End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morely wrote a little piece on his declining blog statistics over at his Sphinx blog and has since followed it up with a new podcast. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet and I should have commented on his blog post when he asked other bloggers to chime in on their statistics. I feel like I let the community down.

If I look closely, I can tell that my visitor and page view numbers are down. At the same time, my monthly averages appear steady (or even slightly improved) over the past five or six years. My March numbers, for example, were 106 page views per day which is the highest since 2015 and the fourth highest total in the last 9 years. Two very popular posts, however, in the first half of the month drove a good bit of the traffic. These posts circulated rather widely (for me) on Twitter and Facebook, and social media platforms accounted for over 500 page views (or about 18% of the traffic). In an ordinary month, Twitter and Facebook account for 5%-8% of views. Despite my erratic use of social media to promote my blog, it is notable that for 10 of the last 12 months, my page views have been high than the previous year and for 8 of the last 12 months, they’ve been the strongest since 2015.

It is worth noting, however, that my 2014 and 2015 page views were also buoyed by a series of very prominent posts that led to spikes in traffic. Most of these spikes, like the publication of Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance, tended to have a much longer tale and while they were abrupt, they attracted readers to my blog for months. 

It may be that the shorter term spikes in my blog’s page views reflects the function of blogs within at least American academia has changed. When I started my blog I wanted both to draw the public into my research and give them a bit of a perspective on how scholars (and, in particular, archaeologists) build their arguments. In fact, I celebrated the fuzziness of the knowledge making the process and the ragged edges of what we know. This seemed like a good thing to do at the time when fetishization of “facts” was undermining the careful work of scholars in the humanities to present a world where structures, power, and practice matter more than black and white judgements. Today, this mission seems more problematic and my audience, perhaps, less interested and sympathetic.

Today, my most popular posts serve as open letters which attempt to address issues that face my discipline and academia more broadly. The audience is more academic, more engaged with social, political, and economic situation within academia, and less curious about how knowledge is made in my little corner of the discipline. This isn’t meant as a critique or even criticism of my readers, blogging, or academia, but speaks to the shifting landscape of blogging as practice. Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields. This is not a bad thing, but it creates a different rhythm of blog viewing. 

Indexes and the Bakken

I’ve recently become fascinated by indexes. Partly this stemmed from a rather arduous effort to index our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology (2018). Partly my interests stem from thinking about how and whether indices matter in the age of digital books. The ability to search a document for a particular word, for example, makes the conventional index of proper names and key terms irrelevant.

Indexes also have strange relationship to the world of the hyperlink. On the one hand, an indexes represent a one-to-many relationship. One terms links to many places. Hyperlinks are one-to-one links that connect one term to one place. In this sense, a conventional index is a helpful thing. 

On the other hand, most relationships in a text are actually many-to-many. In other words, a range of possible relationships exist for any location in a text. These range from the relative simple relationship between words or concepts that are either identical lexically or so similar to be virtually synonyms to the much more complex and fuzzy relationship between related ideas, concepts, or even antonyms that require their opposite to produce meaning. Indexes, then, could relate to clouds of meaning, perhaps derived from text mining or other automated analysis of a work. This would offer a non-linear way to read a text and to understand its meaning.  

Recently, however, there have been some creative efforts to engage with the indexing as an explicitly creative act. Anyone who has prepared an index (or edited someone else index) recognizes the intellectual and creative work necessary to make it a useful tool for engaging a work, but this is rarely noted explicitly. Indexers, for example, are rarely formally credited for their work. 

In Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s new book, The Hundreds, the authors invited five colleagues to prepare indexes to their book and these indexes with their authors offer strange wonderful, and intriguing ways of engaging the text. In Ana Paula Pais and Carolyn F. Strauss’s edited Slow Reader, they run the index on the margins of the page allowing a reader to find similar passages in other contributions and read across these passages rather than in a simply linear way.

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to get a volume of interviews from the Bakken oil patch published, titled Voices of the Bakken and edited by Bret Weber. At various times, we’ve even released little previews of it. One of the challenges that we’ve faced is how to organize these interviews. Do we arrange them chronologically to map how attitudes toward the Bakken Boom changed over time? Do we arrange them thematically? Do we organize them according to location or the position of the individual interviewed? 

Here’s a word cloud based on that document.

