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?

An Outrage Summit

This past week, I probably made a mistake in agreeing to help coordinate the North Dakota University System’s Arts and Humanities Summit here on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. Of course, the funds might suddenly evaporate as the state and the NDUS braces for budget cuts, but that’s not something I can worry about now.

In any event, I am not one to let reality interfere with a bad plan. 

As I started to think about how organize or coordinate the work of arts and humanities faculty across the state, I tried to steer my thinking away from some of the more fruitful recent conversations: The Bakken Oil Boom, Entrepreneurial Humanities, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) and THEMAS (Technology, Humanities, Engineering, Math, Arts, and Science), or whatever. Instead, I drifted increasingly toward looming budget cut, the role of the administration in shared governance, and the upcoming national, state, and local elections. One thing connected these phenomena in my head: outrage.

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What if we hosted an Arts and Humanities Summit and made it forum for outrage. That’s right: the entire event would constitute an airing of grievances. From studies of campus space, to rampant agism, sexism, administrative incompetence, bureaucratic overreaches, paper work, assessment, compliance, and the erosion of shared governance, faculty in the Arts and Humanities across the state have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved. 

What is more interesting is the use of outrage (and outright rage) to express their frustrations with the system. I’d like to use the summit to explore outrage itself as a form of academic, political, and public discourse. I expect that a focus on (out)rage would attract the usual smattering of thoughtful and critical essays that consider the role of outrage as a challenge to prevailing hyper-rational neoliberal discourse, or as a sincere expression of exasperation or even the shifting definition of outrage as a way to marginalize the inconvenient, incompatible, or otherwise unyielding voices. Outrage provides a way to push back against the stifling conformity of professional life and culture. Social media, The Donald, and the “town hall meeting” all provide public venues (yeah, I consider The Donald a venue) for projecting outrage into the crystalline fractures of the public sphere. Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include some critical engagement with the Jeremiad as a genre that lends often lends itself to outrage in the public sphere. (It also happens that one of the authors of the best recent treatment of Jeremiads in American politics can bring outrage as well as anyone I’ve ever met!).  

The great thing about this summit is that we could arrange not just for calm, detached academic talk about outrage, but also to offer a forum for outrage. I’m sure every campus in the system has its own expert practitioners of the art of outrage. What if we got some of the most deeply outraged faculty in the system to come to UND and to BE OUTRAGED. Like the famous dozens of early rap music, we could arrange a series of lecterns and invite each of the arts and humanities faculty to drop some genuine, earnest, sincere, outrage on us.

Maybe it’s delusional, but I can even imaging recruiting a couple outrage artists from the community. Terry Bjerke, a local candidate for mayor, brings a particular brand of outrage to the fore. Al Carlson, an outspoken and outraged legislature, can drop outrage like few others in the state. Again, it’s not so much what they say, it’s how the say it. A summit dedicated to outrage would probe the tender intersection of sincerity, conviction, and public display to critique key aspects of contemporary political and professional theatre. Plus, it would be amazing to bring together the most deeply aggrieved and outraged members of the community and celebrate their intensity, conviction, and art.  

File this one in the idea box.

Proposals for New Grant Programs

I spent part of yesterday morning contributing to an email discussion of digital humanities and virtual reality with the good folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council. This was both fun and productive. One result of these conversations is that I was encouraged to propose some new grant initiatives to the NDHC. These are just proposals, but I wanted to think out loud here on the bloggie-blog to gets some feedback from as wide an audience as possible. As with any grants, the outcomes are only as good as the program will allow. Poorly articulated grant programs produce poor projects.

The first of two new programs that I’d propose would be called Digital North Dakota Grants. These grants have three goals:

1. Extending the Reach: The state of North Dakota has long suffered a diaspora of sorts as people with strong North Dakota ties have moved elsewhere for a better climate, more opportunities, and a different life. These individuals often retain a strong sense of connection to the state and its communities. The energy and remittances from this diaspora community has had an impact on life here in the state. The Digital North Dakota Grants would be a way to engage the North Dakota diaspora in the vibrant, local humanities scene.

More importantly, perhaps for the NDHC is that these folks have resources, and as the NDHC has turned its attention toward development to ensure that our programs can weather upheavals in federal funding, we need to expand the impact and reach of the NDHC to the diaspora who have typically remained active in state initiatives.

The population of the state has historically trended older, but recent trends have shown that the state is, in fact, getting younger and the media age of ND residents is now below the national average. Our younger constituency typically lacks the financial resources of the North Dakota diaspora, but should nevertheless be a target audience for humanities programing. Digital North Dakota grants would help bring a generation of citizens more familiar with digitally mediated discussions into the conversation.

