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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial Humanities

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

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

So here’s my idea:

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

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

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

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

The goals of this program would be three:

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Is Graduate Education a Mess?

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

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

The Good.

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

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

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

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

The Bad.

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

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

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

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

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

The Ugly.

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

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

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

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

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

More on Branding the Humanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branding and the Humanities: First Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Textbooks, Cost, and Value

On Thursday, I heard an inspiring talk by David Ernst of the University of Minnesota. He’s the CIO of their College of Education and Human Development and an open educational resource activist. His talk to at UND focused on the importance of open textbooks and was part of a larger “open educational resources seminar” put on by UND’s working group for open access resources. 

The main thrust of Ernst’s talk was that textbooks cost too much and this has had real implication on the quality of education at American universities. You can check out his slides from the talk here. He makes the point that textbooks were the one area of cost in higher education that faculty could control. While I bristled a bit at the suggestion that somehow faculty should feel obligated to solve a problem (that is not of their own making) because they can, I do think his call for action is a reasonable one. No one really benefits from the high cost of textbooks except publishers who actively work against the best interest of the academy in their quest for larger profit margins. He then showed a series of short videos that reinforced the idea that textbook costs were a problem for students, and this led students to make decisions that often worked against the educational goals of the course. 

This is where I began to rankle a bit. I think (and in a very engaging conversation with him afterward, more or less confirmed) that Prof. Ernst conflated the cost of the textbook with its value. As I told him, my experience was that students are just as willing to not read a free or a very inexpensive textbook (and I provide one in some of my classes) as a textbook that cost more money. Moreover, a video that shows a student remarking that he sometimes had to wait until late at night to use a textbook that he shared with a few other students seemed a bit disingenuous. After all, college students have access to copiers, scanners, and – most importantly – smart phones which make it possible to copy and distribute printed material instantly and at a minuscule cost (or, if nothing else, using technologies already at hand). While many of these techniques are strictly illegal, I can’t believe that something as relatively arcane as copyright law (particularly unenforceable copyright law!) would stop a student from making a copy of a book for personal use especially when the alternative is doing poorly in a class or losing out on precious sleep. 

My suspicion, then, is that cost alone is not the factor that is driving frustration over textbook costs and leading students to avoid buying them or engaging in strategies that might appear academically questionable. I think the issue is that textbooks are declining in value to students. Even just 20 years ago, textbooks were invaluable resources for basic information. A history student relied on textbooks for such basic things as names, dates, and maps, and maybe snippets of narrative that do not come from lecture. Today, our putative history student can find much more, and frequently better organized information on the web. And, I’d contend that this is true not just of history students, but of many students in introductory level classes. Moreover, as faculty move more toward problem-based learning or other active learning techniques which ask students to do more than to dutifully follow a narrative in a textbook or complete problem sets. In other words, the more textbooks become sources for basic information, the less value they’ll have for a student and the less inclined the student will be to spend money on them. 

Of course, the declining value of textbooks to students is something that open access resources can impact because many open access resources are easier to divide, modify, remix, and repurpose for a range of educational environments. The downside of this approach, however, is that for universities, and faculty in particular, to take on the development of open educational resources, the funding has to come from somewhere. Fortunately, the state of North Dakota has appropriated over $100,000 to fund the adoption of open educational resources. This is good.

The downside, of course, is that the move to open educational resources and the process of re-valuing the textbook for the 21st century, is not something that can be solved by a one-time infusion of resources. Adopting open textbooks, for example, is not enough. For open educational resources to make a meaningful impact on higher education – and this goes beyond just lowering textbook costs for students and gets to positively impacting learning outcomes – there will have to be a sustained investment in their development, revision, and implementation. Open educational resources is a dynamic ecosystem that requires us to return to the pool at least as much as we consume from it. Cutting publisher profits from textbook costs passes on immediate savings to students, but production costs and revision costs will remain and require subsidy from across higher education. And adoption and adaptation costs will devolve to individual institutions and, if current trends continue, students.

This isn’t to suggest that Ernst’s talk was bad or that the seminar was unhelpful, but it is to point out that however rhetorically useful our focus on student cost is (and there’s no doubt that this rhetorical position got the North Dakota University System funding for this initiative), it is not a realistic understanding of how open educational resources could transform higher education. Cutting out publisher profits from the cost of higher education will not eliminate production and revision costs, for example. Building a better textbook will involve investment in the actual improvement of higher education. In recent years, this kind of systematic, long-term, educational investment has become rare.

Some more thoughts on assessment

I spent Saturday morning reading the first part of the George Kuh et al. edited Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education for a faculty reading seminar on assessment. As readers of this blog know, I have some pretty strong opinions about assessment and the rise of the campus assessocracy.  At the same time, I’m not closed minded about refining the tools that we use to evaluate our performance as faculty member and adjust our approaches to an ever changing body of students. 