Voyant Tools 2019 04 25 09 12 09

One way to produce this book is not to worry very much about how the chapters are organized in the volume. After all, someone is unlikely to read this volume start to finish. More than that, since the book will be published as both a digital and paper form, simple queries can be conducted digitally with the search function on any PDF reader. Complex queries, however, require more complex reading and indexing the volume. More than that, more complex queries depend upon more subtle readings that are invariably idiosyncratic or, at very least, dependent on the particular questions and interests of a particular reader. I’d be particularly intrigued by an “affective index” that looks to understand the moods, feelings, and emotional character of the interviews. This would not, of course, preclude more conventional kinds of indexing that, say, explored relationships between individuals, a sense of home, or even just places or objects in the text.

What if we invited five or six readers to compile their own indexes to the interviews? These readers could engage these interviews in a range of ways that reflect their own research interests, which they could justify in a brief essay? Rather than indexing by page, we’d index by interview and include the key words that generated by the indexers at the conclusion of each interview, attributed to the authors, and with references to the other interviews.

This could get more wild, of course. We also have thousands of images that I started to analyze last year before getting distracted by other projects. These photos also need some kind of indexing to be useful and engaging. I’ve long considered publishing this data via, say, Open Context, but I wondered about the utility and value of a slightly organized dump of images. Maybe these images would be more useful if they were indexed according to some of the same criteria that our indexers would create for the Voices of the Bakken volume. After all, our interviews and archaeological investigation of workforce housing in the Bakken informed one another. There are obvious links between these two data sets, but also the potential for more creative ways to link these two sets of documents.

A project that links the interviews and the images would embody some of the ideas behind “slow data” that archaeologists have discussed recently. It would also demonstrate explicitly how publishing and curating data is work that creates new constellations of knowledge that revolve around critical engagement that starts in the field and continues through the organization of data for publication. 

To be clear, I haven’t yet convinced the editor of these interviews to go along with this kind of approach, and I’m not sure that I could find willing indexers. More than that, indexing thousands of photos seems like a daunting task, but one that would be worth it even if done on a relatively small scale. 

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

I’m off to New York this morning to give a paper at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I’m also hoping to convince the participants (and hopefully some of the other folks who are doing using digital approaches to teach the ancient world) to publish a little book of the paper with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The hashtag is #DATAM and since the usual ancient world twitteroti will be in attendance, I suspect the twitter stream will be vibrant. Who knows, I might even flex my twitter fingers a bit.    

Conference Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean  Institute for the Study of the Ancient World 2018 10 25 05 57 48

If you follow the link above, you’ll see that there are some pretty interesting papers. For my part, I’ll be presenting on my use of the Scale-Up Classroom at UND to bridge digital divides. My paper is here.

Long time followers of the ole bloggeroo, will recognize that this paper is a version of a larger and more buttoned-down paper that I wrote in 2013-2014 on my experiences teaching in UND’s Scale-Up room. I still would like to send this out somewhere, but right now, it’s a pretty low priority!

 

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Announcing the Publication of Volume 1 of the Epoiesen Annual!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to announce the publication of the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. This is an annual volume based on the extraordinary new journal, Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology, edited by Shawn Graham and colleagues and hosted by the library at Carleton University in Ottawa. Check it out here.

Epoiesen (ἐποίησεν) – made – is a journal for exploring creative engagement with the past, especially through digital means. It publishes primarily what might be thought of as “paradata” or artist’s statements that accompany playful and unfamiliar forms of singing the past into existence.

What have you made? What will you make? This journal, in its online home, makes space to valorize and recognize the scholarly ways of knowing that are expressed well beyond the text. Bill White reminds us why society allows archaeologists to exist in the first place:

“it is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today.”

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Download, explore, or buy it today!

~

For a bit of the backstory, Epoiesen is really the work of a group of dedicated and innovative collaborators, editors, and partners, as Shawn Graham himself makes clear in the introduction. The native format for the journal is on the web, but Shawn reached out to The Digital Press in the middle of last year to explore producing a hybrid, print/digital (pdf) format. The hope is that this form will appeal to readers who more comfortable with print for reading, citing, and cataloging.

The work of the Digital Press, then, was largely translation from they dynamic digital form to the more conventional print-ready format which at times was a bit tricky, as even a quick review of the PDF will show. We adopted a format that intentionally played with the tidiness of the textbook and the grid, pushing images over the boundaries and outside of lines.

The cover is itself is a vibrant piece of scholarship thanks to Gabe Moshenska’s generous decision to make his book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, free and open access. For the cover design, we listened intently to the authors, members of the editorial board, and various sundry social media commentators. It seemed fitting that the cover emerged from the very creative, digitally mediate milieu that journal itself celebrates.

