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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morale, Academic Taylorism, and the Budget

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota and part of a fragmentary treatise on the history and function of higher education. Go read part 1 and part 2 if you find this interesting.

Last week, some colleagues and I had an informal get together at a local brew-pub in an effort to elevate morale in the current budget crisis here at the University of North Dakota. There was some griping and sympathizing, but mostly it was just fellowship and laughs. 

The exercise of convening that event got me thinking more seriously about the current morale situation on campus. As one might imagine, morale is low, humor and patience is in short supply, and sincerity, sensitivity, and anxiety is brimming over. Hardly a day goes by without some new rumor, new (and bizarrely proscriptive) policy change, and bad news. Reading emails from anyone other than students has become a soul crushing enterprise and the persistent drumbeat of dread has turned campus into miserable place. We feel it, our students feel it, and I’m absolutely sure that our administrators feel it.

To be clear, I am not writing about this as yet another faculty member complaining that no one brings us flowers and candies to congratulate us for doing our job. I’m writing this as someone who is watching campus morale impair the ability of the university to function properly. I’ve seen anger, frustration, and desperation suck the life out of meetings before they can be productive. An absence of empathy across departments and between faculty, administrators, and students undermine trust. And I regularly witness a sense of desperation corrode our ability to communicate and even just interact. On a day-to-day level, this sucks. In the longterm, this will substantially disrupt the campus community’s ability to move forward and to rise to various challenges that we’re facing in the present.

The responsibility for boosting morale is not simply something that administrators should do, but also something that faculty (and even students) need to engage. We’re all in this together and our ability to interact with a modicum of trust, empathy, and shared interests will make moving forward much more likely.

In keeping with my little series on the University of North Dakota budget woes, I want to propose a series of informal observations that might guide both faculty and administrators moving forward. I’m not so naive to think that people will read and embrace these observations, but maybe this is a step toward documenting how the budget crisis is experienced on campus and in my mind. 

1. Recognizing morale problems as problems. A couple of years ago, a colleague from the system office asked me what was going on with morale on UND’s campus. I didn’t really have a response except to agree that it was, indeed, low, and the low morale was hampering our ability to get things done as a campus community. (I sometimes wonder whether the difference between UND and our southern neighbor North Dakota State University is that NDSU has better morale making it easier for campus to work together to address challenges.)

Since the start of the current budget paroxysms, there has been no conversation on campus about morale (or at least no conversation that was expansive enough to come to my little corner of the world). In general, it seems, we are all accepting that these are dark and challenging times in which the university is beset by inevitable and insurmountable enemies both in the legislature and in the administrative offices. There is a superficial nod to the idea that campus cuts are a chance to re-imagine higher education at UND or even a worthy adversary for faculty itching for a challenge, but none of this reached my level without a cynical smirk and wink. The absence of genuine sincerity (or the ability to present a genuine sincerity) has made it impossible to buy into the challenges of budget cuts and the project of reworking campus programs (which is almost certainly necessary, if not particularly desirable). As a result, almost everything happening on campus is seen as being imposed by some body or individual outside of the rank-and-file faculty, and it fosters a feeling that most people on campus are not working together to advance the goals of the university.

This is probably not true, but it feels true.

Morale is a problem on campus.   

2. Rhetoric and Practice. The problem with campus morale is obviously complex. I remain convinced that some of it can be related to how we talk about faculty research, teaching, and even our students. We have become very concerned with “data.” Without unpacking the structural significance of this approach to faculty productivity and tracking students through their educational experiences (see below), I might gently suggest that few people like to have their lives work reduced to the status of “data.”

This maybe seem like a minor or even superficial thing, but we should never underestimate the power of language to crush spirits and create an unnecessarily adversarial tone in otherwise businesslike relationships between administrators and faculty and students. I’ve been to one too many meetings where administrators have described the academic, creative, and scholarly output of faculty as “data” around which decisions will be made. This way of speaking reduces projects conducted over decades to a series of simple outputs, and while we all know that results matter more the process, even the best scholars and teachers have far more failures than successes. Most of our time as faculty is dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and having our research reduced to the few times when things went right does not convince us that administrators understand the research process (even if they do!).

At the same time, faculty easily refer to students as “FTEs” and use various online services and programs to track retention, performance, and even “learning” of a sort. We assess, warn, track, and quantify student engagement across campus replicating the language of administrative assessment in our own discussion of the messy classroom encounter. This is equally unhelpful. Students do not want to be turned into nameless, faceless, FTEs, and using impersonal terms like “retention” and “assessment” shape how we think about our work and students and, over time, it will erode the potential for empathy.

In short, we need to be more careful – particularly in times when we all need to be working together – in how we talk about each other’s activities on campus. It’s a simple thing, but it would go a long way to creating the impression that we care about what each other does.    

3. Constructing Taylorism. That being said, I do understand and even appreciate the need for some “scientific management” on the university campus. Universities are large and complex organizations managed by a bewildering series of state and federal policies, local rules and procedures, and requiring oversight to ensure stakeholders that we are, indeed, doing what we set out to do. A certain level of academic Taylorism ensures that the campus community has the information necessary to make informed decisions and, more broadly, to understand what a university does. This is not something we invented at UND and not something that is inherently bad.  

In fact, Taylorism can be good especially when it promotes a kind of small-scale, efficiency in practice that parallels the kinds of small adjustments and reflexive behaviors that we regularly develop as researchers, teachers, and administrators. Learning from practitioners across campus ways to do our jobs more efficiently is part of what we do as academics and improvements in efficiency can benefit everyone.

