Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 3

Two weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here, and you can find the second part here

I’ve argued over the last two weeks and austerity and neoliberalism have pushed universities to present themselves fiscally and operationally as market driven enterprises. This follows an assumption that public institutions with state funding become, over time, morally compromised because state funding insulates them from the purifying fire of market competition. As a result, universities have started to privatize core functions in order to demonstrate a willingness to optimize their operations and to promote their operational model as one that rewards competitive, efficient, and socially responsible (at least within a neoliberal model of society that views with a jaundiced eye all state sponsored activities). The efforts to promote the internal working of the university as efficient and competitive creates a situation where the university is more of a billboard for external stakeholders than a factory for knowledge production and education. 

On a superficial level, this is not entirely objectionable. After all, creating a compelling billboard for the activities at a university whether through intercollegiate sports, slick marketing material, or a commitment to external relations, celebrates the impact and significance of faculty, students, and staff, builds a sense of community and pride, and attracts resources to university from a range of sources including alumni, prospective students, and legislators.

At the same time, the view of the university as a billboard can spill over into the internal workings of the university as a factory. On the simplest level, a billboard promotes a product whose manufacturing process is only relevant inasmuch the produce fulfills consumer expectations. Because state university receive funding from a range of sources including state legislators, alumni, students, and granting agencies, there is an interest in the process that creates the well-educated student or faculty research. In other words, the billboard needs to represent both the successful outcome of a university education or faculty work as well as the efficiency of the processes that produced these outcomes. Within a society increasingly dominated by a kind of neoliberal hegemony, the state-funded university almost always presents an essential opportunity for rooting out complacency by subjecting individual, programs, and processes to competition and market forces. The university as billboard, then, extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency.

In this context, a public humanities journal like North Dakota Quarterly must has a sustainable business model or be consigned to the ranks of inefficient and complacent university functions best optimized by forcing the journal to engage in the market by applying fiscal austerity. A sustainable business model that included state funding were mutually exclusive because the latter created conditions that made the former impossible or at least very unlikely. Successful competition within the crucible of the market represented the only way in which a journal like North Dakota Quarterly could be a successful to the university billboard. 

The problem with the university as a billboard is that whatever the advantages of promoting the university are, the message of the billboard too often spills over into the inner workings of the university. While, I’m hesitant to suggest that universities currently function at optimal efficiency – any complex institution has areas where optimization is possible and desirable and areas where it is not, promoting competition across campus is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline university functions. For example, the long-standing model of higher education that models student learning an assembly line where each program, department, and class imparts a particular set of concepts, methods, and content requires coordination and collaboration across campus. It may be possible to imagine an optimized process where each class contributes the exactly the same energy into the educational process, but such Taylorist fantasies are probably misguided, if not delusional. Students aren’t uniform blanks when they arrive at the university, previous education, aptitude, and commitment levels vary widely and, whether we will admit it or not, certain subjects have higher threshold levels than others in our current educational environment and require a greater investment of energy from both students and faculty. In other words, the assembly line approach to higher education rewards cooperation among various parts of the process and accepting that some parts of the system are less efficient than others.

As faculty, administrators, and staff internalize the message of the billboard on campus, the spirit of competition is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline processes. Competition for students tends to lead to duplication of marketing and outreach efforts. Funding models that seek to recognize research or teaching excellence or even rein in wasteful competition between programs or departments become systems to be gamed. The long-standing and historical divisions on campus, whether colleges or departments that serve to protect academic and intellectual freedom and distinct disciplinary traditions become barriers to cooperation and collaboration rather than efficient incubators of distinctive methods, practices, and approaches to problems. As a number of recent commentators have noticed, by projecting the billboard internally and promoting the appearance of competition, we distill the dynamism and diversity of higher education (or as David Labaree calls it the “perfect mess”) down to two closely related metrics: dollars and enrollments (which are really just another measure of dollars). As Gary Hall has recently considered in his work on the “uberficiation” of the university, the growing ability to trace precisely the flow of capital – whether its student tuition or faculty labor – has created a system that is pennywise and pound foolish. Our ability to use dollars and enrollments to recognize efficiencies at the individual and department level has superceeded the messier project of attempting to understand the product of the higher education factory whether that be new ideas or high quality students and graduates. 

In short, the billboard approach to higher education promotes efficiency and competition at the expense of learning and discovery. And, as much as competition evokes long-standing fantasies of the academic meritocracy and satisfies the hegemonic attitudes that equate all waste with indolence and sloth, it rarely corresponds neatly with the actual work of students and faculty at a university. For many stakeholders, however, the product of the university as factory is only as important as the revenue it can generate.

