Be More Amateur

The start of the semester is almost provokes me to reflect. As always, I’m forced to at least consider the hopeless question: what am I doing here?

While I’ve been at universities for my entire adult life, I continue to struggle to feel at home in these institutions. Part of it is because I’ve struggled to internalize the goals of the university (at least in an American context) or, better still, to reconcile the goals of the American university with its methods, or maybe more narrowly, to understand how and whether I should contribute to the goals (and methods) of the contemporary American university. 

Recently, I’ve struggled particularly with the concept of professionalism. It seems to have become a standard insult (or at best a critique) against an opponent (or even just as an expression of frustration) that someone is behaving in an unprofessional way. Usually this is directed at someone who missed a deadline, who spoke out of turn, who ignored some or other social, institutional, or political mandate. At its best, describing someone as unprofessional reflects a kind of hope that our professions can produce better worlds if we just stay the course and avoid giving into unprofessionalism, which seems to be imagined as the anarchic wasteland of governed by the repressive weight of long-standing convention. The good, the best, and the brightest at many institutions promote a professionalism that is the partner of democratization and an agent of a non-cynical meritocracy which rewards accomplishment (or at very least diligence). Professionalization produces shared standards, levels the playing field, and creates a space where individuals can succeed or fail according to their own devices. 

So when someone calls someone else “unprofessional,” they generally mean undemocratic or, more broadly, unfair. This is usually, in my experience, leveled at the individual and the assumption is that the institutional context for unprofessional behavior is democratic, perhaps, or at very least fair. It goes without saying that most of us know that the very institutions that support professional behavior have little interest in promoting real democratic values or even simple fairness and this is readily apparent within academia. Most often the case is that calls for professionalism are efforts to make the achievements of individuals who benefit from the system seem earned or at very least ethically warranted.

Fred Moten and Stephano Harney recognize this in their famous chapter “The University and the Undercommons” from The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013) which I tend to try to read at least once a year whether I need to or not. It’s not only a remarkable and inspiring piece, but also impossible to understand completely. At times the words, phrases, and sentences seem to tumble over each other and create spaces that intentionally defy systematic efforts to categorize, conceptualize, and recognize their arguments. Rather than this being a flaw in their work, I think it is a deeply poetic asset. 

Their work is a good reminder to me that being unprofessional has to be more than just being a critical academic. As I understand it, this means that being unprofessional or anti-professional or in alignment with the undercommons means being anti-professional. This requires us to steal the tools from our institutions and recognize this as a form of resistance (as well as a way to liberate knowledge, enlightenment [with a small “e”], wisdom, and power from those who seek to use the professional character of universities as a way to preserve the status quo and to marginalize and control individuals and groups who either don’t have access to these institutions or seek to operate and to thrive outside of the systems in which these institutions developed. 

I read the other day Tim Ingold’s recent article “In Praise of Amateurs”. Unsurprisingly, he does not cite Harney and Moten. He continues in a long-standing tradition among anthropologists in criticizing the bureaucratization of knowledge making.  For Ingold the “Amateur” was less the anti-professional and more the academic critic who recognized the limitation of the bureaucratized university. He doesn’t push for academics to “steal” (metaphorically, but I suppose literally as well) from the university as much as guide it to revert to its earlier form where “amateurs” where encouraged to range freely within its institutional borders and engage in a wide range of methods, ideas, and commitments.

Ingold associates this amateurism to the ethnographic traditions in anthropology which requires anthropologists to immerse themselves in lifeways that are not only sometimes fundamentally unprofessionalized, but also to communicate, document, and interrogate these lifeways through engagements that resist standardization. It would be easy enough to see this call for amateurism as an effort to protect the unique character of anthropological knowledge making, but Ingold expands his call to describe the challenges for disciplines like anthropology (and I’d include history, archaeology, and many of the social sciences, arts, and humanities in this) to survive in an academy increasingly committed to a method of instruction that requires clearly assessable outcomes at nearly every step of the learning process. Needless to say, disciplines that require the kind of gradual increase in understanding such as anthropology or that lack a clearly define method (such as history) have found themselves increasingly at the margins of institutional priorities. 

