Three Things Thursday: Rhys Carpenter, Digital Archaeology, and Work

It’s been a long week and I’m looking at a day filled with meetings, teaching, and other adventures. In light of this, it seems like a good time for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Last week, while having a conversation with one of my old Greek archaeology buddies, he casually mentioned that Rhys Carpenter had written poetry. I suppose this not a secret to the cognoscenti, but I didn’t know. Of course, I knew Rhys Carpenter as an architect and an archaeologist who had worked at Corinth and contributed in a powerful way not only to the development of a rigorous and diachronic American archaeology in Greece, but also in the systematic study of post-Classical and Byzantine remains. During my first year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as an aspiring archaeologist, I enjoyed the Rhys Carpenter fellowship (although I only gradually came to understand how cool a privilege to have his name associated with my career (albeit posthumously) was). 

In any event, a couple books of his poetry, published in the 1910s, is available via the Internet Archive. Check out The Sun-Thief and Other Poems (Oxford 1914) and The Tragedy of Etarre: A Poem (New York 1912)  The poetry falls just shy of feeling stuffy to me, but it is perhaps a bit too formal for contemporary tastes and it is unlikely to appear in a standard 20th century poetry survey course. That said, it does feel palpably modernist in its rather impersonal aspirations to the universal, in this case, cloaked in its Classical allusions and formal structures. Perhaps this style is appropriate for an architect and archaeologist who recognized the value in all periods (and even the beleaguered Byzantine) while still privileging Classical period. My colleague Kostis Kourelis, who introduced me to Carpenter’s poetry, make a similar argument in an article that he wrote several years ago now on the role that the archaeology of the Byzantine period in Greece played on Modernism and the avant garde. You can read it here

Carpenter also wrote a travelogue of a trip he took to Central America in the early 20th century. So it appears that his quest for the modern world in antiquity was not limited to areas and cultures traditionally articulated as the antecedent to modern European civilization. 

Early Candle Light (1914)

The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.
When autumn falls and withers every leaf,
When daylight shrinks and stormy nights grow long,
When winter-wind and winter-cold are strong,
And sorrow holds the weary heart in fief,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

When golden love lies bound with iron thong,
And noble tales but mock our dull belief,
When mirth has garnered every radiant sheaf
And all the sickly world is harsh and wrong,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his invocation of the seasons seemed appropriate today as I look out the basement window of the NDQ offices onto the Collegiate Gothic quad and watch the timeless movement of students against the fading green of summer.

Thing the Second

About 20 (almost 25!) years ago when people talked about “The Digital Archaeology,” I, like many people, assumed that this was simply a temporary trend that traced our collective effort as a field to negotiate technological change. But here we are.

This past week has produced a bumper crop of works on the use of digital technologies in archaeology. These range from field oriented considerations of low-cost and DYI approaches to digital tools. Check out Edouard Masson-MacLean and colleagues’, “Digitally Recording Excavations on a Budget: A (Low-Cost) DIY Approach from Scotland” or in the JFA. For an approach to field recording that is more prog than punk, check out the most recent from the FAIMS team in the same journal: “Deploying an Offline, Multi-User, Mobile System for Digital Recording in the Perachora Peninsula, Greece.”

For a less field oriented perspective, I’m excited to tuck into the recent Debate in Antiquity surrounding John Aycock’s article, “The coming tsunami of digital artefacts” which includes responses from some of my favorite thinkers about the digital tools and practices in archaeology: Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett

The interplay between increasingly sophisticated perspectives on the theoretical side of digital archaeology and the practical challenges associated with data collection in the field, management during publication and dissemination, and curation après le déluge (as the kids say) continues to be worth watching and a source of inspiration.

Thing the Third

Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote a blog post this week that really struck a chord. You can read it here. She basically argues that it is hard to get anything done. I can’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s quotable critique of a famous New York City restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more —it’s too crowded.” Despite feeling like I’m working all the time, I never feel like I’m getting anything done.

For a long time, this felt like running on a treadmill, but then I realize that most running (even when it meanders through the local park or streets in my small town) is running on a treadmill. The goal isn’t to get somewhere (or get away from something), but to endure the challenge and maybe improve (or at least hold station!). This isn’t meant to be a critique of Futo-Kennedy’s blog post, but it prompted a personal reflection. I feel like my own happiness is not connected to how much I work. I can write and read and “think” (or whatever passes for thought) day and after day and still wake up excited to do it all again. If I get bored or burned out on one project or task, I can shift my attention to something else: from research to teaching, from reading to writing, from writing to book production, from scholarship to creative work, and so on. 

My happiness and satisfaction with my job has increasingly come to revolve around process. When I’m doing what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t lead immediately to a “deliverable” result, I find that my life settles into a satisfying routine which, almost by its own volition, leads to things that the bean counters (and my colleagues) can discern as results. In other words, not getting things done seems, for me, to result in things that appear as accomplishments for those who care about such things.

This has got me thinking about the strange economy of the work-life balance industry and their occasional argument that working less often results in getting more done. This seems to assume that for most individuals, the product is more important than the process which is only good insofar as it can be minimized. For academics, I’d contend, the process is generally more appealing and satisfying than the product or outcome which tends to be ephemeral and contingent. Process, in contrast, is persistent and even when practices changed, continuously defined by certain disciplines, attitudes, affects, and experiences. Thus, the call for people to rebalance home life over work life as a way to become more efficient in their work misunderstands the appeal of work life and creates a scenario that, at least in some industries (such as academia), is likely to produce greater apathy toward work.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the rise in rhetoric surrounding “life hacks” designed to make home life more efficient leads people, ironically, to change their attitudes to work. When the alternative to the efficient home is a place where individuals can experience process and certain attitudes toward tasks that bring a kind of satisfaction, efficiency oriented home life with its rhetorical emphasis on outcomes and accomplishments (the tidy lawn, the clean kitchen, the efficiently prepare meal, or the completed home repair) becomes strangely unappealing. I’d rather read another article, write another page, meet with a student, or reflect on a class than mow the lawn, do laundry, or complete some household chore even if these are made more efficient by labor-saving tools or other life hacks.

For me, at least, it’s telling that the most pointless work in my life — walking the dogs, going for a jog, riding my push-bike, or writing my blog — are also times when I think about work the most intently and with the greatest pleasure. I recognize that it is a luxury to have time to do pointless things and to think about my work and practice it in a positive and open way, but perhaps recognizing this privilege is a way toward revising how we think about work itself. Rather than celebrating models of work (and work/home balance) that look to improve the efficiency of our work life, perhaps we should re-examine how our attitudes toward work and expectations of accomplishments, efficiency, and product impact the quality of the work experience for people across society. Maybe the key to doing more is actually thinking about what gets done less. Making a kind of productive inefficiency at work a more appealing alternative to home will do more to address not only concerns of work/home, but also the anxieties that come with feeling like we’re never getting anything done.      

