Digital Humanities and the New Liberal Arts

In a productive coincidence, there was a provocative published in the Los Angeles Review of Books that subjected the Digital Humanities to rather pointed criticism aligning the darling of tech-savvy humanists, granting agencies, and university administrators everywhere with the dreaded neoliberal bugbear of our age. In short, the authors associated the rise of the Digital Humanities with the emergence of the corporatized university, vocational, tool-based education in the humanities, and decline of the traditional emphasis in the humanities on interpreting and engaging texts. I’m sure my colleagues in the #DH world will pull this article apart, but it’s hard to ignore as a good start to an important conversation. 

At this same time, my colleague, Tom Isern, down at North Dakota State University announced on Facebook that he’s working on a talk on the liberal arts to be delivered at an upcoming higher education confab here in North Dakota. The latter prompted me to think about what a forward-looking liberal arts would be (a la the New Liberal Arts), and the former provided me with a nice critical foil against which to imagine the humanities (and the larger liberal arts) in the 21st century. I think I want to write something about that in the late summer or fall. For now I have random thoughts.

1. Backward to a Future. This semester, I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Hayden White, Marshall Salins, and Dipesh Chakrabarty with my graduate historiography students. We’ve pushed each other to think about how the kinds of pasts we imagine shape and reflect the future we desire. As I’ve started to think critically about the future of the humanities and the liberal arts (more broadly), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the current state of higher education is as much the culmination of a long-standing conversation in the humanities (that has insisted on a kind of practical relevance) as well as pressures from outside the academy to make higher education relevant to the economic (and political) needs of the community (and our stakeholders).

In other words, I wonder whether looking back to understand the liberal arts may not help us escape our current bind, where the humanities are not seen as significant to a 21st century view of higher education that is pushing universities to declare the direct impact of their programs on the economic future of the country. Can we imagine a future for the humanities that is free from discussions of methods and methodology, disciplines and professionalism, and outcomes? As someone who teaches historical methods, has published on archaeological methodology, and has thought (critically? naively?) about technology in archaeology, I feel like most of these conversations are essential co-terminus with the emergence of the humanities as a thing within the context of higher education. The seeds of so much of our current university system came not from outside academia, but from the very processes of creating academia. 

2. Integrating and Disintegrating. Part of the challenge that I face teaching historical methods and graduate history, in general, is how much do I push my students simply to try to make sense of the past versus spending time teaching discipline specific methods which range from the pedestrian (this is how we fooooootnooottteeeee) to the elusive (how do we read between the lines of the text) and practical (relational databases, GIS, et c.). The former approach is close to the heart of the discipline and evokes Mommsen’s famous advice that students in history should learn languages and, maybe, a little law. For Mommsen the key to writing good history is carefully and slowly reading texts. I want my students to be able to read a text, understand it, and draw their own conclusions from an intimate relationship with the words on the page.

For our students and our situation, this is much more challenging. Mommsen’s students were preparing for work as teachers, historians, maybe clerks, in a text based world. While I’d contend that our world is still – and maybe more so – dominated by text, our students are expected to have far more granular skill sets at their disposal. There is tremendous pressure to dis-integrate disciplinary knowledge into a set of discrete skills. While big picture skills like reading, critical thinking, information literacy, and writing remain important and, we’re told, “in demand,” skills in data management, software, programing languages, formal editing, public history skills (museum design, accounting, marketing, graphic design, et c.), audio and video recording and production, are all part of a larger package of assets that our students both want and our administrators hope that we can develop within a disciplinary context. The rise of public history programs, for example, is a direct response to pressures to develop a degree with clear and explicit skills that can be dis-integrated and “sold separately” to employers.  

3. Disciplines and their Discontents. If integration and dis-integration of skills represents a constant pressure on how we justify our practice in the classroom and in our disciplines, there is the equal pressure to dissipate and disintegrate disciplinary learning and research across the curriculum. If disciplines are being pushed to identify and develop particular skills so that they can market their graduates outside of the academy, we are also being asked to market our disciplines within the university as the industrial model of higher education reaches its natural conclusion. Each course in the each discipline must fulfill a clear and obvious function in the education of our undergraduate consumers and in the research portfolio of the university in general. At the same time, each discipline needs to articulate itself as a distinct set of skills to justify the qualifications of its graduates for work in a putative “skills-based” world.

Disciplines and their institutional analogues – namely the department – find an increasingly awkward fit with the complex and contradictory rhetoric of higher education. The cynic in me sees much of this rhetoric as a way to undermine the authority of the department within the university administration. Departments – in general – serve as the point of contact between the administration and faculty and faculty governance is most frequently manifest at the departmental level. Efforts to undercut disciplines and departments are a method to undercut faculty authority. At the same time, our own efforts at justifying our discipline and departments often result in appeals to methods that date to the earliest days of the modern university. The development of disciplinary specific methods and skills then serve the purpose of dis-integrating disciplinary knowledge.

The Impossibility of a Slow Professor? (Part 2)

The problem of making a post with a “part 1” is that I feel obligated to publish a “part 2.” Go read Part 1, which is basically a review of  Maggie Berg’s and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016). In it, I suggest that the problem with their lovely little book is that many (if not all) of the conditions that produced a professionalized faculty are the same that have produced a corporatized university. We can’t be professionalized – with the clear distinction between work and life – and slow because the industrial roots of the process of professionalization are inseparable from the kind of social acceleration that has so impacted our working life. In other words, you can’t look for work/life balance without understanding the notion of “work” and “life” as products of the professionalization process.

