The University of North Dakota Budget Crisis in the Classroom

At a meeting a week before spring break, one of the student representatives expressed concern about the University of North Dakota budget crisis impacting teaching (and learning) on campus. He noted that low faculty morale and a lack of confidence in university leadership did little to motivate learners and had become a distraction. I think this must be true, but I’m also not sure what anyone can do about it. The entire campus community is being impacted by the budget cuts, and so it is hardly surprising that it is seeping into the classroom.

[This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5.]

In my graduate historiography class, we’ve embraced the opportunity to discuss the impact of the budget crisis, in part, because it impacts the academic careers of the students in the class. Because our graduate program was de-funded, there will be very few courses available for our M.A. and D.A. students in the next year or so, and we will admit no funded students next semester. In other words, these students will witness a lull in our graduate program that will directly impact their education.

After some discussion, we decided that the best response from this class could be some kind of apologia or manifesto defending graduate education in history and the humanities more broadly. We agreed to open to make our work one to the public, first through a series of critiques by faculty and graduate students in our department and then to the wider community for comment. This work would fit into both a broader discussion of public humanities (for the students) and as part of a wider effort to document the impact of the budget cuts “on the ground.”

I read the first draft of their work this weekend with great interest. It’s pretty good, and my point in this post isn’t to call the students out on their work, but to note a few trends in their work that I think characterize the current budget situation at UND.

1. Causal Confusion. One of the most striking things about their work is the confusion about where the budget cuts that impact them originated. Most students blamed the legislature for the reduced funding to higher education, but some vaguely blamed “the administration.” What was consistent is that none of the students entirely grasped the process of budget cutting on campus and the various levels of responsibility and accountability. This suggests that the administration’s efforts to communicate how the budget cuts worked have not made it to the level of the students most effected by them.

While it is easy to say that my students needed to dig a bit deeper to understand administrative processes and the like, it is nevertheless an interesting situation that the regular drumbeat of communication from the administration did not appear to shape their views. Whether this reflects a commitment to a “post factual world,” a bit of lazy research, or a failure of the administration’s communication strategy (or a bit of all three) remains difficult to know right now.

2. Historical Context. The other issue that was a bit disappointing to me was the lack of historical context for these budget cuts. While the first draft showed a broad awareness that similar budget cuts had taken place elsewhere and that cuts to the humanities fit within a pattern that oscillates between seeing universities as workforce training and being seen as places to build civic identities and common values deeply rooted in the humanities. What was absent was any effort to locate these cuts in the history of the state or the university. 

These aren’t the first budget cuts at UND, and there is plenty of evidence available for how the university has dealt with similar cuts in the past. More importantly, there is a long pattern of attitudes toward the larger mission of higher education both at UND and across the state available both in published works, like L. Geiger’s history of the university, and in the university archives. 

Again, my inclination is not to blame the students for this oversight, but, of course, as historians you would imagine that they’d have attacked the problem using their historical toolkit. Instead, students were drawn into current rhetoric which sees these cuts and unprecedented and approaches the problem of the budget cuts in a fundamentally ahistorical way. This frees the administration to act without any kind of commitment to historical practices, processes, or (with all due caveats) tradition. It is difficult to make the case that history matters without engaging history fully in diagnosing and assessing the problems and potential solutions.

3. Petroculture. One thing that I did notice right in the background of many of the contributions to this effort is the looming specter of oil and some linked the budget shortfalls and budget cuts on the decline of oil prices. A subtle strand throughout the work is that history and historical thinking would have helped the state and the university better anticipate and adapt to the mercurial fluctuations in oil prices.

It is curious, though, that unlike many places in the world where oil has had a major impact on the local economies, none of the humanities institutions in North Dakota have yet to promote or develop a sustained interest in petrocultures. Petrocultures or Oil Humanities describes any number of approaches to economy, history, literature, or culture of oil production and consumption across various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They absence of a focus on oil and the humanities in North Dakota has left the state unprepared to engage the challenges of the oil economy and petroculture. As the state prepares itself to be even more accommodating to extractive industry, there is greater pressure for scholars and students of the humanities to provide a critical foil to these developments. 

