Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UND has a new President: Writing the History of the Recent Past

Yesterday, the state board of higher education announced a new president for the University of North Dakota. After a session of deliberation, a few white puffs of smoke ascended from the Chancellor’s inner chamber and a herald of the board solemnly announced “Habemus Presidentum.” Andrew Armacost will become UND’s 13th president and the chant of “Armacost virumque cano” was heard across campus.

I sometimes imagine that the new president would come to me and ask my sage advice about how to thrive on our campus. Needless to say, this will not happen, in part, because few people on campus know or care what I think and, in part, because I’m an idiot. That being said, I still found it intriguing to speculate on what the president should know about UND’s campus before his term formally begins in June.

I would undoubtedly urge him to become familiar with the history of the state and the university. Read Elwyn Robinson’s magisterial history of the state of North Dakota, and Kim Porter’s recent update. Read Louis Geiger’s institutional history of the University of North Dakota published in 1958. Read (if I may be so bold) my series of blog posts on the clash between Orin G. Libby and Thomas Kane, the 5th president of UND. Read Robinson’s article on UND’s 7th president, George Starcher and Starcher’s musings on the future of the university from North Dakota Quarterly in 1956. Read Dan Rice’s history of the Clifford Years at UND. Read David Haeselin’s edited volume on 1997 Red River flood and its impact on the community.

These books will give our new president a basic understanding of the history of the university and the state which will put him at an advantage of over many less informed members of the faculty and the community who will nevertheless dredge up some half-remembered historical precedent to justify their feeling of outrage and entitlement. At the same time, these works will give Armacost a good sense for the community’s historical imaginary. Robinson’s memorable “Themes of North Dakota History” continue to be evoked in the public media and used to justify all kinds of political and institutional positions. The high esteem that many hold for Tom Clifford not only explains why he is the only UND president to have a book length treatment of his term, but also why funding has been set aside for a monumental chryselephantine statue in his honor that always rotates to face the sun.

The most challenging aspect of understanding the history of the university is that so far, no one has taken on the challenge of writing a history of the “Three K Era: Kupchella, Kelley, and Kennedy” on our campus. I have to admit that I’m pretty tempted. 

It’s interesting to trace a trajectory from Starcher, who I see as responsible for creating the institutional structure, expectations, and character of the University of North Dakota throughout the late-20th century and Kelley and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy who worked to transform the institution into its 21st century form. I could imagine a little volume that focuses on a series of significant events and structural changes.

1. High Water Mark for the University. There’s little doubt that UND experienced its high water mark in terms of enrollments during Robert Kelley’s presidency and tuition dollars and stable state appropriations allowed the university to grow and start to anticipate changes to higher education taking place around the U.S. The relatively insulation of North Dakota and UND from the “Great Recession” may have created a false sense of calm on campus and the Bakken Oil boom encouraged faculty and administrators to think big.

2. Research. While Starcher should perhaps be credited with imagining UND as a research university, under Kelley and against the backdrop of Bakken boom, it seems like UND started to believe that it could achieve a R1 Carnegie classification. While the rhetoric of this being an aspirational goal for campus certainly accelerated under Kennedy’s presidency, the investment in the Medical School (including its new building) and in STEM fields crucial to generating the kind of grant funded research necessary advance UND through the Carnegie ranks.

3. The Kupchella Faculty. When I first arrived on campus, faculty hired under Tom Clifford and Kendall Baker held many of the informal leadership positions on campus. In many ways, they represented institutional memory and set the expectations for both faculty and campus life more broadly. They also set the terms of campus debates. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the Kupchella faculty will emerge as senior figures on campus. This is all the more significant because of the declining number of tenure track hires in the later years of Kelley’s and Kennedy’s presidency. In other words, the Kupchella faculty may well represent the last group of tenured faculty on campus.

4. The Arrival of Austerity. Part of the challenge of writing about Kelley, in particular, is that the last years of his presidency were overshadowed by a series of serious budget cuts which began in 2016. While much of the hard, bloody work of cutting the budget took place during Ed Schafer’s term as acting president in 2016 and under Mark Kennedy, the cuts themselves served as a referendum on Kelley’s vision of the university. Efforts in 2014 to implement a prioritization program and a strategic planning initiative that would create a sense of a direction for the campus gave way to across the board cuts to both academic and support divisions. The emergence of an incentive based model for funding seemingly indicated the planning and prioritization might best be left to “a market” defined by student enrollments, faculty research, and a certain amount of administrative vision. It goes without saying that the confusing set of statements made both through policy and decisions particularly under Kennedy’s presidency shook the campus to its core. Some of this must reflect on the indecisiveness of Kelley’s final years at UND as well as the hamfisted nature of Kennedy’s public statements.

5. Logos, Marketing, and Sports. For many alumni and community members, the most significant event in the institution’s history was the retirement of the Fighting Sioux mascot in 2012 and the rebranding of UND Athletics as the Fighting Hawks in 2015 both alienated a certain number of UND supporters and inspired a new wave of campus marketing looking to take the introduction of the new logo as a chance to begin a comprehensive rebrand of the tired campus graphic identity. 