Citational Politics: Citing Dissertations

One of the aspects of revising my book manuscript that I’m currently negotiating is knowing whether and when to cite a dissertation. At some point in my career, someone told me it was generally bad form to criticize a dissertation (or a dissertation’s arguments) in a published work. It was regarded as a kind of punching down, and I feel like I’ve generally followed this rule.

I suppose that understanding this rule also put me off citing recent dissertations in general, beyond acknowledging their existence. As someone who started his academic career fairly early in the internet age, I worried about issues of access. I worried that citing scholarship that was not accessible to readers or reviewers was not a particularly useful gesture and something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (such as in the case of referencing an idea from a dissertation or if a dissertation was the only existing reference for certain information). That said, with greater access to dissertations especially in digital forms, I have started to cite dissertations more frequently in my work, and this got my thinking about when it is appropriate to cite a dissertation and when it might be a good idea to avoid it (unless it is absolutely necessary for reasons of scholarly transparency or integrity!). 

On a short and painful run, I identified five types of dissertations each with their own challenges.

1. Classics. These dissertations are those golden theses that have enduring value and have never been replaced by a published book. For my work, John Leonard’s 2005 dissertation, “Roman Cyprus : harbors, hinterlands, and “hidden powers”,” which is a synthetic gazetteer of maritime sites on the island remains a useful (if slightly dated) reference for coastal Cyprus. I can add to this to Richard Maguire’s “Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus,” a 2012 dissertation from the University of East Anglia, Jody Michael Gordon’s dissertation, “Between Alexandria and Rome: a postcolonial archaeology of cultural identity in Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus,” and Yannis Varalis’s 2001 dissertation on Early Christian basilicas from Illyricum Orientale at the University of Thessaloniki. There are, of course, many others.  

These are absolutely citable because they’re useful, insightful, and at 10 or more years after their appearance, it seems unlikely that a published version will appear that supersedes the unpublished dissertation.

2. Place Holder Dissertations. These are dissertations that are incredibly useful, but seem likely to be superseded by a published work. In most cases, the utility of these dissertations, at least in my field, has less to do with particular arguments that they make and more to do with the material that they synthesize or organize. A good example from my own research was William Bowden’s 2000 dissertation at East Anglia which included a fantastic gazetteer of sites in Epirus Vetus which included work published in Albanian. This dissertation was replaced by his 2003 book, Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, but while I was working on my dissertation, for example, his dissertation was too valuable to ignore and while the book is now the proper reference, from 2000-2003, the dissertation was a more than satisfactory place holder. Erkki Sironen’s dissertation at Helsinki, “The Late Roman and Early Byzantine Inscriptions of Athens and Attica” which ultimately appeared as IG volume (IG 14?) many years later. 

It seems reasonable to cite these dissertations especially in their capacity as synthetic works and catalogues where even if they are superseded by a published book, the basic utility remains intact.

3. Buddy Dissertations. There are some dissertations that develop in professional and person contexts that make it necessary to cite them, despite what might be their provisional status. These I am calling, colloquially, buddy dissertations. For example, David Pettegrew and I wrote our dissertations together and I was deeply influenced by his work. In this case, it only made sense to cite his, “Corinth on the Isthmus: Studies of the End of an Ancient Landscape” even though I knew that it would be superseded by a book. Similarly, Mike Dixon’s 2000 dissertation, especially on areas of the southeastern Corinthia was so well-known to me as an archaeologist and a fellow graduate student that it made sense to cite this as an influential work well before his book was published. In other cases, these dissertations are not literally by “buddies” or classmates, but by people whose paths or interests intersected during graduate school at conference, research centers like Dumbarton Oaks or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and whose influences deserve formal acknowledgement.  

Citing these dissertations tends to reflect the existence of certain emerging knowledge networks that might not be entirely visible to people not familiar with the social life of the field.

4. Fresh Cuts. Today it is easier than ever to get a copy of a recent dissertation. Not only do many schools host digital repositories that make dissertations available soon after their acceptance, but ProQuest distributes dissertations in both digital and print form with most available for <$50 and almost instantly. These are dissertations that exist outside of one’s formal knowledge network which makes the status and content of these works harder to discern. More specifically, it makes it hard to know whether these works are finished products or place holders awaiting a more refined and developed revision published as a book manuscript. Because dissertation committees can exert considerable pressures on a student and because dissertations are often written under immense funding pressure and other academic deadlines, they often represent highly compromised documents that may or may not reflect the final stage of a scholar’s thinking. 

At the same time, with the vagaries of the academic job market and the ongoing contraction of certain fields, dissertations may be the only expression of a scholars contribution to the field. In other words, if we want to include new voices to ongoing discussions, we have to consider engaging with dissertations because the changing employment landscape of our discipline has eroded expectations that there will be support for revision and refinement in the future.

In these situations, it is hard to know whether we should cite dissertations and how we should engage their ideas. I still find the idea of criticizing an argument in a recent dissertation a form of “punching down” and unnecessary, but I do worry that a failure to critique substantively a dissertation as one would a published book or article is a form intellectual neglect that not only creates an uneven playing field but also may serve to marginalize voices already marginalized by the current academic economy.    

5. Embargoed Dissertations. I really wanted to call this “Embargo Queens” as a pun on “garage queens” or cars that are too beautiful to drive, but this would be unfair. What I’m referring to in this case are dissertations that are formally embargoed by their authors usually for 5 years. This usually means that the dissertation is not available as a digital copy or via ProQuest and the goal is to give the authors a chance to revise their dissertations and find a publisher. After all, the changing landscape of academia extends to publishing as well and I’ve heard more than one academic publishers say that they’re reluctant to even consider a publishing a book too closely based on a dissertation. 

The challenge with citing an embargoed dissertation is that access to these works is circumscribed and in many (if not most) cases the dissertation is undergoing revision. It’s like citing a work in progress without knowing what it is progressing toward and, to me at least, it feels only a little better than the dreaded “pers. com.” citation that makes a claim impossible to verify (the worst pers. com. are when the pers. with whom the author com.ed is no longer among the living).

Of course, it is always possible to reach out to the scholar and ask their permission or even request a copy of a dissertation. These personal networks, whether formed through buddy dissertations or just typical academic correspondence, remain a key cog in the professional machine, but they also represent privilege of access and whether we like it or not, power dynamics within our field. I do wonder whether a new PhD would feel comfortable denying access or permission to cite to a senior scholar in their field. 

