Reflecting on Slow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

Thing the Second

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

At 50: The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

At 50: Collaborating

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being Slow at 50 and on Monday, Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow.

This year has been an odd year. I’ve worked on five projects and all but one of them have been solo affairs including the revisions on my book and chapters on the archaeology of oil, on the teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world, on archaeology and climate change, and on the archaeology of Polis in the long late antiquity (nominally co-authored with Scott Moore, but essentially a single author article).

This is not normal for me. 

First, I increasingly dislike writing on my own. I find it a lonely business and it certainly doesn’t bring out the best in my thinking or writing. Of course, I understand that peer reviewers are, de facto, collaborators on most academic work, but their collaboration is fairly passive (with a few exceptions) and at worst, they represent a critical audience as much as a colleagues invested in helping to realize the potential of an article or argument. 

Second, I feel like the COVID pandemic has disrupted collaborative projects in ways that I had not anticipated. It really has reminded me that most of my collaborations have emerged from face-to-face interactions either during field work, at academic conference, or on campus. As the pandemic made these kinds of interactions difficult or impossible, I found myself drawn back into my own work and more prone to set priorities that privileged my own work over those that I am doing with others.

To exacerbate my tendency to focus what limited free time I have on my own project, I got the distinct sense that other people have started to do the same thing. Maybe it has to do with the sudden instability of our daily schedules, the challenges individuals and communities faced when negotiating pandemic related trauma, or even the greater sense of responsibility felt by individuals untouched by the pandemic to shoulder more of the load. The end result was that I became more selfish in my focus on my own work at the same time that my colleagues pulled back from collaborations themselves. 

My experiences over the course of the pandemic and especially over the last year have helped me recognize how much I value and prefer collaborative work. It has also made me consider whether the pandemic exaggerated some of the latent tendencies in academia, or at least in the humanities, toward privileging individual work at the expense of more collaborative undertakings. Perhaps academia, with its traditional focus on individual accomplishments, was primed for the pressures exerted by the pandemic which pitted individual desires to be safe, to operate with a minimum of constraints, and to maintain control over their own bodies against the safety, economic prosperity, and integrity of larger communities.  

It feels like my academic work has more or less paralleled these trends with my rather insistent focus on my own projects over the past year or 18 months reflecting an almost epidemiological desire to isolate and insulate. 

It feels intensely unsatisfying.

So as I look ahead to my next 20 years in academia, I have come to recognize that I prefer collaborative projects. And I anxiously hope that I can rekindle some of the collaborative relationships that I found so productive prior to the pandemic. I know that they bring out the best in me and I want to believe that they also bring out the best in other people.

At 50: Slow at 50

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being Not Full at 50 and today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow. 

Over the last decade, I’ve been thinking a good bit about ideas relating to the slow movement. I produced an edited volume of a literary journal dedicated to “slow” and published a little gaggle of articles that consider “slow archaeology.” This work, as any reader of this blog probably knows, tends to focus on the idea that slow, focused, and often embodied work, while often inefficient by contemporary standards, produces substantively different outcomes than work that privileges efficiency. These conclusions lean on scholarship that unpacks the distinctive character of certain kinds of slow work from hand drawing to walking the countryside, long form descriptions, and excavating.  

Recently, I’ve been talking with a few graduate students about work load expectations in graduate school and these conversations align neatly with recent debates about faculty work load. There is no doubt that many faculty members and students are feeling overwork and the last two-years of pandemic-inflected work has exacerbated this feeling. A few students have told me that it is hard to find the time to engage in the slow processes that are necessary for their creative work and argued that their workload is making it impossible to find a healthy work/life balance.

I don’t disagree with their assessment and worry a good bit that student workloads at the undergraduate and graduate levels are no longer reasonable in light of changing students responsibilities both in school and outside of school. In one of the more thoughtful critiques of “slow,” Shawn Graham reminded me that working slowly is often a privilege that relies, at worse, on other people scrambling to pick up the slack, or, at best, is a luxury afforded those who have a certain amount of material and professional security. This assessment however tends to see “slow” as less productive or efficient than “fast” work rather than substantively different.

Recently, I’ve started to realize that my work habits are very slow indeed. However, they don’t really involve the kind of deliberate, contemplative practices that we so often associate with slow work. Instead, I tend to work on a number of projects simultaneously. I flit from one project to another over the course of a week and often spend time simultaneously writing, reading, doing email, and surfing the web. I am, of course, familiar with the literature that has argued that these work habits are bad for our brains and our ability to concentrate and focus, and suspect that there is real truth to these claims. At the same time, I rarely find that I prefer to work and particularly write in a distracted way. I find taking a dozen small breaks over the course of an hour consistent with how my brain works. In fact, I find forcing my brain to remain locked onto a single task incredibly exhausting and unpleasant. Sometimes, when proofreading or revising a sustained argument this kind of concentration is necessary, but even then it’s rarely pleasant.

This got me wondering whether the effort to normalize this kind of focused concentration has more to do with expectations of efficiency than more expansive views of how our brain and our lives work. I’ve started to think that my version of slow work, then, reflects my own distracted approach to my work as a scholar and teacher. Instead of focusing on producing predictable outcomes, I’m becoming more and more interested in figuring out sustained and sustaining practices, and for me this involves leaving myself open to distractions and putting aside well-meaning, but often misguided arguments for working and life.

