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.

~

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. 

Writing Clearly

One of my favorite twitter dust ups in recent memory has centered on a strange book review by John Henderson in the BMCR. Apparently all of his reviews are similarly awkward in style, formatting, and language (and perhaps content, although, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the Augustan age to judge his analysis), but this one seems to have a touched a nerve in the social media. Without trivializing the response in any way, I suspect our collective rawness from the COVID, American politics, and the dreadful state of the NFC East, contributed to the reaction to this review. 

Folks on twitter fumed that the review was too opaque to be useful and amounted to little more than an author flaunting his elitism and privilege. As a casual reader of this review, I suspect this is the case. The oddly placed footnotes, the strange parenthetical, use of italics, and strangely personal style suggested an author both confident in his idiosyncratic form of expression and the tolerance of the BMCR’s editors. 

I also recognize that a book review, particularly one in the BMCR, has a particular place in the academic ecosystem. The BMCR represents the discipline’s crib sheet. It’s often the first place to review a book, it doesn’t require a subscription, and despite the occasional controversy, generally produces no-nonsense reviews that are long on description and short on critique. At its best, the BMCR is a democratizing force in Classics and Ancient History as it allows even the most forlorn, overworked, and library-deprived member of the Classics diaspora to keep abreast of the publications in the field, their content, and on a superficial level their significance. The no-nonsense reviews featured in the BMCR, then, coincide with its accessibility of this publication (which is all the more important as library budgets are being cut). Henderson’s review, in contrast, clearly falls outside of what one would expect to appear in the BMCR and, this, invariably, contributed to a share of the criticism on social media. The review is opaque and idiosyncratic, and it seemed appropriate to note that the BMCR may not have been the appropriate venue for such a review.

What interested me more, however, was that many of the critiques were not narrowly contextualized as to what is appropriate for a publication like the BMCR. Instead, academics asked the question whether opaque, complex, and even awkward prose is appropriate for academic writing in general. This is a complicated matter and I’m confident that many who fumed about the Henderson review has thought more carefully about this than I have.

At the same time, I got a bit worried that the call for clarity in academic writing isn’t just a simple matter of making sure that we’re understood. After all, most of us accept that being understood can be overvalued, specialist language and knowledge is important, and in the probably apocryphal words of Einstein “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” We also recognize that what we regard as simple and clear language is not politically, racially, or socially neutral. Criticism of opaque language is most frequently leveled against authors writing from rather more radical or marginal political positions. It has been a charge directed in particular at scholars working in gender theory, critical race theory, and post-colonial studies. These scholars are more likely to be women and BIPOC (or particularly invested in issues related to the situation of woman and BIPOC communities) and the critiques tend to emanate from white men. At their most disturbing there is a vague echo for calls for a kind of normative “standard English” that has often been used to suppress the distinctive voices and identities of diverse communities both in the US and globally.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Henderson’s rather strange review deserves some kind of protected status or that he is simply writing in the style of his community. I also understand that the BMCR is a bit like a baseball boxscore. It’s meant to be legible at a glance and this function encourages a familiar and standard appearance and discourages creativity or innovation. Instead, I’m trying to understand how and whether we should cultivate and develop clarity in scholarly writing. 

I remember last year at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, I attended a roundtable of scholars talking about writing for the general public. The roundtable was sponsored, I think, by the NEH Public Humanities Project. The speakers were all scholars who had enjoyed some success writing for wider audiences and were in their scholarly primes. As I noted at the time, it was clear that these scholars imagined the general public not as a particular type of person, but as a market for their works. In other words, the public scholar is the scholar who caters to an existing market for ideas, books, and writing.

In many ways, this panel reminded me of how music labels often encouraged artists to produce more commercially viable music and how this trend became more and more stifling as a more homogeneous consumer culture for music (and, I’d contend, literature) emerged in the post-war period. The burgeoning purchasing power of the post-war suburban, largely-white, middle class swept all culture before it and produced a more and more limited range of commercially viable forms. This homogenization of culture not only made it difficult to record more experimental work (or music of interest to narrower audiences), but also made us less tolerant of work that refused to conform to commercial expectations. 

I got the feeling that certain advocated of public scholarship saw it not as work that connected with group who are underserved, marginalized, or ignored by academic writers, but with the largest possible audience. Or, as I regularly hear, our (white, middle class) grandmother or mother who is really interested in “archaeology.”

It goes without saying that writing designed to appeal to the widest possible audience is also writing that conforms to certain social and cultural expectations. This isn’t to say that the writing can’t be politically and personally challenging — as recent scholarship on race has shown — but it has to do it in familiar and recognizable ways. This is why so much of the most moving and significant popular literature on race over the last few years (Ibram X. Kendi,  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon, for example) ground their calls for racial justice in deeply personal stories. This is effective, affective, and familiar to mainstream audiences. It’s part of what makes these books accessible even if they make arguments that should make their white audiences uncomfortable. 

