Monumentality in Early Christian Architecture

In May, I am going to a conference on the topic of monumentality in archaeology. When invited, I fired off a rather superficial abstract that talked about how Early Christian church architecture in Greece both used existing, earlier forms of urban and domestic architecture to communicate the new status of the Christian religious elite, but also subverted these forms by establishing new relationship between donor, visitors, and the social structures that informed traditional elite architecture.

This week, I’ve slowly turned my attention to this paper after completing a revised draft of the historical conclusion to the PKAP Survey Volume.

To begin, I re-read Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”. The fictional narrator of the (obviously fictional) story considers the construction of the Great Wall of China and tells of how it was built piecemeal across China to preserve the moral of the workers. According to the narrator, the very enormity of the task ran the risk alienating the labor of the individual worker by reducing it to something inconsequential by comparison. To combat this, the workers built a single section of the wall – often in a remote location – and returned home for a time of recovery before heading out again like departing heroes to build another section. Thus the wall came to represent the entire community of China – and the narrator himself who hailed from the south, not the north where the wall stood – could take tremendous pride in its construction even though the purpose and extent remained as obscure and paradoxical as the body of the Emperor himself who called for the Wall’s construction. In Kafka’s story (hardly the only one in his oeuvre that featured architecture), the Wall represented the enormity of the Empire, the incomprehensibility of the Emperor, and the tension between the fragile individual and abyss of time, space, and power that surrounds human existence. (And I have to assume that the story means many other more significant, literary, and existential things!). Monumentality formed the delicate link between the individual and things much larger, more abstract, and more remote.

This story contributed to my larger meditation of monumentality in the discourse of Late Antiquity (or the Early Christian period). Shifting attitudes toward monumental architecture has represented a key indicator in social, religious, political, economic, and cultural change in the ancient world. Indeed, scholars often argue that the end of the ancient world came with the neglect and sometimes destruction of the pagan temple and the construction of Early Christian basilica style churches in their place. The widespread abandonment of basilica style churches, in turn, marks the end of the transitional period between ancient and “Medieval” or “Byzantine” forms of architecture, and scholars have neatly synced the transformation of architectural styles with political, economic, and social changes.

The link between architecture and social change often comes through the study of patronage practices. If we understand the social practices that led to the construction of Early Christian architecture to be largely identical to those that produced earlier forms of monumental architecture, then we can argue that these shift in building types is largely stylistic or a matter of taste or practice.  In other words, we can see monumental architecture as evidence for continuity between the ancient world and Late Antiquity. If we see different social mechanisms producing the Early Christian monumental building boom, then it becomes easier to claim that the shift in large scale building practices represents a shift in the organization of society on a more profound level. Along these lines, scholars have seen Early Christian architecture as evidence for discontinuity between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The issue is, of course, that we still do not understand the mechanisms that produced the boom in Early Christian architecture and how these intersect with, say, changing attitudes toward the poor among the same group of people (and the study of Late Antique attitudes toward poverty is a particularly fertile ground for recent study).

The flip side of this concern with patronage, of course, is how these buildings were understood by their audiences across the Late Antique world. Not only are did these building represent a point of contact between massive and abstract institutions like the church and the bodies of individuals living throughout the Early Christian world, but they also represent a place of critique around which community responses to new forms of religious or social organization could cohere.

As Kafka articulated in a fictional context, monumental architecture had the potential for alienating the individuals responsible for their construction as the tension between their massively concrete appearance comes all too close to the abstract entities, institutions, and ideologies which they represent. This alienation provides fertile ground of critique inscribed on the monuments themselves, on the bodies of the laborers who produced them, and in the attitudes toward the buildings in broader social discourse.

More Archaeology of Man Camps: Some methodological and historical perspectives

In my occasional free time, I’ve continued to do research on the archaeology of work camps and other temporary settlements associated with construction, resource extraction, or manufacturing. In particular, I’ve drawn heavily on the contributions to a special issue of Historical Archaeology titled Communities Defined by Work: Life in Western Work Camps (36 (2002)).

