Three Things Thursday: Squatters, Syllabi, and the Split Seminar

This semester is going to be an adventure. Not only are we having some pretty cold weather, but COVID and teaching four different classes is keeping my on my toes. On top of this, I’m trying to develop a bit more personal discipline and read and write regularly even if it’s not directed toward any particular outcome. Maybe juggling these things accounts for 

Thing the First

Over the last couple of days, I read and enjoyed Rebecca Worsham’s recent article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, “Squatters’ Rights: Questioning Narratives of Decline in Archaeological WritingJMA 34.2 (2021). The article considers the use of the term “squatter” in Mediterranean archaeology with two case studies: one from Knossos in LMIIIB and one from Late Roman Cyrene. Worsham sets these in the broader context of the notion of squatting in both modern political life and in archaeological writing.

Conventionally, squatting refers to the illegal occupation of property. Thus, the concept of squatting assumes not only the legal ownership of the land, but also that the activity undertaken by the squatters constituted activities that were out of place somehow. In modern systems defined practices enclosure, squatting is effectively a kind of theft and it suggests the breakdown of political and social order. Of course, we know next to nothing about property ownership and legal rights in Late Minoan Crete and the in the Late Roman world where practices of adaptation, reuse, and urban change appear to be the norm rather than an exception. In these contexts, then, associating modest ceramic assemblages with squatter activities may well speak more to our own conceptions of property rights than past activities.

As a sometime scholar of Late Antiquity, the appearance of “squatters” tends to contribute to larger narratives of decline when the orderly use of Roman public space becomes repurposed, subdivided, and otherwise transformed. By questioning the use of term squatter Worsham pushes us to question our normative assumption about the use of space in antiquity and perhaps even rehabilitate practices of “late reuse” as signs of resilience, creativity, and even adaptation not simply during times of crisis, but with changing attitudes toward urbanism and the political and social regimes that necessary to support certain forms of space.

As an aside, I want to offer a very appreciative hat tip to the JMA who granted me access to the entire issue as a contributor (to the volume) rather than just my article. This is a great gesture and one that I wish more journals would pursue. Nothing is more frustrating than contributing to a journal and getting the obligatory offprint and not having access to rest of the volume (or even issue).

Thing the Second   

Over on the social media there’s been a bit of buzz about the story of a faculty member who put clues to the location of a $50 in his syllabus and discovered at the end of the semester that no student had gone to retrieve the prize. While most faculty have become frustrated that students don’t read the syllabus, this ploy seemed less likely to generate compliance and more likely to reinforce the smug assumption that students don’t care.

A number of other folks have piped up to argue that students have increasingly come to ignore the syllabus because it has become so laced with required administrative fine print that students view it as the equivalent of an EULA when installing software. Some on social media have pointed out that most syllabi represent “cop shit” and operate under the assumption that students will try to game the system unless outsmarted by a savvy faculty member. 

I suspect that in our COVID-inflected age, students are also finding the syllabus less and less relevant as courses have to constantly pivot and adapt to the challenges that COVID creates for learning. I know that my syllabi have taken on an increasingly provisional character as they attempt both to articulate clear learning goals as well as reassure stressed and overworked students that I will do all I can to keep the class humane and flexible. 

In my graduate seminar this semester, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to thinking explicitly about the syllabus. In this context, the syllabus becomes the goal of the class rather than its formative document and since many of the best classes are open ended exercises, I anticipate that the syllabus will never be complete even when the semester ends. 

Thing the Third

My graduate seminar’s schedule is a bit odd this semester. Rather than being one, 150-minute block, it is two 75-minute meetings per week. For as long as I’ve had or led seminar style classes, they have met once per week. They tend to follow a pretty standard trajectory of vigorous discussion for the first hour or 90 minutes followed by a protracted period of fragmentation and dissipation. We can attribute most of this to simple fatigue and the challenge of staying focused for over 2 hours. In some cases, finding course material that can sustain a 2 hour+ discussion is challenging. In other cases, such as when critiquing the work of seminar participants, the unevenness of the seminar meeting reflects the uneven quality of the work under review and the uneven knowledge of the participants. All in all, most meetings of a seminar experience entropy over their 2 hours duration.

To be clear, it was not my decision to split my seminar meeting into two parts. It was a scheduling quirk most likely associated with my packed teaching schedule and my status as an outsider in teaching in the English department. 

