Mid-Career Mentoring

This past week, I got a seemingly innocent survey asking me about my research productivity. It was circulated by our Vice President of Research and asked a series of question about what it is that we do as humanities scholars in terms of our research and creative activities. I suspect that some of this has to do with our current budget crisis at the University of North Dakota, and a renewed desire to distribute resources in a way that has the greatest impact. 

[For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3, and part 4.]

One of the final questions in the survey asked broadly about obstacles that have impeded my work. I responded that the distance between North Dakota to Greece and Cyprus slowed my research, and my limited and diminishing pool of energy. I simply can’t work they way that I worked as a graduate student or early career faculty member. I suspect that anyone who does work in a foreign country and, you know, is getting older experiences these same obstacles. At the same time, I was struck by my inability to adapt to these problems and, perhaps more importantly, not really knowing what to do to move forward professionally.

To be clear, I have plenty of ideas, projects, and academic hobbies. I even suspect that many of them are “impactful,” but I also realize that everyone has ideas, priorities, and projects and some faculty are simply more effective than others at managing competing priorities of their discipline, university, and department. I think that the current budget crisis is adding even a greater level of complication to those of us struggling to chart our paths forward professionally. Most of us at UND will have to change what we do and how we do it both in terms of research expectations and productivity and teaching and service strategies.

As mid-career faculty, we’re in a particular bind. On the one hand, we’ve invested in particular paths that usually carried us through tenure. Maybe we’re working on our second major project or setting out lines in several different directions to see what is the most productive moving forward. Generally speaking we know our craft better than when we started our jobs and we’re capable of handling more teaching, research, and service challenges. On the other hand, we have more pressures and temptations and distractions from opportunities from disciplinary or campus leadership, collaborations with other scholars, and we’re often laden with ideas for projects, methods, and approaches. While this should make us more nimble and adaptable, I wonder whether if that kind of dynamism is designed to thrive in stable environments where a certain amount of wasted diffusion of energy can be accommodated within the system as productive and creative waste. (As an example from the corporate world, when times were fat, Google could offer their famous 20% program where employees with a certain level of seniority could invest one day a week into some experimental project. As the company has felt more and more pressures (and greater expectations of profits), this program has been curtailed). So things like budget pressures, strategical planning, and instability across campus which ripple outward to affect disruptions to funding, to departmental life, and even to university culture, impact mid-career faculty in certain ways. They push us to be more narrowly productive and focused (with less productive waste) and they challenge professional habits and tendencies toward risk taking developed under certain expectations. So, at a time when campus needs innovation, faculty feel pressure to fail less and take fewer risks. 

This is a complicated place to be and one that would benefit from a kind of campus wide mentoring program to help faculty feeling this bind to refocus and find the most productive way to adapt to new professional realities.

To be clear, I’m not asking for some kind of professional hand-holding. I get that we’re hired because we can do our jobs. I also think, however, that we are living in a very dynamic period in higher education filled with opportunities and challenges that did not exist even just a few year earlier. The temptations of the digital age, the pressures to collaborate, changing expectations from administrators, legislators, and students, and a rapidly evolving funding landscape have have complicated our work. Moreover, our digitally mediated professional lives have increasingly pulled us away from our on-campus colleagues. For example, I work largely from home on days when I don’t have classes, meetings, or office hours and many of my colleagues do the same thing. The opportunities for casual conversations in the hallways have diminished and most of our conversations are less about long term professional issues and more about “shooting the wolf closest to the sled.” 

As the university looks forward to doing more with less, there remains real questions about how to best do this. Some of the responsibilities will fall to administrators who have to identify priorities and distribute remaining resources in a strategic way. Some of it will fall to faculty to sort their situations out, chart their own way, and take advantage of the new situation. But if we really want to do things differently, this is something that has to happen from both ends (administrative and faculty) toward the middle and we both need to working toward these new approaches.

Chronicling Budget Cuts: Narrating Institutional Memory in the 21st century

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts thinking about the recent round of budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Go read part 1part 2, and part 3 if you find this interesting.

One of the little things that working on the Bakken oil boom has taught me is that history is awkwardly situated to deal with the 21st century. Historians have long preferred to think of themselves as working in the “long present,” but the speed of change (and capital) in the 21st century has pushed us to think harder and work faster to keep relevant. Our long-standing practice of deliberate reading and our veneration for documents feels upset by the ephemeral blur of digital communication and the decentralization of media. If the speed of the present and the distributed and ephemeral nature of historical evidence aren’t challenges enough, we are also beset by a crisis of agency which has opened the door to objects, people, groups, even such abstractions as the environment and time has exerting agential weight in the construction of the future. As someone with largely philological training and still prone to look to the “Classics” to understand the two centuries worth of modernity, the changes have been bewildering. 

