War, Influenza, and the University

This is crossposted with the NDQ blog which you can (and should!) explore here.

Like many people, I’ve been watching the spread of coronavirus with a combination of fascination and shock. Watching a virus traverse the world via our dense network of travel, community, and institutions is a remarkable reminder of the vital global flows that make our situation possible. It seems to speak to something fundamental to the late 20th and early 21st century.  

At the same time, the spread of the virus draws me back to an article in the NDQ archive that describes the onset of the influenza epidemic on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 1918. In the waning months of World War I, influenza ripped through the Student Army Training Corp stationed at UND. By the time it ended, 29 student cadets had died.   

Below is an excerpt from O.G. Libby’s article on the work of North Dakota’s colleges and universities during the Great War published by NDQ in 1919.

You can read more from NDQ’s archive here.  

O.G. Libby, “The Work of the Institutions of Higher Education” NDQ 10, Number 1 (January 1919), 61-80.

The work of the S.A.T.C [Student Army Training Corp] unit had hardly begun when the student body was overtaken by an epidemic of influenza which caused suspension of all classes by quarantine October 8, and finally of all but the most necessary of camp duties. Following the establishment of the quarantine in Grand Forks as well as at the University the street cars were stopt at Hamline avenue and guards were stationed at every University entrance for the control of traffic and the exclusion of the public from the University campus. On the thirteenth of October, Sunday, a large number of the students reported as sick of the influenza at the base hospital establisht in the Phi Delta Theta house and at the emergency hospital on the third floor of Budge Hall. The number of patients increast so fast that by the following Tuesday the military headquarters were removed to Davis Hall and all the students rooming in this dormitory were transferred elsewhere as rapidly as possible. By the end of the week pneumonia began to develop among the patients and the University found itself in the grip of the worst epidemic in its history. Lieutenant Jesse H. McIntosh was camp physician during the existence of the S.A.T.C. unit. During the epidemic he was assisted by Dr. James Grassick, University physician, who had his headquarters at Budge hall. The women patients at the University were cared for, principally, at a temporary hospital in a nearby cottage. Dr. H. E. French, Dean of the University School of Medicine, had charge of all these cases and was able to deal so successfully with the epidemic that he lost none of his patients.

Lack of adequate hospital facilities on the University campus led to undesirable overcrowding, and since no provision for this contingency had been made in advance the most fatal consequences followed. The largest number of patients was cared for in Budge Hall, and that the mortality there did not run higher is due solely to the professional skill and untiring devotion of the head nurse, Miss Mae McCullough. Immediately on being placed in charge of the nurses at this hospital, near the close of the first week of the epidemic, she introduced every device that her long experience had shown her to be useful in such emergencies. The hospital record of every patient was kept at his bedside accessible to the nurses and doctors. Every patient had abundance of fresh air, but screens were placed over the windows so as to avoid dangerous draughts. The cots were raised on specially made blocks so as to render the care of the patients easier for the attendants. A diet kitchen was installed where proper food could be prepared under the most favorable circumstances. Relays of Grand Forks women, chosen from those most able to assist her, workt day and night under her directions to save the worst cases and to prevent further development of the most dangerous phase of the epidemic. The citizens of Grand Forks responded to every call for help. The day and night shifts at Budge Hall were conveyed to and from their homes in autos even during the worst weather. Meals were brought out every night to those who went on duty in the evening. When the head nurse called for volunteer doctors from the city to serve at the hospital during the night, at which time the regular physicians were not on duty, there was no lack of response. The services of the Red Cross were placed at the service of the University by its representative, Mr. C.C. Gowran, while the chairman of the University War Committee, acting as his volunteer assistant, helpt to discover the needs of every one and to fill them promptly. With all the care that could have been lavisht upon them, the patients would have fared badly but for the medical supplies and other material daily brought from the Red Cross headquarters at Grand Forks. Within the S.A.T.C. unit itself the medical students gave freely of their utmost as nurses’ aides while the details of military orderlies did their work loyally under the most trying circumstances. The remarkable severity of the epidemic in every part of the country makes the record of its ravages of special interest. How a number of other institutions met and combatted the scourge is given in brief at the close of this sketch. Appended to these summaries is a table of the statistics for each institution that furnisht the facts.

