Musical Merrifield Hall

Last night, after the last faculty and staff had left the building, Mike Wittgraf and I also with two graduate students set up some speakers and recording equipment in Merrifield Hall in the University of North Dakota’s campus to see whether we could capture some of the building’s distinctive sound.

This project is a bit of a passion project for me. I started my career at UND in Merrifield Hall and spent many happy hours in the North Dakota Quarterly office and my various academic office’s in the building. As part of that, I often found myself immersed in the building’s distinctive soundscape. From the reverberation of footsteps down it’s long, terrazzo paved hallways to the whirring and clunking of the building’s various pumps and lifters, the building’s sounds have long offered a kind of familiar backdrop to late nights and early mornings on campus.

Next year, the building will undergo some serious (and much needed) renovations and I suspect some of the characteristics that made it so endearing to me will be lost. My students in a my English graduate class on things have likewise recognized that Merrifield’s century old design and layout will give way to something more contemporary. They are working on a series of papers that consider the history and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling and experience of Merrifield Hall.

Our efforts to record the sound of the building are part of this larger effort. Last night began by running a series of long tones from a 1000 watt JBL subwoofer.

It has just enough power for us to discover that a tone of 44 hz would produce a standing wave in Merrifield’s basement hallway. We could walk through the wave and find nodes where it was almost inaudible and then walk a few feet further and find places where the sound was almost deafening. These tone tests also revealed when various features of the building would resonate with various frequencies and rattle windows in offices. You can hear some of those moments at the end of the video above.

We then set up a pair of powered fuller-range speakers to complement the subwoofer and to play with a wider range of frequencies. 

We marveled at the how clearly we could hear the notes linger and decay in the hallway. At times we could literally hear the pulse tone racing back and forth up and down the long corridor. For me, these reverberations echoed some of the sounds I remembered fondly from my time in Merrifield and I got pretty exciting that we were not only producing new kind of sonic situations (poetry?) in the building, but that it was also so deeply rooted in my own experiences there.

Finally, we set up a microphone on the fourth floor landing at the opposite corner of the building from our speakers. There’s a lot of a concrete, steel, brick and glass between the speakers and the microphone, but we hoped that we could not only record the time that the sound too to traverse the building, but also show how the building itself amplified, distorted, and conjured sounds through its fabric.    

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We connected this microphone to a laptop which could be time synced with the computer responsible for producing the sounds. This should allow us to measure the time it takes for sound to traverse the building. We also anticipate that it’ll create some interesting sonic features as the microphone also captured the various background sounds that are so characteristic of Merrifield Hall.

The end result of this work is a bit hard to know right now and I suspect we’ll come back over the summer to do more recording and play around with how things sound, but we have a start.

Merrifield Meditations

Over the last few weeks my students in my graduate class in English have started a project designed to engage with Merrifield Hall before it undergoes major renovations next year. For those of you who have read this blog, you’ll recognize this as a development related in some way to my ongoing effort to engage with the changing landscape of campus. In the past, however, these projects – such as Hearing Corwin Hall, have privileged historical perspectives on buildings or approaches that seek to dig beneath their often beleaguered exteriors to find their former beauty, significance, and meaning.

This semester, however, the class is teaching me to pay greater attention to the surfaces as they now exist in Merrifield. To be clear, Merrifield Hall has always been a special place for me. For the first five years of my career on campus, I had an office in Merrifield Hall and taught in its classrooms. These were pretty good years for me. I was productive professionally, I was developing as an instructor and advisor, and I felt supported by the institution. Even today, as I spend the last few months in Merrifield Hall, I find myself drawn to its distinct sounds and features that form a backdrop to the changing rhythms of campus life. In fact, the recent pandemic and the longer term trend of declining enrollments at my institution transformed the once bustling corridors of Merrifield into quieter spaces where footfalls and shuffles remain distinct and reverberate off the terrazzo floors and masonry walls.

