NDQuesday: A North Dakota Quarterly Reader

When I first became interested in North Dakota Quarterly about five years ago or so, I floated the idea that we mine the back content of NDQ to create a series of readers on various topics. I figured that this might be a way to show off the “best of the best” from NDQ’s storied history and perhaps to generate a little cash flow if we sold them online as print-on-demand volumes. Aside from a few trial balloons, including a little volume on North Dakota and the Great War which attracted a handful of downloads, there wasn’t too much real interest. 

The other day, while hanging out in the NDQ offices, I decided to shelf-surf a bit and stumbled across a few paper bound volumes that were collections of past NDQ articles edited by Elizabeth Hampsten and Stephen Dilks and published in 1997.    

IMG 1948

The entire volume is re-set and re-paginated into columns. I offer the table of contents for the first of the three volumes below. It would be possible to link to each contribution because they’re now available online, but I also wonder whether folks might like a paper copy of the reader for a nominal price (i.e. <$20). There would be some production time and effort, to be sure, but it would seem worth it if folks see a volume like this as a suitable way to celebrate the legacy of NDQ.   

Let me know in the comments and in the meantime, here’s the table of contents: 

North Dakota is Everywhere
A North Dakota Quarterly Reader, 1910-1996


Frank Allen, “The Two-fold Function of the University” (September 1910), 1
Luther C Freeman, “The Problem of the Teacher” (September 1910), 8
Frank L. McVey, “Syndicalism and Socialism and Their Meaning” (April 1914), 11
James E. Boyle, “Notes From an Agricultural Field Trip Across North Dakota” (January 1917), 17
VeraKesey, “Free” (play, July 1917), 21
Albert Tangeman Vollweiler, “Roosevelt’s Ranch life in North Dakota” (October 1918), 24
Luther H. Lyon, “Choosing a Name for The Product” (November 1928), 34
Elwyn B. Robinson, “Lewis & Clark-the North Dakota Phase” (Winter 1956), 38
Robert P. Wilkins, “Middle Western Isolationism: A Re-examination” (Summer 1957), 46
John F. Kennedy, “The Obligation of a Society to Preserve Its Natural Endowment” (Summer 1963) 52
Wynona H. Wilkins. “The Idea of North Dakota” (Winter 1971), 56
Rodney Nelson, “Politics in North Dakota: A Short Story” (Autumn 1976), 69
Max Westbrook, “Story Telling as a Way of Thinking” (Spring 1979), 72
Peter Nabokov, “America as Holy Land” (Autumn 1980), 81
Thomas McGrath, “Journey by Sled to Midnight Mass in the 1920s” (Autuman 1980), 89
Dale Jacobson “Review of Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend: Parts III & IV” (Winter 1987), 94
James H. Rogers, “Vision and Feeling: An Interview with Thomas McGrath” (Winter 1985), 96
Thomas McGrath, “North Dakota Is Everywhere” (Summer 1982), 104
Dale Jacobson, “For Thomas McGrath” (poem. Fall 1982), 105
Valentina Borremans, “Appropriate Technology and the Modernization and Feminization of Poverty” (Winter/Spring 1984), 107
Deborah Fink “‘Mom, It’s a Losing Proposition’: The Decline of Women’s Subsistence Production on Iowa Farms” (Winter/Spring 1984), 113
J. M. Coetzee, “Michael Kin the Camp” (Spring 1983), 117
James Summerville, “Rural America: An Index” (Fall 1985), 123
Kathleen Norris, “Gatsby on the Plains: The Small-Town Death Wish” (Fall 1985) 128
G. Keith Gunderson, “Letter: A Reply to ‘Gatsby on the Plains’” (Fall 1985), 134
Mark Phillips, “An Introduction: ‘Creativeness and Social Change’” (Fall 1985), 137
Derek Savage, “Creativeness and Social Change” (Fall 1985), 138
Catharine R. Stimpson, “Needling” (Summer 1987), 142
Brian Swann “‘The dusky body of IT underneath’: Some Thoughts on America and Native Americans” (Winter 1987). 146
Ron Vossler, “The Last Casualty of Shipka Pass” (Fall 1988) and “The Last Survivor of Shipka Pass,” 158 and 162
Patricia Sanborn, “An Odyssey Through Schools: Notes of a Learner and Teacher” (Winter 1988), 167
Robert W. Lewis, “Introduction: Gleanings” (Fall 1991), 175 and “Declaration of Quito” (Fall 1991), 180
Lise McCloud, “Heart of the Turtle” (Fall 1991), 182
Claude Clayton Smith, “Red Men in Red Square” (Fall 1991), 187
Susan K. Martin, “Go (Further) West Young Man: The New (True Blue) Frontier of the American Imagination” (Winter 1992), 196
Robert Sayre, “Rethinking Midwestern Regionalism” (Spring 1994-95), 205
John Tallmadge, “Moving to Minnesota” (Spring 1996), 214
Lennart Pearson, “Feeding Pork to the Pig: Swedish Proverbs and Wellerisms” (Spring 1996), 222


