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.



Teaching the UND Budget Cuts

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been posting my occasional thoughts about the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Most of my posts have focused less on the budget itself (which has not yet been finalized) and more on the impact of the cuts on the quality and character of life on campus. This continues a longer-term interest in higher education policy which also appears from time to time on this blog.

At some point, last month, I floated an idea of a book that would contribute in some small way to the institutional memory of the budget cuts. I’m still thinking about that and working with some collaborators to move that forward, but I’m also interested in teaching a class on the budget cuts at UND, and this seems like it will probably happen in the Spring semester of 2018.

I have a meeting this morning with two graduate student collaborators on the larger UND Budget Project, and I’m starting to get my ideas together on the goals of the class. At its core, I want the course to serve as a critique of modernity and the institutions that shape our daily life. My hope is that the class can serve to complicate the idea of “transparency” that administrators so frequently bandy about. Transparency and intelligibility are not, of course, the same things, and making a complex institution as transparent as possible rarely ensures that the moves an institution makes are understandable to its various “stakeholders.” To unpack the potential of transparent, modern institutions, we have to learn to read these institutions and to understand the limits and potential under which these institutions function. So that’s the main goal of the class:

1. To become more literate in reading the evidence produced by modern, public institutions and in understanding how various decisions, policies, and individuals shape the direction, goals, and performance of these institutions.

Introducing students to the complexities of modern institutions will, of course, be a challenge. My disciplinary instinct is to approach reading an institution like the University of North Dakota through the lens of history, but I also recognize that other disciplines offer a different, and perhaps more robust, set of tools for unpacking the complexities of modern institutions. From sociology and anthropology, for example, the development of institutional ethnography and the methods used by Bruno Latour to understand, for example, “who killed Aramais?” can also be applied to higher education and understanding, for example, “who killed women’s hockey at UND?” Taking a transdisciplinary approach to higher education includes reading broadly in higher education policy and criticism. So:

2. To locate the current budget situation and the institutional responses in the context of higher education policy, the scholarship on institutional dynamics in higher education, and the history of higher education in both in the U.S. and on a global scale.  

Finally, there is a certain tendency in higher education to look so intently to the future – toward innovation! – and to look back with such nostalgia, they suspend a critical engagement with an institution’s past. The history of the University of North Dakota is pretty poorly known and there seems to be a pretty strong impulse to forget the economic challenges that have long faced both the state and the university. While a certain level of historical awareness could serve to soften the feeling of “unprecedentedness” at UND, it could also help administrators, faculty, and students find new ways to understand how things like budget cuts have functioned to transform the institution in the past.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the University of North Dakota is pretty fragmentary with only sporadic efforts surrounding the 100th and 125th-aversary to produce critical, rigorous, and careful scholarly work. The good thing is that the University Archive is available on campus and well managed. Students will be encouraged to excavate the archives and find the best primary and secondary sources for the history of the university. So:

3. To place the recent budget crisis in the history of higher education in the state of North Dakota and at the University of North Dakota.  

Stay tuned for more on the “Budget Project” as it develops over the next 9 months!

For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis, this is the eighth installment in a little series. Here is part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5 part 6, part 7.]

Professionalization and Fragmentation

I’ve been thinking a good bit about professionalization lately, and this is largely in response to Dimitri Nakassis’s recent efforts to come to grips with the Future of Classical Archaeology (over a series of blog posts in preparation for a paper that he’ll deliver at a conference held at Smith College next week). One of Dimitri’s interests is the professionalization of Classical Archaeology and the resulting (relative) democratization of the discipline. 

As I thought about this more and more, I found myself interested in three questions:

1. How did professionalization of the disciplines across college campuses lead to greater inclusiveness?

My understanding of this narrative is that professionalization and industrialization went hand-in-hand with the latter setting standards for professional expertise based on the needs of industrialized economy. An engineer had to be qualified to perform certain tasks consistently and well. Disciplines established standards that vouchsafed for the expertise of an individual allowing employers to feel confident that a graduate from MIT and Easter North Dakota University had similar qualifications. While this is oversimplifying a complex process of change, the development of professional disciplines in response to economic needs and the increasingly complicated and specialized economic landscape rippled out across university and college campuses. As a result, even disciplines such as history, which did not have a direct and obvious tie to the industrial economy, developed a set of disciplinary standards that established the qualifications of an individual as a historian. This framework, then, shifted the writing of history from wealthy men of leisure to a professional class of university professors.

This process created a framework for a qualification-based system for establishing disciplinary knowledge, and these standards supported a more inclusive model for knowledge production. If disciplinary knowledge was based on certain “objective” criteria, then anyone who could achieve these criteria could claim the status of disciplinary practitioner. (And, I recognize that claims to “objectivity” or even impartiality were largely spurious, but the framework had emerged by the turn of the 20th century to accommodate academic knowledge production as a practice based on established professional criteria.).

