Brokenness and Repair

Over the last week or so, I’ve been carrying around Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) in part to keep my fingers in the book that I’m trying to write on the archaeology of contemporary America and, in part, because I thought it might speak to me about the headlines these days that emphasize the brokenness of, say, the US health systems. (That there are case studies involving the Pantheon clock and Swiss watches is just a happy bonus!). 

The essays largely focus on the materiality of brokenness and repair. The case studies from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia offered particularly compelling case studies. In these contexts, brokenness largely represented the transition from state-controlled and centrally administered regimes of maintenance to a system grounded in the market economics. Tamta Khalvashi’s ethnography of brokenness and maintenance in the elevators of Georgia, for example, provided insights into the strategies used to ensure that the elevators in Soviet era apartment buildings continued to function once the centralized maintenance systems became privatized. From coin boxes to the contributions of residents (and the various efforts from folks to game the system or to avoid paying their share of elevator maintenance costs), Khalvashi maps the adaptive strategies of various communities in their effort to preserve the material manifestations of an earlier regime. Similar ethnographies of roads, holes, and buildings in other former communist block countries demonstrated similar trajectories where brokenness represents discontinuities within the history of these places and repairs present efforts both at preserving experiences and utility of objects and places as well as marking the passage of time.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life on university campuses and some recent time exploring and documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings, I found the exploration of brokenness and repair a useful way of understanding the fabric of these buildings. More than that, it helped me appreciate the materiality of their history and how their fragmented and discontinuous pasts challenge the kinds of cohesive narratives that institutions cultivate. If the two tensions of traditional and progress define university campuses, then the visibility of repairs complicates a present constructed as an uninterrupted expression of past values. It also suggests that progress does not follow a continuous and rational trajectory from the flawed and imperfect to the improved and perfected. Repairs indicate recursive and imperfect encounters with tradition and the halting and discontinuous working of progress.

On our campus, then, the buildings most scarred with repairs the first buildings that ambitious administrators seek to erase with new constructions. These new buildings embody progress by overwriting the past and suggest tradition by creating a purified version of the architectural styles present across campus which then stand is as pure examples of an uninterrupted past.

In short, brokenness and repair create problematic ruptures in the way in which communities understand their past. At the same time, preserving evidence for repair, in turn, preserves the ruptures in the past that reveal agency in ways that the rather disembodied or heroic narratives of progress and tradition attempt to overwrite. 

Teaching and Time

It’s Mardi Gras. It is one of the few days of the year when the average person becomes aware of the liturgical calendar and the transition from pre-Lent to Lent. Because the liturgical calendar does not align with our solar calendar the date of Easter and Lent shifts each year through out the spring. Even if one is not particularly observant, this intersection of religious and secular time is a nice reminder that there are a number of different rhythms in the world and these rhythms happen simultaneously.

This has been helpful this week because we encountered a little challenge in my one-credit class designed around engaging and documenting a building on campus that will soon be demolished. Unbeknownst to me, the building, Montgomery Hall, is scheduled to begin asbestos mitigation next Monday morning. This will involve removing carpets, flooring, and, in some cases walls. In many cases this will make the original fabric of the building more visible and this is a good thing.

The downside is that we have to be out of the build for all of March. I had ideally hoped that we could be in the building for most of March and April. Not it appears that we will have to be out of the building for at least half that time. The students, of course, we understanding and can shift their attention to work in the University Archives in Special Collections where they have formulated some intriguing research questions and projects. At the same time, it taught them a useful lesson that when you’re dealing with the real world there are always going to be challenges and unexpected events that disrupt the steadier rhythms of the academic calendar.

Over the last few years, as editor of North Dakota Quarterly and publisher at The Digital Press, I’ve wanted to include students more fully in the publishing process. The biggest challenge is, however, that the publishing process does not sync neatly with the academic calendar. NDQ, for example goes the publisher on October 1 and March 1 and a good bit of the work happens in a great flurry of effort at the start of each semester. This means that there would be very little time to ease students into a project and a good bit of dead time at the end of the semester when the issue is sent off to press. This, of course, is not insurmountable, but it does demonstrate the occasional incompatibility between the rhythm of the semester and the rhythm of, say, publishing.

The challenge gets more complex when dealing with The Digital Press because in this case you not only are dealing with the rhythm of the semester, but also the work habits of copy editors, typesetters, and individual authors. Ideally, students feel a sense of ownership over a project because they can see it through from manuscript to completion, but since this rarely follows the course of a semester, it is difficult in practice to achieve this. Moreover, the rhythm of semester life often makes it hard for students to even think about projects that run across semester breaks. This is reasonable, of course, from the perspective of students who often have tightly scheduled time commitments around other course work, jobs, and personal lives. 

