Compassion, COVID, and Scholarship

Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to read and review more manuscripts than ever before in my career. I expect that this is because the COVID situation has upset the traditional reviewing ecosystem and pushed editors to dig a bit deeper into their Rolodex of reviewers.

In an effort to do my part doing these challenging times, I’ve agreed to review these manuscripts, but I have to admit that my attitude toward writing and reviewing has changed. Whereas a few years ago, I might have been highly motivated to suss out any potential flaw in a manuscript or to nudge an author to track down bibliographic loose ends or polish off any rough edge, over the last six months, I’ve been far more inclined to emphasize the good in manuscripts, overlook their bibliographic, forensic, or stylistic shortcomings, and actually to enjoy the diversity of approaches to writing and thinking during a pandemic. As a poetry editor that I admire quipped as he worked his way through a mountain of poetry submission, “we are in a goddamn pandemic.”  

I feel like our political situation, the COVIDs, and a summer full of protest, anxiety, and anger has made me value compassion. This isn’t to say that I’m always a compassionate reader or grader, but for the first time in my professional career, I am inclined to read with an eye toward what already exists in a manuscript, a paper, or a creative work without dwelling too much on a what a work could be. Along similar lines, I’ve worked hard to be more patient with authors, reviewers, colleagues, and students who have struggle to meet deadlines and fulfill expectations. For many of us, the world has been turned upside down with the specter of personal or family illness only heightened by the anxiety-inducing rhetoric that emphasizes how what were once personal decisions have an impact on the health of our friends, neighbors, and the entire community. I’m less worried about getting sick myself and far more worried about getting others sick, letting them down by not being able to function fully, and burdening already overtaxed support systems.

I suspect that I’m not the only scholar who has embraced a more magnanimous position over the last six months and have started to wonder whether what has passed for disciplinary rigor, in fact, relies on unsustainable expectations. Social media constantly demonstrates how The COVIDs has strained many of our colleagues who have suddenly found themselves managing home schooling, caring for ill family members, and juggling new teaching and professional responsibilities. 

The emergence of Zoom meeting culture and the endless series of Zoom-based colloquia, conferences, and workshops with their attendant social and professional responsibilities creates a feeling of academic claustrophobia. This is heightened by many of these events leveraging our shared sense of ethical and academic urgency and a responsibility to participate in creating a more just discipline, field, and academy. Not only that, but many of the zoom events are putting forward amazing line-ups as they bring together on the screen scholars that would only rarely have opportunities to share a podium at an academic conference. Obligation and opportunity converge to produce a zoom-mediated hyper abundance of events that run simultaneously, everyday, from the earliest morning CDT to well after my bedtime.

Finally, the COVID induced economic downturn has already led to more budget cuts in higher education which will further limit our ability of even those of us who manage to keep our position as our teaching loads increase, library and research funding decline, and service obligations both in our field and at our institutions rest ever more heavily on fewer faculty. That being said, my own position as a tenured faculty member is relatively more secure than the uncertainty faced by many of my tenure track or contingent colleagues who might be facing the loss of their jobs and access to even basic resources necessary to do their work.

As a friend pointed out the other day, the feeling of fatigue with COVID, with politics, with the situation at our institutions, in our communities, and in society more broadly is, for many of use, the weight of our own privilege. I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member who has benefited from generations of unearned wealth, opportunities, and influence. I know and understand my continued obligation to change even during difficult times and recognize that I have it much easier than most.

All of this invariably informs how I read as a reviewer, how I write as a scholar, and how I teach. How we deal with the pressures of 2020 will shape the kind of scholarship that emerges from the new normal. For my part, this work will be less exhaustive in bibliography, less rigorous in argument, and less tidy and polished. From what I’m reading, it’ll also be more creative in engagement, more generous in tone, and more personal. Whether these changes are enough to shift scholarly conventions toward a more open and diverse forms of academic knowledge, I remain skeptical, but in a time where optimism is in short supply, I certainly hope so. 

Happy Lab(rad)or Day!

Try as we might, we cannot convince the Mighty Milo that it’s Labor Day, not Labrador Day.

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The COVID situation has made me realize how complicated labor is in the academic world. Right now, I find that teaching face-to-face is by far the most personally rewarding part of my job. Not only do I get to interact with people outside the walls of my house, but I also have had a chance to really rethink my classes and work to pare them down to their most essential parts.

I’ve also found the work that I do with colleagues – particularly at The Digital Press and North Dakota Quarterly – exciting and invigorating this summer and fall. In fact, I have tended to prioritize these project and teaching as much because its stuff that I want to do as because its stuff that I fear catching COVID and getting sick will make more difficult to accomplish. 

It makes clear to me how little redundancy exists in my work. I don’t necessarily have a plan for getting COVIDs and the current speed of the virus in North Dakota makes getting infected make this feel almost inevitable, even if this doesn’t mean getting sick.

