Academia as the Universal Baseball Association

Anyone who likes sports and baseball, in particular, should read (or re-read) Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book describes a fantasy baseball league designed by Henry Waugh and played with roles of dice and a series of charts that allowed Henry to simulate the complexities of the game. Henry played the game for years creating seasons, statistics, dynasties, and storylines that introduced personalities, character, and politics to the Association.

The game preoccupied Henry especially after a young, start pitcher was killed when he was struck in the head by a pitch during a game. This caused Henry to spiral into a deep depression and the border between the world that he built up around the game and reality began to blur. Soon, he started missing work and drinking heavily and becoming more erratic around his friends. This began to impact the game and the Association culminating in his efforts to include a friend in the playing of the game. Henry then manipulated a roll of the dice to kill the pitcher who though the lethal pitch. This effort to restore balance in the league made clear the enormity of Henry’s responsibility as proprietor of the league and keeper of both its statistics and narratives. The players in the league depended on Henry for their existence, but also for their autonomy through his honest rolls of the dice. 

As I spend more time in academia, I start to wonder how much of what we do exists in a kind of fantasy world where the players, narratives, and situations that inspire our work depend on our own imagination to have agency. This isn’t to suggest that our scholarship doesn’t have real consequences. As the death of a star player in Henry’s Association demonstrated, the worlds that we create spill over into our realities and shape our lives and the lives of other people. While many critics have seen in Coover’s work a commentary on free will and the divine (observing that J. Henry Waugh is very close to Yahweh, one of the names for God in the Old Testament). I wonder whether it might also be a commentary on academia, where so many of our arguments exist in this self-referential world that only sometimes spills over into the rest of our realities. Our expertise, our claims to knowledge, and our positions of social, political, or cultural authority all depend on the relationship between what we do and the existence of a meaningful reality outside of the limits of our game. 

Classics and the Disciplines

I was pretty interested to read second installment in Sarah Bond’s series “Addressing the Divide” on the Society for Classical Studies blog. It reflects on the division between Classics and Archaeology and ponders the borders of Classics as a field. Classics has always been a bit odd in that – from an outsiders perspective – it appears to lack the methodological definition of so many 20th century academic disciplines. In practice, this means departments that have traditional textual philologists, historians, religious studies scholars, archaeologists, and art historians. In her post, Bond quotes James Newhard who noted that Classics is a three-legged stool with legs of philology, history, and archaeology. In short, Classics embodies pre-modern transdisciplinary practices, but also offer a way to think about the future of the university.

It goes without saying that negotiating the relationship between Classics and more conventional disciplines is fraught. In fact, this post evoked some well-considered concerns from Art Historians who feared that this specific reading of Classics marginalized their contributions to the project.

Taking nothing away from their critique, I think the tensions between disciplinary practices and fields like Classics speak to changing nature of the university. Today more than ever, academics are looking toward their disciplines as counterweights to the growing tendency for universities to break down the traditional organizational and institutional structures that provided a framework for professional autonomy and shared governance. They have also served to establish standards of competence and expertise through formal procedures such as accreditation as well as less formal means such as the publication of academic journals, the hosting of annual meetings, and dissemination of guidelines and recommendations for institutions and individuals. 

At the same time, there’s a growing suspicion that disciplinary definitions – as they now exist – may not provide a framework for addressing the most challenging problems facing our world. More than that, most of us – in almost every academic field – happily stray from our narrow disciplinary preferences to dance in other people’s gardens. We rely on the work of other specialists to support our arguments and to correct us when we stumble over intellectual or discursive pitfalls.

Because I don’t associate strongly with Classics (although I would admit to being “Classics Adjacent”), I’m reluctant to weigh in on these debates, but I am fascinated and optimistic that negotiating the relationship between disciplines and the field of Classics will offer a template for understanding how disciplines will fit into an increasingly trans- and interdisciplinary university. 

