Speed, Professionalism, and the New Media in Archaeology

Michael Smith’s blog, Publishing Archaeology, is usually pretty good. He can be a bit curmudgeonly and particular in his views, but that’s largely what makes Publishing Archaeology a worthwhile read.

Over the past few days, he got himself in a bit of hot water by offering a frank and honest critique of a lecture he attended by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado. The arguments that he advanced in his critique don’t interest me much, and, for the record, I don’t particularly agree with them. It is clear that the way in which he offered his critiques upset people and prompted a response. And this response led to a conversation, of sorts, an apology and some kind of resolution. What really interested me in this exchange is not really what they were saying to each other, but how it was said.

1. Facebook and New Media. One of the things that surprised Smith was that a group of graduate students at Colorado took issue with his blog post on the Joyce lecture and issues a response, of sorts, on Facebook. Smith states, in his typical honesty: “I guess I just don’t understand the world of social media,” and he then invited the students to post their comment to his blog to initiate a conversation there.

What excited me is this exactly the kind of de-centered debate that Andrew Reinhard and I noted in a recent article for Internet Archaeology where we note that Twitter and Facebook have started to replace the comment section on blogs as the key space for academic social interaction. In fact, many professional bloggers have disabled the comment feed all together in their blogs pushing conversation to social media. Interestingly, Michael Smith offered a thoughtful open, peer review of our article, and stated that he did feel much sense of community with other bloggers for technical reasons (the lack of trackbacks in Bloggers) as well as personal ones. Fair enough. We may have overstated the significance of the blogging community, but he clearly became aware that his blog post was creating a buzz through comments on Twitter. He may not regard his Twitter followers as a community in any real sense, but this is the kind of interaction through social media constituted the kind of digitally mediated relationships that we noted as significant to academic bloggers.

2. The Personal and the Professional. Smith noted that he preferred not to engage in these conversations on Facebook because “he tried to avoid using Facebook for professional purposes.” The idea is that some digital venues function best for professional conversations – say email or letters – while others are better reserved for personal life. Again, I’m not really interested in critiquing Michael Smith’s personal preferences here, but it is interesting to note that questions of the personal and professional resound throughout academia.

Hardly a year goes by without someone posting on work/life balance or offering some sage advice for carving out personal time amid the growing number of academic and professional obligations. I tend to relate these conversations to the extended professionalization process in academia in which vocational craft has gradually given way to salaried work. The latter has offered democratized access to academic positions, but also to the ever expanding structure of audit culture, the assessocracy, contractual work, and compliance. In other words, the division of professional and personal space on the web requires us to recognize that professional space (activities, attitudes, conversations) exist outside of our personal identities. While a more articulated division between the personal and the professional has had certain advantages for academics, it is clear that in the digital and social media realm such divisions remained blurry. The case of Steven Salaita who saw a job offer from the University of Illinois rescinded after anti-semitic tweets is a useful reminder that the boundary between our professional life and personal life in social media is not entirely ours to determine. Smith’s reluctance in using Facebook for professional conversations might reflect a separation between the personal and professional that no longer exists.

3. Speed, Media, and Openness. As readers of this blog know, I’m fascinated by the impact of speed on scholarly production and communication. Smith’s blog post appeared the day after the talk which it described and the response from Colorado graduate students appeared only two days later. The entire conversation has seemingly resolved itself less than a week after it began.

The willingness of Smith to engage in the conversation, the punctuality of his replies, and the general openness of the conversation is a remarkable feature of social and new media world. One might want, of course, for Smith to expand his challenge to Joyce’s views, and one might want the graduate students to engage Smith’s ideas in a more developed way, but this would take time, rob the conversation of some of its immediate context, and almost certainly obscure the visceral character of both Smith’s and the graduate student’s response behind an impersonal shield of academic prose.

The informality of this conversation can cause hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and confusion, but it reflects a part of the intellectual and academic process that we often hide. Traditional publishing – for all its strengths and value – tends to depersonalize academic conversations and adhere to professional standards that have little room for confessions that a theory seems “incomprehensible” much less “vacuous.”  We may quibble with Smith’s interpretation of Joyce’s materiality, but not with his honesty.

Things I Learned in 2015

It’s the end of the year and I suppose it’s also a time for traditional reflection on all the things that we learned over the previous 12 months. I obviously learned academic stuff and archaeological stuff and even some historical stuff, but I also think that I have a better grasp on practical stuff. Here are the top four things I learned about living the academic life.

