Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Teaching the UND Budget Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drones, the University, and the Making of an Institute

Yesterday I attended a UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) summit meeting on the campus of the University of North Dakota. The meeting was the first step in the establishment of the IUAR, the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research. While the name of the institute sounds a bit like a dystopian fantasy where research happens without researchers and following some kind of formulaic diktat, it actually refers to various kinds of autonomous vehicles (drones, in particular, but broadly construed as well).

The meeting was “World Cafe” style, where people rotated through groups in 25 minute intervals brainstorming around a series of questions. I participated in three groups, one geared toward the future of these kinds of technologies (ancient historian as futurist!), one on data flow, and one on policy. The conversations at these roundtables were brisk, well-moderated, and productive, but they were also short!

So I’ve taken to the ole blog to respond more thoroughly to my experiences at the event. To be clear, I’m not really responding to the idea of IUAR in particular, but instead thinking about how people were talking about this initiative and how its place within my own developing thoughts about higher education.

1. Billboard or Factory?

One of the interesting themes in the conversation yesterday was the impact of the IUAR on the University of North Dakota’s reputation on a regional, national, and global scale. The presentations from administrators advocating for this institute were a curious mix of asking us to produce something (like a factory) and promoting what we already do (like a billboard). Now, I recognize that most good initiatives in higher education are part factory (promoting collaboration to produce new things) and part billboards (advertising what it is that we’re doing), but the current conversation around IUAR on campus seemed curiously skewed toward the billboard side of the equation.

The question that kept popping into my mind is whether this initiative is designed produce reputation or new knowledge? And if it is the latter, what kind of knowledge and technologies and approaches and ideas is it designed to produce? Or, in a more academic way, what problem is the IUAR designed to solve (see point 4 below)?

2. Surplus Energy.

One thing that interested me a good bit about the summit yesterday was how few faculty in the room worked on UAS technology or application as the main focus of their research. Many of us, however, had thought a bit about drones or used them in the field, but few of us considered ourselves experts in the field of UAS (although to be clear there were some folks with that expertise in the room).

For an institute like the one proposed to thrive, it will have to rely on surplus energy found in small pockets across campus. This surplus energy derives from faculty who have some, modest interest in some aspect of UAS technology, policy, or application, but not enough interest to shift our academic focus to UAS exclusively or even devote the majority of our time to the technical and political complexities of these devices. To make an institute like IUAR work, however, campus leaders need to convince us to dedicate some small part of our energies to the greater good of the institute. It is not quite as simple as taking whatever percentage of our energies we dedicate to drones and the like and shifting that to the work of the institute. There is a kind of friction that happens with a collaborative endeavor where energies are spent in organizing, adjusting our research agendas, institutional work, and other small exertions to, ideally, reap the greater benefit of shared labor.

There is always a balance and whatever the institute becomes has to do enough for those people investing in it to make it worth the exertion of energy. This is all the more vital for individuals who dedicate only a small percentage of their time to main focus on the institute. For someone like me, the benefits will have to be comparatively large in comparison to the small investment of time that I make thinking about UAS technology to be worth it.

3. Models for funding.

I’m intrigued about funding models in higher education. Recently a longstanding project on campus was critiqued and de-funded because it lacked a sustainable business model. At the same time, it is clear that not all parts of a university have to be self-sustaining. Some part of the university are so close to the university’s core mission that they needn’t have sustainable funding model to be vital to what a university does. For example, a library does not have to raise its own funds through fines and fundraising (let’s pretend) to fulfill its basic functions because a university without a library is hardly a university at all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, universities often act like venture capitalists in supporting innovations in basic and applied research because they recognize that new ideas are often fraught with economic risk and uncertainty and are rarely structured with sustainability as a goal. The funding in this case tends to be entrepreneurial funding and focused on small pilot projects the demonstrate proof of concept or emphasize one step toward a larger goal.

The IUAR project is a bit of a hybrid. It is a top down project initiated by the president, so it has some of the characteristics of projects so deeply embedded in the core of the university to not require a sustainable funding model and perhaps amenable to funding through direct allocation of resources. On the other hand, the absence of a large number of on campus stakeholders (for example, I was the only person from the humanities in the room and maybe there were only three or four faculty from the largest college on campus, Arts and Sciences), suggests that this is a kind of a niche project that perhaps would directly benefit a small number of faculty and develop best through a funding model that emphasized the focused nature of the research rather than its broad standing across campus. These kinds of project either derive from entrepreneurial activities and receive funding like venture capital and then shift to a grant funded or “soft money” model later.

