Three Things Thursday: Making Life Harder, Publishing, and Lineal Champions

It’s almost mid-semester and that always puts me in a bit of a reflective mood. The lovely fall weather and some thoughtful colleagues doesn’t hurt either. So this week, I’m offering a little trio of three things Thursday meditation.

Thing the First

One of the things that I tell my students consistently is not to make their lives any harder than they need to be. Many of my students are carrying heavy course loads, working jobs, and have other family and personal responsibilities on top of the every day pressures of taking classes during a pandemic. In response to this, I’ve really focused on managing student workloads, particularly in lower division classes, and encouraging students to consider how best to use their time to get out of a class what they want to get out of it. In other words, do not do things the hard way because they seems like the best way.

Of course, in my professional life, I consistently do things the hard way. In fact, I seem to consistently and knowingly make my life harder than it needs to be by filling up my time with projects that reflect my interests rather than my priorities. More than that, I seem to get some kind of weird pleasure or at least excitement about navigating the hardest path and pushing myself to endure the frustrations and challenges that come not from the work itself but the arrangement of the work. This has me wondering whether my advice to students to stay on the easy path is good. Maybe more of my students are like me than I know?

Thing the Second

I’ve been working on a little Op-Ed piece for Near Eastern Archaeology with my fellow ASOR book series editor Jennie Ebeling. It’s still a work in progress, but we basically advocate for an increased emphasis on digital publishing in ASOR while acknowledging that there are certain challenges to this. 

This got me thinking about how the publishing ecosystem is a bit perverse. On the one hand, there seems to be consistent pressure on faculty to publish. Over the past few years this pressure might even be increasing at least among my colleagues in Europe. As a result, there seems to be a constant stream of publications in a growing number of journals and book series. These, in turn, require universities to constantly increase their library budgets to capture a productive share of the academic output. At the same time, there appears to be persistent barriers to supporting open access publishing at scale. These aren’t just economic barriers (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but also professional ones which discourage scholars from publishing in open access journals and book series. Anther colleague pointed out that in many fields in the humanities, there are even biases against finding subventions for publication to make them open access or more widely available. The result is that universities have created a system where they are scrambling to provide support for the publications that they push their faculty to produce. A significant slice of the revenue that this cycle creates is siphoned off to private investors further depleting public resources that could go for research, teaching, and in-house publishing.

Thing the Third

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this weekend is the Wilder-Fury III. This is the third heavyweight fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. The ramp up to the fight has been pretty heated and, like any major heavy-weight fight, the world feels like it stops when these two massive men step into the ring. 

In the fragmented world of heavyweight boxing, only one belt is on the line: the WBC belt. The fight will also be for The Ring heavyweight championship. More importantly (for me at least) is that the belt will be for the Lineal Heavyweight championship. I think the lineal championship, in particular, is what makes boxing – particularly in the so-called standard divisions – so appealing to me. The idea of the lineal championship is that only ONE guy is champion and the only way to be champion is the beat the guy who was the previous champion. If a champion retires, then the championship goes to the highest ranked contender ideally after the 2 and 3 ranked contenders fight. At times, then, the lineal championship can lay open or be contested. Obviously, in this era with multiple ranking systems, sanctioning bodies, and championships, it is often hard to confirm the real lineal champion but with heavyweights there’s a sense that Tyson Fury, after his victory over Wladimir Klitschko (who, in turn, won the lineal championship with his victory over Ruslan Chagaev, who was the third ranked heavyweight in the world at a time when Klitschko was ranked second; there was no lineal champion at that moment because Lennox Lewis had retired).

In any event, I like the concept of a lineal champion. It reminds me of Papal Succession and other formal lineages. I also like that in boxing – at least in theory – requires a fighter to defeat the champion in order to be the champion. In other sports, every season starts with a level playing field and while I get that this generates some excitement, in the world of free agency, there’s a lack of continuity that boxing at least seeks to rectify with its somewhat arcane system of succession. 

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!

Three Things Thursday: Agency, Data, and Digital Archaeology

One of the great things about spending quality time with the Western Argolid Regional Project datasets is that it gets me thinking about data and digital archaeology more broadly. It is merely a happy coincidence that an a trio of interesting articles on digital archaeology have appeared over the last few weeks.

