Writing and Publishing

I’ve spent a good bit of time this past month preparing the Punk Archaeology volume for publication (hopefully within the next week or so) and laying out the volume dedicated to a series of short posts from last year’s 3D Thursday series of blog posts.

At the same time, I was thinking about this year’s series of posts on craft and archaeology, and it occurred to me that the process of managing a book from writing, to contributors to lay-out, represents an artisnal approach to production. As the artisan, I’ve managed just about every step in the process layout, with the appreciation that my late friend Joel Jonientz did much of the basic conceptualizing of the punk archaeology, cover design, and laid out the first draft, and Andrew Reinhard and Brandon Olson have done more than their share of copy editing for Punk Archaeology and 3D Thursday respectively.

PunkA cover 1

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Book layout is hard. It has taken me endless hours of fussing (and still more on the horizon) to get the basic layout of the book right. Things like gutters, margins, and overset texts have become a preoccupation. I still can’t get pagination right: who realized that chapters almost always start on odd numbered pages? It has taken me weeks of fussing to get things right for even a relatively simple book design. If the technical details are not complex, the execution is.

2. Book production is invisible. While I’ve been laying out my own books, I’ve also been editing page proofs for Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town for the ASOR Archaeological Report Series. As I’ve carefully re-read the text and made small corrections here or there throughout, I got to thinking how relatively invisible book designers, layout people, and even copy editors are within the system of academic production. So many of us academics consider ourselves sensitive to the various inequalities intrinsic to the various systems at play in our worlds. At the same time, I’ve never seen a particularly spirited defense of those folks who participate in the publishing industry below the levels of the clearly evil corporate overlords who spend their days converting the fruits of academic labors to the fruits of their table.

(With not a little embarrassment, I remember enabling a co-author to rewrite a good chunk of an article at the stage of page proofs, and the editors and production folks, through gritted-teeth, accepting our requests. As someone who is now spending time on the production side of publishing, I am becoming more and more aware of how our late-game creative decisions do not exist in a vacuum.)

3. The Heterotopia of Independent Publishing. Over the past few years, the potential of self or independent publishing has emerged as a largely unrealized threat set against the worst abuses of the academic publishing industry. As a blogger, I’m sure that I’ve expressed and even acted on some of those threats by pushing out pre-prints, sacrificing time that I could be spending producing products for publishers to make my ideas accessible on my blog, and by, finally, using my blog platform as an incubator for content that I will eventually publish with my low-fi press.

New Digital Press logo

At the same time, by actually following through on becoming an independent/self-publisher, I’ve realized how much time and energy goes into the production process. The time and energy involved in preparing a manuscript for publication redirects my work flow from writing toward editing, layout, correspondence, and even financial matters. The result of this reassignment of energy is that I will be a less productive scholar – at least for the foreseeable future. 

If our concern is making scholarship accessible to a wide audience in an efficient way, self and independent publishing represents a way of streamlining the appearance of scholarly works in print and cutting through a certain amount of corporate overhead. On the other hand, it shifts the burden of production closer to the hands of the author (and much of this burden is invisible in traditional, corporate model of academic publishing). 

Another View of Ghost Towns, Process and Product

My colleague Prof. Cindy Prescott generously offered this response to the my conversations with Troy Larson. 

Bill’s previous blog post and Troy’s response raise interesting questions about intellectual property and the relationship between academic and public history. Many researchers in the hard sciences worry constantly about being “scooped.” Historians (and people in the humanities in general) tend to worry far less about this, since we tend to be pursuing lines of inquiry that interest each of us individually, rather than all working toward common goals or on common problems (say, curing cancer). And the nature of historical research and publishing also means that the timeline is much slower — which is perhaps made possible by the fact that we’re less likely to be trying to beat each other to publish the same material.

Academic historians have traditionally staked a claim to their chosen research topics at conferences, which (sometimes) have a shorter lead time than do historical journals, let alone coveted monographs. But in my experience, historians generally value conference presentations for the opportunity that they represent to receive feedback from knowledgeable people who can help us to hone our arguments, more so than as an opportunity to stake a claim to a particular topic. Thus you are willing to share your database, because you believe that other trained scholars will bring their own perspectives to bear on that data and produce interesting arguments that enhance, challenge, or perhaps refute your findings. As an academic historian, you are free to welcome such challenges and refutations, precisely because you have already received the substantial benefit of a Ph.D. diploma and a tenure-track job on the basis of your interpretation of the data.

Likewise, I published a book based on my dissertation that will never make me a single cent, and I’m OK with that, because I didn’t write it to make money. I wrote it so that I could get and keep a job at a university. And I would gladly share the database on which I based part of that book — should it be useful to anyone else without me having to go back and bring order to my crazy notes — because I’d welcome different interpretations of that data. The worst that would happen to me is that someone might publish something that refutes my book and discourages people from buying the remaining stock of my book before it gets remaindered. Either way, I’m not getting any cash out of the deal, and it wouldn’t take away my tenure.