Finally, this project embodies the kind of laboratory publishing that The Digital Press has pursued since Punk Archaeology appeared four years ago. So it’s particularly fitting that on the fifth anniversary of the Punk Archaeology conference, some of the same collaborators (Andrew Reinhard, for example, designed the cover for Epoiesen) returned to the scene of the crime to produce this volume.

What’s the Matter with Digital Humanities?

Last week an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Timothy Brennan created a good bit of buzz in my social media world. The author declares, after a bit of muddled argument, that digital humanities is largely bust after carefully setting aside certain common digital tools like the “Moodles” and podcasts. In short, he suggests that DH has not lived up to the hype or realized the promised revolution, instead producing works that are more overstatement than substance.  

Whatever the merits of Brennan’s article, it suffers from a rather narrow reading of digital humanities (in which it recognizes “the Moddles” and not, say, Wikipedia, and lots of digital text projects and not as much attention to the use of digital tools in spatial analysis, “maker culture,” history, or archaeology) and probably a less than critical understanding of certain generic conventions in DH texts, like a penchant for overstatement, that the author should have recognized as part of a both historical and transdisciplinary trends in how we talk about technology. In other words, Brennan’s article is both overly narrow and not particularly deep in its reading of DH. 

At the same time, I did feel like the article did reflect a certain anxiety among people like me who hang around at the fringes of the DH movement, and I found some of the push back against it disconcerting. Brennan’s article is flawed, to be sure, but understand why this kind of article (and I’d group it with the better argued, but no less controversial article last year in the LARB) appears from time to time. I think there are five or six things.

1. DH and Analogue H. For the last 15 years or so, there has been a kind of rhetorical tension between DH and Analogue humanities. While both sides will agree that their larger goals are the same as are their methods, DH practice remains distinctive and it is often presented as the cutting edge alternative to the tired tradition of analogue or conventional humanities. Some of this comes from university administrators eager to demonstrate that even the hide-bound humanities have embraced technologies, and some of it comes from the humanities itself when DH projects have sought to distinguish their practices from convention in order to attract funding. Of course, it’s easy for those of us in the murky marshes between the digital and analogue conventions in our field to dismiss those inclined to divide the humanities into two types. This tendency from DH to take on the mantle of innovators and for this to divide digital from conventional humanities practices is a source of anxiety.

2. Institutional Narratives. At least some of this divisiveness derives from institutional narratives that seek to promote digital humanities as a high-tech alternative to traditional methods and humanities. This is tied to an effort to promote institutions as hotbeds of innovation and to celebrate breakthrough discoveries as evidence for their place on the cutting edge. In this way, it coincides with large trends in how the media, higher education, and national agencies have positioned cutting-edge humanities research as exciting, revolutionary, and oriented toward results rather than practices. Embodied in TED talks, idea summits, and various other high-profile gatherings or celebrations of the humanities elite, this result-oriented view of the humanities tends to run counter to the slow, incremental, process oriented slogging that makes up much humanities work. For every sensational TED-style presentation and discovery touting new technology, there are hundreds of hours and thousands of researchers slowly reading, thinking, teaching, and writing in traditional ways that are overlooked in the rush to the next idea festival or DH sensation. While a generous reading of this celebration of innovation imagines that it’ll raise all ships in the humanities, the reality is that the academy is an increasingly competitive place which competition for ever scarcer resources and support defining the relationship between and within units. When DH “wins” because it fits into the kind of sensational narratives promoted by universities, conventional humanities are positioned as losers, whether this is true or not.

3. The Rise of Technological Solutionism. I think some of the tension between DH approaches and conventional humanities comes from a tendency to conflate the practices of the traditional humanities with problems to be solved. Again, I’m not saying that this is a real tendency among digital humanities who obviously recognize the value of, say, slow reading of a body of text or the walking of the landscape, but the time consuming nature of these conventional practices tend to stand out in a world that celebrates speed, efficiency, and acceleration. Technology is frequently the solution to the problem of slow and deliberate research, just as “big data” has become “the solution” to narrow academic specialization It is easy enough to dismiss this kind of academic Taylorism as a red herring for the value of DH just as advocates of BIG DATA have stressed that our ability to process massive and complex datasets does not necessitate their creation. At the same time, there is a tendency to speed as solution to the “problem” of deliberate thinking with an eye toward break throughs and results that overshadow the value of process. This fits into institutional narratives of continuous improvement with speed being an easy to grasp and useful measure of success and reinforces the caricature of the plodding humanist toiling of his or her “life’s work.”