2. Celebrating the Local. The National Endowment for the Humanities initiated its Office of Digital Humanities in 2011. This office has funded a wide range of grants that they recognized as having national and international impacts. They have been somewhat less interested in digital projects that have local impacts or reflect the more focused priorities of local communities. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Red River flood or the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elwyn Robinson’s influential History of North Dakota, we encounter local events that speak directly to history of the region, the state, and our communities. Funding to support digitally mediated projects that engage these events (as examples) is unlikely to come from a federal sources (and even if it does, the NDHC brand should be associated with work to preserve, celebrate, and reflect on these memorable events).

3. Preserving the Conversation. The NDHC is remarkable in its ability to stimulate conversations. All too often, however, these conversations, discussion, and engagement are ephemeral. Digitally mediated conversations offer a way not only to expand the conversation but also to preserve it allowing future generations of North Dakotans to reflect on how certain events or encounters transformed their ways of thinking or even their communities. For example, the recent tumult over the new University of North Dakota nickname provides a fascinating perspective into the relationship between UND stakeholders and Native communities, ideas of North Dakota identity, and the politics of race in the state. Creating a digital application where members of the community can contribute their reactions to this process, while it remains energized by emotions, polemic, and conversation, presents an exciting way to document and capture the local history of the state at a particular moment in time.

With these goals in mind, my proposed grant would encourage applications that (1) extend the reach of traditional humanities programming, (2) focus on local concerns, issues, collections, and conversations, and (3) feature robust data management plans to ensure that both the program and conversations are preserved. Successful proposals must stimulate discussion, focus on local groups or communities, and encourage and preserve dynamic and thought provoking engagement with the humanities. Purely archival or access based initiatives will not be funded unless they foreground dynamic opportunities for reflective and reflexive engagement with collections. Whenever possible proposals should involve open source software and encourage free, open access materials.

In my formal proposal, I’ll include case studies funded by other state humanities councils like Washington’s, DC Digital Museum or Vermont’s wonderfully simple, Civil War Book of Days serial email.

The second proposed new grant program would focus on the North Dakota Humanities Council’s already successful GameChanger Series. One of the most exciting things about this series is how effectively it stimulates discussion and brings together a diverse and dynamic group of speakers and from the community to engage with the most pressing issues of the day. The first GameChanger focused on conflict and culture in the Middle East, the second focused on the challenges and opportunities of the digital world, and next year’s series will celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize.

The disappointing thing about these events is that the energy of the conversation tends to dissipate rather quickly as the attention of the small NDHC staff ramps up for the next year’s event. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the game has, in fact, changed (or just the playahs). The KeepChanging Grant Program would support programs and projects that continue the momentum and themes of the GameChanger series in the three years following the event. Each year at least three grants would be available with at least one grant set designated to support a project related to each of the previous three years of the GameChanger. (Wow, that’s hard to articulate in a clear way!).

The goal of the KeepChanging program is to extend the impact of the GameChanger series without taxing the small NDHC staff. It will also provide us with an informal measure of the impact of the GameChanger in on the humanities in the state. Presumably more engaging events will spur ongoing interest.

As per usual on the blog, I’m interested in any and all feedback on these ideas. They are, as I said, just proposals; just my thoughts, man – right or wrong.

A Guide to Byzantine Greece

Each summer my Facebook feed fills study-tour travelogues posted by my faculty colleagues. The best of these trips reflect careful selection of sites, thoughtful readings, and clear learning goals. Most study tours focus on the monuments of ancient Greece, but many of the most visually arresting monuments in the Greek landscape do not date to antiquity. Talking to students participating on the Western Argolid Regional Project for the last couple of year and contributing to study tours in Cyprus, I’ve come to realize that students are generally interested in the post-ancient world in part because they’re simply not as familiar with the narrative, and it has a sense of exotic novelty. In contrast the unfamiliar narrative, Medieval monuments associated are often more immediately accessible to their developing archaeological imaginations because many of them are still standing. 

This realization has led me to think a bit about producing a Guide to Byzantine Greece as a complement to the common itineraries followed by American study tours. 

If I was to do this, or find someone to do it with me, I figure that our guide has to have a couple features to make it useful.

1. Complementary. One of the most significant challenges will be that the guide has to complement traditional study tour itineraries which focus on ancient sites. While I’d love to write a book that leads a group of excited and interested students to the spectacular late Byzantine church of the Panayia Kosmostira in Ferres in Thrace, it’s not a realistic addition to most study tours of Greece. Instead, we have to focus on the main heartland of American study tours which tend to focus on Athens, Delphi, Olympia, the Corinthia and the Argolid. Fortunately, there are plenty of important and interesting post-ancient sites in this area.     

