A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a short paper that examines a class that I taught a few years ago to document the two buildings associated with Wesley College on the University of North Dakota campus. This class ran as a 1-credit companion to a 3-credit course on the university budget.

I finally have a more or less final draft prepared. The paper argues my one credit course embraced what I call a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that rejected the outcome oriented approaches favored by the institution. 

Figure 1

You can read the paper here and do let me know what you think.

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy 2

It’s the end of the semester and I’m running on fumes. Unfortunately, my enervated state does not dictate my deadlines and the end of the semester is always a cruel juxtaposition deadlines and exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I continue to plug away at various projects with the vague hope of gaining momentum once grading is done and grades are submitted. Below is a revised version of the concluding discussion to my paper. It’s … not great, but the ideas are finally all there. I’ve been slogging on this for so long that I really need to put it aside for a bit and come back to it with a fresh editing pen and clearer eyes.

You can read the first part of the paper here. Just stop reading at the Reflections and Discussion section and come to this page.

Feedback is always welcome! 

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined or content oriented outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget. We noted in particular the rise of incentive based budget models and the arguments that these models reward efficient production of outcomes and results. This emphasis on efficiency invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing at this time associated with the concept of “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. In this way, it sought to critique the role that efficiency has come to play both in archaeological methodology and across contemporary society (e.g. Alexander 2008). The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. In the late-20th and early 21st century, a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration” (McNeil 2014) has stressed the need for speed and efficiency in archaeology not only to keep pace with with development (Zorin 2015) but also to document the transformations wrought by rising sea levels and climate change. In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that super modernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more upkeep by dint of their age alone.

The status of the Wesley College buildings as schedule for demolition and largely abandoned created a sense of urgency in our work, but, at the same time, we understood that the university had made arrangement for a more formal documentation processes. This process, however, tended to emphasize the architectural and design elements of these buildings rather than the evidence for their everyday use. As a result, some in the preservationist community fear that formal and procedural aspects of documentation have failed to engage the emotional, social, and dynamic aspects of historic architecture (for a recent summary see: Kaufman 2019). Thus, the class’s work in these buildings offered a counterweight to archaeological and resource management approaches driven by methods or formal requirements. By starting our study of the buildings with the things left behind rather than methodology or procedures, we foregrounded the role of curiosity and interest in archaeological practices. As James Flexner has argued in his recent calls for “degrowth“ in archaeology developing practices that foreground a shared interest in the past between practitioners and the public as a way of subverting product and outcome oriented approaches to field work (Flexner 2020).

This approach resonated with the students in my class who likewise occupied a middle ground between being insiders to the college campus and as outsiders to the inner workings of the university made them particularly motivated collaborators. In fact, the entire course relied on the students’ eagerness to transgress the traditional limits of student movement on campus and enter into spaces typically reserved for faculty offices and laboratories. Students were also allowed to explore the buildings in far more physical ways than they would other buildings on campus where the administration would discourage tearing up carpets and punching holes in walls. While we often assume that college campuses are the domain of students, in reality however, university administrators and faculty often design campuses to restrict student movement. In some cases, this involves small scale barriers which delineate faculty office where students might occasionally venture, but rarely stay for long, from classroom and public spaces where campus authors expect and encourage students to gather. Campuses also contain numerous spaces accessed only by administrators, maintenance and facilities personnel, housing and dining staffs, and other specialized employees whose collective work to keep campus warm, safe, clean, and functional was kept out of public view. Students efforts to document spaces associated with service areas, faculty, staff, and departmental offices, and laboratories provided a kind of material analogue to more bureaucratic and procedural discussions that we were having in the course of the university budget.

By allowing student interests to start with the objects and spaces that they encountered in these buildings, the class anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. Witmore’s chorography foregrounded the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Witmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Witmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by super modernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. Of course, it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course (especially since his book appeared two years after the course was over). That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

In a general way, offering students access to buildings that were caught between abandonment and demolition and spaces that were both part of campus and often hidden from their view supported my unstructured pedagogy of the course and our collective decisions to eschew formal standards of archaeological documentation. The class deliberately operated at the edges of archaeological methods, expected pedagogical practices, and the history of campus itself. These conditions allowed us to understand how archaeology of the contemporary world could engage actives sites, political fraught spaces, and approaches that push the discipline of archaeology itself to reflect more deliberately on its own methods and goals. Of particular significance was how our class provided an opportunity to produce a plan that not only adapted to the character of the buildings but also the interests of the students. This allowed for priorities to develop on the fly and for the students to shift their interest seamlessly from the materiality of the buildings and the assemblage left behind in various spaces to the archives and performance.

Archaeology of the contemporary world’s attention to dynamic, active, and changing sites has invariably led to a wider range of field practices as well as a deeper engagement with stakeholders who exist outside of the traditional purview archaeology as a discipline. The sites of homeless squats, music festivals, protests encampments, and the movements of undocumented migrants often leave either intentionally ephemeral material traces. Assemblages associated with the ongoing pandemic, for example, appear to change daily or even hourly in response to community attitudes and official policies. The contingencies associated with “fast urbanism” have likewise complicated the applicability of conventional archaeological methodology and procedures to documenting complex assemblages. The various communities associated with this material also have distinct views of their own identities and their materiality that reward approaches anchored in collaboration rather than abstracted ideas of methodology and practice. My one-credit course represented an effort to explore the pedagogical potential for a collaborative archaeology of the contemporary world.

