Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

Teaching Thursday: Syllabus Writing

There is something very rewarding about syllabus writing and while I don’t know as if it is my favorite thing to do each semester, it is certainly more interesting than many of the more mechanical aspects of academic life that the semester brings. At its best, writing a syllabus is a utopian exercise that seeks to align the requirements (and expectations) of a particular class with the students who are enrolled. 

This semester I’m teaching a lot and have a new class — Roman History — that is occupying most of my syllabus time in the break between semesters. I’m building my syllabus for this class around three key expectations.

First, while my students are history majors, most of them have precious little experience with premodern texts and the premodern world more broadly. They are unlikely to want to go on to graduate school in ancient history (or Classics) and almost as unlikely to want to continue in history. As a result, this class is not situated in a sequence which develops period specific expertise or methods. Rather the class is part of a broad humanities education with less of an emphasis on particular periods and content and more of an emphasis on reading and writing skills as well as the ability to adapt these skills to a range of texts and situations.

Second, my institution has a 16-week semester and in the spring, this means that my students get tired. When they get tired, they really struggle to learn. I’ve blogged about this here. As a result, a syllabus that requires 16 weeks to cover content, methods, or material is not a syllabus grounded in real educational outcomes, but one that is grounded in some other set of professional dictates (most plausibly the alternate reality created by accreditation standards). 

It also means that we have an obligation to find a way to mitigate the length of the semester by creating pockets of recovery time during the semester to mitigate student fatigue.

Third, my student generally take too many classes and work too many hours outside of school. This is not meant to be a criticism of student decision making, but a description of the current economic situation of most college students. They are pressured to get done as quickly and to avoid the potentially crippling burden of student loan debt as much as possible. As I’ve blogged about before, the maths simply don’t work in these situations. Students who attempt to work 20-30 hours per week outside of class time and who take 15-18 credits per semester would have to spend 50-60 per week just to keep their head above water. As a result, students are often drowning. 

These three fundamental situations has encouraged me to approach syllabus building in two ways:

First, instead of producing a syllabus that has a lots of small assignments that requires constant engagement with the class, I’m creating a syllabus with fewer larger reading and writing assignments. This should allow students to negotiate the class at a less consistent rate and to take advantage of the irregular ebbs and flows of their own schedules and complicated daily lives. 

Thus, my Roman history class will have five big readings scaffolded by five three-week modules. Students will have at very least three weeks to do the readings and each module comes with some kind of assignment the final draft of which will be due at the end of the semester. 

Second, after a productive conversation with my colleague and friend David Pettegrew yesterday, I’ve decided to build “lab days” into classes where we shift from focusing on specific content and toward more technical aspects of writing about history. Each module then, will have a lab day and I’m tempted to make them optional to give the students a little breathing room during the semester. 

I’ll post the syllabus when I’m done with it!

Campus Changes

One of the most exciting things about the last few months at the University of North Dakota is watching the new campus plan come into focus around the quad. This plan also involves updating some venerable buildings, tearing down some genuinely tired campus structures, and also connecting various buildings together so that campus denizens that move from one building to the next without being bothered by our interminable winter. On a very basic level, the changes are nice. The new student union is nice, the refurbished library is nice, the new business school is nice, and my new office is nice. Everything feel fresher and gives off a bit of “new campus smell.”

Watching the changes take place over the last five years or so has gotten me thinking a bit about the relationship between campus buildings, campus spaces, and the purpose of a college campus. As I’ve said more than once on this blog, campuses embody the key tension in higher education between tradition and innovation. The former evokes the kind of emotional attachment to a place and experience that binds together generations of students and helps to make a diploma recognizable commodity. The latter, of course, represents the bread and butter of progressive education as universities embody the spirit of technological, scientific, and, at their very best, social experimentation and change. As a result, every generation will invariably experience the same campus, but not necessarily the same institution.   

Colleges and universities have long struggled the find the balance between these tradition and innovation and recently have felt increasing pressure from politicians and cultural critics to simultaneously pump the brakes on the progressive promise of education and to accelerate (or at very least prioritize) technological innovations (especially those with clear monetary value) and to prepare students for a future in a rapidly changing workforce.

Finding an architectural signature that reflects these tensions is not an easy task. It involves maintaining a familiar and recognizable shape and form of campus, while also updating the function and appearance of buildings. At UND this has so far involved major renovations to the library, to O’Kelly Hall, to Carnegie Hall, and some upgrades to Gillette and, in the near future, Merrifield. A new college of business building and a new education building now face the quad as well.

