Teaching Thursday

Today is the last day of classes for the spring semester. As is so often the case, my eyes were somewhat bigger than my stomach and I taught too many classes and let my enthusiasm for various topics exceed reasonable expectations for student attention spans, workloads, and energy levels.

I also had fun despite the long tail of the pandemic, my typical lack of confidence in my knowledge, preparation, and pedagogy, and endless winter weather. And I developed some ideas on how to make my classes better, at vary least different, in the future. 

Here are those thoughts: 

1. Model Thinking. It took me almost 20 years of teaching to understand that even the best explanations on how to do something are likely to be inadequate if not combined with some demonstrations on how to implement these explanations. In the past, I’ve tried to do this by integrating examples into my classes, but this tended to generate a series of cookie cutter projects and papers that cleaved too closely to the exemplar. 

In a conversation with my brother — who is a K-12 educator — he suggested that instead of giving a student a fish or even telling them how to fish, that I walk them through the process of fishing and discuss with them the decisions that I make when selecting a rod, bait, and a location to cast my line (obviously, I have no idea how to fish so this metaphor is breaking down). In other words, instead of telling students how to produce a product or showing students examples of the final product, walk them through the myriad little decisions involved in production. This not only gives students insights into how to accomplish an often complex task at a very practical level, but also humanizes the process by showing them that most academic work is not intuitive, but the product of a series of little and often confusing steps.

[I am aware of the irony that I struggled to implement this kind of thing in my classes despite running this blog for over a decade. After all, part of the point of this blog is to make my research, teaching, and professional processes more transparent.]     

2. Focus on 12 Weeks. One of the good things that happened during this semester is that we had snow days. I think I lost about 2 weeks of class time in my Tuesday-Thursday afternoon classes and this gave both students and me an unexpected (if not entirely unanticipated) break. 

It reinforced in my mind the need to build more flexibility into my classes and consider whether the standard practice of 14 weeks of content spread over a 16 week semester might be a good bit too optimistic. Losing two weeks to snow this semester essentially forced me to reduce my 14 weeks of material to 12 and I’m feeling that this might be the right amount for the average semester. Of course, my sense for this is largely impressionistic, but my Greek History class remains active and interested and my Historical Methods students continue to show up for class even on “optional” days. This suggests to me that my students have sufficient energy, enthusiasm, and time to manage 12 weeks worth of work and as I design two new classes for next year, this might become the model.  

3. The Death of the Lecture. My Greek history course is a bit of a dinosaur in my rotation. It harkens back to a day when the “lecture/discussion” format was a kind of cutting edge pedagogy. In other words, this class continues to feature a good be of “sage-on-the-stage” time despite my commitment to more “guide-on-the-side” methods of teaching in my other classes. Some of this has to do with the inadequacy of available textbooks and the like, but most of this has to do with this class dating to the early years of the 21st century and drawing on late 20th century precedents.

The results haven’t been particularly disappointing in large part because students simply ignore my efforts to lecture. Instead, they interrupt me, ask questions, pursue tangents, and engage in discussions. I regularly find myself stranded behind the awkwardly designed “teaching station” trying to get the class back “on track.” 

I had always assumed that the lecture would die because students would simply check out and stare blankly at me as I babbled on ineffectively about this or that topic. Instead, students are taking the lead in killing the lecture by making it impossible in the classroom. 

4. Balancing Production and Consumption. One of my buddies observed this semester that students like to produce things and balancing between production (writing, making, crafting) and consumption (reading, listening, viewing) was a challenge in the humanities. I have started to think about in my own professional life where I frequently find myself out writing my reading.

As I look ahead to my teaching in the fall, I have three classes that all ask students to produce things: a prospectus in my methods class, a textbook in my World History I class, and an anthology of sorts in my editing and publishing practicum. But all these efforts to produce something rely on the students patiently and critically consuming content and this presents a real challenge as students’ eagerness to go “hands-on” and start to craft on their own challenges their ability to slow down, to read, and to think.

