in the same journal: “Deploying an Offline, Multi-User, Mobile System for Digital Recording in the Perachora Peninsula, Greece.”

For a less field oriented perspective, I’m excited to tuck into the recent Debate in Antiquity surrounding John Aycock’s article, “The coming tsunami of digital artefacts” which includes responses from some of my favorite thinkers about the digital tools and practices in archaeology: Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett

The interplay between increasingly sophisticated perspectives on the theoretical side of digital archaeology and the practical challenges associated with data collection in the field, management during publication and dissemination, and curation après le déluge (as the kids say) continues to be worth watching and a source of inspiration.

Thing the Third

Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote a blog post this week that really struck a chord. You can read it here. She basically argues that it is hard to get anything done. I can’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s quotable critique of a famous New York City restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more —it’s too crowded.” Despite feeling like I’m working all the time, I never feel like I’m getting anything done.

For a long time, this felt like running on a treadmill, but then I realize that most running (even when it meanders through the local park or streets in my small town) is running on a treadmill. The goal isn’t to get somewhere (or get away from something), but to endure the challenge and maybe improve (or at least hold station!). This isn’t meant to be a critique of Futo-Kennedy’s blog post, but it prompted a personal reflection. I feel like my own happiness is not connected to how much I work. I can write and read and “think” (or whatever passes for thought) day and after day and still wake up excited to do it all again. If I get bored or burned out on one project or task, I can shift my attention to something else: from research to teaching, from reading to writing, from writing to book production, from scholarship to creative work, and so on. 

My happiness and satisfaction with my job has increasingly come to revolve around process. When I’m doing what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t lead immediately to a “deliverable” result, I find that my life settles into a satisfying routine which, almost by its own volition, leads to things that the bean counters (and my colleagues) can discern as results. In other words, not getting things done seems, for me, to result in things that appear as accomplishments for those who care about such things.

This has got me thinking about the strange economy of the work-life balance industry and their occasional argument that working less often results in getting more done. This seems to assume that for most individuals, the product is more important than the process which is only good insofar as it can be minimized. For academics, I’d contend, the process is generally more appealing and satisfying than the product or outcome which tends to be ephemeral and contingent. Process, in contrast, is persistent and even when practices changed, continuously defined by certain disciplines, attitudes, affects, and experiences. Thus, the call for people to rebalance home life over work life as a way to become more efficient in their work misunderstands the appeal of work life and creates a scenario that, at least in some industries (such as academia), is likely to produce greater apathy toward work.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the rise in rhetoric surrounding “life hacks” designed to make home life more efficient leads people, ironically, to change their attitudes to work. When the alternative to the efficient home is a place where individuals can experience process and certain attitudes toward tasks that bring a kind of satisfaction, efficiency oriented home life with its rhetorical emphasis on outcomes and accomplishments (the tidy lawn, the clean kitchen, the efficiently prepare meal, or the completed home repair) becomes strangely unappealing. I’d rather read another article, write another page, meet with a student, or reflect on a class than mow the lawn, do laundry, or complete some household chore even if these are made more efficient by labor-saving tools or other life hacks.

For me, at least, it’s telling that the most pointless work in my life — walking the dogs, going for a jog, riding my push-bike, or writing my blog — are also times when I think about work the most intently and with the greatest pleasure. I recognize that it is a luxury to have time to do pointless things and to think about my work and practice it in a positive and open way, but perhaps recognizing this privilege is a way toward revising how we think about work itself. Rather than celebrating models of work (and work/home balance) that look to improve the efficiency of our work life, perhaps we should re-examine how our attitudes toward work and expectations of accomplishments, efficiency, and product impact the quality of the work experience for people across society. Maybe the key to doing more is actually thinking about what gets done less. Making a kind of productive inefficiency at work a more appealing alternative to home will do more to address not only concerns of work/home, but also the anxieties that come with feeling like we’re never getting anything done.