That being said, history has to adapt, and I’ve got to thinking that the budget crisis at the University of North Dakota offers an opportunity to figure out how our discipline can move at the speed of the present. The current (and by current, I mean the last couple of years) budget crisis offers a few key challenges and opportunities.

1. Evidence. The body of evidence explaining the budget cuts is highly distributed and ephemeral. Last week, for example, each division and college released another round of draft versions of their budgets here. But this clearly is not an archival location (and these are the second drafts of their budgets; I have copies of the first drafts, but I’m not entirely sure that they are still available publicly). These are pretty basic documents, but I’d struggle to find the budgets released just a year ago (although I’m sure it’s possible) for the first round of budget cuts. Moreover, these “official” documents only tell part of the story.

A simple search of my email for the word “budget” has produced thousands of documents and the prospect of a public records request to the institution for, say, all of the President Schafer’s and President Kennedy’s emails on budget cuts would produce literally thousands more. This is not even considering the correspondence at the level of the deans and departments and divisions, and various documents – minutes, agendas, memos, and the like – that spew forth from complex institutions on a daily basis.

More essential yet is a recording of the human cost of budget cuts. Since the “cutting time” began last year, there have been heartbreaking testimonials offered at public fora, outbursts at faculty senate meetings, and innumerable stories, anxieties, and conversations in the hallways, offices, and conference rooms across campus. Particularly high-profile stories sometimes appear in the media, but most of the impact of budget cuts on individuals do not make it into the Grand Forks Herald or an official email.

Fortunately, there are easy – and anonymous – ways to collect the stories of the budget crisis. One of my favorite digital history projects of the past decade was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank which used Omeka to collect people’s stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. Similar projects have used Omeka to document the stories of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, and the developers of Omeka have shown a strong awareness of the need to protect user anonymity

The trick is with any project like this to get people to contribute.

2. The Narratives. Producing a body of evidence will not be enough, of course. Individuals will have to take on the task of using this evidence to produce narratives of the budget cutting process. There will not be just one story, and it will not be a story that can accommodate all sources of evidence. From the perspective of historical methodology, the immediacy of the crisis, our commitment to institutions and individuals, and our larger view of the goal of higher education and the state will undoubtedly shape the kinds of stories that we can tell.

The plurality of voices, stories, and perspectives is the key strength of a project like this. As a historian, I recognize that our values and commitments appear through how we speak about the past both informally and as professional practitioners. By navigating, however selectively, the deluge of evidence, we present more than simply a view on how the budget cuts happened, but we seek to identify the key moments in the process and outcomes that we hope will shape future considerations. Historians, through analyzing the record of complex events, produce a template for future actions. Identifying through analysis and narrative, the problems and successes within the process will shape the future.

3. Memory and Forgetting. As I began to mull a project like this over in my head, I looked around for recent models that presented university budget cuts as more than simply a policy and planning issue. I wanted something that introduced a more open-ended and multi-vocal oral history or even ethnography to budget cuts in higher education and didn’t find much in my admitted hasty literature search.

What struck me is how crucial institutions and institutional records are to the process of remembering and forgetting things like the trauma associated with budget cuts. Laws and rules ensure that policy decisions get recored carefully and archived in their overwhelming detail, but the human cost is often lost to the informality of the moment. As a result, budget cuts appear in the administrative record as impersonal policy decisions without the complexities of their human cost. This is an intended consequence, of course, of institutional work. It occludes pain and emotional through the rationality of its structure, and while this structure is necessary, as a historian, I can’t help but think that our responsibility is to complicate the neatness of administrative authority.

The additional benefit of the personal side of budget cuts is that they can make the massive deluge of administrative evidence legible for the future. In effect, the personal side of budget cuts can curate the administrative evidence by marking those documents that had an impact on individuals within the university community. This curation would function as a way to ensure that we both narrate and remember the unfolding of the budget crisis in a way that will inform future decisions both in North Dakota and elsewhere, communicate the human cost to a wider audience, and make the experience of the budget cuts accessible to a future generation.

Finally, years ago, I wrote a history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, and it was very much an institutional history. The reason for this is that the university archives are a trove of administrative documents, but preserve very little in the way of personal encounters with UND’s campus, institutions, and individuals. This is both sad and rectifiable, but we have to think of our experiences at UND as contributing to the history and fabric of the place. This involve being proactive and making sure that they are recorded, curated, and narrated.

If you’re interested in being part of a project to document the budget cuts at UND, drop me a line here or on social media or over email. You know how to find me.

