Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A CFP

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

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

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

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

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

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

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

Stay tuned.

What Counts in Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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. 

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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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