A New Memorial Union at UND

I was pretty interested in the recent vote to fund the construction of a new Memorial Union on the campus of the University of North Dakota. By a fairly narrow margin, students agreed to fund a new union through a $14 per credit fee that increased 2% per year between 2020 and 2059. The new union, it’s been said, will cost about $80 million and the incentive to do this now is that the existing union, aside from being dated in style and design as well as increasingly inadequate as a center for student life, has about $40 million in “deferred maintenance.” Traditionally, students have carried part of the funding for the union and its maintenance through various fees and had a fair amount of control over how the union worked and funding priorities.

The fee increase has to go through the state legislature and the state board of higher education, and there is some concern that a fee increase to fund the new union will make it more difficult to increase fees for other needs on campus should they arise over the next 40 years (gulp!!). As a result, some legislators with ties to UND have asked around a bit to get a sense whether this is a good priority for UND and whether it should see backing in the legislature.

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about how university budgets work in the age of shifting priorities, I chimed in and my response to a social media post has been banging around in my head for a week or so now. So, I thought I would share a revised version of it here.

First, the more that I thought about it, the more that I’ve come to think that the $40 million in deferred maintenance is a bit of a McGuffin. From what I understand, the formulas used to calculate deferred maintenance are not as simple as saying there are $40 million worth of things needing to be fixed in the existing union. These figures include depreciation and replacement costs that accumulate over time, and, generally, represent the amount of money that needs to be available to accommodate repair and replacement of the physical plant of the building. A new roof, for example, will start to generate deferred maintenance expenses from the moment it is installed as well an HVAC unit or a light bulb. Ideally, the university would start to save money to replace the roof from the moment that the roof is installed, but this is neither realistic or practical.

Of course, if UND spent $40 million, it would reset the deferred maintenance “clock” to zero in the same way that replacing the oil in your car every morning would reset part of your car’s deferred maintenance bill. But this isn’t necessary a rational decision. One of the Wesley College buildings, Sayre Hall, still had the original wood-framed windows from the early 20th century. These would have been racking up deferred maintenances expenses for nearly a century (if we assume a window is designed to last 20 years), but they were never replaced. It stands to reason that, in general, larger, more complex, and more expensive buildings generate deferred maintenance costs more quickly than small ones. I also suspect that the rate of increased for deferred maintenance trails off as buildings get older. In other words, building a new union will only defer (heh heh) the rate of increase for deferred maintenance for a little while before it begins too accumulate again and every bit as quickly (and perhaps even MORE quickly in some nightmarish scenarios) as the old union does.

More than that, if the issue is that the university doesn’t have sufficient saved funds to cover future maintenance on campus, then building a new building will neither make this better or worse. Eliminating deferred maintenance expenses on the two old Wesley College buildings didn’t “save” the university money, it just eliminated potential future expenses. But more to the point, he entire system of budgets on campus create deferred maintenance expenses because saved money is frequently seen by both administrators and the legislature as surplus capital that isn’t being used productively and an example of inefficiency at a public institution to be “punished” by austerity. In fact, the entire federal grant system now works along these lines with less and less money provided to pay for the maintenance and depreciation (indirect costs) of the original investment (direct costs).

In other words, talking about deferred maintenance as a reason to build a building isn’t the language of fiscal responsibility, but the language of austerity. The language of deferred maintenance is meant to make the university look like an irresponsible institution (whether this is the case or not) and often results in funding cuts purported to enforce more efficient operation, but actually designed to penalize public institutions (and to case-build for privatization). For example, the legislature has proposed several times to make resources available but only if a significant part of the funds would go toward deferred maintenance. Covering deferred maintenance costs on campus isn’t always or eve often responsible thing to do. It hurts students.

That being said, there are two compelling reasons – at least to me – for approving the students’ request for funding a new union. 

