Uberfication, Branding, and Competition

For this week’s reading in my graduate seminar on the history of higher education, I asked the students to read Gary Hall’s new book, The Uberfication of the University (2016). It’s sort and it’s thought provoking especially if read alongside work’s like Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) or Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017). I’ll admit that the latter has informed my reading of Hall’s work, but even without it, The Uberfication of the University represents a subtle and intriguing take on the role of neoliberal ideas in influencing how universities function.

For Hall, the ride-sharing company Uber is emblematic of late capitalism, and his book looks at the impact of certain trends on the way in which the university functions both now and might function, in the future. Uberfication does not just refer to the hiring of low-cost, temporary, adjunct faculty and practices that allow universities to scale up or ramp down faculty across campus to serve student demands while keeping costs low. Uberficiation describes a larger trend in capitalism that promotes the creation of free-lance, microentreprenuers for whom the surveillance society of late capitalism has enforced a kind of the self-subjectification. This is largely done through the ubiquitous collection of data which has shaped our behaviors through the reinforcement of certain economically productive forms of self-discipline. As Hall notes, building on Foucault, the practices associated with surveillance society are normalized through eduction with has become designed to produce data that allows third parties (university administrators, for example) to assess learning as well as monitor student engagement, faculty performance, and educational efficiency. These practices tend to locate the educational process not at the level of the university, department, or curriculum, but at the level of individual performance. Smart faculty (like smart students) learn to “game” the system in various ways which are largely the intended consequences of the system from the start. The concept of uberfication, then, is as much about the use of data to shape individual behavior as it is the development of a permanently contingent workforce (although this is certainly parti of Hall’s critique).  

As a very simple local example from my institutions, we were recently threatened that instructors whose classes did not make enrollments consistently would be reviewed poorly in their annual reviews exposing them to the possibility of termination. While this outcome seems rather unlikely, the threat itself demonstrates the kind of shift that Hall identified. The use of data – in this case the rather coarse measure of enrollment numbers – to shape individual behaviors. It is difficult to blame individuals in this situation from shaping their courses to fit whatever expectations students (and administrators) have.

Hall’s book speaks to three regular themes in my musings on higher education: the development of personal (or institutional) billboards and brands, the use of data, and competition.

One of the key things that Hall connects to uberfication is the development of personal faculty brands (and I’d suggest, by extension, collective and university branding). Of course, I am familiar with the self branding and self promotion. My blog represents a particular crass example of this and the concept of branding extends to include The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and my brief foray into podcasts, for example. While one could argue (and I have) that these are as much about promoting what I do as promoting myself, it is hard to escape the reality that data – page views, download numbers, even citations – represent a crucial measure for assessing the popularity of my particular view of the world and its wider relevance. I’m beyond checking my stats daily and fussing about why one post or another is more popular, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t generally aware of my own performance as a blogger and the performance of my press, for example. (As I was writing this, I posted to a Facebook page a link to my blog. Always. Be. Closing.)

In some ways, this desire to promote one’s own work extends to the level of the university as well. Recently, on our campus, there has been a spate of “billboard building” which doesn’t really involve the construction of literal billboards, but the desire to aggregate, name, and promote certain features of campus life allows for more granular and targeted monitoring of performance and message. It tends to be superficial, of course, just as personal brands tend to be, and have little to do with the creation of actual value or scholarship or even work at the university. It has everything to do with the promoting the institution as a brand.  

The second key feature of uberfication that I’ve been interested in is the use of data. Years ago, a buddy of mine, Mick Beltz wrote a short piece on the way in which online teaching (and I’d extend this to any number of active teaching classroom environments) promotes a vision of teaching consistent with the Foucauldian panopticon. I then riffed a bit on this in an article that was rejected everywhere I sent it. Our ability to monitor students while they work and learn has created a new level of data that allows a conscientious teacher to evaluate and shape learning as a process.

The same kinds of data, of course, can also shape how we as faculty teach and how our programs are funded on campus. For example, at my university, we are contractually obligated to use a piece of student retention called “Starfish” which allows the university to track students carefully through their careers, but also requires faculty to generate data about students (and in turn condition faculty to see engaging with students as a data producing endeavor). In other words, software like Starfish uses and generates data that supports student retention by mimicking, in some way, the rather more data resistant experience of faculty actually engaging with their students in a genuine and unstructured way.