The new logo was probably less important, historically, then the move in 2008 to Division 1 in all sports. This led to both upgrades to UND facilities (including the opening of the Betty Engelstad Center in 2008) and the UND Athletics High Performance center in 2017. The canceling of baseball, swimming, and, more controversially, women’s hockey in 2016 revealed that the move the Division 1 athletics was not without casualties.     

6. Campus Construction. The presidencies of the 3 Ks has certainly shaped UND’s campus in fundamental ways. The opening of the Ralph Engelstad arena in 2001, Clifford Hall and various structures on the western edge of campus, and major upgrades to the Law School, the College of Education, the Medical School and the College of Engineering and Mines reshaped many parts of campus. The new building for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation and new dormitories have likewise suggested a new, more contemporary design language on campus. Today, major expansions to the College of Business and Public Affairs, a new Student Union buildings, and a renovated library continue the work to bring campus up to standards. This is all driven by a new campus plan and, sadly, the removal of several of the early 20th century buildings on campus. 

7. Student Life. This is an area where my understanding of what goes on across campus falls the most short. I recognize that important social events – like riotous Springfest – have been suppressed by the city and the UND administration. I also know that there have been efforts to cultivate a greater sense of school spirit over the last five years, but I’m not sure how successful this work has been. The influence of Greek life, the changing landscape of student housing, and the smaller, but generally better prepared student body would form key parts to any narrative on the last 20 years of UND history.

8. Digital Futures. Finally, over the last 15 years, the prospects of a more digitally savvy, more online, and more innovative campus have lingered in the air and taken various administrative forms. This represents both an effort of UND to develop new revenue streams (with new, often private partners) and to reach students raised as “digital natives.” I suspect that this will have a major impact on the university of the future. 

In any event, I’m unlikely to find the time, funding, or energy to write this volume, but it is fun to imagine and it seems like naming of a new president offers an opportune time to reflect in a historically informed way. At the same time, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance in scholarship on higher education and this would form a useful backdrop to any recent history of an institution. I might even imagine a book like this generating a little buzz on campus and in the community particularly if I started it with a series of public fora and conversations designed to understand what the larger community saw as key moments over the last 30 years. More than that, this would be fun. 

Sneak Peek: Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays

Next week, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is really excited to publish Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays.

As a bit of an appetizer, we’re making the introduction to the book available this morning as a download.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

If you want to read more about this book, check out Quinn Dombrowski’s Review on the Stanford Digital Humanities blog.

“I intend to keep a copy on my office bookshelf, and a second under my desk, in order to promptly replace the bookshelf copy when it’s been given away to a grad student, staff, or faculty colleague who happens to come by. If you’re a digital humanities “veteran”, you’ll laugh and cry and shudder alongside Graham’s tales of failure. If you’re a grad student or newer to digital humanities, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays provides a rare, honest, inside look into many facets of doing digital humanities. … There is much more work that needs to be done, on many fronts, to encourage, support, and reduce the personal risk associated with thoughtful analyses of failure, for everyone […] Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is one step towards that better future.”

If this sounds interesting to you, go and download the introduction to the book now!

Generous Thinking

This weekend, I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Johns Hopkins 2019). The book calls for scholars to think more generously as individuals, as a community, with the public, and through our institutions. The first pages of the book spoke immediately to me (and some of my growing concerns about how I act as a scholar in the 21st century). Fitzpatrick describes a seminar where a group of graduate students were asked what they thought about a text. The class responded by a period of boisterous critique and criticism. Alarmed, perhaps, at the class’s eagerness to tear the text apart, she stopped the conversation by asking the students, instead, to articulate the author’s argument. There was silence.

Anyone who has taught graduate seminars (or, indeed, participated in them) recognizes these moments and this mildly Socratic process. The assumption that almost any article or book that we read in seminar is flawed, outdated, or problematic encourages a kind of hair trigger response to any perceived shortcoming in a publication. This behavior allows us to show off our critical chops and finding weakness in even the most carefully argued texts, indulges the modern love of irony (this article may see brilliant and perfect, but BEHOLD!), and conditions the kind of hyper-critical attitudes that have created such beloved characters as “Reviewer #2” and infused scholarly conversations with a kind of pugilistic (or perhaps more charitably “agonistic”) approach to knowledge making.

To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of this tendency. In fact, my graduate seminars often centered more around tearing each other’s work down to the foundational assumptions than offering constructive critique. I’m still working on finding a more constructive, collaborative, and collegial professional voice particularly as a peer reviewer

Part of the issue, as Fitzpatrick notes, is the idea that competition provides a key way in the establishing of professional truth and academic expertise. The connections between having the ability to discern or establish truth and professional status as an expert starts in graduate school, continues on the job market, is central to winning competitive grants, gaining advancement and attaining recognition. In other words, the academic world encourages a view of truth and status that is dependent — to a very real extent— on other people being wrong as much as someone being right. 

This way of thinking has often created barriers between our professional discourse and the general public. The technical character of academic language which so often appears as jargon to the uninitiated has served as a way to distinguish the precision and accuracy of truth claims, to limit our audience, and to fend off challenges from less proficient scholars. More than that, it has encouraged academics to see public outreach not as creative work, knowledge making, or truth building, but as a lesser form of intellectual labor. While I do feel that the burden of outreach falls unevenly on scholars in the humanities (and some of this is tied to a deep skepticism that the truths produced in the humanities establish real expertise), Fitzpatrick does demonstrate the clear link between how we work as scholars and our ability (and willingness and attitudes toward) engaging with a wider public.

