A New Memorial Union at UND

I was pretty interested in the recent vote to fund the construction of a new Memorial Union on the campus of the University of North Dakota. By a fairly narrow margin, students agreed to fund a new union through a $14 per credit fee that increased 2% per year between 2020 and 2059. The new union, it’s been said, will cost about $80 million and the incentive to do this now is that the existing union, aside from being dated in style and design as well as increasingly inadequate as a center for student life, has about $40 million in “deferred maintenance.” Traditionally, students have carried part of the funding for the union and its maintenance through various fees and had a fair amount of control over how the union worked and funding priorities.

The fee increase has to go through the state legislature and the state board of higher education, and there is some concern that a fee increase to fund the new union will make it more difficult to increase fees for other needs on campus should they arise over the next 40 years (gulp!!). As a result, some legislators with ties to UND have asked around a bit to get a sense whether this is a good priority for UND and whether it should see backing in the legislature.

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about how university budgets work in the age of shifting priorities, I chimed in and my response to a social media post has been banging around in my head for a week or so now. So, I thought I would share a revised version of it here.

First, the more that I thought about it, the more that I’ve come to think that the $40 million in deferred maintenance is a bit of a McGuffin. From what I understand, the formulas used to calculate deferred maintenance are not as simple as saying there are $40 million worth of things needing to be fixed in the existing union. These figures include depreciation and replacement costs that accumulate over time, and, generally, represent the amount of money that needs to be available to accommodate repair and replacement of the physical plant of the building. A new roof, for example, will start to generate deferred maintenance expenses from the moment it is installed as well an HVAC unit or a light bulb. Ideally, the university would start to save money to replace the roof from the moment that the roof is installed, but this is neither realistic or practical.

Of course, if UND spent $40 million, it would reset the deferred maintenance “clock” to zero in the same way that replacing the oil in your car every morning would reset part of your car’s deferred maintenance bill. But this isn’t necessary a rational decision. One of the Wesley College buildings, Sayre Hall, still had the original wood-framed windows from the early 20th century. These would have been racking up deferred maintenances expenses for nearly a century (if we assume a window is designed to last 20 years), but they were never replaced. It stands to reason that, in general, larger, more complex, and more expensive buildings generate deferred maintenance costs more quickly than small ones. I also suspect that the rate of increased for deferred maintenance trails off as buildings get older. In other words, building a new union will only defer (heh heh) the rate of increase for deferred maintenance for a little while before it begins too accumulate again and every bit as quickly (and perhaps even MORE quickly in some nightmarish scenarios) as the old union does.

More than that, if the issue is that the university doesn’t have sufficient saved funds to cover future maintenance on campus, then building a new building will neither make this better or worse. Eliminating deferred maintenance expenses on the two old Wesley College buildings didn’t “save” the university money, it just eliminated potential future expenses. But more to the point, he entire system of budgets on campus create deferred maintenance expenses because saved money is frequently seen by both administrators and the legislature as surplus capital that isn’t being used productively and an example of inefficiency at a public institution to be “punished” by austerity. In fact, the entire federal grant system now works along these lines with less and less money provided to pay for the maintenance and depreciation (indirect costs) of the original investment (direct costs).

In other words, talking about deferred maintenance as a reason to build a building isn’t the language of fiscal responsibility, but the language of austerity. The language of deferred maintenance is meant to make the university look like an irresponsible institution (whether this is the case or not) and often results in funding cuts purported to enforce more efficient operation, but actually designed to penalize public institutions (and to case-build for privatization). For example, the legislature has proposed several times to make resources available but only if a significant part of the funds would go toward deferred maintenance. Covering deferred maintenance costs on campus isn’t always or eve often responsible thing to do. It hurts students.

That being said, there are two compelling reasons – at least to me – for approving the students’ request for funding a new union. 

First, there has been a good bit of talk about the union attracting new students as well as  vague statements that the union is the “heart” or the “core” of the campus. I don’t disagree with either of these things, but I wonder whether they’re overly narrow. To be clear, I’ll admit to finding NDSU’s union building very attractive and functional. I also have had the privilege of traveling to other campuses quite regularly over the past few years and, in comparison UND’s union, is both limited and outdated.

