The Future of a More Public Byzantium

I had a lovely weekend in Boston at the Mary Jaharis Center at Hellenic College Holy Cross and quite enjoyed a range of graduate student papers on Byzantine related topics. The program, hospitality, and conversations with colleagues was first class, and it provided a window into the next generation of Byzantine studies professionals as well as some frank conversations about how Byzantine studies can engage a wider audience.

As per usual, I’ll offer a few observations:

1. Byzantium and the Margins. While the papers presented at the conference were not necessary representative of all the work being done by graduate students in Byzantine studies in the U.S. right now, it does allow us to observe some “trending topics” in Byzantine studies. In particular, I was impressed by the work being done around the margins of the “traditional” Byzantine world. While there were a handful of papers on theology and liturgy, for example, the conference saw little attention to the canonical texts or buildings of the Byzantine capital and a greater interest in geographic and conceptual edges of the traditional Byzantine world.

For example, there were papers on Genovese settlements in the Black Sea, on the art of the Red Monastery in Egypt, on Danishmend and Frankish coinage with Byzantine iconography, on attitudes toward iconoclasm in Arab lands, and attitudes toward the Jews in Byzantium. A paper that began with an image of Theodore Metochites at the church of the Chora in Istanbul, soon departed for Italy and Serbia to understand the headwear of Byzantine elites. What all these papers indicated to me is that the next generation of Byzantine scholars will be less fixated on defining and articulating what is essentially Byzantine and more focused on considering Byzantium in a relational way and locate Byzantine culture and society at the intersection of various currents of interaction and various distinct, but related communities. While this is not a new trend in the study of Byzantium (and reflects larger trends in the study of the premodern Mediterranean), it was remarkable to see how deeply this notion of Byzantium has permeated graduate student research.   

2. Byzantine Data. I was also interested to see how many of the papers drew either explicitly or implicitly on databases. I began to wonder where the great gaggle of data being produced by graduate students as the basis for their arguments goes after they defend (and publish) their dissertations. I got to thinking about a data clearing house for Byzantine related datasets that could support a wide range of research. I began to worry that these bespoke datasets could molder on a hard drive for years after a research project is done, and, at the same time, think about how these databases could provide important complements to ongoing or future research. I wonder how frequently we re-invent the wheel when we don’t share our data and whether making dissertation datasets available would encourage scholars to produce collaborative datasets to the benefit of the larger Byzantine Studies project.

I have to admit that I’m as guilty of this as anyone because my dissertation dataset had lingered relatively untouched on my laptop for years (although to be fair, my dissertation has been available as a free download since 2004!). Perhaps that’s what got me thinking about how these valuable troves of data could expand what Byzantine Studies has to offer the larger community of scholars.

3. Digital Centers and Byzantine Studies. One of the points that Jim Skedros brought up during our lunchtime panel is that there is no single outlet serving to make Byzantine Studies accessible to the general public. Instead, our field relies on personal blogs and a diverse set of institutions like Dumbarton Oaks, the Metropolitan Museum, BSANA and the Mary Jaharis Center to provide support for the study of Byzantium rather than a central institution like the Archaeological Institute of America or even the American Schools of Oriental Research. Considering the small number of scholars working in this field and its trans and interdisciplinary nature, it is particularly difficult that our energies and output are scattered over so many disparate institutions.

I wonder whether one of the institutions committed to the health of Byzantine studies should convene a conference that discusses ways to open the field of Byzantine studies to the wider academic and popular world. The goals of such a gathering would be to establish guidelines and support for a Byzantine outreach page with a dedicated (if not full time) editor, regularly updated content, and a system for driving traffic, dissemination in various (print?) formats, and archiving. These efforts require institutional support and “by in” even if it does not extend to any substantial financial investment. Having a single destination for outreach within academia and beyond would benefit the various stakeholders and perhaps even create a place for scholarly communication on various Byzantine issues and forge a stronger sense of community between various institutions.  