More significant is the closing of the quad to cars by turning the road that ran along the east side of the quad into a rather monumental walkway and creating a similarly monumental walkway that connects the northern side of the quad to second avenue (which has also become a pedestrian only on campus).

The spirit behind all of these changes is a good one.

That said, the changes to quad in particular are weird and maybe embody the persistent tension between tradition and innovation on our campus. 

Some of the most obvious issues with the changes to the campus quad are related to the new pedestrian spaces created when they closed the road that ran along the east side of the quad. The new walkways are remarkably wide. In a functional sense, I expect this is to allow for both walking and bike traffic and perhaps to facilitate the removal of snow. In a visual sense, though, these vast paved paths stand in awkward contrast to the college Gothic buildings that flank the east side of the quad. The width of the pathways rob the facades of some of their intimacy and the quiet irregularity of their rhythm which reflects their continuity with Gothic buildings in Medieval Europe and the tangled web of narrow paths and roads characteristic of the Medieval village. Instead, there are paths which would be completely appropriate for steadier rhythms of modernist or even Neo-Classical facades. Perhaps the functional character of these walkways speaks to practical elements of campus architecture or our growing sense of discomfort with the traditional spirituality and intimacy implied by Gothic revival architecture. 

(On a much simpler level, it seems fair to ask: what’s with all the paved concrete surfaces? Why have we eliminated a road only to turn it into a parking lot?)

IMG 8245

Exacerbating the strongly alienating experience of walking along the weirdly wide walkways is that recent effort to connect the various buildings by extending their facades. On the one hand, this does ensure that the campus retains a kind of common architectural language. On the other hand, imposing college Gothic facades are terrifying and rob these otherwise comfortable buildings of their sense of comfortable scale.

This is particularly significant for our campus for two reasons. First, we’re not a massive institution by most standards, but we are a good bit bigger than all but one institution in the state. With over 10,000 students, we are also larger than many of the towns and cities in North Dakota and across the region. College Gothic buildings, however, helped the manage the sense of scale by creating a campus with free standing buildings that were often around the same size and designed in the same style as local schools. I’m not sure whether this was deliberate or just a happy coincidence of the same architects working on campus buildings and schools throughout the area. The result, however, was a very approachable campus that was likely to be the largest institution (or community) ever experienced by many of our regional students.

Added to this familiarity was the larger tradition of College Gothic architecture as inviting, personal, and even intimate. The irregularity of the buildings invited students and faculty to explore their hallways, offices, and classrooms and enjoy the unique, and often, private spaces that these buildings offered. To be honest, just writing that made me feel a bit like a creeper. The idea that college campuses have intimate, private, and subtle spaces is both problematic for a society that is increasingly concerned about predatory behavior especially when great disparities in power exist. Moreover, the connection of College Gothic to Medieval elitism, spirituality, and irregular and personal encounters with knowledge contravenes the increasingly democratic, secular, and professionalized character of higher education. The result is a tension the Medieval and the modern which may be every bit as significant as the balance between the practical need to connect buildings to allow the campus community to move between them in relative comfort and the desire to keep campus feeling familiar. 

IMG 8247

The results are a little of neither. Not only have the connections between buildings upset the familiar sense of scale, but they’ve also created a imposing Gothic facades that scream authority and hierarchy rather than democratizing professionalism. 

This is further compounded interior spaces that are well-appointed, but also weirdly modern making them incongruous with the external appearance of buildings. To be fair, there is an effort to create comfortable spaces for students to gather. I also appreciate the designs that include unexpected spaces and narrower corridors in the place of the standard institutional double-loaded design. Even classrooms show a pleasant irregularity in design allowing for different class sizes, different modes of instruction, and different kinds of learning. 

IMG 8257

At the same time, there seems to have been a concerted effort to separate faculty office areas from classroom areas which means that faculty spaces are awkwardly quiet and removed from the bustle of campus life. Since isolated faculty offices can be uninviting and intimidating (especially to first-generation students), office spaces were given class panels in their walls to expose faculty working spaces to the hallways and allow light to pass from the outside of the building to the halls. This is nice and certainly makes faculty offices feel more inviting to students, but their separation from classroom areas still holds them at a remove.