Near the close of the epidemic the War Committee sent the follow communication to the President:

In view of the severity of the recent epidemic and the constant danger of a renewal of its ravages, in view of the trust reposed in us by the parents of the students in attendance at the University and for the purpose of more fully utilizing the service of the medicalmen of Grand Forks City and County, it is recommended by the University War Committee:

1. That a joint medical committee be formed by voluntary association for the purpose of taking into consideration the special problems arising from the spread of the epidemic at the University S.A.T.C camp, this committee to consist of the medical army officer of the camp, the Dean of the University School of Medicine, the Grand Forks County Health Officer, the City Health Officer, and the chairman of the Commercial Club Health committee.

2. While, from the military situation, it is recognized that the function of this committee must be purely advisory, it is strongly urged that the committee, acting for the whole state constituency of the University, consider every phase of the public health situation connected with the S.A.T.C. camp life, and to that end it is suggested that the committee be subject to call by any one of its members.

As events turned out, there was no renewal of the epidemic but it was felt that there was now a well-digested plan on file so that any future emergency might not again find us wholly unprepared. S.A.T.C. class work was gradually resumed during the first week in November. The general quarantine on the city and University
was not removed, however, and the outside student body did not return for work. As only six weeks remained of the first quarter, the class work was altered so as to cover, as far as possible, the courses for the entire quarter. The signing of the armistice on November 11 and the subsequent order for demobilization put an end to the S.A.T.C. organization and opened the way for a resumption of regular University work.

Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.

 

Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires. 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching by the Book

When I first started teaching, I was convinced that I didn’t need no stinkin’ textbook. I dutifully created my own primary source reader and pulled together a motley gaggle of secondary reading to use in my survey level class and upper level classes.

As the years have passed and I’ve acquired a dose of humility, I’ve come to realize that many textbooks offer a far more substantial and, generally speaking, informed foundation for the classroom. There remain reasons not to use textbooks, of course, that range from their cost to issues of compatibility, length, and presentation. But for most of my classes, there’s a book that does the job better than I could and at a reasonable cost.

Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History (Chicago 2017) is one of those books. 

This fall, I’m re-writing my History 240: The Historians’ Craft class. It’s a mid-level course that is required for all of our majors and minors. In the past, I’ve split the class between a 7 week course on historiography culminating in a mid-term and a 7 week course on research methods, culminating in a prospectus. Next semester, I’m dividing the class into thirds, with 5 weeks on historiography, 5 weeks in special collections, and 5 weeks on writing a prospectus.

Maza’s book is divided into 6 chapters each of which poses a simple question that is nevertheless fundamental to historical research. The first chapter is titled “The History of Whom?”; the second “The History of Where?”; the third, “The History of What?”, and so on. She grounds her consideration of each question in post-war historical work with the occasional dalliances in the first part of the 20th century. She supports her arguments with just enough footnotes to be effective and not so many as to intimidate the undergraduate. The prose is engaging and chapters are short enough to be digested efficiently. The most important thing, however, is that Maza frames historical methods in the development of past practices. In other words, history itself is not ahistorical and our methods are inscribed with the challenges and developments facing scholars in the past and present. In short, the book would be an almost ideal companion to my revised History 240 class (or any undergraduate historical methods course)!

It does have a few drawbacks, though, which is less with the book and more with its compatibility with my class.

First, Maza does not really engage with ancient or medieval historians in a serious way. Thucydides and Tacitus make cameo appearances, but Medieval practices and scholars do not. Renaissance and Enlightenment historians and philosophers do appear but mainly as historical context rather than points of attention in their own right. This pains my ancient historian heart a bit, but also reflects the reality of students who are pretty uncomfortable with ancient texts, their conventions, the names, and their approach to understanding the past. It may be that the omitting ancient and Medieval history from the book makes the entire project more approachable for students. 