(Part of this is a long tail, I’d argue, of professionalization that encourages faculty to see what we do as contractual structured engagements with particular kinds of work. As a result, unstructured work like a hallway conversation with a student or reading and thinking about a book fits awkwardly into standards articulated within in contracts.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that professionalization has been a boon to academia by creating a level playing field of expectations for job-applicants, faculty, and students. On the other hand, as we continue to seek fairness in consistently structured data points, we are also moving away from the personal connections that make education (and I’d argue academia) a rewarding place.)    

Hall does not shy away from observing that the core feature of uberfication is the role that competition plays in the the monetization of self. I’ve thought a good bit about how the “marketplace of idea” between and within college campuses has led to increasingly extravagant billboards and increasingly impoverished factories. Uber, itself, is largely a billboard (at best) that collects data (and monetizes it) to position itself more prominently (to collect more data and money). Uber has very little investment in the actual rides that are “shared.”

As competition becomes more and more of hallmark of higher education, Hall argues that the quest for data, assessment, billboard making, has fundamentally undermined the viability of higher education. Through time, higher education has changed from a densely integrated and personal experience where students and faculty work closely together to create education to an assembly line of requirements and, now, to a uberfied service that compiles and responds to data in an effort to promote the efficiency of their product. I share Hall’s fear that the uberfication of higher education cares too little of the wellbeing of its students and its workers and too much for demonstrable efficiencies that easily promote its mission to stakeholders and funders. 

Teaching Tuesday: Writing a Course Description for my Class on the UND Budget Cuts

This weekend, I put fingers to keyboard to produce a course description for my honors course in the 2015-2017 University of North Dakota budget cuts.

My course description had to accommodate three basic assumptions. First, students generally are not interested in their universities from an institutional or historical perspective. I once taught a class on the history of the University of North Dakota and most students found it boring in comparison to, say, Nazis or Romans. Second, the course has to have both specific learning goals (i.e. gaining a better understanding of complex institutions and UND in particular) as well as general learning goals (i.e. analyzing a range of documents to produce a narrative and analysis). Finally, it needs to produce something tangible and public. I’m thinking a little book titled A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget with an accompanying website.

So here goes: 

Between 2015 and 2017, the University of North Dakota experienced a series of seemingly unprecedented budget cuts. These results in a flurry of media coverage, cut programs, transformed priorities, and – perhaps most predictably – outrage. Faculty and staff lost jobs, academic, athletic and student programs were cut or modified, and campus life became punctuated with news of the latest cuts, public fora, and discussions.

Budgets are a fundamental aspect of most complex institutions, and in this way UND is no different than a company enduring an economic downturn or any other public institution experiencing retrenchment. The main difference between a university and these other entities, is that the university positions itself – at least for four or five years – as the source for a comprehensive experience that includes both most aspects of daily life (room, board, safety) and a student’s intellectual, social, and cultural life. Budget changes at the university can transform in basic ways a students experience during the fraught transition to adulthood.  

This course will explore the complex series of decisions, assumptions, and expectations that led to the 2015-2017 budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Along the way, we’ll think critically about the history of higher education, the history of UND, and how complex institutions make decisions, execute plans, and respond to crises. We will explore these issues through a wide range of readings, projects that allow us to dig into various sources and data related to the cuts, and guest lectures from various people involved in the cuts.

In the end, we will produce a short guide for your fellow students (and maybe the general public) that explains what happened, how it happened, and why we should all care! (Let’s call it: A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget). The course will be fun.

Teaching Thursday: New Classes, New Methods, New Goals

Yesterday our department had a 3-hour meeting to discuss how we might adjust our curriculum now that our graduate program has been de-funded. The positive side of this is that we will have the ability to offer more classes at the undergraduate level, and this opens the door to developing a more innovative approach to how we teach. At the same time, we also have declining enrollments in our history major, which is more or less a national trend, and this combines with more stringent expectations on enrollments in individual courses, a changing landscape of “essential studies” requirements, a growing emphasis in “high impact practices” in our classroom, a recognition that a number of my colleagues will be retiring in the next 5 years, and a new school in our college (The School of Everything Everywhere Studies). 

It many ways it is an exciting time at the University of North Dakota, but it’s also a bit stressful and confusing time for the Department of History. There are some great opportunities to innovate, but also very real consequences if our innovation is less than successful. If our classes don’t enroll and they get cancelled, this could be read as a lack of demand and the consequences of this could be administrative and impact our resources and opportunities moving forward.  