Blogs and other internet materials raise these questions precisely because they welcome engagement by the general public, who do not operate within the terms of academic scholarship. As I understand it, Troy Larson has been willing to share his images and ideas online not only because he’s generous, but also because he seeks to benefit from sharing them with an audience in much the same way that an academic traditionally has benefitted from presenting at academic conferences: (1) he gains an audience for an intended publication, and (2) he gains information and perspectives from others that will strengthen that publication. An academic historian wants very similar things, but ultimately seeks different long-term benefits. Academics, then, can afford to be more generous with data than can public scholars. As faculty at a public university, we’re essentially being paid to do so.

I’m intrigued by your comparison to borrowing from someone else’s class syllabus. For all that we insist on intellectual property rights to our teaching, I think that most academics will willingly share the reading lists for their classes. Indeed, we tend to borrow from one another’s reading lists, seeking the tried-and-true rather than to be cutting edge in terms of reading assignments. I suspect most college instructors would be somewhat more hesitant to share their lectures or active learning assignments, but even these we are more willing to share freely. We tend to think of teaching as a more collaborative experience — perhaps because no one is going to publish my lesson plans or give me tenure on the basis of those lesson plans. But perhaps more importantly, it’s because even someone who had my lecture notes would still have to stand up and deliver that lecture — and it would sound and look different from what I deliver in class.

I think that intellectual property concerns get raised far more often — and appropriately so — when it comes to the realm of online teaching. While a grad student could certainly deliver a lecture drawn from my lecture notes in their own course, that feels different to me than having someone else launch an online course using lectures that I had typed/videotaped/tegrity-ed. Because then they’re not just delivering a lecture based on my content (which in turn is based on information drawn from mainstream textbooks and materials). But my personal objection would come less from their cribbing of my ideas (which I had quite appropriately gathered from published sources in the first place, and in which I generally am not trying to make an original argument), and more from the sense that they are cheating and stealing my work. In other words, my objection comes not from them borrowing my content, but from them using my hard work without me benefitting. Why this is OK when sharing lesson plans but not OK when copying lectures, I’m not entirely sure – especially considering that I generally dislike lecturing, and am far more invested in, and am more proud of, my active learning assignments. I suspect that it is because I tend to view sharing ideas/plans for active learning assignments as part of the larger project of intellectual exchange that is one of my favorite parts of a career in academia (and that sharing tends to strengthen my other favorite part of an academic career: having an impact on student learners). But to copy a lecture wholesale feels like stealing or outsourcing my work (something that might allow the university to replace me and my tenure line with a cheaper teaching assistant or adjunct), rather than engaging in an intellectual exchange. I suspect that non-academic researchers like Troy Larson, who are depending on their information-gathering to make a living, would see someone else using their database more like I would look at someone else delivering my pre-recorded lecture content – particularly if the people using the data are supported by a larger structure such as a public university. While I am fearful of having my material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who would teach for cheaper (a grad student or adjunct instructor), Troy Larson appears fearful of having his material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who might be far better paid, but whose paycheck is primarily supported by their other services to a large research university.

Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

I had originally intended to write about the local humanities this morning, but I was distracted by an interesting little discussion on the internet. A local author, Troy Larson, took issues with a website produced for a class offered by Tom Isern, a historian at North Dakota State University. Tom had designed the class, as far as I can recall, to produce a catalogue of North Dakota “Ghost Towns”. Troy Larson is the local expert on North Dakota Ghost Towns and has published a couple of coffee table books on the subject and maintains a remarkable blog called Ghosts of North Dakota. By all means, go and buy his book and surf his blog. They’re both pretty cool things.

Update: Troy has responded to my post here, and, better still, included a link to his original thoughts on the issue here with screen shots.

The website prepared for Tom’s class had a list of ghost towns on it with a series of links to Troy’s blog. From what I gathered, these links were designed to get students started on Tom’s larger ghost town project. In general, Troy has dedicated his blog to photographs with very short historical sketches of the towns with a bit of census information and some notes about local postal service. Most of this information is available in one way or another on the internet. In many cases former and even current residents of these towns make comments on Troy’s blog. In short, Troy’s blog is one of the best points of departure for research on small places in North Dakota. 

The kerfuffle began when Tom’s class page pointed to Troy’s blog as a point of departure for student research on ghost towns. Apparently, the goal of Tom’s class was to produce a book or part of a book on abandoned places in North Dakota. From what I understand that goal has not been achieved yet so there is no final product. The internet, as this blog is ample evidence for, provides access to process, however, and Troy objected to the process that Tom’s class was using to start their research. And then this all hit Facebook and got pretty exciting for a couple of days. 

This is an interesting problem on two levels. First, it demonstrates two fundamentally different ways of viewing information made available on the web. Troy naturally feels protective of the work he has invested into an impressive resource that he generously made available on the web. I can’t really say for sure what Tom’s motives are, but I suspect they were similar to mine when I created an index to my History 101 class that consisted entirely of links to Wikipedia. If a resource is available on the web, I feel pretty comfortable deploying it for whatever schemes or goals I have in mind. (Tom is a sometime reader of this blog and is known to have a wry smile about many things in life, so maybe he’ll post a comment).  