2. Did this professional framework for the production of disciplinary knowledge lead to hyper specialization and fragmentation?

I recognize that today, disciplines represent an important bulwark to local administrative, economic, and political pressures on universities. At their strongest, disciplines maintain professional standards through complex accreditation procedures and clearly articulated policies that define qualified practitioners. These range from detailed descriptions (and even tests) designed to establish the kind of knowledge a qualified practitioner possesses to ethical guidelines. The loss of accreditation in a university program results in students who are not recognized professionally. Even disciplines, like history and Classics, that don’t have accreditation procedures have active professional organizations that work to establish standards for knowledge, best practices, and take ethical stands that represent professionals in the field.

Historically, the establishment of clear criteria for recognition as a disciplinary practitioner both anticipated industrialized practices that required specific expertise, but also projected this kind of specialization onto universities where these professional individuals were trained. In other words, disciplines required department and departments advocated for the value of their specialized knowledge and the university developed methods that allowed each discipline through their departments to manage the imparting of this specialized knowledge in the student. Within departments a similar effort to ensure that multiple areas of specialization existed creating an environment where the group of faculty worked together to produce a comprehensively educated student and professional. 

This kind of industrial specialization, evocative of the assembly line, coincided well with the establishment of clearly defined professional criteria for expertise in a particular field.  If the goal of the undergraduate education was to produced qualified professionals, the requirements for the faculty employed to produce these qualified individuals emphasized their mastery of specialized knowledge. In some ways, the complexity of the larger university environment where specialization reinforced autonomy encouraged faculty to become more specialized. If discrete knowledge was autonomous knowledge (and specialization the key to economic utility), then the key asset for an individual faculty member was distinct and specialized knowledge. It didn’t hurt that such distinct specialization was rather more easy to evaluate in determining an individual’s expertise. Moreover, it eliminated the messy task of determining whether someone was “right” or “wrong” in an assertion or argument, and shifted attention to the simpler task of determining whether some body of knowledge was “new” or not. After all the best speciality is something that no one else does, anywhere, ever.  

I think that I understand the pressures to specialize as a product of disciplinary knowledge production and industrial practices both on the larger economy and at the university. Part of the result of professionalization, then, was the narrowing of specialized knowledge. As the criteria for professional standing – both as a faculty member and a student – became more specialized, it became more democratic. Novelty of specialization emerged as a nearly universal criteria for evaluating mastery of a disciplinary knowledge, and this contributed to a more inclusive academy. 

3. The question then becomes whether our move toward transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary knowledge threatens the larger professionalization and democratization process at universities?

This is where I get stressed out. On the one hand, few can claim that modern universities are less inclusive than they were at the turn of the 20th century. And this is a good thing. Moreover, the professionalization of university education was a major engine of innovation in the American economy over the past 100 years (along with, cough, war, but whatever). These are both good things, I think.

We can also observe how universities and colleges established to develop the workforce for particular states, regions, or even professions, have the deepest commitment to professionalization. Normal schools, established to train teachers, technical schools to prepare engineers, and law and medical schools to prepare doctors and lawyers had the clearly defined requirements for faculty to ensure that they produced skilled practitioners of their respective professions. To this day, hybrid universities, like the University of North Dakota, where I teach struggle to balance the need to produce “workforce” and the need to do bigger more globally and universally significant work. The former need pushes departments and programs to specialize – particularly in terms of skills – whereas the latter coaxes faculty to think more broadly. After all, human knowledge is not specialized or organized into tidy disciplinary and departmental boxes.

But as faculty push to escape their disciplinary silos they undermine the role of the discipline as both a promoter of (let’s say) impartial criteria establishing professional specialization and as a check against parochial pressures facing universities. Anti-disciplinary knowledge remains a kind of holy grail among those who want to transform higher education (e.g. Louis Menand), but it also has anti-democratic tendencies as well. As new economic, social, and political pressures melt away the disciplinary criteria for professional expertise, they also challenge the autonomy of disciplines, departments, and faculty who have long established the validity of their expertise both in the classroom and in the economy.  

One of the interesting trends that I think that I detect is that elite private and public institutions have attracted faculty who move easily between disciplines and “disrupt” traditional standards of disciplinary knowledge production. Second and third tier schools, with their historical commitments to workforce development and traditional disciplinary knowledge production, continue to employ rather narrow – and perhaps even “traditional” – disciplinary specialists. In other words, some of the most interesting, exciting, and influential faculty are challenging the limits to disciplinary knowledge even as we recognize that disciplinary knowledge was the framework for professionalization and its attendant benefits of inclusion. 

This is especially significant in the 21st century as higher education has entered a period of particular precarity. Do we embrace the challenge of an anti-disciplinary world at the risk of exposing ourselves to the vagaries of parochial and political interests? 