Inkberry and Kuh set out in their introduction to understand the growth of assessment in recent years in higher education and the sometimes unrealized potential of assessment data to change the way that we teach and our students learn. They say all the right things. We need assessment for political reasons, but for it to be useful as well, we have to move beyond an attitude of compliance and embrace the potential of these begrudgingly assembled data sets. Assessment for the contributors to this book provides the evidence necessary to make constructive and informed changes to how we understand teaching and learning in the university classroom.

This introduces three chapters that look at various ways in which assessment data can be used more effectively to improve learning in higher education. To be clear, these contributions are well-meaning in their efforts to avoid the various elephants in the higher education room and to make the best out of an approach to learning improvement that carries with it as many political consequences as potential benefits.

The book begins with the idea that the “quality of student learning at colleges and universities is inadequate,” and while it’s hard to disagree with calls for continuous improvement, it is also such a generalized point of departure that it makes any specific response difficult. The transformation of higher education over the past five decades has been so significant that such simple claims should be avoided. Certainly higher education has changed and there will always be a need for faculty, administrators, and students to engage our dynamic world in new ways, but this has always been the case. Our generation’s “crisis in higher education” is no more pressing than in past generations and identifying a dynamic system as “inadequate” does little to encourage the kind of collaborative (rather than adversarial or obstructionist) approaches the book seeks to advocate.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Turning a Blind Eye. The elephant in the assessment room is that these practices have emerged in parallel with the rise of a highly paid, administrative culture in higher education. The rise of highly paid administrators tasked with improving efficiency, eliminating redundancy, and streamlining the educational process has led to centralization of authority and the risk of transforming faculty for specialized professionals to employees subordinate to a top-heavy administrative bureaucracy.

While I’m not sanguine that most universities are capable (or genuinely interested) in changing administrative culture any time soon, faculty will continue to chafe at the perceived loss of autonomy. The various authors refer to “initiative fatigue” as part of the trend that transformed assessment from an opportunity to a burden, but they don’t seem to be willing to admit that assessment represents a key manifestation of the tension between an administration probing the limits of its authority and faculty autonomy.    

2. Disciplinarity. The first three or four chapters in the book do little to recognize the significance of disciplinary practice in student learning. Disciplines have long acknowledged that the vitality of their fields of study depend upon continuous refinements in teaching and learning. These improvements have tended to be incremental, embedded within disciplinary practices, and to draw upon experiences across a wide range of campuses.

Unlike assessment, disciplinary discussions tend to be decentralized and grounded in craft approaches to knowledge production. There is no doubt that conversations about teaching in the disciplines generally lack the quantitative edge frequently embraced as the basis for “evidence-driven” improvements in student learning. At the same time, the failure to acknowledge the presence of rich and ongoing disciplinary conversations about learning and teaching especially in a book focused on making assessment data more useful on campus is significant.

If compliance culture bedevils the effective use of assessment data, it would perhaps behoove those committed to campus wide assessment to expand the scope of assessment more fully to include existing practices at the disciplinary level. Tapping these disciplinary conversation will be admittedly difficult because they tend to be far more informal and irregular than structured campus-wide assessment initiatives, but I suspect there would be great value to starting the assessment process with the question: “how do you improve teaching and learning in your discipline?” 

3. Research Design. One of the key problems with the vast bodies of campus wide assessment data is that most of it is designed to track a rather elusive problem: how do we engooden learning in higher education? With this or other similarly broad research questions – largely driven by the need to produce data for accreditation or other accountability programs – it is hard to imagine their immediate or regular utility at the level of a single class or even a departmental curriculum. 

It seems to me that good research design is more focused in the questions that it asks and the data that it produces. More focused research questions tend to involve more focused data collection practices and do not typically require (or encourage) the kind of continuous data collection at the core of most assessment strategies.

To be fair, University of North Dakota offers funding for focused assessment projects, but as far as I can tell, this data is not recognized as part of the larger university assessment protocols. More problematic still is that this data (or the analysis) is not particularly visible for use by the rest of the faculty (although in some cases, specific faculty research is made available). We need a white paper series that features specific research and makes data available for wider critique and use.  

4. Where does this lead? My old friend David Pettegrew has a saying: “There’s always more archaeology.” He usually pulls this out when I’m ranting about the need to get back into the field and collect more data. David’s quip is meant to remind me that collecting more data does not always result in more knowledge. It also serves as a useful reminder that collecting data for the sake of collecting data is not a very useful enterprise. 

The broad idea of continuously assessment student learning is not bad, but the idea of continuous improvement is difficult to sell in a culture where resources are increasingly scarce and diminishing returns represent a real disincentive to ongoing research. Typical research design produces a result and “always more archaeology” is a call to keep the goals of data collection in mind when doing research. The ultimate goal of assessment may be continuous improvement, but this is hardly a sustainable objective.

Alt-Ac in Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Year Ancient History Position at the University of North Dakota

Since I’ll be on sabbatical next year, our dean has approved a one-year replacement position. These positions are always a challenging for a new hire as they have to get accustomed to new group of students, a new place, and new colleagues. We’ve done what we could to make this kind of position appealing. It has a 2-2 teaching load with only 3 preparations for the year. 