4. Theory and Practice. Finally, I detected a certain aversion to theorizing Byzantine studies both from the students in the panel and the participants in the lunchtime roundtable. I think our aversion to theory contributes to the struggle to connect the world of Byzantine scholarship to the larger project of the humanities or even Mediterranean history. Theoretical terms for whatever their benefit in interpreting and analyzing evidence from the past, provides a venue for engaging scholars working with similar approaches in other periods and fields.

Engaging the popular media and the general public will also require some theoretical savvy on the part of scholars of Byzantium. As the Middle East is going through a particularly dynamic and unsettled period, Byzantinists must be particularly sensitive to any effort to lend a historical perspective to events in this region without awareness of Orientalism, post colonial perspectives, and various models for articulating past perspectives to present events. The graduate students and panelists surely have the knowledge and understanding to make Byzantium relevant to a wider audience, but showing their framework more explicitly will make Byzantium a more active participant in producing useful pasts.

5. The Chapel. Finally, no post on Byzantium would be complete with a photo of a church. In this case, it is the chapel on the Hellenic Holy Cross campus that is modeled (loosely) after the church of the Holy Apostles in the Athenian Agora. According to Kostis Kourelis, the church was designed by Stuart Thompson who had quite a few other high-profile commissions in both Greece and America.

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

We’re experiencing North Dakotaland’s version of the Halcyon Days this week and we hope that it stretches into the weekend. With temperatures kissing 30 degrees, the world has come alive. Joggers and cyclist crowd the sidewalks, young families enjoy picnics in the parks, neighbors cook out and hold leisurely conversations across the alley, and students have donned flip-flops (thongs for my Aussie readers) and boardies as they head to class.

Here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World headquarters, we’ve enjoyed the warm, grey days from the confines of our office working alternately on PKAP2, a lingering book review, layout for Visions of Substance, and, of course, Friday Varia and Quick Hits:

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More on the A Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch

Last week, I published the first installment of my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. It was mostly introductory matter and rough conclusion. This week, I’ll begin to roll out the actual itinerary with the various routes.

Taking some advice from my readers, I’ve included a return to introduction and table of contents button to make navigating the guide easier. I also appreciate everyone who took some time to notice that use too many adverbs. This is my top, stylistic editing priority as I get this cleaned up for submission. I know that I need maps and hope to have those done by the end of the month. I’d also welcome any comments regarding the content of my guide! I know at least a few of my readers have spent more time in western North Dakota than I have. 

The only mechanical issues I’ve experienced using Medium to serialize this is that for some readers (and some browsers?) the paragraph level commenting does not seem to work. I’d love some feedback on that.

Here’s the full table of contents. The titles in bold and new additions to the Guide this week.

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.1. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections

Curationism and Academia

This week, I read David Balzar’s Curationism which was an entry in Kostis Kourelis’s expertly curated reading list. I’ve been vaguely interested in the concept of curation since UND’s 2013 Arts and Cultural conference titled Cultures of Curation. Anyone who reads the interwebs in even a superficial way comes across the language of curation applied to almost anything.

As Balzar explains, curation in the art world is a comparatively new idea, and it relates clearly to the idea that by combining art from various artists, the curator adds value to the works. This, of course, remains a controversial issue among artists who typically feel that their art has intrinsic value. As a result, curators have worked increasingly hard to demonstrate the unique value of their skills to the art world, while, at the same time, the concept of curation has become appropriated by any individual or corporations who assemble art (or any object).  As celebrity curators, appropriate the term to attract attention to their collections, the value of the term slips from the hands of professionals in the art world. The popularization of curation has made opportunities in the art world for aspiring curators both less lucrative and increasingly few, and called into question the value of the entire profession. 

Balzar associates, then, the deskilling of curation as a product of both its proliferation (which stems, in part, from lack of consensus as to what curation actually is and how it works to create value), and from the growing power of social media tools which allow any individual or group to curate content.  

The deskilling of the curators craft has obvious parallels with concerns among academics – particularly in disciplines like history which have come to celebrate their skills in organizing disparate bodies of data into a cohesive argument. The popularity and quality of sites like Wikipedia which is community curated and lacks the authority of single, known, credentialed artists, reflects the awesome potential of crowd sourcing knowledge and the potential to undermining the authority of the historian’s voice. 

