Springtime Writing: Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

A few months ago, I started to try to write a book proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture for the University Press of Florida’s series The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. It stalled a bit (ironically) because I started to work on documenting the historical and contemporary material culture associated with two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre slated for demolition. Racing the bulldozer and asbestos mitigation has created some challenges and forced us to make some decisions as to what we planned to document, by what methods (photos, video, description?) and how intensively. 

But all this is somewhere between an excuse and some sense of priorities. To prove to whatever audience that this blog still has that I can follow through, I’m posting my proposed outline below. It’s in draft still and there are certainly ways for me to tighten up the coherence of the book particularly the interweaving of theory (particularly the opportunity for archaeology of the contemporary world to problematize certain key aspects of archaeological method and practice) and the important traditions embodied in American historical archaeology. Hopefully that’ll come through more in the final draft, but for a general sketch, this is how I envision the book.

The Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

This book will have two sections with each part anchored by on of my field project. Part 1 will begin with the excavation of Atari game cartridges from the Alamogordo landfill in 2014 and then focus on how objects in context create a distinct American culture. Part 2 considers the archaeology of contemporary American landscapes and concludes with an analysis of the industrial landscape of the Bakken oil patch.


The introduction will explore the key aspect of archaeology of contemporary American culture by unpacking the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscape that we study. This intersection with contemporaneity opens up new space for the role that archaeology can play in addressing pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

Part 1: Objects and Contexts

Part 1 of the book considers the role of objects in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Starting with an analysis of our excavation of the famous Atari dump in the Alamogordo landfill and considering the role of abundance, discard practices, and various objects mediated by increasing digital means.

1. Atari

The Alamogordo Atari excavation were organized by a documentary film company and funded by Microsoft for distribution over their Xbox console. The work sought to “prove” the well-known urban legend that Atari had dumbed thousands of games in landfill of the dessert town of Alamogordo in the 1980s. The excavation of the landfill produced over a thousand Atari games as well as a wide range of household trash. The excavation located the games simultaneous in 21st century American culture with its accelerated sense of nostalgia, but also within a distinctive 20th century assemblage of domestic and consumer waste.

2. Garbology, Discard, and Trash

The practice of documenting and analyzing contemporary domestic discard originated with William Rathje’s garbology work in Tuscon, Arizona. The study of the archaeology of trash opened the door to new critiques of consumer culture, the formation of contemporary assemblages, and a persistent interest in determining how both patterns of discard and discarded objects produce meaning. Recent work on discarded material culture involves sociological studies on scrounging, scavenging, and informal recycling and curation practices that produced distinctive assemblages of material and practices. This chapter returns to the roots of archaeology in its interest in middens and trash and shows how contemporary American garbage presents the distinctive insights into consumer culture and values.

3. Objects

In one of the most famous essays in archaeology of the contemporary world is C. Tiley and M. Shanks (1992) analysis of beer cans from Sweden and England. They famous urge archaeologists rely less on empirical methods and engage objects through the lens of cultural studies and as part of a more complex system of meaning making. In recent decades the rise of a distinctive “material culture studies” informed by new concepts of agency has provided new approaches for studying objects as part of networks of human and material actors. This chapter reviews the diverse ways that archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to reflect on the entangled nature of objects in creating the experiences of life in New Orleans, homelessness, or American childhood.

4. Media

Among the more dynamic and compelling hybrid spaces for archaeology of the contemporary world is media archaeology. Originally framed by work in media studies, media archaeology considers the materiality of media and the relationship between technology, form, content, and culture. Archaeologists, for their part, have come to recognize the significant of digital objects and media for their own work in both a practical sense and as a conceptual problem for unpacking contemporary culture. The materiality of an Atari cartridge or a Grateful Dead long-playing record, only tells part of their significance in an archaeological and cultural context. Michael Schiffer’s interest in transistor radios, for example, anticipated recent studies of the archaeology of computers and the internet. The development of digital archaeology and archaeogaming recognizes the extension of American culture into virtual worlds and digital spaces complete with digital objects that require documentation, curation, and preservation. This chapter, then, explores approaches to objects and media that have shaped American culture.