Morale, Academic Taylorism, and the Budget

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota and part of a fragmentary treatise on the history and function of higher education. Go read part 1 and part 2 if you find this interesting.

Last week, some colleagues and I had an informal get together at a local brew-pub in an effort to elevate morale in the current budget crisis here at the University of North Dakota. There was some griping and sympathizing, but mostly it was just fellowship and laughs. 

The exercise of convening that event got me thinking more seriously about the current morale situation on campus. As one might imagine, morale is low, humor and patience is in short supply, and sincerity, sensitivity, and anxiety is brimming over. Hardly a day goes by without some new rumor, new (and bizarrely proscriptive) policy change, and bad news. Reading emails from anyone other than students has become a soul crushing enterprise and the persistent drumbeat of dread has turned campus into miserable place. We feel it, our students feel it, and I’m absolutely sure that our administrators feel it.

To be clear, I am not writing about this as yet another faculty member complaining that no one brings us flowers and candies to congratulate us for doing our job. I’m writing this as someone who is watching campus morale impair the ability of the university to function properly. I’ve seen anger, frustration, and desperation suck the life out of meetings before they can be productive. An absence of empathy across departments and between faculty, administrators, and students undermine trust. And I regularly witness a sense of desperation corrode our ability to communicate and even just interact. On a day-to-day level, this sucks. In the longterm, this will substantially disrupt the campus community’s ability to move forward and to rise to various challenges that we’re facing in the present.

The responsibility for boosting morale is not simply something that administrators should do, but also something that faculty (and even students) need to engage. We’re all in this together and our ability to interact with a modicum of trust, empathy, and shared interests will make moving forward much more likely.

In keeping with my little series on the University of North Dakota budget woes, I want to propose a series of informal observations that might guide both faculty and administrators moving forward. I’m not so naive to think that people will read and embrace these observations, but maybe this is a step toward documenting how the budget crisis is experienced on campus and in my mind. 

1. Recognizing morale problems as problems. A couple of years ago, a colleague from the system office asked me what was going on with morale on UND’s campus. I didn’t really have a response except to agree that it was, indeed, low, and the low morale was hampering our ability to get things done as a campus community. (I sometimes wonder whether the difference between UND and our southern neighbor North Dakota State University is that NDSU has better morale making it easier for campus to work together to address challenges.)

Since the start of the current budget paroxysms, there has been no conversation on campus about morale (or at least no conversation that was expansive enough to come to my little corner of the world). In general, it seems, we are all accepting that these are dark and challenging times in which the university is beset by inevitable and insurmountable enemies both in the legislature and in the administrative offices. There is a superficial nod to the idea that campus cuts are a chance to re-imagine higher education at UND or even a worthy adversary for faculty itching for a challenge, but none of this reached my level without a cynical smirk and wink. The absence of genuine sincerity (or the ability to present a genuine sincerity) has made it impossible to buy into the challenges of budget cuts and the project of reworking campus programs (which is almost certainly necessary, if not particularly desirable). As a result, almost everything happening on campus is seen as being imposed by some body or individual outside of the rank-and-file faculty, and it fosters a feeling that most people on campus are not working together to advance the goals of the university.

This is probably not true, but it feels true.

Morale is a problem on campus.   

2. Rhetoric and Practice. The problem with campus morale is obviously complex. I remain convinced that some of it can be related to how we talk about faculty research, teaching, and even our students. We have become very concerned with “data.” Without unpacking the structural significance of this approach to faculty productivity and tracking students through their educational experiences (see below), I might gently suggest that few people like to have their lives work reduced to the status of “data.”

This maybe seem like a minor or even superficial thing, but we should never underestimate the power of language to crush spirits and create an unnecessarily adversarial tone in otherwise businesslike relationships between administrators and faculty and students. I’ve been to one too many meetings where administrators have described the academic, creative, and scholarly output of faculty as “data” around which decisions will be made. This way of speaking reduces projects conducted over decades to a series of simple outputs, and while we all know that results matter more the process, even the best scholars and teachers have far more failures than successes. Most of our time as faculty is dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and having our research reduced to the few times when things went right does not convince us that administrators understand the research process (even if they do!).

At the same time, faculty easily refer to students as “FTEs” and use various online services and programs to track retention, performance, and even “learning” of a sort. We assess, warn, track, and quantify student engagement across campus replicating the language of administrative assessment in our own discussion of the messy classroom encounter. This is equally unhelpful. Students do not want to be turned into nameless, faceless, FTEs, and using impersonal terms like “retention” and “assessment” shape how we think about our work and students and, over time, it will erode the potential for empathy.

In short, we need to be more careful – particularly in times when we all need to be working together – in how we talk about each other’s activities on campus. It’s a simple thing, but it would go a long way to creating the impression that we care about what each other does.    