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been chipping on a paper that reflect on the Wesley College Documentation project as an approach to teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m about two thirds of the way through the paper and thought I should probably share a draft of it.

I’m moderately happy with what I have on the page so far. The paper will be a bit backward in that I am writing from the perspective of practice that I then analyze through reflections later. This approach is both honest, in that I didn’t really have a pedagogy or a plan when I put this class together, and I suspect reflects an authentic account of how my experience in the Wesley College buildings and with this group of students shaped my understanding of teaching.

Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

Introduction

In an American context, teaching and the study of the archaeology of the contemporary world have always existed together. Schiffer and Gould’s seminal, Modern Material Culture features an article by Schiffer and Wilke titled: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” which, as the title suggests, used the material culture of the University of Arizona campus as a context for teaching archaeological methods and interpretation. Similarly, Bill Rathje’s “Garbage Project” which took place at the same institution at the same time, grew out of his efforts to introduce undergraduates both to sampling and behavioral archaeology through the systematic study of domestic trash collected from Tuscon neighborhoods. The last 40 years have continued to see a steady stream of studies that demonstrate how the contemporary university campus can provide a compelling site for teaching archaeology.

Most of these campus projects focused on using modern material and contexts to instruct students in the systematic practices associated with traditional archaeology: sampling, surface collection, mapping, recording, and stratigraphic excavation. It is notable that despite the attention to modern material and research questions significant to contemporary campus life such as the disposal of trash or locations of cigarette smokers (citations), most published efforts to use material culture to document life on American college campuses appear to have avoided methods that engage more fully with conversations in field of archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, most of these approaches did not seem to emphasize the growing role that time-based media, particularly video and audio recordings, have come to play in the archaeology of the contemporary world. I also wonder whether they have emphasized the potential of unstructured textual recording to capture the experience of both familiar and unfamiliar spaces and places. In fact, the emphasis on systematic methods, practices, and procedures as part of most archaeology of the contemporary campus reinforced the kind of modern structures that archaeology of the contemporary world has sometimes sought to critique or even subvert. The course that I taught in the spring of 2018 developed in such a way that it blended open ended documentation practices and experiential learning with archival research, public outreach, and performance to create a distinctive learning experience for students.

The following chapter will reflect on a course taught on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 2018. The course focused on two pairs of buildings on campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre Halls, which were demolished in the early summer of that year. The buildings were built between 1909 and 1929 in the Beaux Arts style as the main buildings for an institution called Wesley College founded in 19xx. Wesley College was a Methodist institution that taught music, religion, and elocution and offered housing to students in two dormitories, Sayre Hall for men and Larimore Hall for women. Students taking classes at Wesley College would also be enrolled at the University of North Dakota, a public four-year, state funded institution, and receive their degrees from UND. In 1965, a financially failing Wesley College was purchased and absorbed into UND and the four buildings served as dorms, offices, classrooms, laboratories, and the home of UND’s honors program of the next 50 or so years. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the buildings had acquired considerable deferred maintenance debt and their demolition was ordered as part of a general effort to reduce the campus footprint and refresh it public face along the main thoroughfare through campus.

The course that I taught involved exploring and documenting these buildings in the window between their abandonment as active campus structures and their final demolition. As the buildings themselves represented some of the oldest structure on our campus. the university administration treated their destruction with a certain amount of seriousness and employed a local contractor to prepare a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Type 2 report on the buildings and had the demolition contractor prepare a high resolution laser scan of the buildings. This routine, but robust level of documentation ensured that the buildings received formal architectural recording worthy of their designs and distinctive place in the history of the campus. There was less formal interest, however, in documenting their interior state which involved both numerous intervention over their lifetimes and the detritus of both their recent abandonment and their changing roles on campus. The class that I taught on these buildings focused initially on the buildings’ situations between use and demolition.

The course ran as a one-credit add on to a class on that focused on the university budget. After several decades of regular budget and enrollment increases, the University of North Dakota was enduring a painful period of contraction with several high profile program cuts including our star-studded women’s ice hockey team and the nationally recognized music therapy program. At the same time, the university was implementing a new internal budgeting model that regularly bore the brunt of campus-wide frustrations regarding the distribution of resources. Instability in administrative leadership, the increasingly populist and often anti-intellectual political culture of the state, and challenges associated with communicating effectively across a wide range of campus stakeholders contributed to confusion and at times anger toward the university administration. A course on the university budget was meant to create an opportunity to engage with the changes on our campus in a way informed by a more detailed and accurate understanding to the actual mechanisms of funding, the national conversation about higher education in the US, and the particular historical developments at our campus. The course on the university budget prompted student interest in changes on campus and this, in turn, prompted me to offer a course on the buildings scheduled for demolition later that year. This was done without much planning or thought about what this course would look like.

The spontaneous creation of the course focused on the Wesley College buildings discouraged any particularly formal structure. The course was offered for one academic credit, which is the lowest academic value possible for a course on our campus. In fact, its spontaneity and low academic stakes allowed the course to operate at the very fringes of the panoptic perspectives of campus administrators. It both eluded the gaze of the technocrats whose authority rests on structures associated with assessment and fell outside the purview of the faculty committees who also seek to establish authority in the contested space of the American college classroom. In this way the course existed outside administrative oversight which allowed us a significant amount of freedom in class design. As significantly, the buildings themselves occupied a strangely liminal status between abandonment and their final destruction. The university had turned off all but emergency utilities, had locked the outside doors of the buildings, and faculty and staff has removed all the objects from the building that could be reused or repurposed on campus. Thus, my students had free rein within the buildings, and the university facilities staff was only too eager to help students explore what was under the carpeting, behind walls, and above false ceilings. Because the buildings were slated for demolition, there was no concern for their material condition and all the interior rooms were unlocked and accessible to student curiosity. A liminal class that existed in a liminal space seem ideally suited to approaches that are typical of archaeology of the contemporary world.