These articles have helped me to focus my ideas and approaches for my own project.  As I have mentioned here before, I am interested in doing an archaeological survey of so-called man camps associated with the Bakken Oil Fields in Western North Dakota. Unlike the projects presented in the Historical Archaeology volume, which tended to date to turn of the 20th century, the camps that I plan to study are still very much in use.  While the ephemeral nature of historical work camps has often made their study difficult, an approach that documents archaeologically the ongoing use of work camps will provide a useful corrective to this difficulty. Moreover, my work will be done in collaboration with a team of anthropologists, social workers, and “traditional” archaeologists allowing our research both to draw upon a range of methodologies (oral history, collaboration with social service providers, survey archaeology) and to provide analysis for a range of contemporary (and pressing) social, anthropological, and historical concerns.

There are several key themes in the recent study of the archaeology of historical work camps that can easily be ported over to the study of contemporary camps.

1. Margins. The location of work camps in marginal landscapes is a consistent feature in their development. When camps appeared in areas with established settlement, they tended to be set apart from traditional, long-term housing. More frequently, however, camps tended to be established to support work in areas with few centers of settlement. The capital needed to establish the camps and to fund the work undertaken, tended to come from established and often distant economic, political, and demographic centers. As a result, camps tended to be marginalized economically, socially, and politically and can be profitably studied using core-periphery models for how established centers projected authority, capital, and power into the periphery. Work camps in Western North Dakota, traditionally a economically and politically marginal area, clearly fit the model for how the core seeks to exploit resources located in marginal territories.

2. Structured life. As a part of the projection of core interests to the periphery, camps tended attempted (in some cases) to reproduce the social structures characteristic of the center.  The architecture and organization of camps often distinguished clearly between groups who controlled production and labor. Managers and specialists had better housing that often came close to what they might expect in the center and laborers tended to have more modest dwellings that were less rigidly organized and physically substantial. In some cases, squatters camps or other even more temporary settlements would appear on the periphery of camps where individuals with fluid or poorly defined relationships to the work at the camps would live. A colleague of mine who did professional cultural resource management work on the Bakken ranges described sleeping in his truck on the work site because housing was both expensive and scarce.

3. Resistance. As much as the core attempts to project certain relationships into the periphery, there remains ample space to resist. Resistance practices in historical work camps ranged from consuming alcohol in supposedly dry camps to refusing to live in the designated camps.  The most dramatic forms of resistance, of course, involve outright revolts, strikes, and other forms of physical “unrest”, but there were a range of less conspicuous forms of resistance to the structures imposed from the center (and imposed by capital). Interestingly, some forms of resistance – binge drinking, absenteeism, work slow-downs – follow closely the methods used by early and pre-modern workers confronting the reality of capital driven labor for the first time.

4. Reuse. One of the most interesting aspects of the man camps in Western North Dakota is the reuse of housing in new ways. Apparently parts of the Olympic village from Vancouver and trailers used for Katrina refugees have found there way to the Bakken range to house workers in the oils fields. Historical period camps likewise saw the reuse of housing, structural and architectural components, and other discarded materials to expand upon the limited resources available to camp residents.

These four points, for now, provide a departure for hypothesis building and method making for my field work out in the Western part of North Dakota. We are in the grant writing stage and one of the most exciting possible outcomes is that “my” team will be able to rent an RV to conduct our research out west. In other words, we’ll be living in our own academic work camp, in temporary housing, and experiencing some of the same challenges as the communities that we are studying while we are studying them. Stay tuned for more on this project in the next few months.

Received wisdom has that these houses set diagonal across their blocks just south of the Corinth canal were built to house the managers of the canal construction project in the 1880s.  We’d walk buy these houses nearly every day on our way from Isthmia to the beach near the canal’s mouth in the Saronic Gulf. Does anyone know anything more about these houses?

Corinth Canal Camp


More Ambivalent Landscapes of Early Christian Corinth

I have finally finished the edits on my paper “The Ambivalent Landscape of Early Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City.” The editors of the volume in which it will appear made some excellent suggestions on how I could improve the paper that went far beyond rounding some jagged corners.

As a happy result, this draft is improved over earlier drafts of the paper. In particular, I cut out some of the more overtly theoretical posturing in my introduction and embedded (buried?) that in footnotes throughout the text. I have a tendency in my introductions to spend too much time positioning myself amidst the theoretical literature. This tends to delay the start of my argument and dilute my efforts to establish the relationship between my specific arguments and those by other scholars in my field.