3. Constructing Taylorism. That being said, I do understand and even appreciate the need for some “scientific management” on the university campus. Universities are large and complex organizations managed by a bewildering series of state and federal policies, local rules and procedures, and requiring oversight to ensure stakeholders that we are, indeed, doing what we set out to do. A certain level of academic Taylorism ensures that the campus community has the information necessary to make informed decisions and, more broadly, to understand what a university does. This is not something we invented at UND and not something that is inherently bad.  

In fact, Taylorism can be good especially when it promotes a kind of small-scale, efficiency in practice that parallels the kinds of small adjustments and reflexive behaviors that we regularly develop as researchers, teachers, and administrators. Learning from practitioners across campus ways to do our jobs more efficiently is part of what we do as academics and improvements in efficiency can benefit everyone.

The issue with academic Taylorism – at least as it is implemented here on UND’s campus – is that instead of building from faculty practice, it has tended to build from administrative practice. In other words, software like the dreaded “Digital Measures,” which serves to collect faculty productivity data across campus, does not model itself on existing faculty practices (e.g. like our annual reviews or our routine work to update our CV), but rather on administrative needs. Instead of streamlining faculty work, this process multiplies it. Worse still, the software is clunky and inelegant and largely incompatible with existing work habits making it not only additional work, but unpleasant and inefficient additional work. There is no benefit to an individual faculty member and every hour spent using Digital Measures is an hour not spent teaching or doing research.

So not only does software like this reduce what we do to “data,” but it also requires significant additional time to complete. Instead of Taylor’s promise of scientific increases in efficiency, these processes slow down and dehumanize faculty labor. Rather than providing faculty with more efficient ways to demonstrate our productivity, it erodes morale. This is bad.

What is worse is that these practices have become so standardized across university campuses that we no longer recognize their pernicious impact of faculty (and I’d argue student) motivations. So instead of pushing faculty to demonstrate their productivity or finding efficiencies, it make us want to engage the shared mission of the campus with less enthusiasm, with greater cynicism, and with far less energy. This is but one example of academic Taylorism run amok. Assessment protocols, reams of paperwork, and redundant processes that all serve to make someone else’s job easier cascade through university workflows burdening each step of the process with squandered energy and making the entire system both less efficient and more driven by compliance than shared interest.
 
4. Morale and Empowerment. Happy people work harder and, more importantly, happy people care! The entire campus community are being asked to engage in challenging work in depressing conditions, and the inevitable outcome of this work is being asked to do “more with less.” If we are going to maintain our existing performance in teaching, research, creative activities, and engagement with our community and the state, we’re going to have to be motivated. This requirement should not be misconstrued as the selfish needs of Gen-Xers or the hyper-sensitivity of millennial or some other generational moral failing. Instead, this is the stuff of good management and contemporary practice. After all, there is a reason why Google hires master chefs to cook for their employees and Apple provides a massive array of services at their corporate campuses. 
 
As universities are being called upon to function more like businesses, we need to look more critically at contemporary business models to understand how top tier corporation work to keep their employees happy. (As a hint, they do not ask them constantly to do more with less). Instead, they focus on making employees feel valued, they do what they to create spaces for innovation (like Google’s late and lamented 20% policy), and they work to undermine enough corporate structure to promote a sense of empowerment. (And I do recognize that for every innovative and agile start up, there is a more hierarchical and equally successful counterpart, and that the absence of hierarchy and the abundance of unstructured space and relationships can lead to abuse and inefficiency.)
 
Universities, on the other hand, have been stuck in mid-20th century corporate models often grounded in manufacturing or traditional managerial corporate culture. While these models functioned admirably when times were fat (especially in radically asymmetrical economic situation that characterized the post-WWII economy), they struggled to be agile, nimble, innovative, and profitable when the going got tough. As a result, many of these companies are shadows of their former selves (GM, IBM, Xerox). I’m not blaming the failure of these corporate giants on the failure of employee morale, but trying to emphasize that the new corporate culture ™ has come to recognize that keeping employees happy is part of keeps them committed to the company’s larger goals (profits, innovation, et c.).
 
Morale builds a sense of shared mission and collaboration which makes it easier to put aside individual agendas and find ways to advance the greater good. This is not about platitudes, like “OneUND” or “Great to Exceptional,” but about valuing the work done across campus in an explicit and visible way.  
 
5. Morale and the Margins. A colleague from a similar university in a nearby state wrote to me in response to my last post on the budget cuts to reassure me that the squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the grease in the modern university. While I’ve never quite understood the motivations behind this, I’ve assumed that some of it comes from the tendency for dissatisfied or dysfunctional programs or faculty to take up a disproportionate amount of time. As a result, administrators (and even faculty) find the conceding to the needs of a few is the most efficient way to move forward with the more pressing, day-to-day, work of running a department, college, or division. 
 