The Class

The class itself began with a brief introduction to the building, their history, and the archaeology of the contemporary world. We then set about to explore the structures armed with notebooks, a few cameras scavenged from departmental and personal supplies, measuring tapes, and their mobile phones. Since this class was quite spontaneous, we did not have any idea exactly what we would find in the buildings. The students were immediately taken by the level of access that we had to the building. Students could enter faculty offices, laboratory spaces, classrooms, and maintenance spaces that in most active buildings on campus had access restrictions. The ability to move through a building without any barriers is something that most faculty take more or less for granted, although we would like pause before barreling into a colleague’s or program’s laboratory space uninvited or into an active classroom. It was clear, however, that for students, these spaces was far less familiar and part of what drew them through the building was a sense that they were transgressing traditional campus boundaries. Because we had not arranged for any storage space or study area where we could scrutinize objects more closely, we came to realize that we could not systematically collect artifacts from the building. Instead, we decided as a group to focus on describing the objects left behind in situ in our notebooks according to each office. At the same time, we devised a method of taking photos and using phones to take videos of the rooms in the buildings as we went. We also concluded that we should start with Corwin/Larimore Hall, which had been entirely abandoned, and then proceeding to Robertson/Sayre Hall, where staff were still moving out of their offices.

Almost immediately, we encountered rooms with massive numbers of artifacts left behind. These ranged from office and classroom furniture to laboratories with masses of cables, computers, and equipment used in psychological testing that appeared utterly foreign to the students. In some cases, offices appear to be frozen in time. A single late-20th century Apple iMac computer stood on a desk as if frozen in the year 2000. In other cases, office and laboratories look like they had been rooted through during a burglary. Other rooms initially appeared carefully abandoned only to reveal during documentation some kind of intimate trace that connected the empty office to its earlier occupant. The situations in these offices, labs, and classroom, drew student efforts to delve deeply into the contents of rooms. They looked inside desk drawers, documented the patterns of adhesive tape left on the back of doors, and explored the spaces above acoustic ceiling tiles. One student, Wyatt Atchley, an avid photographer, prepared a photo essay that drew out the traces of the building’s recent past and connected it with recent discussions of austerity that we were having in the sister course on the university budget. The intimacy of his photographs reflected the growing commitment that the students felt not only toward this course, but also toward these building.

As they did this work, the students invariably started to notice various construction scars throughout the building and started to piece together the history of these buildings adaptations over time. One of the challenges that we faced in studying these buildings is that the original blue prints were not preserved. In fact, as we started to recognize that complex histories of these buildings we decamped to the University Archives where we poured through various collections in an effort to trace the changes made to the buildings over time. This was not guided by a kind of architectural fundamentalism, but by questions that originated in the space of the Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre halls. Questions that emerged through the students’ relentless exploration of the space triggered their interest in piecing together how they changed over time through photographs, technical plans, and any other sources of information that might reveal their histories. For example, the students and I quickly recognized the large classroom in Corwin Hall with its distinctive low arched ceiling as the former recital hall of Wesley College’s music program. When the building was modified to accommodate offices and classrooms, the builders truncated room’s north side, where the proscenium would have stood, and replaced it with a wall and chalk boards. Despite this modified condition, the students and some colleagues across campus understood the potential of recording the acoustics of this space as both a gesture to the room’s history as performance space and as a chance to document the building’s acoustic signature. We have published the results of this work in collaboration with some of Atchley’s photographs in Epoiesen.

In Sayre Hall, the students and I were confused by a strange pattern of wood slats affixed the the ceiling of a room in Sayre Hall but hidden by the drop ceiling. These wood slats once supported a coffered ceiling and revealed the room to the formal sitting room of the Sayre Hall dormitory. The photographs that the students found in the University Archives revealed turn-of-the-century space worthy of the “jazz age” tastes of pre-depression America complete with potted ferns, an elaborate fireplace, and terrazzo floor with mosaic inlays. A return visit to the room led us to tear up the institutional wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal the more elegant flooring beneath. Efforts to find the fireplace, immured over the course of innumerable renovations to the space, were less fruitful, but nevertheless engaged the students’ curiosity.

Time in the archives led the students to perhaps the most spectacular find associated with the Wesley College buildings. Amid the various record associated with the soliciting of funds from donors and the construction of the buildings was a folder associated with the relationship between the Sayre family and the long-serving president of Wesley College, Edward P. Robertson. In these papers was the story of A.J. Sayre’s son, Harold Holt Sayre, who had died in World War I. In 1918, Roberston honored the request of A.J. Sayre and changed the name of Sayre Hall to Harold H. Sayre Hall as a memorial to his son’s sacrifice. Included in the folder associated with this correspondence was a four-page poem, ”At the Grave of a Dead Gunner” written by Horace Shidler. Sayre was the gunner in the plane that Shidler had piloted. This touching tribute affected the class deeply and transformed the process of documenting these buildings from one driven by curiosity to one driven by a sense of deep respect for not only Sayre’s memory, but the students, faculty, administrators, and staff who had passed through these buildings. Later that week students discovered names carved into a pane of window glass in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. These students lived in room in Sayre Hall before going on to careers in law, higher education, and business. One of the students, however, died in France in World War I and once again connected this building to centennial reflections taking place in both the US and Europe to mark the conclusion of the “Great War.”