Bill Caraher is the editor of North Dakota Quarterly. He is a historian and archaeologists at the University of North Dakota who specializes in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean and contemporary America. He blogs at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

Today is one of those super hectic days that’ll run from before 7 am until after 8 pm with barely time for quick bites to eat and think between obligations. These obligations are almost all good and fun, but “wowf” will today be full.

There are three things on my mind about NDQ this week, though, and I present them here.

The First Thing

I worked this weekend on trimming and streamlining my contribution to the NDQ special issue on Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I did four things. First, I tried to make it all a bit more direct a bit less like an academic paper. Whenever I try to write for a public audience, I find myself being dragged back into academic writing. So I cut out the most egregious examples of academic writing (including the more or less dreadful bibliographic paragraphs). This helped focus my article on NDQ as an example of the situation in the humanities on a national level. Third, I tried to develop my concept of the billboard and the factory a bit more clearly. To my mind, this is really the heart of the paper and whatever its flaws, I think it offers a genuine perspective on my view of higher education. In a sentence: we’re are too interested in demonstrating the efficiency of our methods (this is the billboard which is constantly telling our stakeholders that we’re efficient, careful with public funds, and open to private partnerships) and not interested enough in selling the product (which is education, research, and various non-market advantages to society). Maybe the metaphor is a bit weak or tortured, but I’m sticking with it. Finally, the original version of the paper ended in a depressing way. While I still feel pessimistic about the future of the current version of higher education in the face of the long trajectory of American (and, really, global) political culture.

If you’re interested in how the sausage is made, check out the newest version of my paper here.

The Second Thing

In my class on the UND Budget (Cuts), I’ve become pretty interested in the idea of privatization and value. Christopher Newfield has argued that privatization has cost public higher education dearly in that most ploys to privatize aspects of university life has lead to greater costs for students, fewer resources for faculty and teaching, less efficiency and fewer opportunities for innovation. In other words, privatization is more about transferring public wealth to the private sphere and less about any real benefits for higher education.

UND is poised to see several major private initiatives on campus in the coming months. Like most public universities we have already enjoyed some of the opportunities from public/private partnerships and seen privatization nibble along the edges of university life with private dorm-style apartments ringing campus, private vendors leasing spaces in the student union, private companies handling key function like email, course management software, and the technology help desk. In many of these cases, the private sector has leveraged economies of scale and experience to provide a superior solution than could be achieved in house (but at an obvious cost). At the same time, each contract has eroded some of the university’s autonomy to function and made it a partner both in generating wealth for shareholders who have no real interest in the mission of the university and in producing the next generation of students as consumers. In particular, privatization reinforces the idea that the market is the main measure of value.

This of course, leads me to the terrifying topic of value. For most of my academic career, I’ve looked at the concept of value with fear and admiration. On the one hand, the folks who speak most fluently on value are clearly steeped in Marx and Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy (and elsewhere). It’s complicated and to acquire even a basic familiarity with the ideas requires sustained commitment to a dense body of literature.

Despite these challenges, it seems essential to understand value in the context of higher education. What is higher education worth and how do we measure it?