I was particularly taken by Fitzpatrick’s careful consideration of the role of empathy and, more broadly, care, in our work as scholars, readers, and writers. Avoiding the seemingly ubiquitous calls for a kind of banal (and frankly unproductive, mostly condescending, and often colonialist) empathy, Fitzpatrick encouraged scholars to recognize that empathy is a process, a struggle, and always necessarily incomplete. The slow, painful, and always incomplete work of empathizing forms the basis for new forms of compassion and scholarly care. This undermines Ricoeur’s famous “hermeneutics of suspicion” both in how we read texts, but also in how we engage with our larger community. We suspend our overdeveloped sense of modern irony and attempt to understand others for who they are rather than to suss out what they’re hiding.    

As importantly, she demonstrates that this does not involve a kind of facile naïveté or the an overdetermined sense of the authenticity of “the other.” Nor does it require us to suspend our critical skills or rationalize injustice. It does, however, require us to listen rather than just to hear. By listening, we demonstrate that we care and instead of rushing to undermine or counter views that we assume to be different from our own, we create a space for genuine communication, reflection, and dialogue. This seems like good advice to me.

But this isn’t just a book telling us how to use our academic training to create dialogue, expand understanding, and make room for other voices. Fitzpatrick also urges us to turn this kind of collaborative, caring, and generous spirit on ourselves and academic institutions. The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “the university and the public good,” and she argues that by embracing more generous thinking as individuals we can push our institutions to return to their mission of providing the public good. If the historical practices of academic competition have merged with capitalist and market ideologies that see truth and knowledge making as a zero sum game with winners and loser both on the epistemological and professional level, a more generous and empathetic approach might shift the center of scholarly work from the individual to the collective and the community. As a result, attention to the health of the larger community both within and outside the academy, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of care creates new spaces for new and good.     

Applying these perspectives on the public good requires that we work to change our institutions as well as our disciplinary and individual practices. By recognizing the university and our scholarly work as part of a larger public and its myriad and variously define communities, we push back against the prevailing view of higher education as an individual good and begin to construct arguments and establish practices that demonstrate how higher education is public work that leads to public good. This is particularly important in an era where funding to higher education is increasingly articulated by unsympathetic legislatures as a luxury or as a subsidy directed to support the personal advancement of a small percentage of the population (i.e. faculty and students).

Fitzpatrick notes that it is difficult to map out in concrete terms the changes necessarily to transform institutions, particularly at the scale of higher education in the U.S. This doesn’t really detract from the impact of the book, however. It’s clear enough that change has to happen at the level of the individual who, if we buy Fitzpatrick’s argument, can make a difference by modeling generosity in their personal practices and encouraging others to think generously as well. 

Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.    

Labor and Contradiction in Graduate Education

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a good bit about both academic labor and graduate education. Some of this has been prompted by our own efforts to revise our graduate program over the year or so and my role as our department’s director of graduate studies. Some of this has come from my time on the University of North Dakota’s graduate committee. And some of it, as always, has come from conversations across social media platforms and over email with friends and peers.

Finally, my graduate advisor, Tim Gregory, retired this last year and last weekend there was a nice event held in his honor at Ohio State. I’ve begun to wonder how his style of graduate education and professionalism would hold up in the modern university. Tim personified the “always on” graduate advisor and archaeological fieldwork together for close to a decade complicated the traditional advisor-student relationship. On the whole, he was a good advisor and mentor who not only gave me opportunities, but also held me accountable. His style was idiosyncratic, but the outcomes of his work and priorities were not. He wanted his students to be successful.

I’ve started to think more and more about how changes in the academic economy over time, but particularly in the last 15 years, has exposed contradictions within graduate education in the humanities. The biggest reality facing our students and our curriculum is that there are far fewer traditional tenure-track academic jobs these days particularly in history. In the place of highly stable, tenure-track positions, higher education has witnessed the rapid growth of contingent faculty labor, and the disparity between the traditional stability, reasonable pay, and benefits of tenure track positions and the precarity of contingent faculty who often string together a series or one or two class contracts to make a living, typically without benefits or year-to-year stability, has thrown into high relief the potential for exploitation in the academic market. This has prompted more than simply criticisms of the use of contingent positions within academic market, but also supported renewed scrutiny of labor practices among graduate students and the tenure track.

Greater attention to labor in academia has also contributed to ongoing efforts to advance the larger professionalization project in the humanities. In particular, these efforts have sought to protect contingent faculty, early career scholars, and graduate students from the power imbalances that characterize their relationship with tenured faculty. The professionalization process has also sought to identify and root out long-standing discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. These are good and important processes that will create a better and ideally fairer academic culture.

They have also produced some intriguing tensions in conventional academic rhetoric and practices that have troubled me as we’ve sought to revise our curriculum and as I have reflected on my own trajectory through academic life.