The response to this, at least among some celebrity curators, is to emphasize industry and volume of production. The most famous of these curators is HUO, Han Ulrich Obrist, whose frenetic lifestyle involves almost continuous travel and work. While this clearly reflects the character of the individual as much as anything, Balzar makes clear that it represents an argument against the deskilling of the curator’s craft. The industry, professionalism, professional stature, and dedication of Obrist alone demonstrates the value of and demand for a skilled curator in a world filled with impostures. 

The increased pace of the curators life and the need to appear (if not to be) busy at all times to fit into a 21st century model of professionalism has certainly spilled into the humanities. The pace of life and work of a historian has come to represent value in the eyes of many both within the discipline and outside it. The constant refrains of “I’m so busy” marks out the professional academic as having particular value. (And perhaps serves a contrast to the dilettantish amateur can lavish attention on an obscure project of only personal importance.) At the same time, academic programs dedicated to curation have developed to prepare curators for the challenges of a career in the art world. This step toward professionalization occurred in the humanities during the late 19th centuries and helped to fortify a clear division between amateurs and professionals in an effort to ensure professional historians particular value in the emerging, modern university. Obrist, despite his celebrity, emerged from a preprofessional world of curation and learned his craft through apprenticeships at leading galleries and museums.   

The relationship between professionalization, pace, and value in the world of curation, then, has obvious parallels with the development of academic disciplines in the humanities. History faces the same struggles that the world of curating does with amateurs or crowd sourced alternatives taking more and more attention away from academic practitioners. It remains to be seen how and whether historians can regain their exclusive, professional authority or whether the discipline will succumb to the relentless pressure of popular perception.

Extensive Survey on the Western Argolid Regional Project

 It is almost inevitable. People invite me to join survey projects hoping that I can become a valued contributor to a well-ordered field season. Before long, however, I am sent off into the field as the “Extensive Team”.

Most intensive survey projects have a team responsible for exploring areas not suitable for intensive survey methods. These tend to be areas overgrown with vegetation, steep slopes, or marginal landscapes unlikely to support the kind of sustained human activities that tend to produce survey assemblages. The extensive team also serves as a good way to remove annoying people – like me – from regular contact with field walkers and staff. In my experience, extensive survey is practically defined as “survey of fields not near other people on the project.” That being said, I take my work seriously. I dutifully map areas onto a 1:5000 map and take detailed notes. 

Sometimes I find cool stuff in extensive survey (and this generally alarms people), but most of time I find spiky maquis, overgrown fields, goat poo, scree, and social isolation. 

So last week on the Western Argolid Regional Project where I serve as Assistant to the Directors, I was asked to take on Extensive Survey duties. Usually it takes a few weeks on a project to be “promoted” to the Extensive Team, but here at WARP everything takes less time. 

Despite the exile from all human contact, I find the Extensive Team a good chance to think. Today for example, I visited the remains of a well-appointed seasonal house or kalyvi near the village of Lyrkeia. The little house had lost its roof, but it was well-built.

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Its two court yards were clearly defined and carefully constructed of slightly shaped field stones. The cypress trees were a nice touch.

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Nearby, there are some beautiful terrace walls. It is well know that the team from the Argolid finished third in the International Terrace Building Competition held in Bern, Switzerland in 1928. A possibly apocryphal story holds that they would have finished higher had the Greek state appropriated sufficient funds to ship over 10 tons of local, Argolidic limestone to Switzerland for the Terrace Building Finals. Supposedly, Venizelos favored a Cretan team who finish first in the Greek Terrace Championship, but had been disqualified on a technicality. As a sign of support for Venizelos, the newly formed “five parties” coalition refused to support the shipment of stone for Greek team from the Argolid, and this cost them a better finish in Bern.

Whatever the case, the reputation of terrace builders from the Argolid was well deserved:

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Near the elegant little kalyvi stood a similarly well-constructed mandra or animal pen. This animal pen crossed over a series of four small terraces. I suspect that animal pen was for goats. Its construction atop rather narrow terraces suggests the transition from growing grain on the steep and unforgiving slopes of the valley and using the slopes for grazing.  