That said, it has been revelatory. First, the knowledge that we only have 90 minutes to discuss a text has given the class a certain amount of urgency. Second, because we meet twice a week, we have time to reflect on a discussion and return to certain points in the second session. In fact, the way that I’m scheduling the class is that we discuss new texts on Thursday and Tuesdays are time for both reflective discussion as well as other practical matters. 

While it is still early days in the class, so far, this organization feels like a revelation. Not only has our Thursday discussion been solid, but the the opportunity to sleep on the discussion and come back to it on Tuesday has so far been remarkably “productive” (by which I mean interesting and engaging instead of resolving). 

Teaching Thursday: Preparing a Portfolio

One of the odd little tasks that I had over the holidays is producing a syllabus for a revised class in our revamped M.A. program in History. This is not a syllabus that we’ll necessarily use, but a kind of bureaucratic step in getting a class revised for inclusion in the new program. 

The class will be a kind of capstone for our new streamlined MA. Instead of requiring a thesis, as we have in the past, the culmination of the MA program will be a portfolio that brings together an article length paper, a review or conference paper, and a reflective essay. Students will prepare this portfolio as part of an “advanced research practices” class run either by the History department or by our colleagues in English.

The following syllabus is a model for the portfolio class. The class will emphasize the practice of writing in the humanities and not simply focus on matters of style, but also include a discussion of the emotional challenges associated with academic work. It is my experience that the emotional aspects of academic writing often have as much to do with the success of a writer as their skills.

The readings for the course were partly crowd sources from a Twitter conversation and some of the class is designed to mimic the existing portfolio class offered by the English Department and taught by Eric Wolf who generously shared his syllabus. More than anything, this reflects the kind of course that I wish existed in my graduate education and exposes gaps that in my own skills that I’m still trying to fill.


History 503: Advanced Historical Methods and Portfolio Preparation

The goal of this class is to refine the advanced research, presentation, and publication central to a career in history and related fields.  

This course is the required capstone to the master’s program in history. It will deliberately examine major trends in research writing in the field and seek to align student’s work with broader disciplinary expectations for the various genres of research writing and presentation. The scholarly article, book review, and conference paper represent key forms of academic communication in the discipline of history and historians must acquire a range of skills, methods, and strategies necessary to contribute effectively to these forms of scholarship. More than that, they need to understand the collaborative aspects of academic knowledge making as manifest in thoughtful engagement with the work of peers, the careful articulation of critique in peer reviews, and the ongoing contributions to the seminar.

The class will be a hybrid course partly directed by the course instructor and partly by the student’s portfolio committee. The course directed by the instructor will emphasize general skills associated with producing polished, professional research outcomes and the student’s portfolio committee will emphasize sophisticated content knowledge. 

The outcome of this class will be a portfolio that demonstrates the acquisition of both the conventions of academic writing and research and the sophisticated methods and content knowledge across three forms of academic writing. 

Course Objectives

1. Demonstrate advanced skills in written academic communication.

2. Demonstrate sophisticated methodological and content knowledge in a subfield in history.

3. Contribute to the collective effort to refine and improve academic research and writing.

4. Reflect critically on the research and writing process.


For the successful completion of this class, participants must submit the following
three papers: 

1. Article length work of historical analysis (8000-10000 words). This paper should be modeled on a publishable academic article in quality, form, and length.

2. Concise work of historical analysis or critique (2000-3000 words). This paper can be a  scholarly critical book or literature review, a conference paper, or a long-form academic encyclopedia entry.

3. Reflective Essay (2000-3000 words). This paper is a reflective essay on some aspect of the academic knowledge making. 

Required Books

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page. Punctum Books 2015.

Cvetkovich, Anne. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke 2012.

Clark, Irene L. “Entering the Conversation: Graduate Thesis Proposals as Genre.” Profession, 2005, 141-52. Accessed January 10, 2021.

Dreyer, Benjamin, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Random House 2019.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Johns Hopkins 2019.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History. Faber and Faber Ltd. 1997.

Graham, Shawn, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota 2019.

Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style. Columbia University Press. 2014.

MacDonald, Peck. Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Southern Illinois University Press. 1994.

Swales John M. and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Third Edition. University of Michigan Press 2012.

Other Guides (optional)

Barry, Linda, What it is. Drawn & Quarterly 2008.