Part of the reason that I’m thinking about this is that I often find myself pushing students to write in more formal ways. I’m regularly telling my students to obey the rules of grammar, to write more simply, and to embrace a traditional style. I’ve even found myself mouthing the desiccated platitude that you need first to understand the rules before you can violate them.

At the same time, I frequently scold my students when they complain that a book or an article is hard to understand. I encourage them to think about the difference between poor and challenging writing and to recognize that new ideas and specialist literature will often demand more of our attention.  

What I rarely do is encourage them to write and to use language in ways that are comfortable and familiar to them. Like most folks, when I feel inconvenienced by the way that a student writes, I push them back toward the comfortable pabulum of convention. I  worry a good bit that I’m doing more reinforce the status quo than I am to encourage the emergence of distinct voices and valuing a narrow view of clarity more than a more expansive view of writing as art.

In the end, I do think that our world would be better, more interesting, and even more inclusive if we valued clarity a bit less and diversity a bit more.  

1000 Words of Summer

I’ve always been a bit jealous of my friends and colleagues who do participate in intensive writing sessions, regular writing groups, and other collective efforts to make writing easier, more fun, and more productive. 

Usually by this time in the summer, I’m in Cyprus studying material from Polis and writing in little chunks between work in the storerooms and on site. This work is almost always productive, but tends to be a bit raw.

This summer is different, of course, because I’m not traveling to Cyprus or Greece so I won’t have the time or the environment to churn out raw text (which isn’t to say that I don’t have a freezer full of raw text that is just waiting to be cooked). I’m also barreling full speed out of a very disrupted spring semester where my priorities and schedules was turned upside down and it became hard both to find blocks of time to write or to know for certain what I should be writing when. In fact, suddenly all my writing projects look so tantalizingly possible over the next nine months and my inbox is filled with exciting, “almost ready” manuscripts from collaborators and plans to finish this or that unfinished project.

All of this is happening with a deadline for a book manuscript barreling down on me in January of 2021. I suspect that my publisher and editor will be understanding if my manuscript is late, but knowing that I can be late doesn’t really help me get pages written or somehow make the steady flow of other commitments more manageable. At best, I am displacing one responsibility for another.

All of this is to say that I’m going to participate in the #1000WordsOfSummer writing event starting on Friday. I think I’m going to work on two chapters of my book project. The first chapter should be a very gentle revision and expansion of an article that I wrote which for some reason never got submitted. The second chapter will be new start. I’m hoping the time that I spend tweaking the first chapter will give me a bit of space to do the reading that I need to do to write the second chapter in a reasonable way.

This will also prompt a few changes here on this blog. Rather than my random daily posts, I think I’ll turn the blog over to my #1000WordsOfSummer and see if I can write for two weeks straight and churn out words that advance my various writing projects.

More than that, I want to spend the next two weeks thinking seriously about how I write and what I write. Every now and then, I try to focus on my writing as craft, but this almost always get overrun by the pressure of some deadline, on the one hand, or the simple (and mundane) pleasure of putting words on the page (as an escape from the more painful work of editing, revising, reading, and research). I recognize intellectually that writing is a creative process, but in practice I’m always too ready to relegate writing to manifestation of ideas and creativity generated elsewhere. Maybe the 1000 words of summer will help change this.

Writing Fast and Writing Well

When I finished graduate school, I was a passable writer. By this I mean that I usually could make myself understood, but I was no one’s definition of eloquent or elegant. At the time, I considered this a win, because I was a pretty terrible writer as an undergraduate and through most of my graduate school career. 

For me, the path to becoming a passable writer was slowing down, revising drafts, and being deliberate. As a result, my dissertation, which was not terribly long, took close to 5 years to finish. This was in no small part the result of a conscious decision to slow down and revise every chapter very carefully.

Immediately after graduation, I spent a couple of years writing an article that was never published (although part of it were spun off into other publications. I still rather like the article, but it never really got traction with anyone else. Fine, whatever.) As I got my first job and contemplated my career on the tenure track, I began to realize that a deliberate approach to writing, while rewarding, was hardly sustainable if I planned on producing enough publications for tenure. To this end, I decided to train myself to write more quickly.

To guide this effort, I attempted (with varying success) to follow three rules: (1) write every day, (2) write in active voice, (3) keep my sentences simple.