In history, we often say with all good intentions that we learn as much from our students as they learn from us. I would contend that this is even more true in graduate level courses. In fact, the seminar, which remains the basic form of graduate level instruction in the humanities, embodies this maxim by encouraging faculty and students to engage with sources together. Recent efforts to encourage faculty-student research draws on the spirit of the seminar and recognizes that by working alongside one another both the student and the faculty mentor will learn from each other and advance knowledge. In theory, this is all good and loosely parallels my experience working with graduate students both in the classroom and in the field.

At the same time, the idea that faculty can learn and benefit from work with students reveals how deeply we have internalized exploitative practices in higher education. The difference, of course, between a faculty member learning something from a graduate student and a graduate student learning something from faculty is that faculty can monetize their learning by publishing articles or even books which are, in turn, rewarded by their institutions. Of course, ethical faculty will share credit with their students depending on their contribution. In some cases it is appropriate to co-author a paper and, in others, it may be enough simply to recognize their contribution in an acknowledgements. Either way, there remains a significant difference between how the two parties can monetize this work and this knowledge.

In the old days, we might defend the seminar by saying that we’re preparing students for professional positions in academia where they would be free to monetize the knowledge that we co-created in seminar to their benefit.  With fewer faculty positions available and even fewer tenure-track positions that allow scholars to monetize their research, the future promise of the rewards of a student’s intellectual labor seems less likely.

I’m not proposing that we discard the seminar or that learning for the sake of learning isn’t a noble and to some extent, inevitable product of graduate education. What I’m trying to say is that the current labor situation in academia recasts in a new, and not entirely flattering light, the commonplace saying that both faculty and students learn in seminar. Even if all learning is equal, the opportunity to monetize this learning is not.

The vagaries of the current job market do more than complicate our rhetoric, however. Most graduate faculty in the humanities would claim that our primary responsibility is to prepare our students for the academic job market. This involves all manner of academic, intellectual, practical, and professional mentoring. It presupposes not only the existence of a market, but that we understand how it works. In general, there is an assumption that while the market it competitive, professionalization processes have ensured that the market is increasingly fair. The best students still have a chance to get good jobs.

I’m skeptical of this logic. As the market has contracted, the potential for a good student to get a good job has become increasingly random. The calls for graduate programs also to prepare our students for any number of “alt-ac” jobs is an obvious response to the scarcity of academic jobs and the vagaries of the market. Of course, the argument that preparing our students for alt-ac jobs itself is predicated on the murky logic that existing graduate programs both impart transferable skills that make PhDs appealing for a wide range of jobs, while at the same time programs could offer more opportunities for students looking to prepare for jobs outside the academic job market. Encouraging a history student to take a few GIS classes that might complement their existing coursework is one thing. Nudging a student toward a class in marketing or graphic design is another. It remains hard to discern how far preparing for an alt-ac career might compromise the very curriculum that made graduate students appealing candidates for non-academic positions from the start.

More than that, the position of faculty as successful models for an academic career is part of the graduate education process. Successful faculty attract students who want to study both with these individuals as experts, but also want to understand how to achieve a similar success. Part of this is the long-tail of older views of academic work that modeled graduate education on craft production with graduate faculty represented “masters” and graduate students “apprentices.” While this model has happily fallen to the side in the name of more professional views of faculty-student relationship, the disjunction between our experiences as faculty on the job market and our ability to prepare our students has caused increasing anxiety.

On the one hand, our position as tenured faculty represents extraordinary privilege. It is grounded in a moment of time in higher education where jobs existed and, at least in our idealized narrative, those who prepared best for those jobs could earn them. Even the most optimistic observer of the modern academic job market cannot make the same argument. This exacerbates a tension between the contemporary situation and our claims as faculty both to our positions in the academy and to our ability to prepare students for professional success. In other words, the power differential between faculty and graduate students is not only based on differences in our accomplishments as professionals, but also on a certain incommensurability of experiences.

Acknowledging this incommensurability reveals profound difficulties in creating a consistent perspective on academic labor. While it remains essential that tenured faculty advocate for change both at our institutions and in our fields, we also have to come to accept that our past experiences are unlikely – for now – to reflect those of our students and many of our peers. This isn’t to say that many of us didn’t work hard to get to where we are and that we haven’t overcome obstacles and triumphed on our pursuits through the sheer power of our will.

Instead, our awareness of our privileged place in the history of the academy should complicate any claims that the earned character of our positions grant us authority and instead push us to accept that our view of academia is one informed by our own remarkable situation. How this shapes our demands to be compensated for our labor (and, by extension, our privilege) will vary depending on the circumstances and the larger goal of our demands. For now, there will always be a tension, at least to my mind, between our right to earn a living, our responsibility to our students, colleagues, institutions and fields, and the incommensurability between our experiences and those of many of our peers.

Redefining Academic Work and Academic Knowledge

Yesterday Sarah Bond and Kevin Gannon wrote a reply to a widely circulated piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Manya Whitaker. Whitaker’s piece suggested that early career scholars should avoid writing for public audiences because these types of publications tend not to chart a clear path to tenure. This is undoubtedly true, particularly at mid- and higher- tier research institutions that continue to see conventional peer review as the gold standard for evaluating faculty development. I can say this with a bit of confidence because my university (and the universities where many of my friends and colleagues work) fits into this category. 