Belcher, Wendy L. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. SAGE Publications 2009.

Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. New Forums Press 1990.

Booth, Wayne C., et al., The Craft of Research. 4th  Edition. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. 2nd Edition. University of Chicago Press 2013.

Greene, Anne E. Writing Science in Plain English. University of Chicago Press 2013.

Ilyn, Natalia. Writing for the Design Mind. Bloomsbury 2019.

Kane, Thomas, New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press 1988.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn, Several Short Sentences About Writing. Random House 2013. 

Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor 1995.

McPhee, John, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017.

Moran, J., First You Write a Sentence. Random House 2019.

Murray, Rowena and Sarah Moore, The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. McGraw Hill 2006.

Thomas, Francis-Noël and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Second Edition. Princeton 2011.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press 2012.

Williams, Joseph, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press 1990.

Zinsser, W. On Writing Well. HarperCollins 2016.


Week 1: The History of Academic Writing

Week 2: Contemporary Perspectives

Week 3: Writing with Style

Week 4: Writer’s Block and Affective Writing

Week 5: Writing and Reviewing Generously

Week 6: Failure

Week 7: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 8: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 9: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 10: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 11: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 12: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 13: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 14: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 15: Workshop
Paper 3



Notes on Being a Graduate Director

For the last four or five years, I’ve had a strange position. I serve as graduate director of three programs which have more or less stopped admitting students. Our department currently has, on the books, an MA in History, a DA in history (which is a Doctor of the Arts, a teaching doctorate), and a PhD in History (offered jointly with our colleagues at NDSU). Three years ago, we lost funding for our graduate program as part of a larger budget cuts and austerity program at the University of North Dakota. At that point, we decided to press pause on admitting into our program To be fair, we do have a few doctoral students continuing to wend their way through our program and a handful of recidivist MA students working to finish their degrees.

This week, though, this situation started to change. The Graduate Committee at the University of North Dakota approved a heavily revised MA program. These revisions included a new 4+1 offering which would allow a student to start their MA after 60 undergraduate credits and complete it in one additional academic year. While the revised program still has to make its way through the university curriculum committee, I anticipate no difficulties there. We also continue to have no funding which means that we have no GTA positions and no tuition wavers, it will likely attract a certain kind of student who is unlikely to get support from other institutions. That being said, we anticipate that our MA program will serve this population well and provide a distinctive take on the History MA. 

Here are some thoughts about our new MA:

1. Limiting Required Classes. Previously our MA was like most graduate degrees: a Byzantine series of requirements and tracks that involved not only the synchronization of a number of courses, but assumed that how we imagined our degree best reflected our students expectations and needs.

With this revision, we’ve moved in the opposite direction and will require only four courses: (1) a historiography class, (2) a methods class, (3) a portfolio class (more on that later), and (4) 3 research and writing credits.

2. Built on the framework of our BA. Historically, our MA program was quite distinct from our BA program. Instead of content or methods focused classes, we shifted to rather more open ended research seminars and graduate reading classes that emphasized historiography as much as historical content knowledge.

In truth many of our students were ill-prepared for this change. More than that, many of our students found even directed research and intensive reading in the complex historiography of a period, issue, or approach to be so different from their undergraduate experiences that it was not only undesirable, but also not conducive to student success. 

Our new MA will cleave more closely to our BA allowing students to transition from  undergraduate approaches to history to graduate style reading and writing courses. Our graduate students will enroll largely in upper division undergraduate classes. We will, of course, expect more writing and reading from our graduate students, but our hope is that the content oriented framework of our undergraduate curriculum will help our students make the leap to graduate level work more successfully. (And elevate the game of our undergraduates as well!) 

3. Non-History Electives and Internships. Historically we have imagined our MA a gateway to a doctoral program in history, but looking back, we realized that relatively few of our students decided to go in that direction. Instead, students have used their MA as a foundation for secondary school teaching, at museums and other cultural institutions, in the non-profit world, and elsewhere. We decided to include the option for as many as four classes being outside our department or up to six credits worth of internships. This will allow our MA to dovetail more neatly with the kinds of “outcomes” that many of our students realize and allow them to get some experience outside the classroom while still a student.  

4. Portfolios, not Theses. We’ve also finally put the MA thesis out of its misery. In its place we’ve adopted a portfolio that will include three papers. One will be an article length research paper (8000-10000 words), another will be a conference paper length work on a different topic (3000 words). The final paper will be a reflective essay or a personal statement which might be useful on the job market or as a gesture toward “closing the loop” on the MA.