It seems ironic that in an era where consumption has almost become the equivalent of culture that teaching has to nudge students to drag the brake on their eagerness to produce.  

5. Accommodating Resistance. Finally, I want to continue to recognize and validate student resistance, even when its inconvenient and awkward. Like many faculty, I have a tendency to see things like poor attendance, disregard for deadlines and class policies, and poor performance as laziness or defiance. I have to keep reminding myself that very, very few students don’t want to learn in college and when students resist learning, they usually do it to send a message (even if they’re not entire sure what that message is or should be).

I need to keep trying to listen and work with my students to figure out why something isn’t work.  

Semi-Final Draft of Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

This past week, I’ve made some revisions on a paper that I wrote about a class that I taught exploring the two Wesley College buildings that formerly stood on the University of North Dakota campus. It’s for an edited volume that will survey teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The paper is titled: Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter.

You can download a copy of it here.

I basically committed almost every mid-career, guy-scholar, sin in this paper. First, it overshot the word limit and then I included too many images. Today, I’m going to submit my revised version of the manuscript (which is still a bit long and includes too many images) in an effort to avoid the cardinal sin, which is turning the paper in late.

The paper considers the “mildly anarchist” approach that I used teaching the Wesley College class which not only eschewed formal grading and course design but focused on experiences and encounters rather than outcomes and objectives. The results were good even if the model that I present here was not readily adaptable to other, more formal, teaching environments.

That said, I’ve adapted some of what I did in this class to what I’m doing this semester in my “Thinking with Things” graduate seminar in the English Department. I hope to also take some of what I did in this class to my editing and publishing course next fall. So… stay tuned (or not… it’s really up to you!).

Three (Teaching) Things Thursday: Modeling, Comparing, and Consuming

Going to visit my family is great for many reasons, but among them is the chance to pick my brother’s brain about teaching things. This always reveals the yawing gap between how I think about teaching and how he, a professional K-12 educator, thinks and talks about teaching. He loaded me up with some new bibliography and, more importantly, some new ideas to chew on. 

Thing the First

One of the most compelling ideas that I discussed with my brother is the role of modeling thinking in the classroom. Over the past few years, I’ve found it pretty challenging to teach research writing despite offering more and more examples of solid professional writing in the classroom. My frustrations tend to stem from watching students struggle to imitate what I tended to see as easy to recognize forms supported by fairly basic rhetorical moves (e.g. “they say, I say). 

An observation that my brother made suggested that perhaps I needed to shift my attention from offering model forms to modeling the thinking behind these forms. Fortunately, this week, I have to talk about citation practices and this is one of the hardest areas for students to grasp. So instead of my typical, dry-as-dust, talk about how to footnote, I think I’ll model a bit how I decide to footnote something and how I tend to do it. While one example of modeling thinking is unlikely to transform the class, I’m excited to build more of this into my pedagogy in the future particularly in my methods class.

Thing the Second

I’m thinking about the final paper in my Greek history course this semester. The students read Nicholas Doumanis’s A History of Greece this semester and I think the final exam is going to be a critical examination of this book against the backdrop of my rather different class and ask the students to compare key themes in both. I’ve come to really enjoy projects that ask students to engage their course material even when this simply means critiquing their textbooks.

Despite the current climate that has looked regularly to challenge expertise, students still seem to cling to authority whenever they can. As a result, textbooks and surveys, like Doumanis’s book, take on an exaggerated place in how students engage a topic. There’s also the matter of the book being permanent and stable and not necessarily requiring classroom attendance or immersive reading of challenging and difficult texts. I’m looking forward to seeing how students read Doumanis’s book against the backdrop of my lectures. It’s not that I’ve said anything that directly challenges his arguments, but my class certainly has had a different point of emphasis. Producing two arguments that are equally authoritative nudges the students to have to offer a position.