So, please spread the word. We don’t always have the most robust slate of candidates, but I can vouch for the collegial atmosphere of my department, the welcoming nature of the community, and the opportunity to live and work on a campus and in a state that is undergoing some rather remarkable transformations right now.

Please circulate the job ad as far and wide as you like. Here’s a link to the official advertisement.  


History Assistant Professor Position

The University of North Dakota, Department of History, invites applicants for one-year, non-renewable, assistant professor in the field of Ancient History. The successful candidate will teach two classes per semester including the first half of the department’s Western Civilization survey and upper level courses in the history of Greece and the history of Rome.

A completed Ph.D. in history or related field is preferred but ABDs will be considered.

Send an application PDF that contains a letter of application, vita or dossier, a statement of not more than two single-spaced pages describing teaching and research interests, evidence of teaching ability (if available), and copies of graduate transcripts to The application also requires three letters of reference that can be sent electronically to the same address or that can be mailed to: Chair, Ancient History Search Committee, Department of History, University of North Dakota, O’Kelly Hall Room 208, 221 Centennial Drive Stop 8096, Grand Forks, ND, 58202-8096. Deadline for ensuring full consideration is March 15, 2014.

The University of North Dakota is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. The University of North Dakota encourages applications from women and minorities. The University of North Dakota determines employment eligibility through the E-Verify System. North Dakota veterans’ preference does not apply to this position.

This position is not subject to a criminal history background check.

The University of North Dakota complies with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy & Campus Crime Statistics Act. Information about UND campus security and crime statistics can be found at

Does a University Need a Library: A Response to a Response

Yesterday, I had rare good fortune. A blogger responded to my blog post. Now, I will admit that this blogger, Prof. Jack Weinstein, is a member my local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Academic Bloggers, Podcasters, and Self Promoters, but a response is a response

His post is rather straightforward. He argues that a university needs a library because “without one, it is not a university at all”, and states that scholars need access to currently library materials to fulfill their responsibilities as researchers and to engooden humanity. (I’ll overlook his concern for local issues such as the Exceptional (in a good way!) UND platform and the like. These are largely red herrings.)

It’s clear that the point I was trying to make was misunderstood. 

First, for some of us on campus the library is no longer our source of current research material. Through tricks and travel, we have developed creative strategies to gain access to the materials that we need for our research. Our strategies do expend social capital and involve compromises, but there is ample room for reciprocity because many of us find ourselves in the same boat. 

Next, no amount of funding will likely change this. Libraries are built over decades of sustained funding. The Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been slowly strangled for most of the late 20th and early 21st century. Without resources, it has not been able to adapt to the research needs of new scholars on campus, new fields and sub-disciplines, and even new directions in teaching. An increase in funding for this year or the next is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Third, while I’m in favor of funding the library (actually, I would fund almost everything), I recognize that during dire economic times, some sacrifices have to be made. Moreover, funding the library has distinct disadvantages at this present moment. As Prof. Weinstein’s link showed, even such elite institutions as Harvard are feeling the growing burden of “mega greedy” academic publishers. One way to send a shot across the bow of these groups is to stop buying their journals and shift to open access solutions. Right now, a percentage of our library funding contributes to a exploitative and exclusionist system that does as much to limit access to scholarly work as it does to facilitate it. If Prof. Weinstein’s concern is over access the real evil lies not with cutting library funding, but with price gouging of academic publishers. At a moment where the flow of information is less expensive than ever before, the cost of academic journals continues to increase (as do these corporation’s profit margins).

This prompted me to make an argument comparing funding a library to the use of fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are available and funding exists, we will continue to use them. The alternatives seem difficult, unfamiliar, and restrictive. As Prof. Weinstein might argue, ambulances and school buses (and the North Dakota economy) run on fossil fuels and any effort to curtail access to them is tantamount of telling sick orphans to drag their own debilitated bodies to the hospital. (Ok, perhaps, I have overstated my point… but whatever…). But we know there are better alternatives even if they are painful. 

The cuts to the library are disappointing and unfortunate, but I just can’t agree that a university needs a library in a traditional sense of being a “book house”. In fact, with the exception of the brilliant interlibrary loan department and a handful of journal subscriptions, I manage to keep my admittedly modest research agenda moving forward and I suspect many of my colleagues could say the same thing. (I expect that funding cuts to the library here will accompany a relaxing of teaching and research expectations. After all, tough times require compromises all the way around.) I can see the library continuing to function in the future as a gathering place, access point for information, and an archive. 

I think that my experiences speak to the future of academic libraries. Funding will continue to decline and this coincides with a change in the landscape of academic publishing. Open access will continue to expand and scholarly access to pay resources will become more personalized and less institutionalized. (In other words, with diminishing institutional resources, academic publishers have already begun to recognize that scholarly materials tend to circulate rapidly and efficiently through social networks (e.g. that cross institutional barriers.) 

Maybe to rephrase the question a bit in light of Prof. Weinstein’s critiques: Do universities need libraries? I still say no.

Instead, I’d argue that that students and researchers need access to scholarly materials. Looking ahead, libraries will play a role in this process but they do not represent the only avenue.