5. Managing Faculty Workload. The other advantage that this lighter MA program has is managing faculty workload. Because we won’t offer as many distinctly graduate classes and we’ll support (and encourage) our students to take classes outside of the department, we will not have to develop and offer as many new graduate level classes. The portfolio will also be less of a burden than the sometimes multiyear commitment to a Master’s thesis. As our department continues to shrink and the institution’s commitment to programs in the humanities wavers, we want to do all we can to manage our little corner of the campus as carefully as possible. Morale will not improve any time soon, but being attentive to faculty workloads certainly does make a difference in our daily lives as teachers, scholars, and colleagues.

In the end, our new MA program might not make much of an impact on the status of our department on campus or the character of graduate education in history in the field. We do hope, though, that continuing to invest in a program like ours, which even without funding will be more affordable than many “post-bac” style programs, will reflect our ongoing commitment to offering high-quality graduate education to underserved populations. As more and more “second” and “third tier” universities pull the plug on their small MA programs in the humanities, students from areas that these programs served are left without many alternatives. They are unlikely to be admitted or well-suited to elite graduate programs in the humanities which have started to reduce the number of seats available in an effort to balance supply and demand.

We hope our program will continue to serve as a step up program for students in our region as well as give students looking to continue their education in history for either professional or personal reasons an attractive and flexible opportunity. 

Teaching Thursday: Diversifying my Graduate Historical Methods Syllabus

This past semester, I taught a revised version of History 501: Historical Methods. This class was initially a very basic introduction to our department and the broad range of historical methods. As many of our graduate students had a rather narrow training as undergraduates that focused on conventional narratives, as opposed to methodology, this class provided a transition to a more rigorous and self-aware study of history.

I will admit that my typical syllabus for this class (and it’s sister class History 502) included the usual white male suspects. I went to the Twitters to diversity my bonds, so to speak and produced a new syllabus for the class that wasn’t entirely successful. The students and I have discussed adding a five more weeks of reading to bolster some gaps in my earlier syllabus.

In keeping with my efforts to diversify, decolonized, and transform, here are my ideas.

Week 1: Historical Thinking

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacobs, Telling the Truth About History. New York 1995.

(Maybe also, R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Oxford 1946.)

Week 2: History of the Discipline

Bonnie Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice. (Harvard 2001).

(Maybe also: P. Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge 1988.

Week 3: Postcolonial History

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : postcolonial thought and historical difference.  Princeton 2000.

(Maybe also: David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC 2004.)

Week 4: The Ontological Turn

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC 2007.

(Maybe also: Greg Anderson, The Realness of Things Past: ancient Greece and ontological history. New York 2018.)

Week 5: Academic Life

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: a radical approach to saving the university. Baltimore 2019.

(Maybe also: L. Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas. New York 2001.)


As always, I’m open to thoughts and suggestions!

Teaching Thursday: Revisiting Clark’s History, Theory, Text

This semester, I’m teaching a small graduate seminar that is a combination historical methods, theory, and historiography. The syllabus is uncomplicated and involves only 10 or 11 books, a couple of short paper, and a draft of a prospectus.

The third book on the syllabus of Elizabeth Clark’s 2004 classic, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Reading the book this weekend and it evoked a serious case of nostalgia. I remember how excited I was to read this book in 2004 when I was just a year out from my dissertation and still waking from over two years of focused research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I largely spent my time in Greece finishing my dissertation, trying to understand how to publish Hellenistic fortifications, and getting my first archaeological project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, started. It was great fun, but it also saw a real narrowing of my perspectives on how to study the ancient world. My years in Athens helped me become more technically and methodologically proficient. 

At the same time, I grew increasingly distant from the conversations taking place in the larger field of history. This probably started long before I decamped from Ohio State’s history department to the American School in Athens, but my time in Athens exaggerated this feeling. When I read Elizabeth Clark’s book some 6 months after returning to the U.S., I felt like I had some catching up to do.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it stands as a survey of the “linguistic turn” in the humanities with particular attention the study of Late Roman Christian literature. The book remains as fresh as ever, in part, because the potential of critical theory is still being unpacked, negotiated, and debated in the humanities and because so many of the key works were already decades old by the time that Clark’s book arrived. The books is not casual. It’s dense, articulate, careful in its intention to open the linguist turn to scholars who were steeped in other traditions or downright skeptical of its applicability to Christian texts of Late Antiquity. 