Here, then, we have reached the end of my speculations on citational politics and dissertations. I’m not sure I’ve resolved my conundrum as to whether and how to cite, engage, and critique the range of dissertations available for scholarly consumption, and I would love to hear what other people thing about these issues!

Atlantis, Expertise, and Utopia

I know that I’m a bit late to the conversation on this, but I wanted to think about things a bit more before I wrote anything (not that this has helped in the past). If you follow archaeology on social media, you’ll have undoubtedly witnessed the  dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of some documentary about Atlantis on the Discovery Channel. I haven’t seen the documentary and I’m also not a qualified as Flint to offer a critique of its premise and argument.

And, to be honest, I’m only a little interested in Atlantis, this documentary, and Dr. Dibble’s careful critique. Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. As my post yesterday demonstrated, my interest in the specifics of this conversation extend mostly to ways in which Black thinkers, artists, and visionaries have used the story of Atlantis both as a form of critique of their contemporary situation and as an avenue for a utopian visions that conjure an imagined (and imaginary?) past that offers hope for a better future.   

As I thought about this more, I wondered how our concern about pseudo-archaeology intersected with our anxieties about the out professional status and the larger conversations about expertise. A number of the interlocutors pointed out that Dr. Dibble is a eminently qualified archaeologist and by dint of that alone, his critique should carry significant weight. As someone who has thought almost never about Atlantis, I’m inclined to trust that Dr. Dibble knows his stuff and respect his tireless efforts to promote archaeology in the public sphere.

At the same time, I’m am growing a bit tired of the discourse of expertise among archaeologists in the public sphere. To be clear, Dr. Dibble does not explicitly tout his own expertise, but others certainly did on his behalf. First off, I want to be clear that I am not challenging Dr. Dibble’s qualifications as an archaeologist. I am certain that he is very good and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a better archaeologist than I could even hope to be.

[And do check out Neville Morley’s very thoughtful Twitter thread on authority in archaeology.]

I am suggesting, however, that assertions of expertise by professional, academic archaeologists is perhaps problematic or at least unconvincing especially in the context of this conversation. After all, most of us anchor our claims to expertise in our discipline (and disciplinary standards) and our institutions (and the degrees that they confer and the recognition (and employment!) that it affords). We also recognize that our discipline and our institutions have incredibly problematic pasts and that these pasts support our claims and our ability to claim expertise. The legacy of colonial practices (especially in field work), exclusion on the basis of class, race, and gender (when this was seen as a feature rather than a problem to be solved), and a history of systematic exploitation (including slavery, but also through unscrupulous investments, problematic labor practices, and various forms of structural violence) has allowed our institutions and our discipline to accumulate social, cultural, and economic capital. Our ability to think that our standards of expertise matter is one of the manifestations of this problematic legacy. Academic expertise has social capital that reinforces its claims to truth making. I recognize that this is reductionist, but I also tend to think it’s true.

Of course, many academic archaeologists know this! In fact, even a casual review of academic twitter sees an almost continuous critique of the discipline and its institutions. Most of this is genuine and reflects a real hope for reform. That said, many other people issue calls to burn it all down. In both cases, people know that our institutions and claims of expertise carry baggage. In fact, there’s been an effort over the past 20 or 30 years to make archaeology a more open and inclusive discipline by embracing the knowledge of individuals outside of the academic and professional discipline. This has opened the field up to indigenous forms of knowledge, local interlocutors, and other individuals who often lack social and disciplinary standing. We also have worked hard not to ghettoize this “non-expert” knowledge as inferior, but instead have worked to create a more multi- and poly-vocal discipline as much to escape the colonial legacy of our discipline (and its institutions) as to create more inclusive forms of knowledge for the future. In short, archaeology as a discipline is more bearish on expertise than it might appear on social media.

Programs like this Atlantis documentary leverage a broader skepticism toward institutions and experts among the general public. Instead of the plodding pace of professional knowledge-making, many similar programs prefer to tell heroic tales of individuals who discover the truth that experts have either overlooked or sought to suppress. These stories, of course, are compelling and evoke many of the same themes that characterize, say, Dan Brown’s novels, various dystopian science fiction fantasies (I just finished watching Loki) and, of course, the great churning mass of popular conspiracy theories. Most of us like these stories because even those of us indebted to institutions for our careers and social standing, harbor deep skepticism regarding their capacity to do good. 

Among the many weaknesses of the Atlantis program and other mass media documentaries is that they lack any institutional grounding for their claims (and this likely accounts for the flailing attacks made upon Dr. Dibble’s professional status and institutional affiliation. The documentary makers appeared intently aware that without institutional backing their own work lack standing.) Disciplinary archaeology’s claims to expertise rely upon practices that support and perpetuate institutional memory. This includes practices, such as footnoting, archiving, ethical standards, and methodologies, as well as organizational bulwarks such as departments and programs that ensure continuity in disciplinary knowledge. Television programs and other forms of popular media lack these bulwarks. This not only ensures that the claims that occur in this media tend to be ephemeral, but also de-emphasizes the need for originality (or even novelty). Anyone who has watched these programs even occasionally knows that the same tired stories of alien visitors, hidden temples, secret manuscripts, and suppressed wisdom appear again and again. To my knowledge, very few of these claims ever enter into academic discourse unless it is to be quickly debunked and dismissed. Of course, this doesn’t matter to peddlers of these claims because part of their claims to truth come from rejecting the traditional sources of institutional and disciplinary knowledge or even claims that their arguments are so dangerous that they require active suppression!

[As an aside, Dr. Dibble’s erudite refutation of the Atlantis documentary’s arguments may have done as much to reinforce the danger that these arguments represent to traditional archaeology, but they also have left me struggling a bit to care about traditional archaeology in this context. As with classic conspiracy theories, any negative attention from traditional experts serves to strengthen the documentary maker’s claims that they are onto something. Why would an expert otherwise go to such lengths to challenge it?]    

In the end, though, the claims made by these non-institutional sources of knowledge are ephemeral. Their recurrence, however, reflects certain persistent, albeit historical anxieties in our society.  

At the broadest level, our fascination with Atlantis in the popular imagination, particularly as an ancient, alternative, utopian space reinforces our fear that contemporary social institutions and ways of life have somehow compromised our ability to live a peaceful, prosperous, meaningful life. That this may have occurred in the distant past before it was lost, holds out a kind of promise that humans can inhabit a better world.