First, there has been a good bit of talk about the union attracting new students as well as  vague statements that the union is the “heart” or the “core” of the campus. I don’t disagree with either of these things, but I wonder whether they’re overly narrow. To be clear, I’ll admit to finding NDSU’s union building very attractive and functional. I also have had the privilege of traveling to other campuses quite regularly over the past few years and, in comparison UND’s union, is both limited and outdated.

As an aside, this one of my favorite hallways on campus (it’s not technically in the Union, but rather in Swanson Hall, but is more or less in the Union complex):

IMG 3452

Despite this hallway and the appeal of the union to prospective students and visitors, it isn’t really the best argument. What is more compelling to me is the growing awareness that campus buildings play an important role in the coherence of the campus community and this plays a role in academic performance and retention of students. Like many state schools, UND attracts students from a wide range of backgrounds. The presence of spaces on campus that encourage students to socialize and interact is particularly important at a school like ours not because our “posh” or privileged students expect it, but because having appealing and functional spaces on campus levels the playing filed for our diverse student body. This is part of the mission of public universities and something that a well designed campus should accomplish.

We know, for example, that first generation students, minorities, and students from less advantaged backgrounds often struggle to integrate into the campus community and this has an impact on academic performance. They tend to study alone more, they tend to find campus to be an alienating place, and they tend to see their academic work as more separate from their “real life.” With the growth of private dormitories and the continued strength of fraternities and sororities, historically disadvantaged students also have fewer spaces to interact with other students outside the classroom. If they do look to the union as a common space, it’s dingy and spent vibe tends to reinforce these students’ position as marginal. Conversely, an updated and appealing union may well expand the impact of what faculty and students do in the classroom by creating inclusive spaces for informal interaction and to eliminate – for the time being, at least – a real dichotomy of opportunity across our diverse student body. In short, this is not a building that is being built instead of things that would improve academic life on campus is a false dichotomy.

Second, voting “no” on the new union will continue a policy of austerity that involves the withholding of funds – or even support for policies – that do not adhere to a top down strategic vision implemented by legislators, administrators, alumni, and various other stakeholders on campus. This situation and initiative reminds the bosses that students ARE stakeholders, and they have every bit as much the right to shape campus in a respectful and deliberate way as the legislature, the administration, or the faculty. In fact, while I don’t necessarily agree with building of a new union per se, I’d go to the wall to protect students’ rights to raise the funds to build a union. If the state isn’t going to support the university system in a reasonable way, then they lose the right to tell students not to take matters into their own hands.

In the spring of 2018, I taught a class on the UND budget and what was clear was that students DO have strong opinions about the current fiscal situation on campus and do have priorities that administrators, faculty, and legislatures doesn’t always recognize. More than that, they want a voice. This is their voice. And the argument that “only” 2400 students participated and “only” 1300 students wanted the union speaks more to a condescending attitude toward students than a legitimate concern. Over my time at UND, the last 15 years, far less representative groups have raised fees on students or made decisions that directly impact the quality of education and experience. The decision, for example, to eliminate music therapy was made by one administrator. When my class pressed senior administrators to explain the cuts to baseball and Women’s Hockey, their responses were evasive and guarded. It was clear that students were not only uninvolved in these decisions, but would not always be given access to the processes that produced these decisions. In general, student input on most matters of campus policy, curriculum, and administration is often limited to one or two students on committees, at best. That 1000+ plus students made their voices heard in a relatively transparent way through this vote is enough for me to support them.

Random Thoughts on Publishing and The Digital Press

Over the next month or so, I’m going to roll out a new little imprint at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It’ll be called, The Student Press, and it’ll to focus on student work or class projects that deserve a wider audience. 

The first two volumes that will appear in this series are the small book produced by my graduate seminar last year titled The Graduates’ Manifesto: Defending History. The second volume will come from a class that I’m teaching this semester on the the University of North Dakota budget and be called A Students Guide to the UND Budget

For some reason, I want to create a kind of thematic consistency in the book covers and draw on design cues used in 1960s-1970s book covers. Maybe it’s because these covers evoke my student days. 

