More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

Open Access Week Announcement: The Digital Press + Epoiesen

Each year, Open Access Week celebrates the work of authors and publishers who make their works available for free and open circulation. From its origins, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has worked to encourage open access publishing across its entire catalogue and seek out collaboration with likeminded authors and publishers.

For Open Access Week 2017, we are very pleased to announce our collaboration with Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology founded and edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. Epoiesen urges its contributors to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license to their works, but also recognizes that each author has the right to set the terms for their contributions.

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Epoiesen 🔊

Recent work in Epoiesen has included video games that explore academic publishing and the destruction of the past, thoughtful, experimental critiques of a weaponized social media, and transmedia engagement with archaeological knowledge making

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish an Epoiesen annual as a downloadable document and in a print-on-demand format for readers and institutions who prefer paper and to make the journal more portable and open to standard citation practices. 

Graham remarks, “The excitement and interest in Epoiesen has been gratifying. Clearly, there’s an appetite for engaging with history and archaeology that traditional venues are able to fill! I’m grateful to the Digital Press for this tremendous vote of confidence and look forward to working with them as Epoiesen continues to grow.”

William Caraher, the founder and publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, adds, “Working with someone like Shawn, the remarkably diverse content of his journal, and the outstanding editorial board and authors is a great opportunity to expand what the Digital Press does and to learn from a truly innovative project and team. Epoiesen is a great fit for The Digital Press in that it brings together open, academic publishing with new ways of thinking about archaeology, materiality, and the past.”

Hybridizing Paper

This is probably too grandiose a title for this blog post, but after my post last week, I realized that I had some odds and ends that I meant to include, but for various reasons did not. Most of these focus on the idea that the potential of digital media and digital books has tended to be set in opposition to paper books and traditional media. If hybridization occurred, as I proposed in my post last week, it tended to be in the creation of digital media that formally adopted some of the characteristics of paper books. This is best manifest in the continued currency of the PDF files as probably the most common and perhaps the most functionally useful way to circulate digital content. They look like a page, act like a book, yet are open to external hyperlinks, video, audio, and 3D content, and relatively seamless linear and nonlinear organization that does not compromise the basic structure of the page or the codex.

I’m more interested right now in the flip side of this situation. This past week a paper book that I wrote with Bret Weber has appeared from North Dakota State University Press. It is published only in paper, and as far as I know, there are no plans to make the book available in a digital format. As I’ve blogged on before, I have an interest in expanding the paper book to include both updates to the itineraries, but, more important, updates to the ideas present in the work. In effect, I want to wrap the book in a new context that allows the original paper volume to continue to stand as a unit, but can also offer new ways of thinking about it through updated research, reading, and thinking.

The desire to move from digital to paper and to digital again, I think is one of the intriguing challenges facing publishing these days. As I outlined with my new project in collaboration with the digital journal Epoiesen, establishing ties that link paper to digital content is both an aesthetic and practical challenge. 

It is interesting to note that there are some recent ventures in commercial publishing that have wrestled with the exact same issue. In my little corner of the world, for example, the watch blog Hodinkee recently published its first paper magazine. Carrying over many of the key aesthetic features from the blog, including the high quality color photography and genteel style, the magazine runs to $27.00. There are, of course, branding issues here that suggest that perhaps serve to distance the premium periodical from the more lowly blog while at the same time demonstrating a family resemblance.

My favorite audiophile blog, Parttime Audiophile, has recently initiated a similar venture with a downloadable .pdf called The Occasional. While this is a clever play on the “part-time” name, it sets itself apart with its higher production quality and its explicit print orientation, although at present, it is only available as a download. The presence of two page spreads, the organization of the text in difficult to read (and non-justified!) columns, and the absence of hyperlinks makes it more difficult to read as a digital document, but also clearly echoes the paper page. 

As I’m looking ahead to new ways to bring North Dakota Quarterly to a new and expanded audience, I’m likewise facing the challenge of integrating regular digital content appearing on our website with ab annual paper version.  

There are reasons, of course, for the persistence of paper. In the case of Hodinkee or (perhaps hinted at by The Occasional), there is a prestige associated with print even if it is digitally mediated. For upscale commodities like watches and high-end stereo equipment people expect a certain kind of luxury even in the media surrounding these products. My colleagues at NDQ have tended to emphasize the physicality of the paper book and the character of the final product as evidence for having MADE something. I admit that this feeling of making has carried over into my love of producing paper books as well. 

