Day of Digital Humanities 2014

Today is the long awaited Intergalactic Day of Digital Humanities. While we have not heard whether we’ll be joined by any off planet humans and the usual uproar about whether “the humanities” are offensive to non-human lifeforms has yet to flair up, I commend the organizers for melding together humanocentric jingoism with a open-armed inclusiveness. The digital humanities are, after all, big tent.

My posts today will appear here.

But I’ll keep a little updated index on this page so none of my regular readers will miss out.

A Digital Morning
Digitally Mediated Learning
The Afterlife of Old Media
The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

Archaeology, Blogging, and Community

This past week, I’ve slowly worked on an article for a special issue of Internet Archaeology that will focus on blogging and archaeology. My article, co-authored with Andrew Reinhard, the Director of Publications of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, looks at how blogging in the field of archaeology had contributed new directions to traditional, academic publishing.

We’ve split the article into two parts, with me contributing the first two sections. I’ve been working on the first section over the past couple of weeks. It sought to articulate how the blogging community among archaeologists constitutes a community of practice. Over the past decade archaeological bloggers have come to act in certain ways that actively constitute the production and reproduction of a community. The most simple example of this is the practice of using hyperlinks to provide connections between blog posts (or a blog post and other online content). This not only is a shared practice among bloggers, but explicitly creates links that represent the relationship between various locations of content on the web. The oft-mocked term blogosphere reflects the concept of a blogging community by evoking the universalizing metaphor of the sphere for the world (and also, perhaps, recognizing the organic nature of the blogging environment).

In earlier days, blogrolls forged explicit links between members of the blogging community, but the practice of maintaining an active list of blogs on related topics has gone into decline. In fact, some major blogging platforms have stopped supporting this feature. I can recall, however, surfing the blogosphere by jumping from one blogs blogroll to the next. RSS readers – like the late, lamented Google Reader, largely replaced the blogroll by taking the space for aggregating related content (or the space of articulating the blogging community) from the space of the content provider (the blogger) to the consumer (the reader). That being said, aggregators, like Tom Elliot’s Maia, continue to provide a curated point of access to the archaeological blogosphere.

The practice of commenting on blogs has also provided a space for the interaction among members of a broadly construed blogging community. Unfortunately (I suppose), comments fields on academic blogs have tended to be fairly deserted. A recurring complaint among academic bloggers is that they have so few commenters on their work. In my assessment, much of this has to do with the rather circumscribed space of the individual blog. The archaeological community remains relatively small and the loyal readership of any particular archaeological blog smaller still. More than that, compared to contemporary social media sites, the relative infrequency of posts and the fairly small audience on an academic blog creates a situation where the opportunities for comments and conversation remain few and far between. In other words, the structure of the blogging community provides only a modest space for communities to develop through commenting (except in particular, exceptional circumstances).

Social media space is instructional for academic bloggers. The size of a networked audience and the regularity (and diversity) of posts has created a new space for conversation and commenting largely replacing the comments section on a blog. The multiple points of entry, formally structured relationships between commenters, and the sustained activity alone conspires to encourage conversation in the same way that the informal space at the hotel bar during a busy conference often produced more useful insights than the formal period of content at the end of a panel.

Archaeological blogs represent a particular situation for content distribution on the web. In the blogging world, then communities of practice developed not through the staccato burst of daily interaction in comment feeds, but through the development of linked content. With the social media providing a space of interaction and conversation, the blog represents a platform for communicating academic ideas and for the engagement with dynamic linked content. 

The Goals for Archaeological Blogging

The final prompt in the 2014 SAA Blogging Carnival was pretty direct and serves to get me thinking about the abstract on archaeological blogging that I submitted to Colleen Morgan’s proposed volume of Internet Archaeology. Andrew Reinhard, punk archaeologist, musician, and director of publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, has agreed to co-author my contribution and to contribute his thoughts on how blogging (or the larger constellation of tools and genres produced on the web) will shape the future of archaeological publication.