Bond and Gannon argue, as you might expect if you’re familiar with their work, that programs should not only support public outreach, but it should be encouraged early in a scholar’s career and baked into evaluation rubrics perhaps using the well-known Boyer Model for assessing scholarly work. The Boyer Model recognizes a wider range of scholarly outputs as valuable and defines them around four categories: discovery, integration, application, and teaching and argues that this expanded definition of scholarly work provides a more dynamic and diverse foundation for rewarding faculty work. The Boyer Model celebrates its 30th birthday next year and despite its popularity as an idea and a talking point, it is still a rather marginal model for evaluating scholarly work.  

The reasons for this, as Bond and Gannon recognize, is that the professionalization projects particularly in the humanities has been closely tied to peer reviewed, scholarly, publishing. Some of this dates to the late 19th century and the rise of the PhD as a professional research degree grounded first in preparation of a dissertation and then in the rise of the peer reviewed journal and monograph. Professional standards followed the rise of the university in the U.S. and abroad and the growing ability for professional researchers to monetize their work as faculty. As academia diversified, particularly after the WW2, efforts to evaluate scholarly accomplishments remained in lockstep with the changing professionalization project. Double blind peer review, in particular, became a key approach to undermining long-standing racial, gender, and institutional biases and to create, at least in theory, a more level playing field grounded in the merits of work.

In contrast, public scholarship, particularly in the humanities, became associated with older forms of scholarship rooted in elite or even aristocratic values (consider, for example, George Bancroft’s History of the United States). In fact, the tension between professional values and public outreach led to the famous turn of the century split in the American Historical Association, where scholars engaged more deeply in the public project found themselves marginalized for the professional discipline.

Times have changed, of course, but the structure of academia has persisted and public oriented scholarship has often been seen as bonus work or less significant than scholarship oriented toward a more professional audience. Today, this trajectory has encountered challenges from within academia, from the general public who have embraced certain strains of anti-intellectualism, and from the increasingly populist political leaders who have sought cut funding to higher education on the grounds that its out of touch with the general public. As Bonds and Gannon note, for many smaller, regional, teaching-oriented, and tuition-dependent small liberal arts colleges, promoting public outreach may necessary to stave off a looming demographic and economic crisis. There is a real urgency today in efforts to convince a public regularly stoked by anti-intellectualism and a kind of virulent populism that higher education especially in the humanities has value.

At the same time, establishing authority in the public sphere s a difficult task. It involves, on the one hand, establishing claims to expertise and these claims remain grounded in the traditional academic discourse. Traditional, peer-reviewed academic work is intensive, time consuming, and process driven, and it often leaves little time for more public oriented scholarship that nevertheless will leverage a scholar’s status as a professional expert.    

More than this, evaluating the quality, importance, and impact of public oriented scholarship remains a challenge that may cut to the core of the larger academic project. The structures of peer review, academic publication, and the larger scholarly process formed the key element to a professionalization process that is widely seen as ongoing.

Public scholarship, in the other hand, remains more murky not only in how it should be evaluated, but also in relation to the structure through which recognizable outreach can and should occur. In theory, any scholar can prepare an article for peer review publication provided it meets the recognized professional standards of a particular journal or publisher. Getting a work of public scholarship to an audience is often a far more complicated and variable process. On the one hand, you could submit it to one of the hundreds of little magazines that publish non-fiction and essays. These range from Harper’s to smaller publications like North Dakota Quarterly (which is accepting submissions for non-fiction for two more weeks!) or my personal favorite N+1. Many of these publications read professionally, but few have the same “double blind” procedures as academic publications. They also reflect a wide range of audiences that may not entirely be clear for an academic who is not already an avid reader of these little magazines. 

Alternately, you might get lucky and have the connections necessary to publish from time to time in places like the Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Atlantic, or any other more mainstream publications that feature academic work. The pathways to these opportunities, however, tend to be more about invitations, connections, and contacts (if not pure chance) and less professionally transparent. Writing for the wider public often introduces the vagaries of the commercial market – page views, bounce rates, marketing plans, and the like – to academic work and shape how scholar can connect to an audience. In many cases, commercial pressures, for example, exert a greater influence on a work intended for public consumption than an academic project. This isn’t to suggest that these works are somehow compromised by this, but calls for outreach and public scholarship aren’t just about making what we already do more visible and accessible, but are also about doing more accessible scholarship. 

Issues of audience and activism also play a role in how we understand the place of public scholarship in academic career advancement. There’s a tendency to see the public as somehow fundamentally different from an academic audience. There might be less of a difference between a targeted “public audience” and a targeted professional one in terms of numbers and even impact. We tend to think of specialized work primarily of interest to other scholars, but there are any number of activist communities who appreciate more accessible scholarly work that supports their missions. This work overlaps between academic and public audiences because scholar activists tend to move easily between groups as well. Such ambiguities between the role of scholar and the public are not fatal to any effort to evaluate the work of public oriented scholars, but demonstrate that these categories are relatively loosely defined. 