An Idea for the University of North Dakota Budget

Over the last few months the University of North Dakota’s campus has absorbed the sobering reality that we will need to undergo another round of budget reductions. As with anything like this, there is much flailing, wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and slashing away at campus institutions like a drunken pirate in a beer hall brawl. In response, there are anguished letters to the editor, earnest petitions, and all manner of cluck-clucking, eye-rolling, “first world problem”ing, and other forms of cynical, ironic, and condescending rhetoric. Good times!

One of the interesting things that these budget cuts have forced me to consider is the organization of the university because there is some expectations among campus leaders (i.e. the provost and president) that these cuts are structural not simply nibbling around the edges of programs and existing departments and faculties. To stimulate thinking about these kinds of cuts critically, the university has started to make vigorous cuts both to the administration (particularly at the level of Vice President) and to departments and programs. As I’ve noted, my department (History) saw its graduate program defunded and other departments and programs are poised to be trimmed, adjusted, or combined. The deans of the various colleges (Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Mines, Business and Public Administration, Aerospace, Education, and Nursing) are responsible for most of the departmental and program level adjustments. Colleges serve as intermediaries between the upper administration and the department levels.

What is curious is that no one has suggested eliminating the colleges at UND. So that’s what I’m going to propose now. 

First, we have to recognize that two colleges – the Medical School and the Law School – need to be left untouched. In part, because the Medical School gets separate appropriations from the legislature and the Law School is largely autonomous owing the requirements of accreditation and the like. I also recognize that some programs require directors or deans with particular kinds of training and this would have to be folded into a new university system. I might be, for example, that certain programs become “schools” within the university with a director who has the kinds of qualifications that accreditors require.

Here are my rational:

1. Duplication of Work. Most universities and colleges are organized around autonomous departments which, in turn, house autonomous faculty who each fulfill a particular, typically discrete function. In other words, there is very little duplication of work or expertise at the level of departments or individual faculty. When you eliminate a department or a faculty line there is usually no-one to pick up the slack. The reasons for this are intellectual (i.e. most departments have a distinct method or epistemology that is related to disciplinary standards), externally maintained (i.e. most departments and disciplines have professional organizations that either offer guidelines or require accreditation on a national or even international level), and historically constituted (i.e. internal and external pressures have consolidated academic disciplines and eliminated duplication across campus).  

This same lack of duplication is largely the case at the upper levels of university administration as well. While faculty love to rail against the proliferation of Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents, and other administrative posts, generally speaking each position has a discrete function that is not duplicated by another position in the administration. Many of these positions serve functions that faculty do not want and protect and promote student life, manage the complexities of budgets, ensure compliance with a myriad of state and federal policies and laws, market the university to various groups, and maintain core services (email, websites, classroom spaces, offices, et c.) for everyone on campus. The talk about administrative bloat often fails to acknowledge that administrators do have functions even if these functions are seen as subordinate or ancillary to the “proper business of the university.  

Colleges are not like this. Each college has staff and administration that basically do the same (or at least a similar) job to the staff and administration in the other colleges. While I understand that some of these positions are necessary for the functioning of the university, the colleges on campus as not rationally constituted and, to some extent, arbitrary divisions. For example, certain kinds of engineering exist in the College of Engineering and Mines and in Aerospace. Political Science and Economics are in the College of Business whereas the other social sciences are in the College of Arts and Sciences. Chemical Engineering is in Engineering and Chemistry is in Arts and Sciences. Geology, however, is in Engineering with Geological Engineering. There are always local, historical reasons for this arrangement, but these are often quite contingent. In other words, the duplication of functions across colleges is not a reflection of an academic or intellectual division of labor, but of historical contingency. Colleges try to do the same thing despite being different sizes and having different resources with the primary goal of supporting the programs in the college. The limits of this goal is arbitrary and not distinct from that of the university itself.

Of course, I recognize that eliminating the colleges will not eliminate the jobs of most personnel within the colleges. At the same time, it will allow us to organize this in a rational way across campus that reflects the needs of departments and students without concern for arbitrary administrative divisions.

2. Centralization. One of the watch words of the recent set of budget cuts has been centralization of both basic functions and message: “One UND” and all that. Historically (at least since I’ve been on campus) colleges has pushed back against that pleading their uniqueness and chaffing at the idea that they would have to give up autonomy to a distant and perhaps differently motivated center. In my favorite example, one college on campus refused to use the university-wide content management system for their website and built an identical site without the CMS to demonstrate its independence. Bizarre, but true. More recently, the college deans were asked to revise their budget cutting strategies because they didn’t do enough and did not coincide closely enough with the larger strategic plan of the institution. Without impugning the motives of any particular dean, it seems safe to say that the rejection of the budget cuts reflects inherent inefficiencies in the college system as well as a bit of resistance from the college offices who are doing all they can to promote their own programs and existence. 

