Teaching Tuesday: Space and Place

Time seems the slow down in the week before classes start. It feels like the cooling, muggy air of late August effectively bogs down the steady clip of summertime making minutes feel like hours and hours feel like days. This slowing of time serves as a good reminder that our experience of time is indeed relative even if our increasingly precise time-keeping instruments continue to tick along at a steady pace.

The slowing down of time leading into the new school year complements a changing sense of space as we return to campus. This year, in particular, campus will feel different. Spatially the campus is largely the same as it was two years ago when it was filled with students and the pandemic was an odd news story from China. Now, there are a few new buildings crowding the historic quad, a few of the older buildings look a bit different, and the familiar campus quest for parking involves trawling through newly paved and configured lots. The changes in campus are not enough to confuse someone who has made their way onto campus for 10 or 20 years, but they do offer new vantage points for seeing the same familiar spaces and buildings. The remind me that space, like time, is also relative.

My class on Wednesday night is World Civilizations I which runs, depending on the instructor to 1500 or 1000. My class stresses the concepts of spatial and temporal scale and how it shapes the way in which we see the past on a global scale. For a first assignment, then, I ask my students to describe their situation – their location, their time, and their cultural, political, and historical contexts – to an audience 100, 1000, and 10,000 years in the future. The assignment was partly inspired by the project recently documented by Rosemary Joyce that sought to come up with ways to mark out nuclear waste disposal sites in Nevada and New Mexico. This exercise challenged engineers, anthropologists, linguists, and other specialists in the past and materiality to think about the limits of how our we represent ourselves will be understood by others. This imaginative act of radical “othering” forced these thinkers to consider critically not only how we communicate over time, but how time shapes what we say. This feels like a good way to start to get the class to start working together as groups while introducing a key theme that I return to throughout the class: scale matters.

The first time that I taught this class was pretty rough. It was a hybrid course in a room that was too small to accommodate the social distancing mandates put in place on campus. As a result, I had to break the class into six groups who met, two groups at a time, for 50 minute classes with the rest of the work and content being delivered online. This semester, the class will meet in our large scale-up classroom. This will allow me to maintain a certain amount of social distancing (albeit unofficially, since that mandate is no longer in place) and the classroom is better suited to group work than our standard active learning rooms. The large round tables support collaboration, each table has dedicated white boards, TV monitors, and laptops, and allows the class to spread out and create their own space to work. In my experiences teaching in this classroom, the organization of the space encourages engagement. In fact, I’ve written about it here and this article offers some interesting recent observations.  

At the same time that I’m excited to get back to teaching in a familiar collaborative learning space, I’m also worried that the COVID pandemic and ongoing construction work on campus will make it harder for my department to feel like a cohesive program. If I understand it correctly, this coming year our department will be spread over four buildings and only teach in one of those four buildings. This divorce of our teaching from our office spaces is, on the one hand, not a bad thing. It facilitates, for example, the maintaining of boundaries between our research, service, and teaching obligations. At the same time, it puts us out and about on campus rather than sneaking almost invisibly between our classrooms and our offices on a single floor of a single building. Finally, it gives us an opportunity to build casual relationships with colleagues in other programs and in other departments. Moving offices is a pain, but it also has its advantages.

On the other hand, I do worry that the boundaries reinforced by the separation of our offices from our classrooms can be barriers to students. Many of our students, for example, are first generation college students and find faculty distant and sometimes intimidating. By hiding our offices away from our classrooms it might contribute to the idea that offices are “off limits” to students or that faculty are too busy to care. At my institutions, I’ve found this to be nothing further from the truth. I also worry that it’ll cause a sense of isolation or even alienation among faculty in my department. We tend to be fairly collegial and even friendly, but not a particularly collaborative group. I suspect the change in our spaces will do little to encourage us to work more closely together.

