Uberfication, Branding, and Competition

For this week’s reading in my graduate seminar on the history of higher education, I asked the students to read Gary Hall’s new book, The Uberfication of the University (2016). It’s sort and it’s thought provoking especially if read alongside work’s like Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) or Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017). I’ll admit that the latter has informed my reading of Hall’s work, but even without it, The Uberfication of the University represents a subtle and intriguing take on the role of neoliberal ideas in influencing how universities function.

For Hall, the ride-sharing company Uber is emblematic of late capitalism, and his book looks at the impact of certain trends on the way in which the university functions both now and might function, in the future. Uberfication does not just refer to the hiring of low-cost, temporary, adjunct faculty and practices that allow universities to scale up or ramp down faculty across campus to serve student demands while keeping costs low. Uberficiation describes a larger trend in capitalism that promotes the creation of free-lance, microentreprenuers for whom the surveillance society of late capitalism has enforced a kind of the self-subjectification. This is largely done through the ubiquitous collection of data which has shaped our behaviors through the reinforcement of certain economically productive forms of self-discipline. As Hall notes, building on Foucault, the practices associated with surveillance society are normalized through eduction with has become designed to produce data that allows third parties (university administrators, for example) to assess learning as well as monitor student engagement, faculty performance, and educational efficiency. These practices tend to locate the educational process not at the level of the university, department, or curriculum, but at the level of individual performance. Smart faculty (like smart students) learn to “game” the system in various ways which are largely the intended consequences of the system from the start. The concept of uberfication, then, is as much about the use of data to shape individual behavior as it is the development of a permanently contingent workforce (although this is certainly parti of Hall’s critique).  

As a very simple local example from my institutions, we were recently threatened that instructors whose classes did not make enrollments consistently would be reviewed poorly in their annual reviews exposing them to the possibility of termination. While this outcome seems rather unlikely, the threat itself demonstrates the kind of shift that Hall identified. The use of data – in this case the rather coarse measure of enrollment numbers – to shape individual behaviors. It is difficult to blame individuals in this situation from shaping their courses to fit whatever expectations students (and administrators) have.

Hall’s book speaks to three regular themes in my musings on higher education: the development of personal (or institutional) billboards and brands, the use of data, and competition.

One of the key things that Hall connects to uberfication is the development of personal faculty brands (and I’d suggest, by extension, collective and university branding). Of course, I am familiar with the self branding and self promotion. My blog represents a particular crass example of this and the concept of branding extends to include The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and my brief foray into podcasts, for example. While one could argue (and I have) that these are as much about promoting what I do as promoting myself, it is hard to escape the reality that data – page views, download numbers, even citations – represent a crucial measure for assessing the popularity of my particular view of the world and its wider relevance. I’m beyond checking my stats daily and fussing about why one post or another is more popular, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t generally aware of my own performance as a blogger and the performance of my press, for example. (As I was writing this, I posted to a Facebook page a link to my blog. Always. Be. Closing.)

In some ways, this desire to promote one’s own work extends to the level of the university as well. Recently, on our campus, there has been a spate of “billboard building” which doesn’t really involve the construction of literal billboards, but the desire to aggregate, name, and promote certain features of campus life allows for more granular and targeted monitoring of performance and message. It tends to be superficial, of course, just as personal brands tend to be, and have little to do with the creation of actual value or scholarship or even work at the university. It has everything to do with the promoting the institution as a brand.  

The second key feature of uberfication that I’ve been interested in is the use of data. Years ago, a buddy of mine, Mick Beltz wrote a short piece on the way in which online teaching (and I’d extend this to any number of active teaching classroom environments) promotes a vision of teaching consistent with the Foucauldian panopticon. I then riffed a bit on this in an article that was rejected everywhere I sent it. Our ability to monitor students while they work and learn has created a new level of data that allows a conscientious teacher to evaluate and shape learning as a process.

The same kinds of data, of course, can also shape how we as faculty teach and how our programs are funded on campus. For example, at my university, we are contractually obligated to use a piece of student retention called “Starfish” which allows the university to track students carefully through their careers, but also requires faculty to generate data about students (and in turn condition faculty to see engaging with students as a data producing endeavor). In other words, software like Starfish uses and generates data that supports student retention by mimicking, in some way, the rather more data resistant experience of faculty actually engaging with their students in a genuine and unstructured way.