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:


The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom. 

Me in the Media: Outrage and the Bakken

It’s been a hectic week here in North Dakotaland. So hectic, in fact, that I don’t have time to write about myself. The self-promotion machine has run up against the oppressive reality of … life and books and outrage!

Fortunately, when I’m too busy to promote myself, other people do pick up the slack.

I was really excited to see this article by Megan Gannon in the MIT-based UnDark Magazine. She discusses the North Dakota Man Camp Project in the context of other – frankly more established and well-known – archaeological projects that focused on the contemporary world. It’s a real honor to be discussed next to the seminal work of Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, and Jason DeLeón. 

The Grand Forks Herald has a short piece on the NDUS Arts and Humanities Outrage Summit that begins tomorrow. Check it out here.

Finally, on Tuesday, North Dakota Quarterly re-published my little article on the historical context for Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. It’s a nice little piece that ties together Robinson’s career as a teacher and a leader in the Department of History with his crowning achievement. 

Lots going on this week!

Digital Humanities and the New Liberal Arts

In a productive coincidence, there was a provocative published in the Los Angeles Review of Books that subjected the Digital Humanities to rather pointed criticism aligning the darling of tech-savvy humanists, granting agencies, and university administrators everywhere with the dreaded neoliberal bugbear of our age. In short, the authors associated the rise of the Digital Humanities with the emergence of the corporatized university, vocational, tool-based education in the humanities, and decline of the traditional emphasis in the humanities on interpreting and engaging texts. I’m sure my colleagues in the #DH world will pull this article apart, but it’s hard to ignore as a good start to an important conversation. 

At this same time, my colleague, Tom Isern, down at North Dakota State University announced on Facebook that he’s working on a talk on the liberal arts to be delivered at an upcoming higher education confab here in North Dakota. The latter prompted me to think about what a forward-looking liberal arts would be (a la the New Liberal Arts), and the former provided me with a nice critical foil against which to imagine the humanities (and the larger liberal arts) in the 21st century. I think I want to write something about that in the late summer or fall. For now I have random thoughts.

1. Backward to a Future. This semester, I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Hayden White, Marshall Salins, and Dipesh Chakrabarty with my graduate historiography students. We’ve pushed each other to think about how the kinds of pasts we imagine shape and reflect the future we desire. As I’ve started to think critically about the future of the humanities and the liberal arts (more broadly), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the current state of higher education is as much the culmination of a long-standing conversation in the humanities (that has insisted on a kind of practical relevance) as well as pressures from outside the academy to make higher education relevant to the economic (and political) needs of the community (and our stakeholders).

In other words, I wonder whether looking back to understand the liberal arts may not help us escape our current bind, where the humanities are not seen as significant to a 21st century view of higher education that is pushing universities to declare the direct impact of their programs on the economic future of the country. Can we imagine a future for the humanities that is free from discussions of methods and methodology, disciplines and professionalism, and outcomes? As someone who teaches historical methods, has published on archaeological methodology, and has thought (critically? naively?) about technology in archaeology, I feel like most of these conversations are essential co-terminus with the emergence of the humanities as a thing within the context of higher education. The seeds of so much of our current university system came not from outside academia, but from the very processes of creating academia. 

2. Integrating and Disintegrating. Part of the challenge that I face teaching historical methods and graduate history, in general, is how much do I push my students simply to try to make sense of the past versus spending time teaching discipline specific methods which range from the pedestrian (this is how we fooooootnooottteeeee) to the elusive (how do we read between the lines of the text) and practical (relational databases, GIS, et c.). The former approach is close to the heart of the discipline and evokes Mommsen’s famous advice that students in history should learn languages and, maybe, a little law. For Mommsen the key to writing good history is carefully and slowly reading texts. I want my students to be able to read a text, understand it, and draw their own conclusions from an intimate relationship with the words on the page.

