Sneak Peek: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

It’s incredibly exciting to offer a sneak peek of the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

This book is exciting for many reasons. 

First, it’s due to appear later this month (and a soon to appear book is the most exciting kind of book I know!)

It is also the only book length volume that considers the phenomenon of deserted and abandoned villages in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Medieval to Modern periods. Anyone familiar with Eastern Mediterranean knows that abandoned settlements are ubiquitous in the countryside, but despite being so common, they’re rarely the same and have only sporadically received detailed attention.

Most significantly, however, is that the contributions in this book are a uniform high quality. These are not lightly revised conference papers, but full articles often with archaeological evidence, sustained, critical arguments, and polished figures, images, and maps. The volume was incisively peer reviewed by top scholars in the field and every article under went thorough revision.  

Finally, this volume grew out of a pair of panels organized by Deb Brown Stewart and Kostis Kourelis at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America meetings and sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Group of the AIA. As folks familiar with The Digital Press know, Kostis was a co-editor of the very first volume published by the press, Punk Archaeology, and Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Seifried have been strong open access advocates and supporters of the press from its early days. In other words, this book embodies the community that scholar-led publishing can establish as well as its ability to produce high-quality, open-access books.

DV book cover

Here’s the abstract for the book: 

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is a collection of case studies examining the abandonment of rural settlements over the past millennium and a half, focusing on modern-day Greece with contributions from Turkey and the United States. Unlike other parts of the world, where deserted villages have benefited from decades of meticulous archaeological research, in the eastern Mediterranean better-known ancient sites have often overshadowed the nearby remains of more recently abandoned settlements. Yet as the papers in this volume show, the tide is finally turning toward a more engaged, multidisciplinary, and anthropologically informed archaeology of medieval and post-medieval rural landscapes.

The inspiration for this volume was a two-part colloquium organized for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. The sessions were sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group, a rag-tag team of archaeologists who set out in 2005 with the dual goals of promoting the study of later material cultural heritage and opening publication venues to the fruits of this research. The introduction to the volume reviews the state of the field and contextualizes the archaeological understanding of abandonment and post-abandonment as ongoing processes. The nine, peer reviewed chapters, which have been substantially revised and expanded since the colloquium, offer unparalleled glimpses into how this process has played out in different places and locations. In the first half, the studies focus on long-abandoned sites that have now entered the archaeological record. In the second half, the studies incorporate archival analysis and ethnographic interviews—alongside the archaeologists’ hyper-attention to material culture—to examine the processes of abandonment and post-abandonment in real time.

Edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

With contributions from Ioanna Antoniadou, Todd Brenningmeyer, William R. Caraher, Marica Cassis, Timothy E. Gregory, Miltiadis Katsaros, Kostis Kourelis, Anthony Lauricella, Dimitri Nakassis, David K. Pettegrew, Richard Rothaus, Guy D. R. Sanders, Isabel Sanders, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Olga Vassi, Bret Weber, and Miyon Yoo.

Rebecca M. Seifried is the Geospatial Information Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Deborah E. Brown Stewart is Head of the Penn Museum Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

To get a preview of Deserted Villages, click here.

Public Domain Day NDQ Style

This year’s Public Domain Day was pretty exciting. It featured, among other things, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which was published in 1925 and therefore entered the public domain on January 1. Hemingway’s In Our Time, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction join a rather distinguished slate of new books. Jennifer Jenkins provides an expansive list here.

This annual injection of new material into the public domain impacts North Dakota Quarterly which produced four issues in 1925 that are now free from any copyright restrictions. This is particularly significant for the Quarterly because we don’t have individual author agreements dating to those years so have only been able to release the material via rather more restrictive “no derivatives” licenses for entire volumes.

In the 1920s, NDQ was edited by E.T. Towne who was dean of the business school at the University of North Dakota. The magazine mostly featured UND faculty contributions, but nevertheless took on issues of both regional and national interests. Most of the articles are non-fiction or reviews, but there was occasional poetry and fiction.

A quick scan of the 1925 issues reveals some interesting contributions.

The January 1925 (15.2) issue featured a survey of American magazines by UND librarian Alfred D. Keator. It is revealing how much the publishing landscape has changed, but also, in some odd ways, remained the same. While we’ve lost most of the high-volume, popular periodicals and lower volume “little magazines” such as NDQ always experienced significant turn over, it would seem that many of the mid-range, quality periodicals have held on over the last century.

The April 1925 (15.3) issue features a group of articles close to my own interest relating to the religious history of the state of North Dakota. Prominent among them is a piece by Edward P. Robertson which offers a retrospect on 20 years of the unique relationship between UND and Wesley College. Robertson was the president of Wesley College and together with Webster Merrifield negotiated the landmark agreement between the two institutions. If you want to learn more about my interest in this arrangement, check out this article that I just submitted. Another article with a disarmingly contemporary feel is the physicist Karl H. Fussler’s piece titled “The Oneness of Nature,” which was delivered as a convocation address at the University of Manitoba. Fussler departs UND several years later for the University of North Carolina. The Wikipedias tells me what his son, Herman H. Fussler, was a pathbreaking librarian primarily at the University of Chicago.

The May 1925 (15.4) issue includes at article by Lauriz Vold titled “The Supreme Court, Congress, and the Constitution” which sounds like it could appear in any number of quality publications these days. E.D. Schonberger’s poem “Fortitude,” written amid the Agricultural Depression of the 1920s, likewise resonates with our current situation. Since it’s in the public domain, I can publish it here without fear of legal action by Schonberger’s heirs or his ghost.

The Quarterly journal  University of North Dakota  v 15 1924 1925  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust D 2021 01 05 07 49 57

The final issue of 1925 is 16.1, which appeared in the November of that year. Like the previous years, there are quite a few articles the feel contemporary. For example H.E. French, Dean of the UND Medical School, wrote on “The Number and Distribution of Physicians in North Dakota.” His colleague John Sinclair, who taught anatomy, wrote on “Evolution—Fact or Theory” which must have had some significant currency in the aftermath of Scopes Trial. Finally, the issue included a short travelogue penned by Orin G. Libby who joined the “The Upper Missouri Historical Expedition of 1925” sponsored by the “Great Northern Railroad” (sic) and visited historical landmarks across the state.