This has me thinking about how we should go about engaging with Merrifield Hall on the eve of some pretty significant transformations. My buddy Mike Wittgraf and I want to record it somehow and try to capture and experiment with the sound of the building. My students are thinking about how to understand and document the building through conventional history, but also through fiction and poetry. As I’ve blogged about before, more creative approaches to understanding our work may open us up to new ways of knowing and thinking about a space. This represents a kind of inversion of traditional ways of thinking about how we work in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of us pealing back layers of accumulated meaning from the buildings themselves, we’re starting to think about how the buildings shaped our experiences of them. This involves digging into ourselves and how we feel about a place and pealing back layers of our own experiences to try to figure out how it is that we make sense of spaces and spaces push us to make sense of ourselves.

I’m not sure how far we’ll get doing this over the next two months, but working with this group of students has started to clarify in my mind how I might engage with campus in new, more introspective and reflective ways. What’s most important for me is realizing that my previous approach of looking at campus as a palimpsest of previous experiences, adaptations, and designs which we can detangle to reveal past intentions, only tells part of the story. Being, working, and living on campus also created changes in me that require looking inside in order detangle the way that campus spaces function.   

Grand Forks, UND, and the Ku Klux Klan

I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another. 

Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches. 

That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL. 

To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.

The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M.  Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.

Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement. 

Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear. 

By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      
 

Remembering Joel Jonientz

This time of year my thoughts always turn to my late friend Joel Jonientz and his family. He passed away 6 years ago this week. This is the fifth installment (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, I seem to have missed 2019).

On a long walk with the dogs, I thought back to our time together at UND and felt a sense of deep nostalgia. If we’ve learned anything from our current politics, it’s that nostalgia can be pretty toxic. It erodes a faith in progress and often leaves us longing for a past that often exists without consequences. 

At the same time, as a historian, I often find that nostalgia guides me toward formative times in my own life. While I try not to dwell too much on my own experiences, following my sense of nostalgia pushes me to think more critically about how my own memories transform, occlude, or emphasize the larger experience of the community. My recent interest in the archaeology of the suburbs, digital technology, and early 21st century material culture has roots in my own past. I try to remind myself that this past has and had consequences both for myself and for the wider world.

Reflecting with nostalgia on Joel’s time at UND evoke warm memories: sitting in Paul Worley’s backyard smoking some kind of meets, watching Seahawks games with Joel’s family in his crowded TV room, scheming with Tim Pasch, Crystal Alberts, Paul, and Joel to showcase our digital work at public events, and organizing the punk archaeology conference with Mike Wittgraf, Aaron Barth, and Tim. These were good times personally and professionally. They not only gave me a taste of the heady intellectual freedom of tenure, but also introduced me to the potential of small, college town collegiality. 

These memories have nudged me to think about the history of the institution in the 21st century. To be clear, I don’t mean to reduce Joel’s identity, somehow, to just his institutional affiliation or his work at UND. He was a family man, a good friend, and had hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams that went well beyond his job. 

At the same time, our shared experiences at UND entangle my nostalgic recollections. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the early 21st century at UND was a special time at the institution. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t as fraught with politics, challenges, and disappointments as any other time. Instead, what I remember is that the period from 2004-2015 or so, was that campus had the feeling of hope. This has since been lost.

When I think about UND in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, I think about the paradox that during the “Great Recession,” my corner of UND — the arts and the humanities — continued to experience growth. There was a saying that North Dakota was “insulated and not isolated” for the economic issues facing most of the country. More than that: the Bakken oil boom gave the state a sense a hope and even the idea that there might a future. 

As someone in the humanities, I remember musing about how the Gulf States recognized that their oil wealth could be invested in higher education and cultural institutions despite the conservative character of their political culture, the austerity of their environment, and the history of colonialism and marginalization. Maybe North Dakota would follow suit?

After all, the university supported our Working Group in Digital and New Media (from the archive: report 1, report 2, and report 4), a new “Arts and Culture” conference that was a fall pendant to the thriving UND Writers Conference, had expanded the reach of UND Arts Collections, encouraged the development of the IPPL, and supported new hires in History, English, and the Arts. This support was paying dividends too with UND faculty and students pushing to collaborate, produce new art, and develop new long term projects. It’s hardly surprising that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota emerged from this period. It was the product of this optimism. 