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

This is still a bit of a secret, but only a little bit of a secret. Next week at the Associate of Writers and Writing Programs, the University of Nebraska Press will announce that they have reached a verbal agreement to become the publishing partner with North Dakota Quarterly. This will be a big step for NDQ which has since 1911 been published in house at UND.

Part of me is happy and relieved that Nebraska will take on NDQ and help us expand our reader and subscriber base, to manage subscriptions and distribution, and to help with production.

Part of my is a bit bummed, though, as it makes the end of an era of independent publishing of NDQ on our campus and it feels a bit like we’re selling out. Of course, selling out is, as always, relative. UNP is a non-profit, academic press, so it’s not like we’ve sold to Pearson or some profit-driven publisher. And while we will, inevitably, lose some autonomy and independence, our editorial independence will be maintained. And, we’ll have a partner to help us expand our reach and our impact.

After all, the goal of NDQ isn’t just produce a journal, but to produce a journal that matters.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in the Age of Austerity: An Epilogue

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received some very helpful feedback on my article for the upcoming North Dakota Quarterly special issue on the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. The most significant critique was that my essay may have diagnosed the problem, but it does not really offer a solution. More than that, the essays starts with a focus on NDQ, but by the conclusion, NDQ has settled into the background as the detritus of global trends in higher education. 

In short, my essay is depressing, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m not really a depressing person and while I certainly despair for the future of the humanities (if the humanities does anything, it imparts in us an immense capacity for despair as it reveals over and over again, the basically selfish character of humanity), I am not the type to allow even the most rational opportunities despair to overwhelm my impulse to do something and find my way to make a plausible argument for some form of productive resistance.

With this in mind, I realized that I need both to tighten up my essay throughout and I need to add a conclusion or epilogue. 

Here’s my first swing at it:

It is my hope that by continuing to edit and publish North Dakota Quarterly, we offer a challenge to prevailing direction of the modern university in two ways. First, North Dakota Quarterly presents a counter-billboard to efforts to paint the university as the rational outcome of market-driven competition. If resources at the university tend to flow toward programs, degrees, and projects that can make particular arguments for their economic value, then a successful, sustainable public humanities journal demonstrates that this work can generate economic value. In other words, the persistence of NDQ gives the lie to the idea that it is not efficient or reasonable for the university to help promote and sustain the humanities in the current economic climate. More than that, by loudly persisting, it refuses to be an example of how a commitment to efficiency at the modern university should exclude the humanities. The best counter-argument to defunding the public humanities because they are not competitive, is simply refusing to lose. In fact, a particularly puckish reading of the rhetoric of sustainability at the modern university allows us to point out that NDQ can survive in the competitive space of the modern market even outside the university, whereas STEM research requires a constant stream of funds for the same outcome. It difficult to assert a situation in which the public humanities have partners that are better prepared to provide sustainable funding than exist for STEM fields which supporters point out have much higher returns on investment in the private sector. The place of the university in providing public subsidies to bolster the technologies and workforce needed of private sector at least complicates any view of a neoliberal economy functioning outside of the inefficient and interfering influence of the state.

Setting NDQ up as a counter-billboard offers a sense of the ironic satisfaction, but such gesture of resistance, are hollow if resistance alone is the goal. After all, the need for thoughtful, public interventions in the humanities goes well beyond pointing out the contradictions in a neoliberal worldview. North Dakota Quarterly continued significance depends upon its ongoing, substantive contributions to the world through the thoughtful creativity and criticism of our authors and editors. In recent years, NDQ has explore the character of transnationalism, the potential of the slow moment as an antidote the modern acceleration, the spirit of defiance in the works of Thomas McGrath, alongside a regular stream of poetry, fiction, and art to enliven a world increasingly defined by fake new and click bait. The commitment of a journal like NDQ, that my editorial board has reinforced in me over the last few months, to listen to voices from indigenous communities, marginalized groups, students and teachers, big thinkers and tinkerers, new writers and old hands, and most importantly, our readers to craft volumes that make the world better.