This bring me around to my own attitude toward teaching, research, and learning. I can’t help but feel increasingly alienated from the standards of professionalism that suffuse my own institution (and, at times, my disciplines). I recognize as someone who has benefited (tremendously!) from these institutions and their standards, that I am in a distinct place of privilege (much like Ingold tacitly acknowledges) which allows me to associate with the undercommons without taking on the risk of their positions.

On the one hand, I flatter myself if I imagine that I’m genuinely a supporter of the undercommons (the adjuncts, the non-tenure stream, the struggling students who work full time, the part time graduate students, the foreigners, and those “hangers on” (to use a disparaging term) who nevertheless continue to live a thoughtful life at the margins of academic institution). 

On the other hand, if I do more to embrace the spirit of amateurism that exists in the study of history and recognize how professionization serves to define and marginalize the undercommons, maybe I can do more with my own privilege and surplus. I’m not much for resolutions, but this feels like a good goal for 2023.

Campus Changes

One of the most exciting things about the last few months at the University of North Dakota is watching the new campus plan come into focus around the quad. This plan also involves updating some venerable buildings, tearing down some genuinely tired campus structures, and also connecting various buildings together so that campus denizens that move from one building to the next without being bothered by our interminable winter. On a very basic level, the changes are nice. The new student union is nice, the refurbished library is nice, the new business school is nice, and my new office is nice. Everything feel fresher and gives off a bit of “new campus smell.”

Watching the changes take place over the last five years or so has gotten me thinking a bit about the relationship between campus buildings, campus spaces, and the purpose of a college campus. As I’ve said more than once on this blog, campuses embody the key tension in higher education between tradition and innovation. The former evokes the kind of emotional attachment to a place and experience that binds together generations of students and helps to make a diploma recognizable commodity. The latter, of course, represents the bread and butter of progressive education as universities embody the spirit of technological, scientific, and, at their very best, social experimentation and change. As a result, every generation will invariably experience the same campus, but not necessarily the same institution.   

Colleges and universities have long struggled the find the balance between these tradition and innovation and recently have felt increasing pressure from politicians and cultural critics to simultaneously pump the brakes on the progressive promise of education and to accelerate (or at very least prioritize) technological innovations (especially those with clear monetary value) and to prepare students for a future in a rapidly changing workforce.

Finding an architectural signature that reflects these tensions is not an easy task. It involves maintaining a familiar and recognizable shape and form of campus, while also updating the function and appearance of buildings. At UND this has so far involved major renovations to the library, to O’Kelly Hall, to Carnegie Hall, and some upgrades to Gillette and, in the near future, Merrifield. A new college of business building and a new education building now face the quad as well.

More significant is the closing of the quad to cars by turning the road that ran along the east side of the quad into a rather monumental walkway and creating a similarly monumental walkway that connects the northern side of the quad to second avenue (which has also become a pedestrian only on campus).

The spirit behind all of these changes is a good one.

That said, the changes to quad in particular are weird and maybe embody the persistent tension between tradition and innovation on our campus. 

Some of the most obvious issues with the changes to the campus quad are related to the new pedestrian spaces created when they closed the road that ran along the east side of the quad. The new walkways are remarkably wide. In a functional sense, I expect this is to allow for both walking and bike traffic and perhaps to facilitate the removal of snow. In a visual sense, though, these vast paved paths stand in awkward contrast to the college Gothic buildings that flank the east side of the quad. The width of the pathways rob the facades of some of their intimacy and the quiet irregularity of their rhythm which reflects their continuity with Gothic buildings in Medieval Europe and the tangled web of narrow paths and roads characteristic of the Medieval village. Instead, there are paths which would be completely appropriate for steadier rhythms of modernist or even Neo-Classical facades. Perhaps the functional character of these walkways speaks to practical elements of campus architecture or our growing sense of discomfort with the traditional spirituality and intimacy implied by Gothic revival architecture. 

(On a much simpler level, it seems fair to ask: what’s with all the paved concrete surfaces? Why have we eliminated a road only to turn it into a parking lot?)