So for this week, we can do a little three thing Thursday that hits one some intriguing new publications.

Thing the First

I try to read most things that Jeremy Huggett writes and to my mind, he is among the most thoughtful commentators in the field of digital archaeology. His most recent article, in Open Archaeology, titled “Algorithmic Agency and Autonomy in Archaeological Practice” explores the nature of agency in digital archaeology at the moment where we are moving toward more sophisticated and complex digital tools. Huggett considers not only the changing notion of agency in light of the increasingly sophisticated technology used by archaeologists, but also traces a future trajectory that frames the need to consider the ethical implications of digital tools that archaeologists use to make their arguments. 

He emphasizes the way that complex algorithms create “black boxes” that obscure the workings of the technology that archaeologists use in their analysis. This is not a kind of luddite alarmism, but instead anchored in a thoughtful understanding of recent trends in our field. For example, Huggett notes that advance in algorithms already allow computers to scan massive numbers of satellite and aerial photographs for patterns that suggest cultural artifacts. Similar technologies may soon allow archaeologists to stitch together highly fragmentary wall painting or identify ceramic forms on the basis of broken sherds. These kinds of technologies rely on algorithms that process far more data and consider nearly infinitely more variables than a human could consider, and this allows them draw unanticipated conclusions that exceed the typical process of hypothesis testing at the core of archaeological inquiry. 

These algorithmic processes not only have the potential to disrupt the conventional process of hypothesis testing at the core of academic archaeology, but also produce results in such a way that they far exceed the conventional terms of archaeological explanation. At this point, Huggett would argue, the archaeologist has ceded a good bit of interpretative agency to technologies and algorithms. By giving up an understanding of process, we run the risk of giving up ethical control over our inquiries. We need look no further than recent controversies around facial recognition software that drew on databanks that were overwhelming white and this has created unexpected biases in biometric recognition practices (that tend to discriminate against non-white individuals).

In short, Huggett’s work is pushing archaeology to anticipate the ethical implications of ceding agency to algorithms that often are far more complex than the kind of routine hypothesis testing at the core of conventional archaeological practices.

Thing the Second

Néhémie Strupler’s recent article in Internet Archaeology is a remarkable first step toward a more critical practice in publishing. Titled “Re-discovering Archaeological Discoveries. Experiments with reproducing archaeological survey analysis,” Strupler compares archived and published date from three archaeological projects to the published results from those projects. Needless to say, the results are eye-opening. The data from two of the three projects (including my own Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project) did not coincide with the results published in their more formal, paper publications. 

This posed two problems for Strupler. First, it suggests that existing peer review practices do not extend to exploring the relationship between archived and published data and more traditional, predominantly textual results. This is particularly glaring in the case of the Pyla-Koutsopetria project where the data was published in advance of the formal survey publication (although perhaps not in advance of our manuscript being circulated for review).  

The second problem is concerns about the reproducibility of data-driven archaeological argument making. How robust must datasets be – in terms of metadata and paradata – to allow for scholars to reasonably test the results of archaeological analysis. More importantly, how robust must datasets be to allow scholars to go beyond merely testing published arguments, but propose counter arguments or new research directions on the basis of publicly available data. As I am involved in preparing three new datasets for both conventional and digital publication, this article provided some substantial food for thought. 

Thing the Third

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been dipping my toe into some local heritage work and CRM. One of things that this work produced was a substantial data set that describes mid-century housing in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The dataset was dutifully submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a table in a PDF (as they requested) and will for the foreseeable future languish on my hard drive as a flat table. 

This all introduces the nice little summative statement offered by Christopher Nicholson, Rachel Fernandez and Jessica Irwin titled “Digital Archaeological Data in the Wild West: the challenge of practising responsible digital data archiving and access in the United States” from Internet Archaeology. As they point out, the current state of digital archiving of archaeological data in the US is a patchwork of practices. Many states, for example, continue to lack policies or procedures for archiving the digital datasets that back many of the reports that CRM and heritage processionals produce on a regular basis. Private CRM firms lack any motivation to make data that they archive available publicly. Local heritage units, such as our Historical Preservation Commission, lack the resources to archive data, reports, and studies that they have commissioned and often look to the state for this or beyond, to the federal government. 

