Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      
 

Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy

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

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

Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections and Discussion

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

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

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

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

Writing Like a Scholar

For the last decade, I’ve been teaching our department’s historical methods class and the final weeks of the that class are almost always devoted to encouraging students to think about their writing. In a practical sense, this involves urging students to write clear, well-organized prose. Like thousands of other teachers, I stress the need for a thesis statement, a clear introduction, and body paragraphs that make clear the link between evidence and argument.

A few weeks ago, I read Rebecca Solnit’s piece on writing titled “In Praise of the Meander: Rebecca Solnit on Letting Nonfiction Narrative Find Its Own Way.”  And, at the same time, I’m working on revising a book manuscript that one of the editors of the series called “discursive” and one of my reviewers suggested showed a struggle with organization. An editor recently called a rough draft of an article that I let her see for comment “almost random.”  

I’ve long felt pretty self-conscious about my writing style. I tend to write on the edge of what I understand, as readers of this blog are surely away. I also tend to write more than I read and my writing often drives my research. The result is what we used to call “a hot mess” where I move from idea to idea and then backfill connective fabric. Arguments, when they do occur, tend to emerge organically from the primordial soup of free associations and coalesce for moments before dissipating again under the relentless pressure of awkward grammar, syntax, and structure. When I teach about writing, I constantly tell students to write as I say not as I do and tell them nearly every class that most of my writing tips reflect my own struggles with words and ideas as much as anything that I see in their work.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of editing a literary magazine, North Dakota Quarterly. This has given me the chance to read a good bit more poetry and fiction than I would have read otherwise. I’m constantly struck by how hard it is to read poetry. Poetry seems to resist easy interpretation. It doubles back on itself, contradicts itself, and sometimes flat out lies (albeit in the interest of truth). Fiction likewise meanders about dispensing loose ends and false starts and abjuring balance and order in the name of pacing, emphasis, and tension. In fact, the disorder of poetry and good fiction is often what draws us to it especially if we’re drip-fed on a constant diet of academic writing, journalism, and mainstream creative media. In this context, the obstinance of poetry, the disorder of fiction, and the meandering prose of Rebecca Solnit force us to trust the authors and to take a break from the need for efficient knowledge transfer and entertainment.

Of course, trusting Rebecca Solnit or an accomplished poet is very different from asking an academic reader to trust me, and I get that. But I also have started to worry that our need to read and write efficiently is turning research and scholarly production into a kind of assembly line. Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself here, but I know that I rarely have the luxury of reading an entire book or article at a leisurely pace. At best, I pour through it looking for how it might intersect with my own work. More usually, I read looking for specific arguments, evidence, or positions that will contribute to something that I’m working on right now. In my professional reading, I have very little time for meandering or the kind of productive confusion that poetry can create.

Maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps academic writing should be clear, well organized, and efficient. Maybe we shouldn’t try to mix reading for work with reading for pleasure and respect the contested borders between work and life. That said, it’s strange there is a growing genre of academic writing that adopts journalistic conventions which, if anything, tend to double down on efficiency and privilege the communication of information over stimulating the imagination.  

At the same time, I wonder if our commitment to efficient reading and writing speaks to a kind of distrust of the author. The desire for transparency in argument is obviously a key part academic work. Our citation system reflects a writerly economy that is built upon acknowledging our intellectual debts. Thus we tend to write in such a way to allow a reader to see how our ideas stand in relationship to both other ideas and our sources. Sometimes, I feel like when I acknowledge other scholars’ work, that I’m also proving that what I’m saying is valid or relevant. There’s a constant need for me to secure the reader’s trust that I’m not wasting their time.

It’s hard to imagine that this is a good thing for academic writing.  

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!