For others, however, the promotion of the university as the product of market competition offers both a useful cover and a historical model to justify the expansion of certain programs and the contraction of others. The disconnect between the external promotion of evident efficiency fortified by competition and the difficulties associated with judging the final product of higher education, student learning and discovery, provides a space for administrators and faculty to advance values closely tied to reinforcing the dominance of the market in wider society. This means articulating the value of higher education in economic terms which tends to be most crudely presented as “workforce development.” Despite persistent efforts to calculate the economic value of a degree in the humanities, in most cases such efforts are incompatible with the goals of a humanities education. Whether this correlates to the efficiency of teaching and research the humanities within the university or even its non-market value to society at large is irrelevant. The billboard that promotes the work of the university to its stakeholders must be made to represent outcomes consistent with the neoliberal expectation that structure the billboard itself.  

If efficiencies resulting from competition optimize the structure the university in the age of austerity, then graduates and research at the university should likewise feed this world view as well. 

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 2

Last week, I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here.

In short, I make the uncontroversial argument that the most recent round of budget cuts reflects a kind of local level implementation of the neoliberal policy of austerity. Austerity reflects certain moral and economic attitudes that see the state as both morally corrupting, as tending to limit freedom, and as stifling to economic growth which is best achieved by allowing market forces to play out in an unconstrained way. This has negative implications for state universities which are reasonably seen as an extension of the state and as intrinsically inefficient. Moreover, these institutions reproduce a kind of complacency that undermines the competitive function of markets, which are seen as the primary engines for economy growth. Cutting higher education budgets, then, pushes these institutions to exist in a market driven world, should improve efficiency by fostering competition for resources, and ensures that capital doesn’t get bottled up supporting institutions that reflect values that run counter to the market ethos.

The internal response to these policies was dramatic as the University of North Dakota not only implemented a “new budget model” based on the competitive allocation of resources across campus, but also, when faced with the immediate pressures of budget cuts, implemented austerity measures that adversely impacted the humanities and arts. As I noted in the first part of this article, North Dakota Quarterly lost all of its funding after being told that we had not produced a sustainable business model. In the second part of this paper, I want to suggest that most of these changes at UND (and I would suggest nationally) amount to a kind of theater designed to align the appearance of competition and market driven policies with a series of outcomes deemed desirable by local stakeholders. 

To be clear, higher education has always cultivated this kind of theater. Whether it was the historical privileging of white, upper and middle class, males, or the tendency to see traditional liberal arts and humanities degrees as superior in content and rigor, the American university system has long attempted to normalize the ascendency of certain groups and outcomes as a kind of natural result of broader social competition. Recently, David Labaree has summarized a particularly obvious expression of this kind of competitive theater in the long-term persistence of the academic hierarchy among colleges and universities in the U.S. A relatively small number of schools and scholars tend to dominate the intellectual landscape of American higher education. Not only do top tier schools hire faculty from other top tier schools, but lower tier schools also tend to hire a disproportionate number of faculty with degrees from traditionally elite institutions. Lower tier schools see this as a way of imitating the practices of more elite institutions and moving up. In reality, it tends to reinforce the difference between the top tier schools and their lower tier numbers as faculty from elite schools tend to privilege their own even over students that they produce at lower tier institutions. This bias toward the traditional centers of higher education in the U.S. reproduces itself in competition for grants, fellowships, and even in peer review despite historical efforts to present these competitions as meritocratic.     

More recently, critics of higher education have argued that systemic liberal biases within the American university system has promoted certain political and social agendas and suppressed others. Academics have tended to brush off these critiques and point to the rigor of peer review, the competitive nature of grant and hiring processes, and the pressures of historic and global traditions of academic discourse that tend to complicate the alignment of proximate political positions and scholarly outputs. The long tradition of a kind of theater of competition in higher education produced a culture that is particular susceptible to kinds of dissimulation at the core of neoliberal thinking.

I argue that the conventional theater of competition in academia (if no less problematic) conflates in some ways with what David Harvey recognizes as the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism in contemporary society and particular among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony). The most visible expression of this is “zero sum” thinking that organizes campus priorities into winners and losers. Winners get funding (because they’ve won) and losers lose funding with the result that the winning ways of the winners will, over time, come to dominate the losing ways of the losers. 

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, there already were winners and losers in higher education produced by generations of historical forces which are not necessarily unproblematic or somehow ideally suited (by dint of their co-evolution with market, social, and cultural forces) for efficient education, new knowledge production or social good. Neoliberal priorities, at least to those viewing higher education from the perspective of an external stakeholder, require a kind of change that reflects the conspicuous pivoting of higher education toward both market needs and toward the methods of the market. In other words, whatever the processes that were that created the current landscape of higher education, we need to align ourselves more clearly with methods and outcomes that reflect contemporary political and economic priorities and, perhaps more importantly, expectation. 

The language of these priorities and expectations are well known. Many in the public sphere view the humanities and arts as inefficient, antiquated, or a luxury, despite the emergence of a somewhat disappointing (and perhaps ineffectual) counter-discourse that argues for the economic importance of the humanities. The argument follows that STEM fields with their sometimes overtly vocational goals represent a more efficient way to address the economic needs of our communities and, as a result, a better use for limited public funds. Moreover, public support for these fields should represents an investment in the future as an emphasis on STEM fields parallels student interest in these economically productive disciplines (and students and tuition dollars will follow), the emphasis on STEM should also attract support from the private sector and federal grants.

