Performative Informality, Community, and Collaboration

Every year about this time, I pause for a bit to remember my late friend Joel Jonientz who died in 2014. Invariably, this leads to my thinking back to the salad days of the decade from 2004-2014 which felt not only more productive but also more collegial than the years since then. You can read some of my Jonientz inspired blog posts here.

In general, my view of that decade was deeply nostalgic. I saw the good things that happened in those years—collaborative projects such as The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, an interest in a wide range of transdisciplinary digital media, and the formation of social bonds that continue, in some ways, to define my professional life (e.g. Paul Worley serves as the poetry editor at NDQ; Mike Wittgraf and I have published articles together; Crystal Alberts has guest edited an issue of the QuarterlyKyle Conway and I have published together on the Bakken).

At the same time, I recognize that the conditions that produced this major shift in my professional life and identity were not just social ones. The university itself was flourishing at the time. It was near peak enrollment numbers, riding a wave of solid legislative support, and led by administrators who found ways to support innovative projects in the arts and humanities, including the Working Group in Digital and New Media where I formed many close personal and professional friendships. Feeling particularly nostalgic last year, I charted out some of the things that emerged from this fruitful period at UND

I also emphasized this period at UND as one of hope which now seems almost impossible to recapture. Budget cuts, awkward leadership styles, an emphasis on competition between programs and departments, the steady hemorrhaging of faculty, and the corresponding decline in morale ensured that even before the pandemic UND had become a very different place than it was in 2010.

While the passing of time intensifies nostalgia, it eventually offers a more critical vantage point for reflection.

This year, in particular, I got to wonder whether the important social bonds that I formed years ago at UND were also part of a kind of toxic atmosphere that is as much to blame for at least some of the tensions that exist today at UND as budgetary, administrative, and structural issues. For example, the Working Group in Digital and New Media had a presence on campus, but it was every bit as much a social group whose meeting regularly concluded with a trip to a local watering hole and interaction between our families, weekend visits to each other’s homes, and various other social events.

This blurring of social and professional boundaries relied, at least in some ways, in the kind of “performative informality” that creates boundaries. These boundaries which tend to be less than visible to the “in group” who shares the informal convivial rituals and ties, are nevertheless highly visible to individuals in the “out group” who feel excluded by these practices. That our group was largely the same age, largely the same professional rank, and largely the same place in our personal and professional lives, further reinforced the exclusivity of our performative bonds.

It strikes me that these informal bonds are fairly hard to recreate in a way that is not exclusive, at least when compared to more formally defined professional relationships. In fact, the the university, for all its faults, has tended to invest in relationships, collaborations, and partnerships defined on the basis of professional standards. It is perhaps idealistic to think that this investment ensures greater inclusivity as recent research into structural racism and sexism in higher education has shown. That said, there are many who see changes to professional standards of collaboration and cooperation in higher education as easier to achieve than long standing practices of social behavior and performative informality. It might be that these institutional shifts have the potential to create more inclusive groups on campus.

This isn’t just an issue of inclusivity and fairness in our professional life, but also reflects an interest in creating more enduring institutions. As I’ve blogged about before when faculty moved on, resources dried up, and campus culture changed, groups bound by performative informality crumbled as the social bonds succumb to distance and changing professional responsibilities.  

In hindsight, then, I wonder whether the easy collegiality that was so productive in the short term, had shallow institutional foundations because of practices that hindered its ability to reproduce itself in persistent ways.

This doesn’t mean that I regret the friendships and sense of community that I developed over that decade or that I’ll stop looking back on it as a period of growth and intellectual development, but I suppose that I should also recognize that the exclusive character of my collaborative circle created a kind of fragility. In some ways, my current sense of intellectual isolation on campus is perhaps as much a result of choice that I made 15 years ago as conditions on campus today.  

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.