In any event, this isn’t meant as a criticism of underfunded state, local, and federal agencies, but rather to note that archaeology as field is still struggling to come to terms with its digital footprint. 

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

Summer Reading (and Publishing) Thursday

I’ve been trying to make more time for reading this summer (and not entirely failing, but perhaps not succeeding as brilliantly as I imagine that I will). I have a stack of literary magazines that I really want to get though. I have at least three novels on my “to read” pile, and I want to keep reading in my various fields, keep up with my readings for my classes, and expand my perspectives. Finally, I also want to keep reading manuscripts for my press and for North Dakota Quarterly

Needless to say, this is too much for any summer to accommodate, but the challenge is exciting.

So, for today, I’m going to offer three things that have made me particularly happy this summer.

Thing the First

I know I’ve pitched Cindy Prescott and Maureen Thompson’s Backstories: A Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, more than a few times on this blog. I do this not only because I’m the publisher and it’s my job, but also because I find the book a brilliant example of public history. It’s also well-suited for summertime consumption with short chapter, stories, recipes, and experiences. You can download or buy the book here.

You can hear Cindy Prescott talk about the book here.

I also want to give a bit of attention to Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, David Pettegrew’s, One Hundred Voices, Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920. It is the perfect book to enjoy on Juneteenth and you can download it for free or buy a copy here.

The editors of this volume discuss it with folks from the State Library of Pennsylvania here

Thing the Second

One of my great joys in my academic life is editing North Dakota Quarterly. It gives me change— actually a responsibility — to read essays, fiction, and poetry consistently every year and for a few weeks each year, it becomes my main responsibility.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been sharing some of the work in the most recent issue over at the NDQ blog. Go and check it out here.

Since this post is about summertime reading, I would encourage you to read, in particular, Sanjeev Sethi’s poem “Chronicle,” Katrin Arefy’s essay: “The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise,” and Katie Edkins Milligan’s story “Witness” (which I just posted today!). These are the kind of meaty contributions that invade my walks, runs, and bike rides and push me to think about the world and my experiences in different ways.

(Katie Edkins Milligan’s story is a great example. The story focuses on a woman who witnesses a car accident and her subsequent efforts to understand and deal with the experience. The story contrast the time of the accident in its brutal immediacy, and the way in which the accident informed the rest of her day-to-day life. There’s something very compelling about this contrast between the moment and the response that feels, albeit in indistinct ways, useful for our COVID inflected world.)

Thing the Third

My little press has TWO books currently in copy editing. This means that I’ll have TWO manuscripts that will shortly arrive on my desk. The first one is a book on the titled The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend by Michael G. Michlovic and George R. Holley. The book provides an introduction and survey of the archaeology of the Sheyenne bend in southeastern North Dakota. I should stand as a fundamental work for understanding the archaeology of some of the earliest settlers residents of Southeastern North Dakota and appeal to specialists (for their rather comprehensive bibliography) and non-specialists alike.

The other book is by a long-time friend and colleague Rebecca Romsdahl, and it’s titled Mindful Wanderings: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. It’s a fantastic book that blends Romsdahl’s deep, professional understanding of environmental science and policy with her global travels which have taken her to the UK, Egypt, Asia, the Galapagos, and back to the Northern Plains. The book is candid and earnest without giving up its learned underpinnings. Like The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend, this book should appeal to a wide audience, and I feel confident that it will find a particular happy home among the cosmopolitan residents of Northern Plains and I would love for it sit along side books like Tom Isern’s Pacing Dakota

Stay tuned for these books this fall.

Open, Free, and Student Friendly Books

Yesterday I was in a great meeting where the topic of open educational resources came up. This past year, I transitioned my two introductory level courses to completely open textbooks. This was not a very challenging task, in part, because intro level courses tend to have the greatest range of open teaching materials available for them. 

My mid-level class, a required course for history majors and minors, has one non-open access, non-free book required: Kate Turabian’s famous A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This book is now in its 9th edition, but I’m willing to allow students to use earlier additions provided that they have access to the most recent one (at the library, online, or from a friend). Since our department leans a bit on this book in subsequent classes, we like to students to have a copy of their own. It is sufficiently ubiquitous that it is possible to get a copy of the most recent addition of the book for $5-$7 (new copies are only $15) and this seems like a fair price for a book used across multiple classes.