4. Technology and Corporate Influence. The landscape of corporate interest in Digital Humanities is difficult to parse and confusing. On the one hand, many of us cringe at the idea that we’re preparing our students in the humanities for lucrative middle-management careers using their digital skills in the corporate world. At the same time, it is hard to understate the importance of employment for students students who have taken on massive loans to pursue higher education and who fear that that their passion for texts and humanistic inquiry will lead them to life of penury. Digital humanities appears to some as the best of both worlds (or a problematic compromise) between skill-based education and practices of humanistic inquiry that seek to cultivate the whole person for a lifetime.

On the other hand, digital humanities has long been tangled with corporate interests that extends from support from digital giants like Google to the use of social networks for community building and the wide-spread adoption of for-profit technology in our daily work. In some ways, of course, this is unaided in the contemporary world and we can thank thoughtful DH scholars for pointing out the inconsistencies in our attitudes and practices. These inconsistencies, however, do lead to confusion and compromise that can produce a palpable frustration among scholars who look to DH practitioners for guidance in the murky world of technology and corporate/college interaction.

5. Uneven distribution of DH rewards. I think some of the anxiety felt by non-DH scholars is that many of us WANT to be more deeply involved in the digital humanities, but the promise of more egalitarian and even distributed of DH technologies, appears to be oversold. The difference between access to support and technology at well-heeled liberal arts colleges and major state universities and smaller and less wealthy second and third tier schools is more dramatic than many DH practitioners suspect. While this unevenness can easily be dismissed as no more dramatic than the unevenness of other resources and exceptions abound, I’d contend that the division between lower-tier universities as consumers of open digital humanities projects and higher-tier schools as producers will only become more dramatic despite the institutional rhetoric that celebrates innovation. This irony probably accounts for some of the most palpable frustration at the most elaborate pronouncements of DH utopianism. 

The point of this rather lengthy response is not to give Brennan too much credit for his somewhat muddled article, to blame DH for current in higher education that are far beyond the control of a relatively small group of scholars or to take any credit away from scholars who have done meaningful and in some cases sensational research using digital tools. Instead, I am trying to articulate my own frustration as an outsider to many of the cutting-edge digital practices in the fields of history and archaeology and trying to anchor it in certain discursive trends rather than the complicated realities of humanities research and their significance and impacts. For a more thoughtful critique of Brennan’s article, do check out Sarah Bond’s response

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.

 

DefendingHistoryCover-01

From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology

This week the Society of American Archaeology annual meeting takes place is Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, I won’t be attending, but I will be there in person as my colleagues Derek Counts and Erin Averett deliver a paper that looks at how digital archaeology and digital publishing will work together to reshape the future of the discipline and archaeological knowledge making.  

Check out our paper, below, and download some cool publications in digital archaeology from The Digital Press.

“From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology”

Session: Archaeological Epistemology in the Digital Age

Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), Derek B. Counts (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), William Caraher (University of North Dakota), and Jody Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology)

Introduction

Before we get started, I wanted to offer two prefatory remarks: First and foremost, on behalf of my co-authors, I want to thank Rebecca and Michael for the kind invitation to offer a paper in this session, which positions itself nicely as digital approaches to archaeology continue to transform the field. Secondly, I must apologize for our title and the published abstract… and especially to those who have attended our paper on the promise of what we proposed. Seven months ago, Derek, Bill, Jody and I were in the trenches, battling the nuances of digital archaeology on several fronts as we made the final push to complete our book, Mobilizing the Past (Averett et al. 2016), which appeared in October (and is still available free to download at TheDigitalPress.org!). At the time, we thought a paper for this session provided a wonderful opportunity to synthesize what we had learned – and to discuss the ins/outs of our publication process and how we harnessed the promise of “digital” and “open” to build our book.

Fast-forward seven months. The title makes less sense and already seems dated. Things are moving that fast. Mobilizing the Past captured a moment in the evolution of digital archaeology. And, while we recognize that archaeological projects have incorporated digital technologies unevenly —especially if you scan the landscape outside of the Mediterranean—most agree that the move to ‘born-digital’ is well underway. Still, archaeologists haven’t fully articulated the benefits and problems of replacing traditional methods of field recording with digital technologies. And, while our recent publication was a step in the right direction, it was more about tools and technology than it was about process and products.  So – the first part of our original title – “From Trench to Tablet” –  is no longer useful for two reasons:

  1. The ship has sort of sailed on paradigm-shifting conversations about iPads; folks are using mobile devices in the field to do archaeology; and
  2. Because it imposed a limit on the conversation by separating the process of field recording from interpretation and analysis.