NDQuesday: Odds, Ends, and Convergence

NDQuesday is always pretty exciting around here, and this week is even more exciting because NDQ is taking some some dramatic, but important steps to secure its future.

For now, I can’t really talk about it, but hopefully by next NDQuesday, they’ll be something cool to announce!

Meanwhile, we’re expanding our web presence a bit by rolling out some contributions from the last print issue 84.3/4 including a serialized version of a novella, To Acknowledge Distance  by Chris Wells. This follows up on last week’s post of W. Scott Olsen’s photo essay “The Speed of Nostalgia.” I love the idea of serialized essays and fiction both because it evokes the traditions of little magazines in the first part of the 20th century when leading authors would serialize their work over various issues of Harper’s or The Atlantic, and also because it encourages a kind of slow, reflective reading where each installment of a story becomes an object to contemplate and savor.

I’m also really excited to very quietly announce the print publication of the first NDQ Supplement published in collaboration with The Digital Press. Don’t tell anyone about this, yet because I want a more formal roll out, but this might be the start of something particularly exciting for both NDQ and The Digital Press. 

BillCaraher 2018 Feb 18

Finally, as I get ready to wander over to Corwin/Larimore Hall for the morning to do some archaeology of the contemporary world, I find myself thinking a good bit about the humanities (and the university) in the age of austerity. We received a nice little gaggle of contributions for this digital volume and I’m particularly excited to think about how my archaeological interest in these two buildings and my little essay fit together. Better still, Mark Sanford, the chair of the North Dakota legislature’s higher education funding committee, will come to my class on the UND budget cuts. Convergence!!

NDQuesday: Breaking a Brand or Bringing the Brand Back Together

I’ve been editor of North Dakota Quarterly for less than a month and I’m already worried that I’ve broken the brand. One of the challenges that I’ve faced is that I’m not, as readers of this blog know, particularly concerned with brands and branding. I find much of this rhetoric invested on building value and value, too often, slides from intellectual or cultural worth to areas of economic worth. A project’s value and an institutions brand becomes tied to its ability to convert resources into a product.

Over the last month, however, I was reminded that a brand also relates to the ability of an institution to advance and define its goals. This may be, in our current academic culture, too closely tied to our ability to acquire resources. After all the concept of a mission statement has come frequently to mark the spread of “business speak” in the academy. But for a public humanities journal, having a well-defined brand, also relates to our ability to attract contributors, to attract readers, and to have an impact.

Over the past year or so, I’ve worked hard to bring a wide range of content to the NDQ website, but I also assumed that it would be a portal for subscribers and contributors to the print journal. As the fate of the print journal continues to be negotiated, however, the website has started to stand in for the journal itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does force me to realize that what is posted on the web will impact how people see NDQ moving forward. If we want a diverse, eclectic, and wide ranging public humanities journal, then I feel like the website embodies some of those characteristics. If we want a journal that embraces literature, poetry, and the art of the essay and the review, I suspect we’ve strayed from that more narrowly defined, but altogether reasonable brand. The question is can we bolster NDQ’s brand identity without stifling the potential to move forward and without becoming mired in the corporate-speak of “mission statements” and “goals”?

On a superficial level, I do recognize that we need to do more to promote the traditional, paper presence of NDQ. To that end, I need to modify how the journal appears on the web. Right now, it literally belches forth content, with little in the way of introduction and even less pretense. My thinking at present is the update the website to promote a bit more clearly the print version of the journal and its deep historical roots. I also need dig back into those roots for content to bridge the gap between paper and digital. There is a tremendous amount of back content from NDQ much of which we link to, in a general, through our archive pages. A more curated approach to this back content, however, will make it more accessible to our audience and reinforce the longstanding traditions associated with Quarterly.

Finally, I keep thinking about the challenge of hybridity. Yesterday, my other publishing project, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, released a print-on-demand and PDF download of the web journal Epoiesen. In other words, we sought to bridge the gap between digital and print by embracing multiple modes of publishing that were nevertheless integrated. We approached the Codex project in a similar way.