Of course, I realize that not everything was rosy. My colleagues in the communications program at UND who contributed so much to the creativity and vitality of UND in the 21st century watched their department disappear and had to find new homes at UND, create a new program, and navigate a complicated political landscape. Other programs, of course, showed signs of strain as well as ambitious new faculty members clashed with long-serving colleagues. New faculty, especially those hired during the Great Recession, often brought with them different expectations cultivated in top tier graduate programs than an older generation of faculty leaders. The shuffle to accommodate a wider range of outlooks in campus culture invariably left damaged feelings on both sides.

The steady hemorrhaging of talented early-career faculty was the most obvious manifestation of the tensions on campus. At the same time, it served as a kind of endorsement for the culture UND produced. That early-career faculty could come to UND and continue to be productive, creative, and ambitious suggests that something positive was happening on our campus, even if the outcome, in the end, was for these folks to leave.

At the level of upper administration, the long-standing controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo came to a head with the NCAA and while it was eventually resolved, the financial, political, and emotional costs were steep. At the same time, UND athletics transitioned to Division I suggesting that despite the rifts caused by the logo controversy, there was optimism. 

The revolving door of deans, provosts, and even presidents, likewise offers a two-edged sword. The lack of stability in the administration made it challenging to plan things that required substantial administrative support. In fact, we attempted on several occasions to develop a digital humanities program, but these all foundered at the administrative level. At the same time, the lack of strong positive direction created space for faculty to maneuver and develop their own ways of collaborating, setting goals, and advancing agendas. While this may have left the university a mishmash of irregular and often incompatible curricula, research projects, and programs, the semi-benign neglect of the early 21st century also has created a strong spirit of independence among faculty. 

On a “Zoom call” last night with a group of UND faculty and members of the post-Jonientz diaspora, we joked about an oral history of UND in the 21st century. This is certainly a tempting project. Whether our reflections on this period would end up being idle nostalgia or something more substantive and revealing, is hard to know.

Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

I did some traveling this month and that always gives me time to sit still and read without being distracted by a million other things. On my last flight, I read David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). It was a pretty fun read and despite the book’s ostensible audience of higher ed administrators and leaders, it offers some intriguing and imaginative proposals that could be of use for anyone working at a university today.

The most appealing thing about the book is that the Staley allowed himself to imagine 10 different forms of post-secondary education. These ranged from a industry focused liberal arts college to free form “platform college” where faculty and students are combine and disperse on the basis of interest and demand, to decentralized microcolleges that operate with loose coordination to offer almost individual instruction and radical colleges based on play, advanced cybernetic interfaces, and the body. The willingness to speculate and to imagine a future to higher education with only the barest number of institutional constraints and appeals to tradition is refreshing. More than that, it demonstrates that there is a place for “solutions in search of problems” in higher education, although Staley does conclude by saying that he hopes his experiment in imagination will demonstrate that alternatives exist to the increasingly commodified character of contemporary higher education.

At the same time, Staley’s alternative universities do have certain similarities that suggest a particular understanding of the higher education landscape that goes beyond his rather cursory diagnosis of the contemporary “crisis.” For example, nearly all the alternative universities managed to exist with a minimum of administration who tended to serve as coordinators and facilitators rather than leaders. Conversely faculty took center stage and while their work was often subject to the whims of the market (and students), the mentor-student relationship remained fundamental most fo the alternative universities proposed.

Likewise absent from his alternative universities were the onerous burden of assessing learning. In fact, Staley largely accepted that both students and faculty operated in good faith. Students committed to learning and faculty committed to teaching. In some of his scenarios, faculty will be on an island with students either instructing small groups as part of single-teacher micro universities, leading students in immersive experiences abroad in the “Nomad University,” or connecting and dispersing with demand and interest in the “Platform University.” Such free form experimental spaces as the Institute for Advance Play and Future University have outcomes that seem to almost resist formal assessment. A university based on play or the producing models of future society may have rules and expectations (i.e. humans won’t suddenly develop the ability to fly), but these do little to narrow the wide range of potential student outcomes.  

