A Year in Blogging

Over the past couple of years, blogging has attracted some renewed interest. Folks have become increasingly wary of social media for obvious reasons. There continues to be an interest in long-form writing on the web, and the long-standing interest in public outreach and low cost of entry has always made blogging an appealing option for scholars in the humanities who want to expand the audience for their work. 

At the same time, blogs have become a bit passe and fit awkwardly into changing Internet culture. On the one hand, this risk of exposing oneself to the wilds of the internet feel greater than ever as social media has accelerated and amplified growing coarseness and incivility in public discourse and created a space for the worst elements in our society to operate behind a veil of relative anonymity. On the other hand, the rise in podcasts, email newsletter, and a new generation of high-quality multi-author sites (and the decline of blogrolls, aggregators, and other web infrastructure that made the famous blogosphere possible) has created a new web landscape that makes blogging seems rather more pointless than maybe it was a decade ago.

That all being said, I did somehow manage to write slightly over 158,000 words in 225 posts on my blog this year. That’s just over 700 words per post which is the longest average post since I started blogging in 2007. This year also saw the fewest post since 2008. 

As far as traffic goes, I’ve had about 28,000 views from 17, 378 visitors. This is slightly higher than the last couple of years, but nowhere near as busy as 2013-2015. The main drivers of traffic is search engines, followed by Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress Reader, the WARP website, and various places that have reposted or linked to various posts. The most popular posts for the year were my review of Donna Zuckerberg’s book, my list of links to various ASOR Annual volumes, a post on Wesley College at UND, a review of Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming book, and my little discussion of Sarah Murray’s recent article on Hesperia.  

Finally, I’ve been toying the idea of doing something different with the blog. Maybe making a weekly or month newsletter to draw attention to my post, as well as those by other people, that I really enjoy. I’ve toyed with the idea of opening up my blog to more, different voices. I’ve even pondered ramping it down to three posts a week or focusing more on projects in 2019. In the end, this is all probably unlikely, because as much as I probably need to change things up, I’m more pre-occupied with other projects to have time to think through what this change could and should be. In short, look for more of the same in the coming months.

Happy New Year!

Reflecting on Blogging in 2018

For whatever reason, I tend to think of blogging at the end of the calendar year. In the past, I’d publish (mostly tongue-in-cheek) an Archive of my blog which was really just a pdf of the blog posts, lightly edited, and made available for download. I believe the last one that I did was in 2015.

This week, I actually decided to look at my blogs statistics for the first time in months and, at around the same time, I started to think a bit about how I prioritized my time, how I wanted to make an impact on my field and the world, and whether maintaining a blog even matters as we come to the end of the 21st century’s second decade.

Readers of this blog know, of course, that I’ve taken on some new responsibilities over the past few years, from publishing The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to editing North Dakota Quarterly (and, at the end of the year, the Annual of ASOR). This work is very gratifying because it allows me to work and learn from a remarkable group of authors and editors and bring their work to a wider audience. In fact, it gives me the same sense of excitement that I had in graduate school when each quarter introduced me to new books, new ideas, and new approaches to studying the past. 

It also stands in distinct contrast to my work on the blog which tends to be about my own work and ideas. It’s not that sharing my views on things is bad, but it’s just not the direction that my career is going. The time I spend writing here and promoting my own view of things detracts in some ways from my ability to work with the words and ideas of others. At the same time, I do think that I’ve learned a good bit by writing my own words. I’ve wrestled ideas on this blog into articles, books, and edited volumes (and I have a couple of more of those in the pipeline) and learned about the publishing business from the perspective of an author as much as from the editor’s perch or working as a typesetter, reviewer, and marketer for my little press. 

There’s also the issue of audience. Over the past two or three years, the audience for my blog has plateaued at around 80 per day. I suspect partly because there are more really great bloggers out there than in the past (although to be fair these aren’t all new bloggers!), there are more remarkable web-based projects too, and social media occupies a more central role in academic and popular communication about our field. At the same time, my blog posts have gotten longer. This year, my average post was over 700 words which is about 20% more than my average post over the past 8 years. I’m averaging about 240 posts per year, but only 230 in the past couple of years. I think I’ll manage to fall a bit short of that mark this year (this is my 203rd post for 2018), but still write about 150,000 words which is a bit more than my 145,000 word average for the past 7 years. I’ve written about 1.1 million words on the blog (and others have contributed an additional 50,000 or so). This is a lot of words that probably could be used somewhere else.