Like the mixture of College Gothic and large paved walkways and the intimate familiarity of Gothic buildings and the intimidating scale of nearly continuous facades, this design sends mixed messages. Faculty are visible at work in their offices, but also set apart from classroom and, I’d contend, some of the main currents of campus life. 

Over time, I’m sure the reconfigured campus will develop its own rhythms and the community with invariably transform even the most intimidating architecture into something familiar and safe. For now, however, it feels like campus is learning a different language and making all the little mistakes that one might expect from any effort to bridge a gap between two ways of speaking, thinking, and acting.

And the transformations of the campus quad are not yet complete. As Merrifield is being prepared to undergo a massive renovation and transformation, the quad quietly awaits what this new lease on life will say to the rest of campus.

New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!


Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.


Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from


Repatriation at UND

This week has been a very difficult one for my Native American colleagues and students. The University of North Dakota announced that they had begun the repatriation process on a collection of artifacts and ancestors discovered over the last six months on campus. I’ve been a small part of this process and I’ve been overwhelmed by the experience and especially the courage and commitment of my Native American colleagues and their friends and allies in the state and on campus.

If you’re interested in what is going on at UND, here is a link to the university’s resources on the process.

Here is a link to the statement issued by Governor Doug Burgum and and Indian Affairs Commissioner Nathan Davis. 

Here is some media cover from the usual suspects and the major Native American media at ICT

Here’s a link to Sonya Atalay’s, Jen Shannon’s, and John Swogger’s thoughtful NAGPRA Comics which do a decent job explaining the NAGPRA process.

I hope that the community manages to do three things as they come to process this information. First, they recognize that our Native American colleagues, students, and friends need time to grieve, process, and understand the situation disclosed this week.

Second, they give the NAGPRA committee on campus room to work and recognize that this is the first step in a complex and painful process. This is not just work of UND or “the institution,” but a committee of white and Native American faculty and staff (and our colleagues across the state) who are doing the best they can to navigate this situation in a respectful and deliberate way. 

Finally, that they hold the institution, its leaders, and the committee accountable for what they’ve promised and they see this not just as a problem to be solved (through processes, laws, and “best practices”), but an opportunity to forge closer ties with Native American communities and work to undo centuries of overt and structural (and institutional) racism on our campus. 

As a white dude (and an archaeologist), I’m always the last to figure shit out. What I witnessed this week (and over the last several months), though, accelerated the learning process for me (even though I know that it shouldn’t have taken the incredible trauma and courage this situation revealed to do this). I hope my friends and colleagues – both in archaeology and in the UND community – hold me accountable as I continue to develop as a scholar, teacher, and person. 

Horace Woodworth and UND

Last week, the university newsletter published a little story on some building foundations discovered on the campus quad during recent renovations. These buildings were hardly unexpected as were part of the early 20th century campus plan that the mid-century plan overlaid in a clumsy fashion.

They even included this handy map showing the two campus plans superimposed on one another. Like it not, we continue to work on a campus shaped by its mid-century plan despite the sometimes dramatic updates made to individual buildings.  

UND campus map WEB

My post today is less interested in changing plan of campus and more interested in the figures commemorated in these early buildings. In particular, I was very pleased to see that Woodworth Hall once again appeared on our campus (only to be reburied). As the story reports, Woodworth Hall was built in 1910 and stood on campus until it was lost to a fire in 1949. It featured classroom, a 400-seat auditorium, a small gymnasium for women, and faculty offices for the education (in its various guises on the early UND campus). The building is usually credited to end of Webster Merrifield’s term as University President although it was built in the first years of Frank McVey’s term as president.

Image 34

The building was originally named Teachers College, but then renamed after Horace B. Woodworth in 1912. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that the article by the UND’s media team didn’t even mention the building’s namesake. Woodworth was one of the first members of the influential early cadre of UND faculty sometimes called the “Merrifield” faculty. He was hired to teach Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy, which he had nearly no qualifications to teach other than a series of degrees from East Coast institutions and time as a pastor at a Congregational church in Iowa. By the mid-1890s, however, his interest had shifted toward history and he published one of the first “histories” of the state (which had hardly existed long enough to require or deserve a proper history): The Government of the People of the State of North Dakota, published by Eldredge and Brother in Philadelphia. By 1902, he achieved the rank of Professor of History and was the first faculty member at any North Dakota institution to earn this distinction. By the time of his retirement at UND he had emerged as both one of the most respected faculty members on campus and a kind of campus conscience who helped the young institution chart its course through the turbulent turn of the 20th century. 