If Berg and Seeber really want to understand how to embrace being a slow profession, I think they need to consider a fundamentally new model for life in the academy. This isn’t a radical proposition, actually. Most faculty in the humanities are not fully professionalized and our refusal to completely grasp the work/life division provides us with the opportunity to do meaningful work. Part of the slow movement’s core philosophy (such as it exists beyond a series of vaguely interrelated platitudes) is to live life in a more deliberate, thoughtful, and engaged way and to avoid the slick efficiencies that dominate the corporate world and its tradition of industrial speed. After all, time is money.

In the place of an industrial model, I wonder if we should think of what we do in the academy as craft rather than work. I recognize that this has risks. That standardization and professionalization of academia is part of a larger process that marginalized the kind of informal practices that made disciplines “old boys clubs” unfriendly to women, minorities, and unorthodox ideas. Professionalization has contributed to a more fair and inclusive work space by managing the grown of informal policies. The trick for the slow professor is to preserve the spirit of professionalism, the sense of fairness, the inclusiveness, and the democratic standards in university life, while at the same time grounding this in an earlier model for understanding academic life. 

1. Do work that matters. One of the great things about the humanities is that we can blur work/life so easily by simply doing work that matters to our life. We can draw on our experiences, our community, and our family as an influence on our scholarship. A walk with my wife can be a research trip, serving on a committee in the community can spark new ideas, and my experiences on a lazy early summer day can shape a published article. Live a life where it’s impossible to “take time off” from doing “work.”

2. Work with friends. One of the aspects of the Slow Professor that I really liked was their chapter on the value of collaboration in creating a more meaningful experience from research. (It goes without saying that the output of collaborative ventures tends to be better than that from the solo author… at least in my experience). I’d expand Berg and Seeber’s view of collaboration to suggest that we make a real effort to collaborate with friend. While there is always a risk of group think in these situations, I would add that there is also an opportunity to further erode the boundaries between work and life that threaten to box in creativity and to compartmentalize how we see the world.  

3. Control your work. While academics often complain about the relentless pace and expectations of university life, we can equally impatient about our work as it wends its way through the publication process. I contend that the division of writing from publishing (that is the work of publishing) locates writing as a stage in the process of knowledge production that culminates, to some degree in the appearance of a publication. The division of labor throughout this process reinforces the professionalization of academic work (as well as publishing) and it supports a system that is designed – in large part – to improve the efficiency of our work. To be clear, I’m not overlooking the value of peer review, copy editing, careful typesetting, et c., but I do think that our work should adopt more fluid models that subvert the calls for professional efficiency by exploring ways to control the entire process of knowledge production.

4. Break things. I loved that The Slow Professor recognized that the slow movement was a form of resistance. At a number of meeting on campus lately, administrators have emphasized that we as faculty need to assert authority through action. In most cases, the actions that we’re expected to take coincide with administrative initiatives. At the same time, being a slow professor does offer a strategy to undermine the “audit culture” so prevalent in the modern university. It takes a commitment, however, to slow processes down, to disengage from the pressures of both disciplinary and institutional expectations, and to break things designed to speed up, to improve efficiency, and to undermine our ability to blend work and life. Being a slow professor involves more than just embracing the virtues of a non-professional life, it involves working and taking risks to create that space within institutions designed to promote professional values. 

Revisiting the Elwyn Robinson Memoirs Project

Years ago, when I was working on writing my History of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, I stumbled across Elwyn Robinson’s memoirs tucked away in the UND archives. It was titled A Professors Story and offered a revealing glimpse of both Robinson’s life and his work in the Department of History and writing his landmark History of North Dakota. (For more on it, see here and here.)

For the last few years, I had this idea that I could publish his memoirs in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his History of North Dakota. I’ll admit that I didn’t have a great plan for how to do this, but I kept a slot open for the production in my capacity as publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

This is when Prof. Sherry O’Donnell and Michele Eifert entered the picture. I offered the manuscript to Sherry’s editing class in the English Department at UND to give them some practical experience preparing a manuscript for publication. This class spent the semester working through Robinson’s manuscript, preparing focused introductions to each chapter, and even working on format and type-setting. Yesterday, I finally got to see the fruit of their labor!

The result of their work is spectacular. The students’ pride and enthusiasm in discussing this project reminded me of the importance of “making” in the academic process and gives me great hope that the Robinson’s memoirs will be published in 2016.

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The University of North Dakota and the Great War: The First North Dakota Quarterly Reprint

Today drops the inaugural volume in North Dakota Quarterly Reprint Series. It is a collaboration between NDQ and the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The goal of this series is to bring some of the back catalogue of North Dakota Quarterly to public attention again and we started with a series of articles that deal with the Great War in North Dakota and on UND’s campus.

This reprint series had the added benefit of serving as a little design study as I continue to work on my layout and editing skills. To that end, I used a recently reconstructed, digital version of The Doves Type to add a bit period-appropriate gravitas to reprints. I also had to negotiate the absence of a bold or italics for The Doves Type, through the use of a small-caps for titles (recognizing that this is not a true small caps, but just the same upper-case letters in a smaller font).

(For those who don’t know The Doves Type story, it was an Arts and Crafts typeface initially designed for The Doves Press that was dumped unceremoniously in the Thames River after a dispute between partners at the type’s foundry in 1916/1917. Here’s a little video about the fonts recovery. Note that the diver is wearing some kind of sweet diving bell helmet, and the recovery of this font has an unmistakably archaeological vibe to it. We also thought it paralleled the recovery of parts of NDQ from obscurity as well as the modernist vibe of the “little magazine” movement of which NDQ was a part.)

I tried to keep the pages quite vertical with rather large margins to allow Doves Type some room to stretch out and enough space to breath. Despite this attention to the font and the page, I still see plenty of little infelicities that I need to create systems to eliminate in future efforts.

