Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

Free Books for Cyber Monday!

I can think of no better way to spend the digital hellscape that is Cyber Monday, than downloading and reading free stuff from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

To make this easier and a bit more fun, we’ve put together some download bundles full of good books that you can download absolutely free:

First, you can grab all of our archaeology titles with one click here including Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Siegfried’s latest book, Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Download it here.

Then, you can grab all our titles that have to deal with North Dakota with one click here including Kyle Conway’s innovated volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. Download it here.

Then, you can check download all of our books that deal with critical issues including Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s historical and savory edited volume Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook! Download it here.

Finally, if you want to think more broadly and creatively about our world, check out this packet of books from The Digital Press and our creative partners at Epoiesen and North Dakota QuarterlyDownload it here.

Oh, and if you just want all the books that we’ve published ever. Click here for a 1.6 GB megapack.

DP Poster

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If the very idea of cyber anything gives you hives, you can always get books from The Digital Press at Amazon.com and most of our titles are available from Bookshop.org as well.

Bookshop.org allows you to support local bookstores when you buy a copy of Deserted Villages, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust, and One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.  

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Finally, if you want something really cool to make you cyber Monday less obnoxiously consumer, check out this preview of Rebecca Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Get it here.

Mindful CoverDraft 3 01

What Do We Mean By “Digital” and “Publishing” When We Say “Digital Publishing”

This week is the annual meeting of the American Schools of Overseas Research in Chicago and unfortunately for the second year in a row, I won’t be able to attend in person because of the dumb COVID pandemic. If you wonder why I’m not going to Chicago, this article appeared as if on cueYou can check out the full program here.

Fortunately, the workshop  in which I’m scheduled to participate, “Best Practices for Digital Scholarship” has an impressive line up and the organizers of the panel have been particularly accommodating and I have some hope that I will be able to participate in the panel in some way.

That said, my take on the issue of best practices for digital scholarship is probably not really what they had in mind, but I hope it nevertheless contributes in some way to the conversation. In sum, I try to suggest that digital practices in archaeology and the  

This very brief paper offers a two casual observations on digital publishing based on my position as a sometime archaeologist and sometime publisher. For the last six years, I’ve directed a small (perhaps better ”nano”) scholar-led press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, which has published over 20 books on a range of topics from the history of the Northern Plains to Mediterranean and world archaeology. The books are open access and available as digital downloads or as print-on-demand paperbacks.

My experience working as both an archaeologist and a publisher informs my first observation which I developed more fully in my contribution to a volume edited by Kevin Garstki that is currently in page proofs! (Here’s the conference paper on which this contribution is based.) In this chapter, I argue that digital practices in archaeology have increasingly blurred the line between field work, analysis, interpretation, and publishing. We now use databases that can seamlessly publish our data to the web. Most GIS software integrates with web-based interfaces or allows us to produce publication quality maps if not literally in the field, then at our laptop. Illustration software is at home in the lab as it is in the publisher’s office. And it seems to me, at least, that document preparation software such as LaTeX, which is increasingly standard in scientific publishing, is even blurring the distinction between word processing and typesetting in some contexts. The way in which these digital tools have shaped our archaeological workflow anticipates a time when such classic scholarly conceits as the “final report” become indistinguishable points along a continuum of digitally mediated knowledge making.

The second observation is more polemical (and I’m willing to make some of these claims because I’m not attending this panel in person!) and derives from the first. If the line between research, writing, and publishing is becoming more and more blurry, what is the ”value add” that comes from traditional academic publishing? Of course, publishers often ensure that our publications look elegant, professional, and attractive, but surely this is not enough to justify their role in academic life.

We might point out that publishers manage the peer review process, but most scholars would agree that contemporary peer review standards and practices are neither unproblematic nor entirely fair and probably do less to guarantee the quality and “truth” of a publication than we would hope.

We might note that many academic institution require academic publications for tenure, promotion, or merit raises, and this requires academic publishers. But as tenure, promotion, and raises become increasingly less common in academia it seems like this will not justify their existence.