The issue with academic Taylorism – at least as it is implemented here on UND’s campus – is that instead of building from faculty practice, it has tended to build from administrative practice. In other words, software like the dreaded “Digital Measures,” which serves to collect faculty productivity data across campus, does not model itself on existing faculty practices (e.g. like our annual reviews or our routine work to update our CV), but rather on administrative needs. Instead of streamlining faculty work, this process multiplies it. Worse still, the software is clunky and inelegant and largely incompatible with existing work habits making it not only additional work, but unpleasant and inefficient additional work. There is no benefit to an individual faculty member and every hour spent using Digital Measures is an hour not spent teaching or doing research.

So not only does software like this reduce what we do to “data,” but it also requires significant additional time to complete. Instead of Taylor’s promise of scientific increases in efficiency, these processes slow down and dehumanize faculty labor. Rather than providing faculty with more efficient ways to demonstrate our productivity, it erodes morale. This is bad.

What is worse is that these practices have become so standardized across university campuses that we no longer recognize their pernicious impact of faculty (and I’d argue student) motivations. So instead of pushing faculty to demonstrate their productivity or finding efficiencies, it make us want to engage the shared mission of the campus with less enthusiasm, with greater cynicism, and with far less energy. This is but one example of academic Taylorism run amok. Assessment protocols, reams of paperwork, and redundant processes that all serve to make someone else’s job easier cascade through university workflows burdening each step of the process with squandered energy and making the entire system both less efficient and more driven by compliance than shared interest.
 
4. Morale and Empowerment. Happy people work harder and, more importantly, happy people care! The entire campus community are being asked to engage in challenging work in depressing conditions, and the inevitable outcome of this work is being asked to do “more with less.” If we are going to maintain our existing performance in teaching, research, creative activities, and engagement with our community and the state, we’re going to have to be motivated. This requirement should not be misconstrued as the selfish needs of Gen-Xers or the hyper-sensitivity of millennial or some other generational moral failing. Instead, this is the stuff of good management and contemporary practice. After all, there is a reason why Google hires master chefs to cook for their employees and Apple provides a massive array of services at their corporate campuses. 
 
As universities are being called upon to function more like businesses, we need to look more critically at contemporary business models to understand how top tier corporation work to keep their employees happy. (As a hint, they do not ask them constantly to do more with less). Instead, they focus on making employees feel valued, they do what they to create spaces for innovation (like Google’s late and lamented 20% policy), and they work to undermine enough corporate structure to promote a sense of empowerment. (And I do recognize that for every innovative and agile start up, there is a more hierarchical and equally successful counterpart, and that the absence of hierarchy and the abundance of unstructured space and relationships can lead to abuse and inefficiency.)
 
Universities, on the other hand, have been stuck in mid-20th century corporate models often grounded in manufacturing or traditional managerial corporate culture. While these models functioned admirably when times were fat (especially in radically asymmetrical economic situation that characterized the post-WWII economy), they struggled to be agile, nimble, innovative, and profitable when the going got tough. As a result, many of these companies are shadows of their former selves (GM, IBM, Xerox). I’m not blaming the failure of these corporate giants on the failure of employee morale, but trying to emphasize that the new corporate culture ™ has come to recognize that keeping employees happy is part of keeps them committed to the company’s larger goals (profits, innovation, et c.).
 
Morale builds a sense of shared mission and collaboration which makes it easier to put aside individual agendas and find ways to advance the greater good. This is not about platitudes, like “OneUND” or “Great to Exceptional,” but about valuing the work done across campus in an explicit and visible way.  
 
5. Morale and the Margins. A colleague from a similar university in a nearby state wrote to me in response to my last post on the budget cuts to reassure me that the squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the grease in the modern university. While I’ve never quite understood the motivations behind this, I’ve assumed that some of it comes from the tendency for dissatisfied or dysfunctional programs or faculty to take up a disproportionate amount of time. As a result, administrators (and even faculty) find the conceding to the needs of a few is the most efficient way to move forward with the more pressing, day-to-day, work of running a department, college, or division. 
 
This practice, of course, sends the wrong message and I suspect that administrators know this. At times when morale is low, the voices of the marginal, the rhetorically overbearing, and the confrontational become the dominant voices on campus because few people feel particularly committed to the larger campus community. In other words, we let the marginal occupy the center because we feel sufficiently alienated to do nothing to prevent this from happening. 
 
Whatever one things of taking time and resources to boost faculty (and staff and student) morale, it is hard to deny that many of the most strident voices on campus are less committed to speaking “truth to power” and more committed to occupying a vacuum created by deep seated apathy. Campus morale has the advantage of defining the margins and suppressing unproductive dissent. 
 
6. Celebrating Good Work. If the problems of morale on campus are fairly easily defined, the solutions to the morale problems are rather less complicated. For example, I proposed to an associate dean a weekly email sent to all members of our college that recognized the work of a faculty member or student. These could be simple and informal, but they demonstrate that someone (especially in the administration) both pays attention to things that we value and cares enough to congratulate us for doing good work.
 
When I was first hired at UND, there were a series of lectures both in the various colleges and on the campus level that featured faculty research. It was a bit of an honor to give one the president’s lectures or the be invited to present one’s research at a dean’s lecture. It brought the campus community together to do something more than just negotiate some policy change or provide feedback on some administrative initiative. These are low cost initiatives that could go a long way to reconstructing faculty morale.
 
My modest proposal: each dean, the provost, and the president, should send out one personal email a week congratulating a faculty member or student for their work, and then send a similar email to the campus community.  
 
7. Humor and Appropriating Dissent. One of the great tragedies of the Trump Era is the humorlessness of his particular brand of authority. The absence of humor on campus these days is totally soul crushing.
 
For example, a recent change in how are contracts were written asks that faculty provide titles for articles that they intend to submit over a particular academic year. These would obviously be provisional titles. This seemed to me to be a great opportunity for tomfoolery. I could imagine using these provisional article titles as a way to tease administrators for their initiatives (on UND’s campus, it’s rural health and drones… I’d envision a sudden uptick in provisional titles with those words in them “Early Christian Archaeology, Rural Health, and Drones: 21st-Century Perspectives.”). I was gleefully imagining silly titles for my contract when some colleagues humorlessly assured me that no one would read these sheets of paper. Great.
 