It’s not entirely about design, of course. The articles in the volume are good especially Wesley Johnson’s 10,000+ word recollections of his time in the fields and trenches of France and Hazel Nielson’s experiences in France with a cadre of North Dakota nurses. The volume also documents historian Orin G. Libby’s flip-flop from being an opponent of the war to the chair of UND’s War Committee. It is not difficult to see in his work the brewing controversy with UND President Thomas Kane who Libby accuses of mismanaging the influenza outbreak on campus which resulted in the death of several cadets. In any event, the entire volume makes for interesting reading and brings to life the style, perspective, and spirit of UND in the era of the Great War.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this is part of my larger (and growing) role as North Dakota Quarterly’s Digital Editor. My job – at least as I see it – is to expand NDQ’s presence on the web and to enliven how people interact with this venerable landmark in North Dakota’s cultural landscape. So, in a very limited way, publishing this volume is designed to draw people to the NDQ website and, perhaps more importantly, to get them to sign up for periodic emails from NDQ which highlights new content, delivers some interesting and timely links, and allows us to spread the word about the Quarterly to a new, online centered, audience. We have no plan to get away from print any time soon (and I think we’ll likely produce a print version of the University of North Dakota and the Great War at some point.)

If you want to download a copy of the University of North Dakota and the Great War, go here for the Digital Press or here for North Dakota Quarterly. And to get more stuff like this delivered right to your email inbox, subscribe to NDQ’s email newsletter (tentatively called NDQ5… get it? A 5th volume of a quarterly?) here.

UND and The Great War

Bacon Mac and Cheese, Entitlement, and the End of the Universe

Anyone who has been on the internet lately has new seen the crazy “bacon-mac-and-cheese college student video.” When I first watched it, I was appalled, confused, delighted, and then sad before being confused again. I thought that it must have been staged, then it couldn’t have been staged. It was simultaneously the worst thing and then the best thing. It might be the end of the universe, but I’m just not sure.

As one might expect, I wanted to drop everything and immediately work on a small edited volume focused on this video. I even invited folks to contribute on the Twitters. No one has taken me up on it which may be a good thing.

At the same time, I felt like I should share my thoughts on why this video is so great and terrible.

1. Entitlement. This is the easy explanation. The 19-year old student, whose name is Luke, felt like he could just walk in there and get mac-and-cheese without even putting down his beer bottle. As an example of student – white, male, student – entitlement or the entitlement of youth, this is worth of outrage. After all, the internet outrage machine is not known for its subtlety and entitlement is low hanging fruit.

2. Carnival. Before I admit to this video being an example of young white, male, college student entitlement (which is almost certainly is in some ways), we should also consider how bizarre it is and ponder the possibility that this even is a kind of ritualized inversion. If this student is entitled, which he probably is, his entitlement did not succeed in getting him his mac-and-cheese. In fact, it seems to have provided a moment of inverted social order where the “lowly” manager at the dining hall who is there to serve the entitled, white, male, youth, refuses to serve the student, and becomes belligerent. The manager hardly remains in his role of service employee (or does he?). The student, on the other hand, has walked into a dining hall with an open beer. This is not only illegal, but remarkably ill-advised (I’m assuming that it violates the university alcohol policies). Now, it’s possible that he’s done this many times in the past and is appalled this time because he can’t get his mac-and-cheese, but the reaction of the crowd and the manager seems to indicate otherwise. The main argument for why he can’t get his mac-and-cheese is that he’s been drinking.

In this context, there is a kind of ritual inversion. The “entitled” student who is in a position where he’s least able to enforce his rights to mac-and-cheese is confronted by the empowered employee who refused to serve a student who is clearly not capable of serving himself. Strange days!

3. The Manager. The manager is the most bizarre figure in the entire video. On the one hand, we can celebrate his unwillingness to bend when confronted with a drunk, belligerent, and hungry student. He has policies and he is literally willing to go the floor to enforce them. He stands up to abuse, keeps his composure, and only resorts to physical violence when he feels threatened. 

At the same time, he is responsible for this scene escalating. First, he refused to give the student mac-and-cheese which, we are led to assume, might immediately de-escalate the situation. Next, he continues to engage the student. Anyone who has regular contact with students knows the “two email rule.” Basically it states that if you’re having an argument with a student (over email), it should be limited to two emails. A third email will only result in escalation and will almost never produce a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict. (This is a version of the Mark Twain’s quip (who I believe is quoting J-Zed in this instance): “a wise man told me don’t argue with fools because people from a distance can’t tell who is who.”)

Finally, and he clearly recognized that the kid – a 19 year old – was intoxicated and walked into the dining hall with an open bottle of beer. I’ve been around college students to know that if a student walks into a public space with an open bottle of beer, then opportunities for reasoned conversation are likely to be very limited. Why this manager escalated this confrontation to physical violence after he claims to have called the cops is beyond me (actually, it’s not, see below). It is interesting that the manage may have bluffed and says that someone has been called at about the 1 minute mark of the video and tells the student that he has 2 minutes before they arrive. The cops don’t arrive until the very end of the 9 minute video. At the same time, he keeps telling the student that he should just leave. (In effect, run from the cops). There is clearly something more going on here, and I suspect it speaks to the blurry lines between official justice (i.e. the police, the courts, and the laws) and campus justice (i.e. administrative rulings, disciplinary boards, and policies). The first threat that the manager issues was not jail, a fine, or even physical violence, but the threat of expulsion. Campus has its own rules.