One of the challenges that I’m facing as a publisher, a scholar, and a teacher is the need balance the existence of a sustainable system that produces high quality academic material, on the one hand, and to control costs for students, libraries, and my fellow scholars, on the other. As an open access publisher inching toward sustainability, for example, I rely on a certain percentage of people choosing to buy physical copies of my books even though they can download them for free. The various professional societies with which I’m affiliated likewise rely on the sales of books and journal subscriptions (as well as membership dues and other revenue streams) to support their efforts to publish high-quality, specialized scholarship. It is clear that the pressure to produce open access scholarship runs the risk of eroding these revenue streams and cutting into their ability to support the kind of low margin, high cost professional scholarship that fields need to continue to grow and thrive. All of this is compounded by declining or stagnant library budgets, unscrupulous behavior by commercial publishers, growing costs of maintaining research collections, and reluctance to support publishing and university presses as part of an institution’s mission.   

This should not be read as a critique of open access scholarship, but as a reminder that academic and scholarly publishing exist within a complex ecosystem of pressures, resources, and opportunities.

To return, then, to open access, free, and student friendly books, I’ve started to think a bit more critically how the push for open educational resources fits into this larger ecosystem. Should we consider student book purchases as a way to support scholarly publishing in general? 

On the one hand, we have to recognize that the cost of going to college has increased and this has created a significant burden on college students. On the other hand, it feels like there is a continuum that already exists between open educational resources that are no costs to students or institutions and expensive textbooks. For example, most universities have libraries with subscriptions that provide students with access to content at no additional costs to students. This content, of course, is generally not free or open, but provided as part of a student’s tuition. Free, but not open content, can be wonderful, but it is limited by the stipulations of subscriptions and access permissions.

In this context, such free content is not radically different from assigning low cost books for a class inasmuch as they form part of an uneven landscape in higher education where certain students, typically from more affluent universities, have greater access to high-quality educational and research material than others. Conversely, the uneven quality of open access material, especially designed for specialized, upper level classes, limits the opportunities for less affluent students at less affluent institutions.

This is a rambling meditation, but my larger point is that, first, we do need to recognize that open educational resources do work to level the playing field between institutions and students, but only if they are at least as high a quality as free or low cost options. Free or low cost options tend to cover less even ground with more affluent institutions have a greater access to free content (via subscriptions or other arrangements with presses) than less affluent ones.

The potential of low cost options is less clear. It would be interesting to know what students who have already invested in the costs of higher education, which are burdensome to be sure, are willing to spend to get high(er) quality material for a class. This assumes, of course, that a low cost option exists for material that is higher quality than an open alternative, and this suggests that the material is more specialized and would be likely to appear in an upper level course. Developing offerings that are low cost, template driven, and appealing (and low risk) enough to see widespread adoptions would also generate a revenue stream that, say, an academic society could use to produce more similar low cost content.

(As an aside, I love models that set a clear financial goal for a publication which once reached makes the book open access.)

Such models are not without problems, of course, and it is completely appropriate to look askance at a funding scheme that looks to student costs as a revenue stream. At the same time, there is always a balance between the reality that high quality scholarship costs money and the need to find fair and equitable ways to preserve student opportunities. 

Three Things Thursday

Things are happening this week in publishing in the Red River Valley. That it coincides with the start of the summer is an added bonus. It is, after all, a traditional reading season, even if there will be fewer vacations and less travel this year!

Thing the First

I received my copies of North Dakota Quarterly 88.1/2 from our partners at University of Nebraska Press. They look great, as always, and include over 100 new essays, stories, and poems. You can check out the table of contents here

IMG 6182

This week, I published the editor’s note that explains the cover design. The essay is by our art editor and my long time friend and colleague, Ryan Stander. Check it out here.

The essay is a reflection on the way that COVID has shaped our daily lives and drawn to mundane actions with new perspective. For me, this essay rung particular true. My walks in the park, uninterrupted by travel and made all the more routine by my efforts to social distance and work from home, have take on a new subtlety and nuance. 