For our students and our situation, this is much more challenging. Mommsen’s students were preparing for work as teachers, historians, maybe clerks, in a text based world. While I’d contend that our world is still – and maybe more so – dominated by text, our students are expected to have far more granular skill sets at their disposal. There is tremendous pressure to dis-integrate disciplinary knowledge into a set of discrete skills. While big picture skills like reading, critical thinking, information literacy, and writing remain important and, we’re told, “in demand,” skills in data management, software, programing languages, formal editing, public history skills (museum design, accounting, marketing, graphic design, et c.), audio and video recording and production, are all part of a larger package of assets that our students both want and our administrators hope that we can develop within a disciplinary context. The rise of public history programs, for example, is a direct response to pressures to develop a degree with clear and explicit skills that can be dis-integrated and “sold separately” to employers.  

3. Disciplines and their Discontents. If integration and dis-integration of skills represents a constant pressure on how we justify our practice in the classroom and in our disciplines, there is the equal pressure to dissipate and disintegrate disciplinary learning and research across the curriculum. If disciplines are being pushed to identify and develop particular skills so that they can market their graduates outside of the academy, we are also being asked to market our disciplines within the university as the industrial model of higher education reaches its natural conclusion. Each course in the each discipline must fulfill a clear and obvious function in the education of our undergraduate consumers and in the research portfolio of the university in general. At the same time, each discipline needs to articulate itself as a distinct set of skills to justify the qualifications of its graduates for work in a putative “skills-based” world.

Disciplines and their institutional analogues – namely the department – find an increasingly awkward fit with the complex and contradictory rhetoric of higher education. The cynic in me sees much of this rhetoric as a way to undermine the authority of the department within the university administration. Departments – in general – serve as the point of contact between the administration and faculty and faculty governance is most frequently manifest at the departmental level. Efforts to undercut disciplines and departments are a method to undercut faculty authority. At the same time, our own efforts at justifying our discipline and departments often result in appeals to methods that date to the earliest days of the modern university. The development of disciplinary specific methods and skills then serve the purpose of dis-integrating disciplinary knowledge.

Robinson, UND, and the History of North Dakota

I agreed to write a short piece for North Dakota Quarterly about the institutional context for Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. This is part of a series of short essays and reviews of the work to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary. 

I’m not entirely satisfied with what I have now, but it’s a start. Read below:

Orin G. Libby picked Elwyn and Eva Robinson up at the bus station in Grand Forks on September 5, 1935. Libby was 77 and the longtime chair of the schismatic, American History department at the University of North Dakota. He was cantankerous, inflexible, and more respected than liked. He was the first professional historian to teach at the University of North Dakota, had worked to develop the state archives and the State Historical Society, and had produced as fine a crop of graduate students as the history department had ever seen. He had also clashed so fiercely with UND’s President Thomas Kane, that he found himself isolated a Department of American History which saw a revolving door of faculty members who rarely stayed more than a few years.

Elwyn and Eva had married just a few days earlier and had traveled 1,085 miles from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Elywn graduated from Oberlin College before heading to Western Research University in Cleveland for his graduate work in history. In 1935, when Libby began to search for a replacement after John Pritchett decamped to Vassar College, Elwyn had not finished his dissertation, but Libby had hired him anyway based on a recommendation from Robinson’s advisor Arthur C. Cole. Cole edited the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and knew Libby through his work with that association. As with many of Libby’s hires, there was no formal interview outside of some correspondence and the first time the two men met was at the Grand Forks bus station. Such was the practice at the University of North Dakota and across the country.

Robinson’s first years at UND were profoundly shaped by his relationship with Libby. While Libby introduced the history seminar to the university in the early years of the 20th century, by the 1930s, Robinson considered his teaching style antiquated and ineffective. This pushed Robinson to innovate by introducing new textbooks, he placed on reserve at the library readings in primary and secondary sources, and adopted a new, less formal teaching style. He spent particular effort to learning students’ names and addressing them when he saw them on campus, breaking away from more traditional modes of engagement common on campus. Robinson set himself up as the opposite of Libby’s stern demeanor quipping: “I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe he had any gift for encouraging or stimulating his students except as fear was a stimulus.”