Field Recording is thus also no longer the focus per se of this paper, in part, because it may not be particularly useful to think of it as a discrete “stage” or “step” within the practice of archaeological knowledge making.

For the record, our title is now: Interpreting and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology. We think this title embraces more fully how digital practices in archaeology impact the entire process from interpretation to publication.

Mobilizing the Past: Goals and Moving Forward

To start, I want to return briefly to Mobilizing the Past. The book grew out of a rather selfish need: as the Athienou Archaeological Project decided to move to digital recording methods in 2011, we struggled with the logistics of incorporating new technologies and digital data into our legacy workflow. On a practical level, we understood that other projects were struggling with the same concerns, but there was a surprising lack of published discourse. Thus, the idea for an NEH-funded workshop and publication was born. Our initial goal was to convene a forum that might begin to establish best practices and protocols for mobile computing in digital archaeology with respect to technologies and approaches to both in-field recording and the dissemination of the results. We structured the workshop sessions around the development and use of software, tools, and systems, but also pedagogy, data curation, and critiques. It soon became clear that our original focus on the practical aspects of digital technologies could not be separated from larger theoretical questions concerning field methods and interpretation. Some of this is apparent in the volume, which while remaining biased toward practical perspectives on the turn toward the digital, often left as tacit issues relating to the interpretation and publication of this rapidly expanding and diversifying body of “born-digital” evidence.

This point was not lost on folks who have commented on the volume. For example, Morag Kersel, in her response paper in the volume, notes her “shock” at the lack of attention to publication in Mobilizing the Past, remarking on “the lack of engagement of what to do with the increasing amount of data produced as a result of these new technologies—most of the submissions stopped at the edge of the square or in the analysis stage of fieldwork; very few mentioned publication” (Kersel 2016: 486).  In a series of blog posts, Dimitri Nakassis criticized the contributions for focusing too heavily on accuracy and efficiency in collecting data at the expense of interpretation.[1]  Making his point provocatively, he notes that the word “data” appeared 1619 times, while variations on “interpret” appear only 164 times.

At the same time, most of our contributors recognized that the perceived division between data collection and analysis is more closely related to the physical organization of archaeological work on the ground than the intellectual organization of the task involved in structuring an archaeological project. This division between physical and intellectual work, while a persistent idea both in archaeology and the larger organization of labor and humanity, has more to do with the separation of the field from the lab or office than any intent to isolate collection from interpretation. Thus, the distinction identified by Nakassis is more illusory than real. Data collection is interpretation. If we’re serious about digital technologies being part of a dynamic ecosystem of practice, then interpretation, and by extension publication, is more than just the result of digital work, but an essential aspect of what we do in the field. 

This perceived dichotomy between data and interpretation, however, belies a general schizophrenia in critical approaches to digital archaeology: as some call for more introspection with respect to the integration of digital approaches in field archaeology, others push for more discussion of how digital technology at large is changing interpretation and publication. Most projects started ‘going digital’ in the last five years—that process is still young, and so is the data that those excavations have produced. Moreover, as Shawn Graham recently blogged: this first phase (and maybe no phase) of digital archaeology is not efficient. It’s experimental; it’s slow; it rarely goes “click, bing! result.”[2] It is difficult to avoid the feeling that chastising archaeology done digitally for not offering ‘more on interpretation and more on publication’ reflects a sense that digital archaeology is somehow ‘faster’ (which it is not) and that somehow it allows its researchers to get to answers and new interpretations more quickly (why would it?).

This view of digital practices that demands efficiency in many ways embraces the linearity of the assembly line that starts with the “lowly” technical and physical task of data recording in the field, progresses through collating and processing the data in the lab, and ends with the most respected phase of interpretation – the final publication. The result of archaeological fieldwork, in this process, is the definitive work: the book or the article. This result carries marks of authority from its form as a printed text through exaggerated expectations of persistence and the symbols of authority imparted by a largely commercialized publishing industry. In this system, the authority of the final publication overwrites interpretations at the trowel’s edge, the selection of technology, or even the iterative process of analysis.  To put it another way, our current model of knowledge production exchanges the authority of methodologically sophisticated, consistent, and rigorous fieldwork for the authority imparted by the publication process itself. Critiques that noted the absence of interpretation in Mobilizing the Past do so because data isn’t recognized as fundamentally interpretative in our current model of producing knowledge, not because interpretation was absent.