SCS, SAA, CAMWS, and the End of the Big Tent Professional Organization

I’ve been watching with some interest the recent controversies surrounding the Society for American Archaeology and the Classical Association of the Midwest and South annual meeting. In both cases, these professional associations have experienced sustained and justified criticism. The SAAs have bungled how they handled the registration of a known sexual predator at their annual meeting and their failure to protect his victims. The CAMWS initially responded with ambivalence to concerns from the LBGTQ+ community about the 2023 annual meeting which scheduled to happen in part on the BYU campus. While CAMWS has now decided to move the meeting entirely to the hotel in Provo to avoid the problematic stance of BYU toward LBGTQ+ individuals, this decision appears to have come after increasingly public pressure on the institution to change its venue. These two controversies have come on the heels of the debacle this January at the SCS/AIA annual meeting which devolved to the SCS publicly not censuring Sarah Bond, an outspoken leader in the field of ancient history and Classics.

Each of these situations has prompted concerned and often outraged scholars to resign their memberships in these organizations, to step down from leadership positions, or to protest loudly and critically on social media. To my mind, all these responses are justified. (To be clear, I have no real association with CAMWS, the SAAs, or SCS other than these organizations can and do speak for some parts of my disciplinary practice. I have given papers at the SAAs and reviewed for their journals. The SCS annual meeting happens in conjunction with the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America) and there was a time when I associated rather more closely with the field of Classics.

As I’ve watched these events transpire, I couldn’t help but try to figure out how and why this is happening. After all, to any rational observer, these institutions have handled these situations poorly and in ways that do not reflect the attitudes and positions of their membership. More than that, high profile resignations, cancelled memberships, social media bans and blocking, and threats of boycotts, undermine the ability of these organizations to advocate for their disciplines, members, and values. This is particularly significant for the SAA who have long had a significant role in defining professional ethics and advocacy for cultural heritage policy in the U.S. Similarly, the AIA has advised on issues of cultural heritage management in the Middle East and Asia, worked to limit the international trade in antiquities, and issued important guidance on promotion and tenure policies in academia. In other words, the inability of these institutions to respond appropriately, compassionately, and transparently to these crises (and the underlying issues) undermines other components of these organization’s mission. This is bad.

I don’t really understand how these institutions work, so any observation that I make here are likely naive, but maybe they’re still useful inasmuch they reflect an outsider view of the situation. That being said, it seems to me that there are three things that likely contribute to struggles of these institutions to respond. 

First, our fields are diverse and our ethical, professional, intellectual, and social commitments are diverse. For the past 50 years the humanities have expanded to represent the increasingly democratized character of higher education in the United State. This has involved a growing recognition of diversity in our students and our communities and fueled an expanding range of theoretical, methodological, and political perspectives in our disciplines. To my mind, this is exciting, but I also understand that this can create fundamental incompatibilities between what we value and how we work. I wonder if the recent failure to respond to crises reflects the ultimate disintegration of disciplinary integrity and the ability of big tent professional institutions to adequately reflect the range of priorities and values present in their communities. 

Second, while serving on the governing boards and committees associated with these organization is work, it is a prestigious kind of work. Leadership in the field is almost always associated with highly valued professional credentials (although not always), political credentials, and the luxury of being able to give significant time, energy, and in some cases resources, to these institutions (in other words, individuals with significant teaching loads, contingent status, significant other obligations both professionally and personally, are less likely to have the time and resources to accept leadership roles in these institutions). Considering the strange responses of the executive committees at CAMWS, SAAs, and the SCS, I wonder whether the processes that produced these committees works in a way that ensures that they reflect the membership of their organizations. I have no idea how to fix this, because in some ways it speaks to fundamental problems with the persistent myth of the academic meritocracy and the nature of academia in the 21st century. Maybe sortition!