Finally, I do wonder whether blogging as a medium has entered into hoary middle age. I don’t think it has revolutionized academic communication (although it certainly has had its moments), and it doesn’t really represent a transgressive medium (if it ever did), although I suppose it has helped some voices be heard that would not have otherwise. Despite my optimism in the past for the place of blogging in an expanded and decentralized academic publishing ecosystem, I wonder whether other forms of communication, from the email newsletter to the collective web journal (like Eidolon) represent the development of web based communication (and allow for individual readers and authors to escape from the increasingly commercialized and commodified world of public internet). More than that, I wonder whether the vulnerability of individual voices on the public web has created a space that is unfriendly for solo voices and projects. 

The purpose of this is post is not to propose that I end my blog or stop blogging or whatever, but to think out loud about how blogging fits into my career, what it means to blog in the changing landscape of the internet, and what triggers would make me consider cutting back, transforming, or closing up the old blog shop. In the new year, I want to think a bit more explicitly about the goals of my blog and public humanities scholarship more broadly and figure out whether being a public voice is the only way to promote humanistic (and academic) values to a wider audience.  

Blogging as Slow Practice in a Post-Facebook World

Over the last few months I’ve thought a good bit about blogging. Part of this was motivated by the 10th anniversary of an article I wrote for Archaeology Magazine’s website on the “Blogging Archaeology and the Archaeology of Blogging.” This piece feels like it’s from another era when Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were in their infancies and academic publishing on the web still felt like a risky proposition that needed to be explained or advocated (especially as this piece was written in my spare time as a fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens!). More recently, Andrew Reinhard and I wrote a piece on blogging in archaeology for Internet Archaeology. In this piece, I tried to emphasize academic bloggers as disciplinary and generic community of practice that initially organized around blogrolls and RSS feeds and now has become increasingly mediated by the growing reach of social media. While the open reviewers of this piece (and my coauthor!) were somewhat less sanguine about the viability of blogs as a platform for serious scholarly communication, I remained committed to the blogging platform.

Only very recently, did I experience a crisis in faith for lots of reasons. Partly, I worried that my droning voice takes up a certain amount of space in the collective attention of my peers, colleagues, and readers, and I should maybe cede the floor. I also worried that maybe the culture of the web had changed enough that my rather unguarded posts could do real harm in an increasingly politically charged environment. After thinking about it for a few weeks and actually deciding to quit, I quietly kept blogging for all the reasons that I’ve always blogged

Over the last week, my friends and colleagues have started (once again) to announce their departure from Facebook after the most recent data mining scandal. I’m vaguely sympathetic in that I find Facebook’s business practices distasteful and annoying. Twitter continues to overwhelm me and I struggle to filter my feed down to manageable numbers of posts to read, people to follow, and conversations to engage.

On the opposite end of the new media spectrum from social media is the recent impressive growth of collaborative projects like Eidolon for Classics and, of course, the rise of the academic columnist on mainstream media platforms like Sarah Bond or Ian Bogost. These individuals and projects are remarkable for the scope and depth of their perspectives and the genuine spirit of collaboration, but they lack the provisional character of blogs and the polish and professionalism clearly indicate that these individuals (and the editors with whom they work) know how to play their instruments, speak to a wide audience, and, in the case of mainstream media platforms, generate content that attracts page views and advertising dollars to their patrons. 

Folks like Jason Kottke and Dan Cohen have written interesting things about the place that the independent blog occupies on the web. If social media and mainstream publishing are designed, to some extent, to commodify content – whatever their other benefits – independent blogging remains something else entirely. Among academics, the independent blog is almost certainly non-commercial (and in this way is manifestly a luxury of the “creative class” who have the time, freedom, and expertise to indulge such practices). In most cases it neither counts for academic promotion or tenure nor is it easily commodified. It relies, at best, on small pools of readers who know of its existence through word of mouth or random searches on the web. The quality of independent blogs is uneven and they ideas that they play are often provisional and require a kind of critical awareness on the part of reader. I’ve increasingly come to think of my blog as a space for first drafts and for ideas.

