The Catholic Conference and UND’s Code of Life

For better or for worse, my blog rarely deals with contemporary affairs, but occasionally a situation arises in our community that intersects closely enough with my professional and personal interests to warrant some comment. 

This past week, North Dakota’s Catholic Conference penned a letter to the Catholic parents urging them to contact the University of North Dakota concerning its ongoing work to revise its gender inclusion policy. In my memory, this is the first time that the Catholic Conference has weighed in publicly on something at UND (although I might be wrong here). They seem to be concerned about UND’s effort to make their policies comply with federal law protecting the rights of transgender and nonbinary individuals in housing and student activities. The policy is in draft at this stage and the letter urges concerned citizens to reach out to UND and to urge them to produce a policy that protects individuals who uphold the primacy of “assumption of binary, or biological based gender.” UND’s president responded to the letter pointing out not only that the current policy is still at the draft stage and that the letter itself included a number of misunderstandings and outright misstatements of fact. 

These mistakes suggest that this letter was not a good faith effort to influence UND’s policy, but is another example of a dogwhistle designed to elevate a particular group’s anxieties and to use these anxieties as an opportunity to forge a greater degree of social cohesion. Indeed, obedient to the dogwhistle’s call, a number of local conservative politicians supported the letter publicly on social media suggesting that some folks were ready and eager to take sides. 

Whatever its resonance with immediate social concerns among the state’s political, social, and religious conservative leadership, I would also suggest that this letter reflects several proximate and longstanding concerns of the Catholic Church. To be clear, I am not an expert of contemporary Catholicism nor do I have any particular insights into the workings of the local Catholic community. So this post today is a bit of me “shooting from the hip” as I try to wrap my head around this unusually public statement.

It is my effort to answer the question: why would the North Dakota Catholic Conference decide that this is worthy of a public letter?

To this end, I have four observations.

First, I suspect this letter has as much to do with drumming up support for Catholic schools, colleges, and universities as actually urging UND to violate federal law. We are at the start of spring admission season and undoubtedly college-aged students and their parents are thinking about what they will be doing next fall. Catholic institutions have recently, at least it seems to me, doubled down on the Catholic aspects of their educational missions and for many this has involved a more conspicuously conservative public face. In this context, this letter represents a bit of a marketing move designed to juxtapose public institutions with pious Catholic ones. 

Second, I can’t help but see this within the larger context of the sexual abuse scandals that have wracked the church over the last thirty years. This has not only heightened concerns about sexual morality, but, perhaps more significantly here, cast light on the relationship between issues of gender and sexuality. I’ll unpack this more below.

Third, the Catholic Church in the US has long had to negotiate the tension between the idea that the family is the heart of moral life and Christian values and the fact that the clergy and many of the most revered members of the Catholic community do not live in conventional families. This is not an unreconcilable tension, but the sexual abuse scandals within the church have resonated with long standing prejudices against men living in homosocial conditions.

To be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that priests, men, or women who chose to live with others of the same gender or sexuality are any more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. This is patently not true. 

That said, there is a perception that individuals in these circumstances are somehow sexually suspect in part because their sexuality doesn’t have the “traditional” heterosexual outlets present within conventional family life. Again: I am not saying this is the case in reality, but this argument is part of a larger constellation of homophobic rhetoric designed to mark individuals living outside of heterosexual family life as deviant. 

Thus, the Catholic Church especially in the US is in a bind. Its spiritual leaders and exempla often live outside the conventions of sexual morality that they advocate. Not only have the innumerable scandals brought this tension into high relief, but practices of Catholic clergy and members of religious orders contrasts with the situation in most Protestant churches — especially mainstream evangelical churches — which allow pastors to marry and have families. 

Fourth, even my rusty memory of the Early Church history is replete with non-gender conforming individuals. Holy women, in particular, often so thoroughly rejected their traditional gender and sexual roles that they manifest as holy men. Roland Betancourt’s recent book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (2020) offers a well curated litany of non-gender conforming saints (and there are, of course, many others: Gilian Cloke’s classic This Female Man of God Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 (1995) and, of course, the work of the late Elizabeth Clarke; for a particularly recent take on the complex issue of women clergy in the Early Church, check out Sarah E. Bond and Shaily Patel’s piece at the LARB). Some of these saints possessed such extraordinary piety that they lived in monasteries among fellow ascetics of the “opposite biological sex.” Far from being a sinful situation, this ability to shed the outward trappings of one’s gender was seen as a mark of particular devotion and faith. “Biologically male” ascetics likewise shed outward trappings of masculinity by rejecting not only their roles as biological fathers, but often in public life as well. Retreating to a monastery and rejecting the trappings of masculine ambition, whether in war, business, politics, or social life, contributed to their sanctity and their ability to be closer to God. As Matthew 22: 23-33 famously states at the time of the resurrection men and women will not be married, but become like angels, and it is clear that some achieved a similar sanctity by anticipating this moment.

In other words, contemporary priests, monks, and nuns, continue to live in same sex accommodations and develop deep and meaningful homosocial friendships and spiritual lives in part by through rejecting conventional sexual and gender roles. These practices contribute to a tension between contemporary anxieties about sexual morality and gender conformity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, living traditions of sanctity established by the Early Church. 

Thus, I would urge UND and anyone else who has read this letter to ignore its vaguely prurient and plaintive efforts to influence public policy and instead consider the tune played by its dogwhistle. This letter is not about the obligations of a public institution toward vulnerable members of its community, changing standards of diversity and inclusion, or even federal laws, but about the deep anxieties present in the contemporary Catholic Church.

It seems to me that we should probably read this letter more as a piece seeking to define the character of Catholic education or as a subtle manifestation of the anxieties about the relevance of the Catholic church in ongoing discussions about changes to the traditional family or even as a public effort to struggle with the place of the clergy in a world where historical notions of sexuality, gender, and justice form only a cryptic cypher for contemporary practice. 

It is particularly unfortunate that Catholic Conference chose to engage these valid, genuine, and even pressing concerns to the Catholic community in a letter misrepresenting the efforts of a public institution to protect vulnerable members of North Dakota society. 

This is not a good look.

Moreover, it suggest that some of the church leadership are more interested in forging unity through promoting an anxious view of the modern world than through thoughtful engagement with the Church’s recent and ancient past.  

Three Things Thursday: Books, Teaching, and the Red River of the North

I’m just over 60% done with my first week of classes, and I’m settling into my new weekly scramble. As per usual, buy the half way point of the week, we life has started to fragment as I desperately flailed to capture the bits and pieces of the time, ideas, and work that had been so neatly arranged earlier in the week. 

In other words, it’s a good time for a Three Things Thursday:  

Thing the First

Because we all decided that we weren’t busy enough, Richard Rothaus, who might just be the MOST busy, decided to restart our moderately unsuccessful podcast: Caraheard. As we awkwardly come to realize, this would be our fourth season and as our tradition in the past, we kicked off the year with a discussion of our favorite books of the year with our very special guest Kostis Kourelis. 