While acknowledging that this view of traditional publishing is a wee bit (!) polemical, we wonder if part of the current schizophrenia in the discussion of digital practices could be overcome by embracing a non-linear model of publishing that values reflexive approaches and interpretation that take place at every phase. This isn’t to throw the baby of high quality academic work out with bathwater of traditional publishing, but rather to suggest that critical attention to digital field practices needs to extend through the entire publishing process. The goal isn’t interpretation as an end (pace Nakassis), but ways to demonstrate the interpretive moves that take place throughout archaeological work. These perspectives, of course, aren’t new and are part-and-parcel of post-processual archaeology (see recently Berggren et al. 2015). For example, Morgan and Eve (2012) demonstrated how digital technology could mediate a decentered and participatory approach to fieldwork at the Prescot Street excavations in the UK. Caraher and Reinhard (2015) and Zubro (2006), using slightly different terms, argued that communities of practice extant across social and new media sites provide ways for archaeological information to disseminate to wide audiences with relatively little friction. These models of publishing can be both dynamic and fluid without the unnecessary stigma of being provisional (or relegated to “mere data collection”) if we de-emphasize the linear process of knowledge of production.

The technologies and conventions already exist for more dynamic publishing conventions that both embrace the core values of scholarly publishing and reflect the continuous nature of archaeological publication. Despite persistent anxiety, there are ways to preserve even academic standards such as peer review with platforms like Hypothes.is (https://hypothes.is/) and MIT’s PubPub (https://www.pubpub.org/)that allow for threaded conversations to develop texts in ways that go well beyond the limits of conventional paper publishing, and to allay concerns of persistence with the rapidly maturing infrastructure of the stable web with projects like the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/index.php). More importantly for archaeologists, however, is that there is a basic consensus for practices fundamental to a linked, open data infrastructure that many of the people on this panel understand. The approaches taken by Open Context (https://opencontext.org/), Perio.do (http://perio.do/), and Pleiades (https://pleiades.stoa.org/) provide foundational structures for de-centered, but consciously curated, strategies of publishing archaeological contexts and artifacts, periods, and places respectively. The decisions to embrace digital media both in new ways and within existing scholarly conventions is at least partly in the hands of the archaeological community. At some level, we set the standards for what constitutes legitimate disciplinary knowledge through our own practices of citation and participation.

There are, however, legitimate complications. For example, some countries remain hesitant to allow for digital publication of archaeological data, and it goes without saying that all forms of publication, but particularly those presented in a highly accessible way, must remain sensitive to the cultural interests of communities impacted by archaeological work. A less linear publication model will only exacerbate the overwhelming proliferation of scholarly outlets, publications, and resources (for a similar critique, see Witmore 2009 and Bevan 2015 on the “data deluge”). On a more subversive note: academic and professional institutions increasingly are beholden to the use of standardized metrics to assess research productivity and these tend to be calibrated to traditional publications; it is not unappealing to take approaches to knowledge production that intentionally break that system. But we must also recognize that such institutions tightly regulate tenure and promotion processes that might undervalue (or not acknowledge) forms of publication that do not adhere to the traditional modes. There are long-standing attitudes toward the book as a physical object that makes manifest in its form, a finite and apprehensible body of knowledge, and this stands in contrast to the seemingly limitless space of linked, digital knowledge on the internet.

Despite these challenges, it is easy enough to understand how digital technologies can create wondrous new forms of digital publication. For example, several years ago, Derek Counts and I decided to incorporate 3D scanning into our study and recording of the limestone and terracotta sculptures from the site of Athienou-Malloura in Cyprus.  This new 3D documentation strategy invariably forced a new publication strategy. Most importantly, the broader arc of our research agenda—from data collection to dissemination—was conceived digitally. Recognition that each step in the process requires careful consideration of interpretive decisions with respect to tools, methods, and analysis, ultimately is yielding multilateral control of interpretations that we hope will transform the traditional catalogue. Our collaborator, Kevin Garstki, has just highlighted some of this, but also recently written about the importance of recognizing these interpretive, even editorial, stages in 3D scanning in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Garstki 2016). Unlike a traditional printed catalogue, the digital catalogue will include dynamic 3D images with a variety of user-manipulated tools, but it will also harness the potential for multiple forms of complementary linked data not possible in print form from simple hyperlinks to GIS-generated provenience maps. The catalogue can be updated each season with links to new stratigraphic data or information related to new finds, associated artifacts, and existing comparanda. Sculptural fragments published previously can be reunited with newly-discovered joins. As objects are photographed, digitally modelled, formally described, and contextually analyzed, the more traditional interpretive facets of their existence can be integrated with digital dissemination. Narrative analyses can be easily updated and linked to new information and to the range of technical and grey literature, from excavation manuals to published records produced at trenchside, providing relational knowledge that supports various readings of the site, the objects, and archaeological work. In other words, such standard interpretive moves that locate an object within an archaeological context are thus disseminated in an innovative, organic, and open way.