2. Modular. Along with being complementary, we have to write our guide in such a way that it can be used in a modular way. The traditional itinerary-based approach favored by, say, the Blue Guide, is a lovely way to experience Greece, but for the modern study tour which will not stop to enjoy the “lovely principle city of the demos Koutsopodi,” this approach makes dipping into the guide for some information on a particular building or site difficult.    

3. Encounters. The challenge of a modular guide is that they tend to fragment the landscape into distinct, isolated sites, and this works against presenting a cohesive view of Greece in the Medieval period. So, we have to figure out a way to weave unifying narrative throughout the encounters with individual places. We have to assume that the average American study tour might only see one Early Christian basilica or one middle Byzantine church or one “Slavic” cemetery, and our guide will need to find a way to make encounters with these single sites serve as synecdoches for larger trends, processes, or types. 

4. Open Access. It goes without saying that our guide should be available for free in some kind of digital form. I suspect that .pdfs will be the way to go for cross-platform compatibility, but we would also make a print copy of the guide available at as low a cost as possible. This would encourage adoptions (particularly if the book was to function as a supplement to a more traditional guide focused on ancient sites). 

5. Images, Rights, and Plans. One of the challenges of this kind of production is that there are some restrictive rules in place about using images of monuments in Greece and we’d have to reproduce plans which can be a time-consuming and frustrating project. It would be appealing to imagine ways that use the huge quantity of digital sources to supplement our book, but it is probably not useful to expect students to have constant internet connections while in Greece. Connectivity issues could make it more difficult to produce an interactive map that would provide directions to particular sites (although our students and staff this year almost all had phones with good internet connections).

Aside from the technical aspects of this kind of project, the intellectual challenge is very appealing to me. I’m not sure that I have time to do it properly, but I might have a collaborator who has both some time and expertise. For now, I’ll tuck this into my idea box and we’ll see where it goes over the next year or so…

Digital Art

This week I was invited to contribute an essay to a volume on digital art published by our venerable literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This is a bit of an odd thing for me to consider as I’m not much about art and I don’t regard myself as much of an essayist. It is also odd for North Dakota Quarterly; taking a moment to check out their website is probably enough to understand the long and deep engagement with digital matters.

Nevertheless, I agreed (eagerly) to contribute in part because the invitation appears to be part of a rearguard action to save some of the pillars of the humanities here on campus. As times have become tough here at the University of North Dakota, with cuts to the library and other longstanding institutions, various entities have tried to find innovative (and entrepreneurial) ways to save their hides. I am not sure how a volume on digital art composed mainly by UND faculty will help the situation, but I’m still willing to chip into a common cause anyway.

I can’t really speak to digital art, but the call for contributions assured me that this can be understood quite broadly as in “liberal arts”. 

The only real issue is that we were given a November 15th deadline. That’s only 6 weeks! I am a plodder so very little gets done on such a time frame. Fortunately they are looking for 10 pages single spaced (I’m guessing 4000 words). So I started brainstorming right away to come up with some options.

1. Recycling Digital Archaeology. Over the past few years, I’ve written a handful of moderately well-received conference papers on issue surrounding digital archaeology. I also gave the Elwyn Robinson lecture on campus on this topic. I should be able to cull something from these papers to create an essay. Most of them deal with the differences between traditional paper recording and digital methods with an edge of caution tempering the sometimes overly enthusiastic rush to adopt new technologies. The advantage of this is that I have a wealth of unpublished text to draw upon. The disadvantage is that … yawn … it seems boring, and it might be pretty specialized for an audience wanting a more universal comment on digital art. 

2. A Survey of Digital Archaeology. I also thought about writing a survey of digital archaeology. In 4000 words, this will have to be from the upper atmosphere, but it would give me a chance to summarize my thoughts on developments from blogging to digital notebooks, 3D modeling, and innovations in digital and online publishing of both data and analysis. I don’t really have expertise in any of these areas (except, I guess, blogging), but I feel like I keep an eye on the field. The advantage of this is that I will have to think carefully about the idea of digital archaeology and determine what I want to include and what’s vital to understanding how the field is going to develop over the next decade. This sounds fun. The disadvantage is that the traditional reader of NDQ probably won’t care about these things other than in that polite sense I feel when I read the science page in the economist. “It says here that they’re synthesizing new proteins in France…”

3. Blogging Archaeology. It’s been five years since I’ve written about blogging archaeology or the archaeology of blogging. I linked the my article on Archaeology Magazine’s website above. I am vaguely curious how many of the links remain active and how many real archaeological bloggers continue to plug away at the their modest craft. It was nice to see some of my blogging colleagues celebrate the ten year anniversary of their blogs. It has also been interesting to see how the authors have changed and the very notion of the blog (and what it’s for) has received some sustained critique. As a practitioner, I feel like I know how to use the blogging tool better and can even grow or shrink my audience in a predictable way (and to a point). The advantage of writing about blogging is that this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I think that I have some experience with the genre. On the other hand, I am not sure that I could keep my essay from devolving into a self-indulgent critique of a self-indulgent activity. (On the third hand, if you can’t be self-indulgent in a literary journal, where can you be…).