While I recognize that these pressures are fairly common in academia, they impact me personally right now because I need to revitalize a few long dormant upper level classes. I’ve made it no secret that my preference is to teach big sweeping classes like Western Civilization or The Historians Craft. I like to innovate at scale and iterate in classes taught every semester rather than once every two or three years. It seems unlikely that I’ll have this luxury moving forward.

In fact, I’m going to have to dust off some classes that I last taught in the early 2000s like History of Greece and Roman History. When I taught these courses they were basically lecture and discussion and had a couple papers. They were scaled to work at 40-60 students. With our declining enrollments and the changing educational expectations, I will have to try to adapt these classes to a new educational environment with new methods and new learning goals. I literally have no idea how to do this. Part of my hopes that the department will develop their courses leaving mine to stand as “old school” experiences that evoke an earlier era.

I like to imagine that this earlier era emphasized that doing history was learning history. In other words, the humanities weren’t sensationalized, gamified, TedTalk-ed, revolutionary, or remixed to be made more palatable. The idea that history is craft (and the title of our historical methods course) emphasizes that history teaching is, at its very core, practical, vocational, and experiential. We don’t have to create some kind of student engagement experience to communicate what it is like to be a historian or to do history because students write history from the first paper in their first history class. Students don’t learn in a simulated environment (even the rhythm of the semester is more or less consistent with deadlines) like in more professional programs. Students don’t have internships or residencies because every class is an internship designed to produce historical scholarship that is substantively no different from what professional historians do.

That we struggle to see the work in the humanities classroom in the 21st century as experiential, active, and high impact, is the consequence of our growing immersion in hyperreality and our addiction to the spectacular. 

College, Commercialism, and the Common Good

This weekend I finished Charles Dorn’s For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017) which I had assigned for my graduate seminar on the history of higher education. I was hoping that the book somehow updated the fine narrative histories of higher education offered by L. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965),or J. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004), but I was a bit disappointed. At the same time, Dorn seemed to avoid the temptation to write another higher education jeremiad.

Using a series of case studies starting in antebellum period, Dorn observes how higher education has embraced the notion of the “common good” or a sense of explicit civic mindedness.  By the first decades of the 20th century, however, a rising spirit of commercialism complicated calls for universities to promote the common good. This reflected demands of students who saw the university degree as a ticket to the good life as well as administrators loosely following in the footsteps of higher education leader like Andrew White and institutions like Stanford that embraced White’s blending of practical with theoretical learning. The tension between commercial goals of higher education and goals that Dorn associates with the “common good” become most apparent in the land grant universities which constantly negotiated the balance between practical learning designed to promote agriculture and industry in their states and earlier, humanistic ideals of education largely grounded in the liberal arts and including the study of Classics, literature, math, and the sciences. The same tension persisted in the development of normal schools in the U.S. which were established to accomplish the professional goals of training teachers, but, over time, embraced a larger mission that included both education in the liberal arts and more commercially oriented professions.

The strength of Dorn’s book is the detailed case studies which included private and state sponsored colleges in the Early National period (Bowdoin, South Carolina College, and Georgetown), the birth of agricultural and normal schools in the mid-19th century (Michigan State and San Jose State, respectively), and development of a distinctly western vision of higher education (Stanford), of colleges for women (Smith), and to serve African Americans (Howard) in the first half of the 20th century. And, finally, the emergence of the post-WWII university (University of South Florida) and community colleges (in New Mexico and Rhode Island). Dorn proposes that each of these examples manifests particular approaches to the common good from the idealized goals of creating leaders of strong character and morality in the Early National period to practical goals of land-grant schools, and the the economic goals of the 20th century university. At the same time, he returns regularly to trace the growing tension between commercialism and the common good over the course of the 20th century with the goals of individual achievement and affluence superseding the expectation to produce a civic minded graduates who aspire to do the most public good. The transformation of University of South Florida from a school designed to serve the local community, commuters, and the rapidly growing state’s regional needs to a school determined to stand as a top-tier national research institution with a major, residential campus, and a expansive curriculum and research agenda. The transformation of campus culture and goals at USF provides a nice model for how mission creep led to universities changing over time and how public oriented goals that prompted the development of USF gave way to goals more in keeping with commercial, individual, and institutional aspirations for growth, prominence, and wealth.