My favorite books read during the past year were Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series published by The Dorothy Project. These books are amazing and I blogged about them last February. I also talked a bit about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I blogged about here. Finally, any survey of my annual, pandemic inflected reading had to include something about Sun Ra. I talked about the wonderfully reproduced copies of some of Sun Ra’s poetry by the Chicago gallery Corbett vs Dempsey. I’ve blogged about them here.  I’m going to need to spend some time tracking down the past seasons of  Caraheard and maybe getting them up in the Internet Archive or something. So, stay tuned.

Thing the Second 

I’m teaching a lot (for me) this semester. In fact, I’m almost teaching “for the cycle”; that is teaching a 100, 200, 300, and 500 class. I’m teaching this semester as a bit of a “teaching sabbatical” in which I prioritize these four classes over my other contractual responsibilities. In fact, I’ve reduced the percentage of my contract designated for research to almost nothing and have controlled my service responsibilities by rotation off a pair of particular onerous committee. While I know that many faculty teach four or more classes year-in and year-out, and so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to valorize by teaching load or anything of the sort. For me, however, teaching more classes and more preps creates a chance for me to shift my attention to teaching in a way that sometimes gets lost when I find myself juggling my classes as just another facet of my professional responsibilities. 

There’s something about the constant pressure that four preps places on me that keeps thinking about teaching in the forefront of mind. This has made me wonder why teaching sabbaticals aren’t a thing? Why do we tend to assume that faculty want to spend a year immersed in the research grind and freed from responsibilities to teach and to do service, but we don’t offer the same for faculty who have a significant commitment to teaching? I would love to institutionalize the opportunity to take a year away from service and research and really focus on the craft of teaching. More to the point, I also think it would emphasize the importance of teaching not only to faculty, but to the institution itself. I could imagine a teaching intensive schedule paired with opportunities to be mentored by teachers in other departments and disciplines, there could be a retreat prior to the start of the semester where faculty could focus on installing new methods, approaches, or curriculum. There could be opportunities to refresh tired classes or to emphasize major changes in medium – from in-person to on-line, for example, or from small section to big? 

More importantly, departments and colleges would not only not be penalized for faculty taking a teaching sabbatical, but be rewarded. For example, colleges and departments would still receive the full percentage of research funds allocated on the basis of that faculty member’s typical research contract. Service responsibilities will be entirely eliminated for the year as would occur during a typical research sabbatical, but departments would be given support to incentivize other faculty stepping into service roles for the duration of the sabbatical.

Thing the Third

I serve on our community’s historic preservation commission as the commission’s archaeologist, and at the past meeting, in a not entirely spontaneous gesture, I raised my had to take on a small project that was sent out to bid and did not receive any interest. I’m going to investigate whether any parts of the 1950s era flood wall still exist along the course of the Red River in Grand Forks. Fortunately, we have already done a bit of research and received the Army Corps of Engineers maps showing the 1950s era wall. I also have a copy of Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch’s book, The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood (1996).

This work will be a little more salient this year as the community looks back 25 years to the 1997 Red River flood which overran the earlier flood walls and led to the massive installations that we have installed today. While many people won’t be interested in looking back at the 1997 flood (if for no other reason than it represents a time when community cohesion, resilience, and state support provided a foundation for recovery), I feel like we have an ongoing obligation to think about how our decision to make our home on the river has shaped the landscape. 

Problematizing the Present

Over the weekend. I read Nick Estes’s book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019). The book is good in all sorts of ways although I suspect that the story that it tells won’t be new to anyone who followed the #NoDAPL protests or who is broadly familiar with the history of Native American activism and protests. 

That said, it remains a book worth reading as Estes models the kind of activist scholarship that typifies that best books published by Verso. More than that Estes makes the connections between not only the political struggles associated with Native Americans on the Northern Plains and the important role that this plays in recent and contemporary activism. For someone less familiar with the two important (and violated) treaties of 1851 and 1868, the book makes clear the relationship between these treaties and the legitimate grievances of the signatory tribes against the US. The DAPL protest camp stood on land recognized as belonging to the Sioux according to the 1851 Treaty which while violated by the US government, nevertheless remains “the supreme law of the land.”  

While everyone should be familiar with the basic narrative of Estes’s work, there are two elements of his book that struck me as both exemplary and particularly useful to my own book project.

First, Estes is very direct in recognizing the important role that Native American scholars have played in documenting and interpreting the history of US-Tribal relations. In terms of “citational politics,” Estes clearly identifies the national affiliations of Native American authors throughout his text making clear how the history of US-Native American relations involves not only the kind of activism associated with AIM or the DAPL protests, but also the kind of activism that comes from writing incisive, sophisticated, and compelling academic works. Estes’s book contributes to the academic tradition which he cites and adds the most recent chapter in the history of Native American protests.

Second, and more importantly to me, Estes provides a window to Native American thinking about time. The title of the book is Our History is the Future, which offers a counterintuitive view of history which both recognizes it as distant, but also recognizes it as culmination of the present. Whether this alludes to a cyclical understanding of time (where the past is always the future) or a more revolutionary (see the pun?) view that sees the future as the reclamation of the past forfeited in the present remains a bit less clear. I tend to suspect that Estes recognizes the present as a zone of sacrifice both by the architects of contemporary capitalism by activists who oppose them. For the capitalist, the wealth in and of the present only have value in their capacity to generate more wealth in the future. Thus, projects like the DAPL pipeline represent massive outlays of capital (social, political, and financial) in order to secure wealth in and from the future. The discussion of the DAPL pipeline has made clear that its goals are to facilitate the extraction of oil from the Bakken oil patch (which likely depends more on global oil prices than the cost of transporting oil) into a future. This is despite the fact that most sober commenters realize that we must begin to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. It is hard to reconcile this scenario with present investments designed, at least in terms of rhetoric, to make oil production and distribution cheaper and easier. The damage done in the present, then, whether through the sacrifice of capital or the destruction of Native land or the increased risk to the Missouri River watershed, represents an acceptable cost in the hope for future gains. 

The difference, of course, between Native Americans seeking to protect their land and water (and our water and land, by extension) and the oil and pipeline companies is that for oil and pipeline companies the past is more or less irrelevant. The present is meaningful as a sacrificial zone and the future is where value exists. For Native Americans, as the title of the book implies, the present is significant in that it is the continuation of a 200 year history of protest and negotiation by Native Americans in this region. More than that, the present protests embodies a long experience of protest and violence from Whitestone Hill to Wounded Knee that is very much part of their contemporary awareness. In this way, their sense of the present is not simply a short lived “sacrifice zone” as in the case of the oil companies, but rather a protracted period of sacrifice separated from past defined by autonomy, greater self-determination, and a more expansive view their relationship with the environment and natural resources. So when Estes says, our history is the future, he regards the present as period that has already been sacrificed in the name of the future.