4. Digital Archaeology and Craft. Over the past few years, I’ve toyed with this idea of  telling the story of how I learned to do digital things. It would begin with my childhood and our old TRS-80 computer and involve frustrating days at the end of the first era of Apple Macintosh computer and finally get me to Greece where some very patient colleagues taught me how to use GIS, databases, and the like to map and analyze data. All this was done through an informal apprenticeship and involved me hanging around and watching people work. I took on some small tasks under heavy supervision and skepticism and finally spent a long few weeks in a small, hot library under the Marinos’s house in Ancient Corinth working on an article that drew heavily from my ability to analyze data spatially and, in a primitive way, statically. My approach involved lots of trial and error and plenty of gentle nudges in the right direction by supportive and busy colleagues. This paper would draw upon a kind of auto-enthnography (from someone who worried that writing about blogging was self-indulgent!) to frame digital archaeology as craft. This notion would draw a seminal article by Michael Shanks and Randall McGuire and some recent reflections my Michael Herzfeld as well as my own experiences teaching the Historians’ Craft to undergraduates. The advantage of this is that it would be fun to write and could be more like an essay than an article if I allow myself some autobiographical license. The disadvantage is that I’ve never written anything like this and it could be bizarre, nonsensical, and a lot of work.

5. Edge Effects. One of the things that I’ve thought about on and off for the last few years are the unintended artifacts of digital practices in archaeology. Nothing represents this more vividly than edge effects in spatial analysis. I’m using this term to refer to the strange results that appear along the abrupt edges of analytical space in GIS. For example, the sharp break at the edges of an area subject to nearest neighbor analysis produces fantastic results that have nothing to do with the archaeological situation that this method intended to model or analyze. They are artifacts of the analysis itself and provide an opportunity to discuss other, less obvious artifacts of digital analysis in our both the archaeological and “real” world (e.g. how we listen to music, how we travel, how we work, et c.). The advantage of this is that it’ll push me to think in new directions and maybe even think more broadly and experimentally about how we think. The disadvantage is that I have 6 weeks to put this all together and it might turn into a pile of doodee which would feel like a missed opportunity.

As per usual, feedback, criticism, insights, and mockery are all appreciated. 

Engaging New North Dakotans in the Bakken Oil Patch

This weekend, I had a fun chat with some folks from the North Dakota Humanities Council. As many of my readers probably know, I’m on the board. One of the topics of our conversation was how do we engage younger people in the larger project of the humanities. We talked about how busy many 20 and 30somethings are as they attempt to start their careers and personal lives. The conversation then went in two directions. First, we discussed how young people rely on the flexibility of the web to consume cultural content and engage the humanities. Then, we turned to the largest new community of younger people in the state: those associated with the Bakken Oil Boom.

And in no time at all, the inspired leadership of the North Dakota Humanities Council worked with me to create a proposal. I should emphasize that this is just a proposal, but I find that the best way to make proposals “work” is to make them public and see what the response is.

So here’s the first draft of my proposal to the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Recent research by the North Dakota Man Camp Project has suggested that many new North Dakotans in the western part of the state feel disengaged from their local communities, the state, and its history. The attitudes of new North Dakotans is not unexpected, in part, because these new arrivals do not come to North Dakota for the cultural experiences, but to make a living. That being said, some of the new arrivals intend to make North Dakota their home and even the short-term residents have the potential to contribute to the larger humanities project in the state. In fact, the dialogue between longtime residents of North Dakota and new North Dakotans offers the potential for stimulating and renewing critical reflections on the state’s culture. For example, recent debates about how to best approach improvements to basic infrastructure in western North Dakota has revisited Elwyn Robinson‘s famous “too much mistake”.

The disengagement of the newest North Dakotans from local communities should not imply that these groups have not developed a sense of community among themselves. Like the first settlers to the state, new North Dakotans have worked to forge their own kinds of community centered on work, neighborhood values, and recreation. Unlike the first settlers many of these new communities stretch from physical locations into online social networks mediated by Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.