The same challenges face us at NDQ except rather than building a hybrid project from the ground up and instead of navigating media as something deeply embedded in the form and content, we need to find a middle ground that respects both the paper and digital form and the paper and digital content as interrelated but not always interchangeable things. We need to both explore the potential keeping the paper and the digital as distinct ways to use the media to share expectations of the content that nevertheless embodies the same brand. In short, we need to bring the brand back together.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:


In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 4

Three weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, and the third part here

The last section established that the university as billboard extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency. The projection of certain message to stakeholders outside the university likely makes sense, particularly in an era of increasingly jaundiced views of the role of the state in the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, projecting the idea of the university as billboard internally at the university has had created challenges. The most obvious is the tendency to promote the easily measured standards of efficiency (i.e. enrollment, income, dollars) at the expense of the more complicated outputs of learning and discovery. After all, knowledge production is messy, and enrollment and income statistics are tidy.

The penultimate section of this essay is by far the roughest in terms of ideas and execution. I’m keen to read any feedback you are willing to offer in this:

The goals of this change in public higher education are complex and, I’d contend, not fully understood even by its advocated. If we assume that spread of neoliberal attitudes has more to do with a kind of deep-seated, Gramscian hegemony than a series of compelling arguments, then it is hardly surprising to find that assumptions of (in)efficiency drive policy more than interests in outcomes. At the same time, the decline in resources of the humanities both on UND’s campus and national and the defunding of long-standing projects like North Dakota Quarterly represent more than just public relations gambits designed to make higher education look lean and market-savvy.

The humanities have always served an important role in developing the leadership class in the United States, and as a result, elites have always sought ways of negotiating access to humanities education. During periods of economic growth and social and political change like the late 1960s, humanities education expanded to train a new generation of leaders in a tumultuous time. After a decline in the 1970s, the number of humanities majors tended to stabilize at around 10% despite some fluctuations and the continued expansion of higher education. Without dwelling too long on the numbers, throughout the 20th century, the study the humanities has long stood as one of the ways for individuals to enter the leadership class in the U.S. and as higher education has expanded, especially in the second-half to the 20th century, access to an education in the humanities expanded as well. Efforts to limit access to humanities education manifests itself in the competition between universities and colleges as historically elite schools have tended to support broadly liberal arts curriculum as a hallmark of their elite status. At the same time, schools looking to ascend the rankings have had to balance the desire to imitate the schools at the top of the higher education pyramid with the need to cultivate stakeholders through billboard-style claims to their efficiency and immediate economic benefit to their communities and students. As a result, at places like the University of North Dakota has been a push-pull of support for the humanities as both a key aspect of democratic higher education and a wasteful extravagance best left to more well-heeled universities designed to produce the next generation of elite leaders. This debate between the need for a robust and expansive humanities education at UND and the need to focus on workforce development and immediate local needs has existed since the early days of the university. The current version of this debate grounded in neoliberal attitudes toward the function of the state and the goal of education, however, has transformed the conversation. If throughout most of the 20th century, a liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the humanities was a hallmark of the leadership class, in the 21st century, the political elite have come to question this very formula. Talk of preparing leaders while endorsing approaches to higher education that shift resources from the humanities to other fields, suggests a significant change in priorities. [It may be that I haven’t made this argument very well.]

More importantly and nefarious, this shift in the basic expectations for the functioning of higher education presupposes an outcome. As the de-emphasis on the humanities has served to limit access to the leadership class by shifting resources elsewhere under the guise of efficiency and competition, it has also served to reify the existing social order as the product of similar forces. In other words, by privileging competition in the present, the current state of affairs including political leadership, disciplinary priorities, and social order, is presented as the outcome of similar competition and similar ground rules. Part of the hegemonic character of neoliberalism is that it presents itself as a historical reality rather than a set of constructed expectation in the present. 