I also have this not-so-great idea to publish a series of letters from the Wesley College archive as part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. In the 1930s, Wesley College was in dire financial shape. The regular flow of income from traditional donors, like Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre, had suffered from the Great Depression and the the drought of the 1920s. Wesley College was in debt and was struggling to pay its bills. In 1931, Charles Wallace took the helm of the struggling institution replacing the first president, Edward Robertson. Roberston was a very hands-on president and have close personal relationships with both donors and creditors. As a result, he took the lead in negotiating forbearance for debts and balancing the generosity of donors with the understanding desire of creditors to be paid in full. 

The idea would be to produce a little book of these letters with a short introduction and to call it something like “A Study in Austerity: Donors and Debt in a Small College.”

Finally, how great are these cover sheets from the one-line drawings of buildings on UND’s campus?  

Buildings and Grounds  Floor Plans  Robertson Sayre Hall  NO 57  dragged

UA75 3 19 19  dragged

The University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference

The first week after spring break every year (well, at least for the last 49 years), is the University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference. It’s an annual gathering of writers and readers from around the world and around the state.

This year’s theme is “Truth and Lies” which seems both intriguing and contemporary. The features authors include Molly McCully Brown, Nicholas Galanin, David Grann, Marlon James, Lauren Markham, and Ocean Vuong who offer readings, speak on panels, and show films that inspire and excite them.  

Undwc18 11x17 layers new nd

The complete schedule is here.

This year, there will be a parallel event called the Grand Challenges Information Symposium. It features panels that intersect in some way with the Grand Challenges articulated by the visionary president of the University of North Dakota. Two editorial board members, David Haeselin and Eric Burin, and yours truly will be at a panel on Wednesday, March 21, from 2-2:45 in the Lecture Bowl of the Memorial Union to talk about the future of publishing. 

So if you’re in the region, please plan to attend the Writers Conference and our panel at the Grand Challenges Information Symposium! 

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

Today is one of those super hectic days that’ll run from before 7 am until after 8 pm with barely time for quick bites to eat and think between obligations. These obligations are almost all good and fun, but “wowf” will today be full.

There are three things on my mind about NDQ this week, though, and I present them here.

The First Thing

I worked this weekend on trimming and streamlining my contribution to the NDQ special issue on Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I did four things. First, I tried to make it all a bit more direct a bit less like an academic paper. Whenever I try to write for a public audience, I find myself being dragged back into academic writing. So I cut out the most egregious examples of academic writing (including the more or less dreadful bibliographic paragraphs). This helped focus my article on NDQ as an example of the situation in the humanities on a national level. Third, I tried to develop my concept of the billboard and the factory a bit more clearly. To my mind, this is really the heart of the paper and whatever its flaws, I think it offers a genuine perspective on my view of higher education. In a sentence: we’re are too interested in demonstrating the efficiency of our methods (this is the billboard which is constantly telling our stakeholders that we’re efficient, careful with public funds, and open to private partnerships) and not interested enough in selling the product (which is education, research, and various non-market advantages to society). Maybe the metaphor is a bit weak or tortured, but I’m sticking with it. Finally, the original version of the paper ended in a depressing way. While I still feel pessimistic about the future of the current version of higher education in the face of the long trajectory of American (and, really, global) political culture.

If you’re interested in how the sausage is made, check out the newest version of my paper here.

The Second Thing

In my class on the UND Budget (Cuts), I’ve become pretty interested in the idea of privatization and value. Christopher Newfield has argued that privatization has cost public higher education dearly in that most ploys to privatize aspects of university life has lead to greater costs for students, fewer resources for faculty and teaching, less efficiency and fewer opportunities for innovation. In other words, privatization is more about transferring public wealth to the private sphere and less about any real benefits for higher education.