(Part of this is a long tail, I’d argue, of professionalization that encourages faculty to see what we do as contractual structured engagements with particular kinds of work. As a result, unstructured work like a hallway conversation with a student or reading and thinking about a book fits awkwardly into standards articulated within in contracts.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that professionalization has been a boon to academia by creating a level playing field of expectations for job-applicants, faculty, and students. On the other hand, as we continue to seek fairness in consistently structured data points, we are also moving away from the personal connections that make education (and I’d argue academia) a rewarding place.)    

Hall does not shy away from observing that the core feature of uberfication is the role that competition plays in the the monetization of self. I’ve thought a good bit about how the “marketplace of idea” between and within college campuses has led to increasingly extravagant billboards and increasingly impoverished factories. Uber, itself, is largely a billboard (at best) that collects data (and monetizes it) to position itself more prominently (to collect more data and money). Uber has very little investment in the actual rides that are “shared.”

As competition becomes more and more of hallmark of higher education, Hall argues that the quest for data, assessment, billboard making, has fundamentally undermined the viability of higher education. Through time, higher education has changed from a densely integrated and personal experience where students and faculty work closely together to create education to an assembly line of requirements and, now, to a uberfied service that compiles and responds to data in an effort to promote the efficiency of their product. I share Hall’s fear that the uberfication of higher education cares too little of the wellbeing of its students and its workers and too much for demonstrable efficiencies that easily promote its mission to stakeholders and funders. 

Updates from The Digital Press

The last few weeks have been busy ones for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. We are in the process of negotiating a collaboration with the University of North Dakota’s venerable literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly, to see it become a more nimble and digital publication.

North Dakota Quarterly

We have also agreed to work with an innovative new digital journal of archaeology and material culture, Epoiesen, edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. These collaborative projects represent the core values of The Digital Press as they look to bridge the gap between traditional publication and innovation and embrace the best potential of digital tools to create new ways of sharing knowledge.   

Epoiesen and Updates from The Digital Press

We are also excited to report the ongoing success of our 2016 publication, Mobilizing the Past for the Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Derek B. Counts, and Jody Michael Gordon. It has been cited across a wide range of academic journals Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, Journal of Archaeological Science, Open Archaeology, Internet Archaeology, The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Advances in Archaeological Practice. Yesterday, a review appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology, the leading journal of Mediterranean archaeology in the U.S. The book has been out for less than a year!


I was also excited to see William Caraher’s and Kyle Conway’s edited volume The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota get cited in Rick Ruddell’s Oil, Gas, and Crime: The Dark Side of the Boom Town (2017) and a thoughtful article by Thomas S. Davis in English Language Notes titled “Anthropocene Insecurities: Extraction, Aesthetics, and the Bakken Oil Fields.”

Introducing The Bakken Goes Boom The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

We’re also hard at work on a range of other projects. We’ll have an update soon on the digital publication of Micah Bloom’s Codex. The limited, hardcover, print edition is already making its way out to cultural institutions, and the trade paperback is well into production. We’ve scheduled a book launch event at Minot State on November 5th and in the process of getting one schedule here at UND in the fall. Hopefully we can live stream these.

If you don’t already, please follow us on Facebook for the latest news and updates!



Domesticity and Hi-Fi Living

I’m totally enamored with J. Borgerson’s and J. Schroeder’s Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (2017) published by MIT Press. The book explores the remarkable world of album covers from the 1950s and 1960s not from the heights of pop music (which was still dominated by 45 rpm singles), but from more offbeat and intriguing perspective of the newly introduce long-playing record. The book is lavishly illustrated in color and the authors present the album covers as a catalogue organized according two broad themes of “Home” and “Away.” The former includes album covers that feature home life including the joys of listening to music in a domestic retreat, and the latter features the covers of albums that offer to fill the house with foreign ambiance or to transport the listener the exotic locations.   