Local Knowledge: Housing and the Growth of Grand Forks 1945-1970

Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been slowly pecking away at a report for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission that I’m writing with Susan Caraher. Susan did the fieldwork and I’m doing some of the analysis and writing on the project. 

I’ve blogged about some of this before (you can follow the links in this post here), but over the last couple of days, I’ve worked to fold in the results of Susan’s fieldwork (including a number of formally documented homes that are characteristic of the architecture of the city) and a more careful analysis based on our the GIS. Stay tuned for some maps and charts and the like (although I’ve offered drafts of them in earlier posts). 

In any event, this might be mostly of interest only to folks from town here, but I’m moderately happy with how this has turned out so far. 

Here’s the meat our analysis (a more historical and historiographic introduction will precede this section):

The defining characteristic mid-century urban change is suburbanization and the changes to Grand Forks blended together features of interwar urban growth with new expectations and forms of housing informed by national trends. Thus, suburbanization, which was generally understood as a feature of cities with dense urban cores, came to also shape the urban landscape of smaller, less densely built up cities across the US. Like conventional suburbanization, the expansion of Grand Forks was spurred by improvements in transportation especially the widespread purchase of automobiles and the post-war economy which supported new rings of housing around large and mid-sized cities across the US (Jackson 1985; Hayden 2003). The suburbs amplified new ideals of domesticity, intensified interwar consumer culture, refashioned longstanding religious landscapes, and shaped American political life. Modern suburbs both served as a backdrop for mid- and late-20th century culture and instilled values which would become distinct to characterization of the American way of life. The apartment dwelling The Honeymooners (1955-1956), with Ralph Cramden’s persistent threats of domestic violence, gave way to rationalized domesticity of the Brady Brunch (1969-1974). The popular music of the ”garage band” came to challenge the urban sounds of the jazz club, urban concert hall, and Maxwell Street busker. The New Topographics (1975) challenged the views of the American frontier pioneered by Ansel Adams by replacing scenic vistas with the orderly sprawl of suburban homes and the Crabgrass Frontier of Kenneth T. Jackson (1985). Any consideration of mid-century housing in Grand Forks requires a careful review of post-war urban change in the city and a broad reading of suburbanization forms a useful point of departure for this study.

Small cities like Grand Forks experienced suburbanization in slightly different forms from more established cities with dense urban cores and recent scholarship has sought to survey and understand the range of different responses to the proliferation of the post-war suburban ideal (McManus and Ethington 2007, 318). In many areas, the ideal post-war suburb conformed to certain elements of “Garden City” planning with access to green spaces, gently curving streets and limited access in accordance with a series of influential FHA standards published between 1936 and 1941 (Ames and McClelland 2002). In smaller cities like Grand Forks, earlier standards for urban expansion held greater sway owing as much to the limited resources on the part of developers and the community, the smaller size of subdivisions, and even the absence of topographic features that encouraged development designed to accentuate the landscapes. As a result, the plan of Grand Forks’ expansion, particularly to the south of the city showed greater affinities to the style developed by J.C. Nichols for the Country Club District in Kansas City (Ames and McClelland 2002, 37) where city blocks with occasional curving roads formed the basic unit of development. This innovation, most visible south of 15th Avenue S. in Grand Forks, followed the arguments proposed by urban planners such as Clarence Perry in the 1920s and 1930s. Perry’s “neighborhood unit plan” with its emphasis on hierarchically organized roads and arterial routes assigned to the perimeters of neighborhoods, the central place of the school and the peripheral location of shopping and commercial spaces, and reserving space for parks and open spaces had significant influence in practice throughout the development of Grand Forks (Perry 1929). These and similar ways of reimagining the organization of the neighborhood had a profound influence on the shape of the new suburb and an emerging post-war ideal. The relationship between the physical structure and the mid-century community appears most famously William H. Whyte in his widely read book, The Organization Man (1956) where he showed that attention to the arrangement of suburban developments shaped social relationships between neighbors. For example, parties that took place in Park Forest, Illinois tended to attract neighbors across the street from one another as opposed to across backyard fences; friendships were also more likely to occur between next-door neighbors whose driveways were adjacent to one another (Whyte 1956: 330-340). More recently, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1996) demonstrated how personal narratives, economic motivations, and spiritual experiences became embedded in post-war suburban landscapes where shopping centers, churches, schools, and homes created a new social contexts for American life. In contrast to the self-contained, expansive, and carefully planned suburban spaces considered by Whyte and Waldie, the post-war expansion of Grand Forks remains a hybrid of new suburban influences and established urban patterns. The curved streets with idyllic names remain backed by alleyways even as urban planners during the interwar period recommended against them for aesthetic, cost, and functional reasons.

Thus, the expansion of the city from 1945-1970 followed the existing urban grid and extended along established arteries, but at the same time, pushed against the limits of this plan by introducing curved streets, eliminating intrablock alleyways, and increasing lot sizes. Certain limits provide more intractable, however. The northwestern course of the Red River and the industrial areas surrounding the North Dakota Mill and Elevator contained the northern expansion of the city. To the west, the expansion of the University of North Dakota campus, the Grand Forks municipal airport, and Interstate 29 discouraged expansion in that direction. In contrast, open agricultural land south of town and the existence of arterial roads running parallel to the river which included the Belmont Road which was originally part of the Meridian Highway (later US 81) invited growth. The construction of the Demers overpass and the expansion of Washington Street and Columbia Road facilitated the flow of traffic from downtown and the university district south toward new development. That the Demers overpass and late-1960s urban renewal efforts destroyed residential districts in the Near Southside further marked a shift from the smaller lots and homes of the urban core to larger lots and automobile culture of the south side. This development ultimately prompted the addition of new arterial roads in the city with the 32nd Avenue and Columbia Road becoming major thoroughfares in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Development of any scale south of 32nd Avenue commenced only in the early 21st century.