Finally, there is the sticky issue of identity and the public. Authority and expertise are undoubtedly performative. Looking, speaking, and acting the part of the expert goes a long way to establishing public trust. At the same time, many academics would eschew outward expressions of expertise and the conventionalizing elements that the public associates with academic knowledge. We tend to equivocate and avoid both dogma and doctrine in our approach to defining what we know. On a personal level, I can say that I’m a far LESS confident scholar now than I was 15 years ago when I started at my job. It’s not just that academia has beaten me down, but also that I recognize that academia is a process and only chumps make statements unbound by disclaimers. The tension between academic knowledge and public expectations, of course, can be productive and serve to shift public perceptions of professional scholars, but, at the same time, there continues to be no lack of tweed-clad, middle-aged, white-guy professors pontificating on the hourly documentaries that appear on television (for example). Balancing between public expectations and the academic realities of scholarly appearance and behavior without compromising the integrity of the academic undertaking is something that public oriented scholars understand, but it’s not easy or simple to execute in practice. 

These comments are not meant in any way to undermine or even challenge Bond and Gannon’s piece. It’s important and good because it implies these more complicated moves that may well reshape academic culture in the coming decades. This isn’t about recognizing public scholarship, but about creating an intellectual space for public scholarship to develop as part of the larger professionalizing trajectory of contemporary higher education.  

My University is Dying

This past week my colleague and friend Sheila Liming published an intriguing column in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “My University is Dying.” The piece is provocative. It speaks directly to her experience as the only candidate for tenure in our college of over 200 faculty members this year. The article is intensely genuine.

I thought I write a little response to it, not because I think it’s lacking or inadequate in any way, but as a gesture of support for my courageous colleague. I want to engage it.

There is one thing that I tend to think about when I think about “austerity.” It has little to do with the lack of resources or even budget cuts. I actually don’t think much about the shrinking number of faculty on campus (although I do worry about our increasing dependence on adjunct, contract, and visiting faculty). I don’t even really worry about its impact on my own commitments – like North Dakota Quarterly – although I am deeply saddened that budget cuts have caused individuals to lose their jobs (including my wife).  At a place like UND, the writing is more or less on the walls. The number of high school and middle school students in our traditional catchment area is declining and the larger national trend is similar. We will be a smaller campus with fewer students, staff, and faculty in the future. It’s also likely that our budget will be relatively smaller and our mission will probably change. I can be optimistic and imagine that funding will remain stable, though, and a smaller campus can actually provide a higher quality educational experience (and even more interesting and stimulating campus culture for faculty). 

What bothers me the most is that austerity on UND’s campus is not just economic, it’s ideological. It is grounded in four interrelated policy positions among legislators not just in the North Dakota or the U.S., but globally: (1) a distaste for channeling funds from the market into public institutions, (2) a belief that public institutions are inherently inefficient, (3) a pathway to greater efficiency at public institutions (and hence less funding) is by simulating competition, and (4) the primary goal of public institutions is the support the market. On our campus, budget cuts occurred at the same time that a failed prioritization project took place, we installed a new system for allocating resources on campus, and a new crop of administrators arrived including two successive presidents from the business world.

In other words, austerity was not just fewer resources and colleagues, but also a major shift in campus culture. A smaller university isn’t a bad thing and while transitions are never easy, we can accept that change is inevitable. 

The problem with austerity is not simply the decrease in funding or smaller faculty, but the concomitant expectation that we will have to compete with other divisions on campus for students, for faculty lines, and for resources moving forward through incentivized resource allocation. This has turned trusted colleagues and collaborators into potential rivals. Moreover, the flaws in the system of resource allocation has set into high relief the way in which the execution of austerity practices on campus is biased against the arts and humanities. 

In the abstract, a system where resources flowed to divisions on campus most in need makes sense. In fact, a system that rewards a certain efficiency in practice seems wise in any institution entrusted with public resources. Unfortunately, this is not really what happens. The humanities and the arts, for example, have suffered not because they’re inefficient in their practices, but because we appear to be less useful than our colleagues in the applied sciences and professional fields. As a result, the administration has its thumb on the scale established by incentivized resource allocation and this benefits some programs more than others. A very efficient program whose faculty teach many students might not be allowed to hire more faculty not because their program didn’t follow incentivized practices, but because incentivized practices fit awkwardly with the larger rhetoric and ideology of austerity which sees public institutions as existing solely to support the market. If a field does not clearly support the state’s economy – narrowly defined as the demands of employers in the immediate present – then the administration subverts the incentivized resource allocation process. In some cases this is random, but in most cases this follows loosely a series of documents that range from the relatively benign “Strategic Plan” to the vaguely authoritarian “Grand Challenges.” 

In other words, austerity on our campus isn’t just about declining resources, it’s about the implementation of a rigged game.

I’m not naive, of course, and I recognize that higher education has always been and continues to be rigged (after all, I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member, if I could ever do anything to deserve the position that I have, I probably wouldn’t survive the ordeal). At the same time, what makes the latest round of austerity on UND’s campus so painful is that the rhetoric of the administration promotes the response to the current funding challenge as both fair within an incentivized resource allocation scheme and transparent. They promote this seemingly salutary situation as a way to tell us that “we’re all in this together.” In fact, it’s neither fair nor transparent and we’re not in this together.

This may be better for the university in the long run. It’s too early and too difficult to predict. It is not better for the university at present. What Sheila describes in her column is the product of austerity both as an ideology, but also as our campus has responded to it. 

(I’ve written more about this general state of affairs in an article that I published here in a volume of North Dakota Quarterly that Sheila helped to edit!)