What’s strange about this, is that most of the work that I do in the classroom and with NDQ and The Digital Press has the least economic value to me as a professional. Our raises are almost entirely determined by our scholarly output. It’s been pretty hard to focus on my scholarship these days.  

On Citations

I’m really enjoying recent conversations about the role of citations in our scholarly lives. If you haven’t read it already check out Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Maximus Planudes’s thoughtful piece over at Rebecca’s Classics at the Intersection blog. I can also recommend “The Politics of Citation” over at the Digital Feminist Collective’s blog, Shawn Graham’s “Citation as an Act of Enchantment,” this careful study of the citations by Jules Weiss in the troubled HAU journal, and Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s efforts to hold themselves accountable through a reflexive quantitative study of their book Data Feminism.  

All this recent discussion of citations is also practically important to me because one of my main projects over the last two years has been writing a survey of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This involves immersing myself in an expansive body of scholarship ranging from historical archaeology to garbology, material culture studies, thing studies and theory, ethnoarchaeology, and good olde fashioned history. Unlike in Europe and the UK, the field itself remains rather loosely defined in the US despite the long tradition of work that fit well within the scope of an archaeology of the contemporary starting with Bill Rathje’s and Michael Schiffer’s work in the 1980s and continuing to the work of folks like Jason De Leon and Shannon Lee Dawdy. This adds to the feeling (at least in my head) that my little book could contribute to the defining of this emerging discipline in a North American context.

Without being so arrogant to assume people will read my book in this way (and bearing in mind that people much smarter and more accomplished than I are invested in this field), it nevertheless adds a certain amount of pressure for me to think carefully and critically about who I cite.

RFK and MP do a nice job reminding us that our citation practices constantly walk the fine line between describing our field as it existed in the past and creating new communities (or even as a kind of “worlding”). Citations are aspirational, then, in some ways in that they seek to make clear the messy work associated with thinking which needn’t follow the well-trod professional pathways of “key works in the field” and much more likely swirls and eddies around works by scholars who represent our diverse intellectual commitments and social connections. In other words, the books that appear in my citations reflects the social and intellectual world in which a piece of scholars emerged and by setting it down in text, it formalizes these connections. 

The process of formalizing the connections from which ideas and arguments emerged is pretty terrifying. In a recent article of mine, I finally just broke down and admitted that some of my ideas for “slow” and “punk” archaeology came from a 12 month period when I was obsessively reading Philip K. Dick. It was perhaps not my finest moment as a scholar. 

In other cases, however, citations give us a chance to create new communities by amplifying voices who have been marginalized or making obvious social connections that inspire our thinking. Citing women, people of color, early career scholars, and scholars working outside of our field, in precarious positions, and outside of mainstream publications and media, ensures that our work reflects the diversity of our predilections as intellectual consumers. As such, our citation practices reinforces that reading is not a solitary, private, or personal act. Citing what we read put pressure on us as scholars and individuals to use our time wisely and to assert honesty and openly the world in which we live. 

Honest citation practices are essential not only because they reproduce for others the range of our intellectual commitments, but also because they offer insights into the processes of scholarly production. As someone who has not spent much time over the last 15 years at an institution with a world class library in my field, my citations undoubtedly reflect the challenges of access that I face working at my institution. At the same time, my personal commitments to open access publishing means that I tend, whenever possible, to gravitate toward open access publications, especially over the last five or six years, and my hope is that they will appear more frequently in my citations. I also suspect that my increasingly bifurcated interests in the Mediterranean and in North America will creep slowly into my scholarly work with scholars working. 

Finally, (and this should be filed in the “why we can’t have nice things” box) the growing interest in metrics and citation tracking (as manifest in such things as the i10 and H indices) means that our citation practices can and will be monetized. While the reach of these tools into the humanities has remained relatively modest, anyone who checks out their Google Scholar profile from time to time knows that our work is being tracked in the citations of other and quantified. In fact, many major academic presses now not only track scholarly citation, but also social media references to scholarly work.

That our invasive assessocratic overlords will use these indices to evaluate the “impact” of our work means that citations are not only road maps to our own intellectual habits but also assemblages of data that can be monetized and assessed. Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s remarkably honest assessment of their own citation practices in Data Feminism is commendable, but it also offers a view into a chilling future where who we cite (and by extension who we read) and who cites us (and where we are read) produce quantifiable data that can reward and promote (as well as marginalize and penalize) our scholarly community.