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Further along the same slopes were a number of lovely pocket terraces for olive trees. I haven’t seen many of these in my wanders around the eastern Peloponnesus so it was pretty nice to see them in our survey area.

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The other advantage of being on the Extensive Team is enjoying a peaceful sunrise through the maquis.

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Or over a lonely olive tree.

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Snack-time views aren’t bad either. Note the cypress trees associated with the kalyvi in the center of the photograph.

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New Beginnings

I heading to Greece this morning and am about as packed as one might expect at the end of a hectic term and a hectic month.

So my blog might become a bit more intermittent over the next couple months, but please be assured, dear readers, that I will keep you in mind and send along my regular musing on … well, whatever it is that I’m musing on.

For now, I’d like to direct you to a letter to the editor printed yesterday in our local newspaper. Even the casual reader of this letter and my blog will recognize my desperate need for a “reset” (to use gamer lingo picked up at the Atari dig).  

And, for updates from my ongoing work (in absentia) in Cyprus, please check out my colleague Scott Moore’s blog. He and Brandon Olson are continuing our work this sumer at Polis-Chrysochous and Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus while I let myself be distracted by new horizons in Greece. We have a largely completed manuscript documenting the first substantial body of new analysis at Polis-Chrysochous and Brandon and Scott and cleaning up a few loose ends. We also have a roughed out manuscript of the second volume in the Pyla-Koutsopetria series. Pyla-Koutsopetria 2: Excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla. It will, with any luck, appear alongside the forthcoming Pyla-Koutsopetria 1 as a volume in American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Report Series. And we think that’s pretty cool.

More on my new beginnings in the next few days! 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s still cold here, but we’ve been promised temperatures above zero by the end of today. This winter, that’s a pretty nice day. So I’m settled into the rooftop office of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World headquarters and getting ready to get something done for real today. 

Before I get on with my day, though, I suppose I should offer you something to make you weekend a bit more interesting. 

So here are some varia and quick hits:

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MOOCs at the University of North Dakota

This past week our new(isn) provost challenged the University of North Dakota community to consider the role of MOOCs in higher education in the state. As he undoubtedly knows, the University of North Dakota has long considered remote and “correspondence learning” a part of its mission. The sparsely settled character of the state and the concentration of resources in the eastern Red River valley has pushed the two large universities in the state to innovate in how they reach diverse stakeholders across the state. Despite that tradition, when the idea of MOOCs were floated on campus several years ago (the ambitious, but still born UND for Free initiative), the reception was chilly and skeptical.

How times have changed!

As the provost noted, 2012 was called, by some, the Year of the MOOC (and “recent” coverage… ahem… trumpeted MOOC’s transformative potential). MOOCs offer the potential to expose anyone with an internet connection to the faculty and at least some of the resources available at UND. They have obvious potential to continue the tradition of serving the state by providing the underserved communities of the Northern Plains with quality content. It is hardly surprising that our neighbors to the north at the University of Manitoba were the pioneers in the development of this form of learning. The platform and approach offers a unique opportunity to communicate what’s good about the University of North Dakota to a larger regional and national audience.

If UND became involved in MOOCs, however, it would cost money, time, and expertise. Whether we rely on existing MOOC platforms or develop our own, deploying technical knowledge, production savvy, and faculty expertise will necessarily detract from other priorities at the university. At a time when the university is scaling back its commitments to programs as the UND Writers Conference and core infrastructure like the library, shifting resources to MOOCs will likely leave faculty with a mixed message and suggest a confused set of priorities. 

The concern will be, of course, how this kind of outreach program will produce a return-on-investment that will benefit the entire campus community and replenish the resources from which it draws (i.e. faculty time, access to research materials, and technical support). We all know that during tough economic times, we have to do more with less, but it seems hard to imagine entering the competitive MOOC market will result in a net gain for the core mission of the university. Even if we insist on calling ourselves Exceptional (and I’ve come to recognize that we mean exceptional in a good way!) and maybe on a good day believe it, we will have to deliver a product that can compete with truly remarkable institutions in the U.S.