As an aside, this one of my favorite hallways on campus (it’s not technically in the Union, but rather in Swanson Hall, but is more or less in the Union complex):

IMG 3452

Despite this hallway and the appeal of the union to prospective students and visitors, it isn’t really the best argument. What is more compelling to me is the growing awareness that campus buildings play an important role in the coherence of the campus community and this plays a role in academic performance and retention of students. Like many state schools, UND attracts students from a wide range of backgrounds. The presence of spaces on campus that encourage students to socialize and interact is particularly important at a school like ours not because our “posh” or privileged students expect it, but because having appealing and functional spaces on campus levels the playing filed for our diverse student body. This is part of the mission of public universities and something that a well designed campus should accomplish.

We know, for example, that first generation students, minorities, and students from less advantaged backgrounds often struggle to integrate into the campus community and this has an impact on academic performance. They tend to study alone more, they tend to find campus to be an alienating place, and they tend to see their academic work as more separate from their “real life.” With the growth of private dormitories and the continued strength of fraternities and sororities, historically disadvantaged students also have fewer spaces to interact with other students outside the classroom. If they do look to the union as a common space, it’s dingy and spent vibe tends to reinforce these students’ position as marginal. Conversely, an updated and appealing union may well expand the impact of what faculty and students do in the classroom by creating inclusive spaces for informal interaction and to eliminate – for the time being, at least – a real dichotomy of opportunity across our diverse student body. In short, this is not a building that is being built instead of things that would improve academic life on campus is a false dichotomy.

Second, voting “no” on the new union will continue a policy of austerity that involves the withholding of funds – or even support for policies – that do not adhere to a top down strategic vision implemented by legislators, administrators, alumni, and various other stakeholders on campus. This situation and initiative reminds the bosses that students ARE stakeholders, and they have every bit as much the right to shape campus in a respectful and deliberate way as the legislature, the administration, or the faculty. In fact, while I don’t necessarily agree with building of a new union per se, I’d go to the wall to protect students’ rights to raise the funds to build a union. If the state isn’t going to support the university system in a reasonable way, then they lose the right to tell students not to take matters into their own hands.

In the spring of 2018, I taught a class on the UND budget and what was clear was that students DO have strong opinions about the current fiscal situation on campus and do have priorities that administrators, faculty, and legislatures doesn’t always recognize. More than that, they want a voice. This is their voice. And the argument that “only” 2400 students participated and “only” 1300 students wanted the union speaks more to a condescending attitude toward students than a legitimate concern. Over my time at UND, the last 15 years, far less representative groups have raised fees on students or made decisions that directly impact the quality of education and experience. The decision, for example, to eliminate music therapy was made by one administrator. When my class pressed senior administrators to explain the cuts to baseball and Women’s Hockey, their responses were evasive and guarded. It was clear that students were not only uninvolved in these decisions, but would not always be given access to the processes that produced these decisions. In general, student input on most matters of campus policy, curriculum, and administration is often limited to one or two students on committees, at best. That 1000+ plus students made their voices heard in a relatively transparent way through this vote is enough for me to support them.

Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A Case Study from UND

I finally submitted my little article on the humanities in the age of austerity that uses the University of North Dakota as a case study. It will appear in a special section in North Dakota Quarterly volume 85.

Many, many people contributed to this article not the least of whom were students in a graduate seminar on historiography who produced a book length response to the de-funding of UND’s graduate program in history and then, some of the same students worked with me to create a class on the UND budget. The undergraduates in that class sharpened my thinking about how budgets worked and how priorities were established. These classroom experiences pushed me to confront a wider range of political perspectives, to read more deeply, and to listen to various participants in high level decision making.

At the same time I was doing this I had the pleasure to serve on UND’s Senate Budget Committee, the Graduate Committee, and to attend various ad hoc gatherings associated with the development of a new strategic plan on campus and various other new initiatives. Whatever modest contribution I made to these committees, I was able to benefit by learning a tremendous amount about administrative attitudes, the views from my colleagues in other departments and programs, and the process of priority setting. While this has been a rather difficult time across campus with people losing their jobs, programs being terminated, and a general sense of anxiety and insecurity, it has also been a particularly intriguing one. Times of instability, it would seem, pushed people to put their cards on the table, to visibly operate the levers of power, and to make statements and take actions that they could otherwise hide behind various gradualist strategies and the slow grind of consensus.    