4. The Fight. Part of what is going on is that our carnival moment, the moment of ritual inversion where the servers refuse to serve and the entitled do not get what they expect, breaks down the basic set of social rules that dictate this kind of interaction. The Manager did not call the police, so the student – as much as he was functioning in a rational way at all – recognized that he maybe could still get his mac-and-cheese or it was at least possible for him to protect his role in the interaction. 

When that reality became less and less possible, violence erupts and the student ends up being pinned on the floor by a burly cook. The cook issued warning shots, though, yelling twice “Don’t touch my boss.” It would seem that the relationship between the manager and the cook involved a remarkable degree of loyalty. If we consider the situation as having (a fraught and fragile) element of carnival to it, then perhaps we can see a kind of class consciousness here erupting onto the scene. The cook realizes that his boss is in danger, but doesn’t see his boss. Instead he sees the limits of their autonomy as service employees being overrun by this belligerent teen-ager. That might account for why the manager or the cook continued to escalate the scenario while waiting on the police. This was not a fight between the police and the student, or even civil society and the student, this was a fight between those who serve and those who are served. With the fight we see the emergence of class consciousness forged in the crucible of daily interactions with an entitled generation of white, college, man-boys.

5. The Video. The arhythmic poetry (almost a dance) of the entire scene immediately made me assume that this was an elaborate fake. It was something that a professor, someone like my clever buddy Paul Worley, would produce for a class on performance, class consciousness, and colonial engage (or something). (Worley once staged an mock confrontation during a research presentation where students planted in the audience confronted a speaker (who was in on the act) during a presentation to explore (among other things) the potential for shared authority between the audience and the speaker. It was sweet).

The manager, the student, and the cook recognize that they are on video. In fact, at one point Luke looks at the camera and says “This is getting posted somewhere, and you’re gonna look like a fuckin’ tool.”  The manage responds “That’s fine” and both of them ham it up for a second for the camera. For most of the engagement both parties know (as much as the student is capable of “knowing” in his impaired state) that they are being filmed. To be completely fair, the manager and the student had already appealed to the crowd a few seconds before by asking the crowd to support their positions in the argument. Realizing that they’re being recorded, then, reifies their roles as performers in the actual confrontation. Being filmed invariably limits the roles that these two individuals can take. The rest of the video blurs the line between the actual confrontation and the performance of the confrontation even after the exercised cook yells “Show’s over” while pinning the student to the floor. The audience is as much a part of this performance as the cook, the manager, and the student. It is a show.

6. Community. Perhaps the performative aspect of the confrontation is what kept the audience – which appears to consist mainly of students off-camera – from becoming involved. A couple students attempt half-heartedly to convince Luke to leave and try to de-escalate the physical confrontation, but their efforts are as weak as they are ineffective. If the cook’s shout “Don’t touch my boss,” represents the moment class consciousness emerges, then the reluctance of other students to become involved in the confrontation suggests that any unified understanding of “entitlement” is not so clearly formed that it would motivate bystanders to defend a fellow entitled student’s rights. I’m not sure that this video makes clear a pervasive sense of entitlement toward which internet commentators have directed their outrage. Or if there was a sense of entitlement, it was not strong enough to motivate students to act to defend Luke’s rights to mac-and-cheese.

On the other hand, the efforts by the audience to defuse the situation were weak. They watched, the recorded, and they were clearly amused and shocked as things spiraled out of control, but they didn’t surge to the defense of the manager or grab their increasingly vulnerable “bro” and remove him from the situation. This video is hardly an advertisement for “bro” culture. 

7. The Police. Once the student is on the ground and the police intervene, then video gets even more bizarre. The cop asks the student if the hand-cuffs are too tight and then unlocks and adjusts the hand-cuffs. Clearly the cop knows that he’s being filmed (or assumed it, as perhaps he should on any college campus). This concern for the comfort of a belligerent, intoxicated, student is shocking to the viewer. It both reinforces the sense that this student is a teenager and justice for those struggling with adulthood should be gentler (unless, of course, you’re black, then it’s swift and violent). Even if we can argue that most of the video presents, at best, an ambiguous commentary on student entitlement and privilege, the interaction with the cop certainly does. Until Luke spits on the manager, who bizarrely was still standing by as if to ensure that the cop did his job, the cop was firm, but polite. After the spit, the cop pushed the student roughly out the door. 

The video is many more things, of course, and deserves a more thorough, theoretically informed, and detailed consideration. It is also sad. The kid apparently was kicked out of the University of Connecticut because of this (and perhaps other incidents). Apparently this was not the first time that he behaved aggressively while drinking. There is every indication that these confrontations represents bigger problems. 

We don’t know much about this student other than his arrest records and this video, and it’s easy to judge him because many of us have seen similar confrontations fueled by alcohol and youth, and it’s easy to reduce him to a type. I hope that he has a chance to sort himself out. 

Three Unrelated Things: the Homeshow, Lemonskinheads, and the UND Writers Conference

Sometimes I get a backlog of blog ideas and I realize that it makes more sense to push them out in a disjointed post than to wait for some opportunity to expand each idea into a individual posts. I realize that this violates a rule of writing which states that writers should give their ideas room to stretch out and not cram too many thoughts together in one place. I’ve never been good at that.

So here are three unrelated things combined in a single post: 

1. The University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference starts today! If you spend any time at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, or in North Dakota, you know about the Writers Conference. In fact, if you know anything about UND at all, it’s likely to be their long tradition of hosting one of the great writers’ conferences in the U.S. As people might recall, the Writers Conference was almost sacrificed to budgetary priorities advanced by careerist administrators looking to prove that they’re tough enough to stand up to faculty and make “hard choices.” Fortunately, the community and donors rallied to save the conference. 