IMG 8245

Exacerbating the strongly alienating experience of walking along the weirdly wide walkways is that recent effort to connect the various buildings by extending their facades. On the one hand, this does ensure that the campus retains a kind of common architectural language. On the other hand, imposing college Gothic facades are terrifying and rob these otherwise comfortable buildings of their sense of comfortable scale.

This is particularly significant for our campus for two reasons. First, we’re not a massive institution by most standards, but we are a good bit bigger than all but one institution in the state. With over 10,000 students, we are also larger than many of the towns and cities in North Dakota and across the region. College Gothic buildings, however, helped the manage the sense of scale by creating a campus with free standing buildings that were often around the same size and designed in the same style as local schools. I’m not sure whether this was deliberate or just a happy coincidence of the same architects working on campus buildings and schools throughout the area. The result, however, was a very approachable campus that was likely to be the largest institution (or community) ever experienced by many of our regional students.

Added to this familiarity was the larger tradition of College Gothic architecture as inviting, personal, and even intimate. The irregularity of the buildings invited students and faculty to explore their hallways, offices, and classrooms and enjoy the unique, and often, private spaces that these buildings offered. To be honest, just writing that made me feel a bit like a creeper. The idea that college campuses have intimate, private, and subtle spaces is both problematic for a society that is increasingly concerned about predatory behavior especially when great disparities in power exist. Moreover, the connection of College Gothic to Medieval elitism, spirituality, and irregular and personal encounters with knowledge contravenes the increasingly democratic, secular, and professionalized character of higher education. The result is a tension the Medieval and the modern which may be every bit as significant as the balance between the practical need to connect buildings to allow the campus community to move between them in relative comfort and the desire to keep campus feeling familiar. 

IMG 8247

The results are a little of neither. Not only have the connections between buildings upset the familiar sense of scale, but they’ve also created a imposing Gothic facades that scream authority and hierarchy rather than democratizing professionalism. 

This is further compounded interior spaces that are well-appointed, but also weirdly modern making them incongruous with the external appearance of buildings. To be fair, there is an effort to create comfortable spaces for students to gather. I also appreciate the designs that include unexpected spaces and narrower corridors in the place of the standard institutional double-loaded design. Even classrooms show a pleasant irregularity in design allowing for different class sizes, different modes of instruction, and different kinds of learning. 

IMG 8257

At the same time, there seems to have been a concerted effort to separate faculty office areas from classroom areas which means that faculty spaces are awkwardly quiet and removed from the bustle of campus life. Since isolated faculty offices can be uninviting and intimidating (especially to first-generation students), office spaces were given class panels in their walls to expose faculty working spaces to the hallways and allow light to pass from the outside of the building to the halls. This is nice and certainly makes faculty offices feel more inviting to students, but their separation from classroom areas still holds them at a remove.

Like the mixture of College Gothic and large paved walkways and the intimate familiarity of Gothic buildings and the intimidating scale of nearly continuous facades, this design sends mixed messages. Faculty are visible at work in their offices, but also set apart from classroom and, I’d contend, some of the main currents of campus life. 

Over time, I’m sure the reconfigured campus will develop its own rhythms and the community with invariably transform even the most intimidating architecture into something familiar and safe. For now, however, it feels like campus is learning a different language and making all the little mistakes that one might expect from any effort to bridge a gap between two ways of speaking, thinking, and acting.

And the transformations of the campus quad are not yet complete. As Merrifield is being prepared to undergo a massive renovation and transformation, the quad quietly awaits what this new lease on life will say to the rest of campus.

New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!

CCF COVER Single

Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

https://thedigitalpress.org/the-library-of-chester-fritz/

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from Amazon.com.

 

Three Things Thursday: Campus, Corinthia, and Conferences

This week has become more hectic than I would have wished, but mostly it’s hectic with good things. I’m looking forward to heading to Fargo tomorrow for the Northern Great Plains History Conference and pleased that some of the work that I put into cleaning up data from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia is almost far enough along to sustain some basic hypothesis building. These two things, and the changing face of my institutions campus will be the topic of today’s “three things Thursday.”