In 1945 Libby retired and this opened the door for Robinson to begin to consider seriously writing a history of North Dakota. Apparently, Libby’s wife had intimated that he was working on such a book when Robinson had first come to Grand Forks in 1935. Robinson had not heard Libby talk about this work at all during their time together and after Libby’s retirement, he concluded that the field was open for him to work on a new book length history of the state. The writing The History of North Dakota would occupy the next 20 years of Robinson’s academic life.

The Department of History and the University of North Dakota provided a dynamic context for the writing of The History of North Dakota. The University of North Dakota grew quickly in the 1950s and 1960s, saw the departure of many of the stalwart faculty of the pre-war period, and faculty ranks professionalized steadily under the leadership of George Stacher. In many ways, Robinson’s publication of The History of North Dakota anticipated the new professional expectations for faculty at UND that were to mature in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, Robinson and many of his colleagues chaffed under the supervision of Felix Vondracek who served as department head from 1945-1962. Libby hired both Vondracek and Robinson in the interwar period (Vondracek in 1929 and Robinson in 1935), but they represented a study in contrasts. Vondracek exuded a stentorian confidence and photographic memory, although he struggled to complete his dissertation at Columbia. Robinson was quiet, retiring, and diligent. Vondracek was imperious in his leadership of the department, substituted bluster for hard work, and leveraged his seniority to advance his salary. Robinson led by example and sought advancement through his teaching and scholarship.

Vondracek’s style of leadership led to significant anxiety in the department and Robinson blamed him for pushing several scholars to leave the university. The rapid growth of higher education during the post-war decades, of course, provided opportunities for mobility among the faculty ranks and accomplished or ambitious scholars like Louis Geiger, John Parker, and George Lemmer left UND after clashing with Vondracek. The failure of UND to manage these departures demonstrates the persistent power of pre-war faculty and hints at skepticism among the administration and long term faculty to professionalization. Robinson felt the departures of colleagues and friends intensely and rued the reluctance of the deans and administrators to tame Vondracek’s authority.

The instability of the department compounded Robinson’s deep concern with both his salary and expenses. His memoirs are rife with minute financial details that reveals both personal anxiety an instinct for stretching ever last dollar to its fullest. In 1935, Robinson was hired for the princely sum of $1400 per year. At his promotion to associate professor in 1948, he earned $4229 and $5000 per year at his promotion to full in 1950. In terms of buying power his salary nearly doubled over his first 15 years at the university, but his family grew as well as did his expenses. He regularly complained, however, that others, particular Vondracek earned more than he did or appropriated lucrative summer teaching contracts unfairly. Even as his salary approached five figures in the mid-1960s, Robinson continued to live paycheck to paycheck. His publication of The History of North Dakota, led to him being named a University Professor in 1967 and a $20,000 raise. This seems to have relieved some financial pressure.

Against this personal and institutional backdrop, Robinson’s History of North Dakota stands as a transitional work that emerged across the changing character of the University of North Dakota. From Libby’s

Revisiting the Elwyn Robinson Memoirs Project

Years ago, when I was working on writing my History of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, I stumbled across Elwyn Robinson’s memoirs tucked away in the UND archives. It was titled A Professors Story and offered a revealing glimpse of both Robinson’s life and his work in the Department of History and writing his landmark History of North Dakota. (For more on it, see here and here.)

For the last few years, I had this idea that I could publish his memoirs in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his History of North Dakota. I’ll admit that I didn’t have a great plan for how to do this, but I kept a slot open for the production in my capacity as publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

This is when Prof. Sherry O’Donnell and Michele Eifert entered the picture. I offered the manuscript to Sherry’s editing class in the English Department at UND to give them some practical experience preparing a manuscript for publication. This class spent the semester working through Robinson’s manuscript, preparing focused introductions to each chapter, and even working on format and type-setting. Yesterday, I finally got to see the fruit of their labor!