Second, the final section of the the book is titled “Fact or Fiction?” In it, Maza explores the influence of postmodernism on historical thinking and writing with particular attention to the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Hayden White. She considers the debt of historical writing to fiction and the role of literary tropes as well as the potential and limits of the historical imagination. She also addresses the issue of fraudulent historical work and details a few instances in recent memory when historians fabricated or misrepresented sources. The juxtaposition of rigorous postmodern scholarship with fraudulent historical analysis is meant to challenge the student to consider the limits to historical thinking. It also, however, suggests that somehow postmodern scholarship is less credible that other forms of historical work not because its dependence on jargon, reluctance to unpack traditional causality, or even genre defying approaches to understanding the past, but because it somehow flirts with misrepresenting the past or deception. 

If I were writing the book, I’d be far more tempted to consider the continuum that ranges from postmodern works to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of history in popular media. It seems that both are informed by a desire to tell new and different stories about the past and in many cases embraces – explicitly – the ironic turn which challenges our expectations for how history works. 

That being said, the book is very good and will almost certainly appear on my History 240 syllabus this spring. In fact, it’s so good that I’ll probably follow Maza’s lead and reduce (or maybe even eliminate) my treatment of ancient and Medieval texts. The real trick will finding the right primary sources to lead students beyond the book and allow them to encounter first hand the major contributors to our modern discipline.

Revising my Graduate Methods Course

This fall, I’m teaching a small graduate methods class. We originally designed the class as the first class an incoming MA student would take from our department. The first half of the class was a discussion of historical practices and the second half consisted of two-week, mini-courses offered by various members of the faculty on their specialization (oral history, archival research, ethnohistory, material culture, et c.). Next semester, I’m offering the class to two prodigal graduate students who are returning to our program after a few years away. They don’t really need to meet the department as much as get a tune up on what’s going on in the discipline and get back into thinking, reading, and writing at a graduate level.

Since I’ve been pretty out of the loop in terms of the academic study of the past, I partly crowd sourced my syllabus and got some great advice. You’ll obviously be able to see the books that make clear my rather olde skool background (and those that have been recommended to me from “the crowd”) and I recognize that it is a bit dated in places. I’m still fishing for something that does a nice job of considering digital practices for historians.

Here’s the syllabus so far:

Week 1: Introduction to Graduate Research

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press 2015.

Week 2: Introduction to Historical Thinking

Sarah Maza, Thinking about History. University of Chicago Press 2017.

Week 3: Introduction to Critical Theory

Elizabeth Clarke, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Harvard University Press 2004.

Week 4: History and Globalization

Lynne Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era. Norton 2014.

Week 5: History and Identity

Kwame Appiah, Lies that Bind Us: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books 2018.

Week 6: History and the Environment

John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 7: Activist History

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 8: Materiality, Heritage and Decay

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press 2017.

Teaching Tuesday: The End of the Semester

Usually by the end of the spring semester I’m a bit frazzled and ready for the start of my summer reading and writing time. This semester, however, I managed to stay more or less on top of things which left me surprisingly relaxed and while tired, not particularly overwhelmed. 

It has also given me more time than usual to reflect on my semester and the two class that I taught: History 240: The Historians’ Crap and History 101: Western Civilization I (Online). Both versions of these venerable classes will be retired after this semester. In the case of History 240, it will be replaced with a “High Impact Practice” class that will involve the students spending substantially more time in UND’s Special Collections in the library. My online History 101 class should have been retired a few years ago, but for one reason or another kept getting rolled out. This time, however, really is the last time, and there is a kind of symmetry as I also shut down my large “Scale-Up” style 101 class which I last taught last fall.

The odd thing about teaching a class for the last time is that they invariably leave behind a sense of disappointment. I know that my classes can be better and when I teach a class each semester or even every year, I have some hope that I can revise and improve what I do in incremental ways. After the last class, however, there’s nothing left to fix. In hindsight, the class appears to be just a rambling, slewing, careening hulk of small changes duct-taped together with hope. 