While Dr. Dibble points out that the myth and archaeology of Atlantis has become fodder for right wing racists, it’s important to note that not all fantasies of Atlantis resolve in this way. As I wrote yesterday, Atlantis enjoyed a certain position in the work of jazz musician Sun Ra and his influential exploration of Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism

Ayesha Hameed has argued across a series of interlinked essays, performances, samples and images that the myth of Atlantis also offers a perspective to critique and understand the role in the search for Black identity in the Atlantic world, the contemporary horrors of seaborne migration, and the musical and literary worlds of Afrofurturism. She highlights the work of the Detroit techno duo Drexciya’s who offer a particularly disturbing, mythical re-interpretation of Atlantis. For this duo, black Atlantis was founded by babies born from pregnant women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage and whose newborn children, in this horrific moment, adapted to life underwater. This is obviously pseudo-scientific, but as with Sun Ra, the connection between Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism has long drawn upon “pseudo-archaeology” to create utopian spaces where it becomes possible to imagine both new collective pasts for Black people and new futures. Unlike the buttoned down world of serious academic archaeology (where Black scholars have long been underrepresented and white institutions and disciplines have historically dismissed their narratives of the past), many of these re-readings of Atlantis have taken place in the much more ephemeral context of popular media (some of which is unpacked by Morgan Jerkins in this essay) where images of Black Atlantis appeared as album covers, in comic books (it is hard to avoid noticing the parallels between the Atlantis myths and Wakanda in the Black Panther), novels, and, of course, in the coded aspirations for a return to an Africa unscathed by slave trade, colonialism, exploitation, and corruption. 

In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the image of Atlantis as conjured in the imaginations of the Isley Brothers, Sun Ra, and Drexciya, and in the critical perspectives offered Ayesha Hameed or in the loosely autobiographical novels of Samual Delaney, with the abhorrent and racist arguments advanced by white supremacists, right wing extremists, and other peddlers of hate. That archaeologists are drawn to white supremacist visions of Atlantis rather than those circulating in the Black community is hardly surprising. 

It is also hardly surprising that Atlantis can mean different things to different groups. I’m aware that there is no reason to assume that a Black reading of the Atlantis myth should have precedence over a view anchored in white supremacy and racism. It does, however, feel like that the plurality of Atlantises finds parallels with growing calls for a more pluralistic and more inclusive discipline of archaeology. To be clear, this parallelism is not an effort to argue that for the moral equivalence of an Atlantis informed by right wing racism and the Atlantis that bears the utopic values of, say, the Black community. Instead, I wonder whether our energy might be better spent considering how both our contemporary and long standing interests in Atlantis have emerged as way to critique contemporary institutions. 

It is hardly an intellectual leap to understand that recent interest in Atlantis offers a platform for considering the fate of humanity as we face an Anthropocene shaped by dramatic climate change. The destruction of Atlantis beneath the sea is a scenario that all too readily evokes the specter of rising sea levels and the destruction of civilization at the very moment when humanity is coming to terms with the realization that man-made climate change and widespread ecological destruction has placed human existence on earth is in jeopardy. In these scenarios Atlantis can reflects both our realization that a peaceful and prosperous existence was once possible and our fear that our own institutional hubris will lead to our destruction  

To return to the issue of expertise, where this rather diffuse essay began, it makes sense that the search for Atlantis and the imagining of Atlantis have become icons for critiques of the establishment and institutions – including, I’d contend archaeology as a discipline – which claim to be working to create a better way of life. This critique is predicated on the idea that these institutions are corrupt and may even be suppressing our understanding of how humans achieved peace and prosperity in the past. It’s not hard to see the appeal of this kind of assumption. Not a week goes by without an academic on Twitter calling for us to “burn it all down.”  In a more positive vein, both farmers (and, indeed, researchers) have increasingly come to realize that ancient and indigenous farming practices, for example, might offer healthier and more sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. In a less positive one, only the most naive individuals can deny the role that multinational corporations deliberately played in the opioid epidemic or in practices that are accelerating the approach of the coming climate catastrophe. Disaster capitalism is thriving mostly because the larger the disaster the greater the opportunity to sell short for a profit.

Our quest for Atlantis, then, is not simply one of “real archaeology” and pseudoarchaeology. Instead, it is bound up in a larger critique of contemporary institutions and society. It weaves a web that extends to both darkest corners of right wing totalitarian racism and narratives of hope and redemption that seek to bridge the painful gap produced by the Middle Passage, contemporary experiences of displacement, and our Athropocene anxieties. It also questions on a fundamental level the character of academic expertise and the institutions that support and promote it and forces us to enduring the fine line between “burning it all down,” building a better world, and acknowledging the complicity of our expertise in both past and contemporary catastrophes.  

It goes without saying that this rambling essay goes well beyond Dr. Dibble’s critique of the Discovery channel television program Atlantis. My essay also lacks his remarkable ability to reduce complicated archaeological issues into concisely crafted Tweets. Despite these liabilities, I hope my effort to complicate the conversations that arose surrounding the Atlantis dust up opens up some new avenues to consider without jeopardizing any of the incisive critiques offered by its participants.  

Teaching Tuesday: Space and Place

Time seems the slow down in the week before classes start. It feels like the cooling, muggy air of late August effectively bogs down the steady clip of summertime making minutes feel like hours and hours feel like days. This slowing of time serves as a good reminder that our experience of time is indeed relative even if our increasingly precise time-keeping instruments continue to tick along at a steady pace.

The slowing down of time leading into the new school year complements a changing sense of space as we return to campus. This year, in particular, campus will feel different. Spatially the campus is largely the same as it was two years ago when it was filled with students and the pandemic was an odd news story from China. Now, there are a few new buildings crowding the historic quad, a few of the older buildings look a bit different, and the familiar campus quest for parking involves trawling through newly paved and configured lots. The changes in campus are not enough to confuse someone who has made their way onto campus for 10 or 20 years, but they do offer new vantage points for seeing the same familiar spaces and buildings. The remind me that space, like time, is also relative.

My class on Wednesday night is World Civilizations I which runs, depending on the instructor to 1500 or 1000. My class stresses the concepts of spatial and temporal scale and how it shapes the way in which we see the past on a global scale. For a first assignment, then, I ask my students to describe their situation – their location, their time, and their cultural, political, and historical contexts – to an audience 100, 1000, and 10,000 years in the future. The assignment was partly inspired by the project recently documented by Rosemary Joyce that sought to come up with ways to mark out nuclear waste disposal sites in Nevada and New Mexico. This exercise challenged engineers, anthropologists, linguists, and other specialists in the past and materiality to think about the limits of how our we represent ourselves will be understood by others. This imaginative act of radical “othering” forced these thinkers to consider critically not only how we communicate over time, but how time shapes what we say. This feels like a good way to start to get the class to start working together as groups while introducing a key theme that I return to throughout the class: scale matters.