This year the theme is “The Other Half” and will feature women writers who write about gender and race. But as always, the Writers Conference is more than that, it is an opportunity to hear writers talk about their craft. The lunchtime panels are completely enthralling and well worth sacrificing a lunch hour! So go and check it out this week! 

2. The Home Show. This past weekend, my wife and I went to the Grand Forks Home Show. I’d never been to such a thing! Apparently the purpose of the home show is to show off various ways to improve, change, or repair one’s home. According the local newspaper, over 150 vendors rented booths at the show and thousands attended. As an archaeologist with an interest in the contemporary world, the Home Show fascinated me. Here in one place was an example of many objects that might appear in an archaeological assemblage from a modern home. There were three or four booths showing off cook pots, for example, and we know from our experiences in Bakken that cookware is often left behind when a temporary settlement is abandoned. There were two or three vendors showing off windows, which if our home is any indication, are a common object set aside in provisional discard even when they have been replaces (and can, in the right hands, be the objects of salvage). There were several firms advertising landscaping services by elaborate displays. Because the materials in these displays are relatively low value and designed for a particular space, they tend to persist at a place and accumulate traces of earlier landscaping efforts. Unsurprisingly the vendors at the show were almost all men, suggesting that the materiality of the home and its immediate environs continues to be something constructed (in a physical sense) by men even if the gender balance between the visitors appeared more even.

3. The Empire Theater and Usama Dakdok. Last week, the anti-Muslim speaker Usama Dakdok came to Grand Forks. He was brought to town by one or another conservative evangelical church and sponsored by the local conservative Christian radio station. Dakdok is know as an inflammatory speaker and leverages his Egyptian heritage to purport inside information about Islam to help Christians convert their Muslim neighbors. His talks have a pseudo-academic structure where he presents his “more authentic” translation of the Quran and compares it unfavorably – apparently almost at random – to passages in the Christian Bible. Whatever one things about Christian-Muslim relations, Dakdok provides very little substance and considerable fuel to already enflamed audience who fear the imminent arrival of ISIS type militants, Sharia law, and anti-Christian pogroms in their small town. 

His reputation proceeds him, of course, and in many communities he struggles to find a venue to spout his venom. This has apparently allowed him to play the victim and to demonstrate the urgency of his message. The grand plot against God-fearing Christians is already well underway, because his truth is being suppressed. As a few of my colleagues pointed out, this kind of rabble rousing has a long history in American political life where conspiracies, secret knowledge, identity politics, and playing the victim often combine to fuel the fires of hatred. 

In light of this situation, I expressed disappointment that the Empire Arts Center (our local early 20th century movie house turned to an arts center) agreed to host a speaker like Dakdok and suggested to some colleagues that the Empire Arts Center might no longer be a great venue for, say, a lecture series organized by the International Studies program to explore ideas of global diversity. Two things made our conversation all the more emphatic. First was a confused Op-Ed piece in the Grand Forks Herald which somehow celebrated the Empire Arts Center for allowing hate speech in its venue as an important opportunity for the community to consider Dakdok’s views as a valid contribution to a global conversation on religious difference. Second, with the appearance of some anti-immigrant graffiti directed at Somali immigrants in town, the Herald cautioned us from jumping to conclusions and claiming that our community has a race problem. Ironically, if the views expressed appeared in a venue like the Empire rather than on the wall of a local strip mall, then, according to the Herald we should celebrate the vitality of civic conversation: “Some claim Dakdok’s speech was beyond the pale. But a big reason for the United States’ world leadership and enormous strength is the fact that we trust debate — not repression — to resolve political quarrels.”

The upshot of our conversations is a meeting with the folks at the Empire, mediated and facilitated by a city council member and some fine folks at the University of North Dakota. We do not want to damage the Empire as a civic institution because it’s a great venue, a good partner, and an asset to the community, but we do want to make sure that we expect more them. It’s not that we’re angry, we’re just very disappointed.

One good thing to come out of all this is that I discovered calling Usama Dakdok, Evan Dakdok is pretty fun (for me). It’s a mash-up of Dakdok with the drug-addled lead singer of the Lemonheads, Evan Dando. Evan Dakdok is the frontman of a band called the Lemonskinheads. So that’s fun.

 

How should things end?

For the last five years, I’ve taught the undergraduate methods class in the history department at the University of North Dakota every semester (History 240). Next year, I go on sabbatical and when I come back, it’s my understanding that my services will no longer be required in this class. So this will be my last time teaching the course for the foreseeable future.

I designed the course in 2009, and made it a combination historiography and historical research methods. The goal was to introduce students to the history of the discipline of history and to use that to situate how we approach historical research and writing today. In general, the course was successful, although I am not entirely sure that the methods introduced in the course were reinforced enough to be second nature for our students by the time they reached our capstone class. In fact, we’re introducing a class between History 240 and History 440 (our capstone) next year to reinforce many of the basic research skills introduced in history 240. As a result, the character of History 240 will have to change. More than that, I suspect that my own idiosyncratic approach to the course will not continue. That’s ok, though. I’ve had my time.

The end of teaching this class did get me thinking about how to end a class. My usual approach at the end of the semester is to scribble down some notes about how the class went and what I might want to change. These notes and some quick and dirty statistical summary of student performance (based on grades) allowed to adjust the class the next semester by shifting the emphasis slightly, reinforce key points, and even eliminate assignments on which students performed irregularly.  

This semester, however, there is no need to do that. I’m not teaching the class again, and if I do, it won’t be the same class. So as the semester winds down in this course, I find myself without a clear sense of purpose. I guess I never developed or even considered an endgame strategy.