At the same time, the draw back to our daily lives has thrown into relief how the global course of COVID has taxed our compassion as a society. Not only have the profiteers started to discuss the suffering and dislocations as an opportunity for profit, but victims made vulnerable by complex and divisive social pressures have become the objects of ridicule and derision. These are challenging days and I can’t help but wonder whether our scientific solutionism, which sees COVID as a first and foremost a medical and scientific problem to be solved, requires tempering with the insights offered through poetry, fiction, and thoughtful, reflective arts and essays. The problems facing the world right now are not simply because of the virus, but because of our lack of compassion for those who suffer either in countries that lack the resources to distribute vaccines and provide treatment effectively or among communities who struggle to understand the severity of the risk.

If you want to read more of what appears in this issue, go here, and check back each week for more from the issue. If you like what you read, consider subscribing

Thing the Second

It looks like our friends at Theran Press, in Fargo, ND, have published a new book this week: Popeye and Curly: 120 Days in Medieval Baghdad by Emily Selove.

Here’s the blurb: 

Enjoy one hundred and twenty scenes from the vibrant city of Abbasid Baghdad, starring book-loving author Popeye (Al-Jahiz) and winebibbing poet Curly (Abu Nuwas), along with their friends Coral (a singing girl) and the Caliph of one of the world’s most influential empires in history. Each episode is derived from historical sources, and designed to entertain, educate, and amaze.

It looks to me to be the ultimate summertime read. A perfect companion to slow summer evenings on the porch and 

In 2019, she published what I think is perhaps the only introductory level textbook to Medieval Baghdad: Baghdad at the Centre of a World, 8th-13th Century: An Introductory Textbook.

Thing the Third

Finally, there’s been some nice buzz around the latest book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Cynthia C. Prescott’s and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook.

First, there was this lovely blog post by Maureen Thompson about the book on the Rural Women’s Studies Association website.

Then, closer to home, my colleagues at the University of North Dakota have shared this celebratory posting on the university’s press site.

If you haven’t checked out Backstories, you really should. You can download it for free – we don’t even ask for an email address – or buy a copy for the low low price of $20 on Amazon.com.

New Book Day: Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook

It’s new book day at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. And most people agree that New Book Day is the BEST DAY.

The book is Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook and it’s edited by my colleague Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. 

If you want to check the book out, you can download a copy here or purchase it in glorious paperback!

Yesterday, I enjoyed the wide ranging book release panel at the Rural Women’s Studies Association where an number of the authors discussed their contribution to the book and celebrated the hard work of the editors to make this impressive work possible. 

From my perspective as a publisher, this is the most mature book that I have produced so far in terms of design, workflow, and final product. The book is innovative in content and the design embraces that, without taking too many risks.

Below the fold is a blurb for the book and the press release. 

Backstories Cover FINAL SINGLEPAGE

Sharing recipes is a form of intimate conversation that nourishes body and soul, family and community. Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook integrates formal scholarship with informal reflections, analyses of recipe books with heirloom recipes, and text with images to emphasize the ways that economics, politics, and personal meaning come together to shape our changing relationships with food. By embracing elements of history, rural studies, and women’s studies, this volume offers a unique perspective by relating food history with social dynamics. It is sure to inspire eclectic dining and conversations.

Cynthia C. Prescott is Professor of History at the University of North Dakota and an occasional baker. Her research focuses on portrayals of rural women in cultural memory.

Maureen Sherrard Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University. Her dissertation focuses on business, environmental, and gender perspectives associated with the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century seed industry.

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Here’s the press release:

For Immediate Release
May 10, 2021
The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, ND

From COVID to Comfort: New Book Explores the Role of Women and the Kitchen in Rural Life

As the COVID pandemic transformed our lives, one thing remained a constant. The kitchen continued to be the center of home life. In fact, social distancing, lockdowns, and other challenges associated with the pandemic made the kitchen even more important as cooking, eating, studying, and above all work, intersect around the kitchen table.

Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson, concludes with perspectives on the pandemic and situates them amid the long history of cooking, food, and women’s work in the home. The book combines scholarly essays with reflections, recipes, and recollections that bring out the complex history and work around the kitchen table. With over 20 contributors and 60 selections, Backstories takes the reader from the East Coast’s Delmarva Peninsula to the American and Canadian Midwest, the Mexican-American border, to Hawaii and beyond and situate the kitchen across a range of cultural and historical contexts.