Audience, Expertise, and Professional Development: Notes from the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I trekked northward to Brandon, Manitoba to participate in a panel on public history at the Northern Great Plains History conference. The drive across the Manitoba prairie was during harvest was scenic, the panel was well-attended, and the audience and fellow historians offered some thought-provoking questions that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days.

In truth, each of these issues probably deserves its own blog post, but since I’m already a bit overstimulated this week, I’ll just set out three of the main themes that intrigued me the most. The panel itself was a round table and rather than consisting of individual papers, participants gave short introductions to their work and its key themes and the rest developed through conversation with the audience. 

1. Audience and Activism. Nikki Berg Burin framed her brief remarks around the idea of audience for work in activist, public history. Berg Burin is involved in the anti-human trafficking and anti-slavery movement and has a long simmering project designed to raise awareness and encourage activism around trafficking in North Dakota. At first, she explain, the idea was to produce a zine-like publication targeted to a wide audience through North Dakota libraries. As this idea developed, however, she began to think that a publication targeted toward groups already interested in related issues might be a more useful way to expand awareness and encourage a more nuanced and sophisticated debate surrounding these pressing issues.

This got me thinking about how the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota understands  audiences for its work. What distinguishes us from conventional academic publishing is that we do very little with academic libraries, which historically provide the largest audience for academic books and generally – at least in the fields of history and archaeology – purchase close to half of the print run of any conventional academic publication. Because we don’t market our books too academic libraries, they tend to get into the hands of individual readers, primarily as downloads, but also as individual purchases via Amazon.  

How these readers find out about Digital Press books is largely through social media and the web rather than conventional catalogues or advertising. This means that most work at our press already has a target audience both developed and made manifest in social media. This isn’t to suggest that conventional publishers don’t also leverage social media and the web to promote and disseminate their work, but rather to suggest that marketing a scholar’s book is often part of the added value associated with conventional publishing. While we all indicate in our proposals (and in some cases follow-up questionnaires) the audience for our works when dealing with conventional publishers, I’ve never encountered a meaningful conversation with a publisher concerning how the relationship between our intended audience, the arguments that we make, and the marketing strategy that we develop to get our book to readers.

This isn’t to say that a press like the Digital Press always gets this right, but Nikki Berg Burin’s remarks this weekend emphasized to me that collaborative publishing models might allow us to develop in more meaningful ways how we understand the relationship between the books that we publish and the audiences that we want to reach and activate.

2. Expertise. During the conversation this past week, we were asked how we asserted our expertise as public facing scholars when dealing with an audience who has become increasingly skeptical of (if not hostile to) the value of expertise and experts in contemporary political and social life.

I have lots of ideas (some good and some not so great) about this, but I suspect that most skepticism toward expertise is part of the long tail of anti-intellectualism in American life and this, in turn, is a product of our own peculiar view of democracy and our growing awareness the the academic-military-industrial complex has been allowed to function unchecked for most of the preceding century with seemingly disastrous results. Those of us in the humanities have also become aware of how claims of expertise (thanks, Foucault, Said, and others!) have served to reinforce social divisions in our society, advance colonial agendas, and to assert political power.

Our scholarship often takes aim at the previous generation of experts in the name of liberation while compromising our own claims to a similar status. Our practical experience as academics, however, constantly shows how our eagerness to defend our status as experts runs belies the superficial character of our own knowledge. Many of us recognize that expertise is less tied to a particular skills, sensitivities, erudition, and accomplishments and more bound up in performative gestures informed as much by gender, race, status, position, and other social and institutional constructs as any measurable degree of academic or professional attainment.

To be blunt: It’s much easier for a white male at Harvard to be an expert than for an African American female from an HBCU. This has nothing to do with our abilities or accomplishments and everything to do with race and gender.

In fact, a good bit of the professionalization process in graduate school revolves around teaching our students how to act like experts. This means showing them how to write the “I got the goods” footnote, reinforcing the methodological, historiographical, and practical foundations of a common disciplinary knowledge, demonstrating the professional reciprocity that supports mutual recognition of academic authority (game recognizing game), and explaining to them that giving a talk at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as a graduate student with braids may seem awesome, but undermines your cause.

These very same processes, of course, also produce – seemingly by design – the feeling of “impostor syndrome” that wrack most faculty throughout their careers. Indeed, feeling like an impostor is often seen as a crisis of confidence to be mitigated or a “syndrome” that must be treated or suppressed. I tend to see it as the festering of a persistent awareness that academic expertise is not what it seems. The presence of impostors among us is a reminder: expertise is not the unproblematic and even virtuous product of our training and the meritocracy, but a crass assertion of power. The more virtuous among us hope that our assertion of expertise will produce a better world, but for most of us, it also leaves behind the nagging sense that while we were speaking, we weren’t listening, understanding, or collaborating.

We’re left to wonder whether there really is a baby in the bath water. 

3. Professional Recognition and Public Humanities. We had a few questions about how various departments (and our fields in general) recognized our work as public facing scholars. This seemingly anticipated a much tweeted about article from this weekend’s Chronicle of Higher Education that worried that many pre-tenure faculty were not being advised to follow a professional path that leads to tenure. In the context of this article and conversations in our panel, this means writing peer-reviewed, specialist publication for an academic audience rather than outreach and other less conventional practices. 