The presence of a well-developed set of online social networks and an intriguing hook to revitalize conversations on what it means to be a North Dakotan makes the prospect of engaging the new North Dakotans of the Bakken boom a natural focus for the North Dakota Humanities Council. To facilitate this renewed (and renewing) conversation, we will invite leading experts and personalities across the state to contribute short essays (<5000 words) on the history, environment, and values of the state. The format for this renewed conversation will include an interactive online space and print. For distribution of the print publication, we will focus on the “man camps” of the Bakken, leverage existing social networks, and include within each book a QR code that links the printed copy to the online conversation.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has developed the tools and expertise necessary to be a valuable collaborator with the North Dakota Humanities Council in these endeavors. We propose not only to solicit contributions (under the advisement of the NDHC), to edit the volume, and to prepare the manuscript, but also to take the lead in raising the necessary funds for the production, publication, and distribution of the final product. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a new project and will benefit from the value in the North Dakota Humanities Project name and longstanding leadership.

This project will not end with the book, but continue as a catalyst to engage both North Dakotans of longstanding and new North Dakotans in a renewed discussion of the past, present, and future of the state. 

First, we hope the renew a statewide conversation about “being North Dakotan” by creating a point of departure provided by a cross-section of the state’s intellectual community.

Second, the introduction of the essays in the published volume online produces an online forum from discussion of the ideas in the essays. The combination of a robust online presence, existing social network communities, print publication distributed in a targeted way to new North Dakotans, and the use of QR codes to direct readers of print to online sites ensures that the NDHC web community will have a regular flow of engaged readers. Moreover, the readers will be trackable from across the state to determine whether the program succeeded in reaching the intended audience.

Finally, the renewed conversation on the state of North Dakota sets the stage for the 50th anniversary of Elwyn Robinson’s landmark History of North Dakota in 2016. Robinson’s work has framed the various ways of understanding the past and present of the state for a half of a century and will undoubtedly inspire a new set of reflections which the NDHC will clearly lead.

An Open Letter to our new Provost and Dean

This fall, the University of North Dakota has a new Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences has a new dean. Right now they are cruising across the state as part of the University of North Dakota faculty bus tour. So now seems a safe time to tell them exactly what I think they should do as they begin their time at UND.  

This post follows a tradition on the blog. Five years ago, I welcomed our new university president with a series of historical blog posts that described the tension between a previous president and faculty. I think they’re some of my best posts and you can enjoy them here, here, and here. I don’t have anything as clever to welcome our new dean and provost, but I figured that I should post something.

Since open letters are all the rage these-a-days (and should not be confused with this other kind of letter or, dear lord, this letter), I thought I might type up a few things that I think are important for new administrators to keep in mind as they start their careers at the University of North Dakota. These are not supposed to be grievances or reflect the shortcomings of previous administrators, but they do reflect my priorities as a faculty member. Moreover, I do not claim a particularly unique perspective or vantage point for my open letter. In fact, I’m the perfect definition of rank-and-file faculty on campus.

I am not a superstar or a campus asset.
I am not a wise and experienced grey head.
I am not a hot shot assistant professor.

I’m a mid-career, associate professor with no particular standing on campus. I do my job – research, teach, and do some service – but I’m not notable for any one of them. I will say that I work hard, but I lack that spark to be anything more than a loyal foot soldier to my discipline and university. Worse still, I’m in the humanities. Finally, I don’t have an special behind the scenes knowledge of how the university really functions or how it should function.

That being said, I can describe how the university appears to me, and I suspect that some of my perspectives will be shared by the great majority of faculty who do not see themselves as particularly special, but want to do the best they can in their environment.

1. Respect faculty time. Over my almost 10 years on campus, I’ve been engaged in a wide range of activities at the behest of administrators that resulted in nothing. These range from the inconsequential (e.g. an online form that needed to be filled out in addition to the traditional paper forms) to the more time consuming including committees charged with creating a new program or evaluating core university functions. While I always felt honored to participate in the more “important” and special committees, they consumed my time and energy and so often did not produce anything of note. The combination of these bigger obligations and the gradual increase in niggling responsibilities impinge on the time faculty can spend doing research and inevitably make us less effective teachers.

Please, if you have any control over the expansion of the number of faculty committees, pointless paperwork exercises, and other pressures on faculty hours, try to control this kind of mission creep where creative faculty become bureaucrats.