On some level, of course, we’ve known this. If you write a book and no one reviews or cites it, it probably isn’t a very significant book. We also have developed social media habits, such as not including links or providing screen captures, for example, that allow us to avoid giving monetizable page views to work that we seek to criticize as offensive, irresponsible, or bad. Scholarly habits have lagged in this category meaning that scholars who write problematic, offensive, or irresponsible works the require firm and direct critique can continue to benefit from this critique in their scholarly indices. In the most egregious cases, of course, the problematic nature of poor scholarship will tend to wash out the benefit of widespread citation, and perhaps in less problematic cases, the citation of challenging works is simply part of the academic conversation. At the same time, thinking about who we read and who we have to cite when we write are matters of discernment not only as we measure our own energies and commitments, but also as the ambivalent reach of academic big data practices reinforce the idea that all citation is good citation.

If there’s ever been a time to think critically about who we cite. It is now.

Three Things Thursday: Digital Utopias, Poetry, and Everything is Fine

It’s the last Thursday before the last weekend before the start of classes. It feels rather momentous as we brace ourselves for the COVID-inflected start to the 2020-2021 academic year.

In an effort to preserve a sense of normalcy, I though it appropriate to drop a Three Things Thursday. A little alliteration never goes astray when your grasping at the new normal.

Thing the First

A few months ago, David Haeselin, a co-conspirator and buddy of mine made the observation that writing was a utopian project. It assumes readers, expects some kind of mutual understanding, and engages in  shared world building. (As I sit down to write this post, I also wish that I had read my friend and colleague Mark Jendrysik’s new book Utopia, rather than just congratulating him for it over social media.)

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve gotten to think that the kind of digital archaeology that I practice which focuses on the recording of information in the field through to the publishing of archaeological data in an open and granular format, is also a utopian undertaking. If I had more of the “little grey cells” I might be able to expand this observation somehow into a full blog post, if nothing else, but right now I’m content to offer it as a half-baked thought on a Three Things Thursday. 

I think our assumption and hope that we can record what we do in the field in a way that is useful in the future and, actually more than that, used in the future recognizes shared values between the present and future. Even a casual reader in archaeological methods and theory recognizes this view as a bit naive, but the hopefulness of this view perhaps lends a bit to what Shawn Graham and others have called the “enchantment” found in digital archaeology

Thing The Second

On Tuesday, The Digital Press released a new book titled, One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920. You can read about the book in more detail here. Since then, quite a few people have visited the book’s page at The Digital Press website and this, of course, is exciting. 

What has been a little disappointing is that most people aren’t taking the time to download the book. This, on the one hand, is understandable. The title and description reads as something intended for a fairly narrow audience. But I want to encourage anyone interested in US history, African-American history, or – and perhaps most importantly – public history to check out this volume! Or at very least read this poem. The book is free!

In the sane spirit, I would also encourage you to check out the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19. This project has commissioned 19 new works by women composers that debuted with the Philharmonic in February just before COVID-19 disrupted our world.

What I didn’t realize was that the Academy of American Poets also contributed to this project by commissioning 19 poems by women writers. You can read and listen to the poems here or download the 19-page book here.

Thing The Third

Like many people, I’m struggling to wrap my head around the upcoming semester, the risk associated with COVID-19, and the looming budget challenges facing my institution and our college in particular. 

To help me deal with this, I’ve adopted a new motto for the fall 2020 semester and I plan to produce some kind of poster or sign celebrating it over the weekend. 

The motto is:

EVERYTHING
IS
FINE.

Stay tuned.

Performative Informality in Archaeology

I really like Mary Leighton’s work and have found myself citing her work and referring to it regularly on my blog (e.g. here and here). Last week, I read her most recent piece in American Anthropologist on “performative informality” in academic archaeology and found it particularly compelling. She argues that the performance of informality marks many of the ways in which archaeology as a discipline functions. For Leighton, performative informality include practices that might appear benign or even admirable in our discipline – such as the familiar collegiality between faculty and students that emerges from hours in the field – to some of archaeology’s more toxic rituals such as binge drinking. Understanding the unspoken rules this informal behavior is often key to professional success within our field. Like many of the formal structures that dictate professional advancement in more formal academic settings, the rules of performative informality are likewise shaped by white, European, male privilege. Unlike the more structured environment of formal academia, however, the more shadowy informal world often operates in ways that escape critique, reinforces white male privilege, and serves as a gatekeeper function within academic circles. 

My little summary does not really do this article justice. Go read it.

Most field archaeologists are familiar with practices that Leighton describes in this article. These range from seemingly innocuous suggestion that, in the field, archaeologists use each others first names rather than academic titles to the deeply problematic rituals of late-night drinking, romantic liaisons between faculty, supervisors, and students, and moments of casual interaction that have real professional consequences for students seeking to receive a positive letter of recommendation, future opportunities for collaboration, or even just professional encouragement and professional. We all know far too well that a student or colleague that struggles with the informal world of archaeology — no matter how rigorous their formal scholarship — will often find themselves struggling to make the kind of informal connections that contribute to opportunities for career advancement. In fact, social awkwardness in the close knit world that emerges during field work often reflects an inability to discern the cues that shape the performance of informality that shapes field work relationships.    