I have also added a slightly more substantive discussion of Justinian’s theological work – particularly his treatise on the Three Chapters which E. Schwartz suggested might have appeared in the context of a virtually unknown synod of Eastern Illyricum in the mid-540s. This synod, apparently, may have served to articulate the concern among bishops in the previously loyal sees of Eastern Illyricum (i.e. Greek speaking sees) to Justinian’s efforts to establish a compromise with the Monophysite bishops of the East.

Finally, I revised how I used the word “landscape” throughout this draft. Writing mainly for archaeologists these-a-days, I have become accustomed to a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the word landscape which typically refers to the place of human experience.  As a result, landscapes can be vast (as some human experiences are best understood on the regional level) or incredibly small. Historians, theologians, and others, however, are not quite forgiving of this ambiguous – and jargony – definition. Fair enough. I found I could eliminate about 70% of my uses of the word in this paper and replace it with the word “region” or equivalents.

Otherwise, my changes were mostly cosmetic including tightening up parts of my argument and making the entire paper flow more logically.


Do University of North Dakota Students Study Enough?

The Princeton Review’s annual College Rankings are hardly an unproblematic source for “real” information on university life. Each year, the rankings allow some schools to trumpet their achievements while other schools are left shrugging their shoulders or making efforts to counteract perceived liabilities in the rankings.

For the past two years, the University of North Dakota has ranked number 1# among the school’s surveyed for students studying the least.  While we can critique the character of the survey or deride the sensationalist character of the Princeton Review’s efforts, many schools have taken to reflecting on these ranking and responding to them by attempting to change policies and campus culture.

The initial response by UND administrators to the Princeton Review’s ranking was the standard PR stuff:

tudents taking the survey may not have included certain kinds of studying in their answers, Johnson said.

“A number of our students engage in research with faculty members,” he said. “This is not typical at other institutions.”

Students often don’t think of research and other types of experiential learning as “studying,” Johnson said.

Steven Light, associate provost for undergraduate education, said UND’s extracurricular offerings prepare students for classes but are not considered traditional studying.

These are not particularly compelling responses.  If anything, students tend to have rather expansive views of what constitutes academic work, but I suppose it is possible.  In contrast to the Princeton Review’s results, it remains (vaguely) heartening that the NSSE Survey (a far more systematic survey of student life) reported that students studied for between 11 and 30 hours per week.

The majority of students in our major (history) tend to prepare rather regularly – if not diligently, so the results of the Princeton Review survey only partially jive with my own experiences. What I can say, however, is that there are easily observable reasons why our students would tend to underreport hours spent in preparation. Students here at UND still revel in a kind of anti-intellectual, anti-acadmic macho culture. Admitting that you study for class may seen as a kind of weakness. Denying that you study, in turn, forms a kind of resistance to the oppressive demands of a foreign and problematic institution.

At the same time, studying 11 hours a week (the bottom number indicated by the NSSE survey) could hardly be enough to survive and academically rigorous curriculum.  (Recent critiques of undergraduate education have tended to emphasize the decline in time-consuming, long-form, writing assignments.) I seem to remember the old adage that for each hour in class, we were to spend 3 hours preparing.  In this equation a 3 credit class would represent about 9 hours per week of work and a full schedule of 5 classes a daunting 45 hours of work outside of class time. This seems unlikely, but not impossible.  I know that I studied all the time as an undergraduate, but I also liked to study.

I wish I could convey my passion for studying to students, but in hindsight, I understand it to be a product of trust. I trusted that my professor and I were on the same side and so when they made difficult demands, I responded to those demands and regarded them (mostly) as things that I needed to do to make my life better.  Many of my students today seem to view me (in particular) as a person put in place to make their lives worse.

To make on more, final, observation, the top complain in all my classes is that they are too difficult and time consuming. This would seem to confirm that our students are prepared to resist the demands of course work. Perhaps the culture of resistance is the key to unpacking the meaning of our Princeton review rankings.