1945-1950

The earliest post-war housing was largely infilling in established residential areas and this largely followed the pattern of the mid-1920s building boom in the city (Pietsch 1935: 206-208). The Riverside neighborhood expanded to the north with the Baukol’s Subdivision which saw construction as early as 1946. Several of these homes (301 Park Ave. and 302 Park Ave are listed as a contributing property to the Riverside Historic neighborhood as are two nearby homes on North 3rd Street which is part of the Skidmore Addition (1705 and 1715; a modified bungalow and a plain residential home respectively). The homes of the Baukol Subdivision show considerably continuity with development in this area in the 1920s and were predominantly plain residential in style. The founding of Riverside Park in the early 20th century undoubted drew early residents to this neighborhood as the construction of the Riverside Pool by WPA in 1941 attracted families in the post-war period.

A similar form of development which largely followed interwar patterns of urban expansion also occurred between downtown and the University of North Dakota especially along 1st and 2nd avenue in the Decotah Place and Budge and Eshelman’s 3rd Addition subdivisions. Architectural styles are highly varied from each other though the new, modern styles are evident with single-family Ranch, hipped roof box, and Cape Cod all occupying the same street. Since this area was largely infilling lots between established neighborhoods, the lot sizes were modest (around 6500 square feet), and more or less consistent with lot sized in the Riverside neighborhood. One conspicuous feature of several homes in this area is the use of glass block as an architectural feature reminiscent of nearby West Elementary, the only extant nominated mid-century school to use this material (eg: 1715 2nd Ave N (1946); 2602 5th Ave N.(1949); 1501 6th Ave N. (1947)).

South of town likewise saw infilling particularly to the west of Cherry Street and south of 10th Avenue North. The growth of this area anticipated the construction of Lewis and Clarke Elementary School in 1953, Viking Elementary School in 1957, and Edward Sövik’s Calvary Lutheran Church (1962) at the intersection of Cherry and 15th Avenue (Buggen 2015). Letnes’ Subdivision is one of the most significant and sophisticated subdivisions of the 1940s in Grand Forks and shows evidence for creative engagement with urban planning in the shape of the evocatively named “Sunset Drive” which curves to the north and divides leaving a small, leaf-shaped island of grass in the middle of the two roads. The house at 812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S in the plain residential style is typical of the architecture of this period and subdivision (812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S ). Nearly 70% of existing homes from the 1940s in Grand Forks follow variations on the plain residential plan. The Letnes subdivision is distinct, however, for some of the earliest appearance of Ranch/Rambler style homes that would come to dominate Grand Forks housing from the late 1950s to 1970. These homes, the appearance of curved streets, and the absence of alleyways suggesting that the neighborhood followed more progressive design standards that were not seen elsewhere in Grand Forks until the 1960s. The houses in the Letnes Subdivision were mostly over 1100 square feet in size and this make them significant larger than the 950 square foot homes in the Baukol subdivision. The lots were correspondingly larger as well, with the curving streets making the average lot size almost 50% larger than those in Baukol. If the Baukol subdivision continued interwar housing trends in Grand Forks which was appropriate for the largely interwar Riverside neighborhood, the Letnes subdivision clearly anticipated later post-war housing that came to characterize homes on the south side.

The 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, Grand Forks continued to infill lots between the commercial core of the city and the university with the continued growth the neighborhoods between Washington Street and the University, south of Gateway Drive (US Route 2) continuing into the middle years of this decade. This growth prompted the construction of West Elementary, in 1948, and then Valley Junior High School in the mid-1950s. The neighborhoods in this area, the Swangler, Westacott, Westwood, University Place, and three Kelsey Subdivisons surrounding University Park, largely follow the urban grid and lack curved roads or other features associated with suburban trends elsewhere in the city. Correspondingly, the houses are as likely to be hipped roof box style or plain residential as more contemporary ranch/ramblers with various housing styles sometimes alternating on the same street and dating to the same year. This, along with the small lot sizes characteristic of the urban grid (generally under 6500 square feet) correspondingly smaller homes (which continue to be average around 1050 square feet), ensured that these neighborhoods maintained their interwar form even as more mid-century modern architecture appeared in their midst.

There were some exceptions, however, such as Columbia Court, a u-shaped road that abuts the northwest corner of West Elementary grounds. This small u-shaped street is the width of one residential block. A Neighborhood Watch sign is prominently displayed as one enters the quiet street that gives a sense of a group of residents who are familiar with one another. It featured a more consistent lineup of ranch/ramblers including a one built in 1957 with low pitched roof, overhanging eaves and a recessed entrance that invoked mid-century modern styling cues (157 Columbia Court). The neighborhood also maintained the presence of north-south running alley ways, but the lots here were generally larger than elsewhere in Swangler’s Subdivision average over 7300 square feet in size and with larger homes of over 1100 square feet.

A more common approach to the limitations of the urban grid occurred in the earliest subdivisions established to the west of Washington Street and south of Demers. Despite the neatly organized grid of homes, the names of at least one subdivisions in this area evoked bucolic images of suburban idyl and the concept of the Garden City: Garden Home Addition. The mid-1950s saw the development of the area south of Demers and west of the emerging commercial corridor of Washington Street which provided these homes convenient access to retail establishments, restaurants, and businesses including the town’s first shopping centers. These new commercial buildings were set back from Washington Street and were fronted by large parking lots designed to accommodate customers who used the new arterial roads of Washington Street and Demers to move from their homes to work, shopping, school, and other activities throughout the city. These neighborhoods would continue to see new construction from the mid-1950s and through the 1960s and remain one of the best-preserved area of mid-century modern housing in Grand Forks.

East of Washington and south of 15th Avenue several new subdivisions appeared which engaged the urban grid of Grand Forks in more create ways by incorporating the curving streets anticipated by the Letnes Subdivision in the 1940s. Chestnut Street swoops south of 15th and provides access to a group of homes set into the center of the block (of which only a few survive from the 1997 flood). The home at 1521 Chestnut St is among the earliest to Grand Forks to adopt the fashionable “prairie contemporary” style and stands on a large (18,000 square foot) lot. Immediately to the west of this stretch of Chestnut is the contemporary Robertson Subdivision which combined a gently curving road and a cul-de-sac, which is the quintessential form of suburban planning and allowed for larger lots. The sinuous shape of Campbell Drive that connects Cherry Street and Chestnut between the 17th and Park Avenue in the Hvidston Subdivision likewise allowed for three, open, fan-shaped lots on the outside of a curve. It may be that these large lots were harder to develop and they served as a baseball field for nearly a decade before being filled in with homes in the mid-1960s. The Hvidston subdivision featured the largest concentration of prairie contemporary houses in the city clustered along Campbell Drive and along Chestnut (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South, but was otherwise dominated by Ranch/Ramblers which by the mid-1950s had become the most common form of domestic architecture (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South). As significantly, this neighborhood featured more attached garages than elsewhere in town. Accessed by driveways extending from the front of the houses, the front facing, attached garage made the alley way that continued to run behind the house redundant. It also emphasized a design focused on the modern amenities and convenience of burgeoning car culture. Unsurprisingly houses in plain residential and Cape Cod style popular in the interwar years are largely absent in these fashionable mid-century neighborhoods. Simpler homes tended used the hipped roof box which became more frequently throughout Grand Forks during this decade (e.g. 17th Ave. South, 1015 Letnes).