In fact, much of my academic career has been dedicated to creating resources that I hope other people will do more with than I have. For example, I included a catalogue of over 200 churches in my dissertation, and it is available for free for download via Ohio State’s library catalogue. I fully (and optimistically) expected someone to use my catalogue to produce their own studies of Early Christian basilicas in Greece. In fact, I think the enduring value to my work is probably not the analysis (which will always represent strains of thinking grounded in a particular time and place), but the catalogue, which will hopefully represent a resource for the next generation of scholars. David Pettegrew and I have made available a photographic catalogue of houses at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and our data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus.

From what I understand, and please Troy correct me here, is that Troy objects to his project being used as a sources of data for another similar project. Since the internet provides a kind of transparency of process, he was able to see how another group was using his “data” and object prior to the appearance of a final product that may or may not compete with his work. 

Much of the debate on Facebook centered around matters of etiquette. Troy was particularly put out that Tom did not ask for permission to use his content as a point of departure for his class. I’ve had a few scholars ask for permission to use my dissertation catalogue, but this is hardly necessary.

Perhaps a better point of comparison is that I ask people who read and cite my working papers to ask permission by including in bold across every page: “Do Not Cite Without Author’s Permission.” This is largely because most working papers get updated regularly and a more current copy of a paper might exist or the paper gets published and a more stable citation exists for the same content. I suppose Troy could ask people who want to use his content or link to his page to ask permission, but I am not sure that this would do anything but limit the reach and audience of his work.  

The debate is still simmering on Facebook as I write this post and with any luck Troy and Tom will comment here to clarify their positions. What interests me the most is seeing how the relative transparency of the internet has created new social expectations. I think back to my largely pre-internet graduate school days where certain resources like A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire (1964) or well-acronymed Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium served as guides for many issues in the Late Antique world. Neither Jones nor Khazdan could know, of course, if we were using their work and its hard to avoid the idea that many recent books and encyclopedias on these topics used the exhaustive efforts of Jones and Khazdan as a guide. I wonder whether Troy would have felt different had Tom used a paper syllabus and assigned copies of Troy’s books as a guide for his class? Would Troy have ever even known?

I also wonder whether the relatively small and tight nit community of scholars interested in North Dakota also played a part in how this particular controversy took place? It seems like Troy was particularly offended that Tom didn’t ask or contact him before linking liberally to his blog. The courtesies, much like waving on a lonely rural road in North Dakota, are the kind of thing that happens regularly in small communities where people know one another and both Tom and Troy live in Fargo. I wonder whether Troy would have felt the same way if Tom was a professor at, say, the University of Texas or University of Queensland in Australia?

Finally, it is interesting that some of the rhetoric (and I’ll ask Troy to clarify this, if he thinks I’m mischaracterizing him in any way) is grounded in the difference in how academics and non-academics see resources made available on the web. As we academics explore small, privately produced collections  on the web (many of which are curated by antiquarians like Troy), we will have to think more carefully about how we use these resources both to respect the significant investment of time and energy that they involved and to transfer their value effectively to an academic context.

I’m reluctant to see either Troy or Tom in the wrong here, but this little controversy (by the standards of the internet) reminds us how far we are from understanding how this media works even after in the 25th year of the World Wide Web Era. 

Day of Digital Humanities 2014

Today is the long awaited Intergalactic Day of Digital Humanities. While we have not heard whether we’ll be joined by any off planet humans and the usual uproar about whether “the humanities” are offensive to non-human lifeforms has yet to flair up, I commend the organizers for melding together humanocentric jingoism with a open-armed inclusiveness. The digital humanities are, after all, big tent.

My posts today will appear here.

But I’ll keep a little updated index on this page so none of my regular readers will miss out.

A Digital Morning
Digitally Mediated Learning
The Afterlife of Old Media
The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

An Article Abstract on Archaeological Blogging

Over the past couple years, I’ve been turning over in my head an article idea about archaeological blogging. I have written a good bit on my blog about the virtues and prospects of writing about my research and teaching on a nearly daily basis, but I’ve so far found it difficult to wrap my various ideas (reflexive, reflective, and otherwise) into a cohesive argument.

I tried with this thing, but it’s hard not to see it as a mess.

So with the open invitation to contribute something to an Internet Archaeology volume dedicated to blogging and edited by the spectacular Colleen Morgan, I decided to take another stab at it.

My biggest struggle is attempting to understand how blogging in the archaeological community fits into the larger trajectory of blogging and publication on the web. I started with the  idea that blogs began with the promise of creating communities on the web (even before social media). The blogroll and sharing links established communities of likeminded readers. At the same time the regular, daily posts that tended to be short, filled with links, and informal created some generic expectations that many bloggers followed.