It is interesting to notice that with the disappearance of the building named for him on campus, his memory has faded as well. One wonders whether this kind of forgetting is useful for institutions as each generation tries to mould the university to its own standards and priorities or whether when we forget figures like Woodworth, we lose a bit of what gives an university its gravitas in contemporary society.

I wrote some more about Woodworth here and in my history of the UND history department here.

Musical Merrifield Hall

Last night, after the last faculty and staff had left the building, Mike Wittgraf and I also with two graduate students set up some speakers and recording equipment in Merrifield Hall in the University of North Dakota’s campus to see whether we could capture some of the building’s distinctive sound.

This project is a bit of a passion project for me. I started my career at UND in Merrifield Hall and spent many happy hours in the North Dakota Quarterly office and my various academic office’s in the building. As part of that, I often found myself immersed in the building’s distinctive soundscape. From the reverberation of footsteps down it’s long, terrazzo paved hallways to the whirring and clunking of the building’s various pumps and lifters, the building’s sounds have long offered a kind of familiar backdrop to late nights and early mornings on campus.

Next year, the building will undergo some serious (and much needed) renovations and I suspect some of the characteristics that made it so endearing to me will be lost. My students in a my English graduate class on things have likewise recognized that Merrifield’s century old design and layout will give way to something more contemporary. They are working on a series of papers that consider the history and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling and experience of Merrifield Hall.

Our efforts to record the sound of the building are part of this larger effort. Last night began by running a series of long tones from a 1000 watt JBL subwoofer.

It has just enough power for us to discover that a tone of 44 hz would produce a standing wave in Merrifield’s basement hallway. We could walk through the wave and find nodes where it was almost inaudible and then walk a few feet further and find places where the sound was almost deafening. These tone tests also revealed when various features of the building would resonate with various frequencies and rattle windows in offices. You can hear some of those moments at the end of the video above.

We then set up a pair of powered fuller-range speakers to complement the subwoofer and to play with a wider range of frequencies. 

We marveled at the how clearly we could hear the notes linger and decay in the hallway. At times we could literally hear the pulse tone racing back and forth up and down the long corridor. For me, these reverberations echoed some of the sounds I remembered fondly from my time in Merrifield and I got pretty exciting that we were not only producing new kind of sonic situations (poetry?) in the building, but that it was also so deeply rooted in my own experiences there.

Finally, we set up a microphone on the fourth floor landing at the opposite corner of the building from our speakers. There’s a lot of a concrete, steel, brick and glass between the speakers and the microphone, but we hoped that we could not only record the time that the sound too to traverse the building, but also show how the building itself amplified, distorted, and conjured sounds through its fabric.    

IMG 7235

We connected this microphone to a laptop which could be time synced with the computer responsible for producing the sounds. This should allow us to measure the time it takes for sound to traverse the building. We also anticipate that it’ll create some interesting sonic features as the microphone also captured the various background sounds that are so characteristic of Merrifield Hall.

The end result of this work is a bit hard to know right now and I suspect we’ll come back over the summer to do more recording and play around with how things sound, but we have a start.

Merrifield Meditations

Over the last few weeks my students in my graduate class in English have started a project designed to engage with Merrifield Hall before it undergoes major renovations next year. For those of you who have read this blog, you’ll recognize this as a development related in some way to my ongoing effort to engage with the changing landscape of campus. In the past, however, these projects – such as Hearing Corwin Hall, have privileged historical perspectives on buildings or approaches that seek to dig beneath their often beleaguered exteriors to find their former beauty, significance, and meaning.

This semester, however, the class is teaching me to pay greater attention to the surfaces as they now exist in Merrifield. To be clear, Merrifield Hall has always been a special place for me. For the first five years of my career on campus, I had an office in Merrifield Hall and taught in its classrooms. These were pretty good years for me. I was productive professionally, I was developing as an instructor and advisor, and I felt supported by the institution. Even today, as I spend the last few months in Merrifield Hall, I find myself drawn to its distinct sounds and features that form a backdrop to the changing rhythms of campus life. In fact, the recent pandemic and the longer term trend of declining enrollments at my institution transformed the once bustling corridors of Merrifield into quieter spaces where footfalls and shuffles remain distinct and reverberate off the terrazzo floors and masonry walls.