A secondary challenge, and on that is of more interest to me, is to make the rise of STEM in higher education appear to be the result of market competition within the institution. This allows administrators to tout and stakeholders to recognize the synchronization between market efficiencies within and outside of these institutions. The rise of STEM fields, for example, allows higher education administrators to point to the efficiency of their institutions because ultimately the same results suggest the same internal mechanisms. This involves a certain, and conspicuous amount of dissimulation, particularly as universities attempt the dual move of shifting to support fields that the public expects to be market driven priorities and demonstrating that market priorities and methods produced these results internally. The former ensures stakeholders – particularly in the legislatures – that universities are responding to external market forces and doing so in a way that also embodies internal market efficiencies. 

Elsewhere I’ve called this move replacing the university as a knowledge factory – based on the historical affinities between university curricula and the assembly line (well described by Louis Menand) – to the university as billboard. The university as billboard represents the growing desire to demonstrate to the public that universities are responsive institutions to market forces and have internalized the values of the marketplace. The university as billboard reassures an anxious public (or at least a certain sector of stakeholders) both that the university is an efficient institution deserving of the continued investment of resources and that public resources will attract outside investment through tuition, grants, and private donor contributions. 

In this context, there is little room for a public humanities quarterly because it does little to reinforce public view of higher education which expects it to align with their own understanding of market forces shaping public (and private) institutions. If the university is a billboard, then, something like North Dakota Quarterly is a distraction. The priority both internally and externally is to stay on message and on strategy, and if we take the logic of the market to its natural conclusion, the risk of straying from the message is existential. 

In my next installment I hope to focus on two further implications of the creation of higher education as billboard. First, the tensions between the university as factory, the university as billboard, and the university as marketplace confounds the efficient operation of a university. This, then, confirms the  perception that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector. Next, and perhaps more controversially, the privileging of the market as the model for higher education effectively undermines the potential for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom. The challenge of neoliberalism is not so much that it subjects everyone and every institution to the unrelenting pressures of market competition, but that it projects backward in time, the free play of market forces as the dominant form power in society. As a result, it presupposes the emergence of the neoliberal world order as the victory of market forces against those who sought to suppress them. Those in power now are in power because they won. 

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to write an article in a series of installments on my blog for the spring, digital, issue of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I’m calling them, for fun, NDQuesday, and I hope this becomes a regular feature on my blog as I work with a remarkable group of people to figure out how to keep NDQ thriving in a new era of funding. 

For my contribution today,I am worried that my argument will be complex and will probably reveal the limits of how I understand both the world of ideas that are shaping our society and higher education and the way in which higher education works “on the ground.” My hope is that people feel free to offer my feedback on my work here. 

To start, I’m going to dive into the meat of my article, which explores the unusual way in which neoliberal ideas play out across state university campuses. I’ll do little to hide my indebtedness to Mark Blyth’s work on austerity, David Harvey’s on neoliberalism, and Christopher Newfield’s on higher education, but I’ll try to bring my own distinct perspective and experiences to the conversation. In particular, I want to focus on certain performative aspects of the neoliberal position that shape how universities present themselves and individual actors behave. In this area, I suspect you’ll see the influence of folks like Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities although I take my critique in a different direction.   

To start, I probably need to try to untangle the connection between austerity and neoliberalism at last in the context of higher education (and here I need to digest more fully the work of Fabricant and Brier).

For the purposes of my article, austerity is really short-hand for a larger neoliberal package of ideas that actively privileges the market as the dominant force in shaping society. It initially developed at a macro-economic scale in the immediate post-war period as a challenge to Keynesianism and as a critique of mid-century views of statist projects in both the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of Nazism. It became a cornerstone of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s re-imagining both of the national and then the global economy. In this context, neoliberal thinkers and politicians argued that state institutions were impediments to person economic (and even social) freedom which ultimately undermined the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship. The economic authority of the state expressed in the control over resources and the bureaucratized rule of regulation stifled individual creativity and competition while also  insulating certain sectors of the economy into complacency. These social attitudes offered a moral framework for an economic view that saw the flow of state funds into the economy as encouraging inflationary conditions which dampened markets, weakened the private sector, and impaired economic growth. Austerity represented a strategy to pull back the economic influence of the state in the economy, to forestall inflation, and to allow for markets and the private sector to produce growth. Whatever the economic merits of this approach (and recent work has cast significant doubts on whether austerity does stimulate growth), there is no doubt that these policies have weakened the social safety net created during the Great Depression, turned massive quantities of assets over to an increasingly wealthy super elite, and transformed the global political and economic landscape. My interest is largely in the social and political transformations wrought by neoliberalism. My article will look at three in particular: (1)  the belief that markets and competition represent individual freedom, (2) the success in market competition reflect both the personal and public good, and (3) that market competition produces efficiencies by undermining the complacency of publicly-funded entrenched interests. 