That all said, the changes to campus, new classes in familiar spaces, and even thinking actively about how we place ourselves on campus, in the region, and in the world gives the start of the semester a sense of excitement and potential about it. After last years disruptions and this summer’s tentative steps toward establishing a new normal, going back into the classroom and being on campus will feel good, despite all the anxieties and challenges. 

Teaching Structural Violence in the Time of COVID

Teaching about structural violence is always a bit difficult. After all, structures are elusive things that often operated below the level of conscious action and agency, but nevertheless shape our daily lives. At their most visible, structures are manifest in institutions and, at their least, they are known through movements and attitudes that aren’t structures themselves but suggest forms of relationships that mark out divisions in society. Structural violence refers to the kind of painful, damaging, and harmful actions that occur at the level of structures in society. In fact, many scholars see violence itself is often as a kind of structuring structure that defines certain social relationships that constitute what we see as society. For example, animosity and violence often mark the divisions of classes in society. Scholars have become increasingly interested in the role of violence in marking racial divisions as well. 

N.B. For some background for this post, you can read this earlier post where I explored a similar approach to understanding the social context for the COVID pandemic.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen COVID cut a swath through our communities and reveal new and deeper rifts in our social fabric. It is clear that divisions in race, class, education, and even gender shape attitudes toward COVID vaccinations, masks, and public health policies. In many cases, groups in our society who are historically the most vulnerable have adopted attitudes that make them more susceptible to COVID infection and illness. There are any number of reasons why these communities have resisted efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID and many of these stem ultimately from a long history of state violence which has created deep ambivalence and even animosity toward the public institutions (especially those that claim to want to help). This has combined with the efforts by groups and individuals eager to stoke this ambivalence and animosity toward the state in an effort to advance their own positions economically, politically, and socially. Over the last 50 years, neoliberal policies, for example, have represented the state as a damper on the market and argued that by suppressing or controlling competition,the state make individuals less able to advance their social and economic positions in society. The resources absorbed and distributed by the state tend to limit opportunities and disincentivize social advancement by rewarding individuals who are less successful in the market economy (through, say, the social safety net) and penalizing (through taxes, for example) those who are more successful. Of course, many of the groups who champion individual freedom and remain ambivalent toward the state, have not benefited from this, largely because these policies tend to reward groups who have significant competitive advantages in the economy (e.g. generational wealth, access to education, social networks, et c.) and normalize these advantages as the result of market competition. 

Framing attitudes toward COVID in this way might helps us avoid the current tendency toward blaming the victim. Many of those resistant to vaccinations, mask mandates, and other public policies have long viewed the state with deep skepticism because they see it as a barrier to their own advancement and there is a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric and media that reinforce these attitudes. 

More than that, there are real efforts to make the state appear less efficient and capable and in these efforts, and this allows us to get a sense for how structural violence relies upon the complicity of many individuals who might not necessarily advocate for its goals. For example, our institution has a policy that allows us as individual instructors to require masks in our classes, but it also leave us with the burden of enforcement. Realistically, most faculty who I know don’t feel comfortable determining (much less enforcing) public health policies for their classrooms. We’ll do it, though, in part, because we have to and not because we believe the devolution of public health policies is the most efficient or effective way to protect ourselves and students. 

The reason for this devolution of responsibilities is undoubtedly that the institution feels like they can’t make campus wide mandates because of real (or least perceived) pressure from outside stakeholders. In this situation, they implement work arounds that invariably are less successful than a policy and this demonstrates (for some) the ineffectiveness of public institutions. More than that, it demonstrates how certain forms of structural violence operate on the institutional level and make complicit even individuals who don’t share or would rather resist the forms of violence visible in particular policies or attitudes.