Considering the theme of the panel, it was easy to juxtapose specialist knowledge produced through academic literature which gains purchase among professionals against public facing work which has a wider audience and ideally more social impact. This juxtaposition, as I’ve framed it here, is a bit lazy and unfair, of course, because most of us hope that our scholarly work can find a wider audience in some way and see outreach beyond academia as really the only criteria by which our work can and should be measured. At the same time, many departments have become dependent on acceptance of original, peer-reviewed scholarship at top-tier journals and presses as a reliable proxy for academic quality and significance. These publication, in turn, become the basis for tenure and promotion decisions.

In contrast, public history and public scholarship tends to exist a more murky space. Critics fret that public facing scholarship sometimes lack peer review. In some cases, useful public  scholarship eschews originality for more accessible synthetic statements. There’s a persistent suspicion that prolific public facing scholars often have distinctive skills that range from understanding the vagaries of public taste to the ability to write in an appealing and accessible way and even personal patronage networks that open-submission and peer-reviewed seek to ignore.

While these concerns are legitimate, they seem to be more on the surface these days because academia is changing. I’d argue that austerity has put particular pressure on the humanities to assert our value to a wider, public audience by reaching out to our communities and looking beyond our disciplinary and professional borders. At the same time, we’re being squeezed in what increasing feels like zero sum game out our institutions. We are expected not only to compete with our colleagues on a level playing field but also to compete across our institutions for access to resources and support. This exposes us to two pressures. On the one hand, public facing scholarship is a remarkably diverse and ranges from personal blogs to popular publications with massive circulations. In contrast to how most universities understand academic scholarship, it is very difficult to understand the impact and quality of public scholarship because these publications often lack both the imprimatur of peer review as well as the kind of quantitative impact factors that institutions are increasingly using to evaluate faculty performance across disciplines. In short, scholars who work in public humanities often are at a disadvantage on their campuses with those who invest in traditional scholarship because the metrics used to understand academic productivity tend to simplify academic output.  

This creates a curious and not entirely innocent paradox, as we’re being pushed to do more public facing scholarship and to justify our place on campus, our institutions are doubling down on practices that at best ignore and at worst devalue such work in the competition for increasingly scarce institutional resources. The practices of assessing impact factors, valuing peer review, and creating quantitative models for mapping productivity across campus are celebrated as efforts to level the playing field, to reinforce the meritocracy, and to protect public investment against deadwood faculty and programs who coast along protected by tenure. At the same time, these systems are profoundly biased against the kind of outward facing work that disciplines and professional organizations have encouraged us to value and pursue. 

This is a catch-22. If we pursue public facing work more vigorously, we might attract the appreciation of our communities and our professional organizations, but we also move outside of the system designed to measure and evaluation productivity. If we double down on professional and scholarly work that will be rewarded at our institutions, we often find ourselves writing specialized work for narrow professional audiences that gets criticized by the wider public and indulgent, irrelevant, navel-gazing. This, in turn, reinforced a view of the humanities as a luxury that should not be supported on the public dime.  

There is no simple solution for this outside large-scale disciplinary and institutional change. This is hard, slow work filled with the risk of unintentional consequences, but as the humanities enter a period of existential crisis, it certainly seems worth pursuing. 

Reading to Review

Over the last few years, I’ve experienced an enormous increase in the number of both book and article manuscripts that I’ve been asked to review. I’m not exactly sure why this is happening. I’m neither more qualified than I was a few years ago or more visible. It must just have to do with the cycles of the moon or something.

This is compounded, of course, with running The Digital Press and having the chance to read manuscripts multiple times as they develop toward a final version. I’ve also had the chance to coordinate peer reviews of these manuscript and have a front row seat when authors found the critiques of a reviewer to be less than constructive. (And, as of this year, I’m also the series editor for the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and I anticipate more of this kind of work.) 

In any event, one thing I have become more comfortable doing is trying to distance my own expectations from a manuscript. Some of these expectations are bound up in my disciplinary practice, in my training, and in the scholarship that I’ve read and appreciated over my career , and all this informs my idea of what constitutes quality or rigor. To be clear, I recognize that I can’t entirely shed my perspective on a piece when I review, but I do try to step back and understand what a manuscript is doing on its own terms. 

The point of all this is saying that the more I review, the more I get comfortable reviewing other people’s work and I feel like I’m getting more sympathetic toward an author’s goals (and less likely to be “Reviewer #2” or to critique a manuscript for not being what I would write about). I’ve even started to enjoy finding the unintentional in a manuscript and really enjoying the way in which authors ideas leave behind the little eddies in their stream of thought that have their own character, charm, and utility. After all, sometimes the most significant thing about a manuscript isn’t what it says or argues, but the other ideas or arguments that it makes possible.

I’ve been thinking of creating a little guide for reviewer for my press. I don’t want to presume anything about how other people review. I suspect that most people have their own jam when they sit down with a manuscript and that no one WANTS to be “Reviewer #2”, but also that reviews should help the author see their own argument in a different light and create a pathway toward a better final work. The goal of a reviewer, to my mind, is not to be a gate keeper, but to be a hidden collaborator who encourages an author to accentuate and develop the best parts of their manuscript and minimize oversights, flaws, or problems.