We might point out that academic publishers facilitate the distribution of scholarly knowledge. But as institutional budgets dwindle and library funding declines, it is hard not to see this role as at least partly parasitic as it draws resources away from the very institutions committed to producing new knowledge. As institutional funding does not appear to be trending toward more equality either in the US or globally, it is difficult to imagine how the existing system will pivot so as not to continue to exacerbate the divide between a very small number of ”haves” and a growing number ”have nots.” Moreover, the recent impact of the COVID pandemic has shown that current system used to disseminate academic knowledge could be fairly easily subverted (or even replaced) by peer-to-peer networks of file sharing.

These observations may appear to be peripheral to the issues that this panel wants to discuss, but I would argue they’re not. On the one hand, digital tools, technologies, and methods are changing our ideas of fieldwork, analysis, and publishing in fundamental ways. On the other hand, the structure of archaeology as an academic (and professional) discipline and the role that publishing plays in institutional and professional standards and practices is (or at least should be) changing as well. In other words, when we ask questions such as: “what can individuals, institutions, and professional societies do to better support data publishing?” we might want to attend to the larger question of how individuals, institutions, and professional societies imagine the role of both digital and traditional publishing in our changing institutional and professional world.

Three Things Thursday: Epoiesen, Teaching, and NDQ

It’s Veterans’ Day today and it would appear that we’re going to get a the first snow of the season (so check back later for my traditional “first snow” post!) As per usual this time of year, a day off from teaching isn’t so much a break as a chance to catch up on other work that has been moved to the back burner as the semester reaches a fevered pitch. 

In light of this chaotic time of the year, it feels like a decent time for a short three things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m genuinely torn about the ever increasing role that crowd funding plays in higher education. In its ongoing effort to develop new revenue streams to cover everything from student scholarships to innovative research, crowd funding has become a common fixture in the higher education landscape. 

On the one hand, I’m interested in the way in which crowd funding can serve to build new relationships between projects and “stakeholders.” At its best, crowd funding platforms like Patreon have allowed “independent creators” to create communities and the work of groups like The Sportula have backfilled the decline in public (and private) support for working class and disadvantaged college students. It is hard to argue that crowd funding isn’t a useful response to the current funding situation in higher education. 

This is all a long prologue to my shout out to the a new crowdfunding project designed to support the journal Epoiesen. For those of you who don’t know, Epoiesen, is what it says on the box: “a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology” founded by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Epoiesen as both a contributor and a the publisher of the paper version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Their crowdfunding project is here and its goal is to support ongoing efforts to professionalize the journal, improve its web interface, and increase its reach. Even a casual visit to Epoiesen will make clear that the journal is not some pie-in-the-sky dream but is already a substantial publication that is making a contribution to the academic conversation. Adding polish will only increase its impact.

This is as good a cause as any and offers a way to close the gap between revenue generated traditionally through subscriptions and expenses associated with production. And, whether we like it or not, crowdfunding is now a key way to help innovative ideas succeed.  

Thing the Second

As the semester winds down, I’ve been thinking more and more about the model that I use in my introductory level history courses. In these classes, students work together to write a series of 2000-2500 word essays on various topics. They draw on the textbook and various primary source collections for evidence and submit outlines and multiple drafts over the course of a four week module. The results are generally pretty decent and almost always better than the traditional essays or papers that I used to require in such a class.

This got me wondering whether the traditional reliance on single authored papers and tests has only limited utility in the college classroom. After all, lab sciences have long relied on group work and applied sciences and professional program often encourage students to work as teams to solve problems. While writing is usually a solitary task, I’d contend that most academic papers are co-authored even if this remains less common in the humanities than in other fields. In other words, there is a strong tradition of collaborative work not only teaching across the university, but also in our research lives. 

The emphasis on sole authorship, then, feels a bit old fashioned and might, in fact, reflect attitudes toward education that emphasized its role to rank and sort students rather than to ensure that students develop the diverse skills necessary for them to thrive. Creating projects where students to work together on writing and research encourages students to work together and contributes to an environment where students who have better writing, reading, and research skills work with and support students who might not be as advanced. This isn’t a pious fantasy, but something I see every night as groups wrestle with the complex task for thinking though, researching, organizing, and writing their essays. This kind of environment has the added bonus of creating spaces where students who might feel isolated have opportunities to work together with their peers and form practical (and perhaps even social bonds). 