So this prompt is a good first step to getting a few of me thoughts down:

The last question is where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go? I leave it up to you to choose between reflecting on you and your blog personally or all of archaeology blogging/bloggers or both. Tells us your goals for blogging. Or if you have none why that is? Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.

From the start my goals with this blog and for archaeological blogging in general was to produce an alternative mode of scholarly communication. At first, it was directly largely to people interested in my fieldwork projects in Cyprus, but by midway through my first year blogging, I realized that I had access to a much more diverse audience that included both scholars, non-academics, students, teachers, and interested lurkers from around the world. 

As I watched my page views and visitors slowly increase over the first few years of this blog and a few fearless colleagues start their own blogs, we began to discuss the potential of our efforts to disrupt the standard methods of scholarly communication. Academics love to imagine themselves to be rebellious trailblazers, but mostly we’re as conventional as anyone who sits in cramped offices under florescent lights taking a paycheck and “doin’ work”. At the same time, we do have the freedom to be a bit more unconventional than the average cubicle jockey and we have generally been trained to challenge authority. 

It is hardly a revolution to see blogging as a more interesting mode of academic communication than the traditional scholarly routine of poorly-attended conference papers, barely-read (much less cited) articles, and the skimmed battery of echo-chamber forged book reviews. The appeal of academic blogging might be as simple as the regularity, visibility, and immediacy of the content. But it might also be that bloggers have generally developed their pages as personal vehicles and, like our favorite teachers in high school and college, weave in their own personality throughout the posts. In contrast to the austerely “scientifical” prose favored in traditional academic publications, blogs and individual blog posts can be informal, provisionalflippanthumorous, random, and polemical without undermining their integrity as a academic products. For many of us, the blog carries the our more dynamic classroom personas into public space and toward the realm of academic publication.   

Along the way, our blogs develop loyal readers, commenters (especially when combined with the social media), and like-minded fellow-bloggers have begun to formulate a new perspective on the long-standing academic back-channel. This group not only believes in the existence of a community of people who are interested in academic archaeology, but also feels it appropriate to share with this community the process of archaeological thinking from the first random scribbles on an idea to the fully formed working papers and publications. The unveiling of the archaeological process works to demystify the “science” of archaeological thought and to invest the community in the process as much as the product.

The final step in the disruptive potential of archaeological blogging is returning to the traditional realm of scholarly publications and somehow infusing it with the sense of community, transparency, excitement, and energy of blogging. Some of this has already happened with experiments in open peer review, comment enabled publications, a commitment to working papers, and deeper engagements with social media. The future of academic publications in archaeology and how willing they are to reflect trends in blogging remains unclear, but it seems like the nature of the conversation in our discipline has begun to change, and it’s cool to have been part of that transformation.

An Article Abstract on Archaeological Blogging

Over the past couple years, I’ve been turning over in my head an article idea about archaeological blogging. I have written a good bit on my blog about the virtues and prospects of writing about my research and teaching on a nearly daily basis, but I’ve so far found it difficult to wrap my various ideas (reflexive, reflective, and otherwise) into a cohesive argument.

I tried with this thing, but it’s hard not to see it as a mess.

So with the open invitation to contribute something to an Internet Archaeology volume dedicated to blogging and edited by the spectacular Colleen Morgan, I decided to take another stab at it.

My biggest struggle is attempting to understand how blogging in the archaeological community fits into the larger trajectory of blogging and publication on the web. I started with the  idea that blogs began with the promise of creating communities on the web (even before social media). The blogroll and sharing links established communities of likeminded readers. At the same time the regular, daily posts that tended to be short, filled with links, and informal created some generic expectations that many bloggers followed.