Students produced all these discoveries, and they became increasingly motivated that our work do more than simply document these buildings in their abandoned state. Through ongoing conversations both in the buildings and in the University Archives, we came to recognize that the ongoing use of these buildings served to keep the memories of Sayre and Wesley College students evergreen and the demolition of the buildings would break the connections between the lived space of campus and the Great War. To mark this transformation the students helped coordinate a final event for the buildings and invited the university president, representatives of the city of Grand Forks, the campus Reserve Officers Training Corp, and, perhaps most importantly, the commanding officer of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to speak at a ceremony recognizing the loss that these buildings will mean to campus memory. A colleague in the department of history provided a brief historical survey of the Great War and a colleague from the department of English played bagpipes to amplify the solemnity of the occasion. The weather cooperated and on a brilliant spring day, we recognized the buildings and those who they honored.

Reflections and Discussion

From the start, I did not design this class to produce a particular outcome. As a result, there is no measure against which I could assess its success or failure. Indeed, the absence of any anticipated outcome as an objective undercut the need for a particularly explicit pedagogy. While we talked casually about the technology that we had at our disposal (notebooks, cameras, and our phones) and matters of access to the building, mostly I encouraged the students to engage the space creatively and to allow their curiosity to dictate their approaches to knowledge making. This informality encouraged the students to follow the lead of the objects and buildings themselves to the archives and various observations and discoveries reflected a pedagogical experience anchored in a form of free inquiry structured by the buildings themselves. Most of the reflections in the following section derive from hindsight, but this retroactive approach to understand the character of the course may well offer some salient points for future efforts in constructing distinctive possibile pedagogies for the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The idea of an approach to teaching that eschews narrowly defined outcomes is hardly revolutionary. Paolo Fiere’s oft-cited critique of the “banking model of education,” for example, offered a collaborative model for adult learning where learners and teachers create new knowledge together through dialogue. Fiere’s skepticism toward contemporary education resonated in part with Paul Goodman’s call to abolish most educational institutions and Ivan Illich’s nearly contemporary notion of “deschooling.” Fiere, Goodman, and Illich regarded most contemporary schooling as a mechanism for social and economic control and championed more open-ended, collaborative, and hand-on approaches as a means of unlocking the emancipatory potential of education. In more recent years, a steady stream of scholars have sought to reconcile the institutional constraints of higher education and the desire of more emancipatory or even transgressive learning (e.g. hooks 1994; Gannon 2020). In fact, as higher education has become increasingly associated with work force development and shaped by private capital (e.g. Newfield 2016) the need to imagine alternatives that work to critique or even subvert existing systems of learning has become more urgent. Recent calls for ungrading, for example, stress the role that grading plays in sorting and ranking students. This not only reinforces the role of education as a tool for determining the value of students in the market, but also exerts an outsized role on student expectations and the classroom experience where grades become the goal rather than learning. Dispensing with grades, as I did in this course, is often associated with efforts to critique marketplace models of education that require or least imply winners and losers. While efforts to imagine alternatives to current approaches to higher education (e.g. Staley 2019) often seek to challenge or subvert the marketplace model (e.g. Menand), sustained external pressures from a wide range of stakeholders continue to push institutions to adopt the practices of the private sector with their concern for efficiency, competition, and economy.

The students and I discussed many of the trends shaping higher education in the course on the university budget and they invariable informed some of the ideas that I was developing associated with “slow archaeology” (Caraher 2016; Caraher 2019). Slow archaeology in its various forms emphasizes the value of a sustained engagement with spaces and objects and the use of less structured recording methods alongside and often in constrast to more formal and digital field techniques. Slow archaeology critiqued the outsized role of efficiency in contemporary society. The modern origins of archaeological practice favored specialized skills, neatly delineated procedures, and hierarchy which produced knowledge making practices susceptible to digital tools and their claims to increased efficiency. This coincided with the role of archaeology and cultural resource management in a modern economy shaped by the “great acceleration.” In North Dakota, specifically, the early-21st-century Bakken oil boom created a similar boom in archaeological work amid the reshaping of the Western North Dakota landscape in service of extractive industries. The role that archaeology played in the controversies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline made clear that supermodernity (sensu González-Ruibal 2008; 2018) recognized archaeology and heritage as simply another input into the complex financial equations designed to produce resources in the most efficient way possible. As many of the students enrolled in the Wesley College class were also enrolled in my concurrent course on the university budget where we discussed issues such as “deferred maintenance” that allocated the costs of maintaining campus buildings to the disadvantage of older structures which not only preserved significant memories but also required more maintenance by dint of their age alone.