Today, the main reason that the book feels dated is that so much of the linguistic turn has been internalized over the last 15 years. Clark, along with Averil Cameron, Virginia Burrus, and others whose work introduced critical theory to the study of Late Roman Christianity have produced students, inspired the peers, and led to a sea change in our field. 

At the same time, the book also feels oddly apolitical. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a refection both on our own politically age and the increased intermingling of the critical theory with its concern for language with social theory and its concern for institutions, communities, individuals, and agency. While these bodies of theory are, by no means, mutually exclusive (and tend to intersect in the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, Althusser and others), they tended occupy different places in our critical tool kit. As an archaeologist, I think its safe to say that we’ve tended to be drawn more closely to social theory and its direct applicability the kinds of problems that our work explores: development and change in states, social organization, identity formation, etc. 

It seems to me that this integration of the critical  theory with social theory has provided the most effective foundation for the most recent generation of powerful and overtly political scholarship on the ancient world. I’m staring at a copy of Dayna S. Kalleres City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity (2015) for example, sitting on my “to read” list. And was incredible impressed with Kristina Sessa’s The formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (2012) (blogged about here.) These are but two books in a massive stack of impressive work over the past decade that considers authority, poverty, ethnicity, and social order at the end of the ancient world. 

I’m looking forward to walking through this book with my little seminar this afternoon and thinking about the linguistic turn and its impact on how we think about texts from the past. It’ll bring back good memories too and remind me how little I’ve done to keep my fingers on the recent trends in my field.  

Revising my Graduate Methods Course

This fall, I’m teaching a small graduate methods class. We originally designed the class as the first class an incoming MA student would take from our department. The first half of the class was a discussion of historical practices and the second half consisted of two-week, mini-courses offered by various members of the faculty on their specialization (oral history, archival research, ethnohistory, material culture, et c.). Next semester, I’m offering the class to two prodigal graduate students who are returning to our program after a few years away. They don’t really need to meet the department as much as get a tune up on what’s going on in the discipline and get back into thinking, reading, and writing at a graduate level.

Since I’ve been pretty out of the loop in terms of the academic study of the past, I partly crowd sourced my syllabus and got some great advice. You’ll obviously be able to see the books that make clear my rather olde skool background (and those that have been recommended to me from “the crowd”) and I recognize that it is a bit dated in places. I’m still fishing for something that does a nice job of considering digital practices for historians.

Here’s the syllabus so far:

Week 1: Introduction to Graduate Research

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press 2015.

Week 2: Introduction to Historical Thinking

Sarah Maza, Thinking about History. University of Chicago Press 2017.

Week 3: Introduction to Critical Theory

Elizabeth Clarke, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Harvard University Press 2004.

Week 4: History and Globalization

Lynne Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era. Norton 2014.

Week 5: History and Identity

Kwame Appiah, Lies that Bind Us: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books 2018.

Week 6: History and the Environment

John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 7: Activist History

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 8: Materiality, Heritage and Decay

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press 2017.

Three Things Wednesday

I’ve been writing a bit frantically lately, and this morning, I don’t really feel it. So instead of some (in)coherent blogpost rant, I’ll offer three quick things that occupied my mind on my drive to campus this morning.

Forty Book February

This month was the first month in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that we sold 40 books (actually 41)! Selling paper books has always been a rather small part of what I do at The Digital Press, but as recent, middling figures for the sale for ebooks have shown, people love paper. (That being said, downloads of our books outpaced sales by about 10:1).

The strong February sales were driven in part by Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, but almost every book in our catalogue got some love this month. 

What is more interesting (at least to me) is that Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson is the only book that did not sell a copy, despite being the most widely cited book in The Digital Press catalogue with close to 10 citations in a wide range of books and journals (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeology, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization). I suspect the price ($24) has something to do with it and this was an unavoidable consequence of the color printing. Maybe the topic of the book, which was meant to capture a particular moment in time, made the book easily dated?