More recently, however, I have this feeling that blogging – as Jason Kottke has observed – is (not) dead, and in a period of transition as the traditional practice of ordering posts by days gives way to more elegant and topic organization of content. And the long form potential of the internet has challenged the dominance of short informal notes. Sites like Medium may not be the precise way forward, but its hard to avoid thinking that they are the general direction that online, personal publishing will go. In archaeology, being traditionalists, we may continue to blog in a chronological format drawing on longstanding models from the archaeological notebook or field dispatch. But as we have started to use our web presence for more than just regular reports from the field, we may begin to think about how the blogging platform fits can contribute to larger enterprise of reimagining publication.

So here’s my abstract for now:

From Blogs to Books
Blogging as Community, Genre, and Platform

Looking back at my first efforts to describe the blogging phenomenon among Mediterranean archaeologists in 2008, I was reminded how the work at the intersection of blogging and archaeology defied simple characterization. At the same times, blogs created communities of readers and allowed for public experiments with the traditional generic conventions of academia as bloggers reflected, speculated, and annotated their experiences. The speed of blogging, the networks it created and relied upon, and the range of different functions blogging served from public relations to academic notes, initiated a key reimagining of our professional discourse by the archaeological community.

In recent years, archaeological bloggers begun to move the platform used for blogging in the direction of a new forms of archaeological publication. It is worth noting that there is nothing inherent in the technology of blogging that makes it incompatible with academic publishing. In fact, even the casual, conversational style of an informal blog post can echo the style of the more academically respectable conference paper. Moreover, new platforms like Medium dispense with the rigid chronological formatting associated with blogs and provide graphically sophisticated and appealing final product. More importantly, these new forms offer both a speed of delivery absent in traditional print publications as well as space for interaction between author and audience and can accommodate audio, video, and interactive media that are only now being incorporated into the more digital versions of traditional journals.



SAA Blogging Carnival: Popular Blog Posts and Networked Reading

If you haven’t checked it out, the summary of last month’s SAA Blog Carnival is posted at Doug’s Archaeology Blog. It’s pretty epic in terms of number of contributors and range of responses. My contribution got a bit lost in the shuffle, but it’s still there and the energy from the entire undertaking has motivated me to keep with it.

This month’s prompts are as follows:

What are your best (or if you want your worst) post(s) and why? Compare and contrast your different bests/worsts.

While is a cool question because it opens the door not only to reflect on our own blogging efforts, I’m going to mostly ignore it and use it as prompt to speculate a bit on the entire blogging ecosystem. After all, the best and worst posts are only partly determined by our own judgement and partly by their reception by our audience.

Anyway, I have three observations.

1. My best posts and networked knowledge. On my blog, my best posts are those read by the most people. It’s pretty simple, really. I write stuff. People read it. And when people read and appreciate my contributions to their online worlds, I get happy.

The great thing about blogging (or writing on the web) is how transparent networked reading is. I remember as a graduate student, one of my prized possessions as a graduate student was a copy of Eriki Sironen’s Helsinki dissertation: “The late Roman and early Byzantine inscriptions of Athens and Attica.” It was hard to get in the U.S. and I had no idea how many people had copies. My copy carried from Athens and photocopied with a purloined copier code at night in a dark corner of the history department.

Today, we read in a different way. Articles circulate at the speed of light, and social media, email, and blogs compose part of this networked reading infrastructure. When other people read our posts and like our ideas we know it. Our reading habits sway with the flickering of other people’s interest on our social media dashboards. It appears in our blog analytics and sketches out the barest outlines of a community who shares practices, habits, and interests. The attention a post gets from this community shows the community of readers (and writers) at work.

My most popular posts were primarily driven these days by their prominence on social media. When a popular Facebook or Twitter personality likes what they see, my daily page view jump from the hundreds to over 1000 within hours.  

2. The Ephemeral and the Persistent. One of the most interesting things about blogging is attempting to understand the relationship between posts that receive significant immediate attention and those that linger and gain page views slowly over time. My “New” Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog has existed for close to three years now and some posts continue to garner attention indicating that our idea of blogs as kinds of digital ephemera is perhaps over stated.

