This time of year my thoughts always turn to my late friend Joel Jonientz and his family. He passed away 6 years ago this week. This is the fifth installment (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, I seem to have missed 2019).
On a long walk with the dogs, I thought back to our time together at UND and felt a sense of deep nostalgia. If we’ve learned anything from our current politics, it’s that nostalgia can be pretty toxic. It erodes a faith in progress and often leaves us longing for a past that often exists without consequences.
At the same time, as a historian, I often find that nostalgia guides me toward formative times in my own life. While I try not to dwell too much on my own experiences, following my sense of nostalgia pushes me to think more critically about how my own memories transform, occlude, or emphasize the larger experience of the community. My recent interest in the archaeology of the suburbs, digital technology, and early 21st century material culture has roots in my own past. I try to remind myself that this past has and had consequences both for myself and for the wider world.
Reflecting with nostalgia on Joel’s time at UND evoke warm memories: sitting in Paul Worley’s backyard smoking some kind of meets, watching Seahawks games with Joel’s family in his crowded TV room, scheming with Tim Pasch, Crystal Alberts, Paul, and Joel to showcase our digital work at public events, and organizing the punk archaeology conference with Mike Wittgraf, Aaron Barth, and Tim. These were good times personally and professionally. They not only gave me a taste of the heady intellectual freedom of tenure, but also introduced me to the potential of small, college town collegiality.
These memories have nudged me to think about the history of the institution in the 21st century. To be clear, I don’t mean to reduce Joel’s identity, somehow, to just his institutional affiliation or his work at UND. He was a family man, a good friend, and had hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams that went well beyond his job.
At the same time, our shared experiences at UND entangle my nostalgic recollections. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the early 21st century at UND was a special time at the institution. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t as fraught with politics, challenges, and disappointments as any other time. Instead, what I remember is that the period from 2004-2015 or so, was that campus had the feeling of hope. This has since been lost.
When I think about UND in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, I think about the paradox that during the “Great Recession,” my corner of UND — the arts and the humanities — continued to experience growth. There was a saying that North Dakota was “insulated and not isolated” for the economic issues facing most of the country. More than that: the Bakken oil boom gave the state a sense a hope and even the idea that there might a future.
As someone in the humanities, I remember musing about how the Gulf States recognized that their oil wealth could be invested in higher education and cultural institutions despite the conservative character of their political culture, the austerity of their environment, and the history of colonialism and marginalization. Maybe North Dakota would follow suit?
After all, the university supported our Working Group in Digital and New Media (from the archive: report 1, report 2, and report 4), a new “Arts and Culture” conference that was a fall pendant to the thriving UND Writers Conference, had expanded the reach of UND Arts Collections, encouraged the development of the IPPL, and supported new hires in History, English, and the Arts. This support was paying dividends too with UND faculty and students pushing to collaborate, produce new art, and develop new long term projects. It’s hardly surprising that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota emerged from this period. It was the product of this optimism.
Of course, I realize that not everything was rosy. My colleagues in the communications program at UND who contributed so much to the creativity and vitality of UND in the 21st century watched their department disappear and had to find new homes at UND, create a new program, and navigate a complicated political landscape. Other programs, of course, showed signs of strain as well as ambitious new faculty members clashed with long-serving colleagues. New faculty, especially those hired during the Great Recession, often brought with them different expectations cultivated in top tier graduate programs than an older generation of faculty leaders. The shuffle to accommodate a wider range of outlooks in campus culture invariably left damaged feelings on both sides.
The steady hemorrhaging of talented early-career faculty was the most obvious manifestation of the tensions on campus. At the same time, it served as a kind of endorsement for the culture UND produced. That early-career faculty could come to UND and continue to be productive, creative, and ambitious suggests that something positive was happening on our campus, even if the outcome, in the end, was for these folks to leave.
At the level of upper administration, the long-standing controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo came to a head with the NCAA and while it was eventually resolved, the financial, political, and emotional costs were steep. At the same time, UND athletics transitioned to Division I suggesting that despite the rifts caused by the logo controversy, there was optimism.
The revolving door of deans, provosts, and even presidents, likewise offers a two-edged sword. The lack of stability in the administration made it challenging to plan things that required substantial administrative support. In fact, we attempted on several occasions to develop a digital humanities program, but these all foundered at the administrative level. At the same time, the lack of strong positive direction created space for faculty to maneuver and develop their own ways of collaborating, setting goals, and advancing agendas. While this may have left the university a mishmash of irregular and often incompatible curricula, research projects, and programs, the semi-benign neglect of the early 21st century also has created a strong spirit of independence among faculty.
On a “Zoom call” last night with a group of UND faculty and members of the post-Jonientz diaspora, we joked about an oral history of UND in the 21st century. This is certainly a tempting project. Whether our reflections on this period would end up being idle nostalgia or something more substantive and revealing, is hard to know.