1. The Mixed Blessing of Sabbatical. I consider myself very fortunate to have a year of sabbatical last year and I pushed a bunch of material into the academic pipeline over the 9 months without teaching or university service. This was great and I finished sabbatical with very few regrets and a number of surprising, new, spontaneous projects that appear poised to pay dividends.

The downside is that I am now completely swamped as all those little projects pushed into the pipeline (articles, book reviews, book manuscripts, conference papers) are coming home to roost when I have far less time to bring them to completion. David Pettegrew and I have a term for this kind of overwhelmed feeling: blow out. The biggest symptom of blow out is an inability to focus on any task and a deep fatigue. This Christmastime, I found myself simply overwhelmed and crushed, but this did not stop the relentless flow of responsibilities and projects flooding my inbox. Last night, I had a stress dream involving a project that my wife was working on!

Like so many things at the modern university, the institutional structure of annual budgets, the annual academic year, and annual review structures the system of pressures and rewards. These annual pressures and rewards are somewhat incompatible with the long game most of us play with our scholarship. In my experience, the frantic pace of work over a sabbatical will yield a mixed bag of results over the coming year or two as projects come together.

2. Democratic Doesn’t Mean Good. Over the last year, Richard Rothaus and I have embraced enthusiastically the medium of podcasting and have both recognized its origins as a tool to democratize audio broadcasting. At the same time, we’ve both recognized that podcasting as a medium requires more attention to production than perhaps we anticipated. An echoey, static-filled podcast, with irregular levels embraces the amateur punk-rock aesthetic, but do little for overall listenability. We keep on improving our sound and editing skills and I think that most recent podcasts sound better than our first.

At the same time, I think we’ve both recognized that presenting a recorded conversation involves a good bit more patience and choreography than I expected. Richard is already better than me at letting our guests talk and taking turns in conversation, but I’m learning that conversations on the podcast are a series of small set pieces that respond to each other. To allow these to develop, I need to keep practicing being patient and setting up our guests and Richard. 

3. The Power of a Brand. One of the most amazing things I’ve encountered this year is how important having a recognized brand is for visibility on the web. In the past 3 months, I’ve been editing North Dakota Quarterly’s much expanded web presence and the response has been remarkable. We already are averaging well over 150 page views per day even during the traditionally slow month of December. As we introduce a range of new content across the website, it is hard to deny that the power of NDQ brand will ensure a baseline audience for our digital growth.

I also learned, after a couple of missteps, that a long-standing brand like NDQ has very committed stakeholders. Expanding our digital presence has not been without some teething pains and things like the extent and character of editorial review and guidance are still being hashed out. Negotiating the balance between the speed of collaboration and the speed needed to maintain an interesting body of web content will be our challenge over the next month.

4. We’re All Busy. I have lots of irons in the fire right now and many of them require collaboration with folks. Generally, I’m an impatient collaborator who expects every project to be everyone’s top priority. I have to get better at working with my collaborators and managing my workflow around their priorities as much as mine. In other words, I have to do better realizing that other people are every bit as busy as I am. Saying that I’m not busy just isn’t enough.

 

The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive for 2015

As promised (and just a little late), volume 6 of The Archive of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. At just under 550 pages and just over 163,000 words, it includes all the posts from 2015 and this year with images and clickable links!

As with previous volumes, I recommend taking this down to your local book binder and having it bound in rich, soft, Corinthian leather. It makes a great gift!

For those feeling impatient and nostalgic, copies of Volume 1Volume 2Volume 3Volume 4, and Volume 5 are still available.

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Read it or download here:

Another Year, Another Year of Blogging

Tomorrow morning, I’ll post my annual last minute Christmas gift for all Archaeology of the Mediterranean World fans: the sixth volume in my annual installment of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive. (For those feeling impatient and nostalgic, copies of Volume 1Volume 2Volume 3Volume 4, and Volume 5 are still available.