Cynthia C. Prescott, Professor of History at the University of North Dakota explained “Our goal was to bring together recipes, interdisciplinary scholarship, oral traditions, and personal memories to explore three centuries of rural foodways and women’s lives. Whether you are a foodie or a gender or food studies researcher, you will find much to savor in this unique volume.”

Maureen S. Thompson, a PhD candidate at Florida International University noted: “Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook is a captivating amalgamation of scholarly articles juxtaposed with heartwarming family memories associated with particular foods, and yes, plenty of recipes. Rural Women’s Studies Association members generously contributed scholarly articles paired with foodways, memories, and reminiscences to create, perhaps, the first academic cookbook.”

The volume was produced in conjunction with the Rural Women’s Studies Association triennial meeting which this year has the theme “Kitchen Table Talk to Global Forum.” Catharine Wilson, Co-Chair of the RWSA and Host of the 2021 Conference, remarks: “Backstories serve up a delicious “taste” of what the RWSA is about: they are international and capture farm and rural women’s/gender studies in historical perspective. Members savored reflecting on their foodways and collecting the recipes, a process that whetted their appetites for our 14th Triennial Conference … Bon appétit!”.

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, it is available as a free download and as a low-cost paperback via Amazon.com. William Caraher, director of The Digital Press, noted: “It was a pleasure to collaborate with the editors and contributors to produce something genuinely unique. That we can make this book available for free as a download and as an affordable paperback should ensure that it appears in as many kitchens and libraries as possible.”

Cooking in the Scholarly Kitchen

This morning I have the pleasure to attend the Rural Women’s Studies Association Triennial Meeting (via zoom, of course) to offer a few comments on a book that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will release tomorrow. The book is Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook and it’s edited by my colleague Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. 

If you want to check the book out, you can download a copy here or purchase it in glorious paperback!

I want to keep my remarks focused on the book this morning, but I’m super tempted to talk a bit about academic publishing as well. Backstories emphasizes the role that women play in rural foodways and in the family kitchen. Woman not only provided sustenance for their families and communities, but also communicated cultural and social values, shaped the domestic economy, and offered stability during a time of crisis. The kitchen and cooking took on an even more prominent role during the COVID pandemic when family meals, cooking experiments, and the use of the kitchen table itself as a multipurpose nerve center where family life, work, school, and, of course, eating come together. The book then reveals how contemporary situations shine light on the traditional roles of the kitchen in family life.

A more adventurous talk would fold the story of The Digital Press into the history of the kitchen and point out how publishing is often regarded as the kitchen of the academic process. In fact, one the best known academic publishing blogs is called The Scholarly Kitchen

In this context, it makes sense that publishing industry as a whole is largely operated by women (one recent figure that I saw was >70% of the publishing industry is women). Of course, this doesn’t mean that women are making decisions about who and what to publish. In fact, studies consistently show that men dominate editorial boards and there remains gender disparity in research. Moreover, women are paid less than their male colleagues in the publishing industry. Thus, the kitchen metaphor is more than just a way to describe the back of the house where research (which remains encoded as masculine activity in many contexts) is quietly turned into something consumable. The barrier, then, between research and publishing is not as simple as a kind of technical black box where two different skills abut one another. It is also a barrier that is mapped onto gender divides in academia as a broader industry.

Books like Backstories serve as nice reminders that the kitchen as both a real and metaphorical place remains a gendered space, but also reflects the centrality of women’s role in the process of producing the family, society and culture as well as academic knowledge making. Just as in recent home architecture, the kitchen has move to the center of the home and become public social space situated for both display, gathering, and the preparation of food, the publishing process, pried open by interest in open access and scholar-led publishing, has started what I imagine to be slow pivot toward the center of academic life. 

Previewing Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook

Over the last few months, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has been working away at a very special project. In collaboration with the Rural Women’s Studies Associate, we are publishing an edited volume of scholarly essays and recipes that celebrate, analyze, and interrogate the relationship between food, women, and rural life. 

The book is edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson and is titled Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook. One of the book’s reviewers pointed out that this title is a bit of a mouthful, and we decided that this was entirely appropriate for a book about food!

We’ll be ready to release the book during the Rural Women Studies Associate meeting next month. Like all books from The Digital Press, it’ll be available as a high quality, color PDF for free and as a low-cost paperback.

In the meantime, we invite you to bookmark the book’s landing page here and while you’re there, download a preview of the book!

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