Borgerson’s and Schroeder’s most interesting observations center on the aspirational domesticity illustrated by these album covers. The home spaces are filled with musicians or listeners perched on Eames chairs in modernist, minimalist surroundings. The cover of Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz (1960) even featured art by Jackson Pollock. The album covers grouped into the “Away” category in this book depicted foreign places relying on a series of recognizable tropes to bring the romance, exoticism, or adventure of international travel to suburban living room. At the dawn of the jet age, these images did more than offer a glimpse of exotic “other” places outside the grasp the ordinary middle class family and reflected the shrinking of the world where it was now possible to travel to Europe, Cuba, Asia, or even domestic destinations such as, the newest state, Hawaii or bustling urbanism New York City. The albums, their cover, and the music, served as a guides to the new tourism of the jet age, and allowed for it to be (re)experienced at home.

As someone who loves hi-fi sound, I recognized that some of the aspirational character of these album covers goes beyond their ability to convey the neatly arranged space of the modern home or evoke the potential of travel and extended to the very idea that mass-produced recorded music was available on demand at home. The growth of radio made music available in the home or office, but the listener remained subject to the whims of the radio station and was always aware (for better and for worse) of being part of a listening public. The home hi-fi allowed a listener to create a private soundtrack for their world, and this likewise worked to redefine music and the home stereo as a way of capturing the otherwise public experiences of performed music. The privatizing of the public experience strikes me as a key element in our middle class dream. The promises of “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound,” “Living Stereo,” “360 Sound,” and “Living Presence” from the long-playing record demonstrates that record companies understood that listeners aspired to the fidelity of living performances in their homes. 

I was also intrigued by the depiction of record players and turntables throughout the book. With few exceptions, the turntable was a understated device usually set off center in the album cover art. There were no wires powering the turntable (or any other electrical devices on the covers) and despite the claims of stereophonic sound, album covers never showed the two speakers necessary to reproduce the full effects of stereo recording. The turntable was a low-key and unobtrusive element of the neatly modernist home that could be hidden away in its cabinet until called upon to transport the listener.

This contrasts significantly with the contemporary vinyl revival which has produced turntables that are designed for their owners to display in their homes as a marker of their sophisticated taste in music and audio gear (exemplified by the recent interest in turntables by lifestyle brands like Shinola). While amplifiers, speakers, and the other gear required for the true high fidelity experience remain a delightful mishmash of industrial utility and modern design sensibility, the turntable has set itself apart, as an opportunity to display audio sophistication. The rituals surrounding turn table use (and to be clear, I’m not a vinyl guy), their design, and the required equipment encroach upon the clean minimalism of the 1950s and 1960s album covers and introduce a muddle, functional aesthetic to domestic space that makes obvious the tools required to translate the public experience to the home. Unlike the understated, almost magical, reproduction of performed music evoked in 1950s and 1960s album art, the 21st century stereo demonstrates the visual mastery of arcane, complex, and sophisticated technologies. If the space and design of the modern home sought to produce a subtle, domestic retreat open to both men and women, the 21st century stereo embodies a crass, functional, and messy masculinity.

The covers reproduced in this book reminded me that you can hide the cables, the racks of LPs, and even the turntable, but the hi-fi experience was never quite as austere and tidy as album covers displayed, and there was something very contemporary about the particular tension between aspiration and reality. The  clean modernity of the technology present in our contemporary mobile phones, laptop computers, and stainless steel appliances, can never quite hide the messy tangle of cables, skills, and rituals designed for its mastery. Despite the neat potential of this aspiration domesticity, the recent vinyl resurgence reminds us that people still want to demonstrate technical proficiency in controlling their world. 

College, Commercialism, and the Common Good

This weekend I finished Charles Dorn’s For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017) which I had assigned for my graduate seminar on the history of higher education. I was hoping that the book somehow updated the fine narrative histories of higher education offered by L. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965),or J. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004), but I was a bit disappointed. At the same time, Dorn seemed to avoid the temptation to write another higher education jeremiad.

Using a series of case studies starting in antebellum period, Dorn observes how higher education has embraced the notion of the “common good” or a sense of explicit civic mindedness.  By the first decades of the 20th century, however, a rising spirit of commercialism complicated calls for universities to promote the common good. This reflected demands of students who saw the university degree as a ticket to the good life as well as administrators loosely following in the footsteps of higher education leader like Andrew White and institutions like Stanford that embraced White’s blending of practical with theoretical learning. The tension between commercial goals of higher education and goals that Dorn associates with the “common good” become most apparent in the land grant universities which constantly negotiated the balance between practical learning designed to promote agriculture and industry in their states and earlier, humanistic ideals of education largely grounded in the liberal arts and including the study of Classics, literature, math, and the sciences. The same tension persisted in the development of normal schools in the U.S. which were established to accomplish the professional goals of training teachers, but, over time, embraced a larger mission that included both education in the liberal arts and more commercially oriented professions.