Perhaps there is something that I don’t see or understand. So I think that the next step will be for the administration to bring a sustainable business plan to various stakeholders and provide clear evidence for how this initiative will benefit the campus community. (This is a bit of an inside joke. The administration has been asking faculty initiatives to produce sustainable business plans for the last 6 months, so I thought it would be clever to ask them to do the same thing.)

The flip side of the MOOC equation is whether instruction at UND could benefit by collaborating with MOOC providers. This has famously caused controversy at other institutions, but there are benefits to leveraging resources from other schools and institutions to engooden student experience at our own. On a simple level, bringing world renown faculty into UND classrooms and dorm rooms via the internet is remarkably appealing. In fact, the Working Group in Digital and New Media has a lecture series where we use Skype (or similar technology) to bring in world renown speakers on issues of digital humanities, history, and new media studies. At the same time, this use of technology serves to complement existing conversations and commitments on campus rather than replacing them.

Using MOOCs on campus has generated a good bit of consternation and several major players in the movement have backed away from continuing to develop them. A well-grounded fear is that without substantial on-campus support MOOCs risks viewing education as a passive process and see education as a commodity to be consumed rather than a process requiring engagement. A perspective that encourages a passive consumption of content or even content providers runs the risk of setting higher education back 100 years.

On the other hand, MOOCs may serve as a kind of dynamic textbook that supplements classroom instruction and existing course material. Many faculty members already prepare substantial new and multimedia components to their classes or leverage existing multimedia content on the web or provided by traditional textbook publishers. The issues with this approach to using MOOCs are largely practical and logistical. For example, MOOCs may or may not follow the traditional semester schedule used at UND. They may or may not make course material available prior to the start of the course to allow MOOC instruction to be integrated into local course design.

This is all stuff that most people who have spent more than a moment thinking about MOOCs knows.

What I think is most exciting about MOOCs is this.

MOOCs, like so much in higher education, are unstable creatures. They’ve yet to endure the full scale scrutiny of a rapacious and soul-killing assessocracy that has come to push university education into the bleak reality of modernity. The variety, practicality, curiosity, and frivolity of MOOCs are part of their charm. They embrace the concept that education can be life changing, important, and a goal unto itself and that student outcomes can vary widely and be totally unrecognized. It is interesting to see the divergence between, on the one hand, education leaders who see MOOCs as ripe for the plucking and search for ways to monetize, commodify, assess, and validate these rather untamed creations. And, on the other hand, the emergence of a  diverse community around MOOCs that harkens back to radically democratized (and largely romanticized) ideals of education where people come as they are to learn what they want. Perhaps some of the appeal of the MOOC is the realization that the industrial models of higher education no longer suit the post-industrial models of contemporary capitalism.

(As an aside, I remember a former dean who wanted desperately to convert our offices in O’Kelly Hall into perfectly uniform corporate cubicles at the very moment when the most dynamic and innovative companies in the U.S. had offices that looked like a combination of artist studios and frat houses.)

If the formal American university is designed to create productive little capitalists who do work on schedule and on specification. The MOOC began as the ad hoc answer to the failing of this system. Students came to MOOCs to get what they wanted; instructors taught MOOCs in the confidence that what they said and did had value. The relationship between these two ideals did not require assessment or validation. Students, like their Medieval predecessors, voted with their feet (and clicks); Professors did what they have done from time immemorial, professed. Engagement was voluntary, outcomes varied, learning styles, patterns, and practices swirled. Even something as simple a plagiarism (which must be seen as the product of the professionalization of the disciplines) could be tolerated because the stakes and accountability were purely personal.

So, the most exciting about MOOCs is that beneath the hype, there are the seeds of a radical departure from the relentless move toward modernity (typified by the assessocracy where we “assess everything and call it peace”). MOOCs are the wild west and require a tremendous amount of trust and faith on the part of the administration to cultivate this foreign body in their well-oiled industrial education factory. Completion rates, learning outcomes, student engagement, efficiency studies, and other conceptual tools run counter to the radically democratized spirit of the MOOC.