Between Cherry Street and Washington, the urban grid remained largely intact and the area developed with slightly smaller homes and smaller lots through the 1950s. Most homes were in ranch/rambler styles. A number of prairie contemporary houses appear in these neighborhoods as well almost always with attached garages (e.g. 1502 10th St. South). The appearance of multifamily homes in these neighborhoods in the 1950s deserves more attention, but suggests that these areas offered more affordable housing.

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed both more adventurous development of the urban grid and, perhaps ironically, more consistent architectural styles. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the development of Olson’s addition east of Belmont Avenue which featured large lots which averaged over 16,000 square feet set along curving roads that suggested the shape of the Red River. Park land near the river offered opportunities for recreation and mitigated, to some extent, the risk of flooding which after the 1997 flood required the installation of the flood wall and the removal of some homes. To the east of Belmont Avenue the White Clover and Sunset Acres Subdivisions with curving roads complicated the urban grid with bucolically named streets like Olive and Clover Drive. On 32nd Avenue between Cherry St. and Washington, Schroeder Junior High opened in 1961 in anticipation of Grand Forks’s southern growth and, next door, Kelly Elementary opened in 1966 to serve these communities. On the northeastern corner of the block, the new building of the local Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opened its doors in 1966. Unlike Schroeder, designed by Wells-Denbrook, this modern church followed the Adams 1 (AD 61-577) plan developed my the central Mormon Church committee which was thoroughly modern in form and could be easily expanded to accommodate a growing congregation (Jackson 2003, 270). The lots in this area were large (averaging 10,500 square feet) and the homes were over 1200 square feet marking a significant increase in size from the 1000 square foot homes of the immediate post-war decade.

To the west of Washington Street, the second level of development occurred south of 17th street and south of 11th avenue with the large Burke’s Home Addition anchored to the north by Ben Franklin Elementary which was opened in 1960 and Red River High School in 1967. The most significant mid-century addition to this area, however, was North Dakota’s first indoor shopping mall, South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) in 1964. Designed by the firm of DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy, which also designed Ben Franklin Elementary, Holy Family Church and School (1961) just east of Washington, and Lewis and Clarke Elementary (1952/3) several blocks to the north, it included a K-Mart and a Sears store and a modular design that allowed the K-Mart to open before the mall was even complete. To the west of the mall, the Valley Park subdivision, built slightly before the mall, consisted of two u-shaped streets, Willow and Drees, that were not through roads. The lots here while smaller than east of Washington Street featured homes of 1100 square feet in contemporary, albeit ubiquitous, ranch/rambler styles. The subdivision included walking paths connecting it to the mall and the burgeoning Washington Street commercial and retail corridor. The balance between the design which limited through traffic and the convenience of walking paths to retail shops embodied many of the key design elements of mid-century suburban design. The u-shape of these streets contributed to a sense of close community and neighborliness with homes oriented toward each other and traffic tends to be more local.

The architecture of neighborhoods from the 1960s was almost entirely ranch/ramblers of various designs. By the mid-1960s all other forms of domestic architecture had effectively disappeared including prairie contemporary that had enjoyed some popularity in more affluent neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s. By the 1960s, the overwhelming number of homes in Grand Forks had attached garages signaling the full arrival of automobile culture. Lots were larger and the square footage of homes also continued its steady increase with the average home exceeding 1200 square feet. As alleys began to disappear, driveways from the street front become a dominant feature of streetscapes. Many Additions in Grand Forks reflect the characteristics of nationally documented developments described in Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1965 (2015) and D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land (ref) with repetitive linear arrangements of lawn, driveway, and walkway and so on for the length of each residential block. Such a characteristic mid-century streetscape appears on Walnut Street between 28th Avenue S. and 32nd Avenue S (Fig. xx). A planted tree stands on the berm in front of each house, and those houses tend to be situated the same distance from the sidewalk as their neighbor. As homes were built closer to the sidewalk and alleys no longer bisected the block, backyards increase in size. As xxxx notes in his reflection of his childhood home, building houses closer to the street had a practical and fiscal benefit for a developer with the shortening of distance for utilities and construction such as driveways. Neighborhoods around the country were being built at a fast pace, so cost- and time-saving measures were adopted by developers.

Old Wine in New Skins: The University of North Dakota and the Great War

A few years ago, when The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota was just starting and when I was feeling my way forward as the editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I produced a little book as much as a design study as anything: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. The book was a reprint of nine articles published in North Dakota Quarterly between 1916 and 1919 that deal with the Great War. I set the book in Doves type which has just been re-released at around the same time. 

This past fall a colleague in the Department of English here at UND asked me whether we had ever produced a print version of the book. I admitted that we had not. He then wondered whether it would be possible to do this for a class he’s teaching on the literature of World War I. 

Six weeks later, we’ve prepared a print version of the book. I’ll release it over at the NDQ blog later this week and cross post with The Digital Press then as well. 

To be honest, it’s not my best work. There are some inconsistencies in the table of contents that will haunt me for a while (O.G. Libby versus Orin G. Libby?). I decided this morning that these reflect the historical place of the book in my development as a designer and publisher. I don’t have as clever an explanation for why I had to quickly upload a corrected cover to Amazon and revise the Amazon product description yesterday afternoon (ideally this will be live by noon-ish today).  

Anyway, warts and all, it’s here and available for anyone who wants it for the low, low price of $7.