The basic tools for this kind of approach already exist and models are appearing regularly that demonstrate how this or that element could work – from real time recording like Morgan and Eve describe at Prescot Street to artifactual records published by Open Context to the bewildering range of associated files types supported by online repositories like the Internet Archive and tDar (https://www.tdar.org/). On a very practical level, there is no need for us to imagine data collection as somehow un-interpretive and just a step toward publication. To the contrary, this type of publication embodies these fragments of archaeological knowledge as digital technologies provide a relational, linked, and largely open platform for a non-linear and transparent ecology of archaeological knowledge making.

When confronted by the potential and challenges of such boundless and infinitely-linked knowledge, it is helpful to return to the field and Mobilizing the Past. One of the major critiques of our book, which applies to many recent explorations of digital technologies and archaeological work, is that we continue to use the language of objective empiricism and industrial process to describe “data collection,” while at the same time acknowledging that we recognize the interpretive character of field work and the influence of digital technologies on the knowledge that we produce. Part of the reason for this perspective on fieldwork rests in the tradition of seeing archaeological knowledge production in a linear way with the final publication marking the culmination of an interpretive and analytical process. A more reflexive digital archaeology in the field, however, pushes us to think how publishing can capture these interpretive processes. Rather than seeing the interpretation at the trowel’s edge as a provisional stage in the way to a final analysis, we’re proposing a digital archaeology that explores non-linear publications to expose, to probe, and ultimately to destabilize the binaries that have come to dominate our field.

 

Works Cited

Averett, E. W., J. M. Gordon, and D. B. Counts (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016). https://thedigitalpress.org/mobilizing-the-past-for-a-digital-future/

Berggren, Å., Dell’Unto, N., Forte, M., Haddow, S., Hodder, I., Issavi, J., Lercari, N., Mazzucato, C., Mickel, A., Taylor, J. 2015. “Revisiting the Reflexive Archaeology at Çatalhöyük: Integrating Digital and 3D Technolgies at the Trowel’s Edge,” Antiquity 89: 433-448. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2014.43

Bevan, A. “The data deluge,” Antiquity 89 (2015), 1473-484. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2015.102

Caraher, W. and A. Reinhard, “From Books to Blogs: Blogging as Community, Practice, and Platform,” Internet Archaeology 39 (2015). http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue39/7/toc.html

Garstki, K. “Virtual Representation: the Production of 3D Digital Artifacts” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2016), DOI:10.1007/s10816-016-9285-z.

Kersel, M. “Response: Living a Semi-Digital Kinda Life,” in E. W. Averett, et al. (eds.), Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 2016), 475-92. https://digitalpressatund.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/5_1_kersel.pdf

Morgan, C. and S. Eve, “DIY and digital archaeology: what are you doing to participate?” World Archaeology 44 (2012), 521-37. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2012.741810

Zubrow, E. B. “Digital Archaeology: The Historical Context” in T. Evans and P. Daly (eds.), Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. Routledge. (London, 2006), 10-31.

Witmore, C. 2009. “Prolegomena to Open Pasts: On Archaeological Memory Practices,” Archaeologies 5 (2009), 511–545. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225833647_Prolegomena_to_Open_Pasts_On_Archaeological_Memory_Practices 

Chronicling Budget Cuts: Narrating Institutional Memory in the 21st century

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts thinking about the recent round of budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Go read part 1part 2, and part 3 if you find this interesting.

One of the little things that working on the Bakken oil boom has taught me is that history is awkwardly situated to deal with the 21st century. Historians have long preferred to think of themselves as working in the “long present,” but the speed of change (and capital) in the 21st century has pushed us to think harder and work faster to keep relevant. Our long-standing practice of deliberate reading and our veneration for documents feels upset by the ephemeral blur of digital communication and the decentralization of media. If the speed of the present and the distributed and ephemeral nature of historical evidence aren’t challenges enough, we are also beset by a crisis of agency which has opened the door to objects, people, groups, even such abstractions as the environment and time has exerting agential weight in the construction of the future. As someone with largely philological training and still prone to look to the “Classics” to understand the two centuries worth of modernity, the changes have been bewildering. 