Part 2: Landscapes and Situations

The second part of the book examines particular landscapes that reflect certain situations in 21st century American culture. Starting along the margins and emphasizing the growing precarity of certain groups in America and proceeding to examine the institutional and industrial landscapes, this section will explore case-studies that trace the contours of archaeology at a scale intended to reflect the expansive and complex problems facing American society.

5. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats

Archaeology of the contemporary world is particularly well-suited to documenting groups and individuals who produce particularly ephemeral artifactual signatures or fall to the margins of traditional documentation practices. Larry Zimmerman’s archaeology of homelessness and Jason De Leon’s detailed study of the distribution of objects associated with illegal immigrants demonstrate how archaeological methods can produce significant new understandings of historically and socially marginal groups. Similar interest in the material traces of short-term events ranging from Occupy Wall Street encampments to the remains of the Burning Man festival offer case studies for how archaeology can tell complicating stories that challenge and enrich conventional narratives. This chapter will demonstrate that objects, landscapes, and precarious places can reveal otherwise overlooked, marginal, or ephemeral events that constitute modern forms of community.

6. Institutional Landscapes: Campuses, Military Bases, and Parks

Institutional spaces offer archaeological landscapes often dominated by deeply inscribed expressions of authority or influence. University campuses, military bases, and public spaces and infrastructure define significant spaces in the American landscape that both function as markers of power, authority, and ideology and preserve traces of subversion, resistance, and re-interpretation. The archaeology of contemporary campus life, for example, leaves intriguing traces in abandoned buildings and in discard patterns along well-manicured campus walkways. The archaeology of military bases and outposts negotiates the tension between visible projections of power and the hidden work of military authority often best documented through satellite and remote images. This chapter emphasizes how the archaeology of contemporary institutional landscapes offers a critical and subversive approach to our manicured and manipulated material surroundings.

7. Industrial, Extractive, and Exploratory Landscapes

The emergence of ruin porn and the photographic documentation of extractive landscapes offers an accessible perspectives on the detritus of the modern world. The well-established field of industrial archaeology with its distinctive place in American historical archaeology overlaps with the tradition of mining archaeology in the American west. These fields are increasingly infused with approaches developed by environmental historians, landscape archaeology, climate criticism, and petroculture. This chapter focuses on recent work on how industrial and extractive landscapes – from the toxic Berkeley pit mine of Butte, Montana to the archaeology of space – excavate the roots of both our everyday modernity and our hopes (and fears) for the future.

8. The Bakken

The North Dakota Man Camp Project (2012-2017) documented workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota during both the height and decline of the Bakken Oil Boom. The rapid increase in drilling for oil and infrastructural improvement in the relatively remote and sparsely populated Bakken counties led to a significant influx of workers from outside the region. To house these workers, a wide array of short-term settlements emerged from prefabricated workforce housing units to motley camps of RV trailers towed to the region by the workers themselves. The penultimate chapter will consider the intersection of extractive landscapes, precarity, and a 21st century sense of home.

Conclusions, Prospects, and Problems

The concluding chapter seeks to trace the trajectories established in both parts of this book forward into the 21st century. An archaeology of and for the contemporary world both responds to and anticipates the challenges of climate change, economic precarity, virtual worlds, and new transdisciplinary spaces, methods, and approaches. Returning to the contemporaneity as

Celebrating Wesley College’s Corwin Hall

I’m on the road today delivering boxes of North Dakota Quarterlys to the Magic City, but I figured folks might enjoy a video from yesterday’s send off for Corwin Hall. Here’s a blog post on that.

We’ll release a far higher fidelity recording of the music next month, but for now, here’s a Facebook video.


Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

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All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

Universities and Patina

Over the weekend, I re-read Shannon Dawdy’s book Patina: A Profane Archaeology. I blogged briefly about how this work shaped some of my views of the accelerated culture of the Bakken oil patch. But having read it again, and more closely, in preparation for a formal review, I was really struck by her description of New Orleans as a space of contest modernity where a pervasive interest in patina represents both a challenge to commodity capitalism and a willingness to complicate the conventions of linear time. In Dawdy’s analysis objects with patina are valued not simply because they’re old, but because they show signs of habitual use over time and the stories associated with that use remain embedded in their fabric and add value. This value emerges only in the space of the contemporary world where these objects circulate among individuals who recall, communicate, and add to the object’s story, and in the right time and context, these objects acquire far greater value than their utility or antiquity alone would suggest. Dawdy notes that the fetishization of these object “resists compulsive obsolescence and thus slows down consumption and discard.” In short, these objects have a kind of situated value that produce in collaboration with individuals who possess or know about them. Objects with patina continuously produce and depend upon various individual and broader social relations that provide them with meaning. 

I got to thinking about Dawdy’s definition of patina in the context of my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project on the campus of the University of North Dakota. One of the things that my exceptional class of students have encouraged me to see is that universities represent distinct spaces within American society where time and space work differently. On the one hand, this makes sense as university life continues to represent a rite of passage where students exist in moments of communitas, encounter liminal space, and negotiate one of the most obvious examples of heterotopia (and, Dawdy might add, chronotopia, where distinctive experience of time exist often fused to the distinctively heterotopic space of the university campus). Like New Orleans universities often prize and value patina whether officially celebrated in the old buildings or monuments on campus or associated with the traces of the collective experiences of students in less public, official, and obvious ways.  

Patina on university campuses embodies the kind of conflicted temporality that Dawdy saw in New Orleans as they oscillate between being the engines for social and economic progress and places of memory, tradition, and social cohesion. The tensions between functionality and tradition on college campuses goes beyond the simple practice of “invented traditions” which have a particularly visible place on college campuses. Traditions embodied in architecture, rituals, and practices (that sometimes defy official administrative efforts to suppress them) range from the persistent, monumental expressions of past aspirations to the gradual or even abrupt accumulation of meaning in unexpected places and spaces across campus.

Public universities much like New Orleans, also experience booms and busts, that leads to the uneven accumulation of buildings, objects, and experiences. At UND, a campus monument celebrates the the experience of students and faculty during the Great Depression and the post-War boom has left indelible marks in the buildings and spaces across campus and the persistence of certain familiar objects across campus – from desks to flickering florescent light fixtures – speaks to the various occasions of renovation and innovation. 

The Wesley College Documentation Project has observed various aspects of this kind of temporal mixing as students are both saddened to know that the university has plans to demolish Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls. They are old – largely dating to the first decade of the 20th century – and have a distinct architecture and patina and for some have acquired a kind of right to exist on campus. For others, of course, these buildings are outmoded and obsolete. This embodies the tension between the functionality of the university and how it generates meaning to the university community.

At the same time, booms and busts are present throughout these buildings with the persistence of older furniture and even older technology either kept in reserve or actively in use suggesting a conscious effort to curate and extend the life of particular tools. What is curious in the 21st century on the campus of University of North Dakota is that the availability of surplusing is greatly reduced. This reflects both the limited market for older furniture, for example, on campus, and the growing preference for new furniture and the appearance of modernity on campus. Moreover, the new furniture, which is frequently particle board and fairly flimsy especially in comparison to mid-century steel desks is less likely to survive multiple moves across campus. Ironically, the absence of surplus space means that older furniture might be more likely to remain in circulation because at present, facilities does not have a convenient strategy for removing and recycling unused furniture.

The ability to recycle furniture is a more functional observation on the material culture of campus than the decision to preserve or destroy older buildings, but both of these approaches to campus space demonstrate differing concepts of time at play across a university campus. For the former, older office furnishing or technologies that haver persistent use value might be curated and recycled – especially in light of the boom/bust funding cycle provided by grants – but a preference is for newer furniture not because of its superiority in a functional sense, but because of its appearance of newness and contemporary professionalism. Campus buildings sometimes reflect these priorities as well, but thread-worn and patinated buildings likewise have value in that they embody traditional aspirations of universities with ancient practices and habits. Whereas old furniture might exude negative connotations associated with lack of resources or even unprofessional workspaces, old buildings represent the persistent values of a campus and respect for the past. These are not, however, accidental manifestations, any more than deliberate efforts to curate objects of persistent value, but decisions grounded in a strategy designed to shape student, alumni, and even faculty and staff appreciation of campus. Campus patina, then, emerges from multiple places ranging from administrative priorities, curation strategies, informal rituals of every day life, and various accidents that etch experiences into the physical fabric of the university in various social, spatial, and chronological contexts.  

Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Update on the Wesley College Documentation Project

After about 5 partial days of fieldwork, we’re beginning to get a grasp on the Wesley College Documentation Project. For those unfamiliar with this project, a team of students, faculty, and staff are working to document the two original Wesley College buildings on the camps of the University of North Dakota. With the exception of Robertson Hall (1930), these buildings were built in the first decade of the 20th century to serve Wesley College, an innovated Methodist College associated with the UND. Larimore and Sayre Halls served as women’s and men’s dormitories, respectively, and the Corwin and Robertson Halls provided space for music and religious studies classes as well as college offices. In 1965, Wesley College became officially part of UND. Corwin/Larimore Hall underwent significant modifications in the late 1970s to accommodate faculty offices and research spaces. Robertson/Sayre has been transformed in a less systematic way, but served similar functions in recent times. 

So far, the team has focused on Corwin and Larimore Halls and hopes to move to Robertson/Sayre by mid-March. The project has been shaped by a sense of urgency in documenting the buildings before asbestos mitigation begins and the buildings are razed in late May or June. So far, we’ve documented most of the third and fourth floors of Corwin/Larimore hall in a fairly detailed way with over 500 photographs and dozens of carefully described spaces. This data collection, however, has moved a bit ahead of our interpretation, but the latter is catching up as we have become more familiar with the spaces. 

Several ideas have begun to crystalize as we’ve made our way through these spaces. 

1. 50 Objects. I’ve asked the field teams to identify 50 objects that tell the story of Corwin/Larimore Hall. We will photograph and document each object in greater detail and prepare a catalogue that reflects the diverse history and functions of these spaces. We will also include a brief description of why this object is significant to the history of the building. 

2. Hearing Corwin Hall. In the original design, Corwin Hall 300 was a recital hall for Wesley College and designed with this acoustic function in mind. After the 1978 modifications to the space, in which an enclosed stairwell was added that encroached upon the stage area of the recital hall and comprised the acoustics of the space. Even after that modification, there remains a distinct sound to the room and we’ve arranged for one of the old “punk archaeology” colleagues, Mike Wittgraf, to bring his keyboard rig and some microphones to capture the sound of both Corwin 302, but also the rest of the Corwin/Larimore hall.

3. Documenting Abandonment. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College Documentation Project is that we are witnessing the building in the brief gap between abandonment and demolition. The distinct character of the assemblage produced by Corwin/Larimore Halls speaks to complex network of relationships that shape decisions to move, recycle (through officially surplus objects for reuse or resale elsewhere), or abandon everyday objects in academic spaces. Moreover, the assemblage is historically constituted as the decision to discard or keep obsolete or outdated objects over time produced the assemblage preserved in the building. While archaeologists have rightly rejected the so-called “Pompeii Premise,” the assemblage present in Corwin/Larimore does represent a frozen moment in time that embodies a series of short and longterm historical decisions. Unpacking this assemblage and attempting to recognize the reasons for its form provides a useful commentary on the role of objects in our everyday and institutional life.   

4. History and Memory on the UND Landscape. The longterm plan for the space left behind by the Wesley College buildings is to move the Stone House (also called the Oxford House) to the space. The Colonial revival building was designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer in 1902 and originally served as the home of UND’s presidents, and as a billboard for the university. In the early 1970s, it received a systematic restoration and then it became the home of the UND alumni association. During my time on campus, it has served as an all purpose reception space. By erasing the physical memory of Wesley College and overwriting it with the Stone House, UND is rewriting the historical landscape of campus at a moment when it is also reimagining its own future.  