This practice, of course, sends the wrong message and I suspect that administrators know this. At times when morale is low, the voices of the marginal, the rhetorically overbearing, and the confrontational become the dominant voices on campus because few people feel particularly committed to the larger campus community. In other words, we let the marginal occupy the center because we feel sufficiently alienated to do nothing to prevent this from happening. 
 
Whatever one things of taking time and resources to boost faculty (and staff and student) morale, it is hard to deny that many of the most strident voices on campus are less committed to speaking “truth to power” and more committed to occupying a vacuum created by deep seated apathy. Campus morale has the advantage of defining the margins and suppressing unproductive dissent. 
 
6. Celebrating Good Work. If the problems of morale on campus are fairly easily defined, the solutions to the morale problems are rather less complicated. For example, I proposed to an associate dean a weekly email sent to all members of our college that recognized the work of a faculty member or student. These could be simple and informal, but they demonstrate that someone (especially in the administration) both pays attention to things that we value and cares enough to congratulate us for doing good work.
 
When I was first hired at UND, there were a series of lectures both in the various colleges and on the campus level that featured faculty research. It was a bit of an honor to give one the president’s lectures or the be invited to present one’s research at a dean’s lecture. It brought the campus community together to do something more than just negotiate some policy change or provide feedback on some administrative initiative. These are low cost initiatives that could go a long way to reconstructing faculty morale.
 
My modest proposal: each dean, the provost, and the president, should send out one personal email a week congratulating a faculty member or student for their work, and then send a similar email to the campus community.  
 
7. Humor and Appropriating Dissent. One of the great tragedies of the Trump Era is the humorlessness of his particular brand of authority. The absence of humor on campus these days is totally soul crushing.
 
For example, a recent change in how are contracts were written asks that faculty provide titles for articles that they intend to submit over a particular academic year. These would obviously be provisional titles. This seemed to me to be a great opportunity for tomfoolery. I could imagine using these provisional article titles as a way to tease administrators for their initiatives (on UND’s campus, it’s rural health and drones… I’d envision a sudden uptick in provisional titles with those words in them “Early Christian Archaeology, Rural Health, and Drones: 21st-Century Perspectives.”). I was gleefully imagining silly titles for my contract when some colleagues humorlessly assured me that no one would read these sheets of paper. Great.
 
I had a similar response when I proposed a YouTube project in which faculty read various crazy proposals for higher education that came through the state legislature over the past few months. It would be modeled on “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” project. No takers. Crickets.
 
I’m not naive enough to think that humor will solve complicated problems of morale or budging, but the hope is that someone, somewhere on campus could do something to get us to laugh. There is an absurdity to higher education and anyone who has spent any time on a college campus knows it. It’s a space of perpetual adolescence where great discoveries and puerile behaviors share the same lab space, library cubicles, and classrooms. The recent struggles at UND have suppressed this reality and by stifling our ability to laugh (and by refusing to laugh at ourselves and each other), we are short circuiting the creative energies of the Bahkinian carnival that so characterizes campus life.
 
We can do better.
 

Professionalization and Fragmentation

I’ve been thinking a good bit about professionalization lately, and this is largely in response to Dimitri Nakassis’s recent efforts to come to grips with the Future of Classical Archaeology (over a series of blog posts in preparation for a paper that he’ll deliver at a conference held at Smith College next week). One of Dimitri’s interests is the professionalization of Classical Archaeology and the resulting (relative) democratization of the discipline. 

As I thought about this more and more, I found myself interested in three questions:

1. How did professionalization of the disciplines across college campuses lead to greater inclusiveness?

My understanding of this narrative is that professionalization and industrialization went hand-in-hand with the latter setting standards for professional expertise based on the needs of industrialized economy. An engineer had to be qualified to perform certain tasks consistently and well. Disciplines established standards that vouchsafed for the expertise of an individual allowing employers to feel confident that a graduate from MIT and Easter North Dakota University had similar qualifications. While this is oversimplifying a complex process of change, the development of professional disciplines in response to economic needs and the increasingly complicated and specialized economic landscape rippled out across university and college campuses. As a result, even disciplines such as history, which did not have a direct and obvious tie to the industrial economy, developed a set of disciplinary standards that established the qualifications of an individual as a historian. This framework, then, shifted the writing of history from wealthy men of leisure to a professional class of university professors.