The next time that I teach either class will be in Spring 2020. My Western Civilization class will be a 40 person, 1-day-a-week night class. I really liked the flipped lecture style of my Scale-Up version of the class and will probably look to do something in that format. It not only promoted a very high degree of student engagement, but also was fun. As for the focus of the class, however, I’ve started to think about asking the students to engage with the topic of “Western Civilization” in a more critical way. Too much of my class leaves implied the continuity between our “Western” world and Classical antiquity. This approach to understanding the roots of the contemporary world not only is complicit in historical colonialism and imperialism and racism, but also the startling rise in the so-called “alt right” in the 21st century (here’s a nice primer on the historical development of the term). The problematic associations with the concept, in fact, threaten to unmoor the entire project of the humanities and require some remediation even if it’s just framing the conventional narrative of Western Civilization as a space for critical engagement rather than a fixed body of knowledge. 

The way that I’ve imagined my History 240 class likewise calls for a bit of revision. Currently I divide the class into two sections. The first half is a 7 week course on historiography from Homer to the present; the second half is a practical crash course on historical research that culminates in a prospectus. In the new version of this class the historiography section is compressed to a four week module. As a result, I need to rethinking the priorities of this section of the class. Is it really vital to link modern historical writing to Herodotus and Thucydides? How do I balance global historical writing with (North) American traditions? If I have only 8 classes and readings for students at the 200 level (that is lower-mid-level students) what should I make sure that every student reads?

One of the more intriguing challenges associated with revising these classes will be the curious new rigidity imposed on our contracts at the University of North Dakota. For various reasons (that seem to have nothing to do with faculty work and everything to do with bean counting), each class on our contract can only count for 10% of our total contract time. That means, if we assume a 50 hour work week, that each class can count for no more than 5 hours per week or 90 hours per semester. When classes are in session, each class runs for 2.5 hours and meets 16 times, so that accounts for approximately 40 hours of contract time. If we factor in 30 minutes of office hours per class over 17 weeks, that’s another 8.5 hours. If we assume another hour per week or so grading over the course of the semester, that’s 17 more hours, and it brings our total hours per class to 68.5. That leaves 21.5 hours to prep the new course or at our 50 hour week, just a little over 2 days. This seriously limits how creative I can.

It goes without saying that I’ll violate the terms of my contract by working more than 10% of my time on each of these two classes.  

Politics, History, and Change

Just a short post this morning as I have a mountain of grading to wade through before my class this afternoon.

I was intrigued this morning by a short Op-Ed by the historian Michael Lansing titled “On Dead White Men and the Politics of Minnesota’s History” in the Minnesota Post. Lansing argues that for as long as U.S. history is being written, interpretations of the past have changed. Recent cries of “revisionism” by members of the Minnesota legislature, then, ring pretty hollow. Lansing sagely points out: “This phrase is a contradiction in terms that reveals how little the detractors know about the actual practice of history.” 

Historians deal with interpretations and evidence and not matters of fact. There is little objectionable in this claim, of course, but I do wonder whether it’s useful in practice. While it goes without saying that historians are always trying to revise past interpretations of the past, for our own sanity (and the good of the cause) we tend not to dilate on the ephemerality of our interpretations. In practice, historians and their friends in the archives, in historic preservation, in publishing, and in teaching, like to think of our contributions to society as persistent, if not permanent. It is easy enough, of course, to hold to contradictory ideas in our head. Our contributions are lasting, but not necessarily fixed. At the same time, we’d like to imagine that we’re not going to reinterpret slavery, for example, as “not really all that bad” or argue that giving women the right to vote “was historically a mistake” or something along those lines.

The general public, for whom Lansing’s editorial was intended, likewise tend to see certain things about the past as rather fixed. In fact, as historians we’re horrified to see the rise of Alt-Right movements who seek to valorize the Confederacy or Nazism. As much as we embrace the idea that the past is dynamic place constantly open to reinterpretation, revival, and revision, we also insist that certain aspects of the past demand a kind of orthodoxy. Among historians, this orthodoxy is fortified by our methods, but even the most rigorous historian will admit that our methods are not as locked down as we might wish for the social and moral weight that we place on our conclusions.