This has me thinking about how we should go about engaging with Merrifield Hall on the eve of some pretty significant transformations. My buddy Mike Wittgraf and I want to record it somehow and try to capture and experiment with the sound of the building. My students are thinking about how to understand and document the building through conventional history, but also through fiction and poetry. As I’ve blogged about before, more creative approaches to understanding our work may open us up to new ways of knowing and thinking about a space. This represents a kind of inversion of traditional ways of thinking about how we work in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of us pealing back layers of accumulated meaning from the buildings themselves, we’re starting to think about how the buildings shaped our experiences of them. This involves digging into ourselves and how we feel about a place and pealing back layers of our own experiences to try to figure out how it is that we make sense of spaces and spaces push us to make sense of ourselves.

I’m not sure how far we’ll get doing this over the next two months, but working with this group of students has started to clarify in my mind how I might engage with campus in new, more introspective and reflective ways. What’s most important for me is realizing that my previous approach of looking at campus as a palimpsest of previous experiences, adaptations, and designs which we can detangle to reveal past intentions, only tells part of the story. Being, working, and living on campus also created changes in me that require looking inside in order detangle the way that campus spaces function.   

Grand Forks, UND, and the Ku Klux Klan

I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another. 

Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches. 

That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL. 

To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.

The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M.  Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.

Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement. 

Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear. 

By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Music Monday: Classroom Music

This past week, I listened with a good bit of enthusiasm to the Koichi Matsukaze Trio feat Ryojiro Furusawa, Live at the Room 427 re-released by BBE as part of their series of Japanese jazz. It’s a great example of Japanese jazz from the 1970s and both reflects the internationalization of this deeply American form of music and is immediately recognizable as jazz. (Do check out this recent article on “J Jazz” in the Guardian.) The highlights on this album is the 20-minute “Acoustic Chicken” which is simply brilliant and the disassembled and improvised version of Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.” You can listen to it here.

The album title, At the Room 427, refers to a classroom in Chuo University which Matsukaze (a saxophone player) and Furusawa (the drummer) had attended. The idea of recording a performance at a university isn’t unique at all. In fact, jazz music especially in the 1970s, was popular on campus and any number of well known albums were recorded at specific campus venues. (Joe McPhee’s Nation Time recorded at Vassar’s Chicago Hall, remains in heavy circulation at my house. Chicago Hall, of course, is a theater so perhaps this isn’t very surprising!). There’s a tradition, of course, of music at libraries, jails, lofts, homes, and other unconventional venues as well.

A classroom, on the other hand, feels unique to me and maybe it conveys a kind of intimacy or even intellectual and creative security that this album exudes. Where else would we feel the most free to experiment, to improvise, and to explore than in a university classroom? (Wait, don’t answer that…) 

I also got to thinking about how classrooms are acoustic spaces where we both produce sound and listen intently. What better venue for creating improvised music?

This also got me thinking a bit more specifically about a situation at UND. Sometime over the next year or so, Merrifield Hall, one of the oldest buildings on UND’s campus, will undergo a significant renovation and upgrade. Whatever the results of this transformation (and some of the renderings look pretty significant and impressive), the building will never be or sound the same. I’ve had to good fortune of having an office in Merrifield hall for most of my years at UND: first as a member of the history department when it was housed in Merrifield and then as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. My time in Merrifield Hall is inseparable from its distinct sound. The wide hallways paved with terrazzo floors, with cement walls, and lowered acoustic tile ceilings create a particular sound when a middle aged male faculty member with a bit of a lazy shuffle walks down them. The classrooms, many of which are original, likewise have a unique sound to them with their large windows, solid walls and carpeted floors. Anyone who has taught in Merrifield know the feeling hearing their voice sound just a bit different when facing the outside wall or the middle of the room. This isn’t to suggest that the classrooms are especially live, but rather to point out that they do have a unique sound.

My guess is when the building is renovated some of the unique sound will disappear and I wonder if it is worth putting some energy into capturing its distinctive sound before it’s gone?

For a bit of visual history of Merrifield Hall check out my posts from 2009 when the history department was last in the building: Room 215Room 217Room 209,  Room 300Merrifield graffitiimages from the department of history, and the Merrifield move.