This process created a framework for a qualification-based system for establishing disciplinary knowledge, and these standards supported a more inclusive model for knowledge production. If disciplinary knowledge was based on certain “objective” criteria, then anyone who could achieve these criteria could claim the status of disciplinary practitioner. (And, I recognize that claims to “objectivity” or even impartiality were largely spurious, but the framework had emerged by the turn of the 20th century to accommodate academic knowledge production as a practice based on established professional criteria.).

2. Did this professional framework for the production of disciplinary knowledge lead to hyper specialization and fragmentation?

I recognize that today, disciplines represent an important bulwark to local administrative, economic, and political pressures on universities. At their strongest, disciplines maintain professional standards through complex accreditation procedures and clearly articulated policies that define qualified practitioners. These range from detailed descriptions (and even tests) designed to establish the kind of knowledge a qualified practitioner possesses to ethical guidelines. The loss of accreditation in a university program results in students who are not recognized professionally. Even disciplines, like history and Classics, that don’t have accreditation procedures have active professional organizations that work to establish standards for knowledge, best practices, and take ethical stands that represent professionals in the field.

Historically, the establishment of clear criteria for recognition as a disciplinary practitioner both anticipated industrialized practices that required specific expertise, but also projected this kind of specialization onto universities where these professional individuals were trained. In other words, disciplines required department and departments advocated for the value of their specialized knowledge and the university developed methods that allowed each discipline through their departments to manage the imparting of this specialized knowledge in the student. Within departments a similar effort to ensure that multiple areas of specialization existed creating an environment where the group of faculty worked together to produce a comprehensively educated student and professional. 

This kind of industrial specialization, evocative of the assembly line, coincided well with the establishment of clearly defined professional criteria for expertise in a particular field.  If the goal of the undergraduate education was to produced qualified professionals, the requirements for the faculty employed to produce these qualified individuals emphasized their mastery of specialized knowledge. In some ways, the complexity of the larger university environment where specialization reinforced autonomy encouraged faculty to become more specialized. If discrete knowledge was autonomous knowledge (and specialization the key to economic utility), then the key asset for an individual faculty member was distinct and specialized knowledge. It didn’t hurt that such distinct specialization was rather more easy to evaluate in determining an individual’s expertise. Moreover, it eliminated the messy task of determining whether someone was “right” or “wrong” in an assertion or argument, and shifted attention to the simpler task of determining whether some body of knowledge was “new” or not. After all the best speciality is something that no one else does, anywhere, ever.  

I think that I understand the pressures to specialize as a product of disciplinary knowledge production and industrial practices both on the larger economy and at the university. Part of the result of professionalization, then, was the narrowing of specialized knowledge. As the criteria for professional standing – both as a faculty member and a student – became more specialized, it became more democratic. Novelty of specialization emerged as a nearly universal criteria for evaluating mastery of a disciplinary knowledge, and this contributed to a more inclusive academy. 

3. The question then becomes whether our move toward transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary knowledge threatens the larger professionalization and democratization process at universities?

This is where I get stressed out. On the one hand, few can claim that modern universities are less inclusive than they were at the turn of the 20th century. And this is a good thing. Moreover, the professionalization of university education was a major engine of innovation in the American economy over the past 100 years (along with, cough, war, but whatever). These are both good things, I think.

We can also observe how universities and colleges established to develop the workforce for particular states, regions, or even professions, have the deepest commitment to professionalization. Normal schools, established to train teachers, technical schools to prepare engineers, and law and medical schools to prepare doctors and lawyers had the clearly defined requirements for faculty to ensure that they produced skilled practitioners of their respective professions. To this day, hybrid universities, like the University of North Dakota, where I teach struggle to balance the need to produce “workforce” and the need to do bigger more globally and universally significant work. The former need pushes departments and programs to specialize – particularly in terms of skills – whereas the latter coaxes faculty to think more broadly. After all, human knowledge is not specialized or organized into tidy disciplinary and departmental boxes.

But as faculty push to escape their disciplinary silos they undermine the role of the discipline as both a promoter of (let’s say) impartial criteria establishing professional specialization and as a check against parochial pressures facing universities. Anti-disciplinary knowledge remains a kind of holy grail among those who want to transform higher education (e.g. Louis Menand), but it also has anti-democratic tendencies as well. As new economic, social, and political pressures melt away the disciplinary criteria for professional expertise, they also challenge the autonomy of disciplines, departments, and faculty who have long established the validity of their expertise both in the classroom and in the economy.  

One of the interesting trends that I think that I detect is that elite private and public institutions have attracted faculty who move easily between disciplines and “disrupt” traditional standards of disciplinary knowledge production. Second and third tier schools, with their historical commitments to workforce development and traditional disciplinary knowledge production, continue to employ rather narrow – and perhaps even “traditional” – disciplinary specialists. In other words, some of the most interesting, exciting, and influential faculty are challenging the limits to disciplinary knowledge even as we recognize that disciplinary knowledge was the framework for professionalization and its attendant benefits of inclusion. 