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have a growing distrust for many of the rules that structure our professional lives. I’ve complained about the assessocracy and the bureaucratized processes that reduce the complex work of research and teaching to measurable and comparable outputsI’ve worried about administrative structures such as colleges and departments, and their formal roles in keeping us siloed. I’ve worked on projects that seek to reject, or at very least complicate, the boundaries between various kinds of work in our field, especially publishing, and considered the potential of such abstract and elusive metaphors of flow as models for understanding relationship between the defined spaces of fieldwork, analysis, writing, and publishing.

Many of my critiques have drawn upon Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality as a mode of interaction that ostensibly sheds some of the social, institutional, and practical formality that dictates the maintenance of productive relationships in a world of (post)industrial capitalism. After reading Leighton’s article, however, I worry that so much of what I have tried to articulate is less about challenging practices in academia that seek to institutionalize forms of white, male, bourgeois privilege and more about finding new ways to act out these structural advantages by other means. While it is easy enough to critique the role of alcohol both in the field and in a professional settings, for example, as deeply problematic in archaeology, Leighton’s ethnographic study nudges us to see the drinking, overt and often physical performances of familiarity (my aversion to hugs is well-known), and cliquishness within our discipline as a kind of carnivalesque behavior designed not to subvert the existing structures institutionalized within policies at our institutions, but to reinforce them through their inversion.

(I really want to insert a long tirade against hugging here, but I won’t. Just don’t hug me. In fact, even before our virus-inflected new normal, I’d prefer that we not touch. A simple head nod will do just fine.) 

It may well be that my embrace of conviviality as a form of anti-modernism serves merely to reinforce the modern practices at the core of professional academic life. I’ve long conceded that “slow archaeology” (to which Leighton’s work contributed significantly) may well have its roots in privileged practices (as first called out by Shawn Graham). Leighton, of course, does not deal explicitly with my formulation of slow, but her article does suggest that my vision of a more egalitarian, “structureless,” and convivial discipline might do little to mitigate the kind of structural sexism, racism, and classism present in academia. In fact, Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (which I blogged about here) made a similar point by showing how both formal and informal expectations work together to create both administrative and social barriers for disadvantaged students.

Leighton’s article also got me thinking about the recent piece in History Australia by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (which I blogged about here) that proposes that historians work to create micro-utopias where we can both suspend the institutional practices that structure so much of our professional lives and create more inclusive spaces defined by new performative gestures and attendant relationships. Of course, the creation of such micro-utopias, even for a short lived period or under very specific circumstances, may do little to undermine structural inequalities that fundamentally shape our field if they rely too heavily on the simple inversion of more formal practices that define our professional relationships.

It seems to me that the formal/informal dichotomy that Leighton interrogates in her piece may be the relationship that most requires critique. This is not at all a criticism of Leighton’s important work. I recognize that heavy drinking, coerced familiarity, and other common forms of social inversion present on archaeological projects are deeply problematic. At the same time, I want to think that we can still challenge the institutional and policy-defined relationships that define our field and privilege individuals who can code-switch between manifestations of the same social structures whether manifest in the rules of performative informality, the unspoken formalism of “civility,” or policy mandated behaviors. I’d gently proposes that the problem with performative informality on archaeological projects is not that it the structures that shape the discipline with the “the tyranny of structurelessness,” but the opposite: performative informality make the ubiquity of these structures visible and reinforces their inescapability.

What I really want to understand is how do we move forward from the kinds of critique that Leighton offers? Her ambivalence throughout the article (especially at the end) demonstrates how deeply entrenched these structures are as they not only define professional communities but also give shape to how we perform such deeply personal acts as grieving. 

I don’t have answers, but I hope that it remains possible to construct communities in the field of archaeology that do not conform to the formal/informal dichotomy and, instead, create convivial and perhaps even utopian space for more a inclusive, meaningful, and productive discipline. 

Micro-Utopias and Training PhDs in a Time of Precarity

My colleague Catherine Frieman broke her Twitter sabbatical to recommend a recent article by Yves Rees & Ben Huf called “Training historians in urgent times” in History Australia (2020). The article is really good and if you only have time for so much reading today, do go and read the article rather than my blog post!

The authors provide a fairly standard interpretation of contemporary professional training for scholars in the humanities and the diminishing career opportunities facing new PhDs on the current job market. They offer a useful historical paradigm for understanding current trends over time. If PhD training early on produced “PhD as hero of knowledge” which gave way in the 1950s to a more professionalized vision of the degree, “PhD as expert,” contemporary practices tends to see “PhD as human capital.” This is nowhere more apparent than recent calls to diversify PhD training in the humanities to ensure that students have a wider range of skills appealing to a wider range of employers. In this scenario, the graduate student and degree holder are less distinctive, heroic practitioners of the discipline or experts in both methods and content, and more bundles of transferable skills primed to be monetized by the individual and adapted to existing and future workforce needs.