Thinking about my lack of endgame, got me to reflect on the various initiatives that begin with promise on university campuses, but seem to lack a formal endgame. This is particular significant at a place like UND where our administrators rotate through every 3-5 years and bring with them a new set of priorities, strategies, and vision. More than that, the economy, technology, and disciplinary boundaries appear to have entered a period of particular fluidity and dynamism that calls into question the value of any project or program that would continue 

If faculty have the initiative and resources to invest in new programs or projects, then, then we must also understand the environment in which we work. Project, programs, and even classes need to have endgames which are more than just slipping quietly into sabbatical or watching interest in a program or project decline until it is quietly discontinued. Just as archaeological projects generally have plans to move from field work to publication, I wonder whether programs and projects on campus should have requirements for productive, reflective conclusions. These conclusions not only allow for the assessment (and if we know anything about the modern university, it’s that they love assessment) of the results of the program, the class, and the project over a set length of time, but also hold all parties accountable for the resources committed to the undertaking. Productive undertakings that succeed in their goals will have the opportunity to make a strong case of continued support – over another fixed duration with another set of clear goals; unproductive undertakings or ones that do not achieve their goals over a realistic span of time, will not get continued support freeing up resources for new, innovative programs.   

This approach may seem overly mechanistic and run counter to an open-ended spirit of humanistic inquiry. But, spending the last few weeks thinking about the trajectory of a course has made me realize that a class’s endgame has to produce a more satisfying and productive results than my current situation. As I wrap up teaching History 240 – perhaps for the last time ever and certainly the last time in its current configuration – I’m struck by a feeling of pointlessness. Five years of teaching the class and I have no ability to reflect on what I accomplished over that duration in a synthetic or systematic way. 

My Plan Not To Waste My Sabbatical

I heard yesterday that I will have a sabbatical or developmental leave year next year. That’s pretty exciting because I haven’t had a year off from teaching since 2007-2008 when I was the Carpenter Fellow at the ole American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

So I am beginning to plan my sabbatical year and I looked through my journals and my blog posts to figure out what I did last time I was on leave and what I should try to approach differently for this year. The result is a little list that I made up just for myself as a kind of reminder of what I learned last time I was on leave. 

1. Don’t over do it right out of the gate. Last time I was on leave, I hit the ground running and worked long hour from day one. In fact, the first two weeks on leave I was basically on my own in Athens with most of Greece (and American School staff) enjoying their August holiday. I got into the habit of working long hours and developed an ambitious research plan.

Then, about 5 months into my leave, I crashed. The pace and hours I had set were unsustainable with breaks for teaching, service obligations, and my normal social routine (e.g. dinner with my wife, a little NBA action a few nights a week, et c.). By March, I was spinning my wheels and my productivity slipped to nearly zero. And I was exhausted.

In the end, I might have accomplished more by my flailing attack on my leave year, but I certainly didn’t feel refreshed or satisfied when I got back to North Dakota. I need to pace myself this year. 

2. Don’t try to do things that I can’t do. Another problem with my last effort at leave was that I tried to convert my dissertation into a book. The instinct was good, but at the end of the day, I don’t think in book length segments. In fact, I struggle to think in 8,000 – 10,000 word segments (some people would argue that I’m not quite up to the task of a blog post). 

On my last year of leave, I decided to try to write a book. And it was, predictably, a disaster. I wrote a draft of something. It is pretty strange and more like an article or an article and a chapter in something that I’d never or couldn’t finish. And it compounded my frustration of spinning my wheels for the last few months of sabbatical and returning to classes emotionally exhausted. 

So, this time, there is no book project (yet) and there is no ambitious program to pen a concept album. I just need to write my way, think in little chunks, and churn out my own unique brand of mediocre pop. 

3. Take time to catch up on reading. One thing that I did do well last time I was on leave is that I dedicated time each day to read. I am so far behind in reading in my field that it is almost embarrassing. In fact, I was leafing through the book reviews in the Journal of Roman Archaeology recently and it took me several minutes to realize that it was the 2010 volume. It all looked so fresh and exciting!

I need to catch up.

4. Load up research for the future. Along the same lines as catching up on reading, I was very successful in loading up on research material during my last sabbatical. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I continue to mine this material even today as I polish off some long lingering projects

My last sabbatical gave me access to a pair of world class research libraries, and I don’t think I’ll have the same access this time around. At the same time, I need to concentrate some focused research time on assembling and organizing materials for research ideas that are not fully formed. In contrast to my need to read expansively in my field, I also need to hunt and gather and pull together some of the more obscure but high quality material in my field especially as I push my research into new areas  like the (the Western Argolid) and new periods (the 7th and 8th centuries) which I understand broadly but not on any detail.  

5. Start new things. The final thing that I did right last time I was on sabbatical is that I started some new things. As with most academics, I’m fundamentally conservative and prefer well-trod paths to wild flights of fancy. And I know that I need to temper my enthusiasm or I’ll burn through my increasingly limited energy and attention reserves in the first few months of sabbatical and have nothing left for the long North Dakota winter. At the same time, I have to do something new to keep my interest in my so-called academic career.

So stay tuned over the next 18 months as I try my hand at this sabbatical thing again. Madcap blogging adventures will undoubtedly ensure.  

An Open Letter to our new Provost and Dean

This fall, the University of North Dakota has a new Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences has a new dean. Right now they are cruising across the state as part of the University of North Dakota faculty bus tour. So now seems a safe time to tell them exactly what I think they should do as they begin their time at UND.  

This post follows a tradition on the blog. Five years ago, I welcomed our new university president with a series of historical blog posts that described the tension between a previous president and faculty. I think they’re some of my best posts and you can enjoy them here, here, and here. I don’t have anything as clever to welcome our new dean and provost, but I figured that I should post something.