The strength of Dorn’s book is the detailed case studies which included private and state sponsored colleges in the Early National period (Bowdoin, South Carolina College, and Georgetown), the birth of agricultural and normal schools in the mid-19th century (Michigan State and San Jose State, respectively), and development of a distinctly western vision of higher education (Stanford), of colleges for women (Smith), and to serve African Americans (Howard) in the first half of the 20th century. And, finally, the emergence of the post-WWII university (University of South Florida) and community colleges (in New Mexico and Rhode Island). Dorn proposes that each of these examples manifests particular approaches to the common good from the idealized goals of creating leaders of strong character and morality in the Early National period to practical goals of land-grant schools, and the the economic goals of the 20th century university. At the same time, he returns regularly to trace the growing tension between commercialism and the common good over the course of the 20th century with the goals of individual achievement and affluence superseding the expectation to produce a civic minded graduates who aspire to do the most public good. The transformation of University of South Florida from a school designed to serve the local community, commuters, and the rapidly growing state’s regional needs to a school determined to stand as a top-tier national research institution with a major, residential campus, and a expansive curriculum and research agenda. The transformation of campus culture and goals at USF provides a nice model for how mission creep led to universities changing over time and how public oriented goals that prompted the development of USF gave way to goals more in keeping with commercial, individual, and institutional aspirations for growth, prominence, and wealth.

Unfortunately the narrow focus of most of the case studies in this book obscures the mechanics of these changes at individual institutions. Georgetown and the University of South Carolina (originally South Carolina College) clearly have undergone radical reimagining over their nearly 200 years of existence, but Dorn’s focus on their origins make it impossible to know how these schools developed into their current states. Moreover, Dorn doesn’t return to these types of schools later in his book leaving the reader to wonder how large, state, “flagship” universities and national comprehensive private universities encountered the challenges to their original public-oriented missions. The history of Smith College or even Howard University, while interesting and unique, does little to help us understand University of South Carolina, Michigan State, or Bowdoin. 

I also wish that Dorn had unpacked more critically the tension between individual aspirations for affluence and the growing commercialism of the university and the changing notion of the public good and civic mindedness. Over the past four decades a view of the market as promoting civic good and the common good has become so prevalent in the thinking about the public sphere and higher education that they two cannot be neatly separated. For many universities, the goals of “workforce development” and the public, common good are fundamentally the same owing to changes in the public discourse concerning the role of public institutions, the state, and individual engagement with the market. The absence of any discussion of neoliberalism and its impact on the character of higher education left the distinction between the public and private to stand like a 19th century strawman as irrelevant to higher education in the 21st as the liberal and Classical educational goals of 19th century universities.


Book by its Cover: The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscsape

Book are born from the inside out. First the content, then the design, finally the front matter and index, and finally the cover.

Bret Weber and I are pretty excited to see that the cover for our book The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape is ready. It features a stunning Andy Cullen photograph that wrap around the book and really clever design ensuring that text on the back of the book is neither cramped nor overlaps with the crucial elements in the photo. 

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The distressed, sans serif font, in all caps , reading The Bakken, hints at the gritty content of the book, while also demonstrating that the topic is modern. It complements the sans serif subtitle nicely and the lines that follow the subtitle provide some balance to the cover without being too “design-y.”

I’m not as jazzed about the author photos on the back of the book, in large part because I’m not sure that the appearance of the authors adds much visual interest or any sort of authority too the book. In fact, we both look a bit too much like university professors and this likely to undermine the impact of the book among certain audiences. 

Finally, I’m super excited to see the price of $19.95! There’s hardly any reason not to buy it!

Thank you to the fine folks at NDSU Press who have made this happen. As I’ve learned from my brief time as a publisher. So much work takes place “behind the scenes” in publishing and our current system of production tends to obscure or partition this from the view of the author and reader.  

Page Proofs for The Bakken

Working as both a publisher and an author has given me certain insights into the tricky final stage of the publication process: page proofs. Ideally, as a publisher, page proofs are a chance to catch little niggling problems that crept into the typeset publication during layout. In reality, as both a publisher and an author, page proofs are where any issue that slipped through the editing process leap from the page in high relief. The line between “minor edits” and “totally rewriting the entire damn article” at the page proof stage is much finer than the one might expect.