For academic work, there is another important and more practical aspect to producing paper that hybridizes with the digital. In academic culture it is still easier to cite paper (or paper-like) versions of books and article according to page numbers. Reviewers continue to prefer paper books – when given the option – and libraries remain better equipped to catalogue, preserver, and circulate print copies even as their book budgets continue to shrink. Paper copies, whether on the desk of an editor or on a library shelf, conform to certain institutional expectations for how knowledge looks physically. Of course, this might be a temporary or transitional stage in how knowledge looks and circulates as we come to terms with a more robust and complex digital future, but the massive history and continued ubiquity of printed media suggests that these paradigms will be slow to change.

All this is to say that one of key challenges facing publishing these days is not making digital less like paper, but making paper more like digital. There is a present need to create hybrid forms of paper media that push the boundaries of how the paper codex has traditionally functioned and to blur the lines between paper and digital. This under-appreciated and under-recognized form of hybridity will be part of what The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota explores.

What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

Book by its Cover: The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscsape

Book are born from the inside out. First the content, then the design, finally the front matter and index, and finally the cover.

Bret Weber and I are pretty excited to see that the cover for our book The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape is ready. It features a stunning Andy Cullen photograph that wrap around the book and really clever design ensuring that text on the back of the book is neither cramped nor overlaps with the crucial elements in the photo. 

21273004 1686152434750068 3962122368221946072 o

The distressed, sans serif font, in all caps , reading The Bakken, hints at the gritty content of the book, while also demonstrating that the topic is modern. It complements the sans serif subtitle nicely and the lines that follow the subtitle provide some balance to the cover without being too “design-y.”

I’m not as jazzed about the author photos on the back of the book, in large part because I’m not sure that the appearance of the authors adds much visual interest or any sort of authority too the book. In fact, we both look a bit too much like university professors and this likely to undermine the impact of the book among certain audiences. 

Finally, I’m super excited to see the price of $19.95! There’s hardly any reason not to buy it!

Thank you to the fine folks at NDSU Press who have made this happen. As I’ve learned from my brief time as a publisher. So much work takes place “behind the scenes” in publishing and our current system of production tends to obscure or partition this from the view of the author and reader.  

Acknowledging the Help with the Bakken Guide

I got page proofs this week for my book with Bret Weber: The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape which will be out this fall from NDSU Press

We have an excellent cover, thanks to the designers at NDSU and Andy Cullen’s photograph:

Bakken Cover

We also had the immense pleasure of writing our acknowledgements for the book. It is one of the most fun things to do at the end of a book writing process because it acknowledges all the other folks who contributed to making a book possible.

So here’s our thanks (and look for it in the book which will be out in about a month):

This book received generous support from various grant programs at the University of North Dakota and in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Social Work in the College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines. These included a collaborative research grant that funded our first trips to the Bakken, an Arts and Humanities grant that funded subsequent processing of data, and support from the Cyprus Research Fund in the Department of History.

We benefited from innumerable conversations with our collaborators, especially Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis whose thoughts shaped much of this work. Carenlee Barkdull, Aaron Barth, Sebastian Braun, Bob Caulkins, Julia Geigle, and Ann Reed shared their perspectives and time in the Bakken. John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, Ryan Stander, and Andrew Cullen, whose photographs enliven this book, sharpened our view of the landscape and people through their keen photographic eye. Jim Mochoruk, Cindy Prescott, Thomasine Heitkamp, Nikki Berg Burin, Kyle Conway, Clarence Herz, and Chad Ziemendorf also brought significant insights to our work. Tom Isern and the anonymous peer reviewers saved us from numerous errors of fact and analysis and contributed to the depth and breadth of this guide. The workers, residents, friends, and strangers who welcomed our exploration and inscribed the Bakken landscape through their lives and work deserve pride of place in this book.

Needless to say, all existing errors in this work are our own.

The Digital Press on Longreads

While I’m settling into my summer research in Cyprus, I’m still thinking of some of my projects this spring. Some good news from my colleagues at The Digital Press.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce that Josh Roiland’s story, “It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now” in David Haeselin’s edited volume, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017) has appeared on the iconic long-read internet site, Longreads, this week.