Unfortunately the narrow focus of most of the case studies in this book obscures the mechanics of these changes at individual institutions. Georgetown and the University of South Carolina (originally South Carolina College) clearly have undergone radical reimagining over their nearly 200 years of existence, but Dorn’s focus on their origins make it impossible to know how these schools developed into their current states. Moreover, Dorn doesn’t return to these types of schools later in his book leaving the reader to wonder how large, state, “flagship” universities and national comprehensive private universities encountered the challenges to their original public-oriented missions. The history of Smith College or even Howard University, while interesting and unique, does little to help us understand University of South Carolina, Michigan State, or Bowdoin. 

I also wish that Dorn had unpacked more critically the tension between individual aspirations for affluence and the growing commercialism of the university and the changing notion of the public good and civic mindedness. Over the past four decades a view of the market as promoting civic good and the common good has become so prevalent in the thinking about the public sphere and higher education that they two cannot be neatly separated. For many universities, the goals of “workforce development” and the public, common good are fundamentally the same owing to changes in the public discourse concerning the role of public institutions, the state, and individual engagement with the market. The absence of any discussion of neoliberalism and its impact on the character of higher education left the distinction between the public and private to stand like a 19th century strawman as irrelevant to higher education in the 21st as the liberal and Classical educational goals of 19th century universities.


Teaching Thursday: Readings and the University of North Dakota Budget

Just a quick post today on teaching this and next semester. As readers of this blog probably know, I’m teaching a course in the spring for the honors program here at University of North Dakota.

[As an aside, I’m not a big fan of honors programs, in general, but because of the shake up in our department and the de-funding of our graduate program, some of us have been left to scramble for teaching gigs on campus. I was fortunate enough to be picked up by the honors program here.]

The course will be on the University of North Dakota budget cuts over the past two years. As any good course, the ostensible subject of the class will be a bit of a MacGuffin. The budget cuts will serve as a way to explore the dynamics of decision making in complex institutions, to consider the function of public universities American society, and to reflect on purpose of higher education more generally. My goal is to situate the UND budget cuts both within larger conversations about the role of the university and history of higher education in North Dakota and the U.S. 

To get things started, I’ve been re-reading some classics on the history of higher education with a couple graduate students: L. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965), Clive Barrow’s Universities and the Capitalist State (1990), and J. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004) as well as C. Dorn’s For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017). I’ll likely add some more polemical works like Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996) or Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? (2012), David Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (2003) or James Engell’s Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (2005) and some general readings on how complex institutions function in the modern world like M. Herzfeld’s The Social Production of Indifference (1992) and William Rouse’s Universities as Complex Enterprises (2016). 

The most interesting aspect of this project will be a reader that introduces a bunch of documents that allow students to wrestle with the complexities of higher education as well as – with any luck – some guest speakers who introduce the people behind the challenging decisions that shape higher education. 

As the course comes into focus this fall, I hope to get a blog or webpage up that features the work of the graduate students in my fall semester course as well as give greater shape to the course next semester and solicits input from across campus and my blog readers.

Clothes and Professionalism

There was a neat little article in the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday on academic fashion, clothes, and professionalism. I’ve posted from time to time on clothes: what to wear when’s cold outside, what I wear on survey archaeology projects, the confluence of tools that makes archaeology work, and even wrote an earlier meditation on the role of clothes in archaeology, academia, and professionalization.

In my post from 2010, I reflect on the way that the ragged edges of our professional identities often manifest themselves in what we wear. It is clear that some areas of higher education have professionalized more fully than others. It is not uncommon to see folks in sharp suits or at least vaguely coordinated blazers and “slacks” in administrative buildings, whereas style ranging from business casual to just casual tends to dominate academic buildings. It is also gendered, of course, but in this area I’m a bit less clear on how the subtle nuances in fashion. It seems to me that most women on our campus wear professional dress, but the gradient between business, business casual, and casual is less familiar to me. 