As a little inducement to purchase this little book, the money raised by this little volume will support both the mission of The Digital Press and it’s role as the financial and production backstop for North Dakota Quarterly. In 2021, NDQ will embark on a rather ambitious new project: a book series. While we’re still trying to work out some of the details, our current plan is for the books to be published under their own imprint from The Digital Press and distributed by the University of Nebraska Press, the publisher of NDQ. The Digital Press will support production and the proceeds will contribute to the financial viability of both NDQ and The Digital Press.  

Of course, the best way to support NDQ is to subscribe, but if you’re looking for a less serious commitment with a historical flavor, grab a copy of the University of North Dakota and the Great War. If you looking for something more poetic, consider buying a copy of Snichimal Vayuchil, which is an experimental poetry workshop in bats’i k’op, or Tsotsil Maya, where writers create poetry in their own mother language and Spanish, sharing their work as a form of what they call relational poetry. 

Download it here or buy it in paperback here.

UND and The Great War COVER SINGLE FINAL 01

Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on my paper for the 2020 ASOR annual meeting. The paper is officially titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective,” but if I could, I’d change that to “Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken.” The paper will appear in a routable called “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” convened by Ömür Harmanşah. Since, the roundtable will primarily focus on a conversation among participants, our paper are to be kept short (<10 minutes). Mine is  perhaps slightly long, but I figure I’ll tighten it up a bit before it’s read to go live.

I feel like this paper is the first tentative step toward understanding our work in the Bakken in a new way. If you want to get some broader context on my thinking, I posted a four part series last week that sort of sketched some approaches:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

As always feedback, comments, or complaints are always welcome.

“Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken”

The archaeology of contemporary climate change has a necessarily global scope, but as Charles Orser famously quipped, archaeologists are generally inclined to “think globally, dig locally” (1996). Since 2012, I’ve worked with a team of archaeologists to document workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While our work has considered workforce housing through the lens of domesticity, colonialism, migration, and the landscapes of work, this will be our first focused effort to think about our project as the archaeology of contemporary climate change. The goal of my very short introduction to our work to consider the relationship between extractive industries, climate change, and capitalism in the Bakken…

At first blush, the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota appears to have little connection to the Middle East. In fact, the oil booms of the early 1950s, 1980s, and in the 21st century correlate closely with political situations in Middle East, from the first post-colonial moves to nationalize oil production in Iran (1951) and share profits in Iraq (1952), to the nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980 in the aftermath of the 1970s US oil crisis, and the long messy legacy of the Second Gulf War in the 21st century. It is largely a coincidence that two North Dakotans, Thomas Barger and Frank Jungers led ARAMCO in the 1960 and 1970s, but less coincidental that companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger were active in both the Bakken and Middle East, as was Target Logistics, who at one point accommodated 1% of the state of North Dakota’s population in their various workforce housing sites. Of course, the various Bakken oil booms also align with changes in the post-war American economy and society as well, from the rapid expansion of consumer culture, suburbanization, and automobiles in the 1950s to the rise of the gig economy in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” in the 21st century.

The 21st century Bakken boom describes the massive influx of workers into the predominantly rural counties of western North Dakota. The need for workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere in the overheating regional economy exceeded housing capacity and this led to a range of ad hoc and provisional response from both workers and the overwhelmed municipalities.

The stories of workers camping out in the Williston Walmart parking lot and local parks made national headlines. In response to this situation, Williston, the largest city in the Bakken region, approved “man camps” within their expanded jurisdiction to accommodate the influx of workers. National and global logistics companies constructed and managed these facilities to serve the needs of other large companies who sought lodging for shifts of workers arriving in western North Dakota to drill for oil, to build pipelines, or to improve local infrastructure. Additionally, Williams, Mountrail, and McLean counties provided provisional zoning for outside investors seeking to build RV parks for temporary workers without connections to major companies or who were looking for work. The result was a patchwork of over 100 workforce housing sites across the region that provided shelter for workers in a wide range of conditions.

The most elaborate housing sites, such as those erected by Target Logistics, provided clean housing, decent food, and limited amenities to thousands of workers. The single or sometimes double rooms were standardized and workers who came to the region for four or six week shifts had limited opportunities to personalize their space. The public spaces of these camps were plain, but functional, enlivened only by the occasional print of generic patriotic or natural scenes.

The situation in RV parks was more varied and attracted more of our attention. In general, residents owned their RVs and at the height of the boom, RV parks showed a remarkable range of efforts to customize these spaces and adapt them to the challenges of the North Dakota winter. The most elaborate RVs featured not only insulated skirting around the sides, but also fenced yards, gardens, raised walkways, cooking, eating and socializing areas, and storage sheds. Elaborate mudrooms are perhaps the quintessential feature of these units. In their simplest form they constituted a lean-to aligned with the door of the RV where residents could extract themselves from their work and winter gear. Not infrequently they also provided space for storage, additional living space, and transformed the rectangular RV into a L-shaped building that also offered more privacy for their outdoor space.

When we first visited the Bakken we couldn’t escape admiring these innovative efforts to expand and adapt RVs into full time, if temporary residential structures. These architectural adaptations almost led us to overlook the fragility of water and sewage infrastructure in many of these camps, the dust and mud that were constant parts of daily life in the spring, fall, and summer, and the desperate attempts to fortify the RV from the biting North Dakota cold wind. Moreover, by 2015, counties had begun to pass new ordinances restricting how residents could adapt their RVs. They banned skirting that rendered the RV immobile and mudrooms, for example. As the intensity of the boom declined owing to lower oil prices and improved technology in drilling, the number of residents in RV camps declined as well and many camps took on a rougher, more forlorn appearance. Abandoned camps have left their scars on the prairie landscape as gravel pads, buried pipes, and discarded polystyrene, treated wood, wiring, metal, and other detritus complicates returning these sites in agricultural production.

Efforts by temporary workers in the Bakken to personalized their living spaces demonstrated an effort to re-create some of the pleasures of an American suburb even as foreclosures displaced many of the same workers from their suburban homes. Hostile municipalities, the risks associated with work in the oil industry, the volatility of global markets, and the challenges associated with substandard housing, reflected the kind of “structural violence” inherent in capitalism that Michael Roller has associated with life in late 19th century coal towns of western Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, it is notable that restrictions on workforce housing did not accompany efforts to improve workers safety or environmental protection. Throughout the second decade of the 21st century, the Bakken maintained one of the worst records of worker safety in the US and has experienced major spills of both oil and waste water. Alongside these problems, writers have long recognized the violence of hydraulic fracturing, the dominant form of technology used to extract oil from the tight shale of the middle Bakken formation.