Thing the First

UND’s campus is really changing. Over the last three or four years, the university has implemented a new campus master plan, built a number of new buildings, created elevated walkways between existing buildings, and introduced new landscaping to the campus quad that turned several roads into pedestrian only zones.

For the last decade or so the old Medical School’s “Science Building” has housed my Department of History and American Indian Studies. This has been completely renovated with new conference rooms, offices, and classrooms. It’s pretty nice and while I liked my massive office carved out of lab space, my new office feels clean, compact, and contemporary.

It also has a glass door, which is a bit odd, and the hallway outside the office is access only through door controlled by key cards (at least outside normal building hours). The hallway also has a number of cameras. The bathroom has no doors.

I get that we live in a society where control, access, and surveillance have become synonymous with power. And I also understand that privacy is not a right, but a privilege reserved for those who can afford the necessary protocols, treatments, and tactics. And, finally, I get that control over the commons (and a public state university is a kind of commons) is necessary to avoid the abuse of its limited resources.

That said, I am still bit a put off by the level of control and surveillance that exists in our new building.

Thing the Second

I’m so, so, so close to having some of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia data ready for some preliminary analysis. In fact, when I’m done a few odds and ends this morning, I plan to work on some of the last bits of data this morning. As I reported last week, most of what I’m doing at this stage is recoding information originally recorded on paper inventory cards and keyed to notebook pages to more standardized formats appropriate for digital databases and keyed to stratigraphic unit (which, in turn, can be connected to particular pages in the notebooks).

While I have some long term goals with this project — including preparing the data for publication — but in the short-term, I want to be able to do some basic analysis of our assemblages that allow us to hypothesis build. For example, it will be possible to analyze the material from various parts of Isthmia as one might analyze a survey assemblage. We’ve been doing this some with the data from Polis where we’ve been able to consider both the presence or absence of certain forms of fine and utility wares across the site. For Isthmia, the plan might be to pull together all the material from, say, the East Field or the Roman Bath and use it as a window into what classes of artifact are present in the region at various times and perhaps even in what proportion to other contemporary artifacts.

Of course, this won’t be the last word in our analysis of the material from Isthmia, but it should offer the first word and an opportunity to understand the character of the Isthmia assemblage in a more systematic, if also more superficial, way.

Thing the Third

If you’re planning on going to the Northern Great Plains History Conference this week, do consider stopping by my panel tomorrow morning. I’ll be talking about the state of North Dakota Quarterly in session 34: The State of State Journals: Past, Present, and Future with editors of South Dakota History, North Dakota History, and Minnesota History.

You can download a copy of the conference program here.

You can read a copy of what I plan to say here.

Repatriation at UND

This week has been a very difficult one for my Native American colleagues and students. The University of North Dakota announced that they had begun the repatriation process on a collection of artifacts and ancestors discovered over the last six months on campus. I’ve been a small part of this process and I’ve been overwhelmed by the experience and especially the courage and commitment of my Native American colleagues and their friends and allies in the state and on campus.

If you’re interested in what is going on at UND, here is a link to the university’s resources on the process.

Here is a link to the statement issued by Governor Doug Burgum and and Indian Affairs Commissioner Nathan Davis. 

Here is some media cover from the usual suspects and the major Native American media at ICT

Here’s a link to Sonya Atalay’s, Jen Shannon’s, and John Swogger’s thoughtful NAGPRA Comics which do a decent job explaining the NAGPRA process.

I hope that the community manages to do three things as they come to process this information. First, they recognize that our Native American colleagues, students, and friends need time to grieve, process, and understand the situation disclosed this week.

Second, they give the NAGPRA committee on campus room to work and recognize that this is the first step in a complex and painful process. This is not just work of UND or “the institution,” but a committee of white and Native American faculty and staff (and our colleagues across the state) who are doing the best they can to navigate this situation in a respectful and deliberate way. 

Finally, that they hold the institution, its leaders, and the committee accountable for what they’ve promised and they see this not just as a problem to be solved (through processes, laws, and “best practices”), but an opportunity to forge closer ties with Native American communities and work to undo centuries of overt and structural (and institutional) racism on our campus. 