Bret Weber and I spent this weekend going through the page proofs of The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape which is due to be published in October. There are not a few things that I noticed from the typeset text:

1. Grammar. One of the biggest challenges with this book was trying to write in a somewhat more accessible style. While the excellent copy editing offered by the NDSU Press caught most of the grammatical errors, there are always a few that slip through (and readers of this blog know that my grasp of grammar at a practical level is tenuous at best). My favorite errors at the page proof stage were the use of “seep” and “disembark” as transitive verbs as in “a pipeline seeped oil” and “the train disembarked the passengers.” Fortunately, these were easy problems to fix.

2. Style. The biggest issue that became visible at the page proof stage was the infelicities in my style. I do three things so consistently that I need to make a little note and keep it next to my laptop. First, I use the same word over and over and over in a way that would make a boxing commentator blush. This “appeared” in page proofs and was a relatively easy fix. Second, I need to vary sentence structure more consistently. I have a tendency to being sentences with introductory participial phrases, noun clauses, or phrases using the word “while”: while this, then that. This is more challenging thing to wring out of a text at a late stage of the editing process. Finally, as one of the earlier readers of this text pointed out, I use too many adverbs (and when I’m in the zone, I use the same adverb multiple times in a paragraph and, in at least one instance, used an adverb in both a participial phrase and with the main verb in the sentence. Adverbs are easy to cut.

3. Place, Space, and Time. When we were writing the guide, we tried to do three things. First, introduce readers to the Bakken landscape. Then try to trace the history of various places in the Bakken, from the vanished town of Temple, ND that served as an important entrepôt for oil during the first boom in the 1950s to the largest volume Cinnabon store in the U.S. at the start of this decade. Finally, we try to engage the temporal aspects of contemporary Bakken boom. The idea of contemporaneity, in fact, doesn’t really apply to the Bakken at present because the landscapes is in constant flux especially (and perhaps because of) both the rapid expansion and equally rapid the downturn in oil prices and the slowing of drilling and fracking activity in the region. 

The question that kept running through my head while reading our book is whether we captured this dynamism in a recognizable way? Did our use of verb tenses consistently distinguish between things that are visible and those that are no longer visible? 

As I worked through the final copy of this work, it struck my just how complicated this project could be and how relatively naive we were in our effort to use the tourist guide as a genre to capture modernity in the Bakken. At the same time, re-reading the work energized me to continue to develop this approach to understanding the Bakken landscape and recognizing the problems present in the page proofs – grammatical, stylistic, and otherwise – will hopefully contribute to what I’m doing as a writer and a historian.

More on Haldon’s Empire That Would Not Die

I really enjoyed John Haldon’s latest survey of the 7th century, The Empire that Would Not Die (Harvard 2016). It navigated a very successful balance between the details of 7th-century political life and the broader economic, environmental, demographic, and diplomatic conditions that structured the later Roman state, and it stands as a valuable complement to his earlier works on this period.

The main geographic focus on the book was Asia Minor and to a lesser extent, the Near East. This makes sense not only because this is where much of the best-known political and military action took place, but also where Haldon’s own archaeological fieldwork focused. It is in his analysis of the events along the Empire’s eastern frontier that be brings the most subtle and nuanced view of the relationship between what is taking place on the ground in terms of settlement, movement of people, the landscape, and urbanism and imperial and church politics. It is in these areas – as well as in the capital – where Haldon can trace the intricate web of social, political, economic, cultural and religious connects that constituted the persistent fabric of the Eastern Roman Empire and preserved it from succumbing to massive external pressures and internal confusion. He does not overlook resistance to the Empire or to Imperial policies in Africa and Italy, for example, and does not overstate the stability of a particular Roman identity across the Empire. Nor does he wade too deeply into the prickly archaeological controversies that have muddled our ability to discern clearly small-scale and local changes that took place over the course of the “long 7th century.” In other words, his analysis of this period and the persistence of the Empire as a political institution avoided the worst of the thickets associated with the study of this period.  