Recently, a group of politicians (a small one to be fair) circulated a petition that would withhold state funds — even those appropriated by the legislature — from institutions that implemented mask or vaccine requirements. While this is unlikely to gain much traction, especially on the desk of our pragmatic, realist governor, it is another useful example of how certain groups seek to make state institutions less viable and reinforce the notion that they are ineffective and inefficient. Moreover, these policies would expose unvaccinated and mask-skeptical individuals to greater risk of infection with COVID and serious consequences. This is all the more harmful as universities are one of the places that, for their many flaws, seek (at least ostensibly) to produce a more level playing field in society and give individuals the tools necessary to create a more fair and equal world. The policies that make it more difficult for universities to protect vulnerable individuals, even those who are skeptical of vaccinations and masks, directly hamper their ability to serve groups that we hope to benefit the most. If good public policies are informed by science, by understanding of human behavior, and by deep compassion for the human condition, then higher education plays a crucial role in creating conditions that make good policies and ideally creating a better world.

This is not to blame institutions, in particular, for their failure to stand up to the pressures from those deeply (and in most cases uncritically) ambivalent about the authority of the state. Our institutions response to COVID does, however, offer a particularly vivid example of how certain forms of structural violence serve to undermine even thoughtful and sustained efforts at resolution. It also shows how easy it is for individuals to be complicit in perpetuating systemic violence and failing to protect some of the most vulnerable groups.

The individual calculus in such situations is grim. As individuals, we sometimes blame the victims: they refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. More damagingly, we sometimes appeal to some vague greater good that often rests on the bodies of the most vulnerable: some people will get COVID, get very sick, and maybe even die, but at least we are continuing to advance the mission of our institution. In these situations, we’re admitting that the lives of the vulnerable are somehow acceptable collateral damage for the survival of an institution and its ideals (even if these ideals are not reflected in the policies that it must pursue in order to survive).

If these kinds of decisions are not teachable moments, I’m not sure what would be. I only hope that the lessons that we as a society have learned from the unfolding tragedy of the COVID pandemic do not require regular reinforcement.  

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

Hearing Corwin Hall

One of my favorite things is Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen journal. As its tag line suggests, Epoiesen is a journal for “creative engagement in history and archaeology,” and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to contribute something more substantial than a response to its digital pages.

A couple of years ago, I worked with an amazing team of students and friends on the Wesley College Documentation Project. As part of that project, my colleague Mike Wittgraf produced a mixed media piece called “Hearing Corwin Hall.” He has both performed this piece nationally and recorded a video version. Our plan is to submit the video version with an accompanying essay to Epoiesen sometime “soon.” The video is done and my essay is… well, it’s coming together. The hardest part so far is balance my need to explain everything with the desire to allow the work to stand on its own. My current solution is a short “lede” followed by the video. I think will develop more of the academic component of our piece in a “discussion” after the video. None of this is cast in stone, obviously, but I present it here as a start.

Hearing Corwin Hall

Introduction

Hearing Corwin Hall is a multimedia work composed and performed by Michael Wittgraf. The piece is based on two month archaeological, architectural, and archival documentation project of two, adjoining, double buildings on the University of North Dakota’s Grand Forks campus: Robertson-Sayre Halls, built in 1929 and 1908 and Corwin-Larimore Halls, built in 1909/1910. The buildings were originally part of Wesley College, an independent, Methodist Institution established in Grand Forks in 1905 and closely affiliated with UND. Sayre and Larimore were men’s and women’s dorms respectively and Robertson and Corwin hall were offices and classroom space. Corwin Hall also housed music rehearsal rooms and the college’s recital hall, a fine room with a capacity of 100.

In 1965, UND acquired the buildings and until 2016, they housed various departments, programs, labs, classrooms, and offices. In 2018, UND demolished the buildings as part of an effort to reduce the campus footprint by eliminating buildings encumbered with significant deferred maintenance costs from the university budget and campus. A team of students in collaboration with William and Susan Caraher formed the Wesley College Documentation Project to study the buildings and the objects left behind. They had virtually unfettered access to the buildings in the time between their abandonment and their demolition. This project produced not only a small archive of descriptive data, photographs, and analysis, but also coordinated two public events and published a photo essay that commemorated and critiqued the buildings, Wesley College as an institution, and the contemporary financial and cultural situation on UND’s campus.