UND is poised to see several major private initiatives on campus in the coming months. Like most public universities we have already enjoyed some of the opportunities from public/private partnerships and seen privatization nibble along the edges of university life with private dorm-style apartments ringing campus, private vendors leasing spaces in the student union, private companies handling key function like email, course management software, and the technology help desk. In many of these cases, the private sector has leveraged economies of scale and experience to provide a superior solution than could be achieved in house (but at an obvious cost). At the same time, each contract has eroded some of the university’s autonomy to function and made it a partner both in generating wealth for shareholders who have no real interest in the mission of the university and in producing the next generation of students as consumers. In particular, privatization reinforces the idea that the market is the main measure of value.

This of course, leads me to the terrifying topic of value. For most of my academic career, I’ve looked at the concept of value with fear and admiration. On the one hand, the folks who speak most fluently on value are clearly steeped in Marx and Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy (and elsewhere). It’s complicated and to acquire even a basic familiarity with the ideas requires sustained commitment to a dense body of literature.

Despite these challenges, it seems essential to understand value in the context of higher education. What is higher education worth and how do we measure it?

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

This is still a bit of a secret, but only a little bit of a secret. Next week at the Associate of Writers and Writing Programs, the University of Nebraska Press will announce that they have reached a verbal agreement to become the publishing partner with North Dakota Quarterly. This will be a big step for NDQ which has since 1911 been published in house at UND.

Part of me is happy and relieved that Nebraska will take on NDQ and help us expand our reader and subscriber base, to manage subscriptions and distribution, and to help with production.

Part of my is a bit bummed, though, as it makes the end of an era of independent publishing of NDQ on our campus and it feels a bit like we’re selling out. Of course, selling out is, as always, relative. UNP is a non-profit, academic press, so it’s not like we’ve sold to Pearson or some profit-driven publisher. And while we will, inevitably, lose some autonomy and independence, our editorial independence will be maintained. And, we’ll have a partner to help us expand our reach and our impact.

After all, the goal of NDQ isn’t just produce a journal, but to produce a journal that matters.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:

Introduction

In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

College Campuses

This semester I’ve had a few opportunities to stop for a second and recognize how much I enjoy being on a college campus. I know that sounds trite and cliche. Fine. Whatever. 

I do love college campuses and for some reasons the campus of the University of North Dakota has just made me super happy lately. The last week or so I’ve been boxing old issues of North Dakota Quarterly in an obscure storeroom in an old campus building slated to be demolished next year. The building is old and kind of decrepit and probably not suited for much in the way of modern university activities. The volumes of NDQ, like the old building, tell stories of the university that are both familiar and sepia toned. And like so many university traditions they are both oddly relevant and fairly easy to discard. 

This week I also got a charming calendar from my alma mater, the University of Richmond. Each month features a beautiful college Gothic building from URs campus, but most of the buildings are more recent than my time there. And only two of the buildings date from the great early period of college Gothic construction on campus or were designed by the original campus architect, Ralph Adams Cram. In other words, the presentation of campus is traditional, but also entirely new. 

Closer to home, what’s great about walking around a campus like UND’s is that, despite budget cuts and consistent lack of funding, they still try. In fact, I have often thought “we do try” was a kind of unofficial campus motto. As part of their efforts to try, they’ve created a bunch of new student gathering spaces in our building. They have a particular character that I just really groove on. 

First off, they’re kind of gross. The furniture is all institutional, wrapped in garish, wear-resistant fabrics, and constructed out of hard plastic. The floor covering is this bizarre grey fake wood that does nothing to hide its plastic-ness or the dirt tracked across it by hundred of tired undergraduate (and faculty) feet. Despite being created only this semester, the spaces already look a bit world weary, out of date, and for lack of a better word, sad.

What keeps these spaces from being completely forlorn is that they are somehow also profoundly democratic. Their lack of pretension or even functionality. The furnishings exist simply to exist and represent a completely banal gesture toward something. As with so many older places on campus, these new student gathering spaces are destined to accumulate grime of thousands of hands, butts, and feet. Nick and marks of pens, tacky smudges left by snacks, and lost gloves, hats, and scarfs liter this student landscape. They’re used and slightly abused and mostly the spaces are disregarded as neither distinctive enough to be memorable or meaningful nor functional enough to be practically valued. In contract to the exaggerated contemporary college Gothic at the University of Richmond, the student gathering spaces on UND’s campus are unapologetically modern. They’re non-places and meaningless gestures that are consumed simply because they are available.  