Of course, It is hard to deny the power of this reading of contemporary graduate training. The harsh realities of the academic job market permeate almost all discussions of PhD training in the humanities with coursework, dissertation topics, dissertation committee arrangements, and pre-degree fieldwork, publishing, and presenting all draw into the powerful gravity of job market preparation. Indeed, these pressures have alternately reinforced the older concept of the PhD as expert in distinctly relevant method and content and subverted this emphasis, by stressing the role of professional relationships and networking in successfully navigating the early career job market (and securing letters of recommendation and invitations to fieldwork projects, academic conferences, and edited publications through which one’s career might advance). If the PhD as expert supported the professionalization of our disciplines, the PhD as human capital has shed light on the limits of this professionalization as professional opportunities become so scarce as to approach randomness and careers increasingly divergent from core aspect of our training. If we’ve learned anything from the COVID situation, it’s that expertise is no longer enough (if it ever was in the past) and who you know remains more important than what you know. In short, academic training is at a crossroads (and this is something that I’ve blogged about before).

Rees and Huf cannot solve these problems, of course, but they do think it is important for historians to recognize that pivoting professional training to adapt to the current economic situation runs the risk of complicity with a regime that in no way supports the larger goals of our discipline. More than that, it risks blunting the potential of history (and the broader humanities) in making an impact on the problems in the contemporary world. And, even more than that, the current PhD-as-human-capital represents a profoundly dehumanizing turn which has real consequences for students who often pursue graduate education not in a quest for a marketable bundle of skills but to advance human knowledge and telling stories that matter.

They system cannot be changed, of course; at least, not all at once and not from within, but there are opportunities for resistance. Rees and Huff recommend, then, creating micro-utopias that suspend — even just for a moment — the pernicious reach of precarity and professional pressures, pecking orders, and procedures. As examples, they suggest cooperative workshops and reading groups, various Open and Free universities which bring together members of the public and academics to engage seriously with a work outside of the typical university setting with its implicit and explicit hierarchies and expectation, and the construction of interdisciplinary spaces where individuals bring different perspectives to pressing problems. The proposed approaches centered around four principles: inclusivity, collegiality, public mindedness, and interdisciplinarity. 

I’d add that their various examples also demonstrated an ambivalence toward the traditional academic hierarchy and models of knowledge making that emphasize credit and deliverables (as so many grants and programs require). In short, the micro-utopias proposed by Rees and Huf shift the emphasis from what a program or project accomplishes and redirects it toward what is happening. 

This to me is a very compelling proposition not only because it resists the temptation to advocate for the complete dismantling of the existing approach to PhD training (however deserved such a dismantling would be) and instead proposes that we make space that not only recognizes the human toll of precarity and professionalization, but also works at the human-scale to subvert it.

Being a “Senior Scholar” and Hope

This weekend, I thought a good bit about my buddy Dimitri Nakassis’s post on how to be a better senior scholar. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

I also read Felix Ringel’s Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City (2018). Ringel’s studies the city of Hoyerswerda which was a model, prefabricated modern city in the former GDR. After reunification, the city’s mining industry — largely based on lignite “brown” coal — experienced a steep decline and its modernist fabric, particularly the large apartment-style housing blocks, fell out of favor with contemporary tastes and policies that encouraged the construction of single family homes. As a result, there was a massive outmigration of residents and the city’s population fell from over 70,000 in 1990 to around 32,000 today. During this time, much of the modernist “Neustadt” with its prefabricated “Wohnkomplex” apartment blocks have been demolished along with schools, social clubs, and other buildings constructed to serve these residents. The resulting “shrinkage” of both the physical fabric of the city and its population, was the focus of Ringel’s ethnographic work. Throughout the book, he considered how the community surrounded by the destruction of its past, conceived of the future. In particular, he offered a contribution to recent interests in the anthropology of hope which straddles the resurgent interest in both temporality and affect across the humanities and social sciences. 

At the risk of treating Ringel’s complex and provocative observations superficially, I wonder about the role of hope and change in our field plays a role in how we think about being a better senior scholar (especially in the “Time of COVID”). After all, academia as we know it, has entered a period of accelerated change. Like prominent residents of city of Hoyerswerda prior to the Die Wende, those of us lucky to have tenure and, as in Prof. Nakassis’s case, achieve the rank of “Professor,” occupy positions that are unlikely to exist in the same way for the next generation especially in the humanities. Even if a precious few of these coveted positions do remain, they’ll occupy a very different landscape. As a result, the very concept of being a senior professor is changing. As a colleague of mine observed, we’re like dinosaurs talking to cavemen (er, cavepeople?). We may appear more powerful, terrible, and significant than the tiny human mammals emerging from graduate programs, applying for precarious academic positions, contributing the “alt-ac” world, or working both within and outside of academia, but, until we come to terms with our own extinction, it will be very difficult for senior scholars to contribute to the future of the humanities in a substantive or meaningful way.