Finally, there is something unmistakably “slow” about independent blogs. While they certainly emerged alongside other manifestations of the interactive web (Web 2.0) with the expectation that readers would comment and engage with authors on blogs, the reality is that this rarely occurs on the blog page itself. More frequently, of course, are conversations between blogs with mutual links making clear contested or nuanced perspectives between authors, but even this practice is relatively deliberate and sparse compared to the spontaneity present in the dense social networks hosted by Facebook or Twitter.

More importantly, the links between blogs and bloggers are largely done by hand meaning that the intellectual, academic, and topical networks manifest in academic blogging are not algorithmically generated but genuine commitments to dialogue, sharing ideas, and community. If the automated communities of social media provide us with almost instant gratification, then the deliberate relationships established by blogging require patience and intentionality on the part of the reader and the writer. If the current flight from Facebook marks a change in how we consume media on the web, then as bloggers we have an opportunity to step into the gap and replace a sense of community based on computer generated relationships with one built around genuine connections to other writers and readers. This will be work, but might be worth it.

Announcing the Publication of Volume 1 of the Epoiesen Annual!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to announce the publication of the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. This is an annual volume based on the extraordinary new journal, Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology, edited by Shawn Graham and colleagues and hosted by the library at Carleton University in Ottawa. Check it out here.

Epoiesen (ἐποίησεν) – made – is a journal for exploring creative engagement with the past, especially through digital means. It publishes primarily what might be thought of as “paradata” or artist’s statements that accompany playful and unfamiliar forms of singing the past into existence.

What have you made? What will you make? This journal, in its online home, makes space to valorize and recognize the scholarly ways of knowing that are expressed well beyond the text. Bill White reminds us why society allows archaeologists to exist in the first place:

“it is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today.”

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

Download, explore, or buy it today!


For a bit of the backstory, Epoiesen is really the work of a group of dedicated and innovative collaborators, editors, and partners, as Shawn Graham himself makes clear in the introduction. The native format for the journal is on the web, but Shawn reached out to The Digital Press in the middle of last year to explore producing a hybrid, print/digital (pdf) format. The hope is that this form will appeal to readers who more comfortable with print for reading, citing, and cataloging.

The work of the Digital Press, then, was largely translation from they dynamic digital form to the more conventional print-ready format which at times was a bit tricky, as even a quick review of the PDF will show. We adopted a format that intentionally played with the tidiness of the textbook and the grid, pushing images over the boundaries and outside of lines.

The cover is itself is a vibrant piece of scholarship thanks to Gabe Moshenska’s generous decision to make his book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, free and open access. For the cover design, we listened intently to the authors, members of the editorial board, and various sundry social media commentators. It seemed fitting that the cover emerged from the very creative, digitally mediate milieu that journal itself celebrates.

Finally, this project embodies the kind of laboratory publishing that The Digital Press has pursued since Punk Archaeology appeared four years ago. So it’s particularly fitting that on the fifth anniversary of the Punk Archaeology conference, some of the same collaborators (Andrew Reinhard, for example, designed the cover for Epoiesen) returned to the scene of the crime to produce this volume.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last week or two, I’ve been trying to figure out a paper for a panel at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona in September. The panel is titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies” and the abstract looks for papers that: 

“… evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach.”

It’ll be a good panel and the folks proposing it are both cutting edge and super smart.

Obviously, this is something that deeply interests me, but it also has demoralized me in some ways. Whenever I read the latest paper on the use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the field, I feel a bit anxiety. The language geared toward efficiency, accuracy, precision, and seamlessness in archaeological work doesn’t make me happy and to think that the archaeology of the future will be better, that the knowledge that we produce will be better, that the discipline that defines us will be better, and that the society that we inhabit will be better. I don’t like the feeling that – to paraphrase any number of recent dystopian science-fiction plots: “humanity is a bug” and technology is the solution.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care.

