Reflections on Joel Jonientz

It’s been four years since Joel Jonientz died. This is a long time under any circumstances, but these days four years ago feels like a completely different world to me. Maybe some of this has to do with the “sold” sign on the Jonientz house down the street. Maybe some of this has to do with just getting older. Maybe some of this reflects the relentless pace of change that even encroaches on my little corner of North Dakotaland.

Punka cover 1

Recently, I’ve been thinking about collaboration and work at the University of North Dakota, and these are things that Joel and I talked about regularly. I was particularly interested in understand what a university could do (and should do) to cultivate a spirit of collaboration among its faculty. Joel was a veteran collaborator across UND’s campus who was part of the Working Group in Digital and New Media, co-organized the UND Arts and Culture Conference, worked with the UND Writers Conference to design their posters and to moderate panels, applied (and won) collaborative grants to animate Maya poetry, and who helped me co-found The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

There were particular circumstances that allowed for the emergence of collaborative culture on UND’s campus in those days. First, there was relative stability on campus which gave faculty the confidence that collaborative initiatives would have the time and space to develop. Second, there were resources earmarked for grassroots collaborative ventures that authorized faculty led initiatives. Finally, there was a spirit of collegiality among faculty that softened our competitive instincts. In other words, there were institutional, financial, and social conditions that encouraged the development of collaboration.  

Despite the opportunities to collaborate, I remained a bit more tentative in my approach to on-campus partnerships. I had long-justified my reluctance to embrace collaboration fully as having a rather specialized set of research interests and also being relatively slow to pivot from one area of interest to the next. Joel in contrast, always demonstrated a kind of dynamism that allowed up to cultivate multiple niches from video game designer to poster maker, painter, time-based media artist, and publisher. These skills, which derive – as he used to put it – from being a “Master of FINE Arts” gave him a tool set that was both in demand and well-suited for collaboration.

(In hindsight, I probably didn’t quite understand how to collaborate on campus and how to listen as much as I spoke. I probably don’t quite have the balance for that down yet, but I’m working on it.)

One of the key things that got me thinking about Joel’s attitudes toward collaboration and the conditions that allowed collaboration to flourish among my group of colleagues is a recent post from a colleague that said, in effect, “no one should be allowed to work for free.” It echoed a quip I once heard from a faculty member in engineering. He said that over the summer, “I don’t work because I don’t get paid.” 

This struck me as a bit odd. After all, most academics work for free over the course of their careers. In fact, the entire pay structure of academia, in which some faculty make more than others for doing essentially the same job, dictates that one persons work is worth more (and worse less) than another’s. So as long as I do the same job as my better compensated colleagues, I am, in effect, doing work for free in the hope that my efforts will be recognized and, at some future time, compensated.

Joel tended to insist that he be compensated for his work, except when he didn’t. For example, he did most of the design and layout work for my Punk Archaeology project for free. I never really understood how he determined what he expected to be paid for and what he’d do because it was fun, and what he considered contract work and what he considered collaboration. I’m sure the line was blurry, but I also suspect – in hindsight – that it had something to do with how he valued the work.

Collaboration, it seems to me, involves both parties valuing the work more or less equally. It is possible, then, to “work for free” because the work itself has value outside of or beyond compensation. For this kind of system to function, there needs to be a tremendous amount of trust between collaborators as well as the practical recognition that the project will benefit all parties. This kind of trust develops most fully in stable environments, where access to resources softens the edge of competition that so much of academia cultivates. 

I’m still working on collaborative projects. Eric Burin and I work together to publish timely works at The Digital Press. Paul Worley and I have been working with a group of editors to keep North Dakota Quarterly thriving. I work with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, Amy PapalexandrouDimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and others every summer on archaeological projects. I’m enjoying tremendously the collaboration with students and colleagues on the Wesley College Documentation Project. My work with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is a source of constant excitement.

I like to think that these collaboration share Joel’s spirit in some ways, but I also can’t help but wonder whether there would be more or different opportunities if Joel was still around.