Of course, the justification for various styles of dress reflects attitudes toward appearance and presentation. Among many academics and certainly in the humanities, a kind of detachment from fashion might reflect a (a real or aspirational) commitment to an interiorized life of the mind. Steve Jobs famous jeans and black mock turtleneck was said to represent his attitude toward picking out clothing as a waste of energy. Moreover, it certainly spoke to academics and the creative class by presenting himself out as a thoughtful, reflective creative leader rather than a greedy capitalist, and this is consistent with larger efforts to market Apple computers as the tool for the creative classes and the liberal arts. Whatever truth there is to any of this is less relevant than the way clothing contributed to Jobs’ reputation as a “genius” and larger efforts to promote his company and his products. A disinterest in fashion and clothing complement into long-standing caricature of the absent-minded professor, but as some of my colleagues have pointed out, this is distinctly gendered stereotype that almost tacitly implies the presence of a dotting wife (or her present absence when the professor invariable dies, alone, buried under a stack of books and unpublished manuscripts). 

Academic dress traces the edges of professionalism even at the level of the individual. For example, in the classroom, I tend to wear a button-down shirt and nice pants or jeans, but when writing in my office all day or writing from home, I might dress in something a bit more casual or slovenly. The most complicated moments come when I have a late afternoon meeting and have spent the day writing at home. I have to decide whether I should change into something more professional (even marginally so) or just go to the meeting in my shorts and t-shirt. 

Clothes among archaeologists In the field are even more interesting. When I first started doing field work in the Mediterranean, I wore shorts and t-shirts, but as I got older and spent more time in the sun (and saw more and more friends suffer the longterm effects of sun damage), I started to wear long-sleeve workshirt, rugged pants, thick socks, and hiking boots. I always wear a hat. Among CRM archaeologists in the U.S. OSHA and worksite rules generally require a stricter wardrobe with steel toe and solid shanked boots and hardhats. Year-round (or at least longterm) archaeological work and the constant rigor of being outdoors, on your feet, and covered with dirt requires clothing that is proportionate more rugged than many Mediterranean archaeologists who work for 6- or 8-week seasons. This kind of professional indicator is a bit more subtle, but several of my colleagues in the CRM have noted (with a bit of professional pride) how they do more to dress the professional part than their academic colleagues.

It seems to me that dress is far more than simply a superficial manifestation or affectation, but cuts deeply into the complicated arena of professionalism in academia. It intersects with gender, identity, and even safety while being thoroughly contingent and dependent on daily schedules, personal attitudes, and, of course, as the Chronicle article suggests, income and economic priorities. Academic dress (and academic culture) seems all the more complicated by the rise of the casual entrepreneur and the persistence of the smartly dressed corporate warrior both of which offer models for complex institutions seeking to instill faith in their students, stakeholders, and employees.  

Neoliberalism and the Academy

I traveled a bit last week and didn’t have much time to blog, but I did read David Graeber’s Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015).

While the book is actually a series of essays rather than a systematic unpacking of bureaucracy as a phenomenon, Graeber does offer a few gems. The one that struck me the most relevant in the context of academic is the idea that neoliberalism was “the form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. That is: given a choice between a course of action that will make capitalism seem like the only possible economic system, and one that will make capitalism actually be a more viable long-term economy system, neoliberalism has meant always choosing the former.”

Unpacking this observation Graeber largely follows David Harvey and other critics of neoliberalism in their observations that it is primarily a redistributive system that followed the divergent course of political and social power and economic power in the postwar era. Under neoliberalism the politically and socially powerful capitalist classes redistributed capital from the workers and public institutions and declared this to be growth and the triumph of the market. As this system has matured, of course, economic growth and productivity has slowed, and the “free market” is increasingly bolstered by austerity schemes, border-protected labor pools in the global south, so-called “crisis capitalism,” and corruption.  In short, as Graeber wryly observes, neoliberalism creates the appearance of the triumph of the free market while changing the political and economic culture of world into one that is increasingly less free and more dependent on the invisible hand of the political class.

This reminded me of a post that I wrote a few months back on the University of North Dakota’s Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research. In the post, I speculated on whether this project was a billboard or a factory. A billboard is a way for an institutions to amplify the public impact of existing research; a factory is a way to streamline and coordinate the production of new knowledge. In the end, I suspected that the IUAR was primarily a billboard designed to promote the interests of the university more than the work of individual research. In the context of neoliberal schemes, it is more political than productive and serves to present the appearance of dynamic, cutting-edge, market-driven research more than cultivating it (at least at present). 