I can offer only the following quick observations, none of which are my own, that maybe contribute to this conversation. To be clear, this isn’t meant to challenge Dimitri’s post at all, but to take it in a slightly different direction as much designed to create room for hope in our profession as to undermine conventional notions of hierarchy, seniority, and authority in our discipline.

Being a graduate student has changed radically over the last two decades and we need to embrace this. While I was in graduate school, I saw most of my work as provisional and the entire experience — with its freedom and its inevitable inconveniences — as being a step toward the ultimate goal of being a faculty member. While I wasn’t so naive to think that I could land a job at a major research university, I was confident enough that some job in academia would be available for me. Once I was ensconced in a formal academic position and on the tenure-track, the work I did in graduate school could pay real dividends by ensuring that I would have publications accepted, get tenure, earn merit raises, and be competitive for grants, fellowships and other resources necessary to advance my work. In other words, what I did in graduate school gave me hope for the future and, in this context, even the biggest jerk of a senior scholar was a potential future colleague. 

Today, our graduate students cannot, outside of downright delusion, have the same hope. The number of tenured positions continues to disappear, jobs that support and reward research are also in decline, and the entire landscape of academia is beset by contingency, precarity, and instability. Even the most well-meaning senior colleague is no longer a future peer, but a benign dinosaur grazing the treetops hoping to survive the approaching asteroid strike with privilege intact. 

Because a human is unlikely to grow up to be a dinosaur one day, we have to first discard the concept of a senior scholar all together. The very concept implies that there is a way to move from being a graduate student to a junior scholar and ultimately a senior scholar, and to my mind this no longer honestly exists (except for a very small number of people). 

It also means that we have to accept that our graduate students (and PhDs with all kinds of precarious, contingent, “alt-ac,” or non-academic positions) are not some kind of failed or baby dinosaur, they’re our peers. 

This has all sorts of social, economic, professional, and even pedagogical implications for academia. It means that they need to be compensated fairly in large part because they do the same basic work that all faculty do: teach and research.

We also need to recognize that being a graduate student is not a training ground for being a professor, but an end in and of itself. There are, of course, trends in this direction with more graduate students publishing more papers than in the past and being more active at professional meetings. We need to accept that these students aren’t interlopers in this space or best shunted off into panels on graduate student research or committees of “early career scholars,” but embraced as part of the field and capable of offering not only carefully reasoned and compelling arguments, but also fresh perspectives unencumbered by the evolutionary detritus of obsolete adaptations. Dinosaurs gonna dinosaur, after all.

I can’t help think that by expanding the range of individuals we recognize as peers, we also will accept a wider range of work as significant. Rather than the slow percolation of new ideas into our field that follow the capillary action of promotion and tenure, we could embrace ways to bring new ideas into our field more quickly by recognizing the potential of graduate students and early career scholars to contribute new perspectives to even the most longstanding debates. After all, for many graduate students, their access to academic resources and, perhaps more importantly, time will steeply decline after graduation. By recognizing them as peers while they are students, we give them the greatest opportunities to contribute to the field. By expanding who we see and understand as peers, we also ensure that the widest number of people continue to have opportunities to contribute to our field even as their lives and careers depart from the traditional trajectory of dinosaur maturation.    

We also need to find ways to adapt our institutions to allow graduate students, alt-acs, independent scholars, and whatever other term we find ourselves using to normalize our own privilege, into academic work. For example, editorial boards of journals need to change as do who we select as peer reviewers. Publishers and editors need to work to encourage a wider range of academic contributors and different forms of contributions to the academic discourse. The responsible development of open access publishing is part of this, of course, but it will involve thinking very carefully about implementing any model of publishing that requires authors to pay. We need to figure out ways to make more resources available to scholars not affiliated with academic institutions. We need to reconsider the criteria for positions such as “post-docs” that imply linear progress through the from doctoral candidate to post-doctoral scholar. In archaeology, this involves finding ways to incorporate graduate students, recent-PhDs, and other “early career” scholars into leadership positions on research projects and in our field. These individuals are no longer waiting their turn, biding their time, gaining experience; there is no future for most of them outside the present. So let’s give them a chance to lead now. 

We also need to embrace opportunities to bring a range of voices into our classrooms.

I recognize that this is a jumbled mass of ideas, but my larger point is that for our field to preserve a sense of hope, we need to abandoned the ways of the dinosaurs and welcome the wide range of mammalian life into our field. This isn’t just a concession to a changing academic landscape, but also the recognition that we as “senior scholars” are lumbering expressions of professional obsolescence whose views, opinions, arguments, and advice are as relevant to the future of the discipline as a triptocertops (or whatever a dinosaur is called) is to a modern dog. The Canis lupus familiaris may not look as impressive as the FULL PROFESSOR T-REX grazing on hapless lesser dinosaurs in footnotes and conferences, but they are the future.