It’ll represent some 200+ individual blog posts and weigh in at around 165,000 words (words, that my colleagues will remind me, could have been committed to more personally and professionally profitable undertakings). More importantly that the profits produced by the words that I wrote, however, is what I’ve learned this year from running my little bloggy-blog:

1. Social Media and Blogs. If I don’t push a post via social media, I lose around 25% of my readers. When I started blogging, we had RSS readers and we liked it! But now, most of readers appear to use the hive mind of social media to filter the internet for their reading pleasure. For better or for worse, this involves me having to be active on social media. Most of the time, it is a pleasure to troll gently my friends and colleagues, but every now and then the outrage machine that is my Facebook feed pushes me toward the edge of rational behavior. I do realize that if we don’t post and comment on the most recent campus outrage from the local paper that the terrorists, racist, or other horrible people win. And yes, I know that it would be very bad if Trump was elected President. Finally, I know the they are putting chemicals in our drinking water, plotting to block out the sun and charge us for sun light, and, soon, very soon, only foreigners (mostly refugees) will be legally allowed to vote in the U.S. I am, as always, very, very afraid and hope that someone will swoop in and save me with lower taxes, more freedom, less freedom, better guns, fewer guns, more bombs, fewer bombs, more socialism, fewer chemicals, better drugs, and that.

Having to keep an active social media presence in our current age is excruciating. In fact, I’ve periodically stopped pushing my blog posts to social media to avoid their association with the internet outrage machine, racists and frankly malicious dreck, and political drivel. This results in fewer people seeing my blog and reading my words, which is a bummer.

2. My Mini Media Empire. Over the the past 12 months, Richard Rothaus and I have managed to sustain two full seasons of the Caraheard podcast with the last few episodes being the best yet. Most of our posts have been listened to at least 50 times and a few have been used in classrooms and other settings. If you haven’t listened to our most recent podcast which is a conversation with Ömür Harmanşah, do it now

I’ve worked closely with some amazing folks at North Dakota Quarterly, to learn the rhythms of work with a quarterly literary journal and the challenges of negotiating the tensions between a century of traditional approaches to media and the risks and opportunities of the digital world. The power of the North Dakota Quarterly brand has simply amazed me as its website regularly draws a couple of hundred views a day without new content and twice that with every new post.  

In 2015, the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota continues to grow up with two new books and a reprint in collaboration with NDQ. Next year, I feel confident in asserting that the Press will produce its most important works and forge some new regional and national partnerships and continue to mature. We might even branch out into some new directions that take the idea of “The Digital,” in “The Digital Press” a bit more broadly.

The blog sits astride the intersection of these interests and, as Andrew Reinhard and I argued in Internet Archaeology, was the impetus (not just in my case, but I’d contend, in a larger context) for the resurgence of small scale publishing. My own experiments with serialized publishing of longer works (for example, my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch which I published over at Medium has yielded over 2000 views this year) has demonstrated the continued vitality of blog-like environments as a platform for both short and long form publishing.

3. Old Content and New Content. One of the most interesting things about my blog is that only three posts that I wrote this past year ranked in the most viewed posts for the year. They were not posts from the beginning of the year; so this was not a factor of length of time being visible. Archaeology of Care was posted on September 10th and the open access teaser to the War with the Sioux appeared in September 1. Only the post announcing Visions of Substance appeared in the first half of this past year. The rest of the posts in the top 10 are from previous years and most are associated with posts that would ultimately become contributions to Visions of Substance (with the exception of two Punk Archaeology posts and the 200+ downloads of the book this year). 

I assume this result is as much the product of the way that search engines work as the inherent appeal of particular posts. For example, a post with the with the word syllabus in it will likely attract more sustained attention than one with a more (or is it less?) generic title. At the same time, I was a bit bummed that some of my better posts didn’t get more attention. I know, it is vane and naive to think that what I regard as good work will somehow get more attention on the internet, and maybe this is one of the best reasons for anyone to start a blog. You can see in immediate and graphic terms what the internet thinks (and sees in) your work.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the annual publication of the Archive!  

Books by their Cover

You can’t open Facebook these days without seeing a profile picture superimposed with a French flag. A year ago, profile pictures had multicolored hues in support of equal marriage rights or gay marriage. At various times of year, social media profiles sport pink for breast cancer, mustaches for prostate cancer, or various other regular designs to demonstrate solidarity or sympathy with this or that cause. Invariably, there are columns that comment or complain about a particular practice, the uncritical and uncomplicated adoption of potentially fraught symbols, and the deleterious effects of “slacktivism.” Most worry that a changed profile picture will substitute for political or social action and superficial expressions of sympathy, solidarity, or awareness will replace genuine engagement with issues. These concerns are so pervasive that they constitute part of the discourse of representation on social media and are in no ways less hackneyed or superficial than the practice that they critique. 