My colleagues on campus and on social media pushed back on various parts of this piece and demanded that I clarify or revise my thinking. In some cases, I did. In other cases, I left the ambiguity as a more honest expression of my thoughts than anything else. Finally, in some cases, I just disagreed or forgot to make changes. 

It’s pretty scary to publish something on the humanities and austerity in part because I’ve been thinking about this for a long enough that I no longer can see the issue clearly and, in part, because people much smarter than I am are on both sides of this debate. If the article does anything, I hope it stimulates some more conversation about the impact, goals, and motives of various austerity measures in higher education.

You can download a pre-print here.


A Couple of Thoughts on the ASOR Annual Meeting

Institutions, particularly academic institutions, are slow to change. In most cases, this is a good thing. After all, universities and colleges are responsible for both their existing programs and students, and the degrees conferred to past students, the often long careers of faculty and staff, and the gifts of donors, loyalty of alumni, and responsibilities to communities. Professional organizations like the ASOR, or the American Schools of Oriental Research, are also prone to incremental changes rather than quick pivots and abrupt reorientations and tend to see the historical legacy of their organization on equal footing with its current relevance. Generally speaking, the organization of these institutions makes change difficult as well with complex bylaws, multiple committees, and various checks that prevent decision-making without general consensus. 

While in many ways the reluctance to change quickly is a good thing. For example, many academic organizations rely on a diverse portfolio of stakeholders for funding and lack a robust financial safety net. A misstep could lead not simply to a dilution of their historic mission, but to real financial and existential problems.

There were two big decisions that took center stage at the ASOR annual meeting. First, we continue to discuss the long-term relationship with the Society of Biblical Literature meeting which generally overlaps with ASOR and occurs in the same city. Since the American Academy of Religion annual meeting now also coincides with SBL and ASOR, it has become difficult for ASOR to find suitable accommodations in the same city. As a result, ASOR has to decide whether it needs to change when and where it holds its meetings. There are real practical implications to this since about a fifth of ASOR members also are SBL members and participate in both meetings.

This also has opened a conversation about how to make the meetings more accommodating to graduate students, contingent faculty, avocational scholars, and recent Ph.Ds who often have fewer resources and time to attend meetings. The cost of airfare, for example, was a concern especially if ASOR moved to a “second tier” city. At the same time, the cost and quality of accommodations were a concern in cities that tend to be airport hubs. Some fretted also about having to pick between ASOR and SBL and about the impact on the range and quality of papers at both conferences if they were to go their separate ways. 

While this might appear to be a largely practical matter of cost and convenience, it also has an intellectual component. Over the past 20 years, ASOR has changed and come to embrace more than the archaeology of the Levant and “Biblical” concerns, periods, and problems. A divorce from SBL would likely continue, if not accelerate, this trend and contribute to the ongoing transformation of ASOR members, its conference, and publications.

The other major conversation at the conference was about ASOR’s name: the American Schools of Oriental Research. They hosted a workshop on this topic at their annual meeting, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. Fortunately, the issue was a constant topic of conversation throughout the meeting. The context for this name change is that the term “Oriental” is closely associated with colonialist practice as scholars like Edward Said has taught us. The concept of the “Orient” from which the name of organization (and countless others) derives carries with it a dense network of racial, cultural, political, and even economic associations that developed from the various branches of continental “Oriental studies” that defined and supported colonial practices. 

The persistence of the term “Oriental” in the ASOR name is a historical artifact laden with baggage that directly impacts the intellectual mission of our organization. We simply cannot be both “oriental” and post-colonial, for example. We can’t preach that we respect and value our colleagues and communities in Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt or anywhere else that ASOR affiliated scholars work, while also officially recognizing Orientalism in our name. It’s intellectually inconsistent and politically incongruous. 

The name has to change and there appears to be broad consensus on this point. A new name for ASOR, however, will certainly be the greater challenge. On the one hand, renaming ASOR will not eliminate the Orientalist past (and, frankly, present) of the organization, but it will de-emphasize its impact on our future. On the other hand, so much of our discipline of archaeology (and history) is grounded in the same intellectual and political moments that produced Orientalism (for example, the Enlightenment), if we can even consider Orientalism and archaeology to be genuinely separate things. Rebranding ASOR will show intent to challenge basic assumptions about archaeological ways of thinking, traditions, methods, and practices, but the job itself is far from over. If incremental changes within the disciplines that make up ASOR have led us to this point, then we have to hope that they’re part of a longer trajectory that bends toward practices that are more inclusive, dynamic, and liberating. 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

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

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

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

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


Reflections on Joel Jonientz

It’s been four years since Joel Jonientz died. This is a long time under any circumstances, but these days four years ago feels like a completely different world to me. Maybe some of this has to do with the “sold” sign on the Jonientz house down the street. Maybe some of this has to do with just getting older. Maybe some of this reflects the relentless pace of change that even encroaches on my little corner of North Dakotaland.