I don’t think the collaborative writing will even supplant the single author essay or paper (and there are always some students who think that they can do better on their own), but I’m starting to think that collaborative writing might actually be a way to develop writing intensive classes at scale without the massive burden of individual grading and comments. In other words, this system might be both better for students and better for faculty work loads.   

Thing the Third  

In about 15 minutes, I’ll have to turn my attention to the final steps in preparing North Dakota Quarterly for publication. At this point of the process most of the heavy lifting has been done by our publishing partners at the University of Nebraska Press, but my contributors have eagerly completed their proofing the typeset pages and I simply need to pull together their edits. It’s a testimony to the work at the University of Nebraska Press and my diligent authors that we tend to have very few errors at the proof stage. 

One of the most exciting stages of the publication process is the issue cover. This issue’s cover features art by Reinaldo Gil Zambrano, a Venezuelan print maker who now works from Spokane, Washington. In an era where compliance has increasingly taken on an ominous meaning, it seems almost redundant to title a work “malicious compliance,” but Zambrano’s cover nevertheless stands a provocative reminder of how compliance culture can so easily devolve into violence and pain.

NDQ 88 3 4 cover pdf 2021 11 11 06 46 03

Three Things Thursday: Peer Review, Being Busy, and Fiction from the Archive

It feels like it’s about the time of the semester for a Three Things Thursday. So here are some thoughts on peer review, being busy, and a little fiction from the NDQ archive!

Thing the First

This week, I was vaguely annoyed by a well-meaning twitter thread about peer review. The author of this thread argues that journals are being overwhelmed by low quality submissions that are unpublishable and many of these, she argues, come from graduate students. She quite reasonably suggests that graduate programs and advisors take more time to mentor graduate students on the publishing process. This is all commendable, but I take a bit of issue with the premise that the problem with low quality submissions is that graduate students are being told to send manuscripts to journals before these manuscripts are ready.  

To my mind, the problem isn’t the submission of low quality manuscripts, but peer review itself. I’d argued that in the contemporary humanities peer review has become so capricious that it has undermined any common standard for what constitutes a publishable manuscript. I have published consistently over the last decade and worked with a wide range of experienced colleagues, and I know that we still feel a bit unprepared for how reviewers will react to our manuscripts. Some of my weaker articles sail through with minimal calls for revisions while some of my more carefully reasoned and vetted pieces have received rather unfavorable responses for reviewers. When I was a less seasoned scholar, these vagaries frustrated me, but now, I realize that this is just part of the unpredictability of the academic publishing process. As a reviewer I’ve also had the experience of providing careful feedback to articles and then seeing these works published with hardly any changes. And I’ve favorable reviewed articles for one journal only to see the appear in a different journal. I’ve also been struck by the different levels of anonymity in the review process, the different levels of editorial guidance, the different deadlines expected for reviewers, and the sometimes overwhelming number of asks from a small number of publications followed by radio silence. As a reviewer, I constantly find myself second guessing my reviews, the journal’s expectations, and the attitudes of journal editors.   

The rise of the infamous “Reviewer #2” is just a symptom of the randomness associated with the review process. Some of this invariably has to do wide range of epistemologies, methods, and approaches that currently contribute to knowledge making in the humanities. The plurality of understandings of what constitutes meaningful knowledge makes consistent critique of articles challenging and determining which article crosses a bar .

Some of this also has to do with the growing pressure on academics to publish across all stages of their careers. This not only means that scholars have a greater diversity of experiences with the publishing process (and mentoring could help alleviate this diversity of experience, if that is thought desirable), but more importantly a range of access to libraries and resources vital to the task of thinking, reading, and writing. A contingent faculty member teaching at four institutions, a PhD student juggling between teaching and research, a tenure track or tenured faculty member at a lower tier state institution, and a faculty member at a SLAC or R1 will all have different resources at their disposal. More than that, they’ll also have different kinds of academic communities with different expectations and different approaches to critique. To me, this diversity is a good thing in academia. 