What was strange, is that there was clearly no plan for sustainable funding presented at this meeting. In fact, the participants were asked to help imagine ways to fund this initiative. While this was fine as the meeting was an informal brainstorming session, it did make me wonder whether this kind of project might have been better initiated with a small number of researchers doing very focused research. Or, alternately with a bucket of money for a certain length of time to support its broad mission. In the meeting, it felt betwixt and between, not broad enough to be part of the core mission of the university, but also not focused enough to be entrepreneurial.

4. Technology or Problems?

Part of the issue, of course, is that the institute as currently imagined will focus on a technology rather than a problem. Most academic research focuses around solving a problem and collaborations tend to focus around various aspects of a problem rather than technical knowledge. Hence, entrepreneurial funding goes to groups of collaborators who begin to develop a solution to a particular problem. The IUAR initiative appeared, at least from the meeting yesterday, to lack a clear focus on a problem. There were problems, to be sure, that ranged from technological challenges – battery life, lifting power, ands so on – to policy and perception issues, but none of these stood at the center of the conversation.

I wonder whether a new, academic, research institute should start small, use an entrepreneurial model, and focus on specific problems established by industry practices and application or basic research challenges would be both an economically better move on the part of a cash-strapped university as well as resonate more fundamentally with the way researchers approach technology.

5. Outcomes and Trajectories.

I wonder how an institute oriented around a particular technology will fare compared to an institute focused on solving a particular problem. On the one hand, it might be that an institute focused on a kind of technology persists more readily in the modern university climate and has greater opportunities to reward the initial investment in its development. Their mission is ambiguous enough to allow them to be flexible in a dynamic world.

On the other hand, I’m always interested in how we can evaluate the success of such institutions when they are not focused on contributing to the solution of a particular problem. If the IUAR is designed to be a billboard to advertise good work already done at UND, then that allays some of my worries, but if it is a factory, I worry that the lack of a clear product will make its viability pretty contingent.

Finally, as I’ve blogged about at other times, I’m curious how the proposers of this institute see its trajectory, and this involves both its growth and its decline (and termination). Baking the end of an institution into its origins offers a way to keep the the institution focused on its present mission, subverts the exhausting task of “strategic planning” or other forms of “continuous improvement,” and ensures that resources, personnel, and energies don’t become pooled in places by dint of tradition rather than productive outcomes. For an institute focusing on technology, establishing a trajectory might be more fraught, because the ultimate development of a particular technology through time is not always well anticipated, but it might also be particularly useful, because it would manage the intermediate term investment in something that might be short-term trend or represent a short-term need in the development of a particular set of technological challenges.

To be clear none of this is to criticize the IUAR before it even gets started. And, of course, I recognize that building consensus across a diverse campus is tricky and the origins of any new project is almost always a messy process. What remains interesting to me, however, are the moments of ambiguity that I encountered at the summit yesterday, and it will be intriguing to see if these are issues that the institute can resolve moving forward or fatal flaws in its conception.

Speaking of Universities

One good thing about traveling is (especially on “smaller regional jets”) is the opportunity to read. The seats and tray tables are really too small to do any substantial work on a laptop and my new MacBook Pro has a solid hour of battery life. So I had no excuse to do anything other than read.

I colleague recommended that I check out Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities (Verso 2017) because of my general interest in higher education policy and my specific interest in how people talk about higher education. I am also beginning to put a class together on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota (based very loosely on a series of blog posts here) and their historical context both in higher education in the state and nationally.

The book is a pretty quick read in part because it is a compilation of previously published articles, reviews, and papers which are redundant and, in part, because Collini lays out his arguments very clearly at the start. He is writing in the immediate context of the sweeping changes made to higher education in the England and Wales in 2012. While some of the book does deal with the particular details of these reforms, the book remains a useful read for American academics because of a few salient take aways:

1. Speaking about Higher Education. At a recent meeting on campus, I suggested that part of the challenge facing UND isn’t so much the budget cuts, but how we talk about budget cuts. A couple weeks ago, it was announced that we’d cut our women’s hockey program and the arguments made to defend this move were largely economic ands budgetary. At the same time, the response to the cuts were largely emotional or grounded in arguments about university values. The asymmetries in the arguments made the university look bad because instead of talking about what a university means, UND administrators end up talking about relatively technical aspect of higher education administration (i.e. Title IX, cost/benefit, et c.).

Whatever the realities of these technical constraints are, people nevertheless look to universities to talk about values and leadership. In other words, even as UND faces significant budgetary issues, there remains a responsibility to talk about what a university means, if for no other reason than this is what the public expects.