Finally, it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the issues surrounding these situations stem from a lack of funding in these organizations. The social media shenanigans by the SAA, for example, suggests that they don’t have a competent social media manager or a plan for social media crises. These things take money to develop and sustain on a consistent basis. The challenges associated with planning and operating an annual meeting with thousands of participants – some of whom might be particular undesirable – takes significant resources. Cutting corners with volunteers (even very skilled volunteers), relying on the hotel security to help manage access, and running professional conferences at often problematic venues (whether at universities or hotels or locations), are all concessions to the limited resources available to professional organizations. Moreover, increasing dues, finding ways to monetize existing resources (like publications), and other policies designed to allow these organization increased fiscal security may not be consistent with their inclusive missions. Already the cost of attending professional meetings and paying dues is often prohibitive to even tenured faculty members (and all the more a financial burden on continent, avocational, or early career scholars). Pushing resources into the professional operations of these institutions likewise means reducing funding to scholarships and other outreach. This is not to say that a compromise between operational competence and mission isn’t possible, but that these kind of balancing acts require the kind of compromise that academics struggle to make. After all, how many academics have you heard advocating for the hard working folks who run their universities and colleges — highly compensated administrators, marketing folks, accountants, and other behind the scenes folks who make universities run?

In the end, I don’t have solutions for any of these issues. I do wonder, however, whether the days of the “big tent” professional institutions are passing. Our disciplines and academia more broadly is less unified today than it was 60 or 70 years ago. Hierarchical organization and volunteer leadership contrast with thriving alternative forms of political power that include social media and other new forms of professional communication and publishing which offer more open and dynamic spaces for interaction, conversation, and advocacy. It is hardly surprising that so much of the recent critique has taken place on Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs.

I still believe, however, that certain professional priorities and core ethical positions still exist and I’m deeply disappointed that these events escalated as they did. I also recognize, however, that there is a much greater negotiated and conflicted grey area around the core values of these institutions. This conflicted space almost guarantees that there will be more conflicts and controversies in the future.    

Five Notes on Classics

The past couple of months have been pretty intense for my colleagues in Classics. The field is undergoing a very public debate over its future and its values. The willingness of some of my colleagues (in the broadest sense), to speak out in favor of more inclusive, more expansive, and more critical futures for Classics is profoundly heartening. That they have attracted so much negative attention for their efforts — not simply from the usual brigade of internet trolls or media snarks, but from within their professional organization —  makes me sad. I am amazed by the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Donna Zuckerberg and the Eidolon project (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my good friend Dimitri Nakassis to the list) and so many other folks who have come out to support them and to work along side with them to make Classics different.   

I have very little to add to their work, but it did make me think. So over the last couple of months I’ve been compiling littles notes on Classics. They’re assorted, almost random, largely personal, and invariably contradictory, but maybe they’ll do something to support their larger cause or more likely to demonstrate that people are listening and thinking about what they have to say far beyond the limits of their discipline.

Note One

I am not a Classicist. I wasn’t even a Classics major. I was a Latin major. My Greek in college was mediocre and suffered from my tendency to be distracted by shinny objects ranging from Biblical Hebrew to upper level math classes and the history of the American Civil War. I went to graduate school to study Ancient History, and when I could have hunkered down and really worked seriously on my languages, I lurked around the Classics department, took classes that I liked, and most focused on work in History and Architectural History. When I went on the job market, I didn’t apply to Classics jobs because I was intimidated by the prospect of teaching languages. I’ve never attended the SCS (or, as it was called back in the day, the APA). In short, I’ve never identified as a Classicist and, I’m partly embarrassed to say this, I’ve occasionally chafed at being called a “Classical History.” I mostly study the Post-Classical or Late Roman/Late Antique period and most do archaeology. I’m re-reading Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution these days, and it’s as foreign to me as Tolkein’s world of Larry Potter.

These reasons should be enough to take whatever I offer here cum grano salis, as the kidz say.

Note Two

Over the last decade, I have taught the basic undergraduate historical methods class for the History Department at the University of North Dakota. I affectionately call this class “The Historians Crap” (aka “The Historians Craft”). This past year History merged with American Indian Studies, and to boost enrollments and to balance the teaching load in our newly integrated department, we combined our required methods class with the required methods class in Indian Studies.  As a result, I suddenly have Indian Studies students in that class.