Personal branding on social media is no less complicated than personal branding in any medium and criticizing its simplicity is, in itself, a failure to understand the complications associated with branding and interpretation of branding across various media in our image rich society. My November mustache might be ironic, it might show I’m participating in “Movember,” or it might be that I genuinely like how I look with a mustached lip. Or it might be all these things. Most of us recognize the ambiguities present in these simple personal branding exercises (and even relish the potential for an un-ironic mustache!) and even appreciate the earnestness of people’s efforts to celebrate a cause, negotiate the political landscape, or just to show preference for one brand over another.

When it comes to branding a larger enterprise, we are less tolerant of this kind of ambiguity. I’m waist deep in type-setting a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota right and beginning to think a bit about cover designs. I’ve been fortunate that my collaborators on this project have offered images and designs for the cover and these designs are all visually arresting. The book is titled The Bakken Goes Boom and it should appear early next year, but the cover design project represents another chapter in the larger Branding the Bakken project. From Alec Soth’s black-and-white images of the oil smeared worker to Sarah Christianson’s The Skogens’ bedroom window, images have dominated our apprehension of the Bakken boom. It is hardly surprising that my own work documenting workforce housing in the Bakken has generated over ten thousand of photographs and videos. 

The image-driven nature of our engagement with the Bakken means that selecting the cover of the first book-length academic study of the Bakken boom takes on particular significance. Each cover represents a different aspect of the Boom and a different point of emphasis in the book (as well as a different style). 

My co-editor Kyle Conway created an arresting cover image that shows a drill rig situated near his families property in Williston.

Bakken cover off center

Photographer Kyle Cassidy who has worked with our team in the Bakken and has a contribution in the volume offered several fantastic cover designs:

Bakken goes boom cover 1

Bakken goes boom cover 2

Bakken goes boom cover 3

Bakken goes boom cover 4

Bakken goes boom cover 5

Comments and feedback are appreciated!

Adventure in Podcasting: Season 2, Episode: 2: Domestic Space and a Very Special Guest

In the second episode of Season 2, Bill and Richard violate the spirit of Labor Day and get to work on recording a podcast.  It’s okay, because our special guest is Bev, Bill’s mother-in-law.  Since she’s from Australia, we can celebrate Labor Day in late winter, like they do in the southern hemisphere.  Our topic of discussion: the different houses we have lived in and how they shaped our daily lives in North America, Australia, and Greece.

Be sure to check out our sponsor this episode. Karl Jacob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

The podcast begins with a discussion of Queensland, Australia, and in particular the Queenslander, a house, traditionally built of timber, suitable for the hot climate of Australia.  We drift into a discussion of the American Ranch style house, with an oblique nod to the Four-square.  Perhaps you should buy a Field Guide to American Houses.  You can find a typology on the web, of course.

Don’t forget to learn about the Hills Hoist.  And the awesome variety of Australian Pubs.

We referenced Greek Houses and Kostis Kourelis

Australian Place we reference:  Queensland, Townsville, someplace called Beero.  Townsville is also home to these superheroes.

It’s not Caraheard without a reference to mancamps in the Bakken, or their abandonment as the oil boom turns down.

Toilet water does not drain counterclockwise in Australia.  Quit asking.

Unprecedented Blog Hiatus

My first month back from sabbatical has been full of bad habits. I’m reading more than I’m writing. I’m using daily tasks (email, reading for class, blogging, grading, service, tilting at windmills) to hide from long term projects. And, while I’ve taken steps to keep my stress level manageable, I’ve slowly felt the icy tendrils of stress creeping into my day-to-day life.

So, I’m going to take a week off from regular blogging, and focus my morning “therapy writing” on a book project that I’m involved in relating to the Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I’m not sure that we can meet a very ambitious writing deadline, but I’m going to let my writing for this project take over the blog for the next week.

Here is what I need to write about:

1. Archaeology of the Contemporary World (4000 words). Was the Atari dig archaeology? Is this even a relevant question? This is the way to reflect on a big picture view of archaeology of the contemporary world. 

2. Digging the Modern: A CRM Perspective (4000 words). The challenges associated with dealing with modern sites. The challenges of dealing with the landfill. 