Collini stresses the need to focus on how we talk about higher education and to resist the temptation to think of higher education as a business or an economic enterprise and communicate with that language. While there is no denying the economic constraints on higher education, Collini argues that the way we talk about about decision making, priorities, and value should reflect things that go far beyond the economic value or realities of the university. After all, we rarely talk about the truly important things in life using economic terms. 

2. Systems, Problems, and Competition. When academics are presented with systems and problems, our general approach is to try to break the system and try to solve the problem. The educational reforms in England and Wales involve a complex equation for how universities are funded. From the introduction of this system, universities sought ways to maximize their funding, in part, by playing within the rules of the system and, in part, by finding ways to subvert the system to their benefit. This is a product of both deep-seated academic practice of problem solving grounded in a healthy skepticism that any particular system of knowledge will, necessarily, provide the answers to particular problems. In other words, part of the process of exploring a problem and posing solutions is identifying the systemic causes for the problem and breaking the system when necessary.

This approach to academic problem solving is further amplified by competition. As administrators and legislators push universities and programs to compete with one another, it is natural that they will increasingly attempt to subvert the various systems set to manage or constrain that competition. This is simply the nature of academia (and I’d suggest that it is not radically different from the behavior of interests in a market economy). Various systems put in place to measure academic productivity will be broken by academics.

3. Higher Education and Markets. At the end of the day, Collini takes great pains to emphasize that competition, the language of business, and economic motivations will not work because universities do not do their best work when they are not chasing the market. Unfortunately, this is where Collini’s work falters a bit. He does little to offer a clear definition of how we know that universities are doing their best work.

This issue, of course, is the crux of Collini’s argument. It is fine to suggest that we talk about higher education in ways that more authentically reflect the motivations and practices that take place across university campuses, but it is another thing to come up with a compelling discourse, narrative, or even basic language that embodies the wide range of successful outcomes across the modern university campus. The modern university has developed in parallel with the changing economic forces, managerial attitudes, and market structures, and these cultures have shaped in uneven ways the development of disciplinary attitudes across campus. In other words, the main challenge facing how universities speak may not be an adversarial relationship between the world of higher education and the world of policy, markets, and politics, but the deep interpenetration of these worlds has done more than add a layer of “edu-speak” jargon to higher education, but transformed it at the base.

Collini’s work reflects one strand of the higher education conversation that tends to see the rarified air of pure science and the humanities as the authentic academic discourse and the language of applied science, managerialism, and markets as somehow external to the university. While I tend to agree that higher education should speak about things other than markets, business models, and competition, I also think that the strongest future for higher education involves a public language that embraces a plurality of views and discourses. 

Three Things Thursday

This week is layout week and today is layout day. These are good days when I get to immerse myself in the fussy work of book making (usually powered by an appealing soundtrack). 

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about publishing lately and doing more publishing than proper research, but I think that’s a fine place to be at end of long academic year and in the lead up to a month and a half in the field.

1. Guardian Archaeology Blog.

I was intrigued to see that the Guardian is has initiated a new archaeology and anthropology blog called, cleverly enough The Past and the Curious. The introductory post indicates that the authors are not just going to celebrate the big discoveries in these diverse fields, but actually get into the disciplinary wrangling that produce archaeological and anthropological knowledge. The authors rightly point out that this is an interesting time to be in archaeology and anthropology as disciplinary attitudes are changing as well as institutional and academic priorities. Making more of the academic life of these disciplines visible is a good thing, I think, even if it shows the public that knowledge making is far less tidy than many people have assumed.     

2. Manifold

I was excited to see the announcement Manifold, an open publishing platform developed by the University of Minnesota Press and a group of partners. Manifold is open and designed to produce open, interactive, and “living” digital publications. That’s pretty exciting and the works that Manifold is previewing from the University of Minnesota Press are attractive and interesting. A few of the works, like The Lab Book, will show off the ability of Manifold to present projects as they develop.

So far, their website offers a very appealing approach and package for digital publishing and the integration of different media and a high level of transparency in the production of digital works. Let’s see how this develops and whether the technical aspects of installing and running the platform will discourage its wide spread adoption. I’m also interested to reading more about plans to maintain and sustain the platform.

3. OER at UND.

This week the University of North Dakota announced that $100,000 has been set aside to facilitate the adoption (but not really the production) of Open Educational Resources in the classroom. In a meeting this week, our provost said that his goal is the save students $4 million on textbooks over the next year. At first, I was very impressed with this number, but then I did some simple math. If we assume that each student will spend about $4000 on textbooks (which is a bit on the low side) and we enroll around 11,000 undergraduates (or so), then we’re looking at total textbooks spending in the neighborhood of $45 million dollars. $4 million is saving is less than 10% and amounts to about $50 a semester per student or, in a more useful way, one class per year. While this is obviously better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, it’s still pretty modest gains.   