The methods taken by my students and I anticipated some of the approaches modeled by Christopher Witmore in his “chorography” of the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus with its emphasis on the role of objects, places, and space as opposed to practices, methods, and institutions in producing the freedom for new kinds of knowledge (Witmore 2020). In much the same way that Whitmore modeled in his book, the students and I walked through, talked about, and worked together to understand the spaces and objects present in these buildings. We followed leads, debated theories, and relied on our range of experiences and interests to create and share our distinct experiences. The resulting photo essay (Atchley 201x), musical composition, publications (Caraher et al. 2019), and events represented only a narrow window into our time in the building. The irreducibility of the experiences that spending time in these buildings provided evoked the Whitmore’s concern for the transformation of the countryside by supermodernity. Spending time in the Wesley College buildings led the students to develop a greater sensitivity toward the changing economic realities facing campus, the history that the Wesley College buildings embodied, and the ease with which they could be erased from both the campus plan and memory. It goes without saying that it would be easy to overstate the connections between Witmore’s magisterial book and a group of students in a one-credit university course especially since the book appeared two years after the course was over. That said, Witmore’s openness to the instigations and provocations provided by the objects in the Greeks landscape challenges conventional approaches to archaeological work that looks toward rigorous methods to mediate between the material world and our curiosity.

Graffiti

A correspondence with Justin Walsh of the International Space Station Archaeological Project nudged me to return to Susan A. Phillips’s work on graffiti in Los Angeles. I had read some of her articles on graffiti and its relationship to Los Angeles history and late-20th-century gang culture, but for reasons that are hard to understand I had neither integrated this into my chapter on cities in my book, nor had read her rather recent book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.

It goes without saying that Phillips work is fantastic especially as she traces the intermingling of Los Angeles urban history (and ecology) and the practices and places of graffiti. It gets even more intriguing when she tracks the history of urban writing (up through tagging) — in the era before large scale graffiti mitigation and the rise of massive, roller assisted, street art — through the 1990s and anchors these in the significant subcultures in the Los Angeles area. The role of hobos, railroad workers, punks, immigrants, military men, neighborhood kids, queers, and various other vibrant subcultures made their marks on the urban landscape. 

As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I had always been fascinated by the graffiti that I saw especially on schools that had been mothballed around north Wilmington. (I remember vividly the massive cruciform graffito of The Who on the side of Forward Junior High School as a kid and wondering about it). Most of this graffiti was mystifying to me. I didn’t understand tags, street art, or any of the other conventions, but I did admire the appearance of names and art across the landscape that I knew so well. 

One of the really curious things about my community here in North Dakota is that there is almost no graffiti anywhere. There are a few odd marks on the Washington Street underpass and of course the rail yard ensures that we have a constant flow of decorated train cars through town. I’ve heard there was some painting on the tunnel under Route 2 near Wilder School years back, but my impression is that it’s gone. There is an occasional tag or stencil in the tunnel under Columbia Road on UND’s campus, but that’s usually painted over. Remarkably the city is defined by its flood walls, but I’ve never seen any graffiti on these wall (and I frequent the the parks created by the flood walls). As Mos Def quipped: “there’s a city full of walls to post complaints at.” But, maybe the lack of graffiti suggests that there is very little reason for the kind of pent up anxieties that manifested in graffiti or that the youthful exuberance that supported the desire to make one’s name known has been channeled into other, undoubtedly more “wholesome” (or at least more closely supervised) activities. 

One place where I did recognize graffiti was on UND’s campus, particularly in the Wesley College building sand I’m still kicking myself for not documenting it as intensively as we should have. Some of it we did photograph, such as these inscribed bricks found on the east wall of Robinson-Sayre Hall and these inscribed widows pains from Sayre Hall

Some of the best graffiti however was found inscribed into the solid wood furniture that had made its way into the soon to be demolished buildings. The graffiti here followed conventions and practices tracked by Phillips in many situations across Los Angeles. The writers, almost certainly students, carved their names, their initials, their feelings, and an assortment of dates into the table top along with band names and lyrics, fraternity and sorority names, and various other sentiments common to college students.

P1010220

P1010226

The earliest graffito on the desk dates to 1956.

P1010232

But the most interesting is a sequence of dates starting in 1975 and updated into the 1990s (and the last date added was 2012).

P1010228

This table most likely was destroyed during the demolition of the building but it represents a remarkable find demonstrating over 60 years of continuity in student practices on campus. In an era replete with invented traditions, it is curious that we didn’t find anything more remarkable (or worth saving) in this far more authentic example of student culture.

What makes it all the more painful is that the rapid transformation of our campus over the last few years has made such long-lasting artifacts more and rare. Solid wood tables, chairs, and surfaces continuously visible for decades have become a rarity on our campus. In their place is an assortment of quickly discarded fiber board furniture, hard plastic chairs that have shorter lifespans than even the technologically dependent classrooms where they stand, and new, unblemished modern surfaces. These clean and disposable surfaces and contexts are obviously ironic. They offer new and prospective students the feeling of recently renovated hotel, prepare just for them, while obscuring the real marks of generations of students, faculty, and staff. They mimic the historical architectural forms of collegiate Gothic buildings with their suggestions of continuity and persistence, while replacing decades-old furnishing with the latest in laminated particle board and moulded plastic. In short, campus leaders eagerly transform the materiality of their institutions into the kind of benign (and sanitary) non-places expected of their short term residents (and their parents), while assuring the students that they can, figurative, make their mark on campus as part of a peerless tradition (that is neatly erased in time for the incoming class’s arrival).

I had the good fortune of attending Ohio State in the 1990s before the campus and its surroundings had become gentrified. Some of my fondest memories revolve around encountering the burry division between campus and the gritty surrounding community and realizing two contradictory things. First, the patina on campus reminded me that I was just a visitor here and one of many such visitors who had lived, studied, worked, and played in this place. But then, this also encouraged me to recognize that my ephemeral marks on campus — whether graffito or a well-trod path or a memory deeply inscribed in a particular place — contributed to its material form in a persistent way. This created a sense of connection which parallels some of Susan Phillips work on graffiti and one that I worry that I not only failed to document rigorously when I did see it on UND’s campus, but also sorely miss here at UND.   