Thing the Third

I had an intriguing conversation with a colleague last week about the place of consumption and production in academia. He declared himself more of a consumer than a producer. I think that sometimes I prefer the work of production and feel guilty if I consume too freely without giving anything back in return. In fact, somewhere along the way, I developed a somewhat dim view of individuals who consume widely and deeply but are content to remain local sages. I know this is unfair, but it is what it is.

Our students have increasingly shown a preference toward production and my editing and publishing class next fall will focus on producing a digital anthology of North Dakota Quarterly. This will involve the students having to consume 90 issues of the Quarterly, but more importantly to produce 100 key articles in NDQ history and justify this list. I’m thinking a bit about how to balance consumption and production in that class.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of text to navigate, consider, and characterize. The students will have talk about the changing life of the Quarterly and think about how they can bring together the various contributions in its pages against the backdrop of the journal’s history and larger trends. They’ll also have to think about an audience. So the production of this anthology will invariably involve a fair degree of consumption and processing.

At the same time, I do like to imagine that reading for the sake of reading and consuming for the sake of consuming still has a place in higher education. My fear is that our outcome driven educational practices have tended to privilege outcomes to such an extent that everything becomes process. 

Three Things for Teaching Thursday

We’ve just entered the homestretch of the semester and students (and faculty) have one eye on the summer and one eye on the matters at hand. This always presents a challenging situation for everyone involved, but it also offers an opportunity to think about how to make future classes better and makes it a good time for a teaching Thursday.

Thing the First

One of the first signs in my classes that the semester is no longer working for the students is my attendance drops off. Over the last few years, this has tended to happen pretty rapidly at the week 10 or 11 point and this semester was no exception. The University of North Dakota has long semesters: 16 weeks. And even when I really like a class and the work it is doing, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s plenty of time to reinforce key ideas and methods. On the other hand, the fun of learning something new has a chance to wear pretty thin. We’re definitely at the “wearing thin” part of the semester right now.

A few years ago, I recognized that students tended to lose interest in my classes by week 10 or so. To combat this, I broke my historical methods class into three five-week “courses.” Each course has a different feel to it, a different rhythm, and different goals. While I think this worked to keep my class fresh over the long semester, it also revealed that the problem wasn’t just my class, but the larger rhythm of learning at the institution. Students get ground down by our larger approach to curriculum.

There is a kind of conventional wisdom to this approach. If we assume that part of what college does is to break down student resistance to the paralyzing boredom of life as a cog in the capitalist machine, then our 16-week semester certainly serves its purpose. Even if we assume that the 16-week semester is designed to impart stamina (rather than, necessarily, break down resistance), the duration of the learning experience has less to do with the effective delivery of content and more to do with the goal of college to socialize students and prepare them for the unrelenting grind of adult life. 

That students resist these lessons by absenting themselves from class is not only predictable, but perhaps even laudable. 

Thing the Second

For the last two years, I’ve been a reader for a student creative writing contest. This experience has given me the change to read a remarkable gaggle of work that ranges from the incredibly polished to the spontaneous and surprising (and sometimes cringe-worthy).

One of the main takeaways I get from reading this work is how much contemporary students struggle with grief, loss, pain, and the incredible sadness that suffuses everyday life. The poetry, in particular, often becomes so raw and painful to read that I need to take little breaks and catch my emotional breath. As a college students, I can vividly remember the stress that I felt trying to get work done and navigate personal relationships during the college, but I also remember my college years as generally fun and at times exciting. I see precious little of that fun and excitement in the creative works that I read from this contest. 

Instead, I read about pain and loss and violence (even if a good bit of the violence is comic-book style escapist fantasy). It may be, of course, that students regard anxiety and sadness to be a hallmark of serious writing and a willingness to come to terms and confront adulthood. But that is even more depressing, in some ways, because it suggests that their experiences as students are unworthy of serious consideration. 