What’s more troubling to me, is that our administration connects this $4 million in savings largely to faculty adopting existing open educational resources in their classes rather than the production and distribution of open resources. This seems shortsighted to me and I wonder if some of that $4 million in saving should be put into the production of OER. What about a $10 fee for every open class that is designated for the production of OER resources. If we assume that each student has one OER class per year, that would amount to over $100,000 to support the production of OERs for specific classes.

The Answer is Mind Control through Brain Waves

For the last decade or so, I’ve had a fascination with parapsychology. Some of this stems from the work that I did on dream archaeology many years ago and some comes from puerile fascination with things like Jon Ronson’s Men who Stare at Goats. So, I couldn’t resist reading Wladimir Velminski’s Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny (MIT 2017) this weekend.

This short book examines Soviet efforts to use brain waves and mind control to create their workers utopia primarily in the first part of the 20th century. Velminski locates these efforts not at the fringe of the scientific establishment, but as closely tied to research into psychology, telecommunication, and scientific management in the first three decades of the 20th century. Soviet adaptations of Taylorism (one of my favorite topics for consideration in our contemporary society) explored the link between industrial practices, movement, and observation not as the basis for simply more efficient workers, but as a way to pool mental resources and promote invention and innovation. This research brought together physical and mental activities in ways that are strikingly modern and offered a particularly Soviet definition of inventor not as the contemplative tinkerer, but as the corporate citizen who combined keen observation and optimized physical movement to synchronize brain waves and create new ideas.

The idea that television and radio waves could be synchronized with brain waves to communicate directly to the mind developed in parallel to television technology in the 1920s and 1930s. Both scientific literature and in science fiction expected that broadcasting thoughts could serve to control and coordinate collective actions on a local and even national scale. Broadcasting television brought together the transmission of ideas, electromagnetic waves, and in the physical features of broadcasting towers in the landscape in Soviet thought to bring about new forms of thinking and being that characterized homo sovieticus.    

Scientists interested in the electrical signature of the human nervous system used more sensitive electrical devices to detect “brain waves” that emanate from the connection between the brain and various organs. These, like the earliest forms of research grounded in particular Soviet approaches to Taylorism, recognized that the body, at its core, depended upon the same electrical modes of communication as the Soviet state. The hope was that by registering the communication within the body, one could diagnose and perhaps even heal illnesses.

The book concludes with the remarkable broadcasts by Soviet psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky who sought to induce mass hypnosis during the tumultuous days at the end of the Soviet Union. Velminski parallels this with the work of Pavel Pepperstein and his remarkable film Hypnosis (which I’ll let you Google on your own!). Velminski returns to his initial case study of the Soviet adaptation of a kind of mental Taylorism and argues that transmission of thought whether through parapsychological means or more conventional broadcasting relies on a kind of neural prosthesis through which we recognize, interpret, and analyze relationships between what is broadcast and what we see.

This book offers a garbled and complicated lens through which to read the current political and media climate in the U.S. Efforts to control the message pushed out via partisan outlets and to obfuscate rival recognizes idea that the media is a prosthesis to mind of the state, but, as Vilminski has shown, a deeply imperfect one. The static, disruptions, and complexities of reception and the recursive efforts to correct, improve, and synchronize the message with the ideas of the transmitter. Far from being distinct from the world of brain waves and mind control, the theories of media and broadcasting that developed over the course of the 20th and 21st century had clear parallels both in their technical dimensions, shortcomings, and goals. 

More on the Budget and the Humanities

Like many people on campus at the University of North Dakota, I’m trying not to fixate of budget issues. After all, most people on campus spend most of their time just doing their jobs. At the same, we do read the media and feel for the students and staff effected by the most recent cuts to athletics.

[This is the seventh and the crankiest in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5 and part 6.]

At the same time, the drone on social media is becoming really oppressive from both people on both sides of the discussion. While some of this is the product of strategic antagonism on the part of local media personalities, some of it, I’m convinced, is genuine anxiety for the future of the university and higher education in our community.

As someone who has spent their last 20 years in higher education and in the humanities specifically, I am increasingly convinced that some of the current attitude to higher education is both our fault and our problem to solve. On the one hand, we have had the opportunity to promote the value of our field for a generation and it does not appear that we’ve been overly successful. Despite claims that the monolithic political culture of academia leads to brainwashed students, there does not seem to be any local benefits to this supposed practice. If anything over the last 20 years state support to higher education has decline significantly on the state level and more or less stagnated on the national level suggesting that our academic brainwashing was not even successful enough to promote our own interests much less some more wide-reaching and nefarious agenda.