Walking through these spaces and watching students embrace them with utter ambivalence is among the highlights of my day. It reminds me of our task to inculcate our students with what it means to really be modern.

Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A CFP

While I wasn’t afforded a photo-op and ceremonial signing moment in the North Dakota Quarterly office, this call-for-papers is among my first acts as the new editor of NDQ:

As readers of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, you guys always get the drop:

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

In 2016, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota made the decision to cut support to the nationally-recognized and century-old public humanities journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This included defunding the position of our long-timer managing editor and support for our office assistant who was reassigned elsewhere on campus. These cuts were part of series of large budget cuts at the state level which impacted all state institutions including colleges and universities. The way in which the cuts happened spawned both outrage and critical reflection on the priorities, organization, and leadership present at the state and university levels. While the impact of the UND budget cuts were distinctly local, their significance resonate around the world as education, culture, and the humanities face the growing challenge of fiscal austerity.

As part of the transformation of North Dakota Quarterly, we are excited to announce a call for papers dealing with the humanities in the age of austerity. We invite contributors to consider how the humanities can and should understand and respond to austerity both in the context of higher education and in the public sphere. References to UND and the situation with NDQ are encouraged only in as much as they make a larger point concerning the humanities, and we are seeking national and even global perspectives on this pressing issue.

The plan is to publish the contributions in an edited, digital volume in the spring of 2018 and then as part of an annual paper volume of North Dakota Quarterly in the fall of 2018. Contributions of any length and in any genre are welcome. Deadline is February 15 or earlier. Please send contributions to billcaraher[at]gmail[dot]com with the word “Austerity” in the subject line.

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

As readers of this blog might already suspect, there are some exciting changes afoot over at North Dakota Quarterly. Part of these changes in a little volume dedicated to understanding the role and future of the humanities in the age of austerity. This reflects a long-term and rather circuitous project of my own that tries to understand the history of the American university system and what I perceive to be a series of recent changes and challenges to traditional work in the humanities.

I’m going to secretly post the call for papers here tomorrow morning, and the post the official call for papers on the North Dakota Quarterly website on Thursday. 

The challenge now is to weave together my ideas into a coherent essay that actually says something about the contemporary humanities project.

I have four basic tenets that I want to develop in this essay (and all of these things have been mentioned in my blog over the past couple of years). They are less distinct ideas and more a garbled mass of interrelated concepts reduced to simple statements. Some of these statements work better than others. 

1.Humanities and Audit Culture. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been intrigued by the expansion of audit culture (also know as the assessocracy) in the American university. My recent reading in higher education policy and criticism, particularly Gary Hall’s almost apocalyptic Uberfication of the University and Christopher Newfield’s more sober, The Great Mistake, have reinforced the pernicious nature of “data driven decision making.” In short, they point out that universities tend to only produce one kind of data that is comparable across the entire campus: money. As a result, most performance indicators – from teaching effectiveness to research impact – tend to ultimately devolve into efficiency indicators which then shape the distribution of funding. Fields with great capacity for efficient transfer of knowledge (or with traditions of practice in knowledge transfer that allow for a wider range of effectiveness) tend to be rewarded within audit cultures whereas fields with less efficient models – such as languages or even law, where success on the bar exam presents an externally imposed indicator of success – tend to struggle. Audit culture and accounting ultimately push the university toward fields where efficiency, or even the greatest return on their investment can be realized.    

This approach to learning is consistent with the origins of the modern university in the crucible of industrial revolution and nationalism. The dominant model for modern higher education remains the assembly line and this presupposes a kind of Taylorism in how it is administered.  