The result of their work is spectacular. The students’ pride and enthusiasm in discussing this project reminded me of the importance of “making” in the academic process and gives me great hope that the Robinson’s memoirs will be published in 2016.

IMG 4150  1

Byzantium and the Public Sphere

In a couple of weeks, I head back east to the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at the Hellenic College Holy Cross to be on a panel of scholars who “use traditional and digital means to build a broader audience for the field inside and outside of the academy.” I suspect my blog caught their attention or a series of posts a couple of years ago on marketing my Byzantine history class to unsuspecting undergraduates. 

In these blog posts, I complained that the place of Byzantium in most “master narratives” presented to college students, limits how we can present the Byzantine Empire to an unfamiliar audience on campus. Some of these approaches are useful. In my very traditional history department, Byzantine history serves as another way to complicate what the students understand to be “the Western tradition.” To simplify this discussion (as I would present it to undergraduates unfamiliar with Byzantium), the Byzantine world has a Western pedigree: it represented the persistence of the Roman Empire, it was ruled and populated by “people of the book” (Jews, Christian, and Muslims), and it partook in familiar practices that ranged from Hellenic philosophy, to architecture, forms of literature, and political history. At my lowest points, I found myself saying: “Don’t worry, it will be far more familiar than the world of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin!” (Putting aside that these worlds were made up and featured, you know, dragons). In my best moments, I found that I could channel my inner Anthony Kaldellis

Appeals to familiarity, of course, only serve to highlight the things about Byzantium that are utterly unfamiliar. On a short flight this past month, I read over Averill Cameron’s slim volume titled Byzantine Matters. The book provides a useful, if incomplete view of trends in the field over the author’s influential career (or since the publication of Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State in 1969. More than that, her book is accessible and generally indicates some profitable lines of inquiry that challenge the traditional view of Byzantium as a theocratic despotism satisfied to simmer gently beneath the ponderous weight of Orthodox uniformity. This approach not only offers a way to open up Byzantium to questions that are profoundly Western (e.g. what was the relationship between church and state?), but also to urge students to see the study of Byzantium as a way to critique Orientalism and its view of unchanging, almost unthinking traditionalism. This may be a hook to ensure that “Byzantium belongs to all of us, and … belongs to mainstream history.” Lest we imagine that Cameron went all populist on us, she also calls for renewed attention to Byzantine religious writing (sermons, theological treatises, et c.) as works of literature. Nothing is likely to broaden the appeal of Byzantium more than combining the study of literature, with all its theoretical pretensions, with the study of theological texts which were probably bored the vast majority of the Byzantine world. That being said, this suggestion does follow her overarching argument for hidden complexity in the Byzantium world.

I don’t think that I was invited to this panel to share my penetrating understanding of Byzantine historiography, however. 

I think I’ll try to inject a few observations.

1. Blogging Byzantium. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a constant presence of Byzantine bloggers on the web. In most cases, these blogs are pretty traditional, text-driven places. None of us have truly embraced the potential of social and new media although a few of the blogs feature videos from time to time.

There are a few exceptions. For example, there is Lars Brownworth’s 12 Rulers of Byzantium which started as a podcast and has expanded into a media empire featuring videos and a book. The Cry for Byzantium Twitter feed of Alexius I Comnenus pushes Byzantium into the social media sphere. The /r/Byzantine page on Reddit appears to be thriving.

The typical Byzantine Blogger, however, is pretty textual with the occasional image of a domed church or a map. There are, of course, a few panoramic views of Byzantine churches and a mishmash of mostly outdated efforts to create interactive maps of Constantinople or whatever. Generally speaking, scholars of Byzantium have stayed on the sideline of recent trends to create a more dynamic web. These kinds of projects require significant funding and, perhaps more importantly, a clearly-defined audience.