I had a similar response when I proposed a YouTube project in which faculty read various crazy proposals for higher education that came through the state legislature over the past few months. It would be modeled on “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” project. No takers. Crickets.
 
I’m not naive enough to think that humor will solve complicated problems of morale or budging, but the hope is that someone, somewhere on campus could do something to get us to laugh. There is an absurdity to higher education and anyone who has spent any time on a college campus knows it. It’s a space of perpetual adolescence where great discoveries and puerile behaviors share the same lab space, library cubicles, and classrooms. The recent struggles at UND have suppressed this reality and by stifling our ability to laugh (and by refusing to laugh at ourselves and each other), we are short circuiting the creative energies of the Bahkinian carnival that so characterizes campus life.
 
We can do better.
 

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. 

Professionalization and Fragmentation

I’ve been thinking a good bit about professionalization lately, and this is largely in response to Dimitri Nakassis’s recent efforts to come to grips with the Future of Classical Archaeology (over a series of blog posts in preparation for a paper that he’ll deliver at a conference held at Smith College next week). One of Dimitri’s interests is the professionalization of Classical Archaeology and the resulting (relative) democratization of the discipline. 

As I thought about this more and more, I found myself interested in three questions:

1. How did professionalization of the disciplines across college campuses lead to greater inclusiveness?

My understanding of this narrative is that professionalization and industrialization went hand-in-hand with the latter setting standards for professional expertise based on the needs of industrialized economy. An engineer had to be qualified to perform certain tasks consistently and well. Disciplines established standards that vouchsafed for the expertise of an individual allowing employers to feel confident that a graduate from MIT and Easter North Dakota University had similar qualifications. While this is oversimplifying a complex process of change, the development of professional disciplines in response to economic needs and the increasingly complicated and specialized economic landscape rippled out across university and college campuses. As a result, even disciplines such as history, which did not have a direct and obvious tie to the industrial economy, developed a set of disciplinary standards that established the qualifications of an individual as a historian. This framework, then, shifted the writing of history from wealthy men of leisure to a professional class of university professors.

This process created a framework for a qualification-based system for establishing disciplinary knowledge, and these standards supported a more inclusive model for knowledge production. If disciplinary knowledge was based on certain “objective” criteria, then anyone who could achieve these criteria could claim the status of disciplinary practitioner. (And, I recognize that claims to “objectivity” or even impartiality were largely spurious, but the framework had emerged by the turn of the 20th century to accommodate academic knowledge production as a practice based on established professional criteria.).

2. Did this professional framework for the production of disciplinary knowledge lead to hyper specialization and fragmentation?

I recognize that today, disciplines represent an important bulwark to local administrative, economic, and political pressures on universities. At their strongest, disciplines maintain professional standards through complex accreditation procedures and clearly articulated policies that define qualified practitioners. These range from detailed descriptions (and even tests) designed to establish the kind of knowledge a qualified practitioner possesses to ethical guidelines. The loss of accreditation in a university program results in students who are not recognized professionally. Even disciplines, like history and Classics, that don’t have accreditation procedures have active professional organizations that work to establish standards for knowledge, best practices, and take ethical stands that represent professionals in the field.

Historically, the establishment of clear criteria for recognition as a disciplinary practitioner both anticipated industrialized practices that required specific expertise, but also projected this kind of specialization onto universities where these professional individuals were trained. In other words, disciplines required department and departments advocated for the value of their specialized knowledge and the university developed methods that allowed each discipline through their departments to manage the imparting of this specialized knowledge in the student. Within departments a similar effort to ensure that multiple areas of specialization existed creating an environment where the group of faculty worked together to produce a comprehensively educated student and professional. 

This kind of industrial specialization, evocative of the assembly line, coincided well with the establishment of clearly defined professional criteria for expertise in a particular field.  If the goal of the undergraduate education was to produced qualified professionals, the requirements for the faculty employed to produce these qualified individuals emphasized their mastery of specialized knowledge. In some ways, the complexity of the larger university environment where specialization reinforced autonomy encouraged faculty to become more specialized. If discrete knowledge was autonomous knowledge (and specialization the key to economic utility), then the key asset for an individual faculty member was distinct and specialized knowledge. It didn’t hurt that such distinct specialization was rather more easy to evaluate in determining an individual’s expertise. Moreover, it eliminated the messy task of determining whether someone was “right” or “wrong” in an assertion or argument, and shifted attention to the simpler task of determining whether some body of knowledge was “new” or not. After all the best speciality is something that no one else does, anywhere, ever.  

I think that I understand the pressures to specialize as a product of disciplinary knowledge production and industrial practices both on the larger economy and at the university. Part of the result of professionalization, then, was the narrowing of specialized knowledge. As the criteria for professional standing – both as a faculty member and a student – became more specialized, it became more democratic. Novelty of specialization emerged as a nearly universal criteria for evaluating mastery of a disciplinary knowledge, and this contributed to a more inclusive academy. 

3. The question then becomes whether our move toward transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary knowledge threatens the larger professionalization and democratization process at universities?

This is where I get stressed out. On the one hand, few can claim that modern universities are less inclusive than they were at the turn of the 20th century. And this is a good thing. Moreover, the professionalization of university education was a major engine of innovation in the American economy over the past 100 years (along with, cough, war, but whatever). These are both good things, I think.