2. Humanities as Craft. The unfortunately reality for the humanities within audit culture is that most humanistic disciplines do not fit comfortably within the Taylorist assembly line model of higher education. While the humanities as disciplines emerged within this model, they are not “of this model.” In other words, when we sit down to “do history” or “do literature” or “make poems” or whatever, we don’t privilege efficiency and outcomes as much as process and understanding.

[As an aside, one of the things that the recent conversation about digital humanities and digital archaeology has demonstrated is that efforts to make our fields more efficient or to streamline the hard, often-slow work of the humanities are not universally embraced as “good.” While most of us act in certain ways to make our research more efficient, we tend to resist efficiency as an explicit goal.]

I’ve blogged pretty extensively in the past about history as craft, but as I’ve talked more and more with folks who do public history and public humanities, I’ve come to realize the powerful pull of sensationalist, results-driven public statements from folks working in the humanities. This privileging of results over process invites scholars in the humanities to view the process as something that is secondary to the product. But, most of us know that the process – like the recent trend toward craft – is far more important that the shortest route to a desired outcome (and see my point 1 for the clearest definition of a desirable outcome in American higher education). 

3. Humanities and Competition. Ultimately the emphasis on outcomes and efficiencies contributes significantly to a view of higher education that privileges competition over cooperation. Whether this is competition between scholars for grants, programs for students and funding, or universities for reputation, the model of competition driving excellence has been lifted from the handbook of neoliberalism and projected with wild abandon across campus. 

Of course, the goal of advocating competition is not to allow the cream to rise to the top, but to reinforce the position of the cream AT the top. In other words, advocating competition reinforces the status of the “winners” who largely achieved their place on campus on the basis of non-competitive processes. In short, most claims to competition work to assert the moral or practical superiority of the winner and the inferiority of the loser who then become deserving of treatment that limits in fundamental ways their ability to compete.

Even if we allow that competition can promote excellent projects, work, or programs, it does so at the expense of tremendous inefficiencies as programs and projects buy into competitive models of funding under which they are unlikely to find success for structural reasons. Fortunately, most of us in the humanities understand this, but fewer of us work together to create productive collaborations than I’d like to see. Working together to find ways to advance our collective work in the humanities – through, say, collaborative or cooperative publishing models – is a much wiser approach than struggling with one another to escape from the same crab pot. 

4. Humanities as a Brand. Over the past year, I’ve thought a good bit about this probably flawed juxtaposition: the university as a billboard versus the university as factory. The latter draws upon the history of higher education as the product of our Industrial Age and recognizes what we do as producing well-rounded, thoughtful, educated, and critical students. The former is advertising what it is that we imagine the public wants us to be doing and will support.

In many cases across campus the need or desire to produce a flashy billboard actually subverts the goals of the factory. In some cases ,the factory is seen as more or less obsolete. I developed these ideas based on an experience that in conversations surrounding a new institute for autonomous vehicles and drones. The idea behind this institute, as far as I could tell, was the promote research on autonomous vehicles and drones rather than actually to support this research on campus. On the one hand, this could be seen as a version of the “fake it until you make it” strategy which seeks to attract partners, grants, and other revenue to build something based on demonstrating a good idea or the strong potential for success. On the other hand, the making of the institute itself was a gamble that actually drew resources away from the work that was actually ongoing at the university.

Good work in the humanities is rarely flashy and rarely “brand worthy,” because it’s steeped in process, gradualist, and almost always provisional. Efforts to draw scholars of the humanities into billboard worthy research can run counter to the good, but plodding work that makes the humanities valuable. To use a painful metaphor, mass producing Rolls Royces not only undermines the craft values that make them special, but almost invariably undermines the purpose of having or making a Rolls Royce motorcar. 

~

As you can tell, these ideas are probably too expansive for a short, focused essay. Maybe they’re too diffuse. Maybe they’re simply not that good. But they’re what I got right now, and I’m going to work on them over the next couple of months until I feel like I have something to say. 

Stay tuned.

What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.

 

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