The first time that I taught this class was pretty rough. It was a hybrid course in a room that was too small to accommodate the social distancing mandates put in place on campus. As a result, I had to break the class into six groups who met, two groups at a time, for 50 minute classes with the rest of the work and content being delivered online. This semester, the class will meet in our large scale-up classroom. This will allow me to maintain a certain amount of social distancing (albeit unofficially, since that mandate is no longer in place) and the classroom is better suited to group work than our standard active learning rooms. The large round tables support collaboration, each table has dedicated white boards, TV monitors, and laptops, and allows the class to spread out and create their own space to work. In my experiences teaching in this classroom, the organization of the space encourages engagement. In fact, I’ve written about it here and this article offers some interesting recent observations.  

At the same time that I’m excited to get back to teaching in a familiar collaborative learning space, I’m also worried that the COVID pandemic and ongoing construction work on campus will make it harder for my department to feel like a cohesive program. If I understand it correctly, this coming year our department will be spread over four buildings and only teach in one of those four buildings. This divorce of our teaching from our office spaces is, on the one hand, not a bad thing. It facilitates, for example, the maintaining of boundaries between our research, service, and teaching obligations. At the same time, it puts us out and about on campus rather than sneaking almost invisibly between our classrooms and our offices on a single floor of a single building. Finally, it gives us an opportunity to build casual relationships with colleagues in other programs and in other departments. Moving offices is a pain, but it also has its advantages.

On the other hand, I do worry that the boundaries reinforced by the separation of our offices from our classrooms can be barriers to students. Many of our students, for example, are first generation college students and find faculty distant and sometimes intimidating. By hiding our offices away from our classrooms it might contribute to the idea that offices are “off limits” to students or that faculty are too busy to care. At my institutions, I’ve found this to be nothing further from the truth. I also worry that it’ll cause a sense of isolation or even alienation among faculty in my department. We tend to be fairly collegial and even friendly, but not a particularly collaborative group. I suspect the change in our spaces will do little to encourage us to work more closely together.

That all said, the changes to campus, new classes in familiar spaces, and even thinking actively about how we place ourselves on campus, in the region, and in the world gives the start of the semester a sense of excitement and potential about it. After last years disruptions and this summer’s tentative steps toward establishing a new normal, going back into the classroom and being on campus will feel good, despite all the anxieties and challenges. 

Teaching Structural Violence in the Time of COVID

Teaching about structural violence is always a bit difficult. After all, structures are elusive things that often operated below the level of conscious action and agency, but nevertheless shape our daily lives. At their most visible, structures are manifest in institutions and, at their least, they are known through movements and attitudes that aren’t structures themselves but suggest forms of relationships that mark out divisions in society. Structural violence refers to the kind of painful, damaging, and harmful actions that occur at the level of structures in society. In fact, many scholars see violence itself is often as a kind of structuring structure that defines certain social relationships that constitute what we see as society. For example, animosity and violence often mark the divisions of classes in society. Scholars have become increasingly interested in the role of violence in marking racial divisions as well. 

N.B. For some background for this post, you can read this earlier post where I explored a similar approach to understanding the social context for the COVID pandemic.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen COVID cut a swath through our communities and reveal new and deeper rifts in our social fabric. It is clear that divisions in race, class, education, and even gender shape attitudes toward COVID vaccinations, masks, and public health policies. In many cases, groups in our society who are historically the most vulnerable have adopted attitudes that make them more susceptible to COVID infection and illness. There are any number of reasons why these communities have resisted efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID and many of these stem ultimately from a long history of state violence which has created deep ambivalence and even animosity toward the public institutions (especially those that claim to want to help). This has combined with the efforts by groups and individuals eager to stoke this ambivalence and animosity toward the state in an effort to advance their own positions economically, politically, and socially. Over the last 50 years, neoliberal policies, for example, have represented the state as a damper on the market and argued that by suppressing or controlling competition,the state make individuals less able to advance their social and economic positions in society. The resources absorbed and distributed by the state tend to limit opportunities and disincentivize social advancement by rewarding individuals who are less successful in the market economy (through, say, the social safety net) and penalizing (through taxes, for example) those who are more successful. Of course, many of the groups who champion individual freedom and remain ambivalent toward the state, have not benefited from this, largely because these policies tend to reward groups who have significant competitive advantages in the economy (e.g. generational wealth, access to education, social networks, et c.) and normalize these advantages as the result of market competition. 

Framing attitudes toward COVID in this way might helps us avoid the current tendency toward blaming the victim. Many of those resistant to vaccinations, mask mandates, and other public policies have long viewed the state with deep skepticism because they see it as a barrier to their own advancement and there is a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric and media that reinforce these attitudes. 

More than that, there are real efforts to make the state appear less efficient and capable and in these efforts, and this allows us to get a sense for how structural violence relies upon the complicity of many individuals who might not necessarily advocate for its goals. For example, our institution has a policy that allows us as individual instructors to require masks in our classes, but it also leave us with the burden of enforcement. Realistically, most faculty who I know don’t feel comfortable determining (much less enforcing) public health policies for their classrooms. We’ll do it, though, in part, because we have to and not because we believe the devolution of public health policies is the most efficient or effective way to protect ourselves and students. 

The reason for this devolution of responsibilities is undoubtedly that the institution feels like they can’t make campus wide mandates because of real (or least perceived) pressure from outside stakeholders. In this situation, they implement work arounds that invariably are less successful than a policy and this demonstrates (for some) the ineffectiveness of public institutions. More than that, it demonstrates how certain forms of structural violence operate on the institutional level and make complicit even individuals who don’t share or would rather resist the forms of violence visible in particular policies or attitudes.

Recently, a group of politicians (a small one to be fair) circulated a petition that would withhold state funds — even those appropriated by the legislature — from institutions that implemented mask or vaccine requirements. While this is unlikely to gain much traction, especially on the desk of our pragmatic, realist governor, it is another useful example of how certain groups seek to make state institutions less viable and reinforce the notion that they are ineffective and inefficient. Moreover, these policies would expose unvaccinated and mask-skeptical individuals to greater risk of infection with COVID and serious consequences. This is all the more harmful as universities are one of the places that, for their many flaws, seek (at least ostensibly) to produce a more level playing field in society and give individuals the tools necessary to create a more fair and equal world. The policies that make it more difficult for universities to protect vulnerable individuals, even those who are skeptical of vaccinations and masks, directly hamper their ability to serve groups that we hope to benefit the most. If good public policies are informed by science, by understanding of human behavior, and by deep compassion for the human condition, then higher education plays a crucial role in creating conditions that make good policies and ideally creating a better world.