We can also observe how universities and colleges established to develop the workforce for particular states, regions, or even professions, have the deepest commitment to professionalization. Normal schools, established to train teachers, technical schools to prepare engineers, and law and medical schools to prepare doctors and lawyers had the clearly defined requirements for faculty to ensure that they produced skilled practitioners of their respective professions. To this day, hybrid universities, like the University of North Dakota, where I teach struggle to balance the need to produce “workforce” and the need to do bigger more globally and universally significant work. The former need pushes departments and programs to specialize – particularly in terms of skills – whereas the latter coaxes faculty to think more broadly. After all, human knowledge is not specialized or organized into tidy disciplinary and departmental boxes.

But as faculty push to escape their disciplinary silos they undermine the role of the discipline as both a promoter of (let’s say) impartial criteria establishing professional specialization and as a check against parochial pressures facing universities. Anti-disciplinary knowledge remains a kind of holy grail among those who want to transform higher education (e.g. Louis Menand), but it also has anti-democratic tendencies as well. As new economic, social, and political pressures melt away the disciplinary criteria for professional expertise, they also challenge the autonomy of disciplines, departments, and faculty who have long established the validity of their expertise both in the classroom and in the economy.  

One of the interesting trends that I think that I detect is that elite private and public institutions have attracted faculty who move easily between disciplines and “disrupt” traditional standards of disciplinary knowledge production. Second and third tier schools, with their historical commitments to workforce development and traditional disciplinary knowledge production, continue to employ rather narrow – and perhaps even “traditional” – disciplinary specialists. In other words, some of the most interesting, exciting, and influential faculty are challenging the limits to disciplinary knowledge even as we recognize that disciplinary knowledge was the framework for professionalization and its attendant benefits of inclusion. 

This is especially significant in the 21st century as higher education has entered a period of particular precarity. Do we embrace the challenge of an anti-disciplinary world at the risk of exposing ourselves to the vagaries of parochial and political interests? 

How I am Surviving the Budget Cuts at the University of North Dakota

Over the last two years, the University of North Dakota has undergone a series of massive budget cuts. These are largely the result of cuts in state funding, limits on the university’s ability to compensate by raising tuition, and the decline in state revenues on the back of low agricultural and oil prices. When times are fat, public services in North Dakota are relatively well funded, but when times are lean, the state returns to a historic pattern designed to attract outside investment. Throughout most of its history, North Dakota has been dependent on outside capital to power its extractive industries and agriculture. As a result the state has done what it can to keep taxes low to attract outside investment. Over the last two years, low taxes and a reluctance to spend oil revenues, has led to cuts to higher education funding. This has coincided, predictably, with a shift toward vocational, practical, and professional priorities designed at least to produce a relatively stable workforce that is unlikely and, frankly, unable to demand top salaries from companies looking to invest in the area. Despite the prosperity of North Dakota over the preceding decade, there maintains a deep seated understanding of the state’s peripheral status when it comes to global capital and a resulting willingness to maintain the “development of underdevelopment.” 

This is frustrating for those of us committed to the humanities in the state. The goal of the humanities in our neoliberal age is to provide opportunities for economic and social growth in both our communities and the world, rather than simply fulfilling some practical need workforce development in the service of global capital. The humanities prepare students with the patience and discipline they need to make their own way in the world and this also happens to extend to the skills needed to control and command global capital. As a scholar of the humanities, I’ve tried to think critically and deliberately how to use my skills as a humanist to engage the current set of budget cuts while maintaining a certain among of sanity.

Of course, I have the luxury of being employed and my job appears to be relatively safe. On the other hand, I am not unaffected by the people around me losing their jobs, programs that I value being cut, and the general malaise that has set deep roots on our campus. As someone with the luck and luxury to be in a position of relative security, I have tried to think carefully about what I can do and how I should act to ensure that the larger project of higher education in the state will do more than fulfill the workforce needs of external capital at an appealing price.

Here are my thoughts on surviving the budget cuts as a tenured professor in the humanities. They move from the practical to the conceptual:

1. Don’t engage in pointless rhetorical displays. Faculty at the University of North Dakota are almost all very smart and clever. In fact, I rarely leave a meeting without feeling a bit humbled by my colleagues’ analytical abilities, their ability to explain and simplify complex issues, and their way with words. The same can be said of my interaction with university administrators. When faculty and administration are together in a room there is an abundance of ability, intellect, and experience.

To keep faculty informed in the budget situation there has been a nod toward transparency of the administrative process. Faculty have been invited to scrutinize budgets, attend fora, and provide feedback over the web. This is largely a bit of theater for off-campus stakeholders and an effort to keep on-campus folks in the loop about the nitty-gritty details of budget reductions. The communication is regular, often hard to follow, and not infrequently contradictory and halting. Everyone knows that the budget process is messy, incremental, and non-linear. Pronouncements by the administrators tasked with making the cuts reflect the messiness and contingency of the process itself.     

What baffles me, then, is the need that some of my colleagues have to engage in pointless displays of their intellectual and rhetorical prowess. When there is an inconsistency in something that an administrator presents or a policy disadvantages one’s program, department, or mission, there are few things less helpful than pointing out the inconsistencies or problems in a public forum. Administrators, despite the popular perceptions to the contrary, know their jobs, they know when they’re not making sense, and they generally don’t feel good about it. Making someone feel bad for pointing out the inconsistencies in their logic in a public way does nothing to change the situation. In fact, it much more frequently demonstrates a lack of situational awareness and sensitivity than any particular perspicacity.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t engage in the budget process. We should, but doing it with exaggerated rhetoric, smugness, and dramatic hand wringing, does little to advance the process.    