Over the last decade, the Bakken has been a center for recent efforts to highlight the relationship between extractive industries and climate change. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which links the Bakken to the Pakota Oil Terminal in Illinois, offered an explosive reminder of the strong ties between colonialism, extractive industries, and the state violence in maintaining our uninterrupted access to petroleum. Our work in the Bakken, at the start of the pipeline, sought to make visible a more subtle indication of these same violence in the housing of the temporary workforce who makes our persistent dependence on fossil fuels possible.

Few can deny that the contemporary climate crisis represents a moment of existential violence for many communities around the world.

COVID in North Dakota as Structural Violence

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the rising COVID numbers in North Dakota. Our state (and our community) have endured a good bit of ridicule and criticism because our political leaders have rejected calls for mask mandates and our citizens have refused to do enough to stem the spread of the disease (e.g. close schools and businesses, wear masks, social distance consistently, et c.).

I got to wondering about the conditions that made it possible for North Dakota’s political leaders and a segment of our community to reject even the simplest and least invasive approaches to preventing the spread of COVID. I realize that this is not JUST a North Dakota issue and its easy enough to blame the national political situation for the state’s problems, but I’d like to argue that there are some other factors that are more proximate and more distinctive to explain North Dakota’s situation. The main thrust of my argument is that the impact of COVID on our communities is a form of structural violence that is rooted in our colonial relationship to larger economic and (broadly) political centers and the 21st-century “development of underdevelopment” across the state. I’ll argue that the development of underdevelopment is tied the state’s recent relationship to the oil industry  and that industry’s desire to maintain in North Dakota a certain set of political, economic, and social conditions conducive to the profitability of extractive industries.

The Bakken Oil Boom of the 21st century brought a period of unparalleled prosperity to the state. North Dakota’s economic growth from 2008-2014 was both rapid and steep and national media outlets celebrated the “North Dakota miracle” even as the rest of the country slid into the Great Recession. Most of the capital that fed this economic growth came from outside the state and the region as did many of the workers who drilled the wells, built the roads, and hauled the oil. Communities experienced benefits and challenges during the “Bakken Boom,” as they coped to accommodate the arrival of financial and human capital. The state’s tax coffers filled. 

The work in the Bakken, as any number of national media outlets noted, was hyper masculine. It was dangerous, dirty, and physically demanding and the long-standing rhetoric of national energy independence lent it both a patriotic and militaristic feel. The work related injury and death rates in the Bakken ranked among the nations highest further emphasizing the risks associated with North Dakota’s prosperity. Many of the workers in the Bakken had left regions hard hit by the Great Recession and lived in temporary workforce housing that ranged from adequate to inhumane. The living conditions and the risk involved in the work reinforced the message that prosperity required sacrifice. The volatility of extractive industries created a sense of precarity that was also part of the equation of economic growth.    

The Bakken experience in some ways paralleled the national growth of the gig economy which reinforced the logic of independent contractor whose tenacity prepared them to face risks, volatility and uncertainty with steely determination and optimism. The companies that rose to profitability on the back of unorganized and unprotected gig workers mitigated the contingent character of this work with the glorification independence and calls for “personal responsibility” among their workers. 

They also produced an incredibly violent system of labor which promised prosperity in exchange for risk. For oil companies in North Dakota, the absence of organized labor and significant governmental oversight allowed them to manage the costs of extracting the relatively tight Bakken deposits and expand their correspondingly tight margins on North Dakota oil. 

The wealth that this system created flooded North Dakota’s political system and helped reinforce a single party state government which overlooked the human cost of the Bakken boom, ignored all but the most egregious environmental disasters, and reinforced the economically expedient message that economic growth required a masculine tolerance for risk and pain of all kinds.

As the global oil markets fluctuated and revenues declined, the state made ever deeper budget cuts, but argued that the sacrifice of austerity would ensure future profitability. The independent, risk-tolerant, hyper masculine North Dakotan did not need handouts from the state with its hide-bound inefficiencies and bureaucratically conservative ways. The pooling of the state’s oil revenue in the “Legacy Fund” which law makers have refused to tap, made clear that oil was not a source of revenue or wealth for the state as an institution. 

It goes without saying that the budget cuts hurt North Dakotans. They weakened social programs, education, and other institutions designed to provide stability in times of uncertainty or mitigate long-term risk by developing more diverse opportunities for the state’s residents. Austerity benefited from the rhetoric that connected personal responsibility and the tolerance of risk with financial prosperity even as oil companies continued to pump over a million barrels a day from the Bakken.

Risk meant profits before people.

~

With the arrival of COVID, the state stood by and watched the virus spread throughout the summer. State and city governments generally rejected calls to put in place mask mandates, to enforce a lockdown, to close schools, or to support contact tracing, widespread testing, and other known methods for attempting to limit the spread of the virus. In fact, our mayor compared a mask mandate to the policies of “Nazi Germany.”

It was easy to decry his understanding of Nazism as ahistorical, problematic, and offensive, but he wasn’t looking to the past when he made this comparison. His anxiety about the risk of eroding personal freedoms reflected his fear that responding to the risk of COVID might somehow call for efforts to mitigate other risks present in North Dakota.

It is easy enough to understand why something as simple as a mask mandate would create uneasiness. After all, massive amounts of oil money had cultivated the view that prosperity required risk and that safety a personal responsibility that could not be lefts to companies, the state, or other institutions. Our state officials do not function outside of the ideological, economic, ethical, cultural and social influence of a system designed to maximize the margins on oil production by limiting the reach of the state. These policies made it possible to extract as much labor as possible from the worker at the lowest possible cost.  

The risk tolerant, hyper masculine attitude toward masks (and COVID more generally) is the same attitude that fueled the Bakken oil boom. The deaths and suffering from COVID are the same as those in the oil patch.