Hearing Corwin Hall draws upon the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project. It integrates images from the building’s final months, audio drawn from the project’s public events, and the acoustic signature of the Corwin Hall’s recital room which although compromised over the 100 year history of structure preserved traces of its past function. Michael Wittgraf’s Hearing Corwin Hall is also set against the backdrop of significant institutional, administrative, and cultural changes at UND and in higher education more generally. A more thorough consideration of the work and the Wesley College Documentation Project appears in the discussion below.

Discussion

College campuses are anxious places.

The looming demographic downturn, changing funding priorities among donors and legislators, and a whelming tide of anti-intellectualism in American life have contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of higher education. Many college campuses, at least in the United States, have initiated strategic planning, prioritization, and reimagining programs designed to help institutions navigate an uncertain future. Each year, another crop of books appear promising to diagnose, mitigate, or manage current or anticipated crises in funding, enrollment, teaching, research, and student expectations. There is an expectation that higher education is an industry in transition and that the college campus of the future will look very different from the campus of today.

The contemporary situation in higher education in many ways follows a familiar path. State universities, in particular, have long situated themselves at the intersection of progress and tradition. They celebrated both cutting edge research and conservative practices both in the rituals of college life, the architecture of campus, and the academic and research programs undertaken by students and faculty. College Gothic buildings rub shoulders with the latest in post-modern architecture, the century-old rituals of commencement and graduation accommodate spectacles of more radical inclusivity and reconciliation, online teaching introduces students to Classics and calculus, and researchers on Shakespeare share library budgets with new programs in nanotechnology and unmanned, autonomous vehicles.

Many contemporary college students remain liminal creatures as well. They live communally in dormitories or rental housing, and their lives pivot as much around the rhythm of the semester as off-campus employment, family life, and socializing. As a result, many college students neither bear the full economic and social responsibilities of adulthood nor the living arrangements and dependence of childhood. As any number of commentators have observed, college is a time of social transition for students. In college students learn to navigate the responsibilities of adult life without fully giving up the structures of student life or parental protections which are often transferred to institutions who provide food, housing, and social opportunities. The distinctive space of the college campus, for example, often locates the liminal experience of college students in areas not entirely public and integrated into the fabric of their community or entirely private and set apart.

Thus, college campuses embody a kind of liminality that not only emphasizes the current sense of institutions in transition but also longstanding tensions between progressive values and traditional practices and between adulthood and student life. As mid-century anthropologists have taught us these liminal situations often contribute to a sense of anxiety which underscores the vulnerability and strangeness of institutions and individuals that resist clear definition and stand “betwixt and between” various social statuses. Societies often seeks to resolve and contain liminal individuals and groups through formally structured ritual practices, confinement, and other forms of social limiting designed as much to protect society from the destabilizing entities as to confer a temporary status on those outside of traditional categories. Rites of passage, for example, frequently mark the successful navigation from one status to another and resolve the tension of liminal transitions with celebration. At the same time, we continue to treat individuals and groups who are unable to escape from the liminal status with deep suspicion.

The Wesley College Documentation Project involved a group of students interested in studying the Wesley College buildings on the University of North Dakota campus. The class began as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018 and paralleled an honors class dedicated to studying the UND budget which had undergone significant changes over the preceding years. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the architecture and material culture of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings.

Montgomery Hall

This morning, I’m going on a little tour of Montgomery Hall with both thee Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and representatives of University of North Dakota’s facilities department. The plan is to run another one-credit course on the history of this building, its place on our campus, and most interestingly for me, how the physical fabric preserves signs of adaptation and reuse.

Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is an example of the Tudor Revival architectural style The hall was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1911 to be the dining hall for students

The original building dates to 1911, and unlike most of the campus from the 1920s on, this building is in the Tudor Revival style. It stands set back from University avenue and represented a nice example of the first major wave of campus expansion under President Frank McVey. Originally, it served as the Commons for the university, but in 1929, it was adapted for use as the university library which had outgrown the contemporary Carnegie Library. It served as the library until the opening of the Chester Frtiz Library in the late 1950s. After that time, the building, presumably rechristened Montgomery Hall, served as faculty offices, classrooms, and in the 21st century, as the deanery first for the College of Arts and Sciences and then for the Graduate School.

Today, the building is mostly empty and ready for its ascent to the great campus plan in the sky. The University is planning to build the new business school on the lot to take advantage of the frontage onto University Avenue and the proximity to Gamble Hall which currently houses the College of Business and Public Affairs. As part of the mitigation efforts, the University is doing the equivalent of a HABS level-2 documentation on the building before it demolition (and I can’t say enough about the current administration’s willingness to take historical documentation seriously). I plan to work with a group of students to understand the traces of history left on the building’s fabric over time following a model that we developed with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

The challenge for me, though, is to also think about how to make this project different from what we did with Wesley College. Recent work in the archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped my recent ways of thinking about how we document and understand campus buildings. The kind of archaeological documentation that I prefer (because I luv data) can subordinate our understanding of these buildings to the routine of our method and rob the experience of being in the spaces of vitality, foreclose a certain amount of creativity, and narrow our view of how buildings make meaning. 

Because these buildings are slated for destruction and no longer “living buildings” on campus, it seems like we have opportunities to do things that celebrate the liminal state of these structures: no long in use, but not yet destroyed. Rather than looking at all aspects of what is inside these buildings as evidence for the past, we can try to find ways of understanding these buildings as they exist in the contemporary. How are they changing? How are they producing meaning? Literally, what are these buildings doing

I know this sounds a bit slippery and elusive, but I hope that by asking these kinds of tricky questions and maybe even thinking about these buildings in different way and with different notions of time will open some productive possibilities. 

Mid Career Scholarship and Humility

This weekend, I finished reading Umberto Eco’s lovely little book, How to Write a Thesis, that was translated and republished by MIT Press a few years ago. The book is a great refresher for  mid-career scholars and I would love to use it one day in an undergraduate research class. From the choosing a topic, to identifying sources, organizing research, preparing an outline, and writing and formatting the thesis, Eco leads a researcher through the entire trajectory of a project. He also offers some useful observations on the attitude of the researcher. He calls for students to have both humility enough to read everything with an open mind to its potential and proud enough to speak with their own voice and to own their expertise.  

Over the last five years or so, my experiences as a scholar has certainly fortified my sense of academic humility and I suspect that some mid-career scholars feel the same way. Not only do I feel more humbled by the immense and complex task of producing new scholarship, but I also recognize that my own skills as a scholar have eroded significantly since I completed my dissertation in 2003. In fact, going back to that manuscript from time to time, I find my academic voice almost unrecognizable. I started to wonder what caused this change. Why do scholars lose confidence in mid to late career and why does our (or at least my) work suffer? 

To be clear, I’m not assuming that all scholars go through the same process that I am experiencing and I recognize that many scholars continue to produce important, influential, and high quality work in their mid-career and beyond. Everyone’s academic trajectory is a bit different and situation – in terms of resources, support, political awareness, and rigor – varies. I am writing today with the suspicion that at least some mid-career scholars feel like I do, and not to suggest that all mid-career scholars are the same or even similar.

It seems to me that at the very time when we should be more confidently asserting our expertise on a topic, that we increasingly admit to our own failings and the shallowness of our own knowledge, understanding, and expertise. On the one hand, I recognize that some of this is simply a growing awareness that many smart people in the world write and say many smart things. On the other hand, some of it – at least in my case – derives from the conditions that produce good academic work in one’s early career change by mid-career swinging the balance from early career pride to humility. 