In the end, nothing that Lansing said was wrong or inappropriate or even really problematic. More than that, he’s a good historian and his argument in his Op-Ed are important. I still wonder, however, whether stating his case as he did runs the risk of undermining the authority of historians by emphasizing the fundamental tension that has bedeviled historical thinking since antiquity: the past is always change and historical thought produces only ephemera. The real value of history, to my mind, is not that (as Lansing quotes Becker): “Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time,” but that our conversations, arguments, and agreements about the past — no matter how painful, problematic, or positive —  afford an distinctive opportunity to assess and establish what we believe. 

 

 

Teaching Thursday: The Historians Crap

In keeping with my end of the semester reflections on teaching, I’m starting to feel that my History 240: The Historians Crap Craft is tired. Part of this is because, like my Greek History class, students seem to increasingly struggle with lectures. More than that, students seem to be excited about spending time in the archives with historical documents and our colleagues in Special Collections seem eager to open their collections to students and classes. Finally, when I designed this class originally, it was only for history majors, but in recent years it has been required for minors and now for students majoring in Indian Studies. More than that, I am getting a steady stream of students who are just interested in history and are testing the waters to see if this is a major for them. In other words, this class is now a recruitment tool for majors as well as a foundational course for the degree.

These considerations have shifted my priorities for the class. At present the class is taught as two courses. I dedicated the first seven weeks to the history of the discipline and practice of history from Homer to the present. The second seven weeks focus on a series of assignments designed to prepare students to write their capstone paper (and to introduce them to basic forms of writing used in other history classes like the book review or prospectus). I explain that seven weeks of the second part of the course simulate the first half of their capstone course and reinforce the need to work efficiently to discover sources, build bibliography, and articulate a research question.

In the spring of 2020, I want to break the class into three courses. 

1. Introduction to the Discipline of History (5 weeks). This course will devote a week to Ancient and Medieval historical practices, history in Renaissance and Reformation, 19th century history and the formation of the discipline, 20th century historical practices, and, finally, 21st century priorities. This will loosely chart the development of historical practices and the emergence of the professional discipline with an emphasis on explaining how certain fundamental characteristics of historical thinking developed over time: primary and secondary sources, citation, plagiarism, peer review, articles and monographs, and departments and associations. 

2. Archives (4 weeks). Budgeting a week at the start of the semester for introduction and organization will cut into our time in the archives, but I think four weeks might be the perfect duration for a short, public facing archival process. The first week will be a general introduction to Special Collections, and this is something that our friends in the archives already offer. The next three weeks will focus on three things: a single document or (small) collection of documents, understanding its significance, and producing something public from it as a group (or a number of small groups). 

3. Producing a Prospectus (5 weeks). One of the threshold concepts in our history program is understanding how to problematize a historical thesis. In fact, during our capstone presentation at the end of every semester, it is possible to draw a clear and distinct line between students who understand how their work fits into a scholarly conversation and those who do not. The former start with a brief sketch of historiography and the latter start with a description of events. While it is difficult to say that one approach is substantively better than the other, the former tends to reflect disciplinary practices more closely and the latter tends toward antiquarianism. In my experience, antiquarianism serves a useful purpose only when it is approached critically and this is a leap that students sometimes struggle to make. Framing the last 5 weeks of the class around writing a prospectus with a substantial bibliography and a clearly problematized thesis give students experience with this kind of thinking well in advance of their capstone paper. More than that, it serves as a kind of “live fire” drill in preparing a prospectus efficiently in 5 weeks which parallels the first five weeks in their capstone course. In my experience, students who are able to problematize their thesis in the first month of their capstone course are significantly more likely to be successful than those who take longer. 

Students obviously struggle with both the abstraction of historiography and the complexities of the academic discourse, but these can’t be avoided if our goal is to produce thoughtful and critical students in the discipline. On the other hand, most students are drawn to history not because of the invigorating debates between distinguished scholars, but because they are curious about the past as the past. Giving them time in the archives to handle documents and explore collections feeds that sense of wonder and giving them a chance to put these collections in context allows them to see how their interest in the past and the discipline of history can mutually reinforce one another. This kind of gently introduction to the discipline might help us recruit some majors from our required class and make the course itself more enjoyable. 