At times, I felt like Staley’s book was a bit naive about the ability of the market to self-regulate both within academia and the relationship between academic institutions and industry. The idea of a “Humanities Think Tank” and “Nomad University” rely on the idea that the private (and public sector) would consistently reach out to scholars in the humanities or in various applied sciences for collaboration. On the one hand, it’s Staley’s fantasy which always involves a certain suspension of disbelief and maybe that’s enough to sanction his exercises. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his more naive approaches to the functioning of the market offer a useful way forward. The idea that students will gravitate toward majors and funding will flow from industry toward innovative institutions ignores the complicated roles that ideology, politics, and tradition plays in shaping the economic and educational landscape. Of course, Staley acknowledges that his exercises in imagining operate at the margins of the possible, but how he defines these limits remains unclear. For example, he does not propose “Mars University” where students study Mars and the role of space on the terrestrial economy over the course of the multiyear curriculum taught during a trip to, from, and on the Red Planet. His selective reading of existing experiments in higher education – with example such as Deep Springs College – rarely explores less successful (or at least sustained) experiments (e.g. Black Mountain College) to understand the real limits to what is possible. This isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading and thinking about. Perhaps, he designed the fuzzy limits to his imagined solutions to push us to think about the constraints that currently exist within higher education or to encourage us to engage in a kind of “design thinking” that recognizes the interplay between ideas and constraints as the key environment for producing real change.

Lest my review seem too critical, I should emphasize that the book is inspiring. In the spring semester, I’m teaching a class that will focus not so much on a problem or a series of educational outcomes, but on a building on our campus that is scheduled for demolition. I was fretting a good bit about the point of the class, but Staley’s book put me more at ease. I was particularly drawn to the idea of an “Institute for Advanced Play” that Staley based on the idea that “play and the imagination define higher learning.” 

My one-credit course will focus on play and the idea that our bureaucratic, outcome driven education system leaves rather little time for engaging the world thoughtfully, critically, and carefully without a particular goal. To my mind, this might be the best thing about Staley’s book. Even if the problems that it seeks to solve and the limits to Staley’s imaging are fuzzy, the book encourages all of us to think about higher education in radically different ways and to enjoy the silliness of unwarranted provocation and the freedom from consistency, well-defined goals, and tidy outcomes. 

My University is Dying

This past week my colleague and friend Sheila Liming published an intriguing column in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “My University is Dying.” The piece is provocative. It speaks directly to her experience as the only candidate for tenure in our college of over 200 faculty members this year. The article is intensely genuine.

I thought I write a little response to it, not because I think it’s lacking or inadequate in any way, but as a gesture of support for my courageous colleague. I want to engage it.

There is one thing that I tend to think about when I think about “austerity.” It has little to do with the lack of resources or even budget cuts. I actually don’t think much about the shrinking number of faculty on campus (although I do worry about our increasing dependence on adjunct, contract, and visiting faculty). I don’t even really worry about its impact on my own commitments – like North Dakota Quarterly – although I am deeply saddened that budget cuts have caused individuals to lose their jobs (including my wife).  At a place like UND, the writing is more or less on the walls. The number of high school and middle school students in our traditional catchment area is declining and the larger national trend is similar. We will be a smaller campus with fewer students, staff, and faculty in the future. It’s also likely that our budget will be relatively smaller and our mission will probably change. I can be optimistic and imagine that funding will remain stable, though, and a smaller campus can actually provide a higher quality educational experience (and even more interesting and stimulating campus culture for faculty). 

What bothers me the most is that austerity on UND’s campus is not just economic, it’s ideological. It is grounded in four interrelated policy positions among legislators not just in the North Dakota or the U.S., but globally: (1) a distaste for channeling funds from the market into public institutions, (2) a belief that public institutions are inherently inefficient, (3) a pathway to greater efficiency at public institutions (and hence less funding) is by simulating competition, and (4) the primary goal of public institutions is the support the market. On our campus, budget cuts occurred at the same time that a failed prioritization project took place, we installed a new system for allocating resources on campus, and a new crop of administrators arrived including two successive presidents from the business world.

In other words, austerity was not just fewer resources and colleagues, but also a major shift in campus culture. A smaller university isn’t a bad thing and while transitions are never easy, we can accept that change is inevitable. 

