Degrowth and Archaeology

This week has been hectic, but I managed to find some time the read James Flexner’s recent article in Archaeological Dialogues 27 (2020) titled “Degrowth and a sustainable future for archaeology.” 

I have to admit when I first skimmed it, I was pretty skeptical that the degrowth movement had much to offer archaeology as a discipline. Degrowth, broadly speaking, calls for voluntary efforts to reduce productivity in an effort to produce a more humane and sustainable world. It sees capitalism’s constant need for growth as firing the ever increasing rise in consumerism which, in turn, demands more and more exploitative labor regimes and extractive practices, with their attendant damages, on a global scale. Flexner and others who champion degrowth advocate for practices that demonstrate that the situations brought about by capitalism are neither inevitable nor unavoidable. By emphasizing collective, convivial, and caring practices in the place of choices directed by capitalism and consumerism, the degrowth movement looks to model another kind of future. 

This is utopian, of course, but like most utopias, the ideas explored by advocates for degrowth are not entirely naive. In fact, Flexner’s piece is another in a recent surge of articles that critique (in their own ways) the character of labor practices both in academic and professional archaeology. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed  Allison Mickel’s new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021) which considers the colonial aspects of archaeological labor.  Mary Leighton has written about “performative informality” in archaeology which highlights how  certain informal practices — drinking, sexual liaisons, banter and bullying — within contemporary academic archaeology serve a gatekeeping function that excludes a wide range of individuals from professional advancement. Just this week, Barbara Voss has published her two part study of “cultures of harassment in archaeology.” I’ve not read these yet, but they’re atop my pile. You can check them out here and here. As someone who has spent the better part of 25 years doing archaeological field work each summer, I have yet to find any aspect of the recent critiques of archaeological practices as inaccurate or inconsistent with my experiences (and in some cases my own behavior over the years). I’d like to think that my work on slow archaeology contributes to this conversation as well. 

Flexner’s call for degrowth looks to the fundamental problems associated with work, and archaeology in particular, within a capitalist system. He notes the oft-critiqued relationship between CRM and Heritage management and development which has increasingly pushed archaeology into a supporting role for those who seek to commodify the past or eradicate it in the name of progress and profits. Academic archaeology is no more pure as the publish or perish world of the ersatz meritocracy masks vast inequalities in opportunity and obscures exploitative labor practices driven by an often desperate need to collect more data, do more work, and make more knowledge in order to achieve or maintain precarious professional status. Anyone who has worked in the field has heard stories of academic projects that engage in dangerous practices, that push volunteer workers and staff beyond the level of exhaustion by maintaining crazy work hours and expectations, and that use the specter of professional critique as a prod to always do more often at the expense of quality, the physical well-being of archaeologists, and personal relationships. Of course, not all projects are like this, and all projects (I’d contend) have their moments when fatigue, stress, and passion for the work blur our judgement. 

That said, it is easy enough to recognize in academic field archaeology a kind of Wild West of academic labor (which I’m sure is also common in lab sciences and other fields). In these situations, the pursuit of professional riches (usually metaphorically) promotes the breakdown of the kind of conviviality and care that might mitigate not only the exploitative labor regimes present in so much archaeological work, but also (and frankly) the erosion of human decency which these regimes tend to promote. My work on slow archaeology, whatever its flaws (and they are many), has suggested that the emphasis on efficiency in archaeological practices has reinforced the tendency of the discipline to think about field work as a kind of industrial production or even as logistical challenge. In some of these situations, the tendency to dehumanize workers is not bug, but a feature. Since academic archaeology lacks (even the faulty and porous) fail-safes that have developed to protect workers in professional archaeological practice, industrial production, and other forms of skilled and semi-skilled labor (e.g. unions or even OSHA, even as  professional ethical guidelines exist, there are rarely mechanisms to enforce them), there are few ways for volunteers, students, and other workers on academic projects to seek protection. (As a relevant aside, the stories of excavators digging in flip-flops or photos of diggers standing beneath massive unsupported baulks make my blood run cold.) 

Flexner’s article reminded me that the problems within archaeology are related to the problems of capitalism particularly when it intersects with academic practices that which blend, on the one hand, pressures to achieve (often moving) professional and disciplinary benchmarks and, on the other hand, environments where traditional hierarchies, remote locations, limited funds, and seasonal schedules make the enforcement safeguards difficult.  

So while I remain skeptical of degrowth as a “solution” to archaeological problems (and to be clear, Flexner is not naive), I think Flexner’s effort to show that many of archaeology’s problems stem from its deep engagement with capitalistic expectations of productivity are commendable. More than that, an awareness of the link between capitalism and the wide range of problems surrounding academic labor might offer ways to reform the discipline that strike to the root of these problems rather than simply trying to paper over the worst offenses with calls for increased professionalism, oversight, policies, and management. It might sound simplistic or silly, but Flexner and other degrowth advocates interest in de-emphasizing the status of “the project” (with attendant professionally defined goals) and considering more fully how the discipline benefits the individual participants and broader social goals might offer a more productive, if challenging route to reform.   