This bring me to a final point. I’ve started to wonder a bit whether the very idea of the contemporary in an archaeological context isn’t problematic. Even the most casual readers of archaeological literature know that periodization schemes often preserve and reproduce problematic world views. While it remains entirely possible to redefine certain categories spatially, chronologically, and ideologically (see for example, the recent turn toward the “Global Middle Ages”), the archaeology of the contemporary world appears rather more committed to a view of the present that is narrowly defined by a white, “Western,” capitalist view of the narrow present. If a Native American at the NoDAPL protests could see their presence and activism as part of a long-present that includes Wounded Knee, AIM, and various other efforts to resist colonization and assert their right to exist, then this represents a very different view of the contemporary than is often advanced by archaeologists of the contemporary world. A view of the present and the contemporary that extends for over two hundred years subverts a present that is consistent with the proximate needs of capital and a sacrificial zone occupied by individuals and groups who must endure violence, pain, and dislocation in the name of a better future that remains continuously out of reach.     

Live Blogging Music, Reading, and Cooking on Thanksgiving

I’m going to try a bit live-blogging this morning to document my Thanksgiving day adventures. There’s nothing particularly exciting about my morning, but there is something vaguely archaeological about the intersection of reading, cooking, and listening to music. Hopefully this live blog will bring some of that out. 

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6 am

The turkey is in the smoker and sitting at about 210°. 

I’m hunkered down by the fire reading Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains and listening to Lee Morgan introduce the band for the Friday, July 10th 1970 performance at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California.

I’m reading with significant interest Ryzewski’s account of how her work at the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit involved negotiating with an HGTV program for access and collaboration. While I’ve just started reading this chapter, it’s struck me as not entirely dissimilar to the negotiations conducted by Andrew Reinhard to get us access to the Atari excavations at Alamogordo. 

I’m aware that Lee Morgan does not have any particular connections to the Detroit jazz scene, but the 7.5 hours of music (starting with pianist Harold Mabern’s “The Beehive” which features a scorching “post-Coltranesque solo by Bennie Maupin, one of the underrated voices of late-1960s saxophone. Morgan’s solo is so slick and smooth.)

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6:15 am

As Morgan introduces the band members and heads into the Bennie Maupin number “Something Like This,” a quick check on the smoker shows that the temperature has dropped to about 160°, so I reopened some vents. It’s about 2° F outside so keeping the heat up today might be a challenge!

It seems fitting that I’m fussing with the grill temperatures as reading about Pewabic pottery manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century in the stable behind the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit!

6:30 am

A quick update shows the temperatures have settled to about 210° F and another Bennie Maupin composition “Yunjana” is on the stereo. It’s quieter and a bit more settled which makes it an appropriate complement to the stabilizing temperatures on the grill.

7 am

I’m cutting out on Bennie Maupin’s lovely flute solo on the first track of the second set from July 10th, “I Remember Brit” to check the heat and maybe start some more coals. It’s now 1° outside!

It looks like no new coals are needed and while I missed most of Lee Morgan’s lyrical solo, I’m thoroughly enjoying Harold Mabern’s piano work on “I Remember Brit.” The long tail of bebop makes a great backdrop to Ryzewski’s chapter on the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit where bebop found a home in Detroit’s musical landscape in the late 1940s.

7:20 am

The temperature is still a steady 210° and there’s been a car accident outside our house. The cops are on hand and they have a dog working to try to find the driver of the car, which was apparently stolen. It’s a bit dramatic, but the cops seem very intent on getting it sorted.

Jymie Merritt’s bass solo at around the 15 minute mark in his “Absolutions” is pretty great. 

I’m enjoying reading about Paradise Valley in Detroit and its vibrant music scene and thinking about it also as the place of origins for the Nation of Islam which would developed in the decade before the bebop heyday of the Blue Bird Inn, but which would go on the exert an influence over music (and especially jazz) in its own way especially when it relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s.

Now, I get to fret about when to start a fresh batch of coals. There’s no need to add them if the temperature hangs at 200°-ish.   

Wrapping up the second set of July 10th with another rollicking version of Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” before the 3rd session of the night begins with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “416 East 10th Street.”

8:00 am

I had some breakfast and started a new chimney full of coals. The temperatures are dropping from 210° to 200°. hit the turkey with the first round of smoke. I’m going with cherry wood and a just a bit of hickory. 

I’m listening to Lee Morgan’s classic “Sidewinder” from the 3rd set of July 10th. It’s scorching and the absolutely outer fringes of hard bop just as it should have been in the 1970!

Back to reading about the Blue Bird Inn and the state of both Black owned entertainment venues, recording, and music in late 1940s Detroit.

8:30 am

Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” from Set 4 on Friday, July 10th feels even a bit more “out” than the version at the end of Set 2. It was hard to drag myself away from it to check on the bird in the smoker. Temperatures are still around 210° with the addition of wood chips adding just about 5° to the heat. I probably started the additional coals prematurely, but better to be prepared, I guess.

The work of various stake holders on the Blue Bird Inn is fascinating. I appreciated the performance of music in the venue once again by some members of the Wayne State music program and would have loved to hear a recording of their set. I wonder how it would compare to live recordings made in the venue in the 1950s (with Phil Hill’s band apparently). My work in the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus included working with Michael Wittgraf to record in the Corwin Hall recital space and to think of these recordings as a way to preserve not only the original use of the space, but its changes over time. It was a small offering to the debates 

I’m now onto Set 1 from July 11th with begins with Mabern’s “Aon” which is very much hard bop and feels just right to get the audience ready from the more adventurous offerings to follow.

9:00 am

I finally had to add some coals to the fire to keep the heat closer to 210° than to 180°. Temperatures outside were about 2° so this seems reasonable. 

Fortunately, it’s warm by the fire inside and Bennie Maupin’s lyricism is on full display during his opening solo on his “Yunjana” from the first set on July 11th. Lee Morgan’s reflective solo complements Maupin’s perfectly and keeps the mood going.

The slow, but not sluggish lyricism of these songs is a lovely backdrop to Ryzewski’s work of “slow archaeology” at Gordon Park in Detroit where she and students conducted repeated pedestrian surveys to chart how the park established to mark the start of the 1967 uprising in the city changed over time and endured episodes of neglect and revitalization.

9:30 am

There’s a point my operating the smoker where I can’t quite figure out if the best way to keep the heat up is adding more coals or adding more air by opening the vents. I opted to add a bit more coals and restrict air flow right now with the hope I can open the vents and stretch the coals until close to noon where I’ll take the first temperature of the turkey. 

The second set of July 11th opens with Mabern’s “I Remember Brit” and it’s lovely round based on “Brother John” (or Frère Jacques) that eventually gives way to steady dose of a hard bop melody. You can similarly hear the musicians trying to manage the heat of their sets. You need to keep it warm enough to pull in the listener, but too much fire and the entire show begins to combust too soon and too hot. “I Remember Brit” does just that and it’s a suitable backdrop to the start of coal management work in my smoker. Of course, things get hotter after that with Mabern’s “busy” track “The Beehive.”   

10:00 am

Temperatures are cruising along at around 210° and Lee Morgan’s quintet is finishing Set 2 on July 11, 1970 with “Speedball,” before starting Set 3 with Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “Neophilia.”

I’m just getting into Ryzewski’s chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit which witnessed a wide range of remarkable shows. She’s focusing on its history as a rock music venue and its subsequent history of neglect, abandonment, and deterioration. I’m just getting into the chapter and was pleasantly surprised to see the reference to “punk archaeology”! I’m looking forward to reading about the kinds of archaeological documentation deployed in working to understand and interpret this significant building.