The problem with austerity is not simply the decrease in funding or smaller faculty, but the concomitant expectation that we will have to compete with other divisions on campus for students, for faculty lines, and for resources moving forward through incentivized resource allocation. This has turned trusted colleagues and collaborators into potential rivals. Moreover, the flaws in the system of resource allocation has set into high relief the way in which the execution of austerity practices on campus is biased against the arts and humanities. 

In the abstract, a system where resources flowed to divisions on campus most in need makes sense. In fact, a system that rewards a certain efficiency in practice seems wise in any institution entrusted with public resources. Unfortunately, this is not really what happens. The humanities and the arts, for example, have suffered not because they’re inefficient in their practices, but because we appear to be less useful than our colleagues in the applied sciences and professional fields. As a result, the administration has its thumb on the scale established by incentivized resource allocation and this benefits some programs more than others. A very efficient program whose faculty teach many students might not be allowed to hire more faculty not because their program didn’t follow incentivized practices, but because incentivized practices fit awkwardly with the larger rhetoric and ideology of austerity which sees public institutions as existing solely to support the market. If a field does not clearly support the state’s economy – narrowly defined as the demands of employers in the immediate present – then the administration subverts the incentivized resource allocation process. In some cases this is random, but in most cases this follows loosely a series of documents that range from the relatively benign “Strategic Plan” to the vaguely authoritarian “Grand Challenges.” 

In other words, austerity on our campus isn’t just about declining resources, it’s about the implementation of a rigged game.

I’m not naive, of course, and I recognize that higher education has always been and continues to be rigged (after all, I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member, if I could ever do anything to deserve the position that I have, I probably wouldn’t survive the ordeal). At the same time, what makes the latest round of austerity on UND’s campus so painful is that the rhetoric of the administration promotes the response to the current funding challenge as both fair within an incentivized resource allocation scheme and transparent. They promote this seemingly salutary situation as a way to tell us that “we’re all in this together.” In fact, it’s neither fair nor transparent and we’re not in this together.

This may be better for the university in the long run. It’s too early and too difficult to predict. It is not better for the university at present. What Sheila describes in her column is the product of austerity both as an ideology, but also as our campus has responded to it. 

(I’ve written more about this general state of affairs in an article that I published here in a volume of North Dakota Quarterly that Sheila helped to edit!)

The Privileged Poor

This weekend, I read Anthony Abraham Tuck’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard 2019). This seemed like appropriate reading heading into the academic year. More than that, the topic of the book (which is neatly summarized in its title) is one that has sort of haunted me for the last several years. On the one hand, my institution, the University of North Dakota, is by no means an elite college. On the other hand, much in Tuck’s book applies to the kind of diverse student body that UND attracts that includes students form a wide range of economic circumstances, levels of academic and social preparation, and experiences. The diversity of students including students that Tuck would identify as the “privilege poor,” who entered college from solid or even elite high schools and who were prepared academically and socially for college while still being disadvantaged economically. UND also has its share of “doubly disadvantaged” students who struggle with the social and economic aspects of college. Finally, UND has students who adapt quickly to the college environment. 

To be clear, my own experience attending a small liberal arts university, reflect my own incredibly privileged middle class up bringing and the rigorous quality of my own high school education. I recognized myself in Tuck’s book, of course, and I realize that my background allowed me to make the most out of my college experience. I never really struggled reaching out to faculty for help or support. I understood the expectations in my classes and how to navigate most of the social, bureaucratic, and academic pressures of college work. My family supported me throughout college financially, socially, and emotionally.

That being said, I’ve been thinking a good bit about how my classes, my approaches to teaching, my expectations of my students, and my view of my institution reveal and reflected my own privileged experience in college. Many of these questions originated after I read Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift (Chicago 2011) almost a decade ago (here are my thoughts then).

Tuck’s book is worth reading for anyone teaching at the university level, and particularly significant for those of us at institutions with diverse student populations. It complements recent work on gender and race by showing how economic status and the privileges that it often affords exerts a strong influence on how students experience college. The book, however, takes pains not to oversimplify the influence of economic class by demonstrating how the “privileged poor” from stronger educational backgrounds in high school irrespective of economic status often adapt more quickly to college. 

I have a few simple take aways.