More recently, however, I have this feeling that blogging – as Jason Kottke has observed – is (not) dead, and in a period of transition as the traditional practice of ordering posts by days gives way to more elegant and topic organization of content. And the long form potential of the internet has challenged the dominance of short informal notes. Sites like Medium may not be the precise way forward, but its hard to avoid thinking that they are the general direction that online, personal publishing will go. In archaeology, being traditionalists, we may continue to blog in a chronological format drawing on longstanding models from the archaeological notebook or field dispatch. But as we have started to use our web presence for more than just regular reports from the field, we may begin to think about how the blogging platform fits can contribute to larger enterprise of reimagining publication.

So here’s my abstract for now:

From Blogs to Books
Blogging as Community, Genre, and Platform

Looking back at my first efforts to describe the blogging phenomenon among Mediterranean archaeologists in 2008, I was reminded how the work at the intersection of blogging and archaeology defied simple characterization. At the same times, blogs created communities of readers and allowed for public experiments with the traditional generic conventions of academia as bloggers reflected, speculated, and annotated their experiences. The speed of blogging, the networks it created and relied upon, and the range of different functions blogging served from public relations to academic notes, initiated a key reimagining of our professional discourse by the archaeological community.

In recent years, archaeological bloggers begun to move the platform used for blogging in the direction of a new forms of archaeological publication. It is worth noting that there is nothing inherent in the technology of blogging that makes it incompatible with academic publishing. In fact, even the casual, conversational style of an informal blog post can echo the style of the more academically respectable conference paper. Moreover, new platforms like Medium dispense with the rigid chronological formatting associated with blogs and provide graphically sophisticated and appealing final product. More importantly, these new forms offer both a speed of delivery absent in traditional print publications as well as space for interaction between author and audience and can accommodate audio, video, and interactive media that are only now being incorporated into the more digital versions of traditional journals.

 

 

Working Group in Digital and New Media Open House and Press Release

Over the past 5 years, I’ve been active in a group called the Working Group in Digital and New Media. This is a cross-disciplinary, cross-college, and cross-campus group of scholars whose work touches on digital methods, media, and approaches to problems in the arts, humanities, and sciences. 

Each year, to attract new members we do a Fall open house and make a press release. It is often my job to prepare the press release. Here it is for the 2013 open house:

On Wednesday, November 6th, the Working Group in Digital and New Media will host its 4th annual open house in its laboratory space in O’Kelly Hall from 11 am to 1 pm. The Open House will feature works-in-progress by members of this transdisciplinary collective of scholars from across the University of North Dakota Campus. 

The open-house will provide demonstrations of Travis Desell’s Wildlife@Home project, the digital music of Mike Wittgraf, Tim Pasch‘s innovative digital outreach in, to and from Indigenous Arctic communities, and Rick Van Eck‘s latest work to use computer games to introduce students to STEM disciplines. Paul Worley will be on hand to discuss his new monograph which makes important contributions to how we understand contemporary Mayan performance in the digital world. Crystal Alberts’ will present her interdisciplinary collaboration with Katia Mayfield, a Ph.D. candidate in Scientific Computing, James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation” Piecing together the Puzzle. Wilbur Stolt will discuss how the Chester Fritz Library has become a key space for digitally mediated interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty, staff, and students. Joel Jonientz, Kyle Conway, and Bill Caraher will introduce the first two volumes from the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, a laboratory press that will curate original research in digital and print forms. For the 2013/2014 Academic Year, the Working Group will host an innovative speaker series featuring global leaders in digital technologies and approaches.

“Over the past 4 years, the Working Group has become a regional leader in digital innovation in the arts and humanities,” Joel Jonientz remarked. “The members of the group refuse to be fit into disciplinary boxes or conform to outmoded expectations of what it means to be a scholar in this or that field.”

Founded in 2008, the Working Group in Digital and New Media pioneered the vision of Exceptional UND by facilitating collaborative research in a dynamic gathering space. The uniquely collegial environment of the Working Group encourages faculty and students to experience the digital world as a means of expanding and enhancing their academic, regional, and global community.

 

Data, Blogging, and the Art of Digital Publication in Archaeology

Last week, I mentioned that I was invited to write something for our local literary journal on digital art, presumably, in the field of archaeology. I decided to take idea of art broadly and focus on some transformations in the world of archaeological presentation and data collection. More importantly, for me, is that I decided to try to write in a reflective and reflexive way about my experience as a blogger. This is very early draft of this effort. It’s due on November 15th, so I’ll have to try to get something more substantial and sustained together soon.

In 2007, I began a blog called the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World (available here in archival form). The goal of the blog was to publicize my research on Cyprus particularly the work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP). I wanted to think in public space and bring an interested public closer to the experience of archaeology. The daily blog seemed to be a great way to post regular dispatches from both my desk work and my field work. At first, I dutifully posted a few times a week, but before long, I was posting daily. My dispatches started as regular updates on our work at PKAP along side some cursory comments on my research and professional activities to a repository for fieldwork updates, conference paper and article drafts, research quandaries, essays on various topics, and increasingly common guest posts on topics ranging from archaeological publishing to 3D modeling and punk rock. Over this time, my blog developed from a few hundred views a week to over 100 per day and gained a degree of notoriety in my profession.