I’m thinking more and more about the value of an anthology of student writing not only as an opportunity for both students to share their worlds, but also for faculty to confront the inner life of students.

Thing the Third

I’m very, very close to announcing that I’ll be teaching a class on editing and publishing in the English department next semester. This as yet-unconfirmed class would focus on three things. First, I’d like to invite some “industry folks” to come and talk to the class about the editing and publishing business. Since most of my colleagues are from academic publishing, the course will have a decidedly academic slant.

At the same time, we’d work to shepherd a volume of North Dakota Quarterlythe literary journal that I edit, into production. This would include involving the students in managing the copy edits, putting the contributions in order, reviewing page proofs, and deciding on a cover.

Finally, the class would take on an additional project. I have two in mind. A big project would be preparing an online anthology of NDQ content from the last 90 volumes. This would involve reading through back issues and identifying contributions that stand out. Alternately, it would be very useful to get the last volumes 75-85 digitized and added to the NDQ digital archive. I’ll have to give these two projects a bit of thought over the next few months. 

Three Teaching Things Thursday

It’s just about the middle of the semester, and like most teachers, I’m reflecting on my classes so far this semester. Like always, I try to keep tabs on what works and what doesn’t, but this semester in particular it feels like taking time to reflect on teaching is more significant. Some of this has to do with the ongoing challenges of the COVID era, a bit has to do with teaching four classes, and it mostly has to do with a sense that I’m finally getting a handle on what I do well in the classroom and what makes a different to my students.

Thing the First

One of the most striking aspects of the “Late COVID” era is how energetic students have become in the classroom. Last semester, when the pandemic seemed a bit endless, Zoom participation was still fairly standard, and students seemed to be genuinely struggle with not only classwork but with their mental (and physical) health.

This semester has been a complete reversal. In three of my classes, students are so consistently enthusiastic that they interrupt my lectures not just with the kind of mundane “when is this due again?” kind of questions, but with challenging, probing, and really difficult questions! Not only that, they also engage one another even in my rather old fashioned “lecture+discussion” style classes. It is almost as if the light at the end of the tunnel is finally bright enough for students to come back to life. 

Thing the Second

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about resistance and survivance in Native American boarding and residential schools. This has got me thinking more seriously about how our students resist in the classroom and across campus. For example, it has been interesting to observe how we’ve moved from a conversation about “no cop shit” to a conversation about how to enforce the university’s mask policies in the class. While I get that the “no cop shit” post was mostly directed toward enforcing petty rules at the risk of big picture classroom goals, I can’t help but wonder how various COVID related policies will change student attitudes toward the university, administrators, and the classroom.

It goes without saying that university life, like school in general, is as much about enforcing bodily discipline as mental habits. While state institutions like mine do not require chapel attendance or military drill or anything like that, the very structure of our classrooms, buildings, and campus encourage students (and faculty) to move and behave in certain ways. Recent large-scale updates to the campus plan include changes to classroom and office spaces, a new student union, and a renovated library. The recent construction of a new buildings that closes off one corner of the central quad and the placement of a raised median strip on a major campus road, will work to channel student movement across campus in new ways. The more open student study and work spaces of the renovated library and new student union have replaced the post-war warrens of individual study carrels in ways that both encourage collaboration and interaction, but also leave students more exposed to view. Recent building renovations have increasing sought to sequester faculty offices from classrooms and to standardize office spaces in ways that establish more rigid divisions between student learning and faculty research, preparation, and academic life. Ideally this might serve as another impetus toward faculty professionalization, but a more cynical reading of this practice would argue that it discourages student-faculty interaction outside of the managed and controlled environment of the classroom. 

Of course, all these changes are occurring at the time when campus is unusually quiet because of the COVID pandemic. The regular turn over of students will normalize these changes to each incoming class. It’s valuable to remember that at the start of next year, the majority of undergraduate students on campus will not remember a time when COVID didn’t shape student life and the new buildings will have always been part of their experience on campus.