First, I need to recognize that students from less privileged backgrounds have distinct challenges adapting to college culture. Something as simple as explaining how office hours work or what they mean can help a “doubly disadvantaged” student feel more comfortable seeking help from faculty.

This simple advice (which isn’t unique to Tuck’s work, but brilliantly contextualized there) has already shaped my approach to meeting with students. In the past, I’ve had a more or less open door policy meaning that students were always welcome to come to my office. For many students this was appealing because it allowed them more flexibility in how they interacted with me and recognized that most of our students have far more formal constraints on their time than I do. At the same time, I also see how this kind of flexibility can be disconcerting to students who are uncomfortable interacting with faculty because they represent authority figures, because students fear that they’re interrupting, or because students don’t want to be asking for special help or handouts. Formal office hours provide a kind of structure that both encourages students to see office hours as part of our mutual obligation to one another, and this might help mitigate the social risk that some students feel.

Second, students from less economically secure backgrounds sometimes have experiences that will compromise their academic performance, but will feel uncomfortable (or simply unaware of the possibilities of) seeking help, asking for extensions, or finding a way to make up missed work. While I’ve never been a stickler for due dates and deadlines, I can make more clear in my syllabus and – more importantly – in class that I’m willing to be flexible and work with situations that could arise. This policy, of course, is not just important for economically disadvantaged students, but also for students struggling with any number of other challenges from mental health issues to balancing work and life, family responsibilities, and academic, financial, or other challenges.

Thirdly, I need to do more to support the real material challenges facing disadvantaged students on campus. Tuck talked about issues like dining halls closing over spring break introducing a real crisis for students on assistance who lose access to free meals. He noted efforts to create food pantries on campus and other efforts to expand the scope of aid to include all aspects of the university experience. 

At the same time, he offered a cautionary note when he observed the social stigmas attached to certain programs that provided support to students, but also made their economic status visible to their peers. 

Tuck’s book is an accessible, yet richly documented study of the various kinds of privilege and disadvantage present at elite universities which is nevertheless valuable for faculty at a wide range of institutions. The book offers both focused attention on the interpersonal dynamic between students and faculty which is readily applicable to my own interaction with students, and larger institutional perspectives that provide context for how students experience their education and social life at the university.   

Five Notes on Classics

The past couple of months have been pretty intense for my colleagues in Classics. The field is undergoing a very public debate over its future and its values. The willingness of some of my colleagues (in the broadest sense), to speak out in favor of more inclusive, more expansive, and more critical futures for Classics is profoundly heartening. That they have attracted so much negative attention for their efforts — not simply from the usual brigade of internet trolls or media snarks, but from within their professional organization —  makes me sad. I am amazed by the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Donna Zuckerberg and the Eidolon project (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my good friend Dimitri Nakassis to the list) and so many other folks who have come out to support them and to work along side with them to make Classics different.   

I have very little to add to their work, but it did make me think. So over the last couple of months I’ve been compiling littles notes on Classics. They’re assorted, almost random, largely personal, and invariably contradictory, but maybe they’ll do something to support their larger cause or more likely to demonstrate that people are listening and thinking about what they have to say far beyond the limits of their discipline.

Note One

I am not a Classicist. I wasn’t even a Classics major. I was a Latin major. My Greek in college was mediocre and suffered from my tendency to be distracted by shinny objects ranging from Biblical Hebrew to upper level math classes and the history of the American Civil War. I went to graduate school to study Ancient History, and when I could have hunkered down and really worked seriously on my languages, I lurked around the Classics department, took classes that I liked, and most focused on work in History and Architectural History. When I went on the job market, I didn’t apply to Classics jobs because I was intimidated by the prospect of teaching languages. I’ve never attended the SCS (or, as it was called back in the day, the APA). In short, I’ve never identified as a Classicist and, I’m partly embarrassed to say this, I’ve occasionally chafed at being called a “Classical History.” I mostly study the Post-Classical or Late Roman/Late Antique period and most do archaeology. I’m re-reading Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution these days, and it’s as foreign to me as Tolkein’s world of Larry Potter.

These reasons should be enough to take whatever I offer here cum grano salis, as the kidz say.