2007 were heady days for blogs. They still dominated the way in which individuals distributed content on the internet. Social media, like Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy, and hybrid services like Tumblr which streamlined the social sharing of content among its users was born the same year. Even the mighty YouTube was still relatively uncharted territory among content producers. Blogging was king among Web 2.0 pioneers and the ability to almost instantly modify the appearance and content of a website attracted a generation of intrepid academic content producers. (I discussed a good bit of the origins of blogging in general and in archaeology here.)

Of course, some remained concerned that an unfettered medium like blogging could undermine the professional standing of a young faculty member. At the same time, others began both to discuss blogging in academic publications and to embrace its potential as a publishing platform. My own efforts to understand the medium in which I was working were tentative and halting. A good bit of self-censorship was involved, and I only engaged other academic bloggers or scholarship in general in a superficial way. Once I was on staff at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a gentle reprimand about a slightly impious post further discouraged me from doing much more than providing a travelogue of my time in Greece and various notes about “goings on”.

By 2008, however, a growing confidence in the blog as a medium and perhaps a developing awareness of its potential emboldened my blogging efforts. I was committed to being more transparent in my presentation of our archaeological work. I announced our idea that we had discovered an Early Christian Basilica at the site of Vigla, published some short video productions, and posted more regularly from the field. The use of podcasts from the site, almost daily updates, and more regular photographs, brought our viewers closer to work and exposed them to the vagaries of real archaeological research. Our “Early Christian Basilica” ended up being a Hellenistic fortified settlement by the end of the summer and the blog had exposed a major interpretative mistake.

By 2012, attitudes toward blogging had changed and new approaches to the immediacy of the archaeological experience had emerged. We had begun to use Twitter in the field and to collect data from our trenches using iPads. With Twitter we encountered the immediacy of engaging our network of stakeholders, colleagues, and viewers. With the iPads at trench side, we began the fraught process of directly digital data collection. This opened the door to communicating with our archaeological community not through the interpretative lens of the blog or even the truncated expressions of Twitter. The opportunity to push trench-side results directly to a global audience creates a new way to communicate the immediacy of archaeological discovery to the world. There is no middle step of interpretative or peer-review and mistakes are visible on the edge of the trowel. Data becomes immediate and transparent.

Publishing data directly from the edge of the trench is probably still a ways off and a cultural change away. Archaeologists still follow the traditions of social science in their need for neat and tidy data. The hasty conclusions set out in blogs and the immediate, trench side, analysis present in new digital notebooks pushes the social aspects of archaeology from the meeting among staff members to a larger community. In this context, the archaeological process become transparent and ownership of the results moves from the intimate confines of the project to the universal domain of the web community.

From the opposite perspective, the limited and specialized academic community has begun to find ways to integrate traditional practices of peer review with the more dynamic space of Web 2.0 content and born digital data. The result is a hybrid space of engagement that recognizes the persistent value of peer review, but also lays bear the process and accommodates the dynamic potential digital content.

I have recently begun to experiment with using my blog to introduce and serialize a print publication. From October to December, I have featured a series of guest posts from scholars around the world on issues related to 3D imaging in archaeology. These posts will eventually form a small volume produced very soon after the last blog post appears. The advantage of this approach is that it can accommodate the rapid pace of change in the world of 3D imaging by immediately circulating the results of very recent work in this area. The ability to post comments or even Tweet responses to these contributions using a designated hashtag (#3DMedArch) exposes these articles to a kind of public peer review. A digital and print-on-demand publication after the last post appears will include any comments or Tweets that shed critical perspectives on the posts. A final publication forms a “publication of record” that conforms to traditional expectations, but the entire process was more transparent and dynamic.

Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations

Recently, there has been a good bit of talk about policies governing the digital publication of dissertation. I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago, but most of this came from American Historical Association’s well-meaning efforts to urge us to adopt flexible policies toward the digital publication of dissertations immediate after their completion. Instead, they recommend allowing scholars to embargo their dissertations for up to six years after they have been completed. They did not necessarily recommend that every scholar do this, but they recommended that a 6 year embargo be an option.

TwilightDissertation

The fuss was sufficient that the AHA made real efforts to clarify their position and then the president of the AHA, William Cronon, responded directly to criticism of the Association’s position. His response was measured. He argued, in a nutshell, that recent Ph.D.s are particularly vulnerable because their dissertation is their most significant scholarly achievement to that point. Allowing recent Ph.D.s to embargo their work is a policy that protects that work and ensures that these vulnerable scholars can deploy their dissertation for greatest professional benefit. He is particularly concerned that academic publishers might look askance at publishing dissertations that are available for free digital download. This would make it more difficult for scholars at the start of their career to publish books heavily based on their dissertations. Since books remain the gold standard for tenure, any reluctance by publishers will perhaps make it more difficult for scholars to earn tenure.