Whatever the longterm goals for higher education, the billboard constructed by current leadership is not only an argument for how much more efficient a university can become, but also for their own position of authority. Diminishing the role of the humanities, then, becomes not just a result of a practice, but the natural result of competition which has forged the current leadership as well as their ideas. While this might represent a descent through this essay into position of pure cynicism, the consistency of the rhetoric both on campus and in the larger public sphere hints otherwise. The ultimate goal of neoliberal attitudes is not to make the public sphere more efficient, but to fortify the position of private capital in society.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to write an article in a series of installments on my blog for the spring, digital, issue of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I’m calling them, for fun, NDQuesday, and I hope this becomes a regular feature on my blog as I work with a remarkable group of people to figure out how to keep NDQ thriving in a new era of funding. 

For my contribution today,I am worried that my argument will be complex and will probably reveal the limits of how I understand both the world of ideas that are shaping our society and higher education and the way in which higher education works “on the ground.” My hope is that people feel free to offer my feedback on my work here. 

To start, I’m going to dive into the meat of my article, which explores the unusual way in which neoliberal ideas play out across state university campuses. I’ll do little to hide my indebtedness to Mark Blyth’s work on austerity, David Harvey’s on neoliberalism, and Christopher Newfield’s on higher education, but I’ll try to bring my own distinct perspective and experiences to the conversation. In particular, I want to focus on certain performative aspects of the neoliberal position that shape how universities present themselves and individual actors behave. In this area, I suspect you’ll see the influence of folks like Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities although I take my critique in a different direction.   

To start, I probably need to try to untangle the connection between austerity and neoliberalism at last in the context of higher education (and here I need to digest more fully the work of Fabricant and Brier).

For the purposes of my article, austerity is really short-hand for a larger neoliberal package of ideas that actively privileges the market as the dominant force in shaping society. It initially developed at a macro-economic scale in the immediate post-war period as a challenge to Keynesianism and as a critique of mid-century views of statist projects in both the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of Nazism. It became a cornerstone of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s re-imagining both of the national and then the global economy. In this context, neoliberal thinkers and politicians argued that state institutions were impediments to person economic (and even social) freedom which ultimately undermined the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship. The economic authority of the state expressed in the control over resources and the bureaucratized rule of regulation stifled individual creativity and competition while also  insulating certain sectors of the economy into complacency. These social attitudes offered a moral framework for an economic view that saw the flow of state funds into the economy as encouraging inflationary conditions which dampened markets, weakened the private sector, and impaired economic growth. Austerity represented a strategy to pull back the economic influence of the state in the economy, to forestall inflation, and to allow for markets and the private sector to produce growth. Whatever the economic merits of this approach (and recent work has cast significant doubts on whether austerity does stimulate growth), there is no doubt that these policies have weakened the social safety net created during the Great Depression, turned massive quantities of assets over to an increasingly wealthy super elite, and transformed the global political and economic landscape. My interest is largely in the social and political transformations wrought by neoliberalism. My article will look at three in particular: (1)  the belief that markets and competition represent individual freedom, (2) the success in market competition reflect both the personal and public good, and (3) that market competition produces efficiencies by undermining the complacency of publicly-funded entrenched interests. 

The impact of these three attitudes on higher education in the U.S. has been dramatic. This is partly because neoliberal faith in market competition shares certain parallels with the long-standing belief in intellectual and academic competition in academia. In recent times, however, the emphasis in neoliberal rhetoric on the moral good of market competition and equation of markets with freedom has converted this confidence in the meritocracy to the space of the market. Individuals within and outside of the academic, in the administration and in the trenches, have seen market forces as beneficial agents of change and as justification for whole-sale revisions in curricula and educational policies. These attitudes reflect what David Harvey has recognized as the hegemonic power of neoliberal thinking that makes it very hard for us to imagine alternative ways of doing things.

These forces played out in the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly in a number of intriguing and informative ways. As readers of this blog and NDQ know, the Quarterly lost its funding in 2016 amid a series of rather dramatic budget cuts at the state level. These budget cuts reflect both the changing economic fortunes of the state and, more directly, the price of oil, as well as a reluctance by legislators to raise taxes to fund public enterprises and services. For many in the legislature, the desire to keep the state friendly to business by cutting taxes and regulation (and allowing market forces to generate growth rather than legislative programs) coupled with a tendency to see public, higher education as too long insulated from market forces and therefore inefficient (by definition). Raising taxes too support state programs, then, would have made the state less friendly to business and limited the freedom of individuals to use their funds to pursue whatever education they desired. 