I’m not sure that humanity is a problem to solve and challenge to overcome and somewhat is begging to be enhanced, augmented, or virtualized. I actually like just normal reality. I don’t really want to click here to save everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that symmetrical archaeology requires symmetrical practice, and I don’t enjoy the realization that the varied abilities of humans are affordances that constrain the functioning of tools.

I’m not saying that we don’t all need a little BLOCKCHAIN in our lives or that I haven’t adapted to the keyboard on my space-grey MacBook Pro. I mean, I wear and Apple Watch and it has nudged me to exercise more regularly. I used a drone to map a hilltop fortification this summer in probably 20% of the time that even a bad conventional survey map would take. I now stream cricket, the NBA, television shows, movies, and most importantly for me, music. Running my high-resolution, streamed music through a vacuum tube amplifier that drives full-range, paper drivers makes me feel a little better, but only because it obscures how deeply embedded I am in the internet of things. I mean, I think my dogs are real. I’m pretty sure. I’ve asked them repeatedly if they dream of electric squirrels. The bigger, yellow dog, just tilts his head.

What also causes me anxiety is that technology is also a problem to solve. Perfect music forever has become high resolution audio has become high definition audio has become vinyl spinning on turntables. The portable digital document in portable document format has become obsolete in the age of linked, machine readable data. Text mining offers ways to strip meaning from the tangled clutter of language or to strip language from the page or mine meaning from the ore of style or something. Mountains of text are now laid low, but the slag heaps of un-mineable documents threaten to bury the town. The codex discarded on a riverbank becomes an object rather than a source.

In fact, everything is an object now. We catalogue objects, collect objects, objects become database objects, objects orient toward ontologies. Things fall into line or create lines or become lines or push us to fall into line. Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t deal with it all.

And all the while, the churning hum of technology of data of objects pushes us people – symmetrically – to become data too. Uberfication. Archeology isn’t about the past. It’s not about people. It’s not about societies or buildings or art or identity or even the archaeologist. It is about data. Archaeology is a data problem to be solved. Uber is really a data analysis company. So is archaeology these days. 

To be clear, I’m part of the problem. I use the word workflow, I’ve talked about data, I’ve thought about blockchain (but not really), and I’ve even considered efficiency and inefficiency as metrics to evaluate practice. Even if I admit that good practices are inefficient, the friction in the system contributes energy to creativity. Industrial and post-industrial metaphors saturate my prose and introduce seams to the smooth contours of experienced reality.

Maybe it makes sense. After all, books have pages. Archaeology is a discipline born from industrial practices. Schliemann was an industrialist. The tools of the industrial and the post-industrial revolution – the railway, the assembly line, specialization, the manager, the spreadsheet, the database – have coevolved (and it been compounded by the university). It’s hardly surprising that archaeology is post-industrial these days and data driven. 

Even craft and slow and punk these days stands apart more and more as a response or a reaction. Craft beer isn’t less manufactured somehow and mechanical watches use silicon balance springs and were designed in AutoCad and 3D printed. Vacuum tube amplifiers have integrated circuits to balance the tubes.  Vinyl records are produced from digital masters. Craft and slow are an affect. There is no outside the digital.

Anyway, I’m spiraling now. I’m going to give a paper in September and it’s going to try to say some of these things in a way that embodies my very human anxiety. Digitally mediated anxiety. Craft anxiety. Intentionally imperfect to remind us that perfect data forever used to not be a thing.

End of the Blog?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the future of this blog. I’ve been writing this blog for 10 or 11 years or something, and I’m starting to feel that it has strayed pretty far from its original intent. Or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is the context for the blog (and maybe blogging in general) has changed over the last decade.

I know for certain that my position in the field has changed and in academia has changed, and, as a result, my priorities have changed.

I also know that all projects should come to an end and, sometimes it is better to fade away rather than burn out.

This is what I’m thinking:

1. Internet Culture has Changed. Over the last year or so, I’ve had a few missteps in managing my online persona. Some of these are more visible than others for casual readers of this blog. For example, this summer, I responded a bit too assertively to an article. It was not my intent and I am still bothered by both what I said (I was not generous) and how I said it (I was too casual and flippant).