2. Do not tell creative faculty to develop a business plan to support their creativity. We all recognize that funding makes the world go ’round. I’ve written my modest share of grants and prepared budgets for my archaeological research projects. I even have tried my hand at some ham-fisted self promotion, and helped to envision a program of crowd-funding for local creative projects, but I cannot create a business plan. My colleagues in the humanities, arts, and sciences have strengths in in creative and innovative thinking, transformational research, and meaningful teaching. We look to our colleagues in administrative posts to find resources for us to continue this work. While we all understand that external grants are sometimes required, we do not have any idea how to create a compelling or sustaining business plan.

Fortunately, as administrators, you do. So instead of asking us to do it and taking time away from our creative tasks, you should do use your expertise to help make our creativity viable in the new academic landscape.

In the meantime, those of us in creative fields will follow the great John Madden’s advice: “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load up the wagon!”

3. Do not reward bad behavior. Nothing is more demoralizing to the toiling members of the rank-and-file than to see rewarded colleagues or departments who act out, chafe under imagined grievances, seek out offenses, and spend more time causing trouble than doing their job. I realize that sometimes it is easier to placate than to punish, but for those of us who stay out of trouble, overlook possible small offenses with some grace, and suffer injustices with a modicum of dignity, it is excruciating to see the continued support and promotion of people who behave poorly. I understand, of course, that some of folks who misbehave are crusaders for justice, whistle blowers, and revolutionaries, but many are not. They pursue their own agendas, vendettas, and political positions in ways that undermine collegiality on campus.

When they’re rewarded for their antisocial and unprofessional behavior, it undermines morale among those of us who don’t want to cause trouble and want to focus on our research, teaching, and colleagues in a positive way.

4. Recognize economic inequality across campus. Faculty at a university function in a wide range of different economies. The economic realities that shape the lives of scholars in the humanities and arts are fundamentally different from those that shape the lives of folks in the hard or applied sciences. I’m not complaining (much). I understand that society values certain kind of research more than others and that certain kinds of research simple costs more than others. I also understand that replacement costs for faculty, start up costs, and the lure of private industry impacts different disciplines in different ways. I am also aware that university administration is growing and careful economic calculations take place before hiring each additional director and associate vice president (cough). Some of these folks are so good at their jobs that they more than pay for themselves and the economic impact of their work funds additional faculty members and research opportunities.

At the same time, please realize that it is intensely demoralizing when administrators have no real idea how competitive, challenging, and difficult funding opportunities can be for scholars in different disciplines. We do not all have equal access to corporate resources, federal grant programs, or private resources. More painfully, faculty are not all compensated at the same rate for the same work. It is a difficult generalization to make, but many of us at the most productive times of our careers make less than people who have entered into the “operation shutdown” phase of their careers.

I am worldly enough to understand that there is no way to “fix” these disparities across disciplines, departments, and divisions of the university (an I am sure that many would not even really see this system as broken), but it would make my life better if all parties, led by deans and the provost, could at least consistently acknowledge the unequal distribution of resources on campus and if this leads to programs that benefit the work of scholars who have a bit less, then this is an added bonus. 

5. Find Creative Ways to Support Collaboration. One of the funniest things that happened a few years back is that at the same time our dean and president were promotion collaboration, they moved our department to a new building further away from our closest intellectual colleagues (English and Languages).  Moreover, the design of the building encouraged solitary work in offices rather than chance encounters with colleagues. The examples of companies that have found imaginative solutions to the need to produce new ideas is vast and growing.

So far, on campus, there is significant research to support collaborations, but I have yet to see the same commitment to creating an environment that support collaborating. For example, the library has traditionally stood as a space for chance encounters with both ideas and people, and it seems like a natural place to manifest this commitment to cross campus collaboration. Over my time at the university, however, the library has never received enough support.

There could be real benefit to developing open plan spaces in the center of campus to support collaborative activities and removing institutional barriers to co-taught courses or cross listing brings the collaborative spirit of faculty to the classroom. Some of these things already exist on campus or may be in the planning stage, and I’m loathe to discourage direct funding of collaborative research, but there is more to collaboration that giving money to successful partnerships.

I suspect most people have stopped reading my post at this point as it has clearly strayed into tl;dr territory, but I wanted to go on record with my ideas. Maybe someday when the dust has settled, programs are in place, troublemakers placated, and collaborations ensured, we can sit down for a beer or a coffee.

Good luck and welcome to UND.

Backyard Archaeology

Every now and then I get such a brilliant idea that I have to patiently wear down my wife’s skepticism. For the last year, I’ve been suggesting (as well as hinting, imploring, and begging) that I be allowed to conduct a proper excavation in part of our backyard. She has finally agreed.