The first temperature check on the bird will happen at around noon, and until then, we’ll be in coals management mode!

10:30 am

The heat is too high!! So I closed some vents and opened the ones on the lid to bleed some heat, but this is a good sign for the rest of the morning because I can conserve coals and cut the heat down to low and slow.

Bassist Jymie Merritt’s “Nomo” appears in Set 3 of the July 11th performance of Lee Morgan’s crew. It has a loose, but deep groove and Morgan really shines on his solo midway through the track. It’s clear that funk, soul jazz, and the spirit of late hard bop come together in this track. 

The chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit is really remarkable. Not only did the work from Ryzewski’s crew show how survey methods can be adapted to document standing buildings in ways that reveal their transformation over time, as well as their main phases of use. Interweaving the discoveries from the building and its history helped me appreciate the role of John and Leni Sinclair in the musical history of Detroit. I’ve appreciated Leni Sinclair’s photography of jazz musicians and her work for Strate Corporation on their cover art and now I can connect her and her husband to the rock and proto-punk scene fueled by the MC5 (who John Sinclair managed) and bands like the Stooges who performed regularly at the Grande Ballroom.

11:00 am

The heat has settled back into the acceptable range, and I’ve added a bit of cherry wood to add some smoke. I’ve also recalled a certain yellow dog from his turkey guard duty as the temperatures outside hang around in the single digits.

Lee Morgan’s guys are into Set 4 on Saturday night and playing Bennie Maupin’s “Peyote” with a kind of comfortable intensity that feels like it should naturally lead into Jymie Merrit’s “Absolutions” as the final number of the night.

I’m also onto the final chapter of Detroit Remains which involves documenting a 19th century log cabin which was quietly preserved in the frame of a 20th century house in a Detroit neighborhood.  

11:30 am

The smoker is just chilling at 200° and my hope is that we’re well on out way to a smoked turkey. Stay tuned for a temperature check in about 30 minutes.

Set 1 from Sunday, July 12, 1970 begins with Bennie Maupin’s “Something Like This.” While this set’s performance may lack the fireworks of those recorded on the 10th and 11th, it certainly has a copious amount of feeling and soul. It was worth the wait.

The final chapter of Detroit Remains, likewise offer a healthy dose of feeling as it deals with the demolition of the log house discovered in Hamtramck by the Detroit Land Bank despite efforts made to preserve and move the building. As someone who has seen any number of significant historical buildings demolished in my community, I can empathize with the disappointment expressed by the authors and stakeholders.     

12 pm

The first temperature check and, miracles of miracles, the bird is done: 165° on the dot.

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Happily, my reading of Detroit Remains is done for the day too. Ryzewski’s reflections on Section 106 reviews in the aftermath of the Hamtramck log house demolition resonated with my own experiences on the State Historical Review Board and our local Historic Preservation Commission. While locally we continue to see innumerable 106 reviews, we also recognize how much these remain dependent upon the collective good will of the city, contractors, developers, and the community. Raising awareness of historical preservation issues always involves threading the needle between being outspoke about the value of the past in general and navigating the complicated interests that establish the value of specific pasts to specific communities and stakeholders. 

Finally, “I Remember Brit” from Set 2 on Sunday, July 12 is playing in the background and I sort of feel like pressing pause on this track and listening to the final performance during dinner in an hour or so. And this probably means pressing pause on this bizarre experiment in live blogging.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been chipping on a paper that reflect on the Wesley College Documentation project as an approach to teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m about two thirds of the way through the paper and thought I should probably share a draft of it.

I’m moderately happy with what I have on the page so far. The paper will be a bit backward in that I am writing from the perspective of practice that I then analyze through reflections later. This approach is both honest, in that I didn’t really have a pedagogy or a plan when I put this class together, and I suspect reflects an authentic account of how my experience in the Wesley College buildings and with this group of students shaped my understanding of teaching.

Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

Introduction

In an American context, teaching and the study of the archaeology of the contemporary world have always existed together. Schiffer and Gould’s seminal, Modern Material Culture features an article by Schiffer and Wilke titled: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” which, as the title suggests, used the material culture of the University of Arizona campus as a context for teaching archaeological methods and interpretation. Similarly, Bill Rathje’s “Garbage Project” which took place at the same institution at the same time, grew out of his efforts to introduce undergraduates both to sampling and behavioral archaeology through the systematic study of domestic trash collected from Tuscon neighborhoods. The last 40 years have continued to see a steady stream of studies that demonstrate how the contemporary university campus can provide a compelling site for teaching archaeology.

Most of these campus projects focused on using modern material and contexts to instruct students in the systematic practices associated with traditional archaeology: sampling, surface collection, mapping, recording, and stratigraphic excavation. It is notable that despite the attention to modern material and research questions significant to contemporary campus life such as the disposal of trash or locations of cigarette smokers (citations), most published efforts to use material culture to document life on American college campuses appear to have avoided methods that engage more fully with conversations in field of archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, most of these approaches did not seem to emphasize the growing role that time-based media, particularly video and audio recordings, have come to play in the archaeology of the contemporary world. I also wonder whether they have emphasized the potential of unstructured textual recording to capture the experience of both familiar and unfamiliar spaces and places. In fact, the emphasis on systematic methods, practices, and procedures as part of most archaeology of the contemporary campus reinforced the kind of modern structures that archaeology of the contemporary world has sometimes sought to critique or even subvert. The course that I taught in the spring of 2018 developed in such a way that it blended open ended documentation practices and experiential learning with archival research, public outreach, and performance to create a distinctive learning experience for students.

The following chapter will reflect on a course taught on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 2018. The course focused on two pairs of buildings on campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre Halls, which were demolished in the early summer of that year. The buildings were built between 1909 and 1929 in the Beaux Arts style as the main buildings for an institution called Wesley College founded in 19xx. Wesley College was a Methodist institution that taught music, religion, and elocution and offered housing to students in two dormitories, Sayre Hall for men and Larimore Hall for women. Students taking classes at Wesley College would also be enrolled at the University of North Dakota, a public four-year, state funded institution, and receive their degrees from UND. In 1965, a financially failing Wesley College was purchased and absorbed into UND and the four buildings served as dorms, offices, classrooms, laboratories, and the home of UND’s honors program of the next 50 or so years. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the buildings had acquired considerable deferred maintenance debt and their demolition was ordered as part of a general effort to reduce the campus footprint and refresh it public face along the main thoroughfare through campus.

The course that I taught involved exploring and documenting these buildings in the window between their abandonment as active campus structures and their final demolition. As the buildings themselves represented some of the oldest structure on our campus. the university administration treated their destruction with a certain amount of seriousness and employed a local contractor to prepare a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Type 2 report on the buildings and had the demolition contractor prepare a high resolution laser scan of the buildings. This routine, but robust level of documentation ensured that the buildings received formal architectural recording worthy of their designs and distinctive place in the history of the campus. There was less formal interest, however, in documenting their interior state which involved both numerous intervention over their lifetimes and the detritus of both their recent abandonment and their changing roles on campus. The class that I taught on these buildings focused initially on the buildings’ situations between use and demolition.