The impact of these three attitudes on higher education in the U.S. has been dramatic. This is partly because neoliberal faith in market competition shares certain parallels with the long-standing belief in intellectual and academic competition in academia. In recent times, however, the emphasis in neoliberal rhetoric on the moral good of market competition and equation of markets with freedom has converted this confidence in the meritocracy to the space of the market. Individuals within and outside of the academic, in the administration and in the trenches, have seen market forces as beneficial agents of change and as justification for whole-sale revisions in curricula and educational policies. These attitudes reflect what David Harvey has recognized as the hegemonic power of neoliberal thinking that makes it very hard for us to imagine alternative ways of doing things.

These forces played out in the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly in a number of intriguing and informative ways. As readers of this blog and NDQ know, the Quarterly lost its funding in 2016 amid a series of rather dramatic budget cuts at the state level. These budget cuts reflect both the changing economic fortunes of the state and, more directly, the price of oil, as well as a reluctance by legislators to raise taxes to fund public enterprises and services. For many in the legislature, the desire to keep the state friendly to business by cutting taxes and regulation (and allowing market forces to generate growth rather than legislative programs) coupled with a tendency to see public, higher education as too long insulated from market forces and therefore inefficient (by definition). Raising taxes too support state programs, then, would have made the state less friendly to business and limited the freedom of individuals to use their funds to pursue whatever education they desired. 

At UND, North Dakota Quarterly saw the direct impact of these cuts in large part because for previous few years, we had been urged to produce a “sustainable business model” for the journal. This overlooked, at least superficially, that the existing model for NDQ which combined funds from UND and the College of Arts and Sciences with income from subscriptions had been sustainable for over 60 years. Its lack of sustainability, at least in the rhetoric of our administrators, reflected an expectation that projects like NDQ should be sustainable with only private funds. In other words, sustainability was something that existed only in the marketplace of the private sector rather than as a shared commitment supported by public and private resources. 

The reasons for de-fundung NDQ, however, go beyond simple issues of fiscal austerity, of course. Our declining number of subscribers, questions about the impact of the publication on the broader UND community and mission, and perhaps even a lack of direction all contributed to a less than charitable viewing of the Quarterly. It is difficult, however, to avoid viewing these critique – offered both tacitly and explicitly – as valuations on the sustainability of the Quarterly in anything other than market terms. The intellectual or humanistic impact of the Quarterly was, as far as I know, never called into question.

Academic administrators have used a similar set of curious arguments to justify cuts to the humanities more generally. Declining enrollments, for example, demonstrate lack of market demand for particular subject and this justifies reduced resources to those programs. The reduction of resources almost always accelerate the decline in enrollments into the future. The justification for this, of course, is largely financial. The university has limited resources and need to support those programs that have the most students. 

At the same time, these arguments also coincide with a rhetorical position that see the arts and humanities at state universities, in particular, as luxuries. The critique of this position is well-know, so I’ll address it here only briefly. Attacks on the humanities and arts by politicians have tended to argue that they are not only useless degrees that produce students who are a burden on society, but also that the character of a humanities education is the deeply suspect hotbed of post-modernism, anti-nationalism, liberalism, and other nefarious positions that undermine the shared values of the community and social cohesion. The merging of moral judgements about the character of humanities program in higher education and the purported lack of viability of humanities graduates in the marketplace is consistent with the larger ideological project of contemporary neoliberalism.

It’s also not strictly speaking true. Humanities graduates tend to earn less than their peers in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the short-term, but over time, earn as much and even more than graduates with more apparently practical degrees. Moreover, companies consistently demand more graduates with the qualifications that humanities graduates possess: the ability to read, to write, to think critically and morally, and to problem solve. Taking nothing away from graduates in other fields at the university, there is no real reason to see that humanities graduates are an less viable in the market-driven workforce than graduates in any other field. The issue appears to be largely a rhetorical one in which the usual line of causality is reversed. The moral economy of neoliberalism has tended to see failure in the market as a moral failing. In the case of the humanities, it sees the critique of the market and neoliberalism (even though the lines between neoliberalism and post-modernism are well-known among scholars) as a moral failing that makes them less likely to be successful in the private sector despite evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, cutting the humanities and focusing energy on the practical and STEM fields is seen as a way to make the university more competitive in the marketplace based on a kind of moral reasoning rather than practical data. That the humanities have seen declining numbers – in part as a result of this inversion of neoliberal logic – has become the evidence that students are “voting with their feet.” Defunding a project like North Dakota Quarterly, then, becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to practical education and short-term workforce development as well as a rejection of the morally suspect fields of in the arts and humanities. The argument that NDQ did not develop a sustainable business model (i.e. a model that relies on the market for sustainability at least in large part) is both true and confirms the larger perspective that the humanities are not viable fields in the contemporary economy and do not deserve continued state funding.  

This is, of course, largely theater, but a particularly pernicious kind of theater (1) that reflects the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony), (2) that confounds the efficient operation of a university (which confirms the argument that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector), and (3) replaces the aspirations for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay… but readers of this blog will know that it goes something like this or thisthisthis).

As always, provide feedback! I need to know just how wrong I am!