When we bought our house 2 years ago there was a swing-set in the backyard. The base of the swing-set was a sandbox. It appears that the sandbox was cut into the ground by maybe 10 cm. When the swing-set was removed, the sand from the sandbox stayed and as a result nothing can grow in a 3 m x 1.5 m splotch in our back yard. Some way or another, the sand must be removed if we want to have a lush and appropriate backyard lawn. 


The need to remove sand, however, is probably not a sufficiently robust scientific reason to conduct a proper excavation. Archaeology is, after all, destructive and archaeological contexts are a limited resource. There is an archaeological justification for excavating the backyard, however. Our house probably dates to 19th century and is probably the oldest house on our block and in our section of town. We know that the house has seen only limited modification. A back room – maybe designed to be an expanded kitchen – and sleeping porch were added at some point probably in the earliest 20th century. The sleeping porch was built in by the mid-20th century to serve as an additional bedroom. The front porch as it now exists dates from the last decade of the 20th century, but it likely replaced an earlier porch. There has been extensive landscaping and there are two out buildings: a one car garage that is earlier than a two car garage. The former is probably mid-20th century – judging by the massive elm tree that today pushes into the side of the structure – and the latter is probably from the 1970s. This short architectural history of the house demonstrates that there is little chance that we’ll uncover fragile architectural remains associated with an earlier phase of our house or an earlier structure on the site. This makes our excavation relatively low risk in terms of possibly damaging otherwise protected earlier structures.


More importantly, from what I can gather there has never been a fully published archaeological excavation within the urban core of Grand Forks. Despite the almost constant excavating of foundations for new buildings, there is no effort to document the remains of earlier structures on these sites. What does happen, however, is neighbors discover buried middens in their backyards while preparing gardens and the like. At a recent block party several folks reported finding old bottles and other archaeological material between the back of their houses and the alley way. I suspect that an excavation in my backyard will reveal trash pit from the turn of the 20th century as well as construction debris associated with the house. Carefully documenting these finds will not only reveal the rich material culture associated with small town habitation, but also serve as a study collection for finds discovered in other, more neighborly (and unscientific) gardening digs.


With very recently granted approval, I need to start to assemble a team to excavate my backyard and to determine what approvals will be necessary (including local utilities!). I am clearly not qualified to document the material culture from a turn of the century excavation and have no experience digging in the Red River Valley or the Northern Plains, but fortunately, I know some people who do have experience. We plan to backfill the trench and replace the barren ground with sod when we’re done and it won’t be any larger than 3 x 3 m. When we excavate, it will be important to publish the results promptly both on the web and in a more traditional form. My thought is that our Grand Forks Community History Series might provide a useful venus. Hopefully the finds can find a home at a local museum and the digital or paper documentation of our work can live in Special Collections at the University of North Dakota.

My hope is to start our work mid-summer 2014 provided we can jump through any hoops. I’ll certainly keep you posted.


This weekend is the annual “spring cleaning pick-up” weekend in Grand Forks. Residents of the community can discard anything they want at the curb. This creates some interesting assemblages. Local junk collectors roam the streets before the official pick up occurs gleaning interesting or valuable objects.

Here’s one in my neighborhood. The first photo is when it was initial set out and the second was at noon the next day.



Next year, I think I’ll organize a group of students to comb the streets and photograph these discard piles. This should tell us something about various domestic habits (what kinds of goods fall outside of traditional discard practices), consumer practices, and recycling. 

Rhythm Planet: A crowd-funded, student-developed video game at the University of North Dakota

This week Joel Jonientz, a colleague of mine from the Department of Art and Design, rolled out one of the coolest projects that I’ve seen from our humble little campus here in The Grand Forks. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of Rhythm Planet, his student-developed video game. He is looking for $31,700 to complete the game and all of this money (minus Kickstarter’s fees) will go to paying students to produce the game and contributor rewards. Joel is blogging about the Kickstarter process at his blog. In short, the way it works is that Joel and his students get nothing unless the project meets its goal. That means, you will not get charged unless the project raises $31,700.

Before you read any more of this post, go and support this project on Kickstarter


Now that you’ve supported the project, keep reading.

The project is cool for many reasons. First, Joel has been a staunch supporter of my little adventures, so there is a kind of reciprocity here. He designed the amazing Punk Archaeology poster and will hopefully accompany my team West to Williston this August as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

That’s the not the main reason the project is cool, though. I am fascinated with what I call (to myself) “the project-focused classroom” and Joel created a class that developed the first draft of a video game. I am equally fascinated with the idea that a class can begin something that then gets crowd-funded. The comforting classroom environment moves seamlessly into the world of entrepreneurship, marketing, and real deadlines.