It is interesting to consider whether this policy is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Smaller numbers of historians are hired to tenure track positions and a smallest percentage of Ph.D.s over the past 40 years earn employment at all. As a result, the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and even the AHA have called for academically trained Ph.D.s to embrace the possibility of non-academic careers. The culture of academia is changing.

Moreover, state universities are under increased pressure to justify their expenditures on the humanities. Making dissertations available to the public (who often understand their tax dollars as directly funding graduate research) is a key way to assuage public concerns that money invested in higher education funds exclusively boutique projects that the average citizen could never access, much less appreciate. One response to these concerns has been to encourage more open access research. Moreover, this practice follows national programs like the NSF and NIH which are requiring scholars to make available their research. Dissertations, especially those receiving “public funds” at state universities (putting aside the vagaries of state university budgets), would appear to many people as the products of their tax dollars. In the UK, this concern has fueled a recent spate of graduate student blogs where students advocate for themselves by making more of their research transparent. Other fields in the U.S. are making the same argument for different, but related reasons.

Most historians have come to accept that our field is undergoing tremendous change, and Cronon admitted that the status of tenure remains uncertain in our changing academic landscape. More than that, we all know that the character of academic publishing is in transition. Even the idea that an academic publisher would shy away from a dissertation that was freely available as a download is hardly a clear situation, as Cronon points out. Our world is changing and the AHA has the opportunity to promote policies that shape future expectations in the discipline.

I respect Cronon tremendously; he’s smart and the AHA’s heart is in the right place. It appears, however, that the AHA has  adopted a policy the limits the circulation of academic research to protect a career path that follows an increasingly obsolete trajectory. (I really want to make the problematic analogy that this is like a well-meaning administrator advocating for lower standardized-test scores to keep under performing schools from being stigmatized.) If dissertations become immediately available for free download, it will accelerate the process of changing the expectations in both academic publishing and on the academic career path.

For publishing, the re-publication of embargoed dissertations as books is not the best use of increasingly straightened publisher or – more importantly – library resources. This policy will make libraries more likely to expend resources on research that will eventually become available for free. It’s hard to see this as a way forward.

More than that, the embargo would tend to protect dissertations that do not undergo substantial revisions. Substantially revised dissertations will retain value to a publisher as an original book. Cronon admits as much:

“I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.”

In other words, this policy advocated by the AHA protects the lowest value books – ones that are not substantial revisions of dissertations – and creates a scenario where university libraries spend money to purchase lightly revised dissertations as book! Considering how academic publishing works, they might end up purchasing these lightly revised dissertations a year or two before dissertation embargoes would expire.  

More importantly, the push to make dissertation research available quickly after its completion fits the changing character of American graduate education with fewer candidates entering academic jobs or joining the tenure track. In effect, we’re not only protecting the weakest dissertations, but we’re protecting the research of an increasingly small number of scholars who pursue traditional academic careers. I wonder if this calculus is short-sighted and creates a system that privileges an elite career path over the massive quantity of valuable research. 

Some scholars have argued that dissertations are labor and apply a traditional reading of capitalism, unfortunately I am not convinced that graduate research fits the capitalist model perfectly. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that history remains a craft and graduate students have an apprentice relationship with their advisors making the ownership metaphor of graduate research problematic. After all, most of us relied heavily on graduate advisement to produce the dissertation and as a result, it is as much a product of a system in which advisors and students are both deeply embedded. This isn’t to suggest that graduate students aren’t entitled to the fruits of their own research, but to suggest that it is more complex equation than simple labor costs might suggest.

There are always forces that resist change in academia. In many ways, academic culture is deeply conservative. So I understand – and begrudgingly respect – Cronon’s arguments. The AHA has to represent the interests of all historians as well as protect the intellectual product of these scholars. In this case, I feel like they’re doing more to protect the scholar than the discipline. I suppose, if an organization has to pick one or the other, they’ve made the right choice, but I’m still not entirely satisfied. 

More on Rhythm Planet: A Crowd-Funded, Student-Developed Video Game

As I noted yesterday, my talented colleague Joel Jonientz, from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Art and Design, is crowd-funding his student-developed video game on Kickstarter. Before you read any further, go check it out here (and that means clicking on the link)

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Yesterday, I mused how using Kickstarter to fund a student project brings a new dimension to how technologies like crowd-funding is expanding how we might understand student engagement in their academic programs. Seeking crowd-funding for a project breaks down the barriers between what happens in the classroom and the larger community of interested onlookers in a way similar to how MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have expanded the audience for parts of the academic curriculum. 

Today, in the second part of my interview with Joel, we talk more about the potential overlap between Kickstarters and MOOCs, discuss video games as art, and reflect on how a video game about mining might be particularly relevant on a state enjoying an oil boom.