End of the Blog?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the future of this blog. I’ve been writing this blog for 10 or 11 years or something, and I’m starting to feel that it has strayed pretty far from its original intent. Or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is the context for the blog (and maybe blogging in general) has changed over the last decade.

I know for certain that my position in the field has changed and in academia has changed, and, as a result, my priorities have changed.

I also know that all projects should come to an end and, sometimes it is better to fade away rather than burn out.

This is what I’m thinking:

1. Internet Culture has Changed. Over the last year or so, I’ve had a few missteps in managing my online persona. Some of these are more visible than others for casual readers of this blog. For example, this summer, I responded a bit too assertively to an article. It was not my intent and I am still bothered by both what I said (I was not generous) and how I said it (I was too casual and flippant).

More recently, I was scolded by a couple trusted colleagues for responding a bit too puckishly to scholars on social media. In hindsight, I was clearly in the wrong and more than a bit tone deaf to both the medium and the particular conversation (and this isn’t the first time that I’ve been a bit off base). More than that, I responded in haste like I would in a casual conversation over beers rather than in a deliberate and thoughtful way. So not only were my comments hasty but they were unproductive as well. From the start I viewed social media as a kind of casual space designed for playful banter (something like the banter one has at the bar at an academic conference), but if we’ve learned anything from an armada of Russian bots, social media is much more than that. There is probably less space in it for my silly (and largely selfish) sense of humor today than there once was. People are doing serious work in social media and my fucking around is not helping.

At the same time, I wonder whether there is less space today for a blog like this. I’ve always seen it as a platform for the informal exploration of ideas, for half-baked throughs, and for intellectual ephemera. But as many of my colleagues have demonstratedespecially lately – blogs should do more than just serve as a platform for my assorted ramblings or as a self-indulgent expression of my puerile personality. More to the point, I worry whether continuing to write this blog runs the risk of diluting the good work that other folks are doing in this media. Things done changed.

2. Professional Persona. When I started this blog (approximately 2500 posts and a million words ago), I felt pretty marginal in academia. I was an Assistant Professor at a school on the edge of the frozen prairie. I worked on Cyprus and the Late Antique and Byzantine period. I was a specialist in material culture and archaeology in a history department. Even the archaeology that I did – intensive pedestrian survey – stood at the margins of conventional archaeological practice. I was relatively un-published and anything I wrote could be easily dismissed as the inconsequential thoughts of a junior faculty member at University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. This gave me a good bit of cover and allowed me to cultivate a persona grounded in alternative practices whether punk archaeology or my overly enthusiastic embrace of blogging.

While I hate to admit this, I am no longer at the margins of my profession. I’m certainly not at the center or even a central figure, but I can no long indulge my vox clamantis fantasy. I have too many conference papers, invited talks, articles and books, and various other academic gewgaws to be a genuinely marginal figure in my field. I’ve run my own project, I have tenure, and I even have two dogs. With my professional development, however, comes greater expectations, and, as I asserted in point (1), probably requires me to embrace a greater seriousness of purpose in my online persona. This really struck home when in a debate this summer a scholar pointed out to me in a twitter thread that my position and academic credentials give much greater platform to assert my views.

It goes without saying that as a tenured, married, middle-class, white, male my very identity carries additional authority in public sphere. Even my scruffy beard and largely unkempt hair reinforces my academic credentials in an inescapably masculine way. My interest in stereotypical male things, from my editorializing on sport on my Friday Varia, to my fascinations with high-end stereo gear and fancy watches subtly (and unintentionally) assert my position as a male scholar.

My position then as a mid-career male scholar with tenure means that, whether I intend it or not, people take the things I do seriously. Even ideas and projects tinged with a bit of intentional frivolity, like Punk Archaeology, have attracted serious academic attention (and this has been remarkably gratifying to me!). More importantly, by taking on the role of editor at North Dakota Quarterly and developing the profile of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve accepted responsibility as a steward of other people’s work. My frivolous behavior online and the half-baked ideas spewed forth to the world from this blog could reflect poorly on other people who have trusted me to promote and support their ideas.

I guess all this is to say that I need to grow up or at least acknowledge that I have grown up and start to behave more like a professional and less like a failed graduate student or a former age-group swim coach (which is how I’ve always thought of myself).

[As an aside, I’m increasingly anxious about the book I just had published on the Bakken. It was very much experimental in approach and content, but in today’s increasingly politicized culture (and extractive industries in North Dakota are nothing if not political) a book like this might be seen as poking the bear rather than a genuine academic exercise. While I’m not worried that the book will cause me discomfort, I do worry that it might cause other people discomfort from my colleagues (by association) to folks who work hard to represent the University of North Dakota in a positive light in the state. I don’t want to say that I regret having written so publicly on the Bakken, but it can’t shake the idea that there is a time and a place for everything.]

3. The Food is Bad and the Portions are Tiny. Over the past couple of years, the number of page views on my blog have declined steadily from usually well over 100 a day to just over 80. On the one hand, maybe this does say that my ideas are genuinely marginal, but it probably suggests that they are increasingly banal and the blogosphere has more appealing options. The decline also reflects my reluctance to Tweet or Facebookle my daily posts out of concern that some half-baked thought upset or annoy someone.