Note Two

Over the last decade, I have taught the basic undergraduate historical methods class for the History Department at the University of North Dakota. I affectionately call this class “The Historians Crap” (aka “The Historians Craft”). This past year History merged with American Indian Studies, and to boost enrollments and to balance the teaching load in our newly integrated department, we combined our required methods class with the required methods class in Indian Studies.  As a result, I suddenly have Indian Studies students in that class.

This is great, of course, but their presence in the class and the ongoing debate around Classics has made me realize how much my class focuses on the work of dead, white, dudes. Starting with Herodotus and Thucydides, I think talk about Livy and Tacitus, then Eusebius and Bede, then Valla, Vico, and Voltaire, then Kant, Herder, Hegel, and finally, Ranke, Michellet, Bury, and Beard, before arriving at Focault, a bit of Bhabha, a smattering of Joan Wallach Scott, and a hat tip to Nellie Nelson and John Hope Franklin.

Not only does my class focus narrowly on the development of history as a discipline and then as a profession in an American and Western European context, it is also, despite my efforts, a brutally linear narrative of ideas, works, methods, and individuals which gives the impression not just of change, but of refinement, development, and even – to my horror – evolution. The class appears to culminate in a professionalized present as it shoves our aspiring historians out the door and into the archives, the secondary literature, and the work of writing and thinking seriously about the past. This not only excludes perspectives offered by non-Western, non-linear views of the past, but my insistence of linearity and even progress must be alienating to Native American students who see the emergence of history as a discipline as part of larger colonial narrative that so often worked to suppress their views of their past as well as the values that contribute to the sense of pride, cohesion, and belonging among their communities.

In short, I’m horrified at what my class has become. 

Note Three

Classics has always struck me as a happy anachronism. I try to embrace some of that spirit by making sure that my students know that the “Historians’ Craft”  evokes an older tradition of pre-professional knowledge making that looks beyond the industrial framework the modern university for its practices. Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the idea of craft in archaeology as well and found inspiration in the classic work of Randal McGuire and Michael Shanks as well as the British Marxists historians of the mid-20th century.

In this context, Classics seemed to do even more to celebrate its pre-professional roots. Whatever the linear, almost assembly-line, foundations to teaching the basics of ancient languages (manifest in the ordered sequence of 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year courses), most Classicists whom I know only achieved mastery of Greek and Latin through hours of unstructured personal commitment to reading and understanding these languages. Once you understood the basics, the ordered succession of classes gave way and expertise was personal and hard won. 

More than that, expertise was uneven and deep knowledge of a particular language or body of texts complemented an often expansive familiarity with other texts. I remember vividly the remarkable ability of certain colleagues in graduate school to move from across the entire corpus of ancient texts with relative ease. In this way, the seem to embody both the hedgehog and the fox. As wondrous hybrids, Classicists also drew from archaeology, art history, historical work, plus the staggeringly expansive amount of scholarly rumination in their field from Silver Age grammarians to 19th century Germans.

This hybridity made a mockery of impulse toward specialization in American higher education.  The assembly line of the modern university struggled to pigeon hole Classics as it was neither a true discipline with a limited and defined method nor did it offer the kind of narrow specialization that reinforced particular “threshold concepts” that could be aligned with easily assessable learning goals, course objectives, or educational outcomes. A Classics student – much less faculty – seemed to be able to do a bit of everything and embody a pre-modern kind of generalized knowledge. At its best, it felt like WISDOM and seemed to contradict the prevailing approach to academic knowledge making which focused so intently on EXPERTISE.

Note Four

This is related to Note Three. I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussions of professionalization in Classics and the role of language knowledge in disciplinary definition. There’s the idea that a Classicist should be able to teach languages “at all levels” and a growing realization that language knowledge prior to graduate school in Classics represents a limiting factor in diversifying field. As a result, Classics programs have take steps to manage the uneven distribution of language knowledge among otherwise qualified candidates for graduate study in the field. At the same time, there’s been an effort to question whether the ability to teach Latin and Greek at all levels is evening meaningful or realistic especially for individuals who also specialized in ancient history, archaeology, or other fields that live happily in the big tent of Classics. This seems to get into the messy world of expertise and its place within academic notions of merit and the meritocracy. 