Two Abstract Thursday: pilgrimCHAT and Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era

As my race to finish up lingering summer projects before so-called “vacation” and the start of the semester, this includes writing two abstracts with August 1 deadlines. The first abstract is for the November pilgrimCHAT conference and the second is for a book on “Teaching and Learning the Archaeology of the Contemporary Era” edited by Gabriel Moshenska

I generally suck at writing abstracts and usually struggle to produce papers that make good on what the abstract promises. That said, it is abstract time, so here goes.

Abstract the First: pilgrimCHAT [291]

In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

This static presentation, supplemented with video, photographs, and possibly audio, seeks to explore the Grand Forks Greenway as a corridor for movement of water, animals, and humans that is defined by a series of walls. The text will consider the tension between walls and movement and the way in which the two co-create the experience, environment, and history of this distinctive landscape.

Abstract the Second: Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (502)

From the early 1980s, campus archaeology has represented a key element in the training of archaeologists. Controlled excavations and surveys have introduced students not only to the basics of archaeological methods and recording practices, but also the history of their campuses. A number of publications have also demonstrated the pedagogical potential associated with the systematic documentation of material culture associated with contemporary campus life. 

This contribution will document my experiences teaching a two month class focused on two abandoned buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota prior to their destruction. Students in the class were given very basic instructions on how to document the buildings and the any post-abandonment contents. When they encountered the complexity of the buildings and the assemblages, however, our system of documentation broke down and in its place emerged a more organic and dynamic form of engagement with the content and architecture of these buildings. Rather than trying to impose structure this moment of anarchic adaptation, I let the experiment run its course. The results were a remarkable degree of student engagement, valuable instances of discovery, expressions of creativity, and successful outreach.

Submitted: Hearing Corwin Hall

Needless to say, the last few months have not been particularly productive for me, but every now and then I fought through the COVID-malaise to produce something. It helps when collaborators are invested and involved and when a project feels like it has significance for my lived experience.

All this to say that in the next 30 minutes, I’ll have (finally) submitted something based on our sometimes frantic, but always intriguing work with the Wesley College Documentation Project and Michael Wittgraf’s mixed-media piece “Hearing Corwin Hall.” I’m sending it to Epoiesen, an electronic journal that is equipped to bring together video, documents, images, and text.  

The article is called “Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus” and is cowritten with Mike Wittgraf and Wyatt Atchley, a talented photographer whose photographs offer nuance, atmosphere, and critique within the article itself.

The article has also benefited from my embarrassingly recent discover of Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) which helped me connect my own feelings of anxiety and dread to conditions on my campus (if not in larger society) and as a meaningful experience worthy of both critique and documentation. My hope is that this piece is the start of some of that work (especially as seen through Wyatt’s vision and Mike’s music and video). 

This is a pretty personal article for me, so I’d love it if you check it out here. Most of the links should work, but a few won’t because those are videos that we’ll hopefully publish if and when this thing gets formally published.

Wish us luck!!

A Conclusion to Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I started pulling together a short article for Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen. I’ve been posting them in somewhat random order here on my blog. Because I wanted to foreground Mike Witrgraf’s video work “Hearing Corwin Hall,” I decided to introduce the article with only a very short lede and then embed the video work on the page. You can read that here and watch the video here.

Then, treating “Hearing Corwin Hall” as a kind of archaeological data or object, I proceeded with a longer discussion that offers context for the piece and some basic analysis. You can read more of that here.

Finally, I’ve put together a not entirely satisfying conclusion here which draws on the work of Sara Perry, Ruth Tringham, and Cornelius Holtorf. This will obviously require some revision for clarity and it’ll also need to be expanded, but I’m tired today and have grading to do and some other projects that are demanding my attention. So for today, this feels like a wrap. I’ll put the entire piece together sometime in the next week or two, circulate to my co-authors, and then send it off to Shawn and Company early next year.  

Conclusions

The piece seeks to communicate in non verbal ways the history and archaeology of Corwin Hall. This approach to archaeology with parallels with recent calls for an affective archaeology. Sara Perry’s work, for example, explored the role of enchantment and affect in producing knowledge of the past (Perry 2015, 2019). For Perry, enchantment lies at the core of archaeology’s ability to produce action. Hearing Corwin Hall communicates the anxiety of change in campus through a range of non-verbal techniques anchored in the reproduction of the acoustic character of the recital room and the various events associated with the Wesley College Documentation Project. The techniques used in Hearing Corwin Hall paralleled those discussed by Ruth Tringham’s in her recent article on creating ways to explore the deep past that do not rely on the use of contemporary language. Tringham’s willingness to create engagements with the past that allow for significant ambiguity where the audience has opportunities for an emotional response, imagination, and reflection often lost in traditional archaeological texts, descriptions, and reconstructions (2019). We hoped that Hearing Corwin Hall allows listeners to not only experience some of our own encounters with these buildings, but also formulate their own views. Despite the ambiguity of many of the electronic sounds and the garbled looped voice, and the abrasiveness, abruptness, and density of the piece invites strong opinions and responses.