2. Byzantine Archaeology as World Archaeology. I need to work this into a fuller post at some point in the near future, but one observation that my buddy Kostis Kourelis made a few years back is that a meaningful subset of Byzantine archaeologists also do archaeology in their local communities. What brought this to mind was David Pettegrew’s recent work on mapping 19th century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the Greek community there. Kostis has been involved in my North Dakota Man Camp Project and various initiatives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he teaches. The willingness of archaeologists of the Byzantine world to engage in the archaeology of their local communities hints that Byzantinists are not as disengaged as our scholarly output might suggest. In fact, it suggests that some of the trends in Byzantine archaeology resonate with issues prevalent in world archaeology. For a discipline that almost takes a perverse pride in its idiosyncratic conventions, this is a significant revelation and offers hope for Byzantinists everywhere that our skills and professional interests can have a direct impact on local communities in North America.

3. Mash-Up and Convergence. Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about how our scholarly production – books and articles – rarely extend beyond their academic audiences and rarely enjoy lives outside of their final, published copies. The divergence between academic works and popular books could not be more stark as influential popular books often feed a growing participatory community engaged in fan fiction, form the basis for transmedia productions like films and video games, and spawn communities of commentators and critics. George R.R. Martin’s mostly-depraved Game of Thrones series of books and TV series is just the most recent and perhaps most visible example.

As Byzantinists contemplate engaging the public sphere more fully, it might behoove us to consider the changing the changing state of popular media. How do we ensure that our books and articles become living, media entities that go beyond their utility to a small group of scholars? Do we push to make our work available in open access? Do we work harder to contribute to linked-data practices? How does our work interact or intersect with the larger media universe? 

To my mind, this is not simply about making our work known to more people, but making it more accessible to audiences who think about media in new and more dynamic ways. Books and articles are more than just forms of scholarly communication or instruments designed to get tenure, but simply aspects of an increasingly dynamic media universe that extends beyond the life of a publication, its physical or digital form, and goals of the academic author. How can Byzantine studies engage this world?

Punk Archaeology, Digital Humanities, and DIY

A few weeks back my buddy Paul Worley penned an interesting blog post on digital humanities and “getting hit by the proverbial bus.” The post talked about the ripple effect of Joel Jonientz’s death in our little digital humanities community on campus. For the University of North Dakota, the digital humanities was an explicitly collaborative affair with almost all of the successful project from the Working Group in Digital and New Media involving more than one member. It seems like Joel was central to most of these projects as much for his willingness to learn a new skill (or fake it) as his interest in what another member of the Working Group called “O.P.P.” (other people’s projects).  

One of the consequences of Joel’s passing is that many of us have had to pick up where he left off and actually try to learn new tools to complete our projects. The good Dr. Worley learned to animate using Photoshop, Dr. Ommen deployed his raw, but vivid illustrating skills to finish his adaption of Isocrates’ Against the Sophists, and I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself in the intricacies of Adobe’s InDesign to keep The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota afloat. It is appropriate that the first book that I worked on is an edited collection of essays on Punk Archaeology where the DIY ethic thrives and compromised production values represent an aesthetic choice as much as a practical reality. 

As Paul noted, dynamic, collaborative Digital Humanities projects should always be somewhat fragile as DIY skills pass from one collaborator to the next and projects transform in changing contexts.  The significance and potential of collaboration will always extend beyond specific outcomes – e.g. a book or a successful grant proposal – and the value of catalytic individuals like Joel and spaces for collaboration like the Working Group, is in the transfer of specialized skills from one member of the collaboration to the next. From the university’s perspective, this transfer of skills provides stability and continuity for (sometimes well-funded) initiatives. From an individual faculty perspective, however, the fuzzy outcomes of digital humanities initiatives which often come in the form of skills rather than products, can be difficult to articulate, for example, within traditional tenure and promotion guidelines. To some, this tension is terrifying and represents the contradiction between the goals of the university as a community and the expectations placed on its individual members.

That being said, the task of taking new skills and using them is pretty scary too.

Curating Digital Joel

On Monday evening, some of Joel Jonientz’s University of North Dakota colleagues and I began the gut-wrenching process of preparing his digital archive. (For more on Joel, check out his blog here and my little post on him here.)