Remembering Joel Jonientz

This time of year my thoughts always turn to my late friend Joel Jonientz and his family. He passed away 6 years ago this week. This is the fifth installment (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, I seem to have missed 2019).

On a long walk with the dogs, I thought back to our time together at UND and felt a sense of deep nostalgia. If we’ve learned anything from our current politics, it’s that nostalgia can be pretty toxic. It erodes a faith in progress and often leaves us longing for a past that often exists without consequences. 

At the same time, as a historian, I often find that nostalgia guides me toward formative times in my own life. While I try not to dwell too much on my own experiences, following my sense of nostalgia pushes me to think more critically about how my own memories transform, occlude, or emphasize the larger experience of the community. My recent interest in the archaeology of the suburbs, digital technology, and early 21st century material culture has roots in my own past. I try to remind myself that this past has and had consequences both for myself and for the wider world.

Reflecting with nostalgia on Joel’s time at UND evoke warm memories: sitting in Paul Worley’s backyard smoking some kind of meets, watching Seahawks games with Joel’s family in his crowded TV room, scheming with Tim Pasch, Crystal Alberts, Paul, and Joel to showcase our digital work at public events, and organizing the punk archaeology conference with Mike Wittgraf, Aaron Barth, and Tim. These were good times personally and professionally. They not only gave me a taste of the heady intellectual freedom of tenure, but also introduced me to the potential of small, college town collegiality. 

These memories have nudged me to think about the history of the institution in the 21st century. To be clear, I don’t mean to reduce Joel’s identity, somehow, to just his institutional affiliation or his work at UND. He was a family man, a good friend, and had hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams that went well beyond his job. 

At the same time, our shared experiences at UND entangle my nostalgic recollections. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the early 21st century at UND was a special time at the institution. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t as fraught with politics, challenges, and disappointments as any other time. Instead, what I remember is that the period from 2004-2015 or so, was that campus had the feeling of hope. This has since been lost.

When I think about UND in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, I think about the paradox that during the “Great Recession,” my corner of UND — the arts and the humanities — continued to experience growth. There was a saying that North Dakota was “insulated and not isolated” for the economic issues facing most of the country. More than that: the Bakken oil boom gave the state a sense a hope and even the idea that there might a future. 

As someone in the humanities, I remember musing about how the Gulf States recognized that their oil wealth could be invested in higher education and cultural institutions despite the conservative character of their political culture, the austerity of their environment, and the history of colonialism and marginalization. Maybe North Dakota would follow suit?

After all, the university supported our Working Group in Digital and New Media (from the archive: report 1, report 2, and report 4), a new “Arts and Culture” conference that was a fall pendant to the thriving UND Writers Conference, had expanded the reach of UND Arts Collections, encouraged the development of the IPPL, and supported new hires in History, English, and the Arts. This support was paying dividends too with UND faculty and students pushing to collaborate, produce new art, and develop new long term projects. It’s hardly surprising that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota emerged from this period. It was the product of this optimism. 

Of course, I realize that not everything was rosy. My colleagues in the communications program at UND who contributed so much to the creativity and vitality of UND in the 21st century watched their department disappear and had to find new homes at UND, create a new program, and navigate a complicated political landscape. Other programs, of course, showed signs of strain as well as ambitious new faculty members clashed with long-serving colleagues. New faculty, especially those hired during the Great Recession, often brought with them different expectations cultivated in top tier graduate programs than an older generation of faculty leaders. The shuffle to accommodate a wider range of outlooks in campus culture invariably left damaged feelings on both sides.

The steady hemorrhaging of talented early-career faculty was the most obvious manifestation of the tensions on campus. At the same time, it served as a kind of endorsement for the culture UND produced. That early-career faculty could come to UND and continue to be productive, creative, and ambitious suggests that something positive was happening on our campus, even if the outcome, in the end, was for these folks to leave.

At the level of upper administration, the long-standing controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo came to a head with the NCAA and while it was eventually resolved, the financial, political, and emotional costs were steep. At the same time, UND athletics transitioned to Division I suggesting that despite the rifts caused by the logo controversy, there was optimism. 

The revolving door of deans, provosts, and even presidents, likewise offers a two-edged sword. The lack of stability in the administration made it challenging to plan things that required substantial administrative support. In fact, we attempted on several occasions to develop a digital humanities program, but these all foundered at the administrative level. At the same time, the lack of strong positive direction created space for faculty to maneuver and develop their own ways of collaborating, setting goals, and advancing agendas. While this may have left the university a mishmash of irregular and often incompatible curricula, research projects, and programs, the semi-benign neglect of the early 21st century also has created a strong spirit of independence among faculty. 