The course ran as a one-credit add on to a class on that focused on the university budget. After several decades of regular budget and enrollment increases, the University of North Dakota was enduring a painful period of contraction with several high profile program cuts including our star-studded women’s ice hockey team and the nationally recognized music therapy program. At the same time, the university was implementing a new internal budgeting model that regularly bore the brunt of campus-wide frustrations regarding the distribution of resources. Instability in administrative leadership, the increasingly populist and often anti-intellectual political culture of the state, and challenges associated with communicating effectively across a wide range of campus stakeholders contributed to confusion and at times anger toward the university administration. A course on the university budget was meant to create an opportunity to engage with the changes on our campus in a way informed by a more detailed and accurate understanding to the actual mechanisms of funding, the national conversation about higher education in the US, and the particular historical developments at our campus. The course on the university budget prompted student interest in changes on campus and this, in turn, prompted me to offer a course on the buildings scheduled for demolition later that year. This was done without much planning or thought about what this course would look like.

The spontaneous creation of the course focused on the Wesley College buildings discouraged any particularly formal structure. The course was offered for one academic credit, which is the lowest academic value possible for a course on our campus. In fact, its spontaneity and low academic stakes allowed the course to operate at the very fringes of the panoptic perspectives of campus administrators. It both eluded the gaze of the technocrats whose authority rests on structures associated with assessment and fell outside the purview of the faculty committees who also seek to establish authority in the contested space of the American college classroom. In this way the course existed outside administrative oversight which allowed us a significant amount of freedom in class design. As significantly, the buildings themselves occupied a strangely liminal status between abandonment and their final destruction. The university had turned off all but emergency utilities, had locked the outside doors of the buildings, and faculty and staff has removed all the objects from the building that could be reused or repurposed on campus. Thus, my students had free rein within the buildings, and the university facilities staff was only too eager to help students explore what was under the carpeting, behind walls, and above false ceilings. Because the buildings were slated for demolition, there was no concern for their material condition and all the interior rooms were unlocked and accessible to student curiosity. A liminal class that existed in a liminal space seem ideally suited to approaches that are typical of archaeology of the contemporary world.

The Class

The class itself began with a brief introduction to the building, their history, and the archaeology of the contemporary world. We then set about to explore the structures armed with notebooks, a few cameras scavenged from departmental and personal supplies, measuring tapes, and their mobile phones. Since this class was quite spontaneous, we did not have any idea exactly what we would find in the buildings. The students were immediately taken by the level of access that we had to the building. Students could enter faculty offices, laboratory spaces, classrooms, and maintenance spaces that in most active buildings on campus had access restrictions. The ability to move through a building without any barriers is something that most faculty take more or less for granted, although we would like pause before barreling into a colleague’s or program’s laboratory space uninvited or into an active classroom. It was clear, however, that for students, these spaces was far less familiar and part of what drew them through the building was a sense that they were transgressing traditional campus boundaries. Because we had not arranged for any storage space or study area where we could scrutinize objects more closely, we came to realize that we could not systematically collect artifacts from the building. Instead, we decided as a group to focus on describing the objects left behind in situ in our notebooks according to each office. At the same time, we devised a method of taking photos and using phones to take videos of the rooms in the buildings as we went. We also concluded that we should start with Corwin/Larimore Hall, which had been entirely abandoned, and then proceeding to Robertson/Sayre Hall, where staff were still moving out of their offices.

Almost immediately, we encountered rooms with massive numbers of artifacts left behind. These ranged from office and classroom furniture to laboratories with masses of cables, computers, and equipment used in psychological testing that appeared utterly foreign to the students. In some cases, offices appear to be frozen in time. A single late-20th century Apple iMac computer stood on a desk as if frozen in the year 2000. In other cases, office and laboratories look like they had been rooted through during a burglary. Other rooms initially appeared carefully abandoned only to reveal during documentation some kind of intimate trace that connected the empty office to its earlier occupant. The situations in these offices, labs, and classroom, drew student efforts to delve deeply into the contents of rooms. They looked inside desk drawers, documented the patterns of adhesive tape left on the back of doors, and explored the spaces above acoustic ceiling tiles. One student, Wyatt Atchley, an avid photographer, prepared a photo essay that drew out the traces of the building’s recent past and connected it with recent discussions of austerity that we were having in the sister course on the university budget. The intimacy of his photographs reflected the growing commitment that the students felt not only toward this course, but also toward these building.

As they did this work, the students invariably started to notice various construction scars throughout the building and started to piece together the history of these buildings adaptations over time. One of the challenges that we faced in studying these buildings is that the original blue prints were not preserved. In fact, as we started to recognize that complex histories of these buildings we decamped to the University Archives where we poured through various collections in an effort to trace the changes made to the buildings over time. This was not guided by a kind of architectural fundamentalism, but by questions that originated in the space of the Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre halls. Questions that emerged through the students’ relentless exploration of the space triggered their interest in piecing together how they changed over time through photographs, technical plans, and any other sources of information that might reveal their histories. For example, the students and I quickly recognized the large classroom in Corwin Hall with its distinctive low arched ceiling as the former recital hall of Wesley College’s music program. When the building was modified to accommodate offices and classrooms, the builders truncated room’s north side, where the proscenium would have stood, and replaced it with a wall and chalk boards. Despite this modified condition, the students and some colleagues across campus understood the potential of recording the acoustics of this space as both a gesture to the room’s history as performance space and as a chance to document the building’s acoustic signature. We have published the results of this work in collaboration with some of Atchley’s photographs in Epoiesen.

In Sayre Hall, the students and I were confused by a strange pattern of wood slats affixed the the ceiling of a room in Sayre Hall but hidden by the drop ceiling. These wood slats once supported a coffered ceiling and revealed the room to the formal sitting room of the Sayre Hall dormitory. The photographs that the students found in the University Archives revealed turn-of-the-century space worthy of the “jazz age” tastes of pre-depression America complete with potted ferns, an elaborate fireplace, and terrazzo floor with mosaic inlays. A return visit to the room led us to tear up the institutional wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal the more elegant flooring beneath. Efforts to find the fireplace, immured over the course of innumerable renovations to the space, were less fruitful, but nevertheless engaged the students’ curiosity.

Time in the archives led the students to perhaps the most spectacular find associated with the Wesley College buildings. Amid the various record associated with the soliciting of funds from donors and the construction of the buildings was a folder associated with the relationship between the Sayre family and the long-serving president of Wesley College, Edward P. Robertson. In these papers was the story of A.J. Sayre’s son, Harold Holt Sayre, who had died in World War I. In 1918, Roberston honored the request of A.J. Sayre and changed the name of Sayre Hall to Harold H. Sayre Hall as a memorial to his son’s sacrifice. Included in the folder associated with this correspondence was a four-page poem, ”At the Grave of a Dead Gunner” written by Horace Shidler. Sayre was the gunner in the plane that Shidler had piloted. This touching tribute affected the class deeply and transformed the process of documenting these buildings from one driven by curiosity to one driven by a sense of deep respect for not only Sayre’s memory, but the students, faculty, administrators, and staff who had passed through these buildings. Later that week students discovered names carved into a pane of window glass in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. These students lived in room in Sayre Hall before going on to careers in law, higher education, and business. One of the students, however, died in France in World War I and once again connected this building to centennial reflections taking place in both the US and Europe to mark the conclusion of the “Great War.”