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

Three Things Thursday: Medieval Pottery, Weird Reviews, and a New Book

It’s the last Thursday of the semester and I feel like I’m at the point where I’m almost done, but there’s also so much left to do! This is exhausting and exhilarating in turn and also vaguely distracting as I try to balance between starting something new and wrapping up the odds and ends from the semester. New things always sound more fun, but there’s nothing more satisfying than checking something off my to-do list.

All this is to say that today is a three things Thursday:

Thing the First

If you have time this weekend, do read “Thebes at the Time of the Catalans: A Deposit between the Ismenion Hill and the Elektra Gate” by Fotini Kondyli and colleagues in the latest issue of Hesperia (89.4 (2020) for those of you with a score card!). It’s a fantastic study of 13th and 14th century (AD!) pottery for Thebes. 

Thebes is one of those places that folks interested in Medieval Greece think about more than we know about. It was clearly a major center in the Middle Byzantine and Frankish period and we understand its place in the political and to the economic history of the region (via the earlier Cadaster of Thebes, various Medieval towers, as well as other sources). At the same time, it seems like we knew a good bit less about the everyday material culture of the city especially when compared to Corinth or Athens.

Kondyli’s article is a good step toward rectifying this. Her study (with her colleagues) focused on a stratified deposit of pottery from a bothros that appears to represent daily life in the city. As such, the published material featured more than just the usually “fancy wares” (i.e. glazed fine table wares) and included a substantial selection of cooking pots and other household coarse wares (jugs, table amphora et c.). 

The meticulous typological study of the ceramics complements a more preliminary study of their fabrics based on petrography. This allowed the authors to begin to sort local wares produced around Thebes from imports from outside the region. Among the more interesting revelations is that despite the political tensions between Catalan Thebes and its Venetian rival on Euboea (Negroponte), goods continued to move between those regions as well as between Thebes and Athens which were both under Catalan control for most of the 14th century.

Needless to say, this kind of detailed and careful work has significant implications for our understanding of the Medieval economy of Greece more broadly. It has particular significance for intensive pedestrian survey where Medieval coarse ware often goes unrecognized even by experienced ceramicists. Consequently, absence of carefully dated Medieval coarse ware typologies has led to the Medieval landscape of Greece being comparatively under represented in survey analysis, and this has tended to support a view that post-Classical Greece, particularly during the Frankish period, endured a period of economic, political, and cultural decline. Efforts to revise this perception begin, in some ways, with our ability to recognize the material culture of this period and to document its distribution more carefully. This article is a start.

Thing the Second

There’s been quite a kerfuffle over a review that was posted yesterday in the BMCR. The BMCR is free site for academic reviews of books related to Classics, ancient history, and Mediterranean archaeology. Typically the reviews, at best, useful and, at worst, boring (with the very worst being almost unreadably dull). Occasionally, they publish reviews that are exceedingly critical, misunderstands or misrepresents a book, or, like this week, are very weird. 

As someone who appreciates weirdness for weirdness sake, I mostly find opportunities for even inoffensive weirdness a welcome distraction from the incredibly banal character of academic life and provocative weirdness — even when it gets it wrong — usually makes me smile. 

At the same time, I do understand and appreciate that there is a time and place for weirdness. Judging by the outcry on the interwebs, this review was maybe out of place or at the wrong time. The issue then becomes, what should BMCR or the scholarly community do about it?

Some have suggested that BMCR apologize to the authors of the book (which by all accounts is a very fine book) for allowing this review to appear. This has the benefit, I suppose, of protecting the author of the review — who provided that they reviewed the book in good faith — prepared the review, had it accepted and published, while also taking the blame for allowing such a review to appear.

It’s interesting to think about the social contract between book authors, publishers, journal editors, reviewers, and readers. It seems to me that book authors and publishers hope that their work to be reviewed fairly, but once it is released to the public, they lose any right to expect that. Readers and journal editors, however, have the right to expect that reviews were done in good faith. It seems to me that an authors hope for a book and the editors and readers expectations for a review need not align perfectly. For example, an unfair review that comes about because of a misunderstanding of the book may well be done in good faith and lead to fruitful discussion of the book and its merits. 

What rights, then, do reviewers have? For most of us, writing a book review is a service to the discipline. It is uncompensated and only rarely counts for anything at our home institutions. We hope that our review encourages academic discussion of the book under review and adds value to the venue where it is published. It would be a difficult pill to swallow if a good faith review appropriately vetted by the editors of a journal led to an apology by the journal to the author of the book. 

Thing the Third   

With any luck, I’ll start on book production today (or maybe tomorrow, but certainly by the weekend) on the first book that the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish in 2021. It’s a volumed edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart titled Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stay tuned for more on this book over the next few weeks!!

Compassion, COVID, and Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Lab(rad)or Day!

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

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

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

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

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

On Citations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

Thing The Second

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

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

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

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

Thing The Third

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

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

The motto is:

EVERYTHING
IS
FINE.

Stay tuned.

Performative Informality in Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro-Utopias and Training PhDs in a Time of Precarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a “Senior Scholar” and Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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