As a white dude (and an archaeologist), I’m always the last to figure shit out. What I witnessed this week (and over the last several months), though, accelerated the learning process for me (even though I know that it shouldn’t have taken the incredible trauma and courage this situation revealed to do this). I hope my friends and colleagues – both in archaeology and in the UND community – hold me accountable as I continue to develop as a scholar, teacher, and person. 

Quantifying Citations

One of the goals that I had in revising my book manuscript over the past year was to cite more women authors.This was partly in response to critiques from peer reviewers, but also because it is the right thing to do. Citational politics is part of academic life and the growing interest in quantitative assessment (various indices, impact factors, and so on) means that it’s not just about appearances and giving credit where it is due, but it also has direct financial consequences. 

The distribution of citations in my original manuscript was pretty disappointing with only 35% of the works in the bibliography having at least one woman as author and 77% having at least one man. This is obviously not what I set out to do when I started writing this book and it appears that an assessment of the book as very white and very male was a fair one and one that I took to heart.

After I made a series of substantive revisions over the last year, I was excited to run the numbers on my bibliography again and see whether my revisions improved the situation.

Sadly, they did not. While I increased the percentage of references with at least one woman as author to 40%, I also increased the number of references with at least one man as author to 84%. 

This was pretty demoralizing to realize. When I dug deeper into my numbers, I did notice some reasons for optimism.

First, for citations dating to 2020 or later, 48% of the citations have at least one woman author and 67% have at least one man. 

For citations dating to 2015 or later, this number stays roughly stable with 46% of my citations having at least one woman author and 67% having a man.

For citations since 2010 and 2000, the percentage of references with at least one woman author stays relatively stable at 42% and 40% respectively and 73% and 70% respectively for references with at least one man as an author.

References dating to before 2000, however, are a shit show with merely 13% of the references including at least one woman and 91% including at least one man. Some of this can be attributed to the outsized place that Bill Rathje and Michael Schiffer have in both archaeology of the contemporary world and my book, but even then, these numbers are ghastly.

This quantitative work has taught me three things:

First, over the past decade there has been a good bit of conversation about structural biases and inequality. My bibliography is a depressing example of this. Even as I honestly tried to shift the balance toward more work by women, historical traditions of practice in my discipline continue to keep a firm thumb on the scale and my own reading and writing practices. 

As my book manuscript goes out once again for review over the next few weeks, I reckon I will have one more opportunity to work on my citation practices and will continue to try to work to redress what is clearly a shortcoming in my book. 

Secondly, if and when the book is accepted and typeset, I hope that I can do some more sophisticated analysis of the content of the book. After all, it is easy enough to pepper one’s work with some throw away references as a way to shift a bias one way or another. And, of course, this isn’t entirely superficial as various automated reference searches (e.g. Google Scholar) don’t care whether the citation is a “see also” or part of a more in-depth discussion. As institutions look toward i10 and H -indices as measures of a scholars reach and impact, these numbers matter.

On the other hand, a five page discussion of a work may only garner a handful of citations in the text and may only result in a single bibliographic entry. This is particular true for dissertations where authors don’t have as substantial “back catalogue” of work that warrant referencing. I hope to come up with a systematic way to measure how much of my book is devoted to various authors, but since this will be a pretty arduous task, it might make better sense to do this at after the book is typeset and when the final references are established. 

Finally, I still intend to make this data available and include an appendix to my book discussion what I did and what I had hoped to do.

As a start, here’s a copy of my bibliography from which I collected the data discussed above.

And you can read some of my earlier writing and thinking about citations: here, here, and here.

Three Things on COVID

Like most of the world, I’m anxiously reading about the rise of the latest COVID variant, Ba.5, and worrying about how it will impact my health, the health of people in my community, and our daily life. I’m already hearing about the consequences of this new, highly transmissible variant, on the operations of summer programs, and on the fall semester.

This has spurred three poorly formed ideas that I’m sharing here mostly to get out of my system.

1. COVID and Compliance. To be absolutely clear, I’m vaccinated, boosted, prone to follow the various protocols and mandates, and inclined to express a kind of good-natured annoyance when I see people flaunting the rules, ignoring social distancing practices, or wearing the famous chin mask. 