This is especially significant in the 21st century as higher education has entered a period of particular precarity. Do we embrace the challenge of an anti-disciplinary world at the risk of exposing ourselves to the vagaries of parochial and political interests? 

How I am Surviving the Budget Cuts at the University of North Dakota

Over the last two years, the University of North Dakota has undergone a series of massive budget cuts. These are largely the result of cuts in state funding, limits on the university’s ability to compensate by raising tuition, and the decline in state revenues on the back of low agricultural and oil prices. When times are fat, public services in North Dakota are relatively well funded, but when times are lean, the state returns to a historic pattern designed to attract outside investment. Throughout most of its history, North Dakota has been dependent on outside capital to power its extractive industries and agriculture. As a result the state has done what it can to keep taxes low to attract outside investment. Over the last two years, low taxes and a reluctance to spend oil revenues, has led to cuts to higher education funding. This has coincided, predictably, with a shift toward vocational, practical, and professional priorities designed at least to produce a relatively stable workforce that is unlikely and, frankly, unable to demand top salaries from companies looking to invest in the area. Despite the prosperity of North Dakota over the preceding decade, there maintains a deep seated understanding of the state’s peripheral status when it comes to global capital and a resulting willingness to maintain the “development of underdevelopment.” 

This is frustrating for those of us committed to the humanities in the state. The goal of the humanities in our neoliberal age is to provide opportunities for economic and social growth in both our communities and the world, rather than simply fulfilling some practical need workforce development in the service of global capital. The humanities prepare students with the patience and discipline they need to make their own way in the world and this also happens to extend to the skills needed to control and command global capital. As a scholar of the humanities, I’ve tried to think critically and deliberately how to use my skills as a humanist to engage the current set of budget cuts while maintaining a certain among of sanity.

Of course, I have the luxury of being employed and my job appears to be relatively safe. On the other hand, I am not unaffected by the people around me losing their jobs, programs that I value being cut, and the general malaise that has set deep roots on our campus. As someone with the luck and luxury to be in a position of relative security, I have tried to think carefully about what I can do and how I should act to ensure that the larger project of higher education in the state will do more than fulfill the workforce needs of external capital at an appealing price.

Here are my thoughts on surviving the budget cuts as a tenured professor in the humanities. They move from the practical to the conceptual:

1. Don’t engage in pointless rhetorical displays. Faculty at the University of North Dakota are almost all very smart and clever. In fact, I rarely leave a meeting without feeling a bit humbled by my colleagues’ analytical abilities, their ability to explain and simplify complex issues, and their way with words. The same can be said of my interaction with university administrators. When faculty and administration are together in a room there is an abundance of ability, intellect, and experience.

To keep faculty informed in the budget situation there has been a nod toward transparency of the administrative process. Faculty have been invited to scrutinize budgets, attend fora, and provide feedback over the web. This is largely a bit of theater for off-campus stakeholders and an effort to keep on-campus folks in the loop about the nitty-gritty details of budget reductions. The communication is regular, often hard to follow, and not infrequently contradictory and halting. Everyone knows that the budget process is messy, incremental, and non-linear. Pronouncements by the administrators tasked with making the cuts reflect the messiness and contingency of the process itself.     

What baffles me, then, is the need that some of my colleagues have to engage in pointless displays of their intellectual and rhetorical prowess. When there is an inconsistency in something that an administrator presents or a policy disadvantages one’s program, department, or mission, there are few things less helpful than pointing out the inconsistencies or problems in a public forum. Administrators, despite the popular perceptions to the contrary, know their jobs, they know when they’re not making sense, and they generally don’t feel good about it. Making someone feel bad for pointing out the inconsistencies in their logic in a public way does nothing to change the situation. In fact, it much more frequently demonstrates a lack of situational awareness and sensitivity than any particular perspicacity.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t engage in the budget process. We should, but doing it with exaggerated rhetoric, smugness, and dramatic hand wringing, does little to advance the process.    

2. Distinguish between ideological decisions and “data-driven” decisions. Engaging the budget process in an earnest and productive way involves understanding where the pressure points are in the budget process and how to avoid pursuing unproductive courses of action. In my experience, there are two types of budget decisions currently being made. Some are data-driven. Enrollment figures, costs, space studies, grant revenues, tuition dollars, and the like provide a very clear data-driven framework for making cuts. Within this system there is a possibility of transparency with spreadsheets and cost/benefit formulas, and even line-item expenses. I have some moderate confidence that there are ways within this system to discover hidden savings and even opportunities for future growth. For example, small cuts that could have an outsized impact on things like retention and graduate rates impact tuition revenue and should be identified. Whenever possible these cuts should be avoided rather than kicked down the road. There should also be some sensitivity toward changes that do little more than redistribute students among programs and a recognition of how cuts in one college impact programs offered in another. As scholars who specialize in managing complex datasets, we can contribute to this kind of data-driven decision making. 