Punka cover 1

Recently, I’ve been thinking about collaboration and work at the University of North Dakota, and these are things that Joel and I talked about regularly. I was particularly interested in understand what a university could do (and should do) to cultivate a spirit of collaboration among its faculty. Joel was a veteran collaborator across UND’s campus who was part of the Working Group in Digital and New Media, co-organized the UND Arts and Culture Conference, worked with the UND Writers Conference to design their posters and to moderate panels, applied (and won) collaborative grants to animate Maya poetry, and who helped me co-found The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

There were particular circumstances that allowed for the emergence of collaborative culture on UND’s campus in those days. First, there was relative stability on campus which gave faculty the confidence that collaborative initiatives would have the time and space to develop. Second, there were resources earmarked for grassroots collaborative ventures that authorized faculty led initiatives. Finally, there was a spirit of collegiality among faculty that softened our competitive instincts. In other words, there were institutional, financial, and social conditions that encouraged the development of collaboration.  

Despite the opportunities to collaborate, I remained a bit more tentative in my approach to on-campus partnerships. I had long-justified my reluctance to embrace collaboration fully as having a rather specialized set of research interests and also being relatively slow to pivot from one area of interest to the next. Joel in contrast, always demonstrated a kind of dynamism that allowed up to cultivate multiple niches from video game designer to poster maker, painter, time-based media artist, and publisher. These skills, which derive – as he used to put it – from being a “Master of FINE Arts” gave him a tool set that was both in demand and well-suited for collaboration.

(In hindsight, I probably didn’t quite understand how to collaborate on campus and how to listen as much as I spoke. I probably don’t quite have the balance for that down yet, but I’m working on it.)

One of the key things that got me thinking about Joel’s attitudes toward collaboration and the conditions that allowed collaboration to flourish among my group of colleagues is a recent post from a colleague that said, in effect, “no one should be allowed to work for free.” It echoed a quip I once heard from a faculty member in engineering. He said that over the summer, “I don’t work because I don’t get paid.” 

This struck me as a bit odd. After all, most academics work for free over the course of their careers. In fact, the entire pay structure of academia, in which some faculty make more than others for doing essentially the same job, dictates that one persons work is worth more (and worse less) than another’s. So as long as I do the same job as my better compensated colleagues, I am, in effect, doing work for free in the hope that my efforts will be recognized and, at some future time, compensated.

Joel tended to insist that he be compensated for his work, except when he didn’t. For example, he did most of the design and layout work for my Punk Archaeology project for free. I never really understood how he determined what he expected to be paid for and what he’d do because it was fun, and what he considered contract work and what he considered collaboration. I’m sure the line was blurry, but I also suspect – in hindsight – that it had something to do with how he valued the work.

Collaboration, it seems to me, involves both parties valuing the work more or less equally. It is possible, then, to “work for free” because the work itself has value outside of or beyond compensation. For this kind of system to function, there needs to be a tremendous amount of trust between collaborators as well as the practical recognition that the project will benefit all parties. This kind of trust develops most fully in stable environments, where access to resources softens the edge of competition that so much of academia cultivates. 

I’m still working on collaborative projects. Eric Burin and I work together to publish timely works at The Digital Press. Paul Worley and I have been working with a group of editors to keep North Dakota Quarterly thriving. I work with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, Amy PapalexandrouDimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and others every summer on archaeological projects. I’m enjoying tremendously the collaboration with students and colleagues on the Wesley College Documentation Project. My work with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is a source of constant excitement.

I like to think that these collaboration share Joel’s spirit in some ways, but I also can’t help but wonder whether there would be more or different opportunities if Joel was still around. 






The Letters of Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times.