In the past, I have suggested that blogs can fill a gap between the almost completely ephemeral media of the conference paper and the institutionally protected status of traditional academic journals. As blogs continue to mature on the web issues of visibility and persistence will shape how we understand their value and their place in the academic ecosystem. A post that’s three or four years old and continues to get attention has greater meaning than a post that attracts a few hundred hits in a day and then fades into obscurity.  

At the same time, I’ve tried to strike a balance between posts that enjoy momentary or situational popularity (for example, I had a post featured on’s Freshly Pressed page) and those that have persistent significance to my reading community. The sensational or situational post has the advantage of making by blog more visible on the web and attracting new, interested readers. As I continue to experiment with using my blog as a platform for other people’s writing, I feel even greater obligation to draw attention to it through ephemeral posts and a greater social media presence.

3. Blogging is Dead. A few weeks ago Jason Kottke (one of the great “old” men of the blogging community) wrote a short piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab titled “The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog.” In it he talked broadly about the transformation of reading on the internet and how he almost never reads proper, traditional blogs any more. In fact, he suggests that the traditional format of the blog with posts arranged in chronological order has slowly given way over the past few years to more topical or thematic arrangement of content. He notes the emergence of sites like Medium which  look to present content for various authors in a more stylish format than most blogs, and without any concession to chronological format.

Over the past few months, I ran a series of posts on 3D imaging in Mediterranean archaeology. One of the complaints voiced by a number of contributors was that there was no proper table of contents and they had to scroll through pages of content to read the entire series of posts. That was an easy enough problem to fix, but it shows that as the blog developed, the suitability in the traditional blogging format has limits.   

At the same time, the narrative structure of blogging with its clear, chronological trajectory seems suitable for telling the story of archaeological work and academic research as ongoing processes. It invites a regular reader into an archaeologist’s world and has obvious parallels with the format of a archaeological field notebooks. It also assumes a particular practice in the part of the reader who makes daily visits to a blog and reads it in sequence getting to know the authors over time. Whether this is enough to keep blogging as the format of choice for archaeological outreach remains to be seen.  

Tis the Season

Every year I have readers asking me whether the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World team can help with a last minute Christmas gift. 

Every year, I assure them that the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive is the perfect gift for anyone who wants to relive the glory that is the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Blog on luxurious paper. Volume 4 of The Archive is now available in all of its digital glory. It is most free of obfuscating mark-up and html artifact and perfectly ready for printing and binding at the book binder of your choice. I’d recommend binding it in rich, Corinthian leather.

This year The Archive is prepared in Garamond font (the cover page is in Futura) and runs to over 500 pages. These are 500 pages that might have been directed toward book projects, properly completing university mandate paperwork, or letters to the editor of the local newspaper. It runs to well over 100,000 words. 

I have decided to exclude other people’s posts (o.p.p.) from this archive, in part, because they will appear in a separate, better edited volume, and because it would be too hard to explain to other people why I prepare an annual archive. I have also followed past practices and left out all of the images. It is just easier this way and I figured that it would fuel my readers imagination as they attempted to visualize whatever it was that I was talking about.

For this feeling nostalgic, copies of Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 are still available.

Merry Christmas!

SAA Blogging Carnival: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly about Blogging

Last week, I offered a post on “Why I blog?” in the run-up to the 2014 Society for American Archaeology panel on blogging at their annual meeting. The responses were collated and commented on over at Doug’s Archaeology blog where he has also offered us another round of prompts.

Here are Doug’s prompts:

The theme is the good, the bad, and the ugly of blogging. Blog about one or all of these themes. Instructions on how to participate can be found here.

The Good- what has been good about blogging? I know some people in their ‘why blogging’ posts mentioned creating networks and getting asked to talk on a subject. But take this to the next level, anything and everything positive about blogging, share your stories. You could even share what you hope blogging will do for you in the future.

The Bad- lots of people mention it feels like talking to brick wall sometimes when you blog. No one comments on posts or very few people do. What are your disappointments with blogging? What are your frustrations? What do you hate about blogging? What would you like to see changed about blogging?