The structural arrangement of the college system both inserts a degree of largely irrational, inefficiency in the administration of the university and draw upon the same pool of resources as the central administration to sometimes resist its interests. If this resistance was connected to issues of disciplinary integrity or even functional imperatives, then I’d accept or even embrace the fight, but in most cases the resistance, jockeying, and horse trading is the product of historically contingent institutional divisions.  

3. Competition. It has been popular in recent years on college and university campuses to celebrate the “marketplace of ideas” and to promote competition for both intellectual ascendency, resources, and recognition across campus. While I don’t love this particularly neoliberal approach to knowledge production, I think that many on campus have accepted it. If you’re not growing, improving, innovating, embettering, engoodening, or whatever, you’re falling behind, failing, and irrelevant.

Hierarchy tends to stifle competition and innovation by limiting the ability of individuals to operate freely (as well as inefficiency).  Colleges limit competition in very practical ways at UND. First and foremost, the current funding model provides resources to colleges based on their enrollment (among other things) and this serves as a disincentive to collaborate across college boundaries. It remains challenging to collaborate – in even very basic ways – with colleagues across campuses. Certain kind of internal grant money is awarded according to college programs. Curriculum is decided on the college level (before going to another committee at the campus wide level). 

It is a fair critique to note that these institutional barriers are not too significant and easy work arounds exist, but I am not entirely clear how these institutional barriers benefit competition, collaboration, and innovation across campus. This is all the more significant when we consider that the growing interest in collaboration between STEM field and the humanities and social sciences. At present, engineering and technology is institutionally separated from the humanities (as well as certain kinds of science and math)! The existing organization of the university reflects older views of disciplinary organization (at best) and arbitrary divisions (at worst) that reduce the opportunities for strategies that will accelerate innovation and competition across campus. 

On a more cynical level, I have often wondered how oversight and strategic planning by deans has tempered innovation at the department level. If we eliminated the colleges and deans, I suspect this would free departments to negotiate their place within the marketplace of departments and ideas on campus and move more strategically and fluidly to develop partnerships and alliances. 


To be clear, I recognize that eliminating colleges will not solve all of the university’s budget problems, but the calls for the upper administration for serious, structural changes would seem to point in the direction of improving efficiency across campus. The low-hanging fruit for this kind of change is the outdated college system. Many of the basic functions immediately relevant to students and faculty could be consolidated and centralized with some benefits in efficiency. 

I suspect it is inevitable that departments and programs form alliances to promote their interests on campus. There would also have to be a form of representation to ensure that the basic functioning of various programs. Here are my thoughts in that direction:

1. Organize by Degree. It would make sense to establish for some overarching committees perhaps organized around degrees with all the programs that offer B.A., B.S., B.F.A. degrees, for example, to vet curriculum and ensure that the degree requirements and courses existed.

2. Re-establish an Autonomous Graduate School. For the last 5 years or so, the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at UND has lost most of its autonomy. It is now largely a service division with a dean that does not have tenure in a department. This ensures that the individual colleges have a significant amount of control over graduate programs served by their departments. This is irrational for all the reasons that colleges are irrational, but made sense inasmuch as the individual colleges were responsible for the faculty who taught graduate classes and advised graduate students. A more rational plan would be for the Graduate School to gain significant autonomy and work closely with departments and programs to ensure that resources exist to support various degrees at the graduate level. In other words, organization follows the degrees rather than the arbitrary and historically contingent colleges. 

3. Faculty Leadership and Governance. There would be risk, of course, that a more dynamic and competitive university structure would be more prone to administrative interference. Deans do serve as checks on the power of the president and the provost and their various minions. They are conservative institutions that make change more difficult and reinforce entrenched views of the university. To my mind, this inefficiency has hurt our ability to deliver education and support research, collaboration, and cooperation across campus more than it has helped, but there are those who will point out that the departure of deans will leave a leadership vacuum on campus that faculty will have to step into. 

While faculty love to complain about the burdens of service and the incompetence of administrators, a university without deans and college organization will require faculty to step into this gap and to balance their own and their program’s ambition against the greater good of the university. Committees will have the responsibility of working with various administrators who do much of the work to ensure that a university can function. 

Decisions on the distribution of tenure track lines, program changes, funding for adjuncts and temporary faculty, and other responsibilities could involve the entire faculty rather than existing as deals negotiated between departments and the deans. This could, of course, get messy and quickly, but maybe that kind of messiness isn’t a bad thing when it reflects the dynamism of faculty governance rather than the arbitrary accretions of administrative structures.    

Digital Humanities and the New Liberal Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impossibility of a Slow Professor? (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the Elwyn Robinson Memoirs Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UND and The Great War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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