2. Distinguish between ideological decisions and “data-driven” decisions. Engaging the budget process in an earnest and productive way involves understanding where the pressure points are in the budget process and how to avoid pursuing unproductive courses of action. In my experience, there are two types of budget decisions currently being made. Some are data-driven. Enrollment figures, costs, space studies, grant revenues, tuition dollars, and the like provide a very clear data-driven framework for making cuts. Within this system there is a possibility of transparency with spreadsheets and cost/benefit formulas, and even line-item expenses. I have some moderate confidence that there are ways within this system to discover hidden savings and even opportunities for future growth. For example, small cuts that could have an outsized impact on things like retention and graduate rates impact tuition revenue and should be identified. Whenever possible these cuts should be avoided rather than kicked down the road. There should also be some sensitivity toward changes that do little more than redistribute students among programs and a recognition of how cuts in one college impact programs offered in another. As scholars who specialize in managing complex datasets, we can contribute to this kind of data-driven decision making. 

At the same time, there are priorities and cuts that are not data-driven, but, for lack of a better term, “ideological.” For example, there is a hunch that UND could become a global leader in UAS technology and that this field will develop into a meaningful contributor to the university’s local and national profile, generate remunerative public-private partnerships, and attract students and researchers. At the same time, there is growing skepticism that the humanities can continue to deliver on their promise of a more dynamic, informed, and productive citizenry or that such traits are even valuable in a population. These are difficult claims and positions to challenge, but, one thing is clear, they are not data-driven decisions. Arriving at a meeting intending to use data to challenge these perspectives is the equivalent to bringing a knife to a gun fight. These are hunches, speculations, and perspectives that have emerged across a complex political and economic discourse. There isn’t a spreadsheet or a data source that can undermine them.

3. Recognize the long game. When confronted with ideological decision making, there are real limits to what we can accomplish in the short-term. There are fads in academic and higher education leadership, there are trends in public attitudes to higher education, and there are ways of seeing (and hoping for) the future that are not easily changed at an institutional level. We can and should push back against a future that is bleakly utilitarian, subservient to the demands of capital, and accepts the peripheral position of North Dakota in the world (and views North Dakotans as merely a “workforce”). This resistance is a good and noble cause, but rhetorical displays and knives at gunfights are not the way to change minds.

As faculty, we have to recognize that many of us will be at UND for much longer than any administrator particular at the dean, president, and provost level. We will likely be around to see several cycles the latest trend, fad, or direction in higher education and in politics. I increasingly feel like my job is to work to change American society both on campus and in the community. My background in the humanities has prepared me to be patient, to grind away, and to be disciplined in my pursuit. I’d rather put my energies into the incremental, big-picture, battles than grandstanding at an on campus forum. As someone who recognizes the continuities between the distant past and the present, I feel reservedly confident that the great arc of the American experience bends toward freedom and not workforce training. Keeping that in perspective energizes my teaching and research even when that work is not appreciated in the current climate.

4. Put energy into rebuilding. On more practical grounds, we need to commit at least as much (if not more) energy into rebuilding than resisting. This may sound fatalistic, but there is only so much good resistance can do when the university is faced with such substantial budget cuts. Even if we were to protect a particular program or department through organized resistance, this will as often as not just distribute the cut elsewhere on campus. This is hardly an optimal result.

Rebuilding, on the other hand, offers a way to adapt a program to the needs of students, faculty, and the university within the new budgetary reality. In some cases, this will involve structuring a program in a way that reflects (but doesn’t necessary reinforce) new priorities. For example, a colleague of mine suggested adding “and Drones” to all course offerings. While this was clearly in jest (I think), the broader strategy of adapting programs to operate (even just superficially) within university priorities is something that can best be done moving forward rather than resisting. This needn’t represent accommodation or even acquiescence to programs and ways of thinking that we find incompatible with our disciplinary mandates, but it will require us to think creatively on how to conduct and position programs and departments within new administrative structures. 

5. Respect innovation. Finally, I know innovation represents a watchword for a nightmarish melange of neoliberal ideas about education. I also recognize that the rhetoric of continuous improvement is designed, in part, to undermine the significance of historically constituted disciplines and to push toward more and more contingent practices. And I obviously understand that contingent labor is one horrifically distopian future for both our society at large and academia particular.

At the same time, we can think differently and do things in new ways that are meaning, subversive, and significant. Whether we like it or not, the budget cuts are real. They’re going to impact our ability to teach and do research, our students’ ability to learn and succeed, and the states’ ability to compete on a global scale. We know this, but we also have the ability to mitigate some of these cuts by finding new ways to do things. One of the first steps to generated the needed change is to respect innovation despite its contemporary baggage and pervasive place in the world of higher education policy jargon.

If we tell our students that the humanities – in part – is preparing them for a world that does not yet exist, then we have to walk the walk and prepare ourselves to adapt to a changing world. This doesn’t mean giving up on the long arc of justice, freedom, creativity, and humanity, but it does mean putting our energy into places where it can best influence the future. 

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Entrepreneurial Humanities

Every now and then I get an idea that percolates through my head on a run or a walk on a sunny fall afternoon. Usually these ideas dissipate with my growing exhaustion or once I return to the distraction of daily work. Mostly they’re just bad ideas. 

Anyway, I’ve been turning over in my head an idea to connect entrepreneurial practice to the humanities in an explicit way. I suspect this came from reading an endless series of books on the crisis of the humanities. These books are as disheartening as they are facile, but they can – if taken in the right doses (almost homeopathically) – stimulate thought.

So here’s my idea:

There is pretty good evidence that humanities majors make more money in the long run than students with professional and pre-professional degrees (although the results are complex) and are competitive in the long run with folks with various STEM degrees. Because the humanities do not provide a neatly defined set of skills that transfer directly to professional context, they have suffered particularly at state universities where short-term student debt, local economic pressures, and the political agendas of various stakeholders encourage the  immediate value of professional disciplines often trumps the more complicated and politically risky, long-game of the humanities. 

Most professional humanists will concede that the larger project of the humanities has little to do with income, earnings, or professional training. At the same time, most of us exist in a world where certain aspect of market capitalism holds sway. We get paid to do our jobs, leverage our accomplishments for various forms of advancement, and even hold professional degrees (the Ph.D.) as a defining credential. As a result, we become deft navigators of the world of capital, learn to develop our ideas, and balance the demands of an increasingly neoliberal academy while recognizing our privileged positions, our responsibilities, and the limits of the system in which we work.