I know that the internet is not, strictly speaking, a zero sum game, but I wonder if people who are reading my blog are people who are not reading other much better blogs out there. A year or so ago (and I can’t find the post), I got to thinking about how to ramp down a project or transform it when it no longer is working. The decline in readership, the change in online culture (and readers’ expectations), and my changing professional status have made me really think that this blog has more or less run its course.

That being said, I do like to write this blog and like to write in general, and I’m pretty sad at the thought of bringing it to an end, but maybe I’ll figure out something else to do that fills my morning and gives me a space to work out ideas in an informal voice that is less public, less frivolous, and less fraught.

Free Beauty, Boxes of Books, and Austerity: Three Updates from North Dakota Quarterly

This week, I spent a ton of time doing North Dakota Quarterly stuff.

The most fun NDQ project was perhaps the easiest. This morning I posted a link to a free book by our new art editor Ryan Stander called Wayside Sacraments. Check it out here and download it for free!

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Less fun was the approximately 20 hours spent over the last two weeks putting North Dakota Quarterly volumes in boxes so that they could be moved from our existing storerooms to new storage in various places across campus. While the work was tedious and largely unrewarding, I did find myself leafing through the table of contents for many of the issues and stumbled upon a few remarkable gems.

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Among my favorites was Maxwell Anderson’s senior play which though penned in 1911, it was not published until 1957. Titled Masque of the Pedagogues: Being a Dream of President McVey, it offers witty perspective on turn of the century life on the UND campus from the perspective of a student. Predictably, it features such fan favorites as O.G. Libby, A.G. Leonard (who famously recognized the potential for oil in Western ND), George Abbot, Wallace Stern (a Near Easternologist), and James Boyle (an early student of Gillette who goes on to Cornell), oh, and Satan. 

Finally, hanging out in the NDQ storerooms gave me time to think about our upcoming spring issue on humanities in the age of austerity. I’ve been carrying around (well, digitally) a copy of Mark Byth’s new(ish) book on austerity, but I’ve also been thinking about how to link the crazy quilt of ideas dumped here on my blog into something coherent. Part of me wants to do a series of rather disconnected “observations” that range from my overused “Billboard vs. Factory” (combining posts from herehere, and here) to something on branding in the humanities (like here and here), neoliberalism and competition in academia, and collaborative publishing.

I have some work to do before the February deadline!

College Campuses

This semester I’ve had a few opportunities to stop for a second and recognize how much I enjoy being on a college campus. I know that sounds trite and cliche. Fine. Whatever. 

I do love college campuses and for some reasons the campus of the University of North Dakota has just made me super happy lately. The last week or so I’ve been boxing old issues of North Dakota Quarterly in an obscure storeroom in an old campus building slated to be demolished next year. The building is old and kind of decrepit and probably not suited for much in the way of modern university activities. The volumes of NDQ, like the old building, tell stories of the university that are both familiar and sepia toned. And like so many university traditions they are both oddly relevant and fairly easy to discard. 

This week I also got a charming calendar from my alma mater, the University of Richmond. Each month features a beautiful college Gothic building from URs campus, but most of the buildings are more recent than my time there. And only two of the buildings date from the great early period of college Gothic construction on campus or were designed by the original campus architect, Ralph Adams Cram. In other words, the presentation of campus is traditional, but also entirely new. 

Closer to home, what’s great about walking around a campus like UND’s is that, despite budget cuts and consistent lack of funding, they still try. In fact, I have often thought “we do try” was a kind of unofficial campus motto. As part of their efforts to try, they’ve created a bunch of new student gathering spaces in our building. They have a particular character that I just really groove on. 

First off, they’re kind of gross. The furniture is all institutional, wrapped in garish, wear-resistant fabrics, and constructed out of hard plastic. The floor covering is this bizarre grey fake wood that does nothing to hide its plastic-ness or the dirt tracked across it by hundred of tired undergraduate (and faculty) feet. Despite being created only this semester, the spaces already look a bit world weary, out of date, and for lack of a better word, sad.

What keeps these spaces from being completely forlorn is that they are somehow also profoundly democratic. Their lack of pretension or even functionality. The furnishings exist simply to exist and represent a completely banal gesture toward something. As with so many older places on campus, these new student gathering spaces are destined to accumulate grime of thousands of hands, butts, and feet. Nick and marks of pens, tacky smudges left by snacks, and lost gloves, hats, and scarfs liter this student landscape. They’re used and slightly abused and mostly the spaces are disregarded as neither distinctive enough to be memorable or meaningful nor functional enough to be practically valued. In contract to the exaggerated contemporary college Gothic at the University of Richmond, the student gathering spaces on UND’s campus are unapologetically modern. They’re non-places and meaningless gestures that are consumed simply because they are available.  