That said, I have this growing feeling that the way we talk about COVID and compliance is evocative of how we talk about capitalism especially in the 20th century. In particularly, we are told that compliance with  the expectations of capital will led to not only personal prosperity but also economic growth and collective prosperity. Thus, in the so-called “neoliberal” regime that has emerged since the 1980s, the state has worked hard to eliminate policies and practices that run counter to capitalism even if this involves cutting away the social safety net, removing the guard rails from the market, and, at times, working to suppress alternatives that might offer viable ways of life outside of he capitalist regime. The inducement for these policies is that some social, economic, and political discomfort now will yield a better life for individuals and society in the future.  

It’s hard to know whether the continued roiling of the COVID pandemic will lead to renewed mandates and protocols as schools reopen in the fall. To be sure, we’ve been told that if we just comply with various policies, including vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and, if need be, lockdowns, the possibility exists that we can return to normal pre-COVID practices. Not only does this seem increasingly unlikely, but also calls into question whether “the science” behind efforts to reduce the spread of COVID provides a sufficient foundation for real world policy making.    

2. Migrant COVID. Over the weekend, I read most of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). One observation that Chabrabarty makes is that displacements associated with modernity, capitalism, and globalization extend well beyond humanity. As the deer happily munching on the hostas in our garden know, displacements extend to local megafauna who often depart from habitats increasingly encroached upon by development and the privatization of property. As many local gardeners know, the only way to keep deer from grazing on delicacies destined for human palates is to fence off gardens. Thus the borders between human and “natural” habitats, if such a designation makes sense in the contemporary world, become increasing hardened. Traditional migration routes become “wildlife corridors,” traditional ranges become “preserves,” and living things that stray from their designated environments become invasive. 

Obvious the COVID virus is not the same as megafauna, but efforts to contain its spread seem in some ways to echo our efforts to constrain the movement of both fauna and, more tragically, humans displaced environmental destruction, climate change, economic and political colonialism, and war. 

It has become almost a bit cliche to speculate on how we might blur the division between the human and non-human world. It seems like our global response to COVID, that so often focuses on efforts to disrupt the movement of the virus between context, between communities, and between people, offers a vivid example of how various routes of displacement long used by more visible species are also suitable for less visible and less living creatures. 

3. COVID and Time. Finally, earlier in the pandemic, I speculated a bit on COVID and time (here, here, and here). One thing that reading Chakrabarty’s book has pushed me to think about is how much time makes a difference in how we experience crises in the contemporary world. For example, it is well understood that the rate of change associated with global climate change has made it difficult for political institutions much less individuals to make decisions and policies necessary to avert what is almost certain to be catastrophic climate change. 

COVID in contrast is doing what viruses do. It is adapting and surviving, but as we continue to struggle to keep pace with its changes and its movement. COVID testing often lagged behind outbreaks and new variants of the virus have outpaced our ability to produce new vaccines (much less policies). It is often imagined that the time of “nature” is slower than “human” time, but we also need to acknowledge that the time of nature can be much faster than human time. The COVID pandemic is a tragic reminder that our ability to understand and respond to our surroundings is as much a matter of time as a matter of conditions.

Reflecting on Slow

Last week, I got together with an old buddy for dinner and he asked me to talk a bit more about the idea of slow especially in light of my post “Slow at 50.” Since I’m restarting the archaeological fieldwork aspect of my professional (albeit as a study season), it seemed like a reasonable time to write a little bit about slow more broadly.

When I started thinking about slow in archaeology, I imagined it as a tonic to a growing fixation on archaeological efficiency and its dependence on digital tools. Slow archaeology wasn’t so much a rejection of the benefits technology, but the critical engagement with how our tools shape the knowledge that we produce. As I thought more broadly about the implications of slow for archaeology or academia more broadly, I started to hope that an emphasis on slow might shift our emphasis from doing more to doing better and in this way, we might change the character of academic work.