 

 

More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead. 

The Northern Great Plains History Conference and the Bakken

Next fall, the Northern Great Plains History Conference will be in Grand Forks. So my colleagues and I put together a panel proposal on the Bakken.

Here it is:

The 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom in Historical Perspective

While the Bakken Oil Boom may have gone into momentary abeyance, its long shadow continues to extend over both the economy and the cultural and political imagination of North Dakota. The papers in this panel consider the technological innovations that led to the increase oil production and population, the historical context for violence in the region, and the structure of the Bakken work force as a manifestation of the 21st-centurty concerns with precarity. The final paper presents a broadly synthetic attempt to frame the Bakken at the intersection of late modernity, petroculture, and the tourist’s gaze upon an industrialized landscape. These papers offer a distinct local and early effort by historians to understand the history of the Bakken Boom and to reflect on contemporary and future challenges facing the state.

North Dakota’s Super Boom:  How Fracking Changed Production in Bakken
Clarence Herz, Department of History, North Dakota State University

From Prohibition to Safe Harbor: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws
Nikki Berg Burin, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Tales of Murder and Mayhem: Historical Violence in the Bakken
Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System 

Aliens in the Bakken: Precarity and Workforce Housing
Bret Weber, Department of Social Work, University of North Dakota

The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape
William Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

 

Three Things Wednesday

I’ve been writing a bit frantically lately, and this morning, I don’t really feel it. So instead of some (in)coherent blogpost rant, I’ll offer three quick things that occupied my mind on my drive to campus this morning.

Forty Book February

This month was the first month in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that we sold 40 books (actually 41)! Selling paper books has always been a rather small part of what I do at The Digital Press, but as recent, middling figures for the sale for ebooks have shown, people love paper. (That being said, downloads of our books outpaced sales by about 10:1).

The strong February sales were driven in part by Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, but almost every book in our catalogue got some love this month. 

What is more interesting (at least to me) is that Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson is the only book that did not sell a copy, despite being the most widely cited book in The Digital Press catalogue with close to 10 citations in a wide range of books and journals (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeology, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization). I suspect the price ($24) has something to do with it and this was an unavoidable consequence of the color printing. Maybe the topic of the book, which was meant to capture a particular moment in time, made the book easily dated?

Immigrants and Emerson 

Here in the Northland, we’ve heard an alarming number of stories about immigrants crossing the rural border between the U.S. and Canada out of fear of deportation. Crossing the border by foot in the winter has cost some of these individuals fingers and toes and nearly their lives. This terrifying new reality has put a profoundly human and local face on the global refugee crisis and got me and my colleagues, Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, thinking about whether an archaeology of these crossings could help us (and our communities) understand what we need to do to help people so desperate and afraid that they’d risk their lives to be free. Taking a page from Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project and our own experience working on the archaeology of the contemporary world, we’ve just begun to imagine ways in which we could realize an archaeology of care here in North Dakota.

We don’t have plans yet and recognize the need for collaboration on both sides of the border and the time and space to develop a thoughtful, humane, and systematic approach to the local side of a global problem. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that will help frame archaeology’s role in the ongoing crisis.

Threshold Concepts

The next big thing in pedagogy (at least here in North Dakota) seems to be threshold concepts. While I won’t pretend to understand the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of the idea, it seems to have something to with the idea or concept in a class (or even a discipline) that pushes a student from superficial bafflement to deep understanding. I like the idea because it so neatly describes the breakthrough point that most of us have experienced when studying, say, an language or a particularly tricky text that allows us almost suddenly to wrap our heads around what an author or even a culture is saying. The idea behind threshold concepts, from what I gather, is to recognize and foreground the understanding that creates this breakthrough experience.

A colleague got me thinking about the threshold concepts for history and how students think about arguments, facts, evidence, and theory. For many – even some of our M.A. students – history is about combining “facts” into arguments. This is a fine basic understanding, but runs the risk of essentializing historical evidence as static facts and viewing arguments as self-contained entities that do not rely on larger (and more complex) standards for their validity. After all, an argument is only as good within a particular regime of authority, style, discourse, and even political standing.