This is not to blame institutions, in particular, for their failure to stand up to the pressures from those deeply (and in most cases uncritically) ambivalent about the authority of the state. Our institutions response to COVID does, however, offer a particularly vivid example of how certain forms of structural violence serve to undermine even thoughtful and sustained efforts at resolution. It also shows how easy it is for individuals to be complicit in perpetuating systemic violence and failing to protect some of the most vulnerable groups.

The individual calculus in such situations is grim. As individuals, we sometimes blame the victims: they refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. More damagingly, we sometimes appeal to some vague greater good that often rests on the bodies of the most vulnerable: some people will get COVID, get very sick, and maybe even die, but at least we are continuing to advance the mission of our institution. In these situations, we’re admitting that the lives of the vulnerable are somehow acceptable collateral damage for the survival of an institution and its ideals (even if these ideals are not reflected in the policies that it must pursue in order to survive).

If these kinds of decisions are not teachable moments, I’m not sure what would be. I only hope that the lessons that we as a society have learned from the unfolding tragedy of the COVID pandemic do not require regular reinforcement.  

Fiction for History

Last week, I listened to my first audiobook: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It was lavishly produced (I think) and featured numerous actors and accents to enliven a story with a genuinely global reach. It is worth reading (or listening to). 

The book tells the story of climate change the role of a ministry established by the Paris Climate Agreement and designed to represent future generations as well as all those living entities on the Earth that could not speak or represent themselves. What interested me more than the plot (which is a Robinsonian plot if there ever was one) was the way in which Robinson wrote the book. It consisted of 106 chapters, most of which were short. Some chapters were narrative, others were vignettes, some were short research briefs, and others were odd first person descriptions of various inanimate objects such as blockchain or a carbon molecule. As a result, the book had a intriguing rhythm to it (especially as an audiobook). Robinson did not rely upon the rather typical (especially in science fiction and fantasy) device of intertwined parallel narratives (and, indeed, Robinson used in, say, his book Red Mars), but rather produced a book that is fragmented, constantly interrupted, and comprised of related, but non-narrative fragments.

This style of writing got me thinking (once again) about how dependent we have become as academic authors on FORM. In fact, most academic books in my field are essentially the same form as most other academic books. This is convenient because it allows us a scholars to digest them quickly and focus our attention more on matters of evidence and argument than on the book’s organization or, for lack of a better word, narrative. This is appropriate because most academics have the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate evidence and argument not only based on their internal arrangement (which as I’ve said tends to be more or less the same with every book), but also and more importantly based on the relationship of the evidence and argument to other external pieces of evidence and other arguments. As a result, it is pretty hard for someone who is not familiar with evidence and arguments at the core of a particular field to assess the validity or significance of an academic book or argument.

When historians and archaeologists attempt to adapt their writing to more popular audiences, we tend to default to forms of linear narratives derived from popular fiction and journalism. This produces texts that are familiar to a wide audience and that follow predictable arcs which tend to emphasize various kinds of heroic discovery or other tragic or comedic forms of emplotment that modern fiction (and non-fiction) has honed to a fine and familiar point. Authority in these works tends to rest, then, not on the quality of the story (although a fine storyteller can make even an old tired story come alive again), but usually on the authority of the storyteller. This is as much because a popular (that is non-scholarly) audience will probably struggle to assess the validity of specialized evidence (or be uninterested) as the form of the book is so typical and familiar to be rather indistinguishable from other books. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the argument or setting or time is the same, but that the general organization of the narrative follows a common and predictable trajectory populated with characters recognizable from elsewhere in our media saturated landscape.

In short, academic writing tends to be conservative whether intended for other academics or for a popular audience. This not only makes our work familiar and easy to digest and assess, but also supports our claims to a seriousness of purpose. When academic authors stray too far from the conventional forms, they are frequently accused of not being sufficiently serious or professional in their approach and this makes it easier to dismiss their arguments.

Robinson’s book, of course, is fiction and therefore removed from the constraints that shape scholarly work. By blending research and narrative, Robinson creates space to consider the social, political, and economic situation of a near-future existentially challenged by catastrophic climate change. The disrupted narrative embodies the poly-vocal (and at times cacophonic) discourse that emerges at the end of the world.

At the same time, the main narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of one of the most familiar stories in the world: the Gospels. The main character is Mary, a diplomat, who transforms the Ministry for the Future into a major force for global change. This occurred after a conversion experience. She is taken hostage by Frank, a man who survived a catastrophic Indian heat wave that killed 20 million people by sheltering in a pond surrounded by thousands of Indians who were dead or dying. This horrific baptism led Frank to period of wandering (in deserto) and growing radicalism that culminates in his abduction of Mary.

Maybe Mary is more like Jesus. Or maybe she is more like the Virgin. In some sense it doesn’t matter because she’s a familiar character whatever her analogue is in the Gospel narrative. She is surrounded by  apostles, who make up her staff, and include figures who are like Peter, Thomas, and the others (even if there is no conspicuous Judas) and some of whom become martyrs for the cause. Her Ministry (pun intended) introduces new laws designed to address not only the deteriorating situation but also to create new institutions that will replace those that are no longer adequate for the new world. To make sure that the daft reader, distracted and disconcerted by a narrative interrupted by fragments, digressions, and changing perspectives, doesn’t miss the explicitly millenarian arc, the final scenes of the book take place on Mardi Gras, the last big party before the rigorous preparation of Lent. This leads the reader to understand that this is not even the beginning, but really the end of the end, and the moment when the real hard work in anticipation and in preparation for the Resurrection starts.

Robinson’s book is a hard, serious, and uncomfortable read. It asks hard questions: are we ready to think about our future differently now or will we have to experience unthinkable horrors to make the necessary changes? 

As importantly, do contemporary academic and popular narratives have the necessary power to change hearts and minds? Or do we have to find new ways to communicate new ideas? 

You Can Always Go Back (sort of)

Yesterday, I wandered around the campus of the University of Richmond where I went as an undergraduate. I like to joke that it was at Richmond where I finally figured out how to be a student and that experience was so formative that I’ve not left a university campus since!