Walking through these spaces and watching students embrace them with utter ambivalence is among the highlights of my day. It reminds me of our task to inculcate our students with what it means to really be modern.

Markets, Billboards, and Higher Education: David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess

However liberal academics tend to be in their politics and intellectual life, we tend to be conservative about our views of our institutions. In fact, our view of university life is more then just conservative; it’s down right nostalgic. Our image of the American university tends to celebrate a fair narrow period in its history dating from the mid-1950s (post-McCarthy) to the mid-1960s (pre-Vietnam era protests). This period saw the rapid expansion of the university system, heightened commitments to faculty freedom and governance, and a substantial influx of federal research dollars (and a concomitant commitment to research). At the same time, faculty leadership drew from the interwar generation who continued to reflect the early-20th century biases in higher education: they were largely white, upper and middle class, and male. Thus, there was continuity and some consensus in terms of values and authority. At the same time, higher education leadership and administration had not yet professionalized and exerted a relative weak counter weight to assertions of faculty governance.    

Over the last week, I read David Labaree’s new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (Chicago 2017). Labaree makes the important observation that higher education in America has always been, in part, market driven. The diversity of funding sources – student tuition, grants, private donors, and direct support of state and federal government – and correspondingly wide range of stakeholders (alumni, faculty, communities, students, legislators, et c.) forced the American system of higher education to respond continuously to market forces.   

For Labaree, the market is what allowed the American system of higher education to thrive because it forced higher education to respond to a range of developing needs. In contrast to European system of higher education where state funding dominates research and teaching at the university level and mediates between market (and democratic) forces and higher education, the American system has direct contact with markets as students vote with their feet, donor vote with their wallets, and the legislation shapes the direction and character of academic life. 

This being said, Labaree does recognize certain counter currents that subvert various stakeholder pressures in higher education as well. For example, he notes that pressures to accommodate professional and even vocation training within higher education are consistently subverted by the long-standing tendency for universities and colleges to imitate higher raking (and usually wealthier and older) institutions. These institutions, rather more insulated by dint of large endowments and long-standing traditions and expectations among large and influential alumni, tend to embrace the traditional liberal arts and curriculum with an emphasis on broad, general education. This tendency combines with pressures from employers and even students to provide broad rather than focused training and pulls professional and vocation programs into becoming always more academic (despite billboards presenting their narrower emphasis on job training and direct applicability on the job market). 

Of course, this pressure for lower tier universities to imitate their higher ranking peers, never really succeeds. Labaree points out that every ceiling for schools and their graduates is really another schools floor. The value of degrees from elite institutions always carry more weight than less well-established newcomers irrespective of architectural, academic, or curricular imitation. Thus, like so many aspects of American higher education, the appearance of competition and the appearance of the open market does more to shape institutions than any real opportunities for advancement by either students or institutions. Moving up through the ranks of universities rarely happens and even the best students from lower tier schools can’t compete on a level playing field with students from elite universities (with a handful of well-known exceptions).

In this regard, Labaree’s book offers another – smarter and more subtle take – on my billboard versus factory analogy that I have developed over a series of posts (here, here, and here). Moreover, I wonder how Labaree’s conceptualization of higher education shapes universities enduring the most recent wave of austerity which is coupled with the acceleration of market forces. The conservative brakes on higher education both within and without, dig in all the more heavily as markets change and capital all the more quickly in the 21st century. 

Some thoughts on the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting

I spent most of last week at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. For me, the conference is a series of meetings with various committees ranging from the program committee for the conference to the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute‘s board of trustees gathering. In between, I usually have a chance to catch a paper or even an entire panel over the course of the three day conference.

The meetings, panels, and papers never fail to stimulate my thinking and remind me why I got into the business of archaeology, digital publishing, and ancient history over the past two decades.

Here are some quick thoughts:

1. Digital Narratives and Archaeology. There were numerous opportunities to think about how the digital technology mediates archaeological knowledge. As I’ve intimated on this blog, I have a particularly intriguing collaborative project that is brewing which will incorporated 3D images, archaeological data, and conventional catalogue entries and interpretive narratives into a hybrid publication that explores the convergence of the paper-based codex and the dynamic world of linked data on the semantic web. The codex implies a certain unity and linearity of engagement while linked data protocols allow for nearly infinite opportunities to combine, deconstruct, and remix archaeological evidence on a highly granular scale. Balancing the work of archaeologists as interpreters of the past and as producers of reusable and empirical data has both practical and philosophical implications as Giorgio Buccellati has suggested in his recent book, A Critique of Archaeological Reason (2017).

Comments at a series of meetings this past week also demonstrated that the convergence of media types – the newsletter, the blog, the webpage, the journal article, the book – has complicated the construction of communication strategies for various organizations. At one meeting, several folks went to great length to distinguish between a blog and a webpage emphasizing not only the functional difference, but also the difference in purpose. The webpage was more stable and, perhaps, persistent, and the blog was designed to encourage conversation. While this might be a useful editorial distinction, for the reader the line between a page and a blog is blurry at best. Moreover, the function of a static, traditional webpage in a world of search-engine optimization is bound to the need to produce new content and encourage linking simply to remain visible. In other words, the platform, content, narrative, and visibility (or even simple existence) are so deeply intertwined that even digitally defined genres have melted away into the granular world of the web.