At UND, North Dakota Quarterly saw the direct impact of these cuts in large part because for previous few years, we had been urged to produce a “sustainable business model” for the journal. This overlooked, at least superficially, that the existing model for NDQ which combined funds from UND and the College of Arts and Sciences with income from subscriptions had been sustainable for over 60 years. Its lack of sustainability, at least in the rhetoric of our administrators, reflected an expectation that projects like NDQ should be sustainable with only private funds. In other words, sustainability was something that existed only in the marketplace of the private sector rather than as a shared commitment supported by public and private resources. 

The reasons for de-fundung NDQ, however, go beyond simple issues of fiscal austerity, of course. Our declining number of subscribers, questions about the impact of the publication on the broader UND community and mission, and perhaps even a lack of direction all contributed to a less than charitable viewing of the Quarterly. It is difficult, however, to avoid viewing these critique – offered both tacitly and explicitly – as valuations on the sustainability of the Quarterly in anything other than market terms. The intellectual or humanistic impact of the Quarterly was, as far as I know, never called into question.

Academic administrators have used a similar set of curious arguments to justify cuts to the humanities more generally. Declining enrollments, for example, demonstrate lack of market demand for particular subject and this justifies reduced resources to those programs. The reduction of resources almost always accelerate the decline in enrollments into the future. The justification for this, of course, is largely financial. The university has limited resources and need to support those programs that have the most students. 

At the same time, these arguments also coincide with a rhetorical position that see the arts and humanities at state universities, in particular, as luxuries. The critique of this position is well-know, so I’ll address it here only briefly. Attacks on the humanities and arts by politicians have tended to argue that they are not only useless degrees that produce students who are a burden on society, but also that the character of a humanities education is the deeply suspect hotbed of post-modernism, anti-nationalism, liberalism, and other nefarious positions that undermine the shared values of the community and social cohesion. The merging of moral judgements about the character of humanities program in higher education and the purported lack of viability of humanities graduates in the marketplace is consistent with the larger ideological project of contemporary neoliberalism.

It’s also not strictly speaking true. Humanities graduates tend to earn less than their peers in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the short-term, but over time, earn as much and even more than graduates with more apparently practical degrees. Moreover, companies consistently demand more graduates with the qualifications that humanities graduates possess: the ability to read, to write, to think critically and morally, and to problem solve. Taking nothing away from graduates in other fields at the university, there is no real reason to see that humanities graduates are an less viable in the market-driven workforce than graduates in any other field. The issue appears to be largely a rhetorical one in which the usual line of causality is reversed. The moral economy of neoliberalism has tended to see failure in the market as a moral failing. In the case of the humanities, it sees the critique of the market and neoliberalism (even though the lines between neoliberalism and post-modernism are well-known among scholars) as a moral failing that makes them less likely to be successful in the private sector despite evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, cutting the humanities and focusing energy on the practical and STEM fields is seen as a way to make the university more competitive in the marketplace based on a kind of moral reasoning rather than practical data. That the humanities have seen declining numbers – in part as a result of this inversion of neoliberal logic – has become the evidence that students are “voting with their feet.” Defunding a project like North Dakota Quarterly, then, becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to practical education and short-term workforce development as well as a rejection of the morally suspect fields of in the arts and humanities. The argument that NDQ did not develop a sustainable business model (i.e. a model that relies on the market for sustainability at least in large part) is both true and confirms the larger perspective that the humanities are not viable fields in the contemporary economy and do not deserve continued state funding.  

This is, of course, largely theater, but a particularly pernicious kind of theater (1) that reflects the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony), (2) that confounds the efficient operation of a university (which confirms the argument that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector), and (3) replaces the aspirations for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay… but readers of this blog will know that it goes something like this or thisthisthis).

As always, provide feedback! I need to know just how wrong I am!