The Ugly- I know Chris at RAS will mention the time he got fired for blogging about archaeology. It is your worst experiences with blogging- trolls, getting fired, etc.

I’m pleased enough to observe that most of my blogging experiences have been good with few in the other two categories, but I’ll offer a few comments none the less…

The Good

1. Writing. As I mentioned in my “why I blog” post last week, the best about blogging for me is that it has helped me learn to write more quickly and efficiently. With all the disruptions present in a traditional academic career (students, meetings, colleagues, books, et c.), there is nothing more rewarding than having an hour or so to write each morning with a cup of coffee. I have found that this writing time sets the tone for my entire day. More mornings last a little longer and I am far more willing to set aside some pressing task and spend some time on a long term project.

2. Contact. Like many bloggers, I’ll complain that my blog has not necessary attracted the boisterous community of readers who fill my comments with untold riches. That being said, there are few things more gratifying than getting an email from a reader letting me know that my blog has brought something to their attention. This is perhaps the most heartwarming of those stories

3. A Platform. Recently, I have been more willing to turn my blog over to other people, and I’ve come to realize that my blog is both an outlet for my writing, but can be used as a platform to bring the writing of other people to a wider audience. Since part of what gives a blog exposure on the web is a regular (and constant) stream of good content (good being adjusted to the standards of the interwebs), a regularly updated blog tends to attract more attention than one that is only updated occasionally. My blog is updated five days a week, and it is immensely gratifying to be able to use my blogging habit to provide a platform for other people’s writing. 

4. Citation and Credit. I’ve never asked for any direct credit for my blog at my institution. I think I could probably get some kind of credit for it, but since the blog is part of my workflow, it seems unnecessary to me. Occasionally, someone cites my blog in a traditional academic publication, and this is incredibly gratifying because it means that someone sees my work here as a meaningful contribution to the scholarly conversation. 

The Bad

1. Comments. As with all bloggers, I wish there were more comments on my blog. I also wish that panels at conferences were more vibrant and interactive. I wish that academic journals published responses to articles more frequently and that scholars took the time (and had the opportunity) to respond to reviews of their books. But, honestly, these things rarely happen. The optimist in me sees something in academics that pushes them to read, process, and look ahead leaving little time to engage in conversations. The pessimist in me recognizes that we tend to see reading – even on the web – as a largely passive exercise.

2. Am I a Blogger? There are still people who think that blogging is silly and a waste of time. This is a perspective that I generally respect except when blogging is wrenched from its place within an evolving workflow of academic production. In other words, if blogging is a waste of time, then surely conference papers are every bit as much of a waste of time. To this I could add other forms of informal writing (some festschrifts, non-peer reviewed proceedings, correspondences, working papers, and popular publications) that have long held a place in the accepted typology of academic productions. Moreover, the idea that a blogger is somehow less serious as a scholar because they produce a regular stream writing in a digital format, relies on a view of writing and production that is not only outdated, but also privileges elitist forms of scholarly communication.

The Ugly

I began blogging when the long shadow of scholarly skepticism was still retreating. People still conceived of bloggers, like forthright Bitch Ph.D., as transgressive rebels who were willing to put their academic career and intellectual credentials on the line to speak truth to power. Earnest commentators urged scholars to consider carefully their decision to blog because it might jeopardize their academic or professional careers. I am sure that there are still those who feel that expressing themselves at all on a blog is intrinsically risky.

I’ll admit that every now and then, I do get a tingle that tells me not to blog something. Sometimes, like when I eagerly announced the discovery of an Early Christian basilica on the hill of Vigla at our site on Cyprus (it was a Hellenistic fortified settlement), I probably should have followed those instincts. In other cases, like when I referred to the Regular Program at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as “approach[ing] a kind of hazing”, I will stand by my critique, but admit that it wasn’t the nicest thing to say while they were funding my term as a professor there. On the other hand, there are things that I haven’t blogged about when I really wanted to. 