A good archaeologist would consider initiating a longitudinal project that documents the material traces of student engagement in their new (and changing) environments. This would examine ways in which students accommodate themselves to these new spaces and ways in which students bend, modify, and adapt these new spaces to their needs. In other words, how will students resist the efforts of campus planners, faculty, and their peers to enforce certain forms of bodily discipline.

Thing the Third

I’m just about done with deadlines and required assignments. This might seem like a standard faculty lament, but I’m starting to seriously reconsider how I plan my classes each semester to minimize my reliance on deadlines to structure the learning environment. I’ve never been a huge fan of deadlines for student work and have moved increasingly toward an “everything is due at the end of the semester” approach with a few internal recommended due dates designed to give students just a bit of structure.  

I’m starting to think seriously about adjusting my classes so that they allow for a greater degree of flexibility for students especially since deadlines seem to be a leading cause of student anxiety.

Three Things Thursday: Squatters, Syllabi, and the Split Seminar

This semester is going to be an adventure. Not only are we having some pretty cold weather, but COVID and teaching four different classes is keeping my on my toes. On top of this, I’m trying to develop a bit more personal discipline and read and write regularly even if it’s not directed toward any particular outcome. Maybe juggling these things accounts for 

Thing the First

Over the last couple of days, I read and enjoyed Rebecca Worsham’s recent article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, “Squatters’ Rights: Questioning Narratives of Decline in Archaeological WritingJMA 34.2 (2021). The article considers the use of the term “squatter” in Mediterranean archaeology with two case studies: one from Knossos in LMIIIB and one from Late Roman Cyrene. Worsham sets these in the broader context of the notion of squatting in both modern political life and in archaeological writing.

Conventionally, squatting refers to the illegal occupation of property. Thus, the concept of squatting assumes not only the legal ownership of the land, but also that the activity undertaken by the squatters constituted activities that were out of place somehow. In modern systems defined practices enclosure, squatting is effectively a kind of theft and it suggests the breakdown of political and social order. Of course, we know next to nothing about property ownership and legal rights in Late Minoan Crete and the in the Late Roman world where practices of adaptation, reuse, and urban change appear to be the norm rather than an exception. In these contexts, then, associating modest ceramic assemblages with squatter activities may well speak more to our own conceptions of property rights than past activities.

As a sometime scholar of Late Antiquity, the appearance of “squatters” tends to contribute to larger narratives of decline when the orderly use of Roman public space becomes repurposed, subdivided, and otherwise transformed. By questioning the use of term squatter Worsham pushes us to question our normative assumption about the use of space in antiquity and perhaps even rehabilitate practices of “late reuse” as signs of resilience, creativity, and even adaptation not simply during times of crisis, but with changing attitudes toward urbanism and the political and social regimes that necessary to support certain forms of space.

As an aside, I want to offer a very appreciative hat tip to the JMA who granted me access to the entire issue as a contributor (to the volume) rather than just my article. This is a great gesture and one that I wish more journals would pursue. Nothing is more frustrating than contributing to a journal and getting the obligatory offprint and not having access to rest of the volume (or even issue).

Thing the Second   

Over on the social media there’s been a bit of buzz about the story of a faculty member who put clues to the location of a $50 in his syllabus and discovered at the end of the semester that no student had gone to retrieve the prize. While most faculty have become frustrated that students don’t read the syllabus, this ploy seemed less likely to generate compliance and more likely to reinforce the smug assumption that students don’t care.

A number of other folks have piped up to argue that students have increasingly come to ignore the syllabus because it has become so laced with required administrative fine print that students view it as the equivalent of an EULA when installing software. Some on social media have pointed out that most syllabi represent “cop shit” and operate under the assumption that students will try to game the system unless outsmarted by a savvy faculty member. 