 

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Bill Caraher: I’m interested in process and some of the most exciting Kickstarters invite their investors to be part of the process even to the extent of influencing the final product. Will investors get to see how this project takes place?

Joel Jonientz: We have created several reward levels that would allow supporters to influence the game. We have a level that allows for designing characters and one that asks investors to envision their own level design. If the project is successfully funded we plan to create a web space where our backers can view the project’s process and help with the beta testing prior to release.

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BC: Why is a professor of Art and Design the lead on this project? Is this a typical situation?

JJ: Many of the students involved had been interested in gaming, but had not wanted a computer science degree so had begun taking animation classes. UND does not have a formal game design program. There are a large number of students who are interested in gaming as a career path and at the time I suppose I looked like the most willing candidate to teach the class. I am not sure if this is a typical situation. I was asked by a group of students if I would help them make a game and I said yes. There have been days when I have regretted that answer, but not many.

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BC: Has your position as a professor of art and design brought particular artistic influences to the game? What are they?

JJ: I would say that film, has probably had more of an influence than art on the gaming world. Many of the gaming titles being produced today are beautiful, absorbing near cinematic experiences. Artists have begun to play with elements of the gaming world, and commercial animation has certainly influenced the look of games, but the fine arts have not yet begun to influence gaming in my opinion.

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BC: To my mind, the game has a cool vintage video game feel to it. Can you talk about how the aesthetic, music, and game play came together? You mention in the Kickstarter page Looney Toons of the 1950s, but are there other influences? The entire game seems nostalgic for what we experienced in our youth in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a good bit before most of ours students were born. How can we understand this nostalgic aesthetic?

JJ: Early on in the game’s development, I realized that the students in the art group were not really ready to lead the process. This was a painful realization for me because up until that point I had envisioned my role in the project as mostly one of coordination. After we were forced abandoned several visual concepts the art students had developed (I believe the phrase “this art sucks” was used during one team meeting). I stepped in and acted as visual lead. All of the visual style seems nostalgic and of “our youth in the 1970s and 1980s,” primarily because I drove visual aesthetic in that direction. This is not to say that the students were not capable of creating the assets. They just needed to learn how to direct their skills. So the process became that I would design and create a key level for each zone that they would then dissect and use to inform the creation of the levels they were assigned. Once the visuals had been established, I believe the other groups were influenced by the retro look until it had overwhelmed the game design process.

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BC: I’m a bit obsessed (like many here in North Dakota) with the Bakken Oil Boom. I kept imagining that the theme of mining would resonate with recent activities in North Dakota?

JJ: The majority of the students who have worked on the game are native to North Dakota and the recent oil boom may well have influenced them. In the early days of game development, I put a sole constraint on the game’s theme and that was that the finished project needed to playable in front of my Grandmother at Thanksgiving Dinner. So, there was to be no theft or murder and no gunplay of any kind. This meant that the game had to be rated G. This as much as anything pushed the game towards mining and beat the clock type puzzles. Of course my Grandma is dead, but they didn’t know that at the time.

BC: Ok, one more question. I can’t help feeling like this Kickstarter project has the potential to intersect with recent interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes). While only a small group of students will be working on this project, a larger team of investors will be behind it and in their own way participating in the team’s success. Does doing this project give you any ideas about how you might organize classes in the future?

JJ: There have been several projects in the animation community that utilize a large collective of artists to create a film or television segments. Bill Plympton’s “Guard Dog Global Jam,” comes to mind, but none that have tapped into the MOOC movement. Crowd funding as a model for creative development is in itself a fascinating phenomenon. One of the outcomes of the project for me personally is that I am trying to write about the experience as it is happening in posts on my website. The whole Kickstarter movement is so new that it is hard to find much that has been written about it beyond what the site itself has put out. So I am pursuing that in the process.

I have now organized and taught three separate gaming courses each more focused than the one that came before it, but I think that if I ever endeavor to do this again I would throw out everything I know about how I think a game should be created and let the students drive the engine until they need guidance. That was my first experience in game creation and to this point it still continues to be the best.

Now, go and give a $20 to Joel’s sweet, sweet video game and get stickers. 

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Rhythm Planet: A crowd-funded, student-developed video game at the University of North Dakota

This week Joel Jonientz, a colleague of mine from the Department of Art and Design, rolled out one of the coolest projects that I’ve seen from our humble little campus here in The Grand Forks. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of Rhythm Planet, his student-developed video game. He is looking for $31,700 to complete the game and all of this money (minus Kickstarter’s fees) will go to paying students to produce the game and contributor rewards. Joel is blogging about the Kickstarter process at his blog. In short, the way it works is that Joel and his students get nothing unless the project meets its goal. That means, you will not get charged unless the project raises $31,700.

Before you read any more of this post, go and support this project on Kickstarter

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Now that you’ve supported the project, keep reading.