At the same time, our lack of historic success should not discourage us from continuing to make the arguments to our colleagues, our administrators, our legislators, and our students that what we do is important. I worry that declining morale on campus has made faculty, in particular, less inclined to embrace our larger mission of making arguments. I know I feel a sense of fatalism and that the events are essentially beyond out control, but this is just the present situation and the long game requires a certain amount of discipline.

So, today’s post is more an extended dilation on the defeatist tone across part of my social media than any meaningful contribution to the budget discussion across campus.

The University of North Dakota Budget Crisis in the Classroom

At a meeting a week before spring break, one of the student representatives expressed concern about the University of North Dakota budget crisis impacting teaching (and learning) on campus. He noted that low faculty morale and a lack of confidence in university leadership did little to motivate learners and had become a distraction. I think this must be true, but I’m also not sure what anyone can do about it. The entire campus community is being impacted by the budget cuts, and so it is hardly surprising that it is seeping into the classroom.

[This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5.]

In my graduate historiography class, we’ve embraced the opportunity to discuss the impact of the budget crisis, in part, because it impacts the academic careers of the students in the class. Because our graduate program was de-funded, there will be very few courses available for our M.A. and D.A. students in the next year or so, and we will admit no funded students next semester. In other words, these students will witness a lull in our graduate program that will directly impact their education.

After some discussion, we decided that the best response from this class could be some kind of apologia or manifesto defending graduate education in history and the humanities more broadly. We agreed to open to make our work one to the public, first through a series of critiques by faculty and graduate students in our department and then to the wider community for comment. This work would fit into both a broader discussion of public humanities (for the students) and as part of a wider effort to document the impact of the budget cuts “on the ground.”

I read the first draft of their work this weekend with great interest. It’s pretty good, and my point in this post isn’t to call the students out on their work, but to note a few trends in their work that I think characterize the current budget situation at UND.

1. Causal Confusion. One of the most striking things about their work is the confusion about where the budget cuts that impact them originated. Most students blamed the legislature for the reduced funding to higher education, but some vaguely blamed “the administration.” What was consistent is that none of the students entirely grasped the process of budget cutting on campus and the various levels of responsibility and accountability. This suggests that the administration’s efforts to communicate how the budget cuts worked have not made it to the level of the students most effected by them.

While it is easy to say that my students needed to dig a bit deeper to understand administrative processes and the like, it is nevertheless an interesting situation that the regular drumbeat of communication from the administration did not appear to shape their views. Whether this reflects a commitment to a “post factual world,” a bit of lazy research, or a failure of the administration’s communication strategy (or a bit of all three) remains difficult to know right now.

2. Historical Context. The other issue that was a bit disappointing to me was the lack of historical context for these budget cuts. While the first draft showed a broad awareness that similar budget cuts had taken place elsewhere and that cuts to the humanities fit within a pattern that oscillates between seeing universities as workforce training and being seen as places to build civic identities and common values deeply rooted in the humanities. What was absent was any effort to locate these cuts in the history of the state or the university. 

These aren’t the first budget cuts at UND, and there is plenty of evidence available for how the university has dealt with similar cuts in the past. More importantly, there is a long pattern of attitudes toward the larger mission of higher education both at UND and across the state available both in published works, like L. Geiger’s history of the university, and in the university archives. 

Again, my inclination is not to blame the students for this oversight, but, of course, as historians you would imagine that they’d have attacked the problem using their historical toolkit. Instead, students were drawn into current rhetoric which sees these cuts and unprecedented and approaches the problem of the budget cuts in a fundamentally ahistorical way. This frees the administration to act without any kind of commitment to historical practices, processes, or (with all due caveats) tradition. It is difficult to make the case that history matters without engaging history fully in diagnosing and assessing the problems and potential solutions.

3. Petroculture. One thing that I did notice right in the background of many of the contributions to this effort is the looming specter of oil and some linked the budget shortfalls and budget cuts on the decline of oil prices. A subtle strand throughout the work is that history and historical thinking would have helped the state and the university better anticipate and adapt to the mercurial fluctuations in oil prices.

It is curious, though, that unlike many places in the world where oil has had a major impact on the local economies, none of the humanities institutions in North Dakota have yet to promote or develop a sustained interest in petrocultures. Petrocultures or Oil Humanities describes any number of approaches to economy, history, literature, or culture of oil production and consumption across various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They absence of a focus on oil and the humanities in North Dakota has left the state unprepared to engage the challenges of the oil economy and petroculture. As the state prepares itself to be even more accommodating to extractive industry, there is greater pressure for scholars and students of the humanities to provide a critical foil to these developments. 

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.