Immigrants and Emerson 

Here in the Northland, we’ve heard an alarming number of stories about immigrants crossing the rural border between the U.S. and Canada out of fear of deportation. Crossing the border by foot in the winter has cost some of these individuals fingers and toes and nearly their lives. This terrifying new reality has put a profoundly human and local face on the global refugee crisis and got me and my colleagues, Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, thinking about whether an archaeology of these crossings could help us (and our communities) understand what we need to do to help people so desperate and afraid that they’d risk their lives to be free. Taking a page from Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project and our own experience working on the archaeology of the contemporary world, we’ve just begun to imagine ways in which we could realize an archaeology of care here in North Dakota.

We don’t have plans yet and recognize the need for collaboration on both sides of the border and the time and space to develop a thoughtful, humane, and systematic approach to the local side of a global problem. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that will help frame archaeology’s role in the ongoing crisis.

Threshold Concepts

The next big thing in pedagogy (at least here in North Dakota) seems to be threshold concepts. While I won’t pretend to understand the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of the idea, it seems to have something to with the idea or concept in a class (or even a discipline) that pushes a student from superficial bafflement to deep understanding. I like the idea because it so neatly describes the breakthrough point that most of us have experienced when studying, say, an language or a particularly tricky text that allows us almost suddenly to wrap our heads around what an author or even a culture is saying. The idea behind threshold concepts, from what I gather, is to recognize and foreground the understanding that creates this breakthrough experience.

A colleague got me thinking about the threshold concepts for history and how students think about arguments, facts, evidence, and theory. For many – even some of our M.A. students – history is about combining “facts” into arguments. This is a fine basic understanding, but runs the risk of essentializing historical evidence as static facts and viewing arguments as self-contained entities that do not rely on larger (and more complex) standards for their validity. After all, an argument is only as good within a particular regime of authority, style, discourse, and even political standing. 

Introducing Graduate Students to Graduate School

Last year I became the director of graduate studies for the history department at the University of North Dakota. This was not a natural fit as I have had relatively few graduate students during my 10+ years at UND and few of them earned their M.A. without some kind of drama. That being said, we’re a small department and everyone has to take their turn doing departmental service.

As part of my responsibilities as graduate director, I both introduce the students the administrative and bureaucratic side of graduate school through a one-hour meeting, but also run our required graduate methods course which introduces students to historical methods and some advanced research and writing skills. For the latter course, about a third of it is occupied by guest lectures from my colleagues. The rest of the course – say 10 sessions – focuses on big picture issues that face all graduate students.

Here are my topics and some of my readings. I’m open to additions and suggestions particularly for the section on the public humanities and history in the public sphere. I’m looking for something general and sophisticated (and not just “we need to talk to the public more…). Thoughts?

1. Perspectives on Graduate Education in the 21st Century:

L. Cassuto, The Graduate School Mess. 2015. (I have mixed feelings about this book.)

2. Perspectives on History and the Humanities in the 21st Century

G. Gordon and F. Mohamed, A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education. 2015. 
Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto. 2015. (My thought here.)

3. Advanced Library Research

4. Reading and Writing I: The Article Review

5. Developing a Digital Workflow

Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, Writing History in the Digital Age. 2013.

6. Reading and Writing II: The Book Review

7. Public Humanities and History in the Public Sphere

Reading: TBA 

8. Reading and Writing III: The Prospectus

9. Alt-Ac Careers and Professional Development

Reading: A. Grafton and J. Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” Perspectives (October 2011).

10. Time Management and Work/Life Balance

Reading: M. Berg and B. Seeber, The Slow Professor. 2016. (My ambivalent thoughts here and here.)

Alt-Ac in Archaeology

Go over and check out the newest issue of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (JEMAHS) for their forum on alt-ac (alternate academic) careers (and you might want to download it all now since I don’t think it’ll be freely available forever). These are careers for individuals who either shifted their attention from their graduate programs to other, typically related careers, or received their Ph.D.s and either did not entire the academic job market or could not find jobs. As the academic job market has become all the more constricted for Ph.D.s in the humanities, alt-ac careers are becoming more common. This year is my first as our department’s director of graduate studies and I’m paying a more attention to the job market as our Ph.D.s and M.A.s graduate and find their way.  

So after chewing on these articles for a bit, I had three thoughts

1. Ph.D. programs have to change. For a long time, I’ve thought of Ph.D. programs (particularly in history, but for archaeology too) as professional programs for historians and archaeologists. The goal of a Ph.D. program is to prepare a historian for a rather narrow view of the academic job market. This involves developing more sophisticated research methods, producing book length arguments, managing long term projects, and balancing teaching and research responsibilities. I contend that most Ph.D. programs continue to do a good job with these things. 