The Roots of Student Resistance

As readers of this blog know, I am fascinated by the roots of student resistance.  In general, I have argued that student resistance to the industrialized model of higher education derives from political and economic foundations of the university.  In short, students don’t want to be good citizens or cogs in the capitalist, industrial machine and it’s our job as faculty to force students into taking up their places in the community. Pretty bleak, isn’t it?  (For some archival posts see here, here, here, and here.

I was pretty happy, then, to read over Christmas break Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. (Jossey-Bass 2009).  My brother who works in the North Carolina public school system got a copy of the book for Christmas and it seemed like something that I should read, so I Kindled it.

Willingham’s basic argument is that students don’t like school because the brain is designed to avoid thinking. He proposed a simple model for thought with two main parts: a working memory where awareness and thinking take place and a long-term memory where factual and procedural knowledge reside. To simplify it further, our working memory is where we think and our long-term memory is where we store the information and operations upon which thinking depends.  When human action is optimized, it draws almost entirely on stored procedures and facts in long-term memory.  This is why such basic acts as driving or playing a sport or even just walking require relatively little thought.  These activities depend very little on working memory.  School work, in contrast, tends to draw heavily on working memory and the more that we use our working memory, the more frustrating tasks become. The goal then of a good classroom exercise is the balance the use of the working memory with the use of the long-term memory and thereby balance the frustrating and sub-optimal thinking part of the brain with the optimized, memory functions that allow most of us to navigate successfully through everyday life.

Willingham argues that many of the typical assignments in schools push the working memory too hard and this leads to unsuccessful results in problem solving activities and frustration. Working memory work is hard work! This is not to say that working memory work can’t be rewarding. In fact, Willingham suggests that the move from working memory to long-term memory is crucial to make learning effective.  Moreover, successfully solving problems with working memory does generate a feeling of pleasure.  So there are incentives for students and teachers alike to manage effectively the use of working memory.

At the same time, Willingham suggests that the capacity of our working memory to manipulate new ideas, facts, procedures, and objects and combine them for thought is rather fixed. Our long-term memory may well be more flexible.  Thus the goal of teaching is to push as much as possible into long-term memory in order to free up space in working memory for the manipulation of new ideas.  Willingham’s use of spatial metaphors (e.g. working memory has a maximum amount of “space”) makes these arguments quite clear.

Having established his basic model for cognition, Willingham spends a good bit of time talking about how to move knowledge from working memory to long term memory without boring students. When students lose interest in material, the teaching process stops.  At the same time, creating a rich and powerful long-term memory requires constant and, to some extent, repetitive practice.  Students who have better background information on a topic (which Willingham places in long-term memory), for example, have improved reading comprehension skills.  Expertise and the ability to improvise and problem solve come from the ability to lean on long-term memory factual information and models to test hypothesis and to free up working memory for the manipulation of new ideas, facts, and experiences.

Willingham’s model for learning paralleled my experiences working with students in Latin over the past few years in Latin Friday Morning. Many of the students who join me for coffee and Latin on Fridays have less the thorough knowledge of the word endings, forms, and paradigms central for understanding the Latin language.  As a result, they spend most of our time struggling to identify parts of speech (at worst) or cases, tenses, and potential functions of words (at best). They do not seem to be able both to identify the words and to process the relationships between the words and other words in the sentence.  And understanding the relationship between words in a sentence is essential to reading.  The reason for this, according to Willingham’s model of cognition, is that students overload their working memory with the almost innumerable variables present in a single sentence because they have not pushed any of the basic factual knowledge (and here we really mean basic word paradigms) into their long-term memory.  The goal of improving their ability to read Latin, then, is to expand the content of their long-term memory freeing up working memory space for the difficult process of reading a foreign language.

To return, then, to the idea of student resistance, Willingham’s model of cognition places student dislike for school at the intersection of biology and pedagogy. The relentless pressure exerted on the working memory by the sometime ham-fisted tendency to expose students to problem solving exercises which go far beyond the resources available to them in their long-term memory.  At the same time, the brain’s desire to work at the lowest level possible offers biological push back against both teaching and learning.  Willingham notes that emotionally positive experiences with content and processes contribute to the development of the long-term memory and these positive experiences tend to derive from measure use of working memory and incremental improvements in long-term memory resources.