These challenges have not discouraged people in the humanities for being entrepreneurs in both a conventional sense and within academia. In fact, projects like organizing a national writers conference, producing a regular radio show on public philosophy, publishing a struggling literary journaldeveloping a digital press, or conducting collaborative research projects all involve entrepreneurial skills and real world challenges all mediated by a persistent commitment to humanistic practices and inquiry.

My idea would be a monthly, TED-style presentation from a humanities entrepreneur. The presentation would be brief, talk about challenges, risks, and decision making and followed by a question-and-answer session that’s either moderated or free form.

The goals of this program would be three:

1. To demonstrate in a real world context how advanced training the humanities prepares people for the challenges, risks, and opportunities of entrepreneurial enterprise.

2. To make clear that being a entrepreneur involves understanding neoliberal practices in the academy and the society, but not necessarily accepting them or advancing them. Being an entrepreneur can be subversive.

3. To share basic entrepreneurial skills and strategies developed in the context of humanities project with the larger community.  

Finally, this is a low-investment program designed to demonstrate, broadly, how humanities education can prepare students and faculty not only to survive in the current economic climate, but to change it for the better. As the program expands we could invite similarly trained entrepreneurs from the community to participate, develop an online video archive, and even coordinate social events that bring together like-minded people from the community to meet and share ideas.

What do you think?

Is Graduate Education a Mess?

With the start of the semester looming just weeks away, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change my classes and keep the content and approach fresh. I’ve blogged here a bit about my Western Civilization class. I am also teaching History 501, which is a required course for our history graduate students. It is part historical methods and part introduction to graduate school and is designed to ease the transition from undergraduate history major to graduate student. This fall, I’m going to assign Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess: what caused it and how we can fix it (2015).    

The book is of the crisis in higher education type which, at best., targets real problems and offers real solutions and, at worst, is a kind of persistent jeremiad. Cassuto’s book manages to be a bit of both which is characteristic of the recent gaggle of books seeking to frame and solve some aspect of higher education. In Cassuto’s case, he wants to fix “the graduate school mess” and recognizes that the problems in American graduate education in the humanities may represent problems in higher education as a whole. 

The Good.

1. A Mess with Success. Cassuto is clear from the very opening pages of the book that whatever the problems with graduate education in the U.S., we continue to produce graduates with advanced degrees who have a place in the private and public sector. In fact, he starts his book with a Wall Street executive who favored hiring Ph.D.s because they could adapt so quickly to workplace challenges. Cassuto’s recognition that the current system is successful both in producing students for the academic job market (such as it is) and the larger world tempers his critique throughout. We can do better, of course, and it’s that shared expectation that will sell the book and promote his ideas, but from the very first pages Cassuto winks at us before he describes the character of the current “mess.”   

2. Historically Aware. Cassuto’s book is explicitly aware that the general of “higher education jeremiad” has a long and storied history that dates back to the early-20th century. In short, critics of higher education haves always seen graduate education as a messy process that is ripe for reform. Cassuto reminds us that he is not the first to call for reforms in graduate education and that many of the reforms that he wants – from time to completion to more flexible approaches to the dissertation – have been bandied about since the early 20th century. By recognizing the persistence of “the graduate school mess,” Cassuto makes clear that there is not an easy solution to various challenges facing graduate education and that we should not despair in our efforts to reform the process.

3. Our Problem. Cassuto makes clear that he is not directing this book at administrators, but at graduate students and faculty. In doing so, he resists the temptation to see the problems in graduate education as some kind of high level structural or institutional complication. The graduate school mess – such as it is – can be fixed by attending to the relationship between graduate students and faculty, shifting our expectations when we teach, advise, and hire, and – most importantly for Cassuto – recognizing that graduate students are students first and foremost. By see graduate students as students – rather than apprentices, incomplete peers, or low-paid labor – Cassuto calls upon us to think about graduate education in terms of human outcomes rather than in terms of perpetuating certain professional or disciplinary standards. Because Cassuto frames the “graduate school mess” as a problem that graduate faculty (and to a lesser extent graduate students) can solve, the book is remarkably empowering. 

4. The Public. On of Cassuto’s best points – and one that I’m going to try to implement in my History 501 class – is that we have to train our graduate students in the humanities to understand what the public humanities are and how they work. Moreover, we have to do more to familiarize students with the range of public careers available to them with graduate degrees in the humanities. I have ideas how to make this happen in my History 501 class. So more on this soon. 

The Bad.

1. Framing the Problem. Cassuto’s book is long on outrage, but short on specifics. In some ways, his characterization of graduate education as a “mess” reflects his own inability to pinpoint the problems specifically. He calls the increasingly protracted time to completion a problem, but recognizes that students have lives during their time in graduate school that should be respected. He regards the dissertation as both too narrowly focused and specialized, but also too long and involved. He sees the specialized environment of the seminar as outmoded but also recognizes the unique skill set and aptitude that graduate education develops. The list goes on as Cassuto tries to balance his critique of graduate education (i.e. the mess) with the broadly successful graduates who despite emerging from a mess situation go on to live fulfilling professional lives both within and outside of academia. For this book to be compelling, Cassuto needs to argue that the problem exists with evidence rather than simply assert that there is an issue. 