I suspect that in our COVID-inflected age, students are also finding the syllabus less and less relevant as courses have to constantly pivot and adapt to the challenges that COVID creates for learning. I know that my syllabi have taken on an increasingly provisional character as they attempt both to articulate clear learning goals as well as reassure stressed and overworked students that I will do all I can to keep the class humane and flexible. 

In my graduate seminar this semester, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to thinking explicitly about the syllabus. In this context, the syllabus becomes the goal of the class rather than its formative document and since many of the best classes are open ended exercises, I anticipate that the syllabus will never be complete even when the semester ends. 

Thing the Third

My graduate seminar’s schedule is a bit odd this semester. Rather than being one, 150-minute block, it is two 75-minute meetings per week. For as long as I’ve had or led seminar style classes, they have met once per week. They tend to follow a pretty standard trajectory of vigorous discussion for the first hour or 90 minutes followed by a protracted period of fragmentation and dissipation. We can attribute most of this to simple fatigue and the challenge of staying focused for over 2 hours. In some cases, finding course material that can sustain a 2 hour+ discussion is challenging. In other cases, such as when critiquing the work of seminar participants, the unevenness of the seminar meeting reflects the uneven quality of the work under review and the uneven knowledge of the participants. All in all, most meetings of a seminar experience entropy over their 2 hours duration.

To be clear, it was not my decision to split my seminar meeting into two parts. It was a scheduling quirk most likely associated with my packed teaching schedule and my status as an outsider in teaching in the English department. 

That said, it has been revelatory. First, the knowledge that we only have 90 minutes to discuss a text has given the class a certain amount of urgency. Second, because we meet twice a week, we have time to reflect on a discussion and return to certain points in the second session. In fact, the way that I’m scheduling the class is that we discuss new texts on Thursday and Tuesdays are time for both reflective discussion as well as other practical matters. 

While it is still early days in the class, so far, this organization feels like a revelation. Not only has our Thursday discussion been solid, but the the opportunity to sleep on the discussion and come back to it on Tuesday has so far been remarkably “productive” (by which I mean interesting and engaging instead of resolving). 

Three Things Teaching Thursday

This semester is barely a week old and feels a bit more chaotic than the last two semesters which were well and truly taught under the specter of COVID. I’ve now become used to the gaggle of administrative emails cryptically informing me that some unnamed student tested positive in one (or more!) of my classes, we’ve lost a day of class to a ground blizzard (which is very “on brand” for North Dakota), and it is so cold that I’m considering wearing a quartz watch today.

Despite these challenges, I remain pretty energized by my classes and genuinely excited to teach my rather more hectic teaching load. It also has me thinking about a few issues moving forward.  

Brought to you by the letter “C”.

Thing the First

Collaboration, Cooperation, and COVID. One thing that I want to impress upon my students is the need to find collaborative ways to adapt to the COVID situation. As the rhetoric encouraging vaccinations and mask-wearing emphasizes that these are not simply good for the individual, but good for the community as well, so I’ve been encouraging my classes to think about practices that will benefit not only their own situation if and when they are stricken with COVID and have to miss class, but also will benefit others. 

There is something about our current educational system that encourages a kind of dogged individualism. While students have slowly come around to the idea that group work and collaborative learning are viable and expected approaches in college, my classes haven’t quite come to the point where they see collaboration as a way to ensure individual success.

Thing the Second

Coping with the Cold. At first, the brutal cold of the North Dakota winter is invigorating. Then, it becomes demoralizing. Last semester, I saw students struggle in ways that I had never before experienced despite declining COVID numbers and a tentative (and fleeting) return to what we imagined to be a “new normal.” This semester feels only more fraught and I worry about my students ability to keep body and soul together during the long slog of the North Dakota winter.

I also fear that I have no solutions to helping students navigate a disrupted semester. I’ll certainly be as flexible as possible, try to pace the semester in as humane a way as possible, and communicate, but I know that their time in my classes is short and only part of their complicated lives. There’s only so much I can do beyond being understanding and patient and hope that we can find a way forward. 