So as I turn 50, I’m trying to embrace my own slow workflows and recognize my unique work habits as sustainable and healthy. Rather than seeking some kind of work/life balance or seeing time (or hours) as a measure of how much work I do. Instead, I’m trying to embrace my own slow habits as an antidote to certain expectations of efficiency. My hope is that these approaches will help me develop more sustainable habits that not only allow me a sense of satisfaction with my daily life, but also keep me productive in my career and as a good collaborator, contributor, and colleague to my various communities.  

At 50: Not Full by Fifty

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50.

A few years ago, people in the humanities were celebrating their professional accomplishments using a #Fullby50 hash tag on Twitter. Apparently this was based on a #FullBy40 hashtag that became popular in fields where people tended to find tenure track jobs earlier in their lives and progress more quickly. Folks in the humanities tend to take a bit more time in graduate school and have a bit less pressure to go up for promotion.

I’m not bothered much by these little efforts to share professional milestones on Twitter and it doesn’t even really bother me that these kinds of milestones create some playful (or at least alliterative) professional expectations. In an era of 45-year-old quarterbacks and 20 year NBA careers, it’s only becoming easier to say shit like “age is just a number.” 

That all said, I will admit that I do think about promotion and haven’t quite been able to escape the feeling that the entire process is … distasteful. First, I don’t really relish the paperwork and procedures associated with promotion. Having served on the college tenure, retention, and promotion committee (and even a term as chair), I was a bit aghast (and not a little intimidated!) at the size of the promotion packets. On a very basic level it looked like a lot of work to prepare these packets and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I found myself wondering whether there were better ways to spend my time.  

Taking nothing away from the quality of my colleagues, I also found myself sort of bothered by the need for self-aggrandizement and have started to wonder whether the process itself contributes or at very least reinforces the sometimes less than healthy attitude occasionally displayed by faculty (myself included!) who feel the need to regard their own research or teaching as the basis for comparison and even competition with other faculty. To be clear, at my institution, promotion is not a zero sum game. In my years on the committee we approved nearly all those faculty who have sought promotion, and from what I can tell, departments seem to support promotion as well (although these processes are not as transparent). This makes the time consuming and anxiety inducing self-promotion process feel inefficient, unnecessary, and perhaps even deleterious to the institution. 

This is compounded by the fact that the only real benefit conferred by promotion is more money (and, I suppose, a rank). And even this is weird to me. It’s not like a faculty member with the rank of Professor does more (or something different) than one at the rank of Associate or even Assistant (generally pre-tenure) Professor. In fact, one might even argue that Associate and Assistant Professors do MORE than Professors since despite the pointlessness of the process, it might nevertheless incentivize certain behaviors or they feel more susceptible to pressure to take on more responsibilities in order to prove themselves worthy of promotion. I wonder if this is particularly true in the humanities where grant writing, which might benefit most directly from seniority or the achievements associated with promotion, plays a far less prominent role in our work on campus.

In some ways, the very existence of promotion creates inequalities of pay and work on campus that exacerbate feeling of alienation especially among Assistant and Associate Professors, complicates collaboration across ranks, and creates “intergenerational” tension between faculty. (Of course, I write this acknowledging that I’m compensated pretty fairly on my campus and, as a result, promotion won’t serve to correct a compressed salary or gender or disciplinary disparities in salaries.)  

Anyway, this view of things has lingered over my decision to apply for promotion or even really to pursue a career path that would result in promotion should I apply. I suspect this is not what the administration hoped the promotion process would induce in faculty, and it doesn’t make me think less of individuals who seek promotion or to view their motives with skepticism. Everyone has to do their own thing.

But as I watch the cohort who entered UND at the same time as I did largely get promoted, I feel less and less motivated to even consider it. Maybe approaching 50 has combined with the pandemic, a hectic few years, and a sense of peace with my place on campus and academic rank to sap me of any motivation to be #FullBy51. I also know that things might change in the future.

Snow Day!

There are different kinds of snow days here in North Dakotaland. There are those in November and early December which feel like the first kiss of winter. There are those in January and February which come with bitter cold and howling winds. And then there are those in March and April which sometimes arrive after the thaw begins that bring their own sense of excitement.

It looks like we got about a foot of heavy, wet, snow over night and might get 6-8 inches more today. The University of North Dakota is closed today. I feel partly to blame for that as I told my Wednesday night class that they could have the Wednesday after Easter off since I had left an extra class anticipating a snow day. It looks like that jinxed them and they’ll have to take their snow day today. I suspect that they won’t mind.

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It’s funny how many people assumed that with the Zoomification of Education, snow days would become things of the past. It turns out that even classes conducted over Zoom require faculty, staff, and planning. Who knew? So for now, snow days will continue and students (and faculty and staff) will get unexpected breaks from our usual routines. 

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The nice thing about these April snows is that they’ll be gone by next week.