We have entered the age of crowd-funded higher education. I keep envisioning a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Class) that is made up of interested students who are also the investors in a project. The scale of some recent MOOCs, which can run to the tens of thousands of participants, would mean that individual investments could be tiny (<$5) for the project director (previously known as the instructor) to raise a significant amount of capital. When the project is complete, participants would become either shareholders or simply receive a copy of the final product. The curriculum of the course would lead the group from conceptualization to completion over a course of 3 months. Imagine a magazine crowdsourced, crowd-funded, and published in this way?    


Enough of my indulgent fantasies of egalitarian, crowd-sourced utopias. To support his amazing Kickstarter project, I sat down with Joel (over email, of course) and discussed his Rhythm Planet. This is part one of the interview:

WAIT. Before reading any further, please support this project on Kickstarter. Then proceed to the interview.

Bill Caraher: Can you explain the origins of this project?

Joel Jonientz: When I first arrived at the University of North Dakota, I was encouraged to remake the Time-Based Media program to better reflect student interests and bring the curriculum forward into the 21st century. Part of that process involved listening and responding to student needs, and one of the things students asked for again and again was a class in game design. This was right around the time I became involved with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. The group had acquired a space on campus and some very specialized equipment that would allow for a diverse group of students and faculty to collaborate on multimodal projects such as a video game.

I approached the students who had shown interest game development and with them began to recruit other students to the project that would become Rhythm Planet. Once we had about a dozen students with the skill sets we were looking for, it was simply a matter of fitting the project into my teaching load by creating a special topics course so that they could earn credits for what would be a semester of experiential learning. At the time we began, I had no idea what we could accomplish, and I did not envision that we would create a game that would still be in development three years later.

Zone2 1

BC: How did the Working Group in Digital and New Media serve as a catalyst for this project?

JJ: When we first envisioned the Working Group, it was as a space in which faculty and students could collaborate on research projects that pushed the boundaries of traditional classroom instruction. Because of the interdisciplinary makeup of the Working Group, I was able to reach out to students who I otherwise would not have known and involve them in the development of Rhythm Planet. The Working Group’s Laboratory Space was instrumental in game’s development in the way the team was able to work together. All of the sound and visual assets in the game were created in the lab and the space made it possible for the students to meet, test, and make changes to the game in real time.

BC: So did the physical space of the Working Group lab help the team collaborate to create the first iteration of this game?

JJ: Working collaboratively is always challenging. The key to developing Rhythm Planet was enabling honest dialogue between groups and avoiding distraction. Each week, we would meet as a large group discuss timelines and then split into three separate teams. One group worked on the gaming engine and programming. The second group created visual assets and character animations. The final group created the soundtrack. For the most part, the students in the first cohort were self-starters. There were multiple points in the process where one team’s mission became subservient to another. The programmers could not begin working out the game engine without assets from the artists, who in turn could not build out the zones without the puzzles from the level designers etc. The worst thing that could have happened during the process would have been one group sitting around waiting on another. Down time is the enemy of a good working environment.

BC: It seems like you had a pretty impressive workflow at play from the start. Are there any lessons we can all learn about teaching from the game design process? It seems like this game project illustrates some of the limits of the single class or even course based design model. You needed more time.

JJ: Because I had never created a game before, I was often forced into a position where I had to answer a question with “I don’t know.” As a young professor this sentence had not previously been one I was used to uttering. I am in many ways being paid for my expertise and not knowing was an aspect of teaching I was uncomfortable with. In this particular case, I was wholly unprepared for most of the questions being asked of me and so I was forced to admit my ignorance on the subject. What developed out of this was a transparency in the learning process that I had not encountered before in my own teaching. When confronted with a question I made not knowing a teachable experience. “Let’s learn this together,” and “Here is how I would go about finding the answer,” became phrases I uttered daily and continue to use in my teaching today. There is no shame in not knowing a thing and virtue in making your research process transparent.  This is the lesson I took from the process. 

BC: What will the Kickstarter fund? How will the final product be better than the existing game? What can players expect in the later levels?

JJ: The Kickstarter campaign will fund the completion of the game. Rhythm Planet as it exists today is a collection assets waiting to be made whole. Throughout its development, we have been able to put enough pieces together to test the concept and play a level or two, but we want to get to the point in which we could send the entire game out for a beta test. This Kickstarter will allow us to put together the first three zones totaling fifteen levels. The number of assets we have created through the three iterations of the gaming class would allow us to double the games size over time, but for now we have set our sites on finishing the work of the original group.

Zone1 1 bkg 2

Have you supported this project on Kickstarter, yet? Have you decided to be part of the future?