He also largely avoided talking about the Balkans and the southern Balkans, in particular. To my mind, Greece offers a particularly intriguing problem for understanding the persistence of Roman rule in the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only was it subject to hostile military attacks and experienced demographic decline and change, but the persistence and extent of Roman military, political, and religious institutions flickered on and off unevenly from the late-6th to 8th century. As readers of this blog by now know, part of the issue is the absence of textual sources for the region and this is compounded by an uneven and complicated archaeological record shaped by a century-long confidence in the catastrophic impact of the so-called “Slavic Invasion.” Late Antique archaeology on Cyprus had the “Arab Raids;” Greece has the Slavs. 

At the same time, the 7th century in Greece has seen a remarkable reconsideration over the past decade and the settlement patterns of this region as well as the continued functioning of urban institutions – at least in the coastal zones –  is coming into better focus. It is increasingly clear that many rural settlements and structures continued in use from the 6th to the 7th centuries and show signs of adapting to different economic networks and the political and military disruptions of these centuries. Our understanding of the relationship between city and countryside, however, remains subject to decades-old biases that either see the rural areas as dependent on cities (and vice versa) or see urban areas as the tenuous links to Roman authority in the region. If the Roman state persisted in urban areas, then the links between town and country outline the structures through which the Empire endured in the southern Balkans and perhaps preserve evidence for the changes in structures over time that provided the Empire with the adaptability to survive the disruptions of this era. 

Do check out Hugh Jeffery’s review of the book here, and, if you want, my earlier comments here.

Acknowledging the Help with the Bakken Guide

I got page proofs this week for my book with Bret Weber: The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape which will be out this fall from NDSU Press

We have an excellent cover, thanks to the designers at NDSU and Andy Cullen’s photograph:

Bakken Cover

We also had the immense pleasure of writing our acknowledgements for the book. It is one of the most fun things to do at the end of a book writing process because it acknowledges all the other folks who contributed to making a book possible.

So here’s our thanks (and look for it in the book which will be out in about a month):

This book received generous support from various grant programs at the University of North Dakota and in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Social Work in the College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines. These included a collaborative research grant that funded our first trips to the Bakken, an Arts and Humanities grant that funded subsequent processing of data, and support from the Cyprus Research Fund in the Department of History.

We benefited from innumerable conversations with our collaborators, especially Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis whose thoughts shaped much of this work. Carenlee Barkdull, Aaron Barth, Sebastian Braun, Bob Caulkins, Julia Geigle, and Ann Reed shared their perspectives and time in the Bakken. John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, Ryan Stander, and Andrew Cullen, whose photographs enliven this book, sharpened our view of the landscape and people through their keen photographic eye. Jim Mochoruk, Cindy Prescott, Thomasine Heitkamp, Nikki Berg Burin, Kyle Conway, Clarence Herz, and Chad Ziemendorf also brought significant insights to our work. Tom Isern and the anonymous peer reviewers saved us from numerous errors of fact and analysis and contributed to the depth and breadth of this guide. The workers, residents, friends, and strangers who welcomed our exploration and inscribed the Bakken landscape through their lives and work deserve pride of place in this book.

Needless to say, all existing errors in this work are our own.


If you haven’t read Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted, you should. It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read for years and has done more to crystalize how I think about housing in the 21st century than almost anything else. Readers of this blog know that housing has become a significant interest of mine stemming largely from my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project and conversations with my colleague Bret Weber.

As most folks probably know, Desmond’s Evicted follows a group of people who were evicted from their homes and shows the struggles that they endure to reclaim stable housing. He complements their perspectives with that of a couple of landlords who constantly balance between managing their properties as investments and dealing with the precarious lives of their tenants. The main argument in the book is that evictions are not the result of social and economic problems among those battling endemic poverty in American cities, but causes the economic and social problems making it nearly impossible for the poorest of the poor to claw their way to stability. Evictions not only become mark the records of the evicted as unstable renters driving them into far less stable markets for housing, but also disrupts family life and stable employment, undermines the ability for existing social safety nets to function properly, and deprives individuals of a sense of worth that is crucial for self esteem, confidence, planning, and that most characteristic condition of capitalist, ambition.