This semester my colleagues in the History Department have had a rather intense conversation related to evaluating faculty output. As you might guess from someone who regularly spends hours writing a blog that very few people read, I tend to favor broad definitions of successful and meritorious faculty work which can range from traditional peer reviewed work to innovative efforts at outreach, public facing history, and other less conventional expressions of historical knowledge. Other colleagues have rightly pointed out that less conventional outputs tend to harder to assess and evaluate and giving “formal credit” to that kind of work effectively combines apples with oranges and devalues the traditional works of peer reviewed scholarship.  

Peer review, to my mind, rewards expertise in a particular area and while it doesn’t penalize general knowledge, many of the basic outlets for peer reviewed work have narrow remits that reward specialization. More general works, of course, do get published, but these are as often distinguished from academic monographs on the basis of genre as in how they’re published, marketed, and reviewed. In history, at least, expertise and specialization tend to remain the basis for promotion and merit.  

On the one hand, this is fair. The goal line is well known and established. Graduate education in history tends to focus on the production of specialized knowledge (whatever other impulses also exist) and clarity of expectations ensures that professional advancement is not contingent on a scholar’s identity, on personal whim, or on any number of poorly defined criteria that, in the past, limited the advancement of women, individuals of color, and other minorities in our fields. Well-defined standards are part of professionalization. These, in turn, structure higher education where a series of well-defined specialists communicate their knowledge to students who received whatever breadth of training is still expected across the curriculum. Job ads for history rarely seek candidates who can teach “American and European History at all levels.”

Part of the charm of Classics is that there appears to be a disjunction between professional expectations of expertise and the tradition in the field of a general knowledge of antiquity. This hybridity is exciting largely because it makes it hard to define what a “good Classicist” looks like (inasmuch as we can define what a good historian looks link on the basis of their professional accomplishments alone because they synchronize better with expectations in hiring and general status within the field). In sum, Classics short-circuits the professional university.

Recent battles over the future of Classics are, whatever else they might be, critiques of whether the meritocracy established within professional higher education will produce a meaningful discipline. Classics seems to ask: what does this meritocracy represent? If the attacks on the professional accomplishments of outspoken members of the discipline, the tendency to question the role of engagement and outreach, and the failure of the SCS, the professional organization of Classical scholars, to support these embattled members are any indication, then I get the feeling that the meritocracy has either failed, been hijacked, or always served to advance entrenched interests rather than the promote a dynamic discipline.

The hybridity, the generalized knowledge, and the resistance of Classics to becoming fully professionalized within the standard of contemporary higher education is its strength, at least to my mind. 

Note Five     

I wonder whether Classics is a mole or a bomb nestled within the bosom of the academy. It not only resists professional expectations of higher education but also critiques them and provides an alternate model. I’ve been thinking about how linear and progressive my Historians’ Craft class has become and how awkwardly and painfully that must appear to students with a background in American Indian Studies. Many Classicists seem to struggle with the same realization that their discipline, whatever it does in the present, has a complicated past filled with privilege both in terms of what it studies and how it approaches knowledge making. Just because craft practices may be better than the professionalized expectations of the assessocracy doesn’t mean that their innocent and, as many in the field realize, have their own methods of exclusion and marginalization. 

Those of us who admire Classics admire the genuinely expansive knowledge individuals in this discipline acquire and cultivate. The field has the ability to speak to the present and to the past without resorting to such simplistic ideas as the universal wisdom of the ancients or anachronistic readings of the past that turn Augustus into another modern dictator. Classicists regularly break down the notions of development, evolution, and progress by showing the recursive variation of seasonal, situational, and positional knowledge. 

Sometimes I think and maybe even hope that Classics is how the university ends. It reveals the meritocracy as just another repressive regime designed to justify Eurocentrism, colonialism, austerity, neoliberalism, and whatever other elitist pabulum that keeps the masses striving. It undermines the humanities and liberal arts as complicit in these regimes of power. It sends history scurrying for the social sciences. 

It’d be fine with this, in some ways, and it would be nice to think that the recent tremors in Classics are the first signs of the great unraveling. I have confidence in the world too. I think that when it all comes apart, the same people who unraveled it will still be there doing their best to make the world good.