Students produced all these discoveries, and they became increasingly motivated that our work do more than simply document these buildings in their abandoned state. Through ongoing conversations both in the buildings and in the University Archives, we came to recognize that the ongoing use of these buildings served to keep the memories of Sayre and Wesley College students evergreen and the demolition of the buildings would break the connections between the lived space of campus and the Great War. To mark this transformation the students helped coordinate a final event for the buildings and invited the university president, representatives of the city of Grand Forks, the campus Reserve Officers Training Corp, and, perhaps most importantly, the commanding officer of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to speak at a ceremony recognizing the loss that these buildings will mean to campus memory. A colleague in the department of history provided a brief historical survey of the Great War and a colleague from the department of English played bagpipes to amplify the solemnity of the occasion. The weather cooperated and on a brilliant spring day, we recognized the buildings and those who they honored.

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget and they invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing associated with “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. Slow archaeology critiqued the outsized role of efficiency in contemporary society. The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. This coincided with the role of archaeology and cultural resource management in a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration.” In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that supermodernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more maintenance by dint of their age alone.

The methods taken by my students and I anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus with its emphasis on the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Whitmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Whitmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by supermodernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. It goes without saying that it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course especially since the book appeared two years after the course was over. That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

First Snow

Winter has sprung here on he Northern Plains and so it is time for my traditional “first snow” post. It’s not too bad this evening, but it’s supposed to get worse as the night goes on.

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I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2020 (October 17)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).

More on the Greenway

Yesterday, I posted a draft of a paper that I’m planning to give (well, “to post”) at the annual CHAT conference. This year, the conference is dedicated to pilgrimage and movement with all the complexities that these words entail. I proposed a paper that considered my every day pilgrimage through a local park which has led me to unpack this break from my everyday life along spatial and temporal lines. 

The more that I’ve mulled this paper over, I can’t help think that it will benefit from some revision. As a way to kick start this process, I’m going to offer some random thoughts here that maybe will find their way into my paper.

First, I’ve been thinking a bit more about my somewhat lazy use of the concept of communitas. In Victor Turner’s work this term refers to the experience of social equality that occurs during pilgrimage or other kinds of ritual life. I think my use of the term would benefit from re-reading Edith Turner’s book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (2011). My thinking is that the concept of radical equality experienced through communitas could extend beyond the limits of human community and considered as a way to understand a transformed relationship with our physical environment. I’m less concerned here with the experiences of stones, trees, animals, or house foundations and more interested in considering whether our relationship to these things changes as a result of the suspension of at least some of the rules of every day life. 

More importantly, does this suspension of the rules of everyday life open up the potential to experience space in new and significant ways. It would probably be useful, I suppose, to consider aspects of de Certeau’s arguments in his The Practice of Everyday Life that distinguishes between strategy and tactics, but, if I recall de Certeau correctly he suggests that tactics include every day practice that seeks to complicate and appropriate efforts of the state to structure practices whether through design or such structured encounters as ritual. The role, in this context, of every day rituals, such as the momentary experience of pilgrimage that comes from my morning walk in the park, remains less clear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the experience of being in the park is shaped in part by the administrative work that defines the space as a park. On the other hand, my ritualized encounter with this space at least questions (if not subverts) the limits of the human work invested to create the controlled landscape that is the park itself.

This brings me to my second point that will require a bit of development. My daily pilgrimage commences when I cross the earthen flood wall that separates the Greenway from my neighborhood. This simple, if mildly transgressive act, of crossing a wall always triggers me to think about the recent outpouring of literature on walls of various kinds (for example). Walls, for all their imposing monumentality, functioned in a wide range of ways. As Randall Maguire’s articles, for example, have shown walls can go from representing a common space for a community (such as the early fences that separated Mexico from the US) to barriers to movement and marks of division. The earthen and concrete walls in Grand Forks, for example, represent protection from the unpredictable and often violent forces of Red River and this function reinforces its role as a barrier between the ordered life of the community and the less controlled forces of nature. The design of the concrete flood walls, with their molded ashlar-like pattern deliberately evoked stone fortifications of antiquity. The earthen walls, whatever their intended aesthetic, would have made some viewers think of the fortifications at Mandan towns such as Double Ditch where ditches and earthen bases for palisades formed barriers. In this context, crossing the wall involved the kind of tactical (sensu de Certeau) move both historically and in the space of Grand Forks, North Dakota that depended upon the intentional misrecognition of the wall’s function. Despite its appearance, the wall isn’t meant as a barrier to human movement at all. This is simply a side effect of its official function to prevent the inundation of the main area of human settlement during the seasonal floods.

So crossing the flood wall requires a tactical act of misrecognition of their function to enter into the space of pilgrimage along the river. This movement initiates the space of communitas where traditional social relations between things and individuals is suspended.

The final thing that I’d like to include in my paper is a brief musing on the “dog park at the end of the universe.” I no longer take my dogs there, in part, because they can’t be trusted around other people or dogs, but also because I find it so very depressing. There’s something about the history of the park that makes setting aside some of it for our dogs to romp and roam intensely sad. The juxtaposition of the former neighborhood homes that stood where the dog park is now creates a melancholy sense of waste or perhaps irreverence. I wonder if I struggled with confronting the modern ability to unsentimentally repurpose a landscape or the expectation that the past will some vanish beneath the pressing need of the present.

Pilgrimage CHAT: Walking the Grand Forks Greenway

Next month, I’m presenting a little paper in the form of a blog post at the 2021 CHAT conference devoted to pilgrimage. I don’t remember what my paper is titled, but here’s the abstract: In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

I don’t think that’ll be the paper that I write though. In fact, I’m thinking more and more about how I might integrate the notion of pilgrimage to the space of Lincoln Park, a large urban park that is part of the Grand Forks Greenway.

Here’s my first effort to say something compelling.

Daily Pilgrimage, Movement, and Place on the Grand Forks Greenway

Almost every day for the past four or five years, I’ve gone for a walk through Lincoln Park on the Grand Forks, North Dakota Greenway. The walks aren’t terribly long, usually between 3 and 6 miles, and they follow a fairly standard course. They happen all year around from the heat of the summer to all but the coldest days in the winter. My walks take place in the rain, the snow, and the wind. I’m almost always accompanied by one of my two dogs: Argos (aka Argie “The Bargepole”) or Milo (aka “Milsey”). If the dogs were to tell it, they’d say that the walks are for them, but I do remind them that I make these trips without them sometimes and sometimes on my bike. In other words, these walks aren’t just a routines for the dogs, but fundamental to my daily routine.