Everything else would be more or less gravy. For example, I recognized that I should, whenever possible, follow the rules of grammar. I also paid some attention to my style, (such as it was) in much the same way that I pay attention to my lawn. I assume that my lawn will develop in a way most suited to its purpose. In other words, it’ll become the best lawn it can be if left to itself. Finally, I still revise, but my revisions are usually mechanical rather than writerly. 

The blog was a key tool in my effort to write more and more quickly. By waking up every morning and writing 500-1000 words while I drank my coffee, I developed some kind of writing muscles which helped me write more efficiently over the course my day. As readers of this blog know, the emphasis on speed and efficiency over quality ensured that my blog was usually basically comprehensible, if not stylistically appealing. Even I realize that I use too many adverbs and rely on too many particles (however, of course, in other words, that is to say…) to try to breath life into my otherwise moribund style.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading more good writing in my capacity as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. I not only read submissions to the Quarterly, but subscribe to a number of little magazines and literary journals that regularly feature some of the best non-fiction writers working today. I’m regularly amazed by their ability to turn a phrase, their elegance of both sentences structure and argument, and their vast vocabulary. The more I read their work, the more I want to emulate their prose.

I also have spent a good bit of time with various guides to good academic writing and editing (especially the series published by University of Chicago). Many of these works have helped me think more clearly about writing (and research) as a process with useful attention to matters of organization, but few of them offer substantive insights into matters of style. It’s clear, as one might expect, that style is something that comes from reading and writing deliberately. I need to read with greater attention to how others write and then attempt to apply these lessons to my own prose.

The downside of this is that it requires me to write less quickly and probably less often and to shift time each week from “writing practice” (where I am now probably just reinforcing bad habits) to the craft of reading. Like most academics, I read about 50-70 books per year. About 10% of those are now fiction. I suspect that I’d become a better writer if I added to that list another 5-7 quality non-fiction books. This seems like a reasonable goal, but, as always, change is hard. 

Three Things Thursday: Digital Stuff, Underworld, NDQ

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing seems to get traction. From Monday at the keyboard to Tuesday in the classroom, Wednesday amidst articles and books, and now it’s Thursday and I have so very little to show for it. 

As a result, I’m back to doing another Three Things Thursday, which I suppose are fine for what they are, but aren’t really the kind of blog posts that I like to write. They’re just stuff, but I guess when life gives you stuff, make a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed reading Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility” in Public Culture 32.1 (2020), 215-245. You can read it here.

Rubio and Wharton explore the challenges associated with born-digital art. These range from questions about what exactly a museum acquires when they acquire a piece of digital art. What constitutes their exclusive rights to a work of art? The files? The technology? The hardware? And how do these exclusive rights intersect with other rights expressed by hardware, software, and even other content makers? 

More complicated still is how to preserve a work of digital art. What constitutes preservation when even updating the format of a work so that it’ll continue to function as intended constitutes changing the underlying code as well as the media in which a work is displayed or experienced (think about the demise of CRT televisions or the improvements in video projectors, the capacity to playback uncompressed audio and the like). 

Obviously this article summarizes a bunch of scholarship and they’re not the first to observe this, but, on the other hand, it’s a great piece that has implications for how we think about archaeogaming, media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m going to check out Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago 2020) this spring.

Thing the Second

I have to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s super long (800+) pages and its reputation makes it pretty intimidating and I have to admit that my motivation to read it is as much because I should read it as because it will add any particular nuance to what I’m working on. 

To be more clear, Underworld is situated at the intersection of the American West, garbage, and critiques of consumer culture. My current delusion is to just commit myself to reading this book over a single week. In part, because I need a break from the grind of writing right now. I’ve been working on a chapter for the last month and for some reason writing is feels like it’s making me think deeper and deeper into my own way of thinking (rather than helping me expand how I understand something).

I also need to re-read (or finish reading) Mike Davis’s City of Quartz which is also a bit longer than I usually like to read. Retraining myself to understand the American West is hard, and for whatever reason, it’s taken my a long time to realize the writing the kind of cultural history that I want to write will involve reading broadly as well as deeply. When writing makes me sink deeper into narrow ways of thinking, I’m going to have pull back from writing to read to make sure that I don’t get too sucked into the murk of my own way of thinking. 

Thing the Third

More reading, but this isn’t as daunting. Today I posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a short story by Jim Sallis called “Scientific Method.” You should go and check it out. It’s less than 1500 words. 

What’s cool to me (being a total novice to editing a literary journal) is Sallis was first published in NDQ in 1983 and then in 1985 and in the 1990s. His essay “Making up America” from 1993 is really great too (and connects to my efforts to think about the archaeology of the contemporary American West). You can read on his site or from the NDQ archive:  “Making up America.” 

I’ve added Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels to my summer reading list. There’s something comforting about noir.