For me, this would involve critical reflection on academic work and perhaps even an impulse to parse how modern, industrial practices have informed standards of professionalization in academia. I am particularly interested in unpacking the roots of certain academic work patterns in craft. For example, teaching practices associated explicitly with the hands-on learning or grounded in apprenticeship tend to cleave more closely to craft models of knowledge production than those informed by industrial practices. Industrial education, especially at the university level, seems to emphasize the fragmentation of learning into interchangeable chunks which over time produce a well-rounded student.

More broadly, I wonder whether how I started to think about slow some 6 or 8 years ago has now evolved into something wider, but still distinctly rooted no in the literal idea of slowing down, but in the notion of living more deliberately. This involves thinking more carefully about the things I do and making sure that they align with what I value rather than the various expectations foisted on me by colleagues, institutions, and situations.

I understand that this is a kind of privilege afforded to a very small number of tenured faculty who simultaneously find ways to operate at the fringes of the system and reap the benefits of the system, its resources, and its protections. That said, I do hope that reflecting deliberately on the opportunities that my position has allowed me ensures that I do more with what I have than rather than less.

Three Things Thursday: Plagiarism, Laptops, and the End of Antiquity

I submitted grades, my summer plans are coming into focus, and I’m almost ready to decamp for the Mediterranean for the first time in two years. I feel like everything is going on at once, and this is more or less a good thing and it feels like a solid backdrop for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, there was a moderately interesting long Twitter thread in response to an incident of plagiarism in academia. The situation was discovered at the peer review stage and other than a bit of outrage, the harm seems to have been minimal. That said, whenever someone talks about plagiarism in academia, they tend to complain about the crime rather than the underlying system that makes plagiarism both unethical and problematic. To be clear, I’m not condoning plagiarism and I realize that I’m writing from a position of privilege. At the same time, I wonder whether our tendency to become outraged at incidents of plagiarism serves to reinforce a system that is fundamentally toxic. Stoking outrage at incidents of plagiarism in academia reinforces as system that seeks to commodify knowledge and connect the public good that might come from new ideas, processes, and products to private gain.

Of course, we all like it when a colleague recognizes our contribution to our field and citation, in its simplest form, represents a kind of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, over the past seventy years, institutions and the market has weaponized this gesture of collegiality and turned it into a way of measuring and even quantifying impact, reach, and significance. As is so often the case, publishers and institutions have found ways to leverage our desire for collegiality and recognition to support a system designed to generate profits and prestige. The rise of i10 scores, h-indices, and journal rankings that leverage citations to track impact and influence is yet another effort to sort and rank academic labor and to find new ways to profit from both the media through which scholars gain influence and the tools that measure such influence and reach. Plagiarism in this context is as much an economic crime as a breach of scholarly decorum.

By sounding off about plagiarism, then, we both reinforce an age old system of academic recognition, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also bolster system that allows individuals and institutions to profit from the working of scholarly networks. To my mind, over the last 30 years, the tail has come increasingly to wag the dog with the desire for measurable accomplishments increasingly shaping the landscape of academic work. At the same time, academics celebrate the call to be “against cop shit” in our classrooms and finding ways to subvert the status quo. We also have brought critical attention to the way that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the world. Maybe it’s this recent willingness to consider burning it all down that has made social media outrage over plagiarism ring a bit hollow or at least leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Thing the Second

You might not be able to tell, but I’m writing this post on a Dell laptop rather than my trusty MacBook Pro. For better or for worse, I’ve been an Apple guy for the last 15 or so years and have appreciated the tidy integration between my phone (and especially its camera) and my laptops. Each summer, though, I switch over the my PC which I need to run Microsoft Access and ESRI’s ArcGIS which don’t have native Mac implementation. Usually, I bring along a MacBook Air when I go to the Mediterranean and use it for writing and blogging and to access my Apple ecosystem more easily and natively. My MacBook Air is pretty long in the tooth these days and while it can do what I would like it to do, it’s battery is no longer what it was, its pre-Retina screen is pretty underwhelming, and it’s tiny hard drive makes it more like an early-21st century netbook than a modern laptop. I just wonder whether this year is the year that taking my PC and using it for my writing.