Since open letters are all the rage these-a-days (and should not be confused with this other kind of letter or, dear lord, this letter), I thought I might type up a few things that I think are important for new administrators to keep in mind as they start their careers at the University of North Dakota. These are not supposed to be grievances or reflect the shortcomings of previous administrators, but they do reflect my priorities as a faculty member. Moreover, I do not claim a particularly unique perspective or vantage point for my open letter. In fact, I’m the perfect definition of rank-and-file faculty on campus.

I am not a superstar or a campus asset.
I am not a wise and experienced grey head.
I am not a hot shot assistant professor.

I’m a mid-career, associate professor with no particular standing on campus. I do my job – research, teach, and do some service – but I’m not notable for any one of them. I will say that I work hard, but I lack that spark to be anything more than a loyal foot soldier to my discipline and university. Worse still, I’m in the humanities. Finally, I don’t have an special behind the scenes knowledge of how the university really functions or how it should function.

That being said, I can describe how the university appears to me, and I suspect that some of my perspectives will be shared by the great majority of faculty who do not see themselves as particularly special, but want to do the best they can in their environment.

1. Respect faculty time. Over my almost 10 years on campus, I’ve been engaged in a wide range of activities at the behest of administrators that resulted in nothing. These range from the inconsequential (e.g. an online form that needed to be filled out in addition to the traditional paper forms) to the more time consuming including committees charged with creating a new program or evaluating core university functions. While I always felt honored to participate in the more “important” and special committees, they consumed my time and energy and so often did not produce anything of note. The combination of these bigger obligations and the gradual increase in niggling responsibilities impinge on the time faculty can spend doing research and inevitably make us less effective teachers.

Please, if you have any control over the expansion of the number of faculty committees, pointless paperwork exercises, and other pressures on faculty hours, try to control this kind of mission creep where creative faculty become bureaucrats.

2. Do not tell creative faculty to develop a business plan to support their creativity. We all recognize that funding makes the world go ’round. I’ve written my modest share of grants and prepared budgets for my archaeological research projects. I even have tried my hand at some ham-fisted self promotion, and helped to envision a program of crowd-funding for local creative projects, but I cannot create a business plan. My colleagues in the humanities, arts, and sciences have strengths in in creative and innovative thinking, transformational research, and meaningful teaching. We look to our colleagues in administrative posts to find resources for us to continue this work. While we all understand that external grants are sometimes required, we do not have any idea how to create a compelling or sustaining business plan.

Fortunately, as administrators, you do. So instead of asking us to do it and taking time away from our creative tasks, you should do use your expertise to help make our creativity viable in the new academic landscape.

In the meantime, those of us in creative fields will follow the great John Madden’s advice: “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load up the wagon!”

3. Do not reward bad behavior. Nothing is more demoralizing to the toiling members of the rank-and-file than to see rewarded colleagues or departments who act out, chafe under imagined grievances, seek out offenses, and spend more time causing trouble than doing their job. I realize that sometimes it is easier to placate than to punish, but for those of us who stay out of trouble, overlook possible small offenses with some grace, and suffer injustices with a modicum of dignity, it is excruciating to see the continued support and promotion of people who behave poorly. I understand, of course, that some of folks who misbehave are crusaders for justice, whistle blowers, and revolutionaries, but many are not. They pursue their own agendas, vendettas, and political positions in ways that undermine collegiality on campus.

When they’re rewarded for their antisocial and unprofessional behavior, it undermines morale among those of us who don’t want to cause trouble and want to focus on our research, teaching, and colleagues in a positive way.

4. Recognize economic inequality across campus. Faculty at a university function in a wide range of different economies. The economic realities that shape the lives of scholars in the humanities and arts are fundamentally different from those that shape the lives of folks in the hard or applied sciences. I’m not complaining (much). I understand that society values certain kind of research more than others and that certain kinds of research simple costs more than others. I also understand that replacement costs for faculty, start up costs, and the lure of private industry impacts different disciplines in different ways. I am also aware that university administration is growing and careful economic calculations take place before hiring each additional director and associate vice president (cough). Some of these folks are so good at their jobs that they more than pay for themselves and the economic impact of their work funds additional faculty members and research opportunities.

At the same time, please realize that it is intensely demoralizing when administrators have no real idea how competitive, challenging, and difficult funding opportunities can be for scholars in different disciplines. We do not all have equal access to corporate resources, federal grant programs, or private resources. More painfully, faculty are not all compensated at the same rate for the same work. It is a difficult generalization to make, but many of us at the most productive times of our careers make less than people who have entered into the “operation shutdown” phase of their careers.

I am worldly enough to understand that there is no way to “fix” these disparities across disciplines, departments, and divisions of the university (an I am sure that many would not even really see this system as broken), but it would make my life better if all parties, led by deans and the provost, could at least consistently acknowledge the unequal distribution of resources on campus and if this leads to programs that benefit the work of scholars who have a bit less, then this is an added bonus. 

5. Find Creative Ways to Support Collaboration. One of the funniest things that happened a few years back is that at the same time our dean and president were promotion collaboration, they moved our department to a new building further away from our closest intellectual colleagues (English and Languages).  Moreover, the design of the building encouraged solitary work in offices rather than chance encounters with colleagues. The examples of companies that have found imaginative solutions to the need to produce new ideas is vast and growing.

So far, on campus, there is significant research to support collaborations, but I have yet to see the same commitment to creating an environment that support collaborating. For example, the library has traditionally stood as a space for chance encounters with both ideas and people, and it seems like a natural place to manifest this commitment to cross campus collaboration. Over my time at the university, however, the library has never received enough support.