Maybe this kind of tingly blogger-sense has kept me sheltered from the ugly side of blogging. Maybe it is the memory of the early blogging days when we feared the new medium and the free flow of information that it promised. Maybe there are only two kinds of bloggers: those who have quit blogging and those who haven’t quit yet.  Whatever the reason, I’ve yet to encounter the ugly side of blogging. 

Blogging Archaeology at the 2014 SAA Conference

This past month I was invited (well, that’s too strong a word) to contribute to the conversation that was initiated at the Doug’s Archaeology blog on blogging in archaeology in the run-up to the 2014 Society of American Archaeology conference in Austin, Texas. I’m also talking to our new graduate students today in our graduate methods class on the broad topic of digital history. So, I’ve been thinking through some of these issues lately.

For my post today, I’ll follow Doug’s simple, two question prompt

Why did you start your blog?

Why are you still blogging?

Check out his wrap-up of responses to these questions here

I feel like I’ve answered these questions quite a few times on this blog. In fact, Colleen Morgan ran a similar blog carnival in 2011 (here’s a nice wrap-up). At the same time, I’ll also admit that my ideas on the second question are always changing, so it probably doesn’t hurt to think about them again.

I started this blog to publicize my research at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus, and it gradually expanded to provide a broad overview of my research and teaching interests. My hope was both to keep various stakeholders appraised of my work, but also to introduce my work to folks who might not be familiar with the activities of a junior scholar on an obscure island. 

After only a few months, I found that blogging had become a vital part of my daily workflow. Even to this day, the first thing I do every morning is sit at the keyboard and write this blog. On most days, I’ve hit send – typos and all –  before the sun has come up over the North Dakota prairie. My blog has incubated most of the ideas I’ve had for articles, hosted working drafts of these papers, and announced their final publications. My workflow has become routine, public, and more transparent through the medium of blogging. The almost instant gratification that came from watching the number of site visits and page views increase and the spread of a global readership was a powerful incentive to write.  

At the same time, I realized that my blog not only let people know about my work, but also provided a venue for new media projects (like podcasts and videos), a node in our social media outlets (as I slowly embraced Facebook and Twitter and blogging platforms like WordPress have become more socially engaged), and a platform to share the remarkable work of my colleagues and to debate issues. I think that recognizing the dynamism of the blogging platform and the opportunity for it to be more than just a place for me to express my own ideas led me to begin to understand blogging as gateway to a larger exploration of digital publication.

In the winter of 2013, we managed to bring a long running conversation on the topic of Punk Archaeology to a different audience as the topic of a conferences which is now in production as an “analogue” publication. A series of blog posts on 3D imaging in Mediterranean archaeology is poised to become another short, analogue/digital publication in the winter of 2014.  As the blogging platform has matured and become more an acceptable part of both academic production and consumption, the line between formal academic publication and “merely” blogging has become increasingly blurred. Blogging is no longer just a stage in the production of an academic text, perhaps falling just sort of a conference paper, it has become a venue for any form of scholarly production from the intensely provisional to the finalized.

Most importantly, it can carry along with this transformation a spirit of transparency and immediacy. The number of readers, the location of readers, and the  pace at which readers engage and distribute content all become more trackable than ever before.  While this runs the risk of contributing to the growing “assessocracy” who have come to exert such a strong influence over American universities, it also has the opportunity to bring academic writers more directly involved in understanding their broader audience and community.

Archaeology has mass appeal and presents an avenue for academics to engage a diverse, global audience on the larger humanities (and social science) project. As economic pressures, changing social expectations of education, and new cultural paradigms have come to challenge the role of the humanities in Western society, scholars cannot turn their backs of opportunities to speak to larger audiences about the complex contributions of the humanities in the global conversation. 