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Pilgrimages, like most rituals, are types of routines that wrench one out of mundane existence and push one into a different space defined by movement, reflection, and even spirituality. In some cases, of course, a pilgrimage might be a once in a lifetime event, such as the Hajj, but in many cases, pilgrimages can happen more regularly. It seems to me that the key characteristic of a pilgrimage is not its frequency, but its relationship to the mundane aspects of daily life. As such, pilgrimages, as a type of experience, represents a particularly vivid example of the kind of relational category that archaeologists have increasingly used to think about their world.

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My everyday life is deeply embedded in the digital world of screens, emails, documents, and data. My time on walks in the park is distinctly analogue. My mundane world varies relatively little depending on seasons, despite living in place where the seasons are intense. Even during the most bitter cold or the hottest late-summer, during draughts or floods, in the raking light of the winter or the dusty harvest clouds of autumn, emails continue to arrive, text continues to require editing, students continue to want guidance, and colleagues consultation. My daily pilgrimage disrupts my tendency to immerse myself in such mundane tasks and forces me to confront the variability of the seasons and weather, happenstance of encounters in a public space, and my own thoughts as they wander over the course of an hour without the advantage of regular professional (or household) distractions that would allow them to take purchase.

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Part of what allows for the distinction between my daily pilgrimage and what I’ve called my “mundane world” is the space of my daily sojourns. My walk begins ordinarily enough in my backyard and then I head due east down 8th avenue which is interrupted after about 200 meters, by the 8 m tall bulk of a flood wall that forms the western edge of the Grand Forks Greenway. The Greenway runs for nearly 15 km on both sides of the Red River of the North which snakes its way though our small community of around 100,000 people on its way to the Hudson Bay some 1000 km to the north. The river floods regularly as it runs along the bottom of the long vanished Lake Agassiz, a massive glacial lake that discharged some 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, and in 1897 and again in 1997 massive floods nearly destroyed the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The second of these floods prompted the evacuation of the cities and this constituted the largest peacetime evacuation of an American city prior to Hurricane Katrina landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

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My daily pilgrimage passes a pumping station that serves to maintain the back pressure on the Grand Forks sewage and storm drain system and prevent flood waters from flowing through the drains and entering the city. It is here that pipes run beneath the flood wall and through the pump station that I go over the flood wall to enter the Greenway. This part of the Greenway is called Lincoln Park. It’s the largest park in the Greenway system and includes all the amenities common the an American park: walking and cycling trails, a frisbee golf course, some open fields for sports, a dog park, a warming house and, in the winter an ice rink and cross-country ski trails. There are places for picnics and a boat ramp for access to the river. Just south of Lincoln park is a small golf course. 

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This rather ordinary setting seems like a hardly appropriate setting for a pilgrimage, but Lincoln Park does had a somewhat hidden past. Prior the 1997 flood, Lincoln Park was a thriving neighborhood but the creation of the Greenway and the the new network of flood walls required the razing of the homes and an elementary school here which would have stood on the “wet” side of the walls. The remains of this neighborhood, however, haunt the park. Trees continue to mark the routes of roads, the regular pattern of depressing in the park’s well mowed grass follow the rhythms of razed houses, and from time to time bricks, concrete pavement, and gravel paths peak through the grass to remind us of this place’s past. There is a small sculpture and a map made of inlaid bricks commemorating the lost neighborhood, but someone not familiar with the story behind these features might miss their meaning.

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The visible and invisible history of Lincoln Park presents a compelling backdrop to my daily pilgrimages which takes me onto a path that follows the course of the river between the endemic cottonwoods that inhabit the water’s edge and the ornamental cypress and crab apple trees, the elms that line the now vanished streets, and the pine trees that stood at the edges of properties. White tail deer, squirrels, foxes, songbirds, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional human runner, canine companion, and occasional park employee, patrolling police officer, and metal detectorist stare my pilgrimage space. The initial, post-flood planning stages for the Greenway emphasized its potential to act as both a recreation area and as a riparian corridor for local and migratory wildlife. At the same time, the various environmental studies of Greenway acknowledged that many of the species present along the river’s course had a long history living in urban environments and sharing their space with both people and our domesticated animals. Like the pipes managed to control the flow of river water back into the city, the riparian corridor does not end at the edges of flood walls, but extends into the neighborhoods that flank the river. 

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The landscape of Lincoln Park contributes to its status as a pilgrimage site by emphasizing that it defies easy definition. It is neither a purely natural space, if such places are indeed possible in the Anthropocene, nor a space dominated entirely by humanity. The visible remains of earlier human activities overgrown and obscured by both natural and cultural processes transform Lincoln Park into the sort of liminal place that characterizes pilgrimage routes. Its temporal state as a place in transition from a tidy small-town neighborhood to corridor designed to both accommodate the spring flood waters and the movement of wildlife ensures that the landscape explicitly resists simple definition. Like so many discussions of time in archaeology, Lincoln Park makes clear the past is not distinct from the contemporary and both exist in a space of blurry boundaries.

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By complicating our every day expectations that the human and the natural occupy tidy categories and the past and contemporary are distinct, the park encourages us to establish a sense of communitas, to use Victor Turner’s fortuitous concept, not only with past and contemporary individuals (and my canine companions), but also with those non-human features of the landscape, from the raking light of the winter sun to the unseen scurrying creatures on the riverbanks or the depressing depressions marking out overgrown roads.

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My daily pilgrimage, then, introduces me to a complicated time and space that is distinct from the tidy definitions traced by the imperious modernity of our daily lives. 

Three Things Thursday

For some reason this week is taking forever. It might be just that time in the semester. I also wonder whether finally getting a bit of writing momentum back has led me to overdo it a bit and maybe burn a bit too much energy for only modest gains. Whatever the reason, it feels like a good time for some good news. So here are three things for your Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed Dante Angelo, Kelly M. Britt, Margaret Lou Brown, Stacey L. Camp recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Titled “Private Struggles in Public Spaces: Documenting COVID-19 Material Culture and Landscapes,” it offers a window into one of the few, maturing archaeological studies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many archaeological projects on the very edge of the present, it’s conclusions are modest, but the methods, challenges, and data offer a window into the potential for archaeological projects that emerge at the very onset of a crisis rather than work to understand a crisis long after it unfolded.

I was particularly impressed by the transnational scope of article and the recognition that contemporary archaeology (and the study of contemporary problems and situations) is not much interested in national boundaries. An archaeology of contemporary climate change, of migration, and of production and consumption habits would follow a similar pattern. The article also negotiates the tension between private and public spaces not only in how we do our work as archaeologists, but also in how we live our lives. In this way, archaeology once again follows tensions present in society as the rise of surveillance culture where even conversations in our home are monitored (and monetized) by ubiquitous digital devices and personal medical choices (and short comings) continue to be matters public debate blurs our expectations of privacy. While Angelo et al. maintained a conservative approach toward documenting private lives in public places and continued to respect traditional notions of public and private, the title of the piece made clear that this continues to be an open question rather than a resolved standard of practice or method. 

Finally, the photo essay itself represents both the tip of a larger archival iceberg and I’m excited to understand how ongoing efforts to document the COVID pandemic will open the door to future analyses and interpretations. It reminds me how important archaeology of the contemporary world is for building the archive of the present and even if our research questions (and goals) applying the rigorous methods developed by archaeology as a discipline will contribute to how future researchers see our world.