It’s easy enough for us to blame political leader, our fellow citizens, or “North Dakota” in general for the ever rising number of COVID cases. It’s a bit harder to realize that COVID suffering and death are the product of the same structural violence necessary to create North Dakota’s ephemeral economic miracle. The oil industry (if not capitalism more broadly) requires the underdevelopment of institutions that would jeopardize profits for safety of the workers or the development of the expectation of security from the volatility of capital. The structural violence of capitalism and COVID locates responsibility in the individual in a misguided effort to protect potential prosperity at a time of intensifying precarity.

Our reluctance to act in the face of COVID isn’t bravado or ignorance, but fear.  

The Bakken and Climate Change: History

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Earlier this year, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a book that combined chapters of a 1958 report on the situation around Williston during the first Bakken oil boom with a series of new chapters written about the early 21st century boom.  For both booms, scholars of the geography, economy, politics, medial and social aspects of the Bakken oil boom contributed chapters and those writing in the 21st century sought to bridge the gap between the most recent boom and that of the 1950s.

(You can download the book for free here.)

As the only historian writing for the volume, I have to admit that our contribution missed an opportunity. We predictably focused on workforce housing and our article works for the volume as it recognizes the parallels between the concern for workforce housing during the first and 21st century booms.

At the same time, we do very little to situation workforce housing within the changing character of housing in the second half of the 20th century. It is telling, of course that, J.B. Jackson’s famous essay, “The Westward Moving House” appeared in 1953, a mere two years after the spudding of the Clarence Iverson #1 near Tioga, North Dakota. This essay traced the Tinkham family’s homes from the first house they family constructed in the 17th-century New England wilderness to the most recent in mid-century Bonniview, Texas. If Nehemiah Tinkham’s house represented a deep commitment to a place through its solid, if inflexible architecture. By the 20th century, Ray Tinkham’s new house was designed to adapt to changes in their family and priorities and to support a mobile lifestyle made possible through fossil fuels and their surplus capital. If Jackson were to have continued the westward movement of housing in the US, he would have almost certainly added a chapter to the Tingham family’s history in the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona. Here, the “crabgrass frontier” defined the air-conditioned suburbs from the desert and the extractive landscape of coal mines situated on the Navaho Nation near the Four Corners where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. In 1960, Jackson published a short article, “The Four Corners Country,” on the trailer housing of this area occupied by Native Americans and arrivals to the region who worked in rapidly expanding coal industry developed to support the cities of the New West.

At the same time that America was enjoying its post-war prosperity, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were working to secure greater control over their oil reserves. The fields developed by ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia drew American workers to the region as early as the 1930s when the American corporate enclave of Dhahran was founded. By the 1950s, Dhahran became an “outpost of Empire” featuring many of the amenities of an American suburb. By 1959, North Dakotan Thomas Barger was the president of ARAMCO who famously tapped Wallace Stenger, the “Dean of Western Writers” (who also spent time in North Dakota) to pen the history of ARAMCO and its discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula. (It is interesting to note the Barger was succeeded by another North Dakotan Thomas Junger in the 1970s.) 

These anecdotal connections between the Middle East and North Dakota and the American West should not detract from the more substantive links between the changing character of post-war America life and the need for a stable supply of fossil fuels. The suburbs, consumer culture, and rapid increase in the number of automobiles came to define American life and North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch and ARAMCOs growing footprint in Saudi Arabia both represent forms of political, economic, and cultural colonization characteristic of both the post-war world and extractive industries. Indeed, the development of the oil industry in the Bakken represents an interesting domestic example of what Andre Gunder Frank called “the development of underdevelopment” where multinational companies intentionally manage the flow of wealth to local communities and use a wide range of economic, social, and cultural methods to construct dependent relationships that eventually make residents of these regions less capable of political autonomy. The impact of these kinds of relationships on North Dakota is painfully apparent as the state’s oil soaked political culture has struggled to produce sustainable economic gain from the most recent oil boom despite now ranking second only to Texas in barrels of oil per day.

The relationship between the history of the Bakken oil patch, post-war colonialism, American consumer culture and suburbanization, and climate change is not subtle. The archaeology of contemporary climate change operates at the intersection of historical and cultural developments as well as climate science. The specificity and detailed character of our study of workforce housing in the Bakken is not epiphenomenal to the current global climate situation.

The subprime mortgage crisis which touched off the Great Recession contributed directly to the labor pool who arrived in the Bakken eager to tap into the region’s petroleum wealth. Some lived in mobile housing units of the same kind deployed in Iraq to house contractors and solider or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans whose scattered population represented only the most visible and dramatic example of the coming wave of migrants displaced by new and intensified patterns of our increasingly volatile climate. In other words, an archaeology of climate change must recognize how the mechanisms developed to finance the growing rate of economic inequality, to accommodate soldiers during colonial wars and house the displaced in the aftermath of natural disasters also contribute to extraction of petroleum from the Middle Bakken formation in Western North Dakota.   

The Bakken and Climate Change: Flows

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Anyone who visited the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota, especially at the peak of the its boom, would witness a region in constant motion. A grid of roads and railroads forms a defining feature of the landscape, and the constant flow of trucks and trains produced moving monuments to extractive industry. The “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River snakes it way through the heart of the oil patch, from the Montana border until the Garrison Dam pools its waters in Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The regular appearance of tank farms, natural gas compressor stations, and “processed water” disposal sites, hint at the role that “midstream” service providers play in bringing oil and gas to market and disposing of waste. 

For five years at the height of the Bakken oil boom, the North Dakota Man Camp project documented temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. Initially we focused our attention on workforce housing sites especially those defined by the clusters of RVs, neatly arranged grids of carefully managed mobile housing units, or, especially during chaotic early years of the boom, impromptu camp sites in parking lots, shelter belts, rural farmyards, and abandoned townsites. Set against the timelessness of western North Dakota’s Ektachrome skies, the palpable ephemerality mutability of the so-called “man camps” stand out. In the first years of the project, the time spent traveling between our various study sites across the region was far greater than out time on site. In fact, our time sitting in our project trucks moving through the congested and occasionally terrifying Bakken traffic formed a rolling seminar of sorts where we formed typologies, hypotheses, and arguments for what we were seeing across the region. In other words, the encounter of motion in the Bakken was one that we initially felt and experienced as much as understood and analyzed.