That being said, history has to adapt, and I’ve got to thinking that the budget crisis at the University of North Dakota offers an opportunity to figure out how our discipline can move at the speed of the present. The current (and by current, I mean the last couple of years) budget crisis offers a few key challenges and opportunities.

1. Evidence. The body of evidence explaining the budget cuts is highly distributed and ephemeral. Last week, for example, each division and college released another round of draft versions of their budgets here. But this clearly is not an archival location (and these are the second drafts of their budgets; I have copies of the first drafts, but I’m not entirely sure that they are still available publicly). These are pretty basic documents, but I’d struggle to find the budgets released just a year ago (although I’m sure it’s possible) for the first round of budget cuts. Moreover, these “official” documents only tell part of the story.

A simple search of my email for the word “budget” has produced thousands of documents and the prospect of a public records request to the institution for, say, all of the President Schafer’s and President Kennedy’s emails on budget cuts would produce literally thousands more. This is not even considering the correspondence at the level of the deans and departments and divisions, and various documents – minutes, agendas, memos, and the like – that spew forth from complex institutions on a daily basis.

More essential yet is a recording of the human cost of budget cuts. Since the “cutting time” began last year, there have been heartbreaking testimonials offered at public fora, outbursts at faculty senate meetings, and innumerable stories, anxieties, and conversations in the hallways, offices, and conference rooms across campus. Particularly high-profile stories sometimes appear in the media, but most of the impact of budget cuts on individuals do not make it into the Grand Forks Herald or an official email.

Fortunately, there are easy – and anonymous – ways to collect the stories of the budget crisis. One of my favorite digital history projects of the past decade was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank which used Omeka to collect people’s stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. Similar projects have used Omeka to document the stories of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, and the developers of Omeka have shown a strong awareness of the need to protect user anonymity

The trick is with any project like this to get people to contribute.

2. The Narratives. Producing a body of evidence will not be enough, of course. Individuals will have to take on the task of using this evidence to produce narratives of the budget cutting process. There will not be just one story, and it will not be a story that can accommodate all sources of evidence. From the perspective of historical methodology, the immediacy of the crisis, our commitment to institutions and individuals, and our larger view of the goal of higher education and the state will undoubtedly shape the kinds of stories that we can tell.

The plurality of voices, stories, and perspectives is the key strength of a project like this. As a historian, I recognize that our values and commitments appear through how we speak about the past both informally and as professional practitioners. By navigating, however selectively, the deluge of evidence, we present more than simply a view on how the budget cuts happened, but we seek to identify the key moments in the process and outcomes that we hope will shape future considerations. Historians, through analyzing the record of complex events, produce a template for future actions. Identifying through analysis and narrative, the problems and successes within the process will shape the future.

3. Memory and Forgetting. As I began to mull a project like this over in my head, I looked around for recent models that presented university budget cuts as more than simply a policy and planning issue. I wanted something that introduced a more open-ended and multi-vocal oral history or even ethnography to budget cuts in higher education and didn’t find much in my admitted hasty literature search.

What struck me is how crucial institutions and institutional records are to the process of remembering and forgetting things like the trauma associated with budget cuts. Laws and rules ensure that policy decisions get recored carefully and archived in their overwhelming detail, but the human cost is often lost to the informality of the moment. As a result, budget cuts appear in the administrative record as impersonal policy decisions without the complexities of their human cost. This is an intended consequence, of course, of institutional work. It occludes pain and emotional through the rationality of its structure, and while this structure is necessary, as a historian, I can’t help but think that our responsibility is to complicate the neatness of administrative authority.

The additional benefit of the personal side of budget cuts is that they can make the massive deluge of administrative evidence legible for the future. In effect, the personal side of budget cuts can curate the administrative evidence by marking those documents that had an impact on individuals within the university community. This curation would function as a way to ensure that we both narrate and remember the unfolding of the budget crisis in a way that will inform future decisions both in North Dakota and elsewhere, communicate the human cost to a wider audience, and make the experience of the budget cuts accessible to a future generation.

Finally, years ago, I wrote a history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, and it was very much an institutional history. The reason for this is that the university archives are a trove of administrative documents, but preserve very little in the way of personal encounters with UND’s campus, institutions, and individuals. This is both sad and rectifiable, but we have to think of our experiences at UND as contributing to the history and fabric of the place. This involve being proactive and making sure that they are recorded, curated, and narrated.

If you’re interested in being part of a project to document the budget cuts at UND, drop me a line here or on social media or over email. You know how to find me.