Thing the Second

This thing is a form of completely gratuitous self-promotion. As editor of NDQ, I have the privilege of publishing a wide range of authors from undergraduates to grizzled veterans of the writing business. We are pleased to announce that we will publish to the winner of the Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize which goes a woman poet from Huntery College-CUNY. 

Here’s our little announcement.

NDQ is excited to announce our partnership wih the Department of English at Hunter College-CUNY, to pubish the winner of the department’s yearly Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize. Named for Colie Hoffman, an alumna of Hunter’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, the award goes to a female poet in Hunter’s MFA Program who has shown an exceptional blend of imagination and craft in her poetry. Given our admiration for Hoffman and the vibrant pulse of her work, we are thrilled to collaborate with Hunter College in honoring her.

Thing the Third

Last week, the good folks at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota got word that FOUR of their titles were nominated for the North Dakota State Library Association’s  Notable State Government Documents Award. This is the first time that any of our books have been nominated and I feel the press is being recognized for its solid work in the state. The books nominated are: Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean,  Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, and David Pettegrew’s One Hundred Voices, Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920and Kyle Conway’s Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018

We’re up against some pretty tough competition, particular from our friends at the NDSU Press who celebrated three nomination for the same award!

This is an exciting time for publishing in the Red River Valley!

Gravel Riding

This spring, I upgraded my 30 year old steel road bike with a gravel bike. As someone who had been an on-again, off-again road cyclist for most of his life, I had no idea what a gravel bike was, much less what to expect. In the distant past, I had owned a mountain bike and done a bit of mountain biking on the East Coast, but it had never really grown on me. I had also witnessed the “hybrid” commuter bike craze of the early 21st century and while those bikes interested me as someone who might enjoy a casual peddle through my neighborhood, they didn’t seem very serious, durable, or (to be honest) fun.

That all said, my trusty steel road bike had begin to look worse for wear and I knew that I probably needed to get a new bike if I was going to continue to ride. So when I received my Biden-Bonus, I headed down to the local bike shop with the plan to buy a mid-level road bike that would hopefully last another 30 years or so. After an hour of conversation, I left the shop with an entry level gravel bike.

For those into technical stuff, it’s a Specialized Diverge in aluminum. It’s not particularly fancy, but feels really solid on both the road and on less technical trails. It has drop handlebars, disc-brakes, and I’m still riding it with its original 700×38 Specialized Pathfinder Sport tires. With this set up, its real happy place is on gravel roads and I thought that I should introduce the readers of my blog to this happy place.

1. Riding Gravel. First and foremost, riding on a gravel road is its own kind of thing. As someone who grew up riding on the neatly pave roads of northern Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania and around Richmond, Virginia, I was not prepared to understand gravel.

In my experiences, for example, macro-topography was usually the greatest concern for planning a ride. Growing up my cycling buddies and I often considered elevation change, climbs, and descents as closely as we considered distance when we planned a ride. A 20 miler full of wickedly steep climbs was actually worse than a 40 miler over gently rolling hills. Gravel riding in North Dakota is more like surfing. Where I live, the only macro-component to ride planning is the direction and intensity of the wind (which consistently ranges between 3 and 4 on the Beaufort scale with some riding days approaching 5). Otherwise, the main concern is not the topography (which is flat) or distance (which varies depending on the wind strength and direction) but the gravel itself. 

Riding gravel involves a pretty intense attention to the area 3-5 feet in front of your bike. Finding a way to navigate the changing consistency and depth of the gravel and avoiding washboard ridges and ruts in the road is crucial to both a comfortable, efficient ride and staying upright. And the difference between good and bad gravel is the difference between humming along at 17 or 18 mph and bogging down and desperately searching for a higher gear (and then falling off your bike). Allowing a car or truck to pass often involves a delicate process of leaving enough room and finding a section of road hard enough prevent bogging down. Taking a drink from a water bottle or riding side-by-side involves anticipating paths through the gravel that extend further than the 3-5 feet in front of you and then making sure that you can snap your attention back to the road ahead. I’ve found that when I’m in the groove, there’s nothing quite like it. I’m discovering how to cross ridges of deep gravel and catching my back tire as it slides around. I’ve also learned to negotiate the one sweeping turn on my ride without scaring myself and intersections where ridges of gravel wash out your front tire. Yesterday I managed a ride with my tires at about 70 psi, which is pretty hard for a gravel bike tire, and managed to stay upright. I’ve also had the opposite happen; on a bad gravel day, I fall down a lot.   

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2. Formation Processes. One of the great things that this attention to the road in front of my front tire has brought to my attention is the formation processes involved in the making of gravel roads. As the photo above indicates, North Dakota gravel roads use a mixture of dirt and crushed stone. Each spring the roads receive a new level of gravel which appears to be poured on the center of the road and serves to accentuate the road’s crown (and facilitate drainage, one would imagine). Riding gravel in the spring is like riding through sand and tough going, but earlier season’s road bed often remains visible on the shoulders of the road and is often harder than the new gravel, but moving from the firmer shoulders to the emerging groves in the center of the road is not always easy. 

Over time, on a lightly trafficked road, a two grooves tends to develop where the gravel is both ground down into a hard surface and pushed to the side of the road by car tires. On more heavily travelled roads, three groove develop with cars sharing the middle groove of the road and leaving one path marking the tire tracks of cars traveling in either direction. For a cyclist, riding along this groove can be as easy as riding on a paved road and the soft shoulders are nearly impossible to negotiate. When traffic passes, it is sometimes possible to find the very edge of the soft gravel and to ascend and then slide down the gravel ridge back into the groove. This is strangely satisfying. 

Intersections are often scarred by washboarding where cars and trucks under braking have worn a washboard pattern into the road surface. The intersection itself tends to be a veritable miasma of dragged gravel which likely accounts for why many intersections are higher than the roads that enter it. Negotiate the loose and often deep ridges of gravel at intersections is a real challenge and turning across is often harrowing (heh, heh, see what I did there?). 

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3. Local Landscapes of Gravel. One of the paradoxes of riding on gravel is that it requires a good bit of concentration on the road immediately in front of you and taking in the scenery is sometime rewarded with the of bone jarring surprise of washboard ruts or the slushy sound of deepening gravel. That said, gravel roads are the only way to really appreciate the landscape around my home town. There are only two paved roads (that aren’t interstates) in and out of the town and the rest of the landscape is only accessible by the neat grid of paved section line roads set 1 mile apart. 

In the rare moments when its possible to enjoy the scenery, late summer and fall landscape is pretty interesting. There are the very first hints at next year’s winter wheat crop and the rustle of corn and the low broad-leafed acreage of sugar beets, which are just now seeing the very first “pre-pile” harvest.

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And of course, rural churches and their cemeteries which punctuate the countryside reminding us that there were once settlements here that have all but disappeared.

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It’s hard to fathom what it must have been like to live on the Northern Plains in the decade before statehood and the railroad but the grave markers offer a quiet reminder of that life.

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