It is another issue whether these things continue to be essential elements of professional development in our discipline. For faculty who will teach more and research less, it seems reasonable that we shift some emphasis toward not just teaching, but to integrating research and teaching in the classroom. I’d like to think that our D.A. program at UND which requires students to demonstrate a broader chronological and topical foundation does a better job in preparing students for certain types of teaching positions (and our almost perfect placement rate over the past decade would tend reflect our confidence). In the D.A. program students are required to develop broad expertise in both European and American history and teach under supervision both the Western (or World) History survey course, the American history survey as well as to develop a more specialized course. In place of a traditional dissertation, our D.A. candidates develop a research project that must include a teaching component that explores how the candidate can integrate their research in either teaching or public history environment.      

2. Alt-Academia is a scary place. Reading the various contributions to this volume emphasized to me how much the serene world of tenured academia relies upon a fragile world of alt-acedmic positions. Sarah and Eric Kansa’s discussion of their situation as directors of the Alexandria Archive Institute which supports the invaluable Open Access archaeological publishing platform made clear they their position, both in financial terms and in terms of academic freedom is not as secure as a that of faculty. Chuck Jones made clear that he made decisions to move because of the opportunity for tenure. 

I’m incredibly lucky to have the security of a tenured position, but I can say with absolute confidence that I am neither as good at my job as Chuck or the Kansas (Sarah and Eric, not the state or the band), nor is what I do as important to the field. (And this observation applies, undoubtedly, to many of the other scholars who shared their experiences in this volume, but I know these three better than most of the others). The contributions in this volume made very clear how much key aspects of our academic work are not afforded the same protections (and freedoms) that tenured faculty have. This is hardly a shock as the number of adjuncts teaching continues to rise nationwide and universities continue to erode tenure protections through appeals to economic emergencies, personal conduct, and imagined institutional futures. It is something that should cause us worry, though. Our opportunity to pursue independent research is only as good as its institutional context. Libraries and  digital repositories (as well as granting agencies, publishers, and other institutions that support and shape academic work) require the same protections as tenured researchers.  

3. Disciplinary Deskilling. As I begin my term as director of graduate studies for our small graduate program, I do worry about balancing the need to prepare our M.A., Ph.D., and D.A. students for academic positions and alt-ac positions. On the one hand, I recognize that much of our traditional academic training has some value to a candidate interested in alt-ac positions and our commitment to professional education in our various disciplinary traditions has (often unintended) utility outside our academic worlds.

On the other hand, I continue to worry that by looking to prepare our students for the potential of alt-ac jobs, we run the risk of diluting our professional degree programs. For example, in discussions of creating a Master’s level “public history” track at UND, we’ve talked about requiring courses in non-profit management, marketing, accounting, education, computer programing, web design, and museum studies. These courses, of course, would introduce students to key skills vital to a career in the world of public history. At the same time, requiring even a few of these classes will inevitably squeeze out courses in disciplinary history. 

As we think about what we can do to make the Ph.D. a more practical degree in recognition that most of our Ph.D. students will not become tenured faculty, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to start to shift what we emphasize in our Ph.D. programs to adapt to this reality. The problem is, of course, that the alt-ac world is a much more diverse and dynamic place than academia and looking to expand the foundation of Ph.D. education will always risk contracting the specialized, professional training that remains the core of what a Ph.D. is. We’re witnessing this on the undergraduate level, albeit in a bit of a different context, where training in history has increasingly taken a back seat to the development (and invariably assessment) of “transferable skills.” After all, the opportunities in the field of history for a B.A. student are relatively few and history has long established itself as useful training for a range of other kinds of work. The risk is, of course, if history largely serves to train students to do things other than history, wouldn’t it be more efficient, affordable, and useful to just train students broadly to do this other kind of work? Why teach them history as a way to develop skills rather than just training them in those skills? Because history is interesting? Is the historical method and subject matter the spoonful of sugar (for the medicine of workforce development)?

I’m not sure that I know the answer to this question and how much any discipline should give in their undergraduate or professional training to the realities of a changing workforce, institutional cultures, and professional expectations. The careers of the people features in his volume of JEMAHS offer some thought-provoking case studies that will continue to inform the conversation.