In any event, my wander around campus reminded me of the campus’s human scale where so many of the structures face one another to create cosy courtyards and intimate spaces framed by the College Gothic architecture, trees and gardens, and the hills. When I went to college at Richmond, I really needed a place where I felt comfortable and this contributed a good bit to my transformation from a mediocre high school students to a solid university student. I’ve visited a good many college campuses over the past 25 years since I left UR, from the mega-universities of Ohio State and the University of Texas at Austin, to mid-sized schools like the University of North Dakota, tiny liberal arts colleges, and many institutions in between. My return to Richmond’s campus reminded me that the buildings and organization of space contributes to one’s experience of a campus in significant ways. 

One other thing: there was construction and this reminded me that any campus worth its salt is under construction. Just as students change and institutions change, so should campuses (and a campus without construction is a bit of a worry). 

And another: You’ll notice that I include a photo Ryland Hall which was named after former UR first president Robert Ryland who owned enslaved people. There is ongoing debate over the naming of this building and the signs on the construction fence show that this debate is taking place in both formal and informal ways. If it were my decision, I’d change the name of the building (which ranks as among my favorites on campus). That said, I’m not close enough to the UR community to understand the current conversations on campus. The cynic in me sees the re-naming of this building as the ideal opportunity for a wealthy donor to make their mark on campus (and it would fit with the so many of the more recent campus buildings that appear mainly to celebrate the names of wealthy contributors). If I were to think more carefully about this, however, I might prefer a name that celebrates the institution’s history especially as the building will house the core humanities departments. 

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It’s difficult to capture this in photographs, but here are few that I took yesterday:

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Thing Things Thursday: More Sun Ra, Sheffield, and Rivers

Every day it feel more and more like the end of the summer season and the beginning of fall. It certainly doesn’t help that smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled the air giving the entire city a bit of autumnal light. As a result, my attention span is being dragging in multiple directions as I try to wrap up end of the summer tasks and gear up for the fall semester. It feels like a good time to do another three things Thursday.

Thing the First

With all this talk about sending billionaires into space, it was a great time to receive the collections of Sun Ra’s poetry recently republished by Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. The reprints are done with meticulous attention to detail and manage to reproduce the feeling of the these sometimes casual and often often simple publications.

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For example, the liner notes from Jazz in Silhouette from 1959 appear in their blurry and smudged mimeograph purple creating an intriguing contrast between their futuristic content and their reproduction which situates them in the past. In these poems Sun Ra reminds us that the future is the world of the impossible and that we have to “consider the negative plain of existence” and

The prophets of the past belong to the past
The space prophets of the greater future
Belong to the greater future.   

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It is great to see the poems reproduced in their original form. Two of my favorites appear his most famous book of poetry, The Immeasurable Equation (1972): “The Cosmic Myth,” and “Black Myth” which so clearly embody key aspects of Sun Ra’s worldview. “The Cosmic Myth” starts with the lines “A new name is always a great adventure | A cosmic name is a cosmic word …”

“Black Myth” engages with Ra’s challenging sense of myth and time declaring:

A better destiny I decree
Such tales and tales that are told
Are not my myths
But other myths of Black mythology
Radiate from beyond the
      measured borders of time.

Thing the Second

Like so many people in the world of archaeology, I’m quite distressed by the closing of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Flint Dibble offers a nice summary of the situation in this Twitter thread. As he and many other commentators note, the most challenging aspect of this closure is that this department was among the most important and successful in the English speaking world.

Like many people, I can’t help but feeling that its closure marks a new phase in the transformation of higher education on a global scale. The debate is no long about metrics for success, which Sheffield would appear to achieve without a shadow of the doubt, or the value of hard won intangibles such as prestige and brand recognition, but about something else entirely. The cynic in me makes it easy enough to attribute the closure to a crass power play on the part of the political leadership of the university. The archaeology program at Sheffield may well be a kind of tall poppy  cut down in a rather pure expression of power.  

It is hard to understand how it would be possible to resist gestures such as these. Over the past decade, in the long simmering crisis in higher education, faculty especially in the humanities and arts have worked to construct strategies designed to promote their programs on campus, to boost enrollments, to demonstrate the utility of their programs for the 21st century, and to extend their reach beyond campus.

At the same time, faculty have often critiqued past generations of faculty for not doing enough to anticipate the changing political, economic, and ideological landscape of higher education. This is often done in an oblique way through criticism of ivory tower faculty who were and remain out of touch with reality and incapable of adapting their programs. As frequent are criticisms of university administrators who are depicted as a hostile to the humanities, arts, and social sciences or simply incompetent. While these critiques have remained in the background surrounding the closing of Sheffield’s program, they often raise their heads when the conversations turn to the challenges facing humanities, arts, and social science programs more broadly.  

I can’t escape the feeling that the increasingly arbitrary cuts to programs will reveal the ultimate futility of well-meaning faculty efforts to preserve their programs and perhaps cause us to pull back from many of the least charitable critiques of faculty in the past. Perversely, it push us to ask much harder questions that do not involve sustaining our programs, our jobs, our careers, or our work and instead focus on what we should do when we know that our work will not matter to our institutions and our fields.

Thing the Third     

I’ve been chewing on an abstract that I need to prepare before the end of the month for the 2021 CHAT conference whose topic is movement. As I’ve mentioned before (somewhere on this blog!), I’ve wanted to write about the Grand Forks Greenway and to reflect on the tension between the walls designed to manage the flow and flooding of the Red River of the North and the river’s movement through the landscape, our engagement (and movement alongside the river’s course), and our ability to navigate over and around the walls put in place after the disastrous flood of 1997.

Unlike a traditional conference, the “pilgrim CHAT” will be a month-long festival open to all sort of multi-, trans-, and new media kinds of explorations of the topic of movement. This complicates my abstract all the more as it forces me to think about my topic not just in the sense of academic content, but also as media. I have almost no experience doing this kind of thing, but this project seems like a great opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit and develop a greater appreciation for how our new media world might change scholarly communications. 

Three Things That I’ve Learned This Year

As the academic year has come to a close, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this has been a particularly odd and most challenging twelve months. The COVID pandemic has thrown my well-worn routines into chaos, forced me to redesign classes on the fly, made it impossible to continue my field work in Greece and Cyprus, and disrupted whatever thin boundary existed between work-life and home-life.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what I learned over the last year and figured that I’d offer three ill-formed thoughts here.

1) Field work, travel, and archaeology. For over 20 years, I had travelled to the Mediterranean to do field work. It was also a chance to build professional relationships, socialize, and, perhaps most importantly, think on site. The last two years, I haven’t been able to do this. 