2. Roman Countryside. I was intrigued by Andrew McCarthy and colleagues paper on their rural site of Prastio-Mesorotsos in western Cyprus. Like many sites on the island, they have struggled to understand the absences of Roman period material particularly from the 2nd-4th centuries AD. They demonstrated using Aoristic analysis (of a sort) that there is reason to expect this material based on the chronological structure of their Hellenistic and Later Roman assemblages, but telltale forms remain elusive. I couldn’t help but think about Sue Alcock’s argument for Roman Greece, offered so many years ago in Graecia Capta, that suggested that under Roman rule settlement in Greece became more nucleated and this accounted for the relative invisibility of Roman material in the countryside. I also recalled David Pettegrew’s important contribution on the variable diagnosticity of material from the Late Roman, Roman, and Hellenistic periods. He argued that the visibility of certain periods has biased our reading of hidden landscapes by making periods with less diagnostic material – for example undecorated amphora sherds – comparatively less visible in the countryside. While it remains impossible to construct functional or highly nuanced arguments without artifacts, it does remind us that the absence of evidence – or the invisibility of evidence – is not the evidence for absence. McCarthy and his colleagues are making strides to reconcile the absence of evidence with larger patterns of settlement change on the island.

3. Globalization and Cyprus. Jody Gordon’s paper looked at Roman Cyprus as an example of globalization that offered insights for understanding the world today. His paper elegantly brought together the works of contemporary theorists of globalization and ancient critiques of Cyprus while never straying too far from the ancient evidence on Cyprus. I’m usually predisposed to be skeptical of efforts to apply modern constructs like globalization to the ancient world, but I found Gordon’s paper particularly compelling both as a way to think about Cyprus during the Roman and Late Roman periods, as well as a way to use the study of antiquity to understand in more subtle ways contemporary challenges. Scholars have historically seen issues of cultural hybridity, precarity, and even the acceleration of time through the compression of space (a distinct inversion of David Harvey’s famous dictum of time-space compression) as distinctly modern (or even industrial) challenges. Gordon explores the possibility of recognizing similar challenges in the pre-modern world as a way to critique the idea that some groups are “left behind” by globalization and to inspire approaches to the past like the “archaeology of care” that challenge the linearity (and in some ways moralistic inevitability) of certain “historical” processes.

4. Non-Places. The hotel was convenient and completely and utterly banal. Every room and every corridor looked like other corridors and rooms at other conferences in other hotels in other cities. What brought this home to me at the ASOR annual meeting is that participants frequently struggled to remember papers, conversations, and events from other meetings or struggled to place papers or events at a particular meeting.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about memory lately. Over the last few years, I’ve struggled to remember things, names, people, and even ideas. The concept of memory has also been particularly significant in mass media with books like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the new Pixar movie Coco, focusing on memory and the act of remembering as crucial to the very existence of an individual. As the modern world becomes more and more populated with non-places that meet the demand for familiarity in a world driven by convenience, seamlessness, and need to accommodate the ever increasing speed of capital, technology, and life, the anxiety about memory makes sense. The past is racing toward us at a faster and faster pace and encroaching more and more on the fragile window of the present. An “Irish” pub, a chain Mexican restaurant, a faux New England bar, did little to create a sense of time or place at the meeting. By the time I left, my own memories of the conference had already begun to slip into the placelessness and timelessness of the modern past.

Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A CFP

While I wasn’t afforded a photo-op and ceremonial signing moment in the North Dakota Quarterly office, this call-for-papers is among my first acts as the new editor of NDQ:

As readers of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, you guys always get the drop:

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

In 2016, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota made the decision to cut support to the nationally-recognized and century-old public humanities journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This included defunding the position of our long-timer managing editor and support for our office assistant who was reassigned elsewhere on campus. These cuts were part of series of large budget cuts at the state level which impacted all state institutions including colleges and universities. The way in which the cuts happened spawned both outrage and critical reflection on the priorities, organization, and leadership present at the state and university levels. While the impact of the UND budget cuts were distinctly local, their significance resonate around the world as education, culture, and the humanities face the growing challenge of fiscal austerity.

As part of the transformation of North Dakota Quarterly, we are excited to announce a call for papers dealing with the humanities in the age of austerity. We invite contributors to consider how the humanities can and should understand and respond to austerity both in the context of higher education and in the public sphere. References to UND and the situation with NDQ are encouraged only in as much as they make a larger point concerning the humanities, and we are seeking national and even global perspectives on this pressing issue.

The plan is to publish the contributions in an edited, digital volume in the spring of 2018 and then as part of an annual paper volume of North Dakota Quarterly in the fall of 2018. Contributions of any length and in any genre are welcome. Deadline is February 15 or earlier. Please send contributions to billcaraher[at]gmail[dot]com with the word “Austerity” in the subject line.