3. Technical Report on Excavations (8000 words). This has been drafted. It’s a technical description of what we documented during the excavation.

4. Between Artifacts and Commodities (4000 words). I’d like to think through more thoroughly the issue of whether it was ethical to sell the Atari games on auction and reflect on how archaeology of the contemporary world creates a new, hyper abundant class of artifacts. I’ve penned some vague ideas here.

5. Excavating Innocence (4000). I’d like to riff on Laurie Wilkie’s remarkable book: The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) when considering the larger meaning of excavating an urban legend in Alamogordo. I played with some of the ideas in relation to the Zak Penn documentary here

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to write all of this in one week, but if I can chip away at some of these ideas this week during my designated blogging time, then maybe I can keep the dreaded “business” at bay.

So I apologize to my regular readers who may find this entire Atari Excavation business a bit tedious, and promise that I have other things to blog about when I get some of this Atari book on the page.

A Literary Journal in the Digital Age

This afternoon we have our first North Dakota Quarterly meeting of the year. NDQ is a small, proud, and once influential literary journal published at the University of North Dakota. For over a century, the Quarterly has appeared four times (or somewhat less) per year filled with poetry, fiction, and commentary. The last few years, however, have not been particularly kind to NDQ. It has lost subscribers, lost its longtime editor, and somehow missed out on the digital era. As a result, support from the University of North Dakota, which remains vital for its survival, has wavered, and a new editorial board of which I’m a part has a mandate to save the journal.

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My contribution to the “Save NDQ” project focuses on helping the journal find its way in the digital world. In fact, I’m giving a little presentation on a few possible digital initiatives. As per my usual practice, I’m going to use my blog to get my thoughts together.

1. Digital Legacy. One of the first things that NDQ must address is its legacy. NDQ has over 400 issues and thousands of pages of content and almost none of this is available online (other than the first 20 or so issues digitized as part of the Google Books project) even now that our issues are born digital.

As part of bringing NDQ’s legacy to the digital era, we are going to start a series of thematic reprints of public domain content and make them available on both paper and in digital forms (in collaboration The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!). In other words, we’re going to use digital media to organize and celebrate the legacy of NDQ in new ways.

For issues that remain under copyright, we’re in a unique bind. Because NDQ published for year without author contracts, and the most recent author contracts limited the republication of individual submissions to NDQ, we are going to have problems producing thematic reprints for volumes still under copyright. My gut feeling is that for articles published before 1950, we might be safe doing some thematic reprints, but for more recent content, we probably need to simply release digital copies of the entire volumes.

We will also contact Jstor to see if they are interested in distributing NDQ, but we might also look to other online depositories to ensure that digital NDQ circulates as widely as possible.

2. Beyond Paper. As readers of this blog know, I’m always willing to experiment with the newest in new media (well, not the newest, but once it becomes a bit tired, I’m all in!). I even joined Ello. Part of what we need to do with NDQ is to bolster its presence online through the new media. We will unveil a new website in the coming weeks, and, hopefully, this allows us to engage with timely matters in a more efficient way. 

We’re also in the exploration stages of a series of Podcasts, an Instagram account, and even some low-key (gasp) e-marketing (like a regular email newsletter or even a subscription drive?).

At times, NDQ feels like it exists in a sepia-toned bubble, but, in fact, the Quarterly serves as a filter. We get hundreds of submissions for each volume, and we publish only the most interesting and exciting each quarter. This filtering function is all the more important in the 21st century, where the abundance of new and traditional media choices for the educated reader is almost overwhelming. And we think that our editors, readers, and supporters could collaborate in filtering the the wild world of the web. So, I’d like to introduce a quarterly NDQ list of the best things to read both on the web and on paper. I know there is a good bit of competition in this field, but I also know that our contributors, readers, friends, and colleagues are a formidable filter. I think a quarterly email with our favorite reads could become a complement to the print version of the Quarterly. We also think that this is a great way to build bridges between the various quality publications both online and in print that our editors, contributors, and subscribers enjoy.

Podcasts offer another way to expand the audience for NDQ. Reading is great, but the amount of hours in a day never allow for as much time for thought-provoking engagement with quality media as anyone would like. I am always surprised by the number of folks I know who listen regularly to podcasts. If journals like NDQ, were the quality popular media of their day, then perhaps podcasts fill that gap now?

Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat (!?). I mean, seriously? Do these media have potential? Poems on Snapchat? Cover art on Instagram? I don’t even know what we could do with Vine, but these light-weight media options exist and are popular and have a tremendous reach. They’re ripe for experiment.

3. Transmedia. As much as I can imagine NDQ using new media to extend its reach, I can also imagine us engaging new media in different, critical ways. For example, I’d love to see NDQ offer a critical take on music. Fortunately, YouTube, Vimeo, and streaming services like Spotify make it easy to integrate music and text online.

My colleague Sharon Carson, also on the editorial board at NDQ, is committed to renewing the genre of book review, I wonder if complementing that should be an effort to revitalize the genre of music review?

Even the most rudimentary blog platform now allows for us to integrate video and and photography and take the genre of review from a cross media exercise to a transmedia encounter where art, music, video, and text share the same space and blur the line between viewer, listener, and reader. 

4. Paper. All this is not to marginalize the tradition of paper publication at NDQ. In fact, by exploring digital media while remaining committed to paper, we recognize the unique character of paper, printing, layout, fonts, and all the other craft elements of traditional publication that our growing addiction to web reading and digital publication has gradually eroded. By crossing media boundaries, we are compelled to consider more carefully what makes print unique and to celebrate it.

Weeks of Wonder

If you’re a big Bill Caraher fan (and if you read this blog then I’m assuming that you find me vaguely amusing or, at very least, share some of my interests), then there is plenty to keep you entertained this week.

Tomorrow, as you probably know, is the 7th annual Cyprus Research Fund lecture. It’ll feature Andrew Reinhard, Raiford Guins, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber and we’ll talk about the excavation of Atari games in Alamogordo, New Mexico last year, have a viewing of the documentary Atari: Game Over, and discuss the archaeology of the contemporary western United States more broadly. Festivities start at 3:30 with some vintage Atari games set up to be played. To get an idea of the kind of thing that’ll likely come up check out Andrew’s blog, Raiford’s blog (especially note his time spent as a research fellow at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester!), and Richard’s blog.

If you can’t make it to the event, do not fear! You can watch the documentary for free here (or get it on The Netflix) and then watch our round table event starting around 5 pm for free on our live stream here.

For a preview of our discussions check out the most recent Caraheard podcasts here.

If you can’t make the Cyprus Research Fund lecture, maybe you can hang out with some of the North Dakota Man Camp Project in Ellendale next weekend?

The great folks with the Man Camp Dialogues, The Institute for Heritage Renewal, and The Ellendale Historic Opera House, and the North Dakota Humanities Council sponsored our event on Friday. If the last opportunity to present our work in a free-flowing dialogue is any indication, this will be a rewarding evening for everyone involved.

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If you’re not that into the archaeology of the contemporary world and aren’t based in North Dakota (which I suppose is possible), you can check out a different version of my dog-and-pony show at the Mary Jaharis Center at the Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts on April 18th where I will attend their annual Graduate Student Conference on Byzantine Studies and participate on a panel with some real luminaries in our field to discuss Byzantium in the Public Sphere. I’ve already blogged a bit about this last week.

So, if I’m a bit scarce on the ole blog here for the next couple days, I hope you’ll understand! 

Byzantium and the Public Sphere

In a couple of weeks, I head back east to the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at the Hellenic College Holy Cross to be on a panel of scholars who “use traditional and digital means to build a broader audience for the field inside and outside of the academy.” I suspect my blog caught their attention or a series of posts a couple of years ago on marketing my Byzantine history class to unsuspecting undergraduates. 

In these blog posts, I complained that the place of Byzantium in most “master narratives” presented to college students, limits how we can present the Byzantine Empire to an unfamiliar audience on campus. Some of these approaches are useful. In my very traditional history department, Byzantine history serves as another way to complicate what the students understand to be “the Western tradition.” To simplify this discussion (as I would present it to undergraduates unfamiliar with Byzantium), the Byzantine world has a Western pedigree: it represented the persistence of the Roman Empire, it was ruled and populated by “people of the book” (Jews, Christian, and Muslims), and it partook in familiar practices that ranged from Hellenic philosophy, to architecture, forms of literature, and political history. At my lowest points, I found myself saying: “Don’t worry, it will be far more familiar than the world of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin!” (Putting aside that these worlds were made up and featured, you know, dragons). In my best moments, I found that I could channel my inner Anthony Kaldellis