It feels strange being disconnected from the Mediterranean. I certainly feel a sense of loss and a distance from our field areas especially as they appear more and more as datasets, GIS maps, and descriptions. At the same time, I find myself looking much more closely at the landscape closer to home. I’ve taken a few bike rides into the country and visited some rural churches. I’ve also looked more critically at the parks around me and as my legs get a bit stronger, I look forward to going for longer runs and walks (and rides) through the region and our community.

It got me thinking about how much a sense of place shapes my research and thinking. I’ve obviously read enough about a sense of place, placemaking, and the significance of being situated in a particular environment, but it was not until I found myself unable to go to Greece and Cyprus that I realized how much being THERE mattered in how I think. Conversely, being forced to engage my local space has made me much more interested in understanding my local landscape. I guess place matters. 

2. #FuckProductivity. I’ve really loved the #fuckproductivity hashtag that’s been appearing in my various social media feeds. I have no idea where it came from and who started it, but it definitely speaks to my own sense of aimlessness and exhaustion.

One thing that the COVID pandemic showed me is how much I relied upon things like travel for little breaks from my routine or rituals like leaving my laptop at work as a way to discourage me from getting RIGHT to work first thing in the morning. I have an amazing home office now that seems always to beckon.This has gotten me a bit worried about whether I work out of some misguided desire to maintain to achieve optimal productivity and this is some kind of internalization of capitalist work rhythms.

What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m not particularly productive. In fact, I really don’t get much satisfaction from producing anything. What I enjoy is the process of reading, thinking, and writing. I know that I work too much, but I wonder whether what keeps me sane and happy is not so much the pressure to produce something, but the endless joy that the process brings? 

The COVID pandemic has made me realize how much breaks, like travel, changes of scenery, like going to Greece and Cyprus, and even the uneven rhythm of non-pandemic life makes the process of writing, reading, and thinking much more enjoyable and less exhausting. 

3. Teaching. I’ve been trying to be a more compassionate teacher of the last few years. This involves more than just trying to be more understanding toward my students and being more flexible in my teaching (and their learning) outcomes.

In particular, this year has encouraged me to listen more carefully to my students. I suppose that I never really realized how much many of them have struggled as they had to endure the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic, the isolation that came with “social” distancing (which is a term that actually describes the result of physical distancing), and the interpersonal (and intergenerational) challenges associated with increasing polarized political landscape. My students just feel down and distracted. 

To attempt to compensate for the challenging times our students are facing, I’ve had to rethinking assignments, move deadlines, relax my expectations, and work closer students to ensure that they were not sacrificing their own well-being to satisfy arbitrary (or even well-considered) “outcomes” for the course. If part of our goal as teachers is to impart life long habits of mind and love of learning, it seems to me a good idea to make sure that students don’t associate learning with arbitrary goals, deadlines, and anxieties especially during already anxious times.

~

I’m sure that I’ve learned other things this year and maybe as the dust settles a bit on the last 12 months, they’ll come to mind and I’ll share them here.

Performative Informality, Community, and Collaboration

Every year about this time, I pause for a bit to remember my late friend Joel Jonientz who died in 2014. Invariably, this leads to my thinking back to the salad days of the decade from 2004-2014 which felt not only more productive but also more collegial than the years since then. You can read some of my Jonientz inspired blog posts here.

In general, my view of that decade was deeply nostalgic. I saw the good things that happened in those years—collaborative projects such as The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, an interest in a wide range of transdisciplinary digital media, and the formation of social bonds that continue, in some ways, to define my professional life (e.g. Paul Worley serves as the poetry editor at NDQ; Mike Wittgraf and I have published articles together; Crystal Alberts has guest edited an issue of the QuarterlyKyle Conway and I have published together on the Bakken).

At the same time, I recognize that the conditions that produced this major shift in my professional life and identity were not just social ones. The university itself was flourishing at the time. It was near peak enrollment numbers, riding a wave of solid legislative support, and led by administrators who found ways to support innovative projects in the arts and humanities, including the Working Group in Digital and New Media where I formed many close personal and professional friendships. Feeling particularly nostalgic last year, I charted out some of the things that emerged from this fruitful period at UND

I also emphasized this period at UND as one of hope which now seems almost impossible to recapture. Budget cuts, awkward leadership styles, an emphasis on competition between programs and departments, the steady hemorrhaging of faculty, and the corresponding decline in morale ensured that even before the pandemic UND had become a very different place than it was in 2010.

While the passing of time intensifies nostalgia, it eventually offers a more critical vantage point for reflection.

This year, in particular, I got to wonder whether the important social bonds that I formed years ago at UND were also part of a kind of toxic atmosphere that is as much to blame for at least some of the tensions that exist today at UND as budgetary, administrative, and structural issues. For example, the Working Group in Digital and New Media had a presence on campus, but it was every bit as much a social group whose meeting regularly concluded with a trip to a local watering hole and interaction between our families, weekend visits to each other’s homes, and various other social events.

This blurring of social and professional boundaries relied, at least in some ways, in the kind of “performative informality” that creates boundaries. These boundaries which tend to be less than visible to the “in group” who shares the informal convivial rituals and ties, are nevertheless highly visible to individuals in the “out group” who feel excluded by these practices. That our group was largely the same age, largely the same professional rank, and largely the same place in our personal and professional lives, further reinforced the exclusivity of our performative bonds.

It strikes me that these informal bonds are fairly hard to recreate in a way that is not exclusive, at least when compared to more formally defined professional relationships. In fact, the the university, for all its faults, has tended to invest in relationships, collaborations, and partnerships defined on the basis of professional standards. It is perhaps idealistic to think that this investment ensures greater inclusivity as recent research into structural racism and sexism in higher education has shown. That said, there are many who see changes to professional standards of collaboration and cooperation in higher education as easier to achieve than long standing practices of social behavior and performative informality. It might be that these institutional shifts have the potential to create more inclusive groups on campus.

This isn’t just an issue of inclusivity and fairness in our professional life, but also reflects an interest in creating more enduring institutions. As I’ve blogged about before when faculty moved on, resources dried up, and campus culture changed, groups bound by performative informality crumbled as the social bonds succumb to distance and changing professional responsibilities.  

In hindsight, then, I wonder whether the easy collegiality that was so productive in the short term, had shallow institutional foundations because of practices that hindered its ability to reproduce itself in persistent ways.

This doesn’t mean that I regret the friendships and sense of community that I developed over that decade or that I’ll stop looking back on it as a period of growth and intellectual development, but I suppose that I should also recognize that the exclusive character of my collaborative circle created a kind of fragility. In some ways, my current sense of intellectual isolation on campus is perhaps as much a result of choice that I made 15 years ago as conditions on campus today.