This is a bit nerve wracking because I can’t help but feel that abandoning my Mac will make some part of my work more difficult, even if I’m not entirely sure what part of my work it will negatively impact. I suspect this reflects the success of the Apple ecosystem in making us feel dependent (or at very least comfortable) in their world. What is the most remarkable thing to me is how it descends to the gestural level. My years of working on Macs has shaped how I interact with the keyboard, touchpad, and applications and these habits are profoundly hard to break!

Thing the Third

Yesterday, I posted my annual “Summer Reading List” post and a number of friends reached out and said, in various ways, “whoa! so little ancient history!” This was mostly an oversight. I have considered reading Jack Davis’s new book: A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Civilization in Mycenaean Pylos (2022) which is available Open Access from the University of California Press. I also want to read Alex Knodell’s newish book: Societies in Transition in Early Greece: An Archaeological History (2021). If I had all the time and energy in the world (and just a modicum of discipline), I would certainly read Nathan Arrington’s latest: Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World (2021) from Princeton.

California has also continued its long tradition of publishing novel and significant works in the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity. Since it’s open access, I’d be keen to check out Mary Farag’s What Makes a Church Sacred: Legal and Ritual Perspectives from Late Antiquity (2021).

I also have a copy of Michele Salzman’s The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity (2021) from Cambridge which is not open access, but would help me think about my class for next spring on Late Antiquity.

At 50: The Future

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about  Fun and on Wednesday, Collaborating”, on Tuesday Slow at 50 and on Monday, Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to how thinking about the next stage in my academic career and life.

Hopefully by this time next year I’ll have buried my book project and hopefully done the best that I can to wrap up the two other dangling projects that refuse to resolve themselves. I’m not sure this will necessarily give me a sense of accomplishment or simply relief, but I do feel like a certain phase of my career might be officially over.

As I muttered about on Wednesday, I discovered that I really don’t care for sitting around and thinking and writing stuff on my own. It’s not only lonely and boring, but also unrewarding. I also have started to think about working to resist my unhealthy urge to produce words and shift my attention toward consuming the words, ideas, and approaches of other people. Lately I’ve let my compulsion to write get in the way of my need to read. 

It’s not that I don’t have ideas. Over the last couple of years, I’ve thought about writing a book on slow archaeology, writing a book on the archaeology of oil, or even just finishing the second volume of the PKAP series. I even played with the idea of creating an untextbook for Western Civilization classes. I don’t think I’m very serious about any of these projects.

In fact, I’ve started to feel a bit uncomfortable by the relentless churn of scholarly production that I see among some of my well-cited and prolific peers. I worry about how their work maps onto asymmetries of opportunity, workloads, and resources in academia and how those of us with the time and energy to write can create intellectual logjams as ideas cultivated in similar spaces of professional privilege jostle with one another for attention. At its simplest level, the question is: does the world need another book from a tenured, middle aged, male, professor at a R1/R2 institution? 

(This is something that concerns me about my blog as well. How do I justify my share of our digital attention span and what other voices struggle to get heard over my my incessant drone.) 

A few of my closest colleagues both here in North Dakota and elsewhere have modeled alternate forms of academic life that focus on service, collaboration, and ceding space on the academic stage to other voices while working hard to amplify the voices and opportunities for others. Of course, teaching plays a key part in this well.

So as I look to my future at 50, I am trying to think about my habits in more critical ways and ask how my professional habits contribute to the kind of world that I want to exist and live in.  For example, I can’t very well complain that I can’t keep abreast of recent scholarly develops in my various fields while I continue to churn out scholarship at breakneck speed and push serious reading into the margins of my week. I also can’t complain about new systems that seek to quantify academic work or its impact while internalizing habits that make these systems both necessary and effective.  

I’m not sure what the next 20 or so years of my academic career and personal life will bring, but I hope I find ways to do more for others and worry less about my own place in the professional ecosystem.

~

I hope that the last week of blogging hasn’t come across as too self-indulgent, but does continue to blur the line between my professional voice and my personal one. If a blog can’t do that, then I’m not sure exactly what a blog is good for these days. Next week, I’ll return to regularly scheduled (and somewhat less solipsistic) programing!