It does make it hard, though, to give students a taste of the real world without the kind of contingency and commitments that life in the real world often involves.  

Three Things Thursday

Thursday mornings have become exceedingly hectic with me teaching a class in old Montgomery Hall at 8 am and it also being the customary day for NDQ to post its weekly blog.

That being said, I always can find time for a few things on a Thursday morning.

Thing One

One of the coolest things about Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is its impressive vaulted plaster and wood framed ceiling. The vaulted ceiling stood two storeys about the dining room in the original configuration of Montgomery Hall and when this room became the main reading room on campus, it conveyed a certain monumentality to the space.

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 14 39

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 16 14

Today, the acoustic tiles obscure the ceiling and a floor level divides the open expanse of the reading room and the dining hall. It nevertheless peaks through in places.

IMG 4642

IMG 4644

Thing Two

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m assigning something that I wrote for a class. Needless to say, I’m nervous. When I first got to UND, the university was preparing to celebrate its 125thaversary (which they oddly called something like there quinquasexatecentennial or some such pretentious nonsense). At this time, a decree went out from the President of the university that all the world … or every department should update their history. I offered to write the history of our department and now, after years of sort of hiding from it, I’m asking students to download and read two chapters to understand the early history of our program.

You can read it here, if you’d like, and I think that the early history of history at UND is pretty interesting. It speaks not only to the emergence of history as a professional discipline outside of the major universities (Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ivy League) as well as the first efforts to study the history of the state of North Dakota in the early 20th century and the organization of archives and seminars on the history of the state. It also gives an idea of how professors negotiated their place among the small town bourgeois of Grand Forks.

Thing Three

I really want to talk about some projects and make some updates concerning The Digital Press, but nothing is quite ready to announce. For example, Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018 is in page proofs.
Sebastian Heath’s DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean is almost through layout. Derek Counts, Erin Averett, and Kevin Gartski’s Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3D Models is in final pre-production review and will go to the copy editor this spring. Rebecca Seifried and Deb Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is back from positive peer reviews and out to authors for revisions.

I’d love to announce a new collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly that involves two translated books which will appear under a new imprint (possibly something like the North Dakota Quarterly Press).

I’m also dying to talk about Sun Ra.

But nothing is ready to announce yet, but stay tuned. Stuff is in the works and I hope people will like it.

Teaching Tuesday: The Open Classroom

This spring, I’m teaching a course that is based on Montgomery Hall which one of the oldest buildings on campus and slated for demolition this year. I have 10 students in the 1-credit course which does not have a syllabus, does not have pre-defined learning outcomes, and does not map clearly onto any particular curriculum or program.

In part, the class is inspired in part by David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). In his book, he proposes a future university based around the open-ended experience of play. To put this into practice, I let the students loose in Montgomery Hall and let them explore the building without any preconceived ideas of what they were to see, encounter, do, or understand. To be fair, I did frame this with a short bibliography, but I also did not require the students to read or digest this bibliography in any kind of rigorous way. 

The results of our first day in the building were pretty amazing. When I met with the students the week before in a classroom, the atmosphere was quiet and the students looked to me to do or say something. When we met in the building, however, the students quickly dispersed and talked eagerly and boisterously among themselves was they explored the building. In fact, they seem almost uninterested in what I had to say and much more eager to discover things on their own. Another happy change that occurred during this open-ended encounter with Montgomery Hall is that students were much more willing to argue with me about what they’re seeing. It’s almost as if my authority dissipated once I stepped out from the front of the classroom. This was a very pleasant surprise!

Engagement is one thing, but getting that engagement to actually produce something that leads to learning is something else. At the end of the class on Thursday, I asked the students to send me a question that they had after exploring the building. These questions are really good and sharp. Not only do they reflect the varied interests of the group of students, but they also are almost all interpretative questions rather than just “factual” ones. In other words, after 90 minutes in the building, the students managed go beyond the simply questions of what it this or that and reach for the more difficult questions of “why” this or that.

Finally, the proof, of course, is in the pudding. Right now, we’re still at the stage of curiosity and wonder and this is great and the engagement is intoxicating. The next step is when things get real. We have to think about how to do some research that produced evidence for them to build arguments to answer their questions. This will likely mean trips to the archive, conversations with people across campus, and research into architecture, the university’s history, and the larger culture of higher education over time.

We also have to discuss how to present what we’ve learned this semester to a wider audience. Stay tuned!

Teaching Tuesday: Reading is Optional

I’m teaching a one-credit, pop-up, style class this semester and instead of writing the syllabus at the start of the class, I’ve decided to allow the students to create a syllabus as a conversation over the course of the semester. The class is focused on a soon-to-be-demolished building on UND’s campus: Montgomery Hall.