In a slightly broader context, I suspect that the various calls for “data-driven decision making” across campus also serves as a way to present the administrative workings of campus appear to share the impartial authority of the market, while obscuring the indelicately placed thumb on the scales. Again, the impartiality of data mimics the appearance of the market and the inevitability of competition between courses, departments, disciplines, and colleges. On UND’s campus a new funding model is supposed to rationalize funding and encourage competition between colleges and programs on campus, but colleges and courses (and to a less extent disciplines) are fundamentally arbitrary or at least not based on contingent contemporary concerns. Rationalizing funding on the foundation of an irrational system does not reflect, to my mind, the triumph of the marketplace of ideas, but rather the tyranny of history, institutional and bureaucratic inertia, and the disingenuous approach of the administrative class whose investment in the success of the university is secondary to political goals. The most prominent political goal is to reinforce the idea that the impartial market makes their own positions indispensable, or “everything is coming up Associate Vice President!

Slow Academia and the Summer

I found Dimitri Nakassis’s recent blog post in response to Mary Beard’s recent column in the TLS pretty interesting, and it seems to have generated a bit of social media buzz as well. Go read it. 

[For those of you who read my blog regularly, you can probably skip this post!]

To summarize Dimitri and Prof. Beard briefly: they let folks know that academics work all summer despite the tendency to see our profession as primarily involved in teaching undergraduates and getting “summers off.” As readers of my blog might suspect, both Prof. Beard and Dimitri are really busy over the summer doing research, prepping classes, and even doing professional service to their disciplines and their universities. For most academics, this is hardly a surprise. We have the luxury of working when we want and sometimes even where we want for part of every year and most of us embrace these times not as an opportunity to turn our back on our professions, but to actually do things that enrich and expand our professional lives. As some of the comments on social media suggest, academics even define leisure activities like vacations or (in my case) bike rides or long walks as professionally productive time. 

I’ll return to these ideas, but first, it’s important to acknowledge the context context for their post. Both Beard and Dimitri work at publicly funded schools and these posts have a real value inasmuch as they remind the public that despite many of us not teaching in the summer, we, in fact, still work. They might have added that technically many of us are not even under contract in the summer months (although I am not sure about Dimitri and Prof. Beard). So those of us who continue to do our jobs – read drafts of theses, do research, respond to emails, revise classes, and the like – are doing so without being paid a salary. At the same time, most American universities do treat tenured and tenure track faculty as employees even when we’re not being paid, providing lab and office space, library access as well as health insurance during the summer months. In other words, American (and I assume most) universities provide their tenured and tenure track faculty with the basic tools to do their jobs even when they’re not drawing a salary. 

That being said, both posts also address one of the most interesting conflicts in the life of academics: the tension between our lives in the industrial world of education and the pre-industrial world of research. Research, especially in the humanities, frequently follows a pre-industrial model and ebbs and flows in fits and starts. We race toward deadlines and, at times, work settles into prolonged lulls. We work on weekends, over the summer, and on holidays, but we might also find ourselves taking weeks off from research as teaching, service, or other obligations take priority. Teaching and service, in contrast, tend to follow an industrial pattern with regimented flow of classes and semesters shaping our work rhythms.

This tension between industrial and pre-industrial work contributes significantly to the confused discourse of work/life balance in academia as I noted in my two part review of the Slow Professor, and I think it also creates some confusion when I discuss slow archaeology and the like. There is a tendency to see pre-industrial work rhythms as less efficient and positioned to benefit from any number timesaving tools designed to streamline workflow from research to publication. There’s also a tendency for industrial expectations to influence preindustrial work rhythms. This isn’t necessarily always bad. For example, the division between work and life is a product of industrial modes of production, and it allows for academic lives fit more easily into a world shaped by middle class expectations. Dimitri and Prof. Beard advertised the work that most of us do in the summer when either not on contract or at least not engaged in the regular work rhythms associated with teaching, continues to align rather closely with regular industrial practices. In other words, we don’t have time off in the summer; we work then too, just like normal working janes and joes. 

On the other hand, among academics, there is tendency to see our preindustrial lives as particular pernicious because until the industrial routine centered on punching the clock and performing tasks on time and on clearly defined specifications, preindustrial work is not circumscribed by such tidy expectations. We work when we need to, how we want to, and to deadlines and specifications that are largely (if not always) of our own devising. For some, this leads to malaise as our structured training in academia gives way to the unstructured preindustrial world of research. In other cases, the lack of structured expectations can give way to pervasive anxiety about work or a drive to re-compartmentalize work and life. 