The project is cool for many reasons. First, Joel has been a staunch supporter of my little adventures, so there is a kind of reciprocity here. He designed the amazing Punk Archaeology poster and will hopefully accompany my team West to Williston this August as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

That’s the not the main reason the project is cool, though. I am fascinated with what I call (to myself) “the project-focused classroom” and Joel created a class that developed the first draft of a video game. I am equally fascinated with the idea that a class can begin something that then gets crowd-funded. The comforting classroom environment moves seamlessly into the world of entrepreneurship, marketing, and real deadlines.

We have entered the age of crowd-funded higher education. I keep envisioning a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Class) that is made up of interested students who are also the investors in a project. The scale of some recent MOOCs, which can run to the tens of thousands of participants, would mean that individual investments could be tiny (<$5) for the project director (previously known as the instructor) to raise a significant amount of capital. When the project is complete, participants would become either shareholders or simply receive a copy of the final product. The curriculum of the course would lead the group from conceptualization to completion over a course of 3 months. Imagine a magazine crowdsourced, crowd-funded, and published in this way?    

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Enough of my indulgent fantasies of egalitarian, crowd-sourced utopias. To support his amazing Kickstarter project, I sat down with Joel (over email, of course) and discussed his Rhythm Planet. This is part one of the interview:

WAIT. Before reading any further, please support this project on Kickstarter. Then proceed to the interview.

Bill Caraher: Can you explain the origins of this project?

Joel Jonientz: When I first arrived at the University of North Dakota, I was encouraged to remake the Time-Based Media program to better reflect student interests and bring the curriculum forward into the 21st century. Part of that process involved listening and responding to student needs, and one of the things students asked for again and again was a class in game design. This was right around the time I became involved with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. The group had acquired a space on campus and some very specialized equipment that would allow for a diverse group of students and faculty to collaborate on multimodal projects such as a video game.

I approached the students who had shown interest game development and with them began to recruit other students to the project that would become Rhythm Planet. Once we had about a dozen students with the skill sets we were looking for, it was simply a matter of fitting the project into my teaching load by creating a special topics course so that they could earn credits for what would be a semester of experiential learning. At the time we began, I had no idea what we could accomplish, and I did not envision that we would create a game that would still be in development three years later.

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BC: How did the Working Group in Digital and New Media serve as a catalyst for this project?

JJ: When we first envisioned the Working Group, it was as a space in which faculty and students could collaborate on research projects that pushed the boundaries of traditional classroom instruction. Because of the interdisciplinary makeup of the Working Group, I was able to reach out to students who I otherwise would not have known and involve them in the development of Rhythm Planet. The Working Group’s Laboratory Space was instrumental in game’s development in the way the team was able to work together. All of the sound and visual assets in the game were created in the lab and the space made it possible for the students to meet, test, and make changes to the game in real time.

BC: So did the physical space of the Working Group lab help the team collaborate to create the first iteration of this game?

JJ: Working collaboratively is always challenging. The key to developing Rhythm Planet was enabling honest dialogue between groups and avoiding distraction. Each week, we would meet as a large group discuss timelines and then split into three separate teams. One group worked on the gaming engine and programming. The second group created visual assets and character animations. The final group created the soundtrack. For the most part, the students in the first cohort were self-starters. There were multiple points in the process where one team’s mission became subservient to another. The programmers could not begin working out the game engine without assets from the artists, who in turn could not build out the zones without the puzzles from the level designers etc. The worst thing that could have happened during the process would have been one group sitting around waiting on another. Down time is the enemy of a good working environment.

BC: It seems like you had a pretty impressive workflow at play from the start. Are there any lessons we can all learn about teaching from the game design process? It seems like this game project illustrates some of the limits of the single class or even course based design model. You needed more time.

JJ: Because I had never created a game before, I was often forced into a position where I had to answer a question with “I don’t know.” As a young professor this sentence had not previously been one I was used to uttering. I am in many ways being paid for my expertise and not knowing was an aspect of teaching I was uncomfortable with. In this particular case, I was wholly unprepared for most of the questions being asked of me and so I was forced to admit my ignorance on the subject. What developed out of this was a transparency in the learning process that I had not encountered before in my own teaching. When confronted with a question I made not knowing a teachable experience. “Let’s learn this together,” and “Here is how I would go about finding the answer,” became phrases I uttered daily and continue to use in my teaching today. There is no shame in not knowing a thing and virtue in making your research process transparent.  This is the lesson I took from the process. 

BC: What will the Kickstarter fund? How will the final product be better than the existing game? What can players expect in the later levels?

JJ: The Kickstarter campaign will fund the completion of the game. Rhythm Planet as it exists today is a collection assets waiting to be made whole. Throughout its development, we have been able to put enough pieces together to test the concept and play a level or two, but we want to get to the point in which we could send the entire game out for a beta test. This Kickstarter will allow us to put together the first three zones totaling fifteen levels. The number of assets we have created through the three iterations of the gaming class would allow us to double the games size over time, but for now we have set our sites on finishing the work of the original group.

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Have you supported this project on Kickstarter, yet? Have you decided to be part of the future?