2. Professional Training. Cassuto recognizes that the Ph.D. developed in the U.S. as a professional degree designed to produce teachers for the growing number of colleges and university in the late 19th and early 20th century. As the need for professional scholars ebbed and flowed, so did the need for graduate training. As the academic job market in the early 21st century job has largely collapsed (or has entered a period of significant change) graduate education must adapt, but because most people in higher education regard our increasing reliance on contingent labor as bad (and, frankly, inhumane), it is very hard for us to adapt graduate education to accommodate a system that we think is profoundly corrupt. By declaring graduate education to be a mess and implying that it is outmoded, Cassuto must navigate the twin risks of seeming to support an inhumane system of contingent labor, on the one hand, and burying our heads in the sand as a form of resistance, on the other. In many ways, the “mess” confronting graduate education is this very tension between our need to produce professional scholars as a way to preserve the professional standing of academic work and our desire to do what’s best for our students.

3. Two Tiers. At the University of North Dakota we have a Doctor of the Arts program in History. I consider it a fine degree that embodies both the rigor of doctoral level training and the practical realities of academia. It’s a 3-year degree (post M.A.) which grounds our students in both content knowledge, research methods, and higher-education pedagogy. We place our students well in positions at 2-year colleges and among the contingent academic workforce. Cassuto dismisses such degrees as supporting a “two tier system” which allows us to maintain a narrower Ph.D. that reflects a vanishing professional reality but will still attract students who will resist enrolling in a D.A. because it might limit their career possibilities. Our experience is that the D.A. attracts students who have different – not diminished – expectations for their professional futures, but Cassuto prefers an expanded Ph.D. that includes tracks that emphasize teaching or even public humanities (for example) work as well as traditional research. I’m not sure that Cassuto’s system is any less “two tier” except that it might obscure that training of students who recognized that research is not their primary calling in a way that our D.A. does not. 

4. New Knowledge. Finally, I am concerned that Cassuto’s otherwise praiseworthy focus on students overlooks the fact that graduate education does more than just produce students, it also produces new knowledge. He dismissively describes the dissertation as a document that only the committee will read. Moreover, he seems willing to allow for less polished dissertations if it shortens time to degree. At the same time, he acknowledges that the academic publishing has changed and the opportunities to publish a dissertation as a traditional academic monograph have decreased significantly. The tension then between a less polished dissertation and the decline of the monograph runs the risk of making the Ph.D. a less valuable part of the larger intellectual ecosystem which – at the end of the day – exists to make new knowledge production possible.

There is no doubt that we could do a better job preparing our students for the challenges of post-graduate school job market, but we also have to recognize that the dissertation (and to a less extent the M.A. thesis) is not just a demonstration of competence on the part of the student, but also a contribution to the larger body of professional and disciplinary knowledge. Dissertations are useful, important, and with the advent of digital distribution channels, accessible documents that are as much a product of graduate school as the student or the degree.

The Ugly.

1. The Student. The thing that bothered me most about Cassuto’s book is that it both pushed faculty to respect the student more while at the same time, tempering our student’s hopes that they could have a productive and meaningful academic career. On the one hand, I admire Cassuto’s commit to tough and frank talk about the realities of the academic job market. On the other hand, we have to respect and support our student’s dreams. Most graduate students endure graduate school not because they’re delusional about the job market, but because they love graduate school, they love research, they love being in a community of scholars, and they love the time and opportunity to read and write. 

I frequently liken graduate school to minor league baseball. Most minor league baseball players hope to play in the major leagues some day. Most recognize that an opportunity to do this is equal parts hard work and luck. At the same time, minor league players have to love playing baseball. They have to love the actual work that they do and cherish their time doing it even if they know it’ll never result in a major league contract. 

In other words, by privileging the outcome of a graduate program – an important standard to be sure – Cassuto risks ignoring the experience of the graduate program for students. He hints at this when he notes that many graduate students stay in graduate school because they enjoy being in graduate school. The opportunity to immerse oneself in a discipline, an area of study, and a method is usually a key reason for students to go to graduate school, so this should not be a surprise. The dissertation is important to these students, not simply because they need it to graduate but because they see it as a chance to contribute to their discipline in a meaningful way. By minimizing the experience of graduate school and the dissertation itself, we are minimizing the a key aspect of graduate education in the name of a kind of crude, outcome driven formula that reduces education to employment and useful skills.    

2. The Academic Jeremiad. This book is a type. It’s an academic jeremiad that sees higher education in crisis. The author is smart and subtle enough to hint that he knows this type and is playing along to make his major points. For the less than careful reader, however, this book will appear as yet another indictment of higher education, out of touch faculty, and an indulgent system. While Cassuto may well see signs of real problems, he rarely connects the dots between problems within the system and problems outside the system. Part of this is because he sees faculty and students as empowered to solve some problems themselves, but recognizes that they are only parts of a complex system that has its own set of deep set problems from administrative bloat, to budget cuts, restrictive federal guidelines, and other issues that are typically well beyond the purview of faculty. In other words, fixing the graduate school mess will not fix higher education and it won’t fix particular problems, largely because those problems remain too complicated and expansive to define, much less solve.

The issue then is whether this kind of focused jeremiad moves us toward a solution. I’m skeptical. At best, this represents a solution in search of a problem. At worst, this is another contribution to the narrative of perpetual improvement that undermines successes in the constant effort to resolve chimerical problems. Or maybe even worse, it’s ammunition for people who are seeking to destroy higher education because they see the entire project as failed because it resists the march of neoliberal values that recognizes success only in the relentless accumulation of capital.  

More on Branding the Humanities

I keep thinking about a post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago on branding in the humanities. Go read it here if you wonder what I’m talking about. Since then I’ve given it a bit more thought and had a few interesting and productive (and, frankly, depressing) conversations.

1. Open Ended Branding. We continue to work to save a century-old literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly, that last lost its funding in the most recent round of budget cuts across the University of North Dakota campus. As part of our efforts, we’ve been reduced to reminding people that the NDQ remains viable and enduring brand. Some of this is as simple as saying that we have a small, but dedicated group of individual subscribers and we continue to have institutional subscriptions ensuring the NDQ appears in major research libraries. The tradition of the journal also allows us to continue to attract contributors, editors, and supporters.