Peer review, however, struggles to accommodate epistemological diversity and the kind of institutional and social diversity which has only been exaggerated further by the COVID pandemic and ever more incisive cuts to library funding. In fact, I’d argue that peer review was a fine too for managing a largely homogeneous academia, but has perhaps struggled to adapt to the growing heterogeneity in our ranks.

In this context, it is not so much that manuscripts are “unpublishable,” but that our sense for what constitutes a publishable manuscript has become so helplessly muddled that suggesting graduate programs somehow clarify to students what constitutes publishable seems almost an example of “punching down” and pushing graduate directors and advisors to resolve a situation that is fundamentally outside their control.

Thing the Second

I would like to propose a moratorium on people declaring themselves busy in academic setting. This isn’t meant to diminish the anxiety that people feel about their workloads or the current situation. Nor I am trying to deny that people are actually very busy. And I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from making known that current workloads, in addition to the challenges associated with the seemingly endless pandemic, are not sustainable. People are busier than ever, it creates genuine anxiety, and we need to reinforce that this is not a sustainable situation.

At the same time, faculty have to recognize their audience, pick the opportunities, and channel their anxiety into collective solutions. In at least a few recent occasions, I’ve felt that faculty have directed their sense of busyness onto their colleagues and this feels like a deeply counter productive approach and one that is more likely to produce a kind of defensiveness than a sense of solidarity. I know I have increasingly come to feel that declarations of busyness are often ways for certain individuals to say that they are a busier than other individuals (even if that is not their intention). 

I have a modest proposal: instead of repeating mantra-like statements of how busy we are to all and sundry (including fellow travelers!), perhaps it would be more useful to direct these anxious statements in more collective and unified ways toward those who can actually impact our workloads. At the same time, assume that everyone is busy at the table might create a space where it is easier to find temporary solutions to our collective sense of being overwhelmed.  

Thing the Third

If all this is too structural and academic, do check out this week’s post over at NDQ! It’s a short story from the archives that involves dancing and joy.

As the author of the story, Bábara Mújica, has one of her characters say: “Celebrate when you can. Be happy when you can. Rejoice in the moment, and look for reasons to be glad.”

Making a Book: Mindful Wandering

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on typesetting a new book: Rebecca J. Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. The book is scheduled to appear in time for the holidays and is really great. It will be available as a free download and a print-on-demand paperback from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

The author describes the book this way (and I like this back of the cover blurb!):

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

The book is typeset and I’m pretty happy with the results. The text is set in Janson with the chapter title in Baskerville. The fonts are pretty conservative, but this is kind of the look that I was going for. The author and I decided to use a grey background for the image on the facing page of the chapter breaks to make these a bit more visible. I then shaded the chapter number (and season, which coincides with a theme in the book) to link the two facing pages together a bit. 

Mindful DRAFT FULL 2 pdf 2021 11 02 05 47 58

I tried to also keep the spacing between lines very comfortable and combined the spacing with a pretty large font (12 pt!) to make the book a comfortable read.

Mindful DRAFT FULL 2 pdf 2021 11 02 05 54 04

I also used little ears of wheat as a section divider. They’re just a bit oversized, which I found endearing!

The book’s cover has been a bit more of a challenge. I wanted the cover to be pretty conservative, The author provided some great images, all of which showed the author in the context of her landscape. I picked one that had a nice vertical aspect to it and space for the title. 

At first, I tried to use a blue filter to create a kind of ethereal landscape, but my expert panel of reviewers said that it made the cover look a bit uninviting. 

Mindful CoverDraft 1 SCREEN

At first, I wasn’t so sure, but I think that they’re probably right. They also suggested that I increase the size of the title and maybe use a warmer filter that would both make the book feel more welcoming and bring out the author’s blue jacket more. 

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I’m not sure that this will be the final version of the cover, but I think it’s getting close. I love how the filter which is warm and brown brings out the gradient in the sky.

More on this book as it wends its way through the final stages of production soon!

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…