More recently, I was scolded by a couple trusted colleagues for responding a bit too puckishly to scholars on social media. In hindsight, I was clearly in the wrong and more than a bit tone deaf to both the medium and the particular conversation (and this isn’t the first time that I’ve been a bit off base). More than that, I responded in haste like I would in a casual conversation over beers rather than in a deliberate and thoughtful way. So not only were my comments hasty but they were unproductive as well. From the start I viewed social media as a kind of casual space designed for playful banter (something like the banter one has at the bar at an academic conference), but if we’ve learned anything from an armada of Russian bots, social media is much more than that. There is probably less space in it for my silly (and largely selfish) sense of humor today than there once was. People are doing serious work in social media and my fucking around is not helping.

At the same time, I wonder whether there is less space today for a blog like this. I’ve always seen it as a platform for the informal exploration of ideas, for half-baked throughs, and for intellectual ephemera. But as many of my colleagues have demonstratedespecially lately – blogs should do more than just serve as a platform for my assorted ramblings or as a self-indulgent expression of my puerile personality. More to the point, I worry whether continuing to write this blog runs the risk of diluting the good work that other folks are doing in this media. Things done changed.

2. Professional Persona. When I started this blog (approximately 2500 posts and a million words ago), I felt pretty marginal in academia. I was an Assistant Professor at a school on the edge of the frozen prairie. I worked on Cyprus and the Late Antique and Byzantine period. I was a specialist in material culture and archaeology in a history department. Even the archaeology that I did – intensive pedestrian survey – stood at the margins of conventional archaeological practice. I was relatively un-published and anything I wrote could be easily dismissed as the inconsequential thoughts of a junior faculty member at University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. This gave me a good bit of cover and allowed me to cultivate a persona grounded in alternative practices whether punk archaeology or my overly enthusiastic embrace of blogging.

While I hate to admit this, I am no longer at the margins of my profession. I’m certainly not at the center or even a central figure, but I can no long indulge my vox clamantis fantasy. I have too many conference papers, invited talks, articles and books, and various other academic gewgaws to be a genuinely marginal figure in my field. I’ve run my own project, I have tenure, and I even have two dogs. With my professional development, however, comes greater expectations, and, as I asserted in point (1), probably requires me to embrace a greater seriousness of purpose in my online persona. This really struck home when in a debate this summer a scholar pointed out to me in a twitter thread that my position and academic credentials give much greater platform to assert my views.

It goes without saying that as a tenured, married, middle-class, white, male my very identity carries additional authority in public sphere. Even my scruffy beard and largely unkempt hair reinforces my academic credentials in an inescapably masculine way. My interest in stereotypical male things, from my editorializing on sport on my Friday Varia, to my fascinations with high-end stereo gear and fancy watches subtly (and unintentionally) assert my position as a male scholar.

My position then as a mid-career male scholar with tenure means that, whether I intend it or not, people take the things I do seriously. Even ideas and projects tinged with a bit of intentional frivolity, like Punk Archaeology, have attracted serious academic attention (and this has been remarkably gratifying to me!). More importantly, by taking on the role of editor at North Dakota Quarterly and developing the profile of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve accepted responsibility as a steward of other people’s work. My frivolous behavior online and the half-baked ideas spewed forth to the world from this blog could reflect poorly on other people who have trusted me to promote and support their ideas.

I guess all this is to say that I need to grow up or at least acknowledge that I have grown up and start to behave more like a professional and less like a failed graduate student or a former age-group swim coach (which is how I’ve always thought of myself).

[As an aside, I’m increasingly anxious about the book I just had published on the Bakken. It was very much experimental in approach and content, but in today’s increasingly politicized culture (and extractive industries in North Dakota are nothing if not political) a book like this might be seen as poking the bear rather than a genuine academic exercise. While I’m not worried that the book will cause me discomfort, I do worry that it might cause other people discomfort from my colleagues (by association) to folks who work hard to represent the University of North Dakota in a positive light in the state. I don’t want to say that I regret having written so publicly on the Bakken, but it can’t shake the idea that there is a time and a place for everything.]