At the same time, the NDQ brand carries baggage. There remains confusion over whether it’s a journal about North Dakota, for North Dakotans, or just from North Dakota. Its tradition as a little magazine or a literary magazine or as a more traditional publication have limited how we can promote NDQ. More than that, I sometimes feel “trapped” by the responsibility of sustaining NDQ as a project. The goal is not the preserve NDQ for the sake of NDQ, but to promote the public humanities. How do we create an open-ended brand that ensures that our efforts do more to advance the cause of the humanities (both on campus and in the larger public sphere) than the limited goals of associated with the specific project of North Dakota Quarterly? In other words, how do we separate the value (to use the branding language) of NDQ from the value of the public humanities and make good decisions responsible to the larger good?

2. Open and Free. I’ve been turning around in my head the value of ensuring that public humanities projects are open and free. Anyone who reads this blog or follows my various projects (brands?) knows that I’m increasingly committed to making what I do available in free and open formats. At the same time, open and free doesn’t mean that these projects don’t require time and investment and attracting time and investment relies upon some assurance that a project will meet expectations. In other words, free for the end-user, reader, or listener is not the same as free to produce. An established brand goes a long way to attract the resources necessary to distribute something for free and distributing something for free goes a long way to promote a brand.

This cycle has struck me as difficult because the “brand” (whether personal or corporate) becomes the vessel through which the energy required to produce and circulate creative works and scholarship in an open and free way can be monetized to create more works.      

3. Subverting from Growth. One thing that a brand does for our energies is allow us to carry over surplus energy from one work to the next. In practical terms, every book that my little digital press publishes makes it easier to get the resources to publish the next. This momentum is great from my perspective, but I have a visions for what the press can become.

At the same time, I’m not naive. Every time I get resources to move my project forward, I know that another project with another voice, another perspective, and another set of skills, ideas, and people, do not get resources. So success helps attract resources and resources breeds growth and growth – even of the best projects – runs the risk of stifling diversity and innovation. This bothers me. How do we go about making sure that our efforts to promote our ideas do not become an exercise in empire building, branding, and hegemony?

One idea that I’ve turned over in my head is to limit the term of any project. In other words, to avoid the development of brand like NDQ with its baggage and genuine prestige, is to set projects to expire after a certain length of time. This ensures that any built up energies and resources are released back into the larger public humanities ecosystem. This prevents any one institution, idea, or body of work of overwhelming others, promotes diversity and plurality, and disrupt or subvert a system that sees funding as a way to promote growth in “market share,” influence, or “significance.” It would also force us to reinvent ourselves and our vision for what is meaningful in the public humanities.

Branding and the Humanities: First Thoughts

This blog post is not my completed thoughts on this subject and owes a tremendous amount to a draft of an article written by Eric Kansa last fall and posted to github. I read the article, offered comments, and clearly understood nothing. NOTHING. Maybe I do now.

This past month, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to discuss public humanities projects. During these conversations the word “branding” and “brand” came up a number of times. At one point I was told, “you have your brand and I have mine” in reference to two mature and long-standing public humanities projects. In another, I had a lively and earnest discussion about how two relatively vibrant brands could work together. In both of these cases, people were well meaning, if a bit territorial, and generally used the term to describe longstanding and more-or-less focused projects that have distinct visual identities, institutional affiliations, and public expectations. For example, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a brand.

I’m sure that people us the notion of “brand” in higher education and the public humanities because it offers a tidy package for the various elements of a project’s identity. I nicely designed logo and visual identity, a well articulated “boiler plate” description, and a clear set of goals work together to establish public expectations for a project. Moreover, a well-constructed brand has the opportunity to set a project apart in a crowded field of similar projects, to make it better positioned to receive funding, and even to establish a project’s professional credentials. For example, I’ve really enjoyed reading through the 1974 NASA Graphic Standards Manual, and it’s made me think a good bit about how I brand The Digital Press to ensure a consistent graphic identity. At its best, branding becomes a shorthand for establishing expectations, and it is part of what makes a public humanities project “legible” to a public saturated by brand messages.

At the same time, branding the public humanities posses problems. It is grounded in a model of knowledge production that assigns ownership or even possession to an idea or the expression of an idea. After all, a brand is literally a mark designed to show ownership. Most of us in the public humanities business are committed to setting ideas free rather than marking them as the possession of a particular institution or project. Moreover, most folks committed to public humanities are invested in various collaborative approaches to bringing the rich experiences offered by the humanities to a wider audience. These collaborations often require all parties to commit their productive energies to a project that is not entirely in their control. In other words, in a world dominated by brands, ownership, and possession, the public humanities often asks scholars to sacrifice their own priorities, goals, and work in the name of a larger project. Often a successful public humanities brand is developed on the back of a bunch of selfless volunteers.

On a larger scale, branded work and the metaphor of ownership and the market makes it harder for public humanities projects to collaborate as brands can fall into conflict. It makes it harder for public humanities projects to diversify, because brands can be diluted. It makes it harder for public humanities projects to articulate larger goals because the language of the market insists that the survival and expansion of the brand is the most important objective.

The language of branding does, of course, fit into a neoliberal view of education and the humanities where all ideas and their disciplinary manifestations are set to compete with each other to (at best) produce truth or (at worst) to capture resources and advance a particular view of the world. The rise of brands within this context serves, on the one hand, as a way to package collaborative efforts that might defy certain institutional boundaries, but, on the other hand, robs academia (and the public sphere) of the kind of inherent in the free transit of ideas, conversations, and problems.

I don’t have a solution to the problem of academic branding or branding in the humanities, but I do think that it’s a problem that requires more careful articulation moving forward. Just being conscious of how we use the term and how we think about collaboration and interaction between projects would be a start.