This is great, of course, but their presence in the class and the ongoing debate around Classics has made me realize how much my class focuses on the work of dead, white, dudes. Starting with Herodotus and Thucydides, I think talk about Livy and Tacitus, then Eusebius and Bede, then Valla, Vico, and Voltaire, then Kant, Herder, Hegel, and finally, Ranke, Michellet, Bury, and Beard, before arriving at Focault, a bit of Bhabha, a smattering of Joan Wallach Scott, and a hat tip to Nellie Nelson and John Hope Franklin.

Not only does my class focus narrowly on the development of history as a discipline and then as a profession in an American and Western European context, it is also, despite my efforts, a brutally linear narrative of ideas, works, methods, and individuals which gives the impression not just of change, but of refinement, development, and even – to my horror – evolution. The class appears to culminate in a professionalized present as it shoves our aspiring historians out the door and into the archives, the secondary literature, and the work of writing and thinking seriously about the past. This not only excludes perspectives offered by non-Western, non-linear views of the past, but my insistence of linearity and even progress must be alienating to Native American students who see the emergence of history as a discipline as part of larger colonial narrative that so often worked to suppress their views of their past as well as the values that contribute to the sense of pride, cohesion, and belonging among their communities.

In short, I’m horrified at what my class has become. 

Note Three

Classics has always struck me as a happy anachronism. I try to embrace some of that spirit by making sure that my students know that the “Historians’ Craft”  evokes an older tradition of pre-professional knowledge making that looks beyond the industrial framework the modern university for its practices. Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the idea of craft in archaeology as well and found inspiration in the classic work of Randal McGuire and Michael Shanks as well as the British Marxists historians of the mid-20th century.

In this context, Classics seemed to do even more to celebrate its pre-professional roots. Whatever the linear, almost assembly-line, foundations to teaching the basics of ancient languages (manifest in the ordered sequence of 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year courses), most Classicists whom I know only achieved mastery of Greek and Latin through hours of unstructured personal commitment to reading and understanding these languages. Once you understood the basics, the ordered succession of classes gave way and expertise was personal and hard won. 

More than that, expertise was uneven and deep knowledge of a particular language or body of texts complemented an often expansive familiarity with other texts. I remember vividly the remarkable ability of certain colleagues in graduate school to move from across the entire corpus of ancient texts with relative ease. In this way, the seem to embody both the hedgehog and the fox. As wondrous hybrids, Classicists also drew from archaeology, art history, historical work, plus the staggeringly expansive amount of scholarly rumination in their field from Silver Age grammarians to 19th century Germans.

This hybridity made a mockery of impulse toward specialization in American higher education.  The assembly line of the modern university struggled to pigeon hole Classics as it was neither a true discipline with a limited and defined method nor did it offer the kind of narrow specialization that reinforced particular “threshold concepts” that could be aligned with easily assessable learning goals, course objectives, or educational outcomes. A Classics student – much less faculty – seemed to be able to do a bit of everything and embody a pre-modern kind of generalized knowledge. At its best, it felt like WISDOM and seemed to contradict the prevailing approach to academic knowledge making which focused so intently on EXPERTISE.

Note Four

This is related to Note Three. I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussions of professionalization in Classics and the role of language knowledge in disciplinary definition. There’s the idea that a Classicist should be able to teach languages “at all levels” and a growing realization that language knowledge prior to graduate school in Classics represents a limiting factor in diversifying field. As a result, Classics programs have take steps to manage the uneven distribution of language knowledge among otherwise qualified candidates for graduate study in the field. At the same time, there’s been an effort to question whether the ability to teach Latin and Greek at all levels is evening meaningful or realistic especially for individuals who also specialized in ancient history, archaeology, or other fields that live happily in the big tent of Classics. This seems to get into the messy world of expertise and its place within academic notions of merit and the meritocracy. 

This semester my colleagues in the History Department have had a rather intense conversation related to evaluating faculty output. As you might guess from someone who regularly spends hours writing a blog that very few people read, I tend to favor broad definitions of successful and meritorious faculty work which can range from traditional peer reviewed work to innovative efforts at outreach, public facing history, and other less conventional expressions of historical knowledge. Other colleagues have rightly pointed out that less conventional outputs tend to harder to assess and evaluate and giving “formal credit” to that kind of work effectively combines apples with oranges and devalues the traditional works of peer reviewed scholarship.  