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below:

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935


This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

How to Rate Research: A Strange Little Proposal

This weekend, I got to thinking about how scholars in the humanities might rate their research productivity and quality. This line of thinking was prompted by both a new university mandate that scholars in the humanities and social sciences figure out how to rank or evaluate our publications and a reading of I. Stengers’s Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science (2018)

The problem is a long-standing one. First, as scholars a pecking order already exists, largely in our own minds, for what constitutes a good publication and what may not be. In general, this follows the basic contours of journal and publisher quality but also is riddled with meaningful exceptions and ambiguities that are significant when evaluating research for a relatively small sample like a department. Over time, I think most of us would agree that top tier journals (e.g. the American Historical Review or American Journal of Archaeology) generally publish better articles, especially over time, but this does not exclude the possibility of good articles appearing in less well regarded journals. The latter becomes particularly important when, say, reviewing the research of a smaller department, like ours, whose annual output might not map neatly onto long-standing patterns of quality. Moreover, having a nuanced system that goes beyond the typical lists of journal rating makes it possible to rate  the quality of highly specialized work that might not fit into the broad purview of many top tier journals, but is nevertheless significant. Decisions to publish specialized work destined for specialized audiences are often shaped by considerations of “fit” rather than overall ratings of journal quality. (And this will likely better accommodate the growing mandate to shift our research focus to so-called “Grand Challenges” which may reward more specialized foci that are different from larger trends in our specific disciplines.) Finally, in a small department with a rather irregular output, an ideal system will allow for the occasional misfired article or publication that has higher quality than the ranking of a publication. Over time, such exceptions will become outliers as most of the best article appear in most of the best journals, but with an annual review based on a small sample, these exceptions might have a meaningful impact on efforts to evaluate a department.

Here’s my proposal.

Each publication receives five scores provided by the scholar (who, in a department like ours, is the only person really able to judge the character of the field).

1. Rank. 25 points. This is the most standard evaluation of publication quality. Better quality journals and publishing houses get higher scores with the standard gaggle of top tier journals and publishing houses (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, et c.) scoring in the top quintile and so on. This should be most susceptible to the “smell test;” that is we should be able to smell an overrated or underrated journal or publishing outfit.

2. Type. 25 points. Generally speaking the gold standard in my corner of the humanities are peer-reviewed books and articles as a result these would occupy the top quintile here. The next quintile would be peer reviewed book chapters or edited peer-reviewed works, with the third quartile representing book chapters and other solicited articles. I would rank review essays, non-peer reviewed popular pieces or editorials, next and then book reviews and shorter conference proceedings in the bottom quintile. By allowing for some wiggle room in each quintile, we can distinguish between, say, a peer review in a top tier journal and one in a small regional outfit. We can also allow for various exceptions. Obviously, a 6,000 review essay in a top tier journal might be more significant and impactful than a short review essay for an online publisher. Again, most of this should follow the smell test.  

3. Fit. 25 points. One issue with the general journal rankings is that they tend to be biased toward traditional fields of study and research accessible to a large audience (and therefore sweeping and generalizable). In some ways, this is a good thing, but it also tends to overlook the daily grind of folks working to produce significant specialized knowledge, to explore overlooked periods and places in the past (cough… North Dakota or Cyprus), to chart new subfields (archaeology of the contemporary world, for example, or UAS), and to develop methods or theory of most use to specialists. A fit score allows us to reward articles that appear in places where they are likely to find a receptive audience rather than simply appearing in the “to ranked” journals. Again, for a small department like ours, this rewards on an annual basis work that might not find a home in a top tier journal but has an obvious and interested audience. This would reward, say, an article in an edited volume dedicated to a narrow topic, specialized research that tends to appear in less prestigious regional or specialist journals, or even books that appear in a series developed by a regional press.  

4. Quality. 25 points. This will likely be the most controversial category in my ranking system, but I contend that most of us can be honest about the quality of our own work. In other words, we know when we write a good piece or a mediocre one, but we also know that there are times when an article or chapter simply isn’t as good as we wanted it to be (but still good enough for publication). This self-awareness also serves as the counter-balance to poor fit. For example, one of my favorite and best articles ever appeared in rather obscure Hesperia Supplement. While my fit score would be pretty low and the type and ranking of the publication, for example, would be middling, the quality of the article is high. The same could be said for my “Slow Archaeology” article in North Dakota Quarterly. Some other articles of mine trend the other way, of course, and represent rather low quality offerings in very good journals.