In this context, the concept of flow and its key place within larger studies of the modern world was palpable. Indeed, the flow of oil from the Bakken and the flow of workers and other forms of capital into the Bakken allowed us to understand the landscape of western North Dakota as not only coterminous with the landscape of extractive industries elsewhere — whether on the North Slope of Alaska, the Permian basin, the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, or the oil field of the Middle East — but also the confluence of flows that inscribe ever more deeply the scars of capitalist urgency on the landscape and advance the rate of anthropogenic climate change.

In an effort to document the complexity of these modern flows we adapted Tim Ingold’s concept of taskscapes in our effort to describe the confluence of movement in the Bakken. In an effort to narrate our encounters we presented our work in the form of a tourist guide. Tourism, or at least its modern variety, situated our work as both within and outside Charles Orser’s oft-recited “haunts” of historical archaeology: colonialism, Eurocentrism, capitalism, and modernity. The archaeologist as tourist naturally moves with the flow of capital, along paths established through colonial appropriation, outward, at least intellectually, from our European (rational, empirical, industrial, disciplinary, and racial) metropole, and with all the expectations and convenience of modernity. As Dean MacCannell taught us, the emergence of the middle-class tourist, as opposed to an upper class “traveler,” relied as much on the increase of surplus wealth available to the middle classes and their desire to define their class through behavior that intentionally evoked the habits of the wealthy as it did on the low cost of fossil fuels which made travel possible. If the ubiquity of transnational flows in capital allows us to make the Bakken coterminous with oil fields in the Middle East, then our fieldwork in the region mimicked a tourist’s itinerary where the wonders of modern industry passed by our windows in all their industrial glory.

The dual poles of “ecotourism” and “toxic tourism” reflect persistent modern (European, colonial, and capitalist) efforts to make visible the invisible world of ecosystems and pollution. Industrial tourism and “poorism” which brings well-heeled travelers to witness the poor communities, likewise, reflects an ironic desire to reconcile the power of capital to create and destroy. The tourist remains comfortably ensconced in a flow of experience that smooths the incommensurability between their position as witnesses, the world that they are encountering, and any potential alternatives.

First Snow

I had to wait a bit this morning for there to be enough light to catch the first snow of the season. It’s pretty uninspiring, but it was snow.

IMG 5487

IMG 5490

I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2019 (October 1), 2018 (October 4)2017 (October 26), 2016 (November 22), 2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8), 2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

What are things like at the University of North Dakota?

It now seems there are a few new questions in nearly every conversation: Are you online or face-to-face? How are [COVID related] things there [on your campus]? How is your institution handling things? Will you come back after Thanksgiving? What is your institution’s plan for the spring? How many cases?

Since this seems to be a topic of significant interest, I thought that I’d give a little review of what’s happening at UND.

First, our COVID numbers are really good. This morning, the UND COVID dashboard tells me that we have about 44 self-reported cases (39 are students) in the campus community. This is down from over 400 in late August. We seem to be averaging around (and, yeah, I’m too lazy to run the numbers) 5 new cases a day over the last few weeks and at present have 52 people in quarantine or isolation at local hotels. 

We also test about 3 days a week and judging by the numbers, these tests are attended and convenient.   

Second, it would appear that UND’s numbers are not major factor in the number of cases in Grand Forks County. In other words, the influx of college students do not seem to be aa major influence on number of COVID cases in town. I suspect that UND’s aggressive testing, mask policies, contact tracing, and capacity to quarantine and isolate both infected and exposed students has helped stem the kind of rapidly spreading outbreak that many folks feared. UND has averaged 5.3 new cases per day over the last 7 days while Grand Forks has averaged close to 25 new cases per day.

These numbers are less comparable if they’re not normalized per, say, 100,000 or whatever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the total size of the the UND population (students, faculty, and staff) to normalize that number. More than that the Grand Forks dashboard seems to offer average number of cases per 100,000 which is not something that I can easily compare to data from UND’s dashboard which shows NEW cases per day because it’s not clear how many individuals have recovered. In any event, this kind of fuzziness is understandable because the two dashboard have different goals. The county’s dashboard is trying to understand the number of active COVID cases to get a sense for the potential spread of COVID whereas the UND dashboard is concerned about the rate of its spread.

Third, I continue to teach face-to-face and have a new appreciation for being in the classroom. My classes however, have been impacted by COVIDs. Not only have some of my students been isolated or quarantined for various lengths of time, but my larger class (45 students) is being taught as a hybrid course. I meet once a week for about 40 minutes with 3 groups of 15 students. The rest of the class takes place online.

In my experience students have been incredibly conscientious about mask wearing and social distancing. I’ve felt no need to police university COVID policies in my classes and students seem respectful of both their own personal space and that of their fellow students.

That being said, I think some discontinuities in the digital environment have made seamless communication between students and faculty a bit more challenging than I expected. Students tend to prefer Snapchat and group texts to communicate, whereas my official correspondence remains confined to Blackboard and email (and frankly, I don’t want to be on a student Snapchat or group text chain!).

That being said, I’m excited to participate in a program funded, I suspect, by CARES money, designed to help us develop more effective hybrid classes moving forward.

I’ve also discovered that with all the uncertainty students (and I suspect colleagues as well!) constantly waver back and forth between the desire for structure – due dates, regular class meetings, clear expectations – and flexibility. Trying to strike that balance will continue to be a challenge for me especially since I tend toward a very flexible approach to teaching and expectations.

Finally, our community has not enforced a mask mandate and has generally done little officially to manage the spread of COVID. That being said (and I know there are those who will disagree with me), most of the people I see out and about wear masks and social distance. I suspect more people stay home than feel a need to go out to socialize. And I think that there is a strong sense that we’re all in this together that connects town and gown. 

The numbers in North Dakota have received national attention for their continued rise even as other states have made serious strides in controlling the spread of COVID. In our community, I remain guardedly optimistic that the combination of thoughtful policies by UND and a strong sense of cohesion among residents in Grand Forks county will prevent major spikes. If we can make it into the cooler months of the winter when socialize naturally slows down and isolation becomes a normal state for much of the community, we might be spared the worst of the COVID surge. Only time will tell.