I took five things away from this book:

Functional Housing. I’ll admit that I’ve tended to see housing as a more less functional category of space. Perhaps this comes from my experience as an Mediterranean archaeologist where we’ve tended to see certain assemblages of material and spaces as “domestic” in function without much in the way of nuance outside the wealthiest elite of the ancient world. When I tried to adapt this kind of definition to my work in the contemporary Bakken oil patch, I found that it was rather inadequate to describe the conditions present in workforce housing in the Bakken ranging from ramshackle RVs to austerely functional, professionally managed “man camps.” While the latter certainly served the basic housing needs for a significant portion of the Bakken workforce, they also functioned like hotels, limiting the opportunities for their residents to personalize their space, privileging functionality over intimacy, and undermining the traditional middle-class division between work and life by bundling housing with employment.

Desmond’s book does not deal with workforce housing per se, but few of his evicted residents end up on the street or without a place to stay. Instead, they are forced from their homes into the homes of others, shelters, and other places that function as housing – or perhaps more basically shelter – but do not offer a sense of security, intimacy, or “ownership” (in the broadest sense of the term). Desmond brilliant reveals the division between housing as a function and housing as part of the psychological armor that an individual needs to survive in the modern world.  

Property as Investment and Housing as Life. The broader function of housing makes the tension between housing as an investment and housing as fundamental to a successful life in the 21st century all the more dramatic. Desmond’s work follows the story of both renters and landlords that embodies this tension. What is interesting is at the lowest level of the housing scale in the U.S., landlords are not faceless companies or management outfits, but real people who make their living providing housing for the poorest of the poor in American cities. In some ways these individuals are more sympathetic figures with more flexible approaches to housing than, say, the banks that held mortgages during the subprime mortgage crisis. On the other hand, these individuals could be fickle and unpredictable as they attempted to manage a housing stock that often was in desperate need of repairs, tenants who struggled to pay rent, and the various institutional challenges brought by building inspectors, the police, and various other city service providers. The property owners in Desmond’s book are far more sympathetic figures than the absentee, millionaire investors vilified by K. Stanley Robinson in his most recent novel or in the recent survey of housing by Marcuse and Madden.

Precarity. Bret Weber introduced me to the idea of precarity earlier this year and since then, I’ve been turning it around in my head and trying to figure our whether the idea is sufficiently robust to apply it formally to how we understand the coming changes to 21st century society. It basically describes an social and economic condition where one’s ability to survive in a meaningful and independent way is constantly under threat. I’ve considering applying it to the condition of oil workers in the Bakken whose livelihood is dependent on economic forces that are beyond their control and there is a clear value to wealthy companies to avoid encumbering their bottom like with a stable and permanent workforce. The recent rise in adjunct labor at American universities is similarly invested the creation of precarity in the academic workforce. Precarity also drives down wages, preserves a pool of available labor for just-in-time production, and undermines social stability in communities.

Among the poorest of the American poor, precarity is a way of life with the vicissitudes of housing not only manifesting the precarious nature of their existence, but exacerbating it. Precarious employment means precarious incomes and this means precarious housing. More importantly, the system of inexpensive rental housing depends on the precarious labor of the chronically unemployed who will work at below minimum wage or for incredibly low wages because they have no choice. This low cost labor keeps the margins up on low cost housing that is frequently occupied by the poorest of the poor who, in turn, provide both rents and low cost labor.  

Social Networks. One of the more remarkable things that I learned from Desmond’s book is the way in which personal relationship – the social network – functioned for the poor and the evicted. In some cases, personal relationship provided a functional safety net for people evicted from their homes. Friends, family, and neighbors took in the newly evicted and even provided food and – perhaps as importantly – advice, friendship, and sympathy.

At the same time, these networks were incredibly fragile with friends and family frequently unwilling or unable to help, and new relationships forming almost spontaneously during crises. This dynamic situation is both heartening because it demonstrates a kind of shared humanity during a crisis, but also troubling because social bonds become structured around the practical needs of housing and sustenance. As we start to analyze the interviews from the North Dakota Man Camp Project, it’ll be interesting to determine whether we can recognize these dynamic networks of relationships that thrive in precarious environments.

Objects. This is an archaeological blog, right? I couldn’t help but think about all the objects mentioned in Demond’s book. I immediately envisioned a student project that produced an index of objects from the book and considered how objects served to both advance Desmond’s argument and in the lives of the evicted. Producing plans of the houses and rooms that Desmond describes would also provide a kind of blueprint of poverty in American cites. Someone needs to do this!

Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century.