This is where a slow approach to academia has merits. Putting aside the tangled and unconvincing arguments in The Slow Professor which try and fail to accommodate the tension between industrial and preindustrial practices, I think embracing slow aspects to research offers one way to remind researchers that we don’t need to accommodate industrial work rhythms in all of our productive work. Slow practices allow for such disparate and seemingly inefficient practices as a vacation, a field season, a weekend reading, or a frustrating night writing to all be regarded as valuable and productive time. In this sense, slow has less to do with the speed at which once accomplished a goal and more to do with an approach that rejects tools or work rhythms that promote efficiency or speed at the expense of effectiveness. Slow practices draw a line between time defined by structures designed to promote the goals of the industrial academy and those designed to ensure the most effective contribution to our scholarly communities. There will always be a need to generate equivalencies between the slow aspects of our professional lives and those set apart by industrial expectation – as Dimitri and Prof. Beard have shown – but it remains particularly important that we not internalize these expectations.

(And I’ll leave this post for now, but I’d like to think more about communities of practice and the role of slow practices in the academy and archaeology in shaping the expectations of these communities…)

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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



Teaching the UND Budget Cuts

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been posting my occasional thoughts about the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Most of my posts have focused less on the budget itself (which has not yet been finalized) and more on the impact of the cuts on the quality and character of life on campus. This continues a longer-term interest in higher education policy which also appears from time to time on this blog.

At some point, last month, I floated an idea of a book that would contribute in some small way to the institutional memory of the budget cuts. I’m still thinking about that and working with some collaborators to move that forward, but I’m also interested in teaching a class on the budget cuts at UND, and this seems like it will probably happen in the Spring semester of 2018.

I have a meeting this morning with two graduate student collaborators on the larger UND Budget Project, and I’m starting to get my ideas together on the goals of the class. At its core, I want the course to serve as a critique of modernity and the institutions that shape our daily life. My hope is that the class can serve to complicate the idea of “transparency” that administrators so frequently bandy about. Transparency and intelligibility are not, of course, the same things, and making a complex institution as transparent as possible rarely ensures that the moves an institution makes are understandable to its various “stakeholders.” To unpack the potential of transparent, modern institutions, we have to learn to read these institutions and to understand the limits and potential under which these institutions function. So that’s the main goal of the class:

1. To become more literate in reading the evidence produced by modern, public institutions and in understanding how various decisions, policies, and individuals shape the direction, goals, and performance of these institutions.

Introducing students to the complexities of modern institutions will, of course, be a challenge. My disciplinary instinct is to approach reading an institution like the University of North Dakota through the lens of history, but I also recognize that other disciplines offer a different, and perhaps more robust, set of tools for unpacking the complexities of modern institutions. From sociology and anthropology, for example, the development of institutional ethnography and the methods used by Bruno Latour to understand, for example, “who killed Aramais?” can also be applied to higher education and understanding, for example, “who killed women’s hockey at UND?” Taking a transdisciplinary approach to higher education includes reading broadly in higher education policy and criticism. So:

2. To locate the current budget situation and the institutional responses in the context of higher education policy, the scholarship on institutional dynamics in higher education, and the history of higher education in both in the U.S. and on a global scale.  

Finally, there is a certain tendency in higher education to look so intently to the future – toward innovation! – and to look back with such nostalgia, they suspend a critical engagement with an institution’s past. The history of the University of North Dakota is pretty poorly known and there seems to be a pretty strong impulse to forget the economic challenges that have long faced both the state and the university. While a certain level of historical awareness could serve to soften the feeling of “unprecedentedness” at UND, it could also help administrators, faculty, and students find new ways to understand how things like budget cuts have functioned to transform the institution in the past.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the University of North Dakota is pretty fragmentary with only sporadic efforts surrounding the 100th and 125th-aversary to produce critical, rigorous, and careful scholarly work. The good thing is that the University Archive is available on campus and well managed. Students will be encouraged to excavate the archives and find the best primary and secondary sources for the history of the university. So:

3. To place the recent budget crisis in the history of higher education in the state of North Dakota and at the University of North Dakota.  

Stay tuned for more on the “Budget Project” as it develops over the next 9 months!

For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis, this is the eighth installment in a little series. Here is part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5 part 6, part 7.]