3. The Food is Bad and the Portions are Tiny. Over the past couple of years, the number of page views on my blog have declined steadily from usually well over 100 a day to just over 80. On the one hand, maybe this does say that my ideas are genuinely marginal, but it probably suggests that they are increasingly banal and the blogosphere has more appealing options. The decline also reflects my reluctance to Tweet or Facebookle my daily posts out of concern that some half-baked thought upset or annoy someone.

I know that the internet is not, strictly speaking, a zero sum game, but I wonder if people who are reading my blog are people who are not reading other much better blogs out there. A year or so ago (and I can’t find the post), I got to thinking about how to ramp down a project or transform it when it no longer is working. The decline in readership, the change in online culture (and readers’ expectations), and my changing professional status have made me really think that this blog has more or less run its course.

That being said, I do like to write this blog and like to write in general, and I’m pretty sad at the thought of bringing it to an end, but maybe I’ll figure out something else to do that fills my morning and gives me a space to work out ideas in an informal voice that is less public, less frivolous, and less fraught.

Hybridizing Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer is Mind Control through Brain Waves

For the last decade or so, I’ve had a fascination with parapsychology. Some of this stems from the work that I did on dream archaeology many years ago and some comes from puerile fascination with things like Jon Ronson’s Men who Stare at Goats. So, I couldn’t resist reading Wladimir Velminski’s Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny (MIT 2017) this weekend.

This short book examines Soviet efforts to use brain waves and mind control to create their workers utopia primarily in the first part of the 20th century. Velminski locates these efforts not at the fringe of the scientific establishment, but as closely tied to research into psychology, telecommunication, and scientific management in the first three decades of the 20th century. Soviet adaptations of Taylorism (one of my favorite topics for consideration in our contemporary society) explored the link between industrial practices, movement, and observation not as the basis for simply more efficient workers, but as a way to pool mental resources and promote invention and innovation. This research brought together physical and mental activities in ways that are strikingly modern and offered a particularly Soviet definition of inventor not as the contemplative tinkerer, but as the corporate citizen who combined keen observation and optimized physical movement to synchronize brain waves and create new ideas.

The idea that television and radio waves could be synchronized with brain waves to communicate directly to the mind developed in parallel to television technology in the 1920s and 1930s. Both scientific literature and in science fiction expected that broadcasting thoughts could serve to control and coordinate collective actions on a local and even national scale. Broadcasting television brought together the transmission of ideas, electromagnetic waves, and in the physical features of broadcasting towers in the landscape in Soviet thought to bring about new forms of thinking and being that characterized homo sovieticus.    

Scientists interested in the electrical signature of the human nervous system used more sensitive electrical devices to detect “brain waves” that emanate from the connection between the brain and various organs. These, like the earliest forms of research grounded in particular Soviet approaches to Taylorism, recognized that the body, at its core, depended upon the same electrical modes of communication as the Soviet state. The hope was that by registering the communication within the body, one could diagnose and perhaps even heal illnesses.

The book concludes with the remarkable broadcasts by Soviet psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky who sought to induce mass hypnosis during the tumultuous days at the end of the Soviet Union. Velminski parallels this with the work of Pavel Pepperstein and his remarkable film Hypnosis (which I’ll let you Google on your own!). Velminski returns to his initial case study of the Soviet adaptation of a kind of mental Taylorism and argues that transmission of thought whether through parapsychological means or more conventional broadcasting relies on a kind of neural prosthesis through which we recognize, interpret, and analyze relationships between what is broadcast and what we see.

This book offers a garbled and complicated lens through which to read the current political and media climate in the U.S. Efforts to control the message pushed out via partisan outlets and to obfuscate rival recognizes idea that the media is a prosthesis to mind of the state, but, as Vilminski has shown, a deeply imperfect one. The static, disruptions, and complexities of reception and the recursive efforts to correct, improve, and synchronize the message with the ideas of the transmitter. Far from being distinct from the world of brain waves and mind control, the theories of media and broadcasting that developed over the course of the 20th and 21st century had clear parallels both in their technical dimensions, shortcomings, and goals. 

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.