A Review of Season 1 of the Professor Footnote Podcast

This past weekend, I did a bit of traveling and this allowed me to spend some quality time with the new Professor Footnote podcast series produced by Joel Jonientz and Brett Ommen at the University of North Dakota. I listened to two of the first three podcasts: “Leopold, Loeb, Darrow and the Death Penalty” and “Hobos, Uncle Sam and Yowzers the Clown” and perused the associated web companions to these programs. Both podcasts ran about an hour, were professionally produced, easy on the ears, and informative. They’re ideally suited for a long car trip, a slow evening by a roaring fire, or cross-country flight.

Pfootlogo 700x700

The general structure of the podcasts are a conversation between Prof. Joel and Prof. Brett on a “marginally interesting topic.” Their approach walks the fine line between being truly conversational and a staged dialogue. For example, Joel and Brett shared a vivid narration of  Leopold and Loeb’s crime and court case but also provided a discussion of issues surrounding the psychology of the two infamous criminals, Darrow’s motivation in “defending” them, and their larger impact on jurisprudence in America. The alternation between well-wrought narrative and less formal discussion was all very NPR in character (in a good way).

To distinguish these podcasts from the glut already available, Professor Footnote have a clever hook. The conversations are riddled with audio footnotes providing references to secondary and primary sources for the information and, to a lesser extent, the arguments presented in their conversations. The footnotes are set apart from the podcast proper by a little sound and traditional footnotes appear a webpage dedicated to each podcast. The audio footnotes define these podcasts as being something different from a traditional radio programing, for example, where the hosts might invite in a guest or other expert to contribute their authority to the conversation. Instead, Professor Footnote functions more like an academic article where outside authority exists in a separate space and largely static relationship  (which is not to say passive) with the conversation in the text. Interestingly, in the first two podcasts, the hosts do not particularly engage the arguments offered by the scholars who they cite in the footnotes, but mine these texts for pertinent details. The influence of the texts cited in the notes on the conversation is never entirely clear (with just a few exceptions). This leave the listener to wonder where the arguments from the footnoted authority end and the opinions of the hosts start. This ambiguity should not detract from an otherwise valuable effort to create a hybrid medium that breaches the usually rigid divide between text-based scholarship and new media punditry.

A listener will come away as curious about the world of clowns and Leopold and Loeb as the potential for these topics to provide points of departure for critiques of our contemporary society. (For those who don’t know Prof. Jonientz and Prof. Ommen, this is part of their larger aim to work at the intersection of the media, popular culture, and academia. They were the conveners of the successful Arts and Culture conferences at UND which brought together artists, scholars, media personalities in a series of concerts, gallery shows, public fora, and lectures.). The popular and academic tone of the podcasts, then, parallels their interest in hybridizing the typically popular medium with the inclusion of academic footnotes. Clever guys, Joel and Brett.

As for content, the clowns podcast began with a short chat about the origins of clowning, which our host associate with the Shakespearean larikins rather, than, say characters in, say, the New Comedy of Plautus or even ancient and Medieval genre of farce although they do concede the potential influence of the Devil in Medieval theater as a possible influence. They go on the discuss clowning in 19th and 20th century American drawing on famous clowns like the 19th century Dan Rice (who was said to have earned $1,000 a week in the 1860s!) to the rise of the circus “hobo” clowning of the Guilded Age and late-20th century T.V. figures like JP Patches and Bozo. The appearance of Ommen’s failed adolescent alter ego “Yowzers” is endearing. The bad clown figures of the 21st century from pedophile Pee Wee Herman to the Joker in Batman represent to Ommen and Jonientz the decline of the clown figure in contemporary society. They associate this decline with the rise of post-modernism, the collapsing social standing of institutions, and our distrust of earnestness (and the concomitant rise in irony). The podcast offers much more than my dry description can capture.