While Joel was trained as a painter, in the last decade he had moved heavily to digital media for his work. His animation, design, video, and audio content was scattered over three computers and a bunch of hard drives. After a quick look, we determined that almost everything on these machines was work related, but his organization was a bit complex, so instead of just grabbing content files, we imaged the drives on the computer (more or less) to make sure that we got everything we might need.

As we did this, we looked over the terabyte or more of data and realized that the process of curating this content would be more than just a long evening or weekend. Joel has three kids and a fabulous wife and they wanted copies of his digital legacy. Moreover, we wanted to make some of Joel’s legacy available to the university archives as part of its mission to archive the work of faculty. They are just now coming to terms with the complexities of archiving digital work, so my colleagues and I are looking to help them as much as possible.

So far, we’ve encountered three issues as we began to think through the process of curating his digital collection:

1. Formats. Joel worked pretty easily across multiple proprietary software platforms for image, video, and audio editing as well as layout and design. As  result, his hard drives are a bewildering array of file types that will have to be converted to archival formats. In some cases, that will be easy. Audio files can be converted to .wav files and Photoshop files convert easily to uncompressed .tiff formats. Video files present a different challenge, of course, as they have – from what I can tell – garnered the same kind of wide agreement for an archival format. 

More than that, the formats of files do preserve traces of Joel’s artistic process. Animation for example might easily involve both proprietary still image formats, design, and video. While we plan to have several copies of the imaged drives preserved, we began to think about how the relationship between proprietary file types and process should be represented in the more carefully and selective curated archive. Converting all the propriety file types to archival formats runs the risk of overwriting part of his creative process by obscuring the tools he used to make his works. 

2. Structure. The issue of curating process extends to file structure as well. When we produce a curated copy of his files saved to archival formats, we will have to make some difficult decisions on how to reconcile the formats present on multiple hard drives with multiple file structures that often preserved parts of the same project or projects. Some of this will involve working closely with people familiar with various projects. Joel was an intensely collaborative dude who worked with multiple people on multiple projects so it will be a challenge to figure out who can help understand the key components and organization of his work. 

3. Stability. This is the biggest challenge and one that we don’t have to face alone. We need to move a significant amount of data to a stable medium that will be there for his kids when they start to get interested in their father’s work. Right now hard drives are not particularly stable when we’re looking at a decade or more of storage. In fact, hardware in general is not stable over such long periods of time. So we’ll have to make a plan to keep migrating the data to new hardware and to make sure that it will be available for the future.

For now, we have a solid start on organizing and curating Joel’s digital legacy. Once I get back from summer fieldwork, we are going to start to digital curation process in earnest. As we do that, and make progress, I’ll keep the world in the loop.

Matthew Kirschenbaum Lecture at UND Today

The UND Working Group in Digital & New Media is happy to present “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” A Virtual Talk by Matthew Kirschenbaum. The talk is free and open to the public and will take place at 4pm on Wednesday, April 16 in the East Asian Room in the Chester Fritz Library. You should be able to stream his talk here.

KirschenbaumFlyer pdf

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied think tank for the digital humanities). He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland, and a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. Kirschenbaum served as the first director of the new Digital Cultures and Creativity living/learning program in the Honors College at Maryland.

A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, Kirschenbaum specializes in digital humanities, electronic literature and creative new media (including games), textual studies, and postmodern/experimental literature. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, and was trained in humanities computing at Virginia’s Electronic Text Center and Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (where he was the Project Manager of the William Blake Archive). His dissertation was the first electronic dissertation in the English department at Virginia and one of the very first in the nation.

Kirschenbaum’s first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in early 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards. Kirschenbaum serves on the editorial or advisory boards of a number of projects and publications, including Postmodern Culture, Text Technology, Textual Cultures, MediaCommons, and futureArch. His work has received coverage in the Atlantic, New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Boing Boing, Slashdot, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, see his website.