5. Other Considerations. 10 points. Like any system, there needs to be some flexibility to take into account considerations that the existing publishing and academic system does not cover. For example, a book that makes innovative use of published data, an open access publication, or even a more conventional work, like the publication of a series of lectures, that might not correlate neatly with our established categories. It would also allow for us to mark particular involved pieces of research or to denote research that has won awards or other distinctions. The considerations will have to be spelled out.


To be honest, I’m not sure that a system like this will satisfy my colleagues or the powers that have requested this kind of ranking, but to my mind, this kind of system, that takes into account rankings, types of scholarly output, fit, and quality. It allows for nuance, while at the same time offers an easy to read “quantitative” score that fits the limited attention span of the assessocracy. Finally, including “fit” and “quality” responds to some fo the factors that people like Stengers or Gary Hall’s Uberfication of the University. (2016), which critique our tendency to conform to rankings systems imposed on us from outside of our programs, disciplines, and departments. It seems to be, at least, that a system like this that is both reflective of our own values (as individual scholars) and larger trends in academia (which despite what we say, do matter) offers another path toward understanding what makes us good scholars.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:


In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

Markets, Billboards, and Higher Education: David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess

However liberal academics tend to be in their politics and intellectual life, we tend to be conservative about our views of our institutions. In fact, our view of university life is more then just conservative; it’s down right nostalgic. Our image of the American university tends to celebrate a fair narrow period in its history dating from the mid-1950s (post-McCarthy) to the mid-1960s (pre-Vietnam era protests). This period saw the rapid expansion of the university system, heightened commitments to faculty freedom and governance, and a substantial influx of federal research dollars (and a concomitant commitment to research). At the same time, faculty leadership drew from the interwar generation who continued to reflect the early-20th century biases in higher education: they were largely white, upper and middle class, and male. Thus, there was continuity and some consensus in terms of values and authority. At the same time, higher education leadership and administration had not yet professionalized and exerted a relative weak counter weight to assertions of faculty governance.    

Over the last week, I read David Labaree’s new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (Chicago 2017). Labaree makes the important observation that higher education in America has always been, in part, market driven. The diversity of funding sources – student tuition, grants, private donors, and direct support of state and federal government – and correspondingly wide range of stakeholders (alumni, faculty, communities, students, legislators, et c.) forced the American system of higher education to respond continuously to market forces.   

For Labaree, the market is what allowed the American system of higher education to thrive because it forced higher education to respond to a range of developing needs. In contrast to European system of higher education where state funding dominates research and teaching at the university level and mediates between market (and democratic) forces and higher education, the American system has direct contact with markets as students vote with their feet, donor vote with their wallets, and the legislation shapes the direction and character of academic life. 

This being said, Labaree does recognize certain counter currents that subvert various stakeholder pressures in higher education as well. For example, he notes that pressures to accommodate professional and even vocation training within higher education are consistently subverted by the long-standing tendency for universities and colleges to imitate higher raking (and usually wealthier and older) institutions. These institutions, rather more insulated by dint of large endowments and long-standing traditions and expectations among large and influential alumni, tend to embrace the traditional liberal arts and curriculum with an emphasis on broad, general education. This tendency combines with pressures from employers and even students to provide broad rather than focused training and pulls professional and vocation programs into becoming always more academic (despite billboards presenting their narrower emphasis on job training and direct applicability on the job market). 

Of course, this pressure for lower tier universities to imitate their higher ranking peers, never really succeeds. Labaree points out that every ceiling for schools and their graduates is really another schools floor. The value of degrees from elite institutions always carry more weight than less well-established newcomers irrespective of architectural, academic, or curricular imitation. Thus, like so many aspects of American higher education, the appearance of competition and the appearance of the open market does more to shape institutions than any real opportunities for advancement by either students or institutions. Moving up through the ranks of universities rarely happens and even the best students from lower tier schools can’t compete on a level playing field with students from elite universities (with a handful of well-known exceptions).

In this regard, Labaree’s book offers another – smarter and more subtle take – on my billboard versus factory analogy that I have developed over a series of posts (here, here, and here). Moreover, I wonder how Labaree’s conceptualization of higher education shapes universities enduring the most recent wave of austerity which is coupled with the acceleration of market forces. The conservative brakes on higher education both within and without, dig in all the more heavily as markets change and capital all the more quickly in the 21st century.