On a “Zoom call” last night with a group of UND faculty and members of the post-Jonientz diaspora, we joked about an oral history of UND in the 21st century. This is certainly a tempting project. Whether our reflections on this period would end up being idle nostalgia or something more substantive and revealing, is hard to know.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

2020SCSProgram 2 3 pdf 2020 01 06 08 23 55

The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.

Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

I did some traveling this month and that always gives me time to sit still and read without being distracted by a million other things. On my last flight, I read David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). It was a pretty fun read and despite the book’s ostensible audience of higher ed administrators and leaders, it offers some intriguing and imaginative proposals that could be of use for anyone working at a university today.

The most appealing thing about the book is that the Staley allowed himself to imagine 10 different forms of post-secondary education. These ranged from a industry focused liberal arts college to free form “platform college” where faculty and students are combine and disperse on the basis of interest and demand, to decentralized microcolleges that operate with loose coordination to offer almost individual instruction and radical colleges based on play, advanced cybernetic interfaces, and the body. The willingness to speculate and to imagine a future to higher education with only the barest number of institutional constraints and appeals to tradition is refreshing. More than that, it demonstrates that there is a place for “solutions in search of problems” in higher education, although Staley does conclude by saying that he hopes his experiment in imagination will demonstrate that alternatives exist to the increasingly commodified character of contemporary higher education.

At the same time, Staley’s alternative universities do have certain similarities that suggest a particular understanding of the higher education landscape that goes beyond his rather cursory diagnosis of the contemporary “crisis.” For example, nearly all the alternative universities managed to exist with a minimum of administration who tended to serve as coordinators and facilitators rather than leaders. Conversely faculty took center stage and while their work was often subject to the whims of the market (and students), the mentor-student relationship remained fundamental most fo the alternative universities proposed.

Likewise absent from his alternative universities were the onerous burden of assessing learning. In fact, Staley largely accepted that both students and faculty operated in good faith. Students committed to learning and faculty committed to teaching. In some of his scenarios, faculty will be on an island with students either instructing small groups as part of single-teacher micro universities, leading students in immersive experiences abroad in the “Nomad University,” or connecting and dispersing with demand and interest in the “Platform University.” Such free form experimental spaces as the Institute for Advance Play and Future University have outcomes that seem to almost resist formal assessment. A university based on play or the producing models of future society may have rules and expectations (i.e. humans won’t suddenly develop the ability to fly), but these do little to narrow the wide range of potential student outcomes.  

At times, I felt like Staley’s book was a bit naive about the ability of the market to self-regulate both within academia and the relationship between academic institutions and industry. The idea of a “Humanities Think Tank” and “Nomad University” rely on the idea that the private (and public sector) would consistently reach out to scholars in the humanities or in various applied sciences for collaboration. On the one hand, it’s Staley’s fantasy which always involves a certain suspension of disbelief and maybe that’s enough to sanction his exercises. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his more naive approaches to the functioning of the market offer a useful way forward. The idea that students will gravitate toward majors and funding will flow from industry toward innovative institutions ignores the complicated roles that ideology, politics, and tradition plays in shaping the economic and educational landscape. Of course, Staley acknowledges that his exercises in imagining operate at the margins of the possible, but how he defines these limits remains unclear. For example, he does not propose “Mars University” where students study Mars and the role of space on the terrestrial economy over the course of the multiyear curriculum taught during a trip to, from, and on the Red Planet. His selective reading of existing experiments in higher education – with example such as Deep Springs College – rarely explores less successful (or at least sustained) experiments (e.g. Black Mountain College) to understand the real limits to what is possible. This isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading and thinking about. Perhaps, he designed the fuzzy limits to his imagined solutions to push us to think about the constraints that currently exist within higher education or to encourage us to engage in a kind of “design thinking” that recognizes the interplay between ideas and constraints as the key environment for producing real change.

Lest my review seem too critical, I should emphasize that the book is inspiring. In the spring semester, I’m teaching a class that will focus not so much on a problem or a series of educational outcomes, but on a building on our campus that is scheduled for demolition. I was fretting a good bit about the point of the class, but Staley’s book put me more at ease. I was particularly drawn to the idea of an “Institute for Advanced Play” that Staley based on the idea that “play and the imagination define higher learning.” 

My one-credit course will focus on play and the idea that our bureaucratic, outcome driven education system leaves rather little time for engaging the world thoughtfully, critically, and carefully without a particular goal. To my mind, this might be the best thing about Staley’s book. Even if the problems that it seeks to solve and the limits to Staley’s imaging are fuzzy, the book encourages all of us to think about higher education in radically different ways and to enjoy the silliness of unwarranted provocation and the freedom from consistency, well-defined goals, and tidy outcomes.