5. Performance. The Wesley College Documentation Project team generally agrees that documenting these buildings is more than just a historical or archaeological task and is part of larger effort to demonstrate that we care about the history of UND’s campus. As part of that, we’re trying to figure out ways to make our work public that go beyond the typical websites, articles, or presentations that scholars have long used to present their work. My hope is that we do something public and performative to demonstrate our interest in these buildings and to mark their place on campus for the public and future generations of students and stakeholders. The Wesley College experiment was a distinct and unique one that had a marked influence on the early history of UND. There is something worth commemorating here. 

The Wesley College Documentation Project

In about a half hour, I start my one-credit class designed to document the two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus associated with Wesley College: Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls. I’ve christened this project the Wesley College Documentation Project

1. Research Questions and Goals

The project has a number of overlapping research questions that focus on how buildings make manifest the history and changing priorities of an American university and its campus. In particular, I am interested in how the architecture of Wesley College, the innovative relationship between Wesley College and UND, and the organization of space within the original buildings reflects the negotiation of campus priorities between the two institutions over the 50 years of their co-institutional existence. 

I am also interested in abandonment, however, and want to understand how the material manifestation of the abandonment (and demolition) of these buildings manifests the complicated relationship between university financial strategy, budget cuts and austerity, faculty, staff, and students needs in the 21st century, and the construction and preservation of historical memory at UND. 

These research questions boil down to three goals:

1. Study the history of Wesley College in the context of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.

2. Document the historical architecture, spaces, and memories tied to the physical fabric of Wesley College and UND’s Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls.

3. Document the process of abandonment throughout these buildings as evidence for 21st century university life.

2. Methods

This course will focus on the careful examination and documentation of both the architecture of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore, but also how the university adapted these buildings over time to serve new functions for campus. From their origins as dormitories to their final days as classroom, offices, and labs, R/S and C/L halls have functioned as quintessential university buildings and have both preserved traces of their pasts uses and their present abandonment.

The best way to recognize these changes and the history of these buildings is looking carefully at the physical fabric and what was left behind. To do this, we will document carefully rooms across both buildings noting what is in the rooms now, whether the rooms have been changed or transformed, and how the various transformations provide clues to their functions across time. We will use photography, video, sketch drawings, and textual descriptions to document the life of these buildings on site as well as some time with archival descriptions, photographs, and plans.

The Archival Research

The University Archives in the Department of Special Collections at the UND library has a good collection of Wesley College Papers some of which describe the construction and funding of Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore halls and some describe life in these buildings. While creating a digital collection of papers related to these buildings is not as pressing a priority as documenting the buildings themselves, it is something that we should start this semester.

There are also published and unpublished works similarly tell the story of Wesley College and its buildings. We should look to create a bibliography of these works over the next two months.

Oral History

Memories are often linked to space and places. Engaging long time denizens of the Wesley College buildings and encouraging them to tell stories about their time in the buildings will be a key aspect of our work. Creating an oral history archive to accompany our archival research and archaeological and architectural documentation will ensure that memories tied to the physical fabric of the buildings is not lost.

Archaeological Procedures

Most archaeological knowledge is based on careful observation and systematic documentation. The core of our work in these buildings is looking carefully and documenting what we see.

In many cases, the rooms in Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore are still filled with stuff. This stuff is the detritus of years of use as offices, dorm rooms, classrooms, and associated spaces, and in many cases reflect a distinct moment of the abandonment of these buildings.

The plan is to create two-person teams, each with a phone, a camera, a notebook, and a floor plan.

1. One team member takes a video with their phone of the room starting at the doorway and then moving systematically through the space using smooth, even, and deliberate movements. The video should be at least 30 seconds long and might be much longer depending on the size of the room. Once the video is complete, record the file number in the notebook.

2. The second team member starts to describe the entire room in the notebook starting with the ceiling, floor, and window, and then moving counter-clockwise around the room one wall at a time noting (1) any evidence for changes to the fabric or organization of the room over time, (2) all of the rooms features including power outlets, ethernet boxes, light switches, nails in the wall, (3) all furniture with whenever possible, the name of the furniture manufacture, (4) all pieces of technology, (5) all other objects or signs of use (papers, stickers, trash).

3. The first team member sketches the room onto the “one-line” drawing making sure to position the furniture and objects accurately in relation to the architecture.

