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. 

A New Memorial Union at UND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 3452

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download a pre-print here.

 

A Couple of Thoughts on the ASOR Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections on Joel Jonientz

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

Punka cover 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Letters of Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College

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

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

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

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

Preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than that, they’re touching to read.

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

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

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

William Caraher

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

How to Rate Research: A Strange Little Proposal

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

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

Here’s my proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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