First, as a graduate student, I had more time and resources to do good research. It goes without saying that as a mid-career faculty member there are many demands on our time (and for my contingent colleagues, it is only worse). Between teaching, service, and other obligations across campus (and into real life), I struggle to find the blocks of time necessary to read and write in a thoughtful and confident way. 

More than that, I had to good fortune as a graduate student to have access to good research libraries, time to write and read, and funds to travel both to collect data and to gain new skills. While my current library does a more than adequate job keeping me supplied with books and I have the good fortune to travel regularly for research, I’m also aware that maintaining this situation requires constant “hustle” as a colleague puts it. Time, funds, and resources are not a given and lapse the moment that you take your foot off the gas and stop applying for grants, stop protecting time and space to write, and grow tired of the processes necessary to get books and articles. My energy to produce careful research has waned because it’s not easy to do especially with the constant competition from life and work.  

Second, social conditions change by mid career. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have amazing colleagues who would read my work, talk endlessly about ideas, and drive me to be both more rigorous, more precise, and more measured in my scholarship. While I still have some remarkable colleagues who are willing to read, comment, discuss, and help me to revise my work (and vice versa), I also know that they have competing priorities as well. The days of the seminar (and the pre and post seminar conversations) are gone and the rigor derived from those experiences is gone as well. (To say nothing of the prodding pen of my advisor and faculty).   

In its place is the intentionally impersonal process of peer review which generally lacks both iterative process that defines the seminar and a deeper awareness of one’s academic development. I say this not to make my situation seem unique. I recognize that most academics experience some sense of writing in a vacuum that I do. Instead, I have come to realize how much the social situation of my graduate education allowed me to be at better scholar.  

Third, and this might be the most person, I realize that after over a decade of doing what I can to get by in academia, I’ve developed bad habits, fallen into bad research and writing habits, and have found myself so adrift of the last research skills. The social circumstances that pushed me toward rigor and the resources that made it possible for me to research and write well are gone. Now, I write too quickly. I read broadly and without depth. My research methods tend toward the random and I rely too heavily on an increasingly compromised memory and a disorganized process for note taking, draft writing, and editing. While I can produce plausible academic work, it isn’t good academic work. Eco’s book reminds me how research should be done.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like I’m much more intellectually and politically aware now than I was as a graduate student. In graduate school, the larger intellectual project of my work was much more closely tied to my own personal and professional ambitions. I wanted to get my degree and get a job and to do that I had to write and research at a particular level. 

Today, there’s more to writing and researching than personal professional advancement. The legacy of what I study, how I do my work, and why I write what I write hangs heavily every time that I sit down to do research. This is a good thing, of course, but the burden and complexity of responsible scholarship does not always align with challenges of producing good scholarship. The struggle of producing scholarship that is both good and right is universal, but it seems uniquely difficult to accomplish as a mid-career scholar when the complexities our moment and the limits of time and resources intersect most violently. 

~

This post isn’t meant to bemoan my fate or even make an excuse for my own mediocrity, but instead as a first step toward thinking about how to reinforce or even re-establish the skills, resources, connections, and contexts that made me a competent scholar in my early days. I realize that the NEH and other organizations run faculty seminars and such things are increasingly common at universities in the US. I also understand that for contingent faculty the challenge of remaining sharp, engaged, and relevant as scholars is even more pervasive. Perhaps mid-career faculty and contingent faculty can find common ground on the need to re-develop and maintain research skills. A start to this could be as simple as monthly seminars or as a comprehensive as regular training sessions on new research techniques, scholarly writing, and engaged scholarship.   

At the same time, reflecting on my own decline as a scholar has pushed me to recognize the need for greater humility and to temper any rush to claim expertise. Over the past three or four years, I’ve found myself reading more charitably, collaborating more constructively, and doing more to promote the work of colleagues who have kept sharper, longer into their careers. Perhaps part of being a humble scholar, then, isn’t attempting to recapture the energy, skills, and ideas of my youth, but to contribute what I do have left in the tank to helping others realize their goals.

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.