4. When the sketch and drawing is done, one team member photographs the room systematically making sure that each side of the room is photographed in such a way to capture all the objects and features of the room. The number of photographs for each room will vary depending on the size and organization of the room, but more photos are always better then fewer photos.


Just last night, I had a conversation with Richard Rothaus, a collaborator on this project, and he nudged me to think about how we can commemorate the lives of these buildings through performance. As we toured the buildings last week, we talked about having the letters between Wesley College President Edward Robertson and one of the major donors to the university A.J. Sayre, after whose late son Sayre Hall is named. The letters, particularly after Sayre’s son died in WWI are sad and personal and it makes clear that Sayre’s contribution to Wesley College were grounded in early 20th century ideas.

We also talked about doing something with Maxwell Anderson’s 1911 senior play, The Masque of the Pedagogues. Anderson was a resident of Sayre Hall and the characters in his play trace the experiences of a student early 20th century UND in a humorous and irreverent way. I have an idea who could play the part of Orin G. Libby…

I also think that the Wesley College spaces could be used, on last time, to perform music. 

For more on the Wesley College Documentation Project, go here.


The Archaeology of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota: Some Preliminary Thoughts

On Friday, I did a walk through of two buildings on the University of North Dakota campus that are slated for demolition this spring. While their fate is sealed, I’m excited to collaborate with students and colleagues on documenting these buildings as part of a one-credit class. Our work will obviously focus on these buildings as historical structures associated with Wesley College, an experiment in co-institutional education from the early 20th century, and as examples of a Beaux Arts university plan that failed to materialize.

IMG 1826

The walk-through on Friday, however, reveled a different, and more archaeological, aspect to our research. The buildings are still filled with stuff (or to use a more appropriate term, borrowed from Philip K. Dick “kipple”). In the case of Corwin/Larimore and Sayre halls, built between 1908 and 1910, the departments and programs housed in this building departed before the start of the academic year. This has led me to several research opportunities:

1. Surplus. The departing departments and programs left behind a remarkable assemblage of “stuff” designed for institutional repurposing through centralized surplus. It just so happens that as part of a greater reorganization of UND’s space and campus services, centralized surplus storage and redistribution is no longer available at scale for UND’s campus. As a result, this material is stuck in limbo. It had so little value that it was simply discarded in place by the departing faculty and staff, and there is no institutional infrastructure for recycling or repurposing this material. At present, it simply remains in place, awaiting documentation as evidence for the abandonment of these buildings.

2. Trash. The rooms and spaces also contained a remarkable amount of material that has very limited value as recycled goods. We can best designate this material “trash.” The trash ranged from stacks of papers scattered across a table that hinted at their former order to damage furniture, obsolete equipment (VCRs, CRT monitors, tangled masses of cables, et c.), easily replaced personal objects like pens and pencils, posters, and articles of clothing.

While the presence of surplus equipment represents both institutional priorities and the intermediate character of the abandonment of these buildings, trash represents permanent discard. There is no intention of collecting this trash and it will likely remain in situ as the building is physically destroyed. Moreover it tells a different story of abandonment as a process.

3. The Percolating Past. The attention to the present and abandonment as part of the history of the building is not meant to obscure the past of these buildings, but to make it clear that the creation of the past in these buildings is part of an ongoing process that reshapes the structures through time. What we encounter as the historical aspects of these buildings, including the traces of their original floor plans, evidence for past modifications and updates, and hints of successive functions in each space, is the same as the evidence for their abandonment. The past percolates (as Shanks and Pearson once quipped) through the present and the present will see similar filtering practices to constitute a future. Our work to document the present and past of these buildings speaks directly to the complex system of interventions, priorities, and agents at play in shaping our material reality. While any hope of dis-entangling these networks of past and present agency, objects, and situations maybe misplaced, getting students (and myself) at least to recognize the various ways

4. Global Buildings. The buildings and their contents represent a dense network of relationships the span the continent and the world. Of course, it will only be possible to sketch out these relationships on a very basic level, but some of the most intriguing ties are between the funds to build these buildings and various west coast timber interests. Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre both supported Wesley College, in part, through donations supported by their ownership of lumber rights in California and British Columbia respectively. Agricultural wealth from the Larimore and Sayre family likewise bolstered Wesley College coffers. The architect, Wallace McCrae hailed from New York City where he goes on to build brownstones for the wealthy and famous of the Gilded Age. The buildings themselves embraced the Beaux Arts tradition that was similarly cosmopolitan. The students who frequented these halls for over a century intersected with these global currents.