Appeals to familiarity, of course, only serve to highlight the things about Byzantium that are utterly unfamiliar. On a short flight this past month, I read over Averill Cameron’s slim volume titled Byzantine Matters. The book provides a useful, if incomplete view of trends in the field over the author’s influential career (or since the publication of Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State in 1969. More than that, her book is accessible and generally indicates some profitable lines of inquiry that challenge the traditional view of Byzantium as a theocratic despotism satisfied to simmer gently beneath the ponderous weight of Orthodox uniformity. This approach not only offers a way to open up Byzantium to questions that are profoundly Western (e.g. what was the relationship between church and state?), but also to urge students to see the study of Byzantium as a way to critique Orientalism and its view of unchanging, almost unthinking traditionalism. This may be a hook to ensure that “Byzantium belongs to all of us, and … belongs to mainstream history.” Lest we imagine that Cameron went all populist on us, she also calls for renewed attention to Byzantine religious writing (sermons, theological treatises, et c.) as works of literature. Nothing is likely to broaden the appeal of Byzantium more than combining the study of literature, with all its theoretical pretensions, with the study of theological texts which were probably bored the vast majority of the Byzantine world. That being said, this suggestion does follow her overarching argument for hidden complexity in the Byzantium world.

I don’t think that I was invited to this panel to share my penetrating understanding of Byzantine historiography, however. 

I think I’ll try to inject a few observations.

1. Blogging Byzantium. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a constant presence of Byzantine bloggers on the web. In most cases, these blogs are pretty traditional, text-driven places. None of us have truly embraced the potential of social and new media although a few of the blogs feature videos from time to time.

There are a few exceptions. For example, there is Lars Brownworth’s 12 Rulers of Byzantium which started as a podcast and has expanded into a media empire featuring videos and a book. The Cry for Byzantium Twitter feed of Alexius I Comnenus pushes Byzantium into the social media sphere. The /r/Byzantine page on Reddit appears to be thriving.

The typical Byzantine Blogger, however, is pretty textual with the occasional image of a domed church or a map. There are, of course, a few panoramic views of Byzantine churches and a mishmash of mostly outdated efforts to create interactive maps of Constantinople or whatever. Generally speaking, scholars of Byzantium have stayed on the sideline of recent trends to create a more dynamic web. These kinds of projects require significant funding and, perhaps more importantly, a clearly-defined audience.

2. Byzantine Archaeology as World Archaeology. I need to work this into a fuller post at some point in the near future, but one observation that my buddy Kostis Kourelis made a few years back is that a meaningful subset of Byzantine archaeologists also do archaeology in their local communities. What brought this to mind was David Pettegrew’s recent work on mapping 19th century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the Greek community there. Kostis has been involved in my North Dakota Man Camp Project and various initiatives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he teaches. The willingness of archaeologists of the Byzantine world to engage in the archaeology of their local communities hints that Byzantinists are not as disengaged as our scholarly output might suggest. In fact, it suggests that some of the trends in Byzantine archaeology resonate with issues prevalent in world archaeology. For a discipline that almost takes a perverse pride in its idiosyncratic conventions, this is a significant revelation and offers hope for Byzantinists everywhere that our skills and professional interests can have a direct impact on local communities in North America.

3. Mash-Up and Convergence. Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about how our scholarly production – books and articles – rarely extend beyond their academic audiences and rarely enjoy lives outside of their final, published copies. The divergence between academic works and popular books could not be more stark as influential popular books often feed a growing participatory community engaged in fan fiction, form the basis for transmedia productions like films and video games, and spawn communities of commentators and critics. George R.R. Martin’s mostly-depraved Game of Thrones series of books and TV series is just the most recent and perhaps most visible example.

As Byzantinists contemplate engaging the public sphere more fully, it might behoove us to consider the changing the changing state of popular media. How do we ensure that our books and articles become living, media entities that go beyond their utility to a small group of scholars? Do we push to make our work available in open access? Do we work harder to contribute to linked-data practices? How does our work interact or intersect with the larger media universe? 

To my mind, this is not simply about making our work known to more people, but making it more accessible to audiences who think about media in new and more dynamic ways. Books and articles are more than just forms of scholarly communication or instruments designed to get tenure, but simply aspects of an increasingly dynamic media universe that extends beyond the life of a publication, its physical or digital form, and goals of the academic author. How can Byzantine studies engage this world?