Peer review, to my mind, rewards expertise in a particular area and while it doesn’t penalize general knowledge, many of the basic outlets for peer reviewed work have narrow remits that reward specialization. More general works, of course, do get published, but these are as often distinguished from academic monographs on the basis of genre as in how they’re published, marketed, and reviewed. In history, at least, expertise and specialization tend to remain the basis for promotion and merit.  

On the one hand, this is fair. The goal line is well known and established. Graduate education in history tends to focus on the production of specialized knowledge (whatever other impulses also exist) and clarity of expectations ensures that professional advancement is not contingent on a scholar’s identity, on personal whim, or on any number of poorly defined criteria that, in the past, limited the advancement of women, individuals of color, and other minorities in our fields. Well-defined standards are part of professionalization. These, in turn, structure higher education where a series of well-defined specialists communicate their knowledge to students who received whatever breadth of training is still expected across the curriculum. Job ads for history rarely seek candidates who can teach “American and European History at all levels.”

Part of the charm of Classics is that there appears to be a disjunction between professional expectations of expertise and the tradition in the field of a general knowledge of antiquity. This hybridity is exciting largely because it makes it hard to define what a “good Classicist” looks like (inasmuch as we can define what a good historian looks link on the basis of their professional accomplishments alone because they synchronize better with expectations in hiring and general status within the field). In sum, Classics short-circuits the professional university.

Recent battles over the future of Classics are, whatever else they might be, critiques of whether the meritocracy established within professional higher education will produce a meaningful discipline. Classics seems to ask: what does this meritocracy represent? If the attacks on the professional accomplishments of outspoken members of the discipline, the tendency to question the role of engagement and outreach, and the failure of the SCS, the professional organization of Classical scholars, to support these embattled members are any indication, then I get the feeling that the meritocracy has either failed, been hijacked, or always served to advance entrenched interests rather than the promote a dynamic discipline.

The hybridity, the generalized knowledge, and the resistance of Classics to becoming fully professionalized within the standard of contemporary higher education is its strength, at least to my mind. 

Note Five     

I wonder whether Classics is a mole or a bomb nestled within the bosom of the academy. It not only resists professional expectations of higher education but also critiques them and provides an alternate model. I’ve been thinking about how linear and progressive my Historians’ Craft class has become and how awkwardly and painfully that must appear to students with a background in American Indian Studies. Many Classicists seem to struggle with the same realization that their discipline, whatever it does in the present, has a complicated past filled with privilege both in terms of what it studies and how it approaches knowledge making. Just because craft practices may be better than the professionalized expectations of the assessocracy doesn’t mean that their innocent and, as many in the field realize, have their own methods of exclusion and marginalization. 

Those of us who admire Classics admire the genuinely expansive knowledge individuals in this discipline acquire and cultivate. The field has the ability to speak to the present and to the past without resorting to such simplistic ideas as the universal wisdom of the ancients or anachronistic readings of the past that turn Augustus into another modern dictator. Classicists regularly break down the notions of development, evolution, and progress by showing the recursive variation of seasonal, situational, and positional knowledge. 

Sometimes I think and maybe even hope that Classics is how the university ends. It reveals the meritocracy as just another repressive regime designed to justify Eurocentrism, colonialism, austerity, neoliberalism, and whatever other elitist pabulum that keeps the masses striving. It undermines the humanities and liberal arts as complicit in these regimes of power. It sends history scurrying for the social sciences. 

It’d be fine with this, in some ways, and it would be nice to think that the recent tremors in Classics are the first signs of the great unraveling. I have confidence in the world too. I think that when it all comes apart, the same people who unraveled it will still be there doing their best to make the world good. 

The End of a Collaborative Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Trucks

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

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

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

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

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

Classics as the Canary for the End of the Humanities

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

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

Go read this stuff here, here, and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Joel Jonientz

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

Punka cover 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






The Letters of Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College

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

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

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than that, they’re touching to read.

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

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

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

William Caraher

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

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

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

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

The First Thing

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

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

The Second Thing

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

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

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

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

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

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

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

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

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