At the same time, there are priorities and cuts that are not data-driven, but, for lack of a better term, “ideological.” For example, there is a hunch that UND could become a global leader in UAS technology and that this field will develop into a meaningful contributor to the university’s local and national profile, generate remunerative public-private partnerships, and attract students and researchers. At the same time, there is growing skepticism that the humanities can continue to deliver on their promise of a more dynamic, informed, and productive citizenry or that such traits are even valuable in a population. These are difficult claims and positions to challenge, but, one thing is clear, they are not data-driven decisions. Arriving at a meeting intending to use data to challenge these perspectives is the equivalent to bringing a knife to a gun fight. These are hunches, speculations, and perspectives that have emerged across a complex political and economic discourse. There isn’t a spreadsheet or a data source that can undermine them.

3. Recognize the long game. When confronted with ideological decision making, there are real limits to what we can accomplish in the short-term. There are fads in academic and higher education leadership, there are trends in public attitudes to higher education, and there are ways of seeing (and hoping for) the future that are not easily changed at an institutional level. We can and should push back against a future that is bleakly utilitarian, subservient to the demands of capital, and accepts the peripheral position of North Dakota in the world (and views North Dakotans as merely a “workforce”). This resistance is a good and noble cause, but rhetorical displays and knives at gunfights are not the way to change minds.

As faculty, we have to recognize that many of us will be at UND for much longer than any administrator particular at the dean, president, and provost level. We will likely be around to see several cycles the latest trend, fad, or direction in higher education and in politics. I increasingly feel like my job is to work to change American society both on campus and in the community. My background in the humanities has prepared me to be patient, to grind away, and to be disciplined in my pursuit. I’d rather put my energies into the incremental, big-picture, battles than grandstanding at an on campus forum. As someone who recognizes the continuities between the distant past and the present, I feel reservedly confident that the great arc of the American experience bends toward freedom and not workforce training. Keeping that in perspective energizes my teaching and research even when that work is not appreciated in the current climate.

4. Put energy into rebuilding. On more practical grounds, we need to commit at least as much (if not more) energy into rebuilding than resisting. This may sound fatalistic, but there is only so much good resistance can do when the university is faced with such substantial budget cuts. Even if we were to protect a particular program or department through organized resistance, this will as often as not just distribute the cut elsewhere on campus. This is hardly an optimal result.

Rebuilding, on the other hand, offers a way to adapt a program to the needs of students, faculty, and the university within the new budgetary reality. In some cases, this will involve structuring a program in a way that reflects (but doesn’t necessary reinforce) new priorities. For example, a colleague of mine suggested adding “and Drones” to all course offerings. While this was clearly in jest (I think), the broader strategy of adapting programs to operate (even just superficially) within university priorities is something that can best be done moving forward rather than resisting. This needn’t represent accommodation or even acquiescence to programs and ways of thinking that we find incompatible with our disciplinary mandates, but it will require us to think creatively on how to conduct and position programs and departments within new administrative structures. 

5. Respect innovation. Finally, I know innovation represents a watchword for a nightmarish melange of neoliberal ideas about education. I also recognize that the rhetoric of continuous improvement is designed, in part, to undermine the significance of historically constituted disciplines and to push toward more and more contingent practices. And I obviously understand that contingent labor is one horrifically distopian future for both our society at large and academia particular.

At the same time, we can think differently and do things in new ways that are meaning, subversive, and significant. Whether we like it or not, the budget cuts are real. They’re going to impact our ability to teach and do research, our students’ ability to learn and succeed, and the states’ ability to compete on a global scale. We know this, but we also have the ability to mitigate some of these cuts by finding new ways to do things. One of the first steps to generated the needed change is to respect innovation despite its contemporary baggage and pervasive place in the world of higher education policy jargon.

If we tell our students that the humanities – in part – is preparing them for a world that does not yet exist, then we have to walk the walk and prepare ourselves to adapt to a changing world. This doesn’t mean giving up on the long arc of justice, freedom, creativity, and humanity, but it does mean putting our energy into places where it can best influence the future. 

An Idea for the University of North Dakota Budget

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

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

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

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

Here are my rational:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Classical Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow-Up on Mid-Career Convergence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduate Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Resolution: Trust the Process

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

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

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

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

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