In many ways, the appeal of Hearing Corwin Hall to the enchanting and affecting potential of heritage, does not entirely avoid appealing to“crisis based” or “heritage at risk” narratives. As Cornelius Holtorf has argued crisis based narratives which seek to communicate a sense of urgency by viewing of cultural heritage as a limited and ever shrinking resource has only a limited potential to motivate more expansive, inclusive, or resilient views of the community (Holtorf 2015, 2018). At the same time, by seeking to commemorate and recognize the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus through conventional documentation practices as well as performances and the Hearing Corwin Hall recording we situated the demolition of these buildings within a larger conversation of change on campus and the anxieties that liminal states induce. Our efforts to document the changes to these buildings prior to their destruction by using the compromised acoustics of the recital hall as filter for Hearing Corwin Hall serves as both a reminder that campuses have always been the locations of change and art, music, history, and archaeology offer ways to bring attention to both the emotional impact of the contemporary situation, but also the resilience of the campus community. Hearing Corwin Hall makes clear that the loss of the Wesley College buildings contributed to a sense of local trauma. Performances offer one way to recognize, communicate, and ultimately mitigate the impact of continuous trauma of liminal anxiety on our campus.

More Fragments from Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I’ve been working on a piece for Epoiesen based on Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

You can watch the video here: 

My article introduces the video with a brief lede. The rest of the article follows the video and includes a short introduction to the Wesley College Documentation Project called “Studying Corwin Hall” and then a section on the history of Corwin Hall (“Building Corwin Hall”). The final two sections, which I’ve included in the blog post, deal at least superficially with performance, ruins, and affective and emotive archaeology.

Performing Corwin Hall

By the time that the Wesley College Documentation Project began the buildings were already abandoned. The last psychology faculty had reluctantly pulled up stakes from Corwin-Larimore Halls only after he had sent off the last grant application of the season. The honors program and campus technology services had departed Robertson-Sayre Hall at around the same time. Thus the buildings themselves entered a period of liminality. The traces of their prior use continuing to linger in the rooms, offices, and hallways, but at the same time, their fate was sealed and asbestos mitigation and demolition scheduled. The objects left behind and the histories of these buildings seemed to have reached a clear end point. Offices with mid-century desks, 21st century chairs, particleboard books shelves, bulletin boards, window air-conditioner units, and locked filing cabinets still preserved the imprints of their former occupants. Classrooms remain filled with rows of abandoned chairs too outdated for even state-university surplus and tables and lecterns long ago supplanted by high-tech ”teaching stations” with integrated computers. The labs of the third floor were filled with aging computers, dense tangles of obsolete connectors, and abandoned equipment of uncertain age and function. The content of these spaces reflected not only their present abandoned state, but revealed the abandonment as a process that began long before the university scheduled these buildings for destruction.

Our encounter with Corwin and Larimore Halls was not only infused that its failure to survive as an independent institution and its impending erasure from campus, but also by the objects that were left behind which served as a diachronic reminder that campuses exist in a state of constant flux. As a result, our work in the liminal space of the Wesley College buildings amplified the pervasive sense of anxiety across campus. In an effort to recognize the liminal state in which these buildings existed, we decided to combine our work with two events designed to mark out both contemporary and past changes on campus. The first event centered on recognizing that Sayre Hall was renamed in the 1920s for Harold H. Sayre who was killed in World War I. To commemorate the demolition of this building almost exactly a century after the Armistice that ended the Great War, we invited campus dignitaries, officials from the Grand Force Air Force Base and the city, as well as faculty, staff, and students to a short ceremony designed to recognize the end of this memorial building. The event involved brief reflections on the building, the sacrifices of veterans, and a bagpiper on a beautiful spring day. The program included a poem composed by Sayre’s pilot who credited Sayre’s bravery with saving his life when they were shot down in France.

Simon Murray’s recent book, Performing Ruins, considers the feelings that ruins evoke when they serve as the setting for performances. Murray acknowledged that the definition of ruins was ambiguous, but that the term typically described buildings that were in movement or between the states of use to terminal collapse. In this context, the Wesley College buildings, while still standing and intact, were ruins as their abandonment, neglect, and fate combine to create a sense of inevitable decline. As Wyatt Atcheley’s photographs, which accompany this article demonstrate, the status of the Wesley College buildings as ruins produced an experience of the uncanny which is common in liminal spaces and confused encounters with the familiar and unfamiliar. In Murray’s work, he notes that the occupation of ruins through their performance seeks in some cases to suspend these spaces and to arrest, for a moment, their movement into oblivion (288-289). The ceremonies associated with Sayre Hall implicitly invited the community to consider the parallel between Sayre’s death and the destruction of his memorial. By accentuating Sayre’s memory, the ceremony briefly reversed the inevitable flow of time toward the building’s destruction and the memorial’s erasure from campus. This also presented an opportunity to critique the changes taking place on campus by drawing attention to buildings prior to their destruction. The tendency for contractors to demolish in between terms and in the summer months when students and faculty are not on campus is often a concession to safety, but it also has the effect of making buildings seem simply to disappear.

The second performance associated with the Wesley College buildings was a final concert in the Corwin Hall recital room. William Caraher introduced the room and the selection of songs with brief remarks at the beginning of the event. Then, Michael Wittgraf performed several songs from the Methodist hymnal on an electronic keyboard to a small audience who sat amid stacks of abandoned classroom chairs, tables, and scraps of paper. At the end of the performance, he recorded a series of sounds designed to capture more clearly the acoustic signature of the space. To record the room’s signature and the concert we arranged seven microphones both within the recital hall, but also throughout Larimore Hall and on the landing outside the southern entrance to the room. Our goal was to produce an acoustic archaeology of the room by capturing not only whatever character of the original recital hall remained, but also the sound of the transformed space. In this way, we use acoustic recording methods in a similar way to the visual recording techniques typically used by archaeologists to record buildings and landscapes.

The inspiration for this project came from several recent efforts to capture the acoustic character of Byzantine churches in Greece and Turkey (Papalexandrou 2017; Gerstel et al. 2018). These projects typically involved sophisticated recording strategies and technology as well as choirs performing period appropriate music. This work, however, sought to reconstructing ancient, Medieval, or Early Modern “soundscapes” (Smith 1999). It was appealing to imagine that we could reconstruct the original acoustics of the now-compromised Corwin recital room, but we neither had the technology nor the time to attempt such an ambitious sonic simulation. Instead, by performing in the Corwin Hall room, we aimed to document the room’s abandoned and transformed state. Like the project’s broader effort to recognize the traces of use throughout these buildings, the acoustic signature of the room would capture, even if in subtle and indistinct ways, the sounds of its transformation, neglect, and abandonment. By performing this event with an audience we once again sought to pause the inevitable progress of the building toward demolition and abandonment. We also sought to locate bodies in the acoustic space of the building invoking its history as a recital hall, a classroom, and part of a bustling department and campus. In short, our recording both recognized the terminal status of the building and the room, while also capturing its transformations. The songs were superficially familiar, but the transformed space rendered them uncanny.

Hearing Corwin Hall

The event in the Corwin Hall recital room was not the final performance associated with the project. The recordings of the music and the sounds of the rooms became the basis for a multimedia performance work called Hearing Corwin Hall which captured the liminal state of Corwin Hall but also embodied the anxiety present on our university campus. These performances, in turn, became the basis for the video associated with this article. By using the acoustics of Corwin Hall as a filter for the audio component of performance, Wittgraf located the anxiety present in the recital hall’s liminal and compromised space. It also embodied the anxiety endemic on university campuses and in the particular situation on UND’s campus created a heightened sense of anxiety.

Hearing Corwin Hall told the story of the buildings and the Wesley College campus. From the construction of the buildings, triggered by the placement of a brick on the stage at the 1:30 mark which interrupted the peaceful chorus of crickets that comprised the first 100 seconds of the piece. The introduction of the sounds of motors and passing traffic along side the crickets and soon a looped track of Caraher’s voice indicates the purchase of campus by UND in the 1960s. The initial placement of a sledge hammer on bricks, then brings in the organ and Sheila Liming’s bagpipe from the Sayre Hall memorial ceremony as the din of traffic and Caraher’s looped voice continues. The powerful blows with the sledgehammer at the 6:40 mark the start of the building’s destruction which then slowly descends into the reverberation acoustics of the Corwin Hall. The last four minutes of the piece lingers offering a false sense of resolution. The buildings are gone, but their echoes persist.

Hearing Corwin Hall

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

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

Hearing Corwin Hall

Introduction

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

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

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

Discussion

College campuses are anxious places.

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

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

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

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

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

Brokenness and Repair

Over the last week or so, I’ve been carrying around Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) in part to keep my fingers in the book that I’m trying to write on the archaeology of contemporary America and, in part, because I thought it might speak to me about the headlines these days that emphasize the brokenness of, say, the US health systems. (That there are case studies involving the Pantheon clock and Swiss watches is just a happy bonus!). 

The essays largely focus on the materiality of brokenness and repair. The case studies from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia offered particularly compelling case studies. In these contexts, brokenness largely represented the transition from state-controlled and centrally administered regimes of maintenance to a system grounded in the market economics. Tamta Khalvashi’s ethnography of brokenness and maintenance in the elevators of Georgia, for example, provided insights into the strategies used to ensure that the elevators in Soviet era apartment buildings continued to function once the centralized maintenance systems became privatized. From coin boxes to the contributions of residents (and the various efforts from folks to game the system or to avoid paying their share of elevator maintenance costs), Khalvashi maps the adaptive strategies of various communities in their effort to preserve the material manifestations of an earlier regime. Similar ethnographies of roads, holes, and buildings in other former communist block countries demonstrated similar trajectories where brokenness represents discontinuities within the history of these places and repairs present efforts both at preserving experiences and utility of objects and places as well as marking the passage of time.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life on university campuses and some recent time exploring and documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings, I found the exploration of brokenness and repair a useful way of understanding the fabric of these buildings. More than that, it helped me appreciate the materiality of their history and how their fragmented and discontinuous pasts challenge the kinds of cohesive narratives that institutions cultivate. If the two tensions of traditional and progress define university campuses, then the visibility of repairs complicates a present constructed as an uninterrupted expression of past values. It also suggests that progress does not follow a continuous and rational trajectory from the flawed and imperfect to the improved and perfected. Repairs indicate recursive and imperfect encounters with tradition and the halting and discontinuous working of progress.

On our campus, then, the buildings most scarred with repairs the first buildings that ambitious administrators seek to erase with new constructions. These new buildings embody progress by overwriting the past and suggest tradition by creating a purified version of the architectural styles present across campus which then stand is as pure examples of an uninterrupted past.

In short, brokenness and repair create problematic ruptures in the way in which communities understand their past. At the same time, preserving evidence for repair, in turn, preserves the ruptures in the past that reveal agency in ways that the rather disembodied or heroic narratives of progress and tradition attempt to overwrite.