Go check it out, and if you like their work (and their support of a wide range web publishing), click the Support Us button and give them some support. At very least, click through to their page and support their mission by reading.

Or, click through to the Haunted by Waters page and download the book or buy it in paper!

 

 

It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now

Three Things Thursday

This week is layout week and today is layout day. These are good days when I get to immerse myself in the fussy work of book making (usually powered by an appealing soundtrack). 

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about publishing lately and doing more publishing than proper research, but I think that’s a fine place to be at end of long academic year and in the lead up to a month and a half in the field.

1. Guardian Archaeology Blog.

I was intrigued to see that the Guardian is has initiated a new archaeology and anthropology blog called, cleverly enough The Past and the Curious. The introductory post indicates that the authors are not just going to celebrate the big discoveries in these diverse fields, but actually get into the disciplinary wrangling that produce archaeological and anthropological knowledge. The authors rightly point out that this is an interesting time to be in archaeology and anthropology as disciplinary attitudes are changing as well as institutional and academic priorities. Making more of the academic life of these disciplines visible is a good thing, I think, even if it shows the public that knowledge making is far less tidy than many people have assumed.     

2. Manifold

I was excited to see the announcement Manifold, an open publishing platform developed by the University of Minnesota Press and a group of partners. Manifold is open and designed to produce open, interactive, and “living” digital publications. That’s pretty exciting and the works that Manifold is previewing from the University of Minnesota Press are attractive and interesting. A few of the works, like The Lab Book, will show off the ability of Manifold to present projects as they develop.

So far, their website offers a very appealing approach and package for digital publishing and the integration of different media and a high level of transparency in the production of digital works. Let’s see how this develops and whether the technical aspects of installing and running the platform will discourage its wide spread adoption. I’m also interested to reading more about plans to maintain and sustain the platform.

3. OER at UND.

This week the University of North Dakota announced that $100,000 has been set aside to facilitate the adoption (but not really the production) of Open Educational Resources in the classroom. In a meeting this week, our provost said that his goal is the save students $4 million on textbooks over the next year. At first, I was very impressed with this number, but then I did some simple math. If we assume that each student will spend about $4000 on textbooks (which is a bit on the low side) and we enroll around 11,000 undergraduates (or so), then we’re looking at total textbooks spending in the neighborhood of $45 million dollars. $4 million is saving is less than 10% and amounts to about $50 a semester per student or, in a more useful way, one class per year. While this is obviously better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, it’s still pretty modest gains.   

What’s more troubling to me, is that our administration connects this $4 million in savings largely to faculty adopting existing open educational resources in their classes rather than the production and distribution of open resources. This seems shortsighted to me and I wonder if some of that $4 million in saving should be put into the production of OER. What about a $10 fee for every open class that is designated for the production of OER resources. If we assume that each student has one OER class per year, that would amount to over $100,000 to support the production of OERs for specific classes.

Layout Week at The Digital Press

Some deadlines you have to respect more than others. On April 17th, Grand Forks remembers the first day of the massive 1997 Red River flood that reshaped most of the town and shaped the community’s memory.

On April 20th, The Digital Press will release a new book edited by David Haeselin of University of North Dakota’s English Department and produced by a year long course in Writing, Editing, and Publishing in that department. The book is called Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997, and students, most of whom were not alive in 1997, shaped the content to help them grasp the significance of the flood. The book brings together essays by community leaders, interviews, historical documents, and other reflections on the flood to create a work that looks both to future memories and the past.

I have almost nothing to do with the content in the book, but I am doing a good bit of the layout. I have a few draft templates prepared and I think that they look pretty good:

 HbW Template7

HbW TemplateConversation1

HbW TemplateConversation

HbW Template911

HbW TemplateSectionTitlePage2

I played around a bit with a wavy line both under the chapter titles and under each page number which I located in the margins of the book rather than at the top or bottom. The text is set in Jansen (which I think is appropriate for a book with a bit of a somber tone) and the headings are in Avenir which I thought just looked right against the more formal Jansen. 

This is definitely not a link to a preview page.

And this is definitely not a preview of the cover:

HbW Caraher Cover 01