Part of this is to give the students a bit more freedom to develop their own interest in the class, but another part of this is designed to short circuit the tendency of students to resist course expectations which fall out of sync with their interests, approach to learning, or social and economic situation. Faculty, in my experience, have a tendency to moralize student resistance and rather than recognizing it as a critique, however ill-formed, we have a tendency to see it as laziness, a lack of commitment, or, at worst, a sense of entitlement. 

Part of the project for this class is to give students more freedom to structure their learning and follow their curiosity without the pressure, necessarily, of grades, due dates, assignments, and other objects that so often form points of resistance at the intersection of the university as institutionalized learning, student lives, and faculty expectations. As part of this larger project, I’ve decided to make all the reading in the class optional, but I also wanted students to have a reasonable reading list that would allow them to at least become familiar with some of the major ways of thinking about buildings, the history of the university, or what we know about Montgomery Hall in particular.

Wherever possible, I’ve linked to the sources that I’m using below:

We’re lucky that Steve Martens has done a brilliant job describing the history of the building in his HABS report which he generously shared with us. (I provided the students with this document!)

To understand a bit more about the history of UND, you can always check out Louis Geiger’s University of the Northern Plains: a History of the University of North Dakota, 1883-1958 (1958).

Laurie Wilke’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a Historical Archaeology of Masculinity in a University Fraternity (2010) which is just a great book on 20th century campus life.

For the history of architecture in North Dakota, Steve Martens and Ronald Ramsey have published THE book: The Buildings of North Dakota (2015).

For the work of Joseph Bell DeRemer, the architect behind Montgomery Hall, Steve Martens has provided a brilliant “context study.” 

The most intriguing thing about Montgomery Hall, at least to me, is how it has changed over time, check out Stewart Brand’s entertaining How Buildings Learn. (1995): 

For some more complex ways of thinking about contemporary buildings, grounded in archaeology, check out Timothy Webmoor’s article, “Object Oriented Metrologies of Care and the Proximate Ruin of Building 500.

Or this article by Michael Schiffer and Richard Will on the archaeology of university campuses: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus.”

Or this article by John Schofield on the archaeology of modern offices: “Office Cultures and Corporate Memory: Some Archaeological Perspectives.”  

Teaching Tuesday: Without a Syllabus

Over the last few years, I’ve started to do some work to flip my classroom in both my introductory level and mid-level courses. I’ve also discovered that students have come to expect a certain amount of classroom inversion at my institution. What I used to have to explain and justify for students has now become expected. In general, I think this is a good trend in education.

This morning, I meet with a group of 10 students who have signed up for a one-credit course that will focus on Montgomery Hall. Montgomery Hall is among the older buildings on campus having once served as the university commons, then as the library, before becoming the deanery for Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, and building filled with storage and small departments. Over the years, the building’s prime spot on the main road through campus and its awkward orientation toward the rest of campus and use of Tudor style architecture rather than the prevailing College Gothic has made it vulnerable to more ambitious campus planners. As a result, the building is slated for demolition this year. 

While this is bad for the building, it is good for students, because it means that once again, we have a building that we can explore as a way to understand architecture, the history of campus, and the complex ways that we might memorialize these buildings and understand how campuses change.

Two years ago, I ran a similar class focused on two now-demolished buildings associated with Wesley College on the campus of UND. In the case of this class, I very much set the agenda and enlisted students as co-researchers who helped me document the building and the objects left behind at abandonment. Over the course of the class, however, students began to get their own ideas and set their own agendas. By the end of the class, the data that I collected was far less interesting than the work of the students themselves. The optimist in me imagined that my research established a framework for the students to explore their own interests, but part of me wondered how the students might do if I hadn’t framed so much of their early interaction with the building.

So, this semester, I’m going to leave the class more open ended. For example, I’m not going to have a syllabus. I’m also not going to tell the students what I want them to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about ways to KNOW a building in general, munch on donuts, and listen to how they think about campus, campus-changes, and commemorating or recognizing the history of campus over time. In the past, I’ve been interested in the tensions between campus as a dynamic place and campus as a place saturated with history and traditions. As recent controversies surrounding the Silent Sam statue on UNC’s campus, the renaming of buildings at Brown, Calhoun College at Yale, and others across the U.S. often marks the intersection between broadly progressive values and the role that college campuses play as mnemonic landscapes for generations of alumni and students.

Framing the class at this very intersection – between formal requirements of a syllabus and the less structured experiences and attitude of students toward their built environment – might set up new ways of thinking about campus buildings and changes over time. 

The class starts now, so we’ll see.   

Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.