Musical Merrifield Hall

Last night, after the last faculty and staff had left the building, Mike Wittgraf and I also with two graduate students set up some speakers and recording equipment in Merrifield Hall in the University of North Dakota’s campus to see whether we could capture some of the building’s distinctive sound.

This project is a bit of a passion project for me. I started my career at UND in Merrifield Hall and spent many happy hours in the North Dakota Quarterly office and my various academic office’s in the building. As part of that, I often found myself immersed in the building’s distinctive soundscape. From the reverberation of footsteps down it’s long, terrazzo paved hallways to the whirring and clunking of the building’s various pumps and lifters, the building’s sounds have long offered a kind of familiar backdrop to late nights and early mornings on campus.

Next year, the building will undergo some serious (and much needed) renovations and I suspect some of the characteristics that made it so endearing to me will be lost. My students in a my English graduate class on things have likewise recognized that Merrifield’s century old design and layout will give way to something more contemporary. They are working on a series of papers that consider the history and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling and experience of Merrifield Hall.

Our efforts to record the sound of the building are part of this larger effort. Last night began by running a series of long tones from a 1000 watt JBL subwoofer.

It has just enough power for us to discover that a tone of 44 hz would produce a standing wave in Merrifield’s basement hallway. We could walk through the wave and find nodes where it was almost inaudible and then walk a few feet further and find places where the sound was almost deafening. These tone tests also revealed when various features of the building would resonate with various frequencies and rattle windows in offices. You can hear some of those moments at the end of the video above.

We then set up a pair of powered fuller-range speakers to complement the subwoofer and to play with a wider range of frequencies. 

We marveled at the how clearly we could hear the notes linger and decay in the hallway. At times we could literally hear the pulse tone racing back and forth up and down the long corridor. For me, these reverberations echoed some of the sounds I remembered fondly from my time in Merrifield and I got pretty exciting that we were not only producing new kind of sonic situations (poetry?) in the building, but that it was also so deeply rooted in my own experiences there.

Finally, we set up a microphone on the fourth floor landing at the opposite corner of the building from our speakers. There’s a lot of a concrete, steel, brick and glass between the speakers and the microphone, but we hoped that we could not only record the time that the sound too to traverse the building, but also show how the building itself amplified, distorted, and conjured sounds through its fabric.    

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We connected this microphone to a laptop which could be time synced with the computer responsible for producing the sounds. This should allow us to measure the time it takes for sound to traverse the building. We also anticipate that it’ll create some interesting sonic features as the microphone also captured the various background sounds that are so characteristic of Merrifield Hall.

The end result of this work is a bit hard to know right now and I suspect we’ll come back over the summer to do more recording and play around with how things sound, but we have a start.

Merrifield Meditations

Over the last few weeks my students in my graduate class in English have started a project designed to engage with Merrifield Hall before it undergoes major renovations next year. For those of you who have read this blog, you’ll recognize this as a development related in some way to my ongoing effort to engage with the changing landscape of campus. In the past, however, these projects – such as Hearing Corwin Hall, have privileged historical perspectives on buildings or approaches that seek to dig beneath their often beleaguered exteriors to find their former beauty, significance, and meaning.

This semester, however, the class is teaching me to pay greater attention to the surfaces as they now exist in Merrifield. To be clear, Merrifield Hall has always been a special place for me. For the first five years of my career on campus, I had an office in Merrifield Hall and taught in its classrooms. These were pretty good years for me. I was productive professionally, I was developing as an instructor and advisor, and I felt supported by the institution. Even today, as I spend the last few months in Merrifield Hall, I find myself drawn to its distinct sounds and features that form a backdrop to the changing rhythms of campus life. In fact, the recent pandemic and the longer term trend of declining enrollments at my institution transformed the once bustling corridors of Merrifield into quieter spaces where footfalls and shuffles remain distinct and reverberate off the terrazzo floors and masonry walls.

This has me thinking about how we should go about engaging with Merrifield Hall on the eve of some pretty significant transformations. My buddy Mike Wittgraf and I want to record it somehow and try to capture and experiment with the sound of the building. My students are thinking about how to understand and document the building through conventional history, but also through fiction and poetry. As I’ve blogged about before, more creative approaches to understanding our work may open us up to new ways of knowing and thinking about a space. This represents a kind of inversion of traditional ways of thinking about how we work in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of us pealing back layers of accumulated meaning from the buildings themselves, we’re starting to think about how the buildings shaped our experiences of them. This involves digging into ourselves and how we feel about a place and pealing back layers of our own experiences to try to figure out how it is that we make sense of spaces and spaces push us to make sense of ourselves.

I’m not sure how far we’ll get doing this over the next two months, but working with this group of students has started to clarify in my mind how I might engage with campus in new, more introspective and reflective ways. What’s most important for me is realizing that my previous approach of looking at campus as a palimpsest of previous experiences, adaptations, and designs which we can detangle to reveal past intentions, only tells part of the story. Being, working, and living on campus also created changes in me that require looking inside in order detangle the way that campus spaces function.   

Grand Forks, UND, and the Ku Klux Klan

I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another. 

Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches. 

That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL. 

To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.

The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M.  Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.

Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement. 

Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear. 

By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan.