Citational Politics: Citing Dissertations

One of the aspects of revising my book manuscript that I’m currently negotiating is knowing whether and when to cite a dissertation. At some point in my career, someone told me it was generally bad form to criticize a dissertation (or a dissertation’s arguments) in a published work. It was regarded as a kind of punching down, and I feel like I’ve generally followed this rule.

I suppose that understanding this rule also put me off citing recent dissertations in general, beyond acknowledging their existence. As someone who started his academic career fairly early in the internet age, I worried about issues of access. I worried that citing scholarship that was not accessible to readers or reviewers was not a particularly useful gesture and something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (such as in the case of referencing an idea from a dissertation or if a dissertation was the only existing reference for certain information). That said, with greater access to dissertations especially in digital forms, I have started to cite dissertations more frequently in my work, and this got my thinking about when it is appropriate to cite a dissertation and when it might be a good idea to avoid it (unless it is absolutely necessary for reasons of scholarly transparency or integrity!). 

On a short and painful run, I identified five types of dissertations each with their own challenges.

1. Classics. These dissertations are those golden theses that have enduring value and have never been replaced by a published book. For my work, John Leonard’s 2005 dissertation, “Roman Cyprus : harbors, hinterlands, and “hidden powers”,” which is a synthetic gazetteer of maritime sites on the island remains a useful (if slightly dated) reference for coastal Cyprus. I can add to this to Richard Maguire’s “Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus,” a 2012 dissertation from the University of East Anglia, Jody Michael Gordon’s dissertation, “Between Alexandria and Rome: a postcolonial archaeology of cultural identity in Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus,” and Yannis Varalis’s 2001 dissertation on Early Christian basilicas from Illyricum Orientale at the University of Thessaloniki. There are, of course, many others.  

These are absolutely citable because they’re useful, insightful, and at 10 or more years after their appearance, it seems unlikely that a published version will appear that supersedes the unpublished dissertation.

2. Place Holder Dissertations. These are dissertations that are incredibly useful, but seem likely to be superseded by a published work. In most cases, the utility of these dissertations, at least in my field, has less to do with particular arguments that they make and more to do with the material that they synthesize or organize. A good example from my own research was William Bowden’s 2000 dissertation at East Anglia which included a fantastic gazetteer of sites in Epirus Vetus which included work published in Albanian. This dissertation was replaced by his 2003 book, Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, but while I was working on my dissertation, for example, his dissertation was too valuable to ignore and while the book is now the proper reference, from 2000-2003, the dissertation was a more than satisfactory place holder. Erkki Sironen’s dissertation at Helsinki, “The Late Roman and Early Byzantine Inscriptions of Athens and Attica” which ultimately appeared as IG volume (IG 14?) many years later. 

It seems reasonable to cite these dissertations especially in their capacity as synthetic works and catalogues where even if they are superseded by a published book, the basic utility remains intact.

3. Buddy Dissertations. There are some dissertations that develop in professional and person contexts that make it necessary to cite them, despite what might be their provisional status. These I am calling, colloquially, buddy dissertations. For example, David Pettegrew and I wrote our dissertations together and I was deeply influenced by his work. In this case, it only made sense to cite his, “Corinth on the Isthmus: Studies of the End of an Ancient Landscape” even though I knew that it would be superseded by a book. Similarly, Mike Dixon’s 2000 dissertation, especially on areas of the southeastern Corinthia was so well-known to me as an archaeologist and a fellow graduate student that it made sense to cite this as an influential work well before his book was published. In other cases, these dissertations are not literally by “buddies” or classmates, but by people whose paths or interests intersected during graduate school at conference, research centers like Dumbarton Oaks or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and whose influences deserve formal acknowledgement.  

Citing these dissertations tends to reflect the existence of certain emerging knowledge networks that might not be entirely visible to people not familiar with the social life of the field.

4. Fresh Cuts. Today it is easier than ever to get a copy of a recent dissertation. Not only do many schools host digital repositories that make dissertations available soon after their acceptance, but ProQuest distributes dissertations in both digital and print form with most available for <$50 and almost instantly. These are dissertations that exist outside of one’s formal knowledge network which makes the status and content of these works harder to discern. More specifically, it makes it hard to know whether these works are finished products or place holders awaiting a more refined and developed revision published as a book manuscript. Because dissertation committees can exert considerable pressures on a student and because dissertations are often written under immense funding pressure and other academic deadlines, they often represent highly compromised documents that may or may not reflect the final stage of a scholar’s thinking. 

At the same time, with the vagaries of the academic job market and the ongoing contraction of certain fields, dissertations may be the only expression of a scholars contribution to the field. In other words, if we want to include new voices to ongoing discussions, we have to consider engaging with dissertations because the changing employment landscape of our discipline has eroded expectations that there will be support for revision and refinement in the future.

In these situations, it is hard to know whether we should cite dissertations and how we should engage their ideas. I still find the idea of criticizing an argument in a recent dissertation a form of “punching down” and unnecessary, but I do worry that a failure to critique substantively a dissertation as one would a published book or article is a form intellectual neglect that not only creates an uneven playing field but also may serve to marginalize voices already marginalized by the current academic economy.    

5. Embargoed Dissertations. I really wanted to call this “Embargo Queens” as a pun on “garage queens” or cars that are too beautiful to drive, but this would be unfair. What I’m referring to in this case are dissertations that are formally embargoed by their authors usually for 5 years. This usually means that the dissertation is not available as a digital copy or via ProQuest and the goal is to give the authors a chance to revise their dissertations and find a publisher. After all, the changing landscape of academia extends to publishing as well and I’ve heard more than one academic publishers say that they’re reluctant to even consider a publishing a book too closely based on a dissertation. 

The challenge with citing an embargoed dissertation is that access to these works is circumscribed and in many (if not most) cases the dissertation is undergoing revision. It’s like citing a work in progress without knowing what it is progressing toward and, to me at least, it feels only a little better than the dreaded “pers. com.” citation that makes a claim impossible to verify (the worst pers. com. are when the pers. with whom the author com.ed is no longer among the living).

Of course, it is always possible to reach out to the scholar and ask their permission or even request a copy of a dissertation. These personal networks, whether formed through buddy dissertations or just typical academic correspondence, remain a key cog in the professional machine, but they also represent privilege of access and whether we like it or not, power dynamics within our field. I do wonder whether a new PhD would feel comfortable denying access or permission to cite to a senior scholar in their field. 

Here, then, we have reached the end of my speculations on citational politics and dissertations. I’m not sure I’ve resolved my conundrum as to whether and how to cite, engage, and critique the range of dissertations available for scholarly consumption, and I would love to hear what other people thing about these issues!

After Discourse

This past weekend, I read After Discourse: Things, Affects, Ethics edited by Bjørnar J. Olsen, Mats Burström, Caitlin DeSilvey, and Þóra Pétursdóttir. The entire book is worth a perusal, if you’re familiar with the work of the editors and their typical host of collaborators and colleagues. 

I want to focus on two specific parts of the book that attracted my attention. 

The first section of the book was titled: “Things: Writing, nearing, knowing” and it brought together a series of articles that considered how we write about the archaeology of the contemporary world. The contributors to this section address something that I too have recognized as a problem (and to be honest I was likely inspired as much by reading the contributors and editors fo this volume as works by scholars such as Amitav Ghosh, Lauren Berlant, and Rebecca Solnit). I’ve started to wonder about the limits to the language, genre, and forms of writing that we use to think and write about our own place within the deep past (whether articulated as the Anthropocene or something else), within the climate crisis, and within the incredibly (and increasingly) fleeting moment that is the contemporary.

It was particularly exciting to read Bjørnar J. Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s explicit critique of the IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) style of academic (and, in particular, archaeological) writing. Scholars have long argued that its concise form and easily recognized and understood style of organization evokes an idealized form of the scientific processes that produce the article’s specific conclusions. At the same time, this this idealized form suppresses the complexities, ambiguities, and openness of the research process in the name of legibility and efficiency. While there is no doubt that it is easier for an academic to read and process an article written in IMRAD style, but, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of the anti-science movement, the clarity of expression may not be the only and best measure for effectiveness of knowledge production. Our unwillingness  

[I’m increasingly interested in the role that fiction can and should play in academic knowledge production.]

As Robert Macfarland pointed out in his essay, the complexities of the archaeological record and our current cocktail of crises (COVID, capitalism, racism, virulent populism, climate change) resist resolution or reduction in a tidy linear package. Tracing the contours of the contemporary may involve embracing a styles of writing that moves abruptly across scales, embraces fragmentation, doubles back on itself, and reifies the inherent ambiguity of processes whose outcomes are not yet clear.

I was likewise taken by Chris Witmore and Curtis L. Francisco’s journey through the environment surround the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine in New Mexico. The mine was the largest open pit uranium mine in the world and functioned from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The Laguna Pueblo people live in the lands surrounding the mine and many worked in the mine itself. The impact of the radiation unleashed from the exploitation of the mine into the region has been catastrophic for this community, as their lands, their homes, and the local landscape itself has become radioactive. While the mining company made an effort to remediate the mine, the site remains a superfund site, but mitigating the damage that the radiation has caused to the surrounding area seems impossible.

The contribution by Witmore and Francisco is not a straight forward discussion of the mine and its history and impacts, but a trip through the landscape surrounding the mine. By tracing the impacts of the mine on the ground through places, stories, and encounters, the deep integration of the radiation and the mine with the area becomes not clear —because this isn’t a story that requires or rewards clarity—but apparent against the shifting backdrop of the history, environment, and economy of the Pueblo community.

To be clear, Witmore and Francisco do not present their argument for the impact of the Jackpile-Paguate mine through some kind of radical or chimerical generic exploration. Their article is simply the synthesis of a series of trips and conversation through the area surrounding the mine. This approach to communicating and exploring the issues surrounding the impact of the mine, the ubiquity of the radiation that the mining unleashed, and the future of the people, animals, and plants that live in this tainted landscape, however, leads the reader away from any simple solution and toward a deeper appreciation of the complexities associated with life in the Anthropocene.

~

In any event, this book is good and well worth the read even if the themes and participants publish almost as frequently as William Parker releases albums. There will be something familiar in this book and the work of these authors does not exist outside of the contemporary academic economy where production is measured in pages published and citations counted. That said, there is enough thought provoking here to be worth our time.

Fiction for History

Last week, I listened to my first audiobook: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It was lavishly produced (I think) and featured numerous actors and accents to enliven a story with a genuinely global reach. It is worth reading (or listening to). 

The book tells the story of climate change the role of a ministry established by the Paris Climate Agreement and designed to represent future generations as well as all those living entities on the Earth that could not speak or represent themselves. What interested me more than the plot (which is a Robinsonian plot if there ever was one) was the way in which Robinson wrote the book. It consisted of 106 chapters, most of which were short. Some chapters were narrative, others were vignettes, some were short research briefs, and others were odd first person descriptions of various inanimate objects such as blockchain or a carbon molecule. As a result, the book had a intriguing rhythm to it (especially as an audiobook). Robinson did not rely upon the rather typical (especially in science fiction and fantasy) device of intertwined parallel narratives (and, indeed, Robinson used in, say, his book Red Mars), but rather produced a book that is fragmented, constantly interrupted, and comprised of related, but non-narrative fragments.

This style of writing got me thinking (once again) about how dependent we have become as academic authors on FORM. In fact, most academic books in my field are essentially the same form as most other academic books. This is convenient because it allows us a scholars to digest them quickly and focus our attention more on matters of evidence and argument than on the book’s organization or, for lack of a better word, narrative. This is appropriate because most academics have the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate evidence and argument not only based on their internal arrangement (which as I’ve said tends to be more or less the same with every book), but also and more importantly based on the relationship of the evidence and argument to other external pieces of evidence and other arguments. As a result, it is pretty hard for someone who is not familiar with evidence and arguments at the core of a particular field to assess the validity or significance of an academic book or argument.

When historians and archaeologists attempt to adapt their writing to more popular audiences, we tend to default to forms of linear narratives derived from popular fiction and journalism. This produces texts that are familiar to a wide audience and that follow predictable arcs which tend to emphasize various kinds of heroic discovery or other tragic or comedic forms of emplotment that modern fiction (and non-fiction) has honed to a fine and familiar point. Authority in these works tends to rest, then, not on the quality of the story (although a fine storyteller can make even an old tired story come alive again), but usually on the authority of the storyteller. This is as much because a popular (that is non-scholarly) audience will probably struggle to assess the validity of specialized evidence (or be uninterested) as the form of the book is so typical and familiar to be rather indistinguishable from other books. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the argument or setting or time is the same, but that the general organization of the narrative follows a common and predictable trajectory populated with characters recognizable from elsewhere in our media saturated landscape.

In short, academic writing tends to be conservative whether intended for other academics or for a popular audience. This not only makes our work familiar and easy to digest and assess, but also supports our claims to a seriousness of purpose. When academic authors stray too far from the conventional forms, they are frequently accused of not being sufficiently serious or professional in their approach and this makes it easier to dismiss their arguments.

Robinson’s book, of course, is fiction and therefore removed from the constraints that shape scholarly work. By blending research and narrative, Robinson creates space to consider the social, political, and economic situation of a near-future existentially challenged by catastrophic climate change. The disrupted narrative embodies the poly-vocal (and at times cacophonic) discourse that emerges at the end of the world.

At the same time, the main narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of one of the most familiar stories in the world: the Gospels. The main character is Mary, a diplomat, who transforms the Ministry for the Future into a major force for global change. This occurred after a conversion experience. She is taken hostage by Frank, a man who survived a catastrophic Indian heat wave that killed 20 million people by sheltering in a pond surrounded by thousands of Indians who were dead or dying. This horrific baptism led Frank to period of wandering (in deserto) and growing radicalism that culminates in his abduction of Mary.

Maybe Mary is more like Jesus. Or maybe she is more like the Virgin. In some sense it doesn’t matter because she’s a familiar character whatever her analogue is in the Gospel narrative. She is surrounded by  apostles, who make up her staff, and include figures who are like Peter, Thomas, and the others (even if there is no conspicuous Judas) and some of whom become martyrs for the cause. Her Ministry (pun intended) introduces new laws designed to address not only the deteriorating situation but also to create new institutions that will replace those that are no longer adequate for the new world. To make sure that the daft reader, distracted and disconcerted by a narrative interrupted by fragments, digressions, and changing perspectives, doesn’t miss the explicitly millenarian arc, the final scenes of the book take place on Mardi Gras, the last big party before the rigorous preparation of Lent. This leads the reader to understand that this is not even the beginning, but really the end of the end, and the moment when the real hard work in anticipation and in preparation for the Resurrection starts.

Robinson’s book is a hard, serious, and uncomfortable read. It asks hard questions: are we ready to think about our future differently now or will we have to experience unthinkable horrors to make the necessary changes? 

As importantly, do contemporary academic and popular narratives have the necessary power to change hearts and minds? Or do we have to find new ways to communicate new ideas? 

Revising the Book: Still Thinking About an Introduction

One of the great things about a long road trip is that it gave me time to think about my plans for the fall. I used a good bit of that time to think about how I might revise my book manuscript this fall. My book is survey of recent work on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can check out most of it here and discussions of my approaches to revision here and here.

 As so often happens two of the reviewers requested minor changes and one reviewer suggested that I re-organize the entire manuscript. The two commissioning editors split roughly along similar lines with one suggesting some revisions and other suggestion more significant work. 

To be clear, I respect the opinions of the reviewers, and as someone who has reviewed his share of manuscripts lately, I recognize how much work it is to offer substantive feedback to a book or article length project. As a result, I have a tendency to try to accommodate as much of the reviewer feedback as possible. I also tend to understand most publications, even single-author books, to be the product of groups of scholars who over time have contributed to the final results in explicit and implicit ways from the book’s initial stages of formulation to its final publication. 

One upshot of this is that most contemporary scholarship bears the marks of being written by committee. This has tendency to level the differences between most academic books. They might use different bodies of evidence, have different organizations, and make different points, but most authors ultimately write books that look very much alike and follow conventions of scholarship deeply (and often explicitly) etched in our collective consciousness (and training) as scholars. It strikes me that this is probably it is a fairly common recommendation, at all levels of writing, that authors reorganize their work. Because every academic book looks a good bit like every other academic book, it is fairly easy to imagine one book as another and suggest that the author make an exchange. 

This isn’t to suggest that this is an easy thing to do. In fact, it carries with it a series of odd contradictions. For example, most scholars tend to write into an outline and develop our work in a modular way. Few scholars I know write into single document. Instead we produce our chapters as multiple documents and even as sub-chapters making it easy enough technologically to shuffle chapters and sections around. That said, it is never simply a matter of shuffling chapters and arguments. The coherence in a book often comes from the myriad of little pointers in a text that serve as the arguments connective tissue. So in most cases, reorganizing a manuscript involves a massive amount of fiddly work to ensure that the new organization sheds any artifacts associated with its former organization or lacks the kind of cohesion necessary for the new organization to work successfully.

What is odd is that all the connective tissue that we build into our works to transform our arguments from chunks of text written over months and years into a coherent text likely offers only modest benefits to the work itself. After all, most of us think about academic books not as something to be read, savored, or even tasted, but to be digested in bites and chunks. While I try to read 40 or so books cover-to-cover each year, I digest two or three times that number in various less systematic, but no less significant ways. Cohesion in academic writing is largely the indulgence of the author and a concern for the small number of readers and reviewers who take the book as a whole. 

As I mull over how I might reorganize my book, I keep wondering whether the it might just be easier to write a strong introduction that makes the case explicitly for why the book has one organization over another. This is unlikely to convince everyone all the time, but it elevates the organization of the book from an arbitrary decision to an argument and reviewers have a tendency to critique arguments substantively rather than proposing alternative arguments. In the best scenario, this tends to produce stronger arguments. 

Unfortunately, my manuscript does not have a particularly strong introduction. This will be a major order of business this semester.

Post-Book Projects

I submitted my book manuscript yesterday and have plans to spend the rest of the week mostly distracting myself from survivor guilt, but I also wanted to start to sort out what I should be doing over the summer. I’m a bit worried that turning in my manuscript in May runs the risk of making my summer a kind of victory tour rather than my most productive research time. And while there’s nothing wrong with a victory tour, the summer is usually my productive research and writing time and sort of sets the stage for the fall semester. It’s also a chance to recover, read, and think about stuff rather than bouncing from one deadline to the next. 

That means, I need to start to think about what I want to be dong.

Right now, I have three long-term projects that are looming over me.

1. Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project 2: The second volume of our PKAP duet will focus on the results of our and Maria Hadjicosti’s excavations at the site. Our manuscript for PKAP 2 is stuck at 80% done. We have most of the fussy and fiddly work completed, including the description of the stratigraphy and the artifact catalogues; we now need to finish the introduction and conclusion. This feels a bit more like a fall semester project than one to which I should devote precious summer time.

2. Polis. This is a project that has to move forward this summer, in part, because I have an article due in June that developed from a paper that I read at a conference this past winter on the Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley. That paper will focus rather narrowly on revision the dating ceramics associated with two areas that we’ve studied at the site, EF2 (which features the South Basilica) and EF1. 

We have also worked to put together a volume that focuses on our work at EF1. It’s probably 50-60% done as well as a new guide to the excavations around the village. While it seems improbably that either of these projects can be completed this summer, it would also be rewarding to move them forward. Having large chunks of unfinished text floating about is annoying.

3. Western Argolid Regional Project. We’ve scheduled a virtual study season starting in June to continue to push this project along. We heard this past week that our preliminary report was accepted with minor revisions. We also have chunks of text begging to be integrated into a more cohesive final publication. It’s fun work in that the project is genuinely collaborative and there’s still some positive energy and momentum behind it. It makes up for the relatively tedious task of wading through data instead of walking around the Inachos Valley.

These three project invariably keep me up at night as they are long-simmering projects that I can’t forget exist in some kind of almost complete or emerging state.

To this list, I probably should add completing my write up of mid-century housing in Grand Forks, which should be done by Mid-May. I also need to finish up some work on Early Christian baptisteries for a project that I’m doing with David Pettegrew.

In June, I’ll also start to receive contributions for the first volume in the CHAT (Contemporary and Historical Archaeology and Theory) book series that I’m editing with Rachael Kiddey. Our hope is for this book not only to be a wild introduction to our series, but also shine a light on last winter’s festivalCHAT, an online conference modeled on a music festival.   

It goes without saying that I have other obligations including a few volumes approaching production from my press and as editor of of the Annual of ASOR.

This is all good and meaningful and fulfilling work, but I also have a few other projects that are fresh and new and have me excited.

1. Archaeology, History, and Sun Ra. This project will dominate my summer reading list and, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure where it’s going. My hope is to produce a very rough draft of an article at some point in the next six months that considers what it means to read Near Eastern archaeology through Sun Ra.

2. The Greenway. I have this growing fascination with the Grand Forks Greenway. It started as an interest in the flood wall and how such walls contribute to the growing discussion of walls in archaeology. I’ve also become interested in the space as a complex archaeological landscape that serves as a kind of case study for the blurring of ontological boundaries associated with ruins, nature, and contemporary notions of recreation, play, and place.

3. Slow. If I had the kind of job that gave me time to write in a consistent way, I’d work on a book on slow archaeology that brings together a number of strands in my thinking. It would be a short book – 30,000-50,000 words – and essayistic rather than academic, but with citations. It would be self-indulgent.

Writing Wednesday

Throughout most of the COVID pandemic, I’ve been slogging through writing and revision of my overdue book manuscript. Earlier this week, I released the first draft the final chapter (and the second draft of that chapter is almost complete). You can get a sense for the book here.

This was my first effort to write a buttoned-down academic book rather than an archaeological report or some kind of weird pseudo-academic book like my Bakken tourist guide. Among the many things that I learned is that I’m not really a book-length thinker or writer. As I’ve reflected on this over the last few months, I thought I might put together a little blog post that highlights some things that I might do differently if I had to write another book (and I sincerely hope that I never do).

1. Have a better plan. I started my book with a pretty “high level” outline that was part of the book proposal. This did not, however, provide much structure for the individual chapters. As a result, the structure of each chapter developed organically and by the second half of my book, I had settled on an organization for the chapters. Each begins with a 300-500 word “lede” and then a proper introduction of similar length before preceding to the chapter’s argument. The downside of this approach is fairly obvious. I am now attempting to retrofit my approach onto earlier chapters and this is not only a good bit of work, but also risks making the retrofitted chapters less effective. 

2. Figures. Despite being an archaeologist and ersatz architectural historian, I still struggle to deal with figures and images and their relationship to text. As a result, my book right now has no settled figures and only a handful of likely candidates. I am dreading the process of going through each chapter and figuring out where to located the 30-40 figures that I’ve requested for the book.

I realize that this was a classic rookie mistake and probably connected as much to my tendency in archaeological publications to write text on the basis of working figures (e.g. produced through GIS software or drafted in Illustrator) that serve more to visualize an argument in my own head than to convey visual information in a consistent and clear way to a reader.    

3. Citations. From the start of this book, I sought to be more deliberate in my citation practices (for some of my thoughts on this see here). At the same time, I struggled a bit to come up with a policy on how to register different levels of citation. For example, a citation associated with a sustained discussion of a work is different from a citation that merely recognizes the existence of a scholar’s work. I now have a bit of a mess where I will essentially have to run through my entire manuscript one more time to figure out the citation levels for various kind of scholarship and scholars. 

This carelessness on my part not only has made more work for me, but also prevented me from being actively reflexive in who and what work I cited. I remain committed to the value of citations as a way to create a more inclusive academic community and, in particular, recognize the value of citations in work like mine, which is largely a survey, to direct readers to an emerging body of scholarship. I hope to have some data to share in my citation practices (and perhaps to include in the book itself) in the future. 

4. Length. My book manuscript is too long. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this happened. Partly it is because my bibliography is longer than I expected and partly because my tidy 5000 word chapters tended to creep longer during revision. I suppose that I didn’t realize how many more words were necessary to take stand-alone chapters and make them into a coherent(ish) book.  

My hope is that the reviewers can make some suggestions on how to tighten up the manuscript in general.

5. Doing too much. I suspect the real problem with length is that I’m simply trying to do too much in this book and, as a result, it is not only over length, but also unsuccessful at doing anything. Originally I had this idea that the book would present a narrative arc that would begin with the excavations in Alamogordo where we documented the recovery of Atari games from the local landfill and conclude with our work in the Bakken oil patch. Between these bookends would be a series of chapters that expanded upon various aspects of these projects. 

I think this structure was too clever by half and left too much to the reader’s imagination. As a result, the book is not only too long, but also awkwardly organized! 

Finally, I never realized prior to working on this book how much writing and revising a book can take over everything. This book wiped out two semesters of other research and work, stalled various publishing and editing projects, and regularly competed with teaching for my attention.

In effect, book writing requires a kind of intellectual selfishness that I didn’t realize until its was too late. I cringe thinking about how my obsession with this manuscript has made me appear to my colleagues and collaborators on other projects.   

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Writing and Revising: An Afterword

The more I roll up my sleeves and work on revising my book manuscript, the more I get the itch to write. Some of this is just me being lazy. It’s easier to write and garner a sense of accomplishment from the appearance of (relatively) well ordered words on the page. Revising is a humbling slog and whatever joy I get from playing with words at the writing stage, quickly evaporates as I have to try to discipline those words though revision. 

I also like to think that my itch to write more also comes from the desire to contextualize what I have written in the rapidly changing present. I wrote most of my current manuscript against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency, but I hadn’t anticipated the protests of the summer of 2020, the COVID pandemic, and the deadly riot of January 6th. These events seem too significant to ignore especially in a book that purports to deal with the archaeology of the American experience. 

It’s not just the events. The entire conversation surrounding the events, the COVID pandemic, and legacy of populist politics in the age of Trump has pushed me to consider how scholarly publishing should engage with this situation in a meaningful way. Even the most casual scroll through the social media feeds of academics reveals colleagues who have intensified their calls for social and racial justice, struggled under the increased burdens and workloads brought about by the COVID pandemic, used their platforms to engage often divisive and politicized issues such as the removal of statues, and taken on significant emotional labor in support of communities processing and responding to the daily that seemingly defined 2020. For my part, I’ve largely been silent. At best, I could justify this as giving more thoughtful voices space to be heard. At worst, this reflected my own inability to understand and process events and the dense layers of privilege that insulate my position.

All this is to say that I need to write an afterword to my book that acknowledged the time and situation in which I wrote this book.  

First, I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m a white, middle class, tenured, university professor without children and with a supportive partner and friends. This situation allowed me to weather the storm of 2020 and remain academically productive. This has caused me a great deal of ambivalence as I recognize that my privileged position has allowed me to continue to advance my career while others are losing their positions or have had to reorder their professional priorities in response to the pandemic’s disruption of traditional schooling or the need to care for sick or vulnerable family and community members. In contrast, the disruption of my traditional summer field seasons opened up more time for me to write and think intensively about various projects. 

I have also avoided engaging the COVID pandemic in a professional way. Historical archaeology has much to add to understanding the impact of pandemics on communities and social institutions both in the past and in the present. A recent article in American Antiquity, for example, composed jointly by the editors, situated the contemporary situation in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race. By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. A series of articles in the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response in past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. As importantly, Shadreck Chirikure in the same issue calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass’s article considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. A special issue of Social Anthropology, likewise dedicated to COVID, featured precious few articles that deal with the material culture or archaeology of COVID-19, but Natalia Magnani and Matthew Magnani’s article proposed a “rapid response” archaeology that documented the community’s and the state’s reaction to the COVID pandemic in the town of Tromsø in Norway. The specific outcome of such work remains unclear in this brief article, but the potential for this kind of research to understand how community’s responded to various policies in a rapidly changing situation seems more than clear.

For my part, I’ve fumbled with how my own work can contribute to an archaeology of COVID. I have pondered how COVID has changed our sense of time, and suggested that North Dakota’s response to COVID paralleled certain kinds of structural violence that archaeology has recently sought to explore. None of this has become more than notes, and this reflects both  a certain lack of urgency and a significant sense of insulation from the pandemic even as it ravaged my state and community.    

More critically, my work and this book reflects my perspective as a middle class, white, academic. As I develop my afterword more I want to demonstrate how my position(ality) shaped my understanding of scholarship on the contemporary world and how my own work and this subfield might evolve to address contemporary concerns in a more assertive and impactful way.  

 

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

This has been a challenging month. I have too much on my plate and too many competing priorities. I did, however, manage to produce a very rough draft of a chapter for my slow moving book project. Below is my standard post on why I’m sharing book chapters and a link to Chapter 7.

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A couple of years ago, I watched one of my buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

To date, I have completed seven chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the seven of the first eight chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

Compassion, COVID, and Scholarship

Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to read and review more manuscripts than ever before in my career. I expect that this is because the COVID situation has upset the traditional reviewing ecosystem and pushed editors to dig a bit deeper into their Rolodex of reviewers.

In an effort to do my part doing these challenging times, I’ve agreed to review these manuscripts, but I have to admit that my attitude toward writing and reviewing has changed. Whereas a few years ago, I might have been highly motivated to suss out any potential flaw in a manuscript or to nudge an author to track down bibliographic loose ends or polish off any rough edge, over the last six months, I’ve been far more inclined to emphasize the good in manuscripts, overlook their bibliographic, forensic, or stylistic shortcomings, and actually to enjoy the diversity of approaches to writing and thinking during a pandemic. As a poetry editor that I admire quipped as he worked his way through a mountain of poetry submission, “we are in a goddamn pandemic.”  

I feel like our political situation, the COVIDs, and a summer full of protest, anxiety, and anger has made me value compassion. This isn’t to say that I’m always a compassionate reader or grader, but for the first time in my professional career, I am inclined to read with an eye toward what already exists in a manuscript, a paper, or a creative work without dwelling too much on a what a work could be. Along similar lines, I’ve worked hard to be more patient with authors, reviewers, colleagues, and students who have struggle to meet deadlines and fulfill expectations. For many of us, the world has been turned upside down with the specter of personal or family illness only heightened by the anxiety-inducing rhetoric that emphasizes how what were once personal decisions have an impact on the health of our friends, neighbors, and the entire community. I’m less worried about getting sick myself and far more worried about getting others sick, letting them down by not being able to function fully, and burdening already overtaxed support systems.

I suspect that I’m not the only scholar who has embraced a more magnanimous position over the last six months and have started to wonder whether what has passed for disciplinary rigor, in fact, relies on unsustainable expectations. Social media constantly demonstrates how The COVIDs has strained many of our colleagues who have suddenly found themselves managing home schooling, caring for ill family members, and juggling new teaching and professional responsibilities. 

The emergence of Zoom meeting culture and the endless series of Zoom-based colloquia, conferences, and workshops with their attendant social and professional responsibilities creates a feeling of academic claustrophobia. This is heightened by many of these events leveraging our shared sense of ethical and academic urgency and a responsibility to participate in creating a more just discipline, field, and academy. Not only that, but many of the zoom events are putting forward amazing line-ups as they bring together on the screen scholars that would only rarely have opportunities to share a podium at an academic conference. Obligation and opportunity converge to produce a zoom-mediated hyper abundance of events that run simultaneously, everyday, from the earliest morning CDT to well after my bedtime.

Finally, the COVID induced economic downturn has already led to more budget cuts in higher education which will further limit our ability of even those of us who manage to keep our position as our teaching loads increase, library and research funding decline, and service obligations both in our field and at our institutions rest ever more heavily on fewer faculty. That being said, my own position as a tenured faculty member is relatively more secure than the uncertainty faced by many of my tenure track or contingent colleagues who might be facing the loss of their jobs and access to even basic resources necessary to do their work.

As a friend pointed out the other day, the feeling of fatigue with COVID, with politics, with the situation at our institutions, in our communities, and in society more broadly is, for many of use, the weight of our own privilege. I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member who has benefited from generations of unearned wealth, opportunities, and influence. I know and understand my continued obligation to change even during difficult times and recognize that I have it much easier than most.

All of this invariably informs how I read as a reviewer, how I write as a scholar, and how I teach. How we deal with the pressures of 2020 will shape the kind of scholarship that emerges from the new normal. For my part, this work will be less exhaustive in bibliography, less rigorous in argument, and less tidy and polished. From what I’m reading, it’ll also be more creative in engagement, more generous in tone, and more personal. Whether these changes are enough to shift scholarly conventions toward a more open and diverse forms of academic knowledge, I remain skeptical, but in a time where optimism is in short supply, I certainly hope so.