Thing the Third

Coopting the Classrooms. One of the best parts about the relatively new classrooms where I teach is that they’re set up for active learning. This is also one of the greatest challenges because despite the well-known benefits of active learning, I continue to be a bit behind the curve in how I teach. I still do a good bit of lecture and discussion.

One of the things that makes this hard is that instead of a central projector that shows the powerpointers on a screen behind me, the students sit at tables that each have their own monitors. So when I’m talking about a point of architecture or putting a text up on the screen, the students are turned away from me and toward their TVs. This has the same effect as the TVs at a sports bar. It makes discussion difficult and keeps students looking back and forth from their fellow students and to me and then to their TV. This is less than ideal.

More challenging still is that I have at least one or two students on “The Zoom” and the camera for The Zoom is mounted to the monitor on the teaching station. This assumes that the class is a lecture and the best place for the camera (and the microphone) is facing the professor at the front of the room. Of course, this situation is less than ideal for any kind of active learning activities.

There’s not much one can do about this, other than continuously try to work around the limits of classroom space, but it does speak to the kinds of deep contradictions that COVID has created in our classroom.   

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

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

Thing the Second 

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

Teaching Thursday: Teaching Things

Next semester, I’m teaching a graduate course in the English Department on “things.” I haven’t taught a full-blown graduate class for close to a decade. It’ll also be an adventure because I actually don’t know any of the students in the class and I’m even less familiar with what they might know or what to talk about! 

I also have to admit that the class is a bit half-baked. It was based originally on a couple of chapters from the book that I’m currently revising on the archaeology of the contemporary world, but as I started to put my syllabus together things pretty quickly got out of control. 

The final syllabus will include some supplemental reading for each week and, of course, some information on assignments and the like. I’ll blog more about this next week, perhaps, but I’m going to try to make this class as open ended as possible in terms of class time, writing, and outcomes. 

For now, here is the “core” reading list. I’ll share the full syllabus when it’s done sometime next week.

Week 1: Thinking with Things

Week 2: Introduction to Things
Chapters from my book.
Hicks, Dan and Mary C. Beaudry, “Introduction: the place of historical archaeology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, eds. Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry, 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Week 3: Things and Literature
Tim Jelfs, The Argument about Things in the 1980s: Goods and Garbage in the Age of Neoliberalism. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018.

Week 4: Things in Thought
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke 2010.

Week 5: Things and Agency
Bruno Latour, Aramis or The Love of Technology. Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard 1996.
Severin Fowles, “The perfect subject (postcolonial object studies)” Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016), 9-27.

Week 6: Consuming Things
Daniel Miller, Stuff. Wiley 2010.

Week 7: Things and Archaeology

Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham: Altamira, 2010.

Week 8: Nature

Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Anthropology Beyond the Human. California 2013

Week 9: Things and History

Timothy LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2017

Week 10: Religion and Things
Maia Kotrosits, The Lives of Objects: Material Culture, Experience, and the Real in the History of Early Christianity. Chicago 2020.
Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe, “Introduction” in Sauer and Bledsoe (eds.), The Materiality of Middle English Anchoritic Devotion. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press 2021.

Week 11: Media Things
Jussi Parikka, The Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
William Basinski, Disintegration Loops: https://youtu.be/Ha6LtRkqMpk

Week 12: Broken Things and Ruins
Shannon Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2013

Week 13: Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum. Faber & Faber 2021.

Week 14: Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re.Press 2008.

A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a short paper that examines a class that I taught a few years ago to document the two buildings associated with Wesley College on the University of North Dakota campus. This class ran as a 1-credit companion to a 3-credit course on the university budget.

I finally have a more or less final draft prepared. The paper argues my one credit course embraced what I call a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that rejected the outcome oriented approaches favored by the institution. 

Figure 1

You can read the paper here and do let me know what you think.