Today, the buildings participate in another network of global relationships the fill these spaces with objects that originate across the U.S. and the world to create functional assemblages only depleted by these building’s abandoned state.

5. Modernity. Finally, it’s hard not to think of these buildings as the embodiment of the long-20th century starting with their Beaux-Arts design and continuing to their eventual fate as victims of progress. As Kostis Kourelis has been teaching us, Beaux Arts campuses of the early 20th century represented the cutting edge of campus architecture, and the (largely unrealized) plan for UND, which by the second decade of the 20th century had committed to College Gothic architecture. There is something remarkably optimistic about these buildings.

The destruction of these buildings embodies a similar spirit that looks beyond the bricks-and-mortar and their persistent, draining expenses, and toward a leaner, more digital, more efficient university that leverages whatever technology we’ve decided to see as the solution to whatever problem we’ve decided to prioritize. As I’ve argued elsewhere the demolition of these buildings is fully in keeping with an effort to display the university as an efficient, forward looking, in unsentimental, institution. As the kids would say, “This is a ‘billboard move,‘ brah.” Whether it’s the right choice or not, will come out over the long term.

I’ve created a Wesley College category for these and other posts like it.

Teaching Thursday: Two Old Buildings on Campus

I have come to realize that I’m more or less addicted to one too many things on my plate, one too many adventures to be had, one too many ideas, one too many books, and one too many causes to champion. Maybe it’s the adrenalin rush or the welling up of anxiety that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of losing it with your mind skipping from idea to idea like a rock skimming across a flat pond. In fact, for me, I suspect, it’s the tension between flat pond and the skipping rock that draws me back to being over-extended day after day, week after week (well, that and the prodding (and encouragement) of friends like Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and Bret Weber. They all at various times feel like the academic equivalent of that friend in college who convinces you to start drinking at 1 pm on a Thursday.)

This is a long introduction, to introduce my first effort at a one-credit pop-up class.

HIST 300

History 300 will focus on two (actually four) old buildings on campus of the University of North Dakota: Roberstson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore. They’re both hybrid buildings with one part built in the first decade of the 20th century and one part built in the 1920s. They offered housing and classroom space for a hybrid institution: Wesley College. Wesley College grew out of Red River University which had branches in Fargo and Whapeton. In Grand Forks, it worked in symbiosis with UND and offered classes in music, art, and religion. Some of the most famous graduates from UND came through Wesley College in one way or another including Maxwell Anderson. The college functioned as a residential unit that also offered classes and in that way, it worked a bit more like today’s residential colleges in the UK and, say, at the University of Toronto. In 1965, it was absorbed formally by UND and since then, the buildings have served as the homes to various department and university units.

Earlier this year, both buildings were slated for demolition and Corwin/Larimore is empty. Robertson/Sayre is almost empty as well. Because I can’t resist the temptation to document, explore, and investigate, I created a one-credit class to get some students into these buildings before they’re are gone to study and document them. While the outsides of the buildings are on the way to becoming pretty well documented, I’m interested in getting the students to help me notice the traces of use left in buildings that have stood on campus for over a century. The class will focus on the history of the buildings based on archival documents in UND special collections, the history of the architecture of the buildings (and the UND campus, which Kostis Kourelis is already developing), and, more importantly for me, the careful autopsy of the buildings.

Since the class is only one-credit, I can’t expect too much from the students in terms of reading, but I can’t resist including some recommended readings (and I suspect that Richard and Kostis will add to this list!):

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016).
Laurie A. Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a historical archaeology of masculinity in a university fraternity. (2010)
Timothy Webmoor, “Object-oriented metrologies of care and the proximate ruin of Building 500”in Ruin Memories ed. Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir (2014).
Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer, “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” in Modern Material Culture: the archaeology of us. Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer eds. (1981).