I wondered whether they could have spoken to the influence of Carnival and other ritualized efforts to invert social order as an important influence on clowning. The hobo clown champions of the Guilded Age would seem to have provided the kind of safe opportunities for critique in a society struggling to come to terms with the rampantly dehumanizing effects associated with the ethic of industrial capitalism. If the “big top” provided a safe venue to challenge the dominant social ethos, then mass media’s demotion of clowns to children’s programing in the television age was a key step in the decline of clowning as a recognized form of social critique. The “bad clowns” of the 21st century may hint that we still expect clowns to operate outside of the established cultural structures to represent our ambivalence toward them as adversarial figures standing (and defining) the margins of institutional and social authority.

The second podcast interlaced the nicely narrated story of Leopold and Loeb’s cavalier murder of a 14 year old in 1920s Chicago with larger considerations of the death penalty, youth culture, and the media. The podcast felt both more polished – in the well-told story – and more ragged in the discussion the episode on clowning. This is perhaps to be expected as the complexity of the particularities surrounding the Leopold and Loeb trial offered too many tempting digressions: social class (Leopold and Loeb we wealthy), to comments on homosexuality (they were lovers), education (they graduate college at age 18), ethnic tensions (they were Jewish), Progressivism (Darrow saw his effort to protect the boys from the death penalty as part of a larger social crusade), the media (it was one of a number of blockbuster trials of the first half of the 20th c.), and even jurisprudence (Darrow played several ingenious gambits during the trail). My only real complaint is that I would have balanced the discussion on different issues, and this is hardly a real critique, but at times I felt like the conversation darted from one topic to the next without wringing all the genius from it.

It took me a couple of hours to “get” that the first two episodes represent the hosts’ interest in commenting on the margins of society in a way that was similar to their interest in critiquing academia from the margins. Their choice of media – the podcast – hybridized with an almost flippant use of that most academic affectation, the footnote, define these podcasts as a vox clamatis in deserto just as clowns and the unbearable precious intersection of Leopold, Loeb, and Darrow defined the limits 20th century civilization.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to them yourself.

Working Group in Digital and New Media Open House and Press Release

Over the past 5 years, I’ve been active in a group called the Working Group in Digital and New Media. This is a cross-disciplinary, cross-college, and cross-campus group of scholars whose work touches on digital methods, media, and approaches to problems in the arts, humanities, and sciences. 

Each year, to attract new members we do a Fall open house and make a press release. It is often my job to prepare the press release. Here it is for the 2013 open house:

On Wednesday, November 6th, the Working Group in Digital and New Media will host its 4th annual open house in its laboratory space in O’Kelly Hall from 11 am to 1 pm. The Open House will feature works-in-progress by members of this transdisciplinary collective of scholars from across the University of North Dakota Campus. 

The open-house will provide demonstrations of Travis Desell’s Wildlife@Home project, the digital music of Mike Wittgraf, Tim Pasch‘s innovative digital outreach in, to and from Indigenous Arctic communities, and Rick Van Eck‘s latest work to use computer games to introduce students to STEM disciplines. Paul Worley will be on hand to discuss his new monograph which makes important contributions to how we understand contemporary Mayan performance in the digital world. Crystal Alberts’ will present her interdisciplinary collaboration with Katia Mayfield, a Ph.D. candidate in Scientific Computing, James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation” Piecing together the Puzzle. Wilbur Stolt will discuss how the Chester Fritz Library has become a key space for digitally mediated interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty, staff, and students. Joel Jonientz, Kyle Conway, and Bill Caraher will introduce the first two volumes from the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, a laboratory press that will curate original research in digital and print forms. For the 2013/2014 Academic Year, the Working Group will host an innovative speaker series featuring global leaders in digital technologies and approaches.

“Over the past 4 years, the Working Group has become a regional leader in digital innovation in the arts and humanities,” Joel Jonientz remarked. “The members of the group refuse to be fit into disciplinary boxes or conform to outmoded expectations of what it means to be a scholar in this or that field.”

Founded in 2008, the Working Group in Digital and New Media pioneered the vision of Exceptional UND by facilitating collaborative research in a dynamic gathering space. The uniquely collegial environment of the Working Group encourages faculty and students to experience the digital world as a means of expanding and enhancing their academic, regional, and global community.