There could be real benefit to developing open plan spaces in the center of campus to support collaborative activities and removing institutional barriers to co-taught courses or cross listing brings the collaborative spirit of faculty to the classroom. Some of these things already exist on campus or may be in the planning stage, and I’m loathe to discourage direct funding of collaborative research, but there is more to collaboration that giving money to successful partnerships.

I suspect most people have stopped reading my post at this point as it has clearly strayed into tl;dr territory, but I wanted to go on record with my ideas. Maybe someday when the dust has settled, programs are in place, troublemakers placated, and collaborations ensured, we can sit down for a beer or a coffee.

Good luck and welcome to UND.

Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations

Recently, there has been a good bit of talk about policies governing the digital publication of dissertation. I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago, but most of this came from American Historical Association’s well-meaning efforts to urge us to adopt flexible policies toward the digital publication of dissertations immediate after their completion. Instead, they recommend allowing scholars to embargo their dissertations for up to six years after they have been completed. They did not necessarily recommend that every scholar do this, but they recommended that a 6 year embargo be an option.

TwilightDissertation

The fuss was sufficient that the AHA made real efforts to clarify their position and then the president of the AHA, William Cronon, responded directly to criticism of the Association’s position. His response was measured. He argued, in a nutshell, that recent Ph.D.s are particularly vulnerable because their dissertation is their most significant scholarly achievement to that point. Allowing recent Ph.D.s to embargo their work is a policy that protects that work and ensures that these vulnerable scholars can deploy their dissertation for greatest professional benefit. He is particularly concerned that academic publishers might look askance at publishing dissertations that are available for free digital download. This would make it more difficult for scholars at the start of their career to publish books heavily based on their dissertations. Since books remain the gold standard for tenure, any reluctance by publishers will perhaps make it more difficult for scholars to earn tenure.

It is interesting to consider whether this policy is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Smaller numbers of historians are hired to tenure track positions and a smallest percentage of Ph.D.s over the past 40 years earn employment at all. As a result, the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and even the AHA have called for academically trained Ph.D.s to embrace the possibility of non-academic careers. The culture of academia is changing.

Moreover, state universities are under increased pressure to justify their expenditures on the humanities. Making dissertations available to the public (who often understand their tax dollars as directly funding graduate research) is a key way to assuage public concerns that money invested in higher education funds exclusively boutique projects that the average citizen could never access, much less appreciate. One response to these concerns has been to encourage more open access research. Moreover, this practice follows national programs like the NSF and NIH which are requiring scholars to make available their research. Dissertations, especially those receiving “public funds” at state universities (putting aside the vagaries of state university budgets), would appear to many people as the products of their tax dollars. In the UK, this concern has fueled a recent spate of graduate student blogs where students advocate for themselves by making more of their research transparent. Other fields in the U.S. are making the same argument for different, but related reasons.

Most historians have come to accept that our field is undergoing tremendous change, and Cronon admitted that the status of tenure remains uncertain in our changing academic landscape. More than that, we all know that the character of academic publishing is in transition. Even the idea that an academic publisher would shy away from a dissertation that was freely available as a download is hardly a clear situation, as Cronon points out. Our world is changing and the AHA has the opportunity to promote policies that shape future expectations in the discipline.

I respect Cronon tremendously; he’s smart and the AHA’s heart is in the right place. It appears, however, that the AHA has  adopted a policy the limits the circulation of academic research to protect a career path that follows an increasingly obsolete trajectory. (I really want to make the problematic analogy that this is like a well-meaning administrator advocating for lower standardized-test scores to keep under performing schools from being stigmatized.) If dissertations become immediately available for free download, it will accelerate the process of changing the expectations in both academic publishing and on the academic career path.

For publishing, the re-publication of embargoed dissertations as books is not the best use of increasingly straightened publisher or – more importantly – library resources. This policy will make libraries more likely to expend resources on research that will eventually become available for free. It’s hard to see this as a way forward.

More than that, the embargo would tend to protect dissertations that do not undergo substantial revisions. Substantially revised dissertations will retain value to a publisher as an original book. Cronon admits as much:

“I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.”

In other words, this policy advocated by the AHA protects the lowest value books – ones that are not substantial revisions of dissertations – and creates a scenario where university libraries spend money to purchase lightly revised dissertations as book! Considering how academic publishing works, they might end up purchasing these lightly revised dissertations a year or two before dissertation embargoes would expire.  

More importantly, the push to make dissertation research available quickly after its completion fits the changing character of American graduate education with fewer candidates entering academic jobs or joining the tenure track. In effect, we’re not only protecting the weakest dissertations, but we’re protecting the research of an increasingly small number of scholars who pursue traditional academic careers. I wonder if this calculus is short-sighted and creates a system that privileges an elite career path over the massive quantity of valuable research. 

Some scholars have argued that dissertations are labor and apply a traditional reading of capitalism, unfortunately I am not convinced that graduate research fits the capitalist model perfectly. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that history remains a craft and graduate students have an apprentice relationship with their advisors making the ownership metaphor of graduate research problematic. After all, most of us relied heavily on graduate advisement to produce the dissertation and as a result, it is as much a product of a system in which advisors and students are both deeply embedded. This isn’t to suggest that graduate students aren’t entitled to the fruits of their own research, but to suggest that it is more complex equation than simple labor costs might suggest.

There are always forces that resist change in academia. In many ways, academic culture is deeply conservative. So I understand – and begrudgingly respect – Cronon’s arguments. The AHA has to represent the interests of all historians as well as protect the intellectual product of these scholars. In this case, I feel like they’re doing more to protect the scholar than the discipline. I suppose, if an organization has to pick one or the other, they’ve made the right choice, but I’m still not entirely satisfied.