Final Fragments of My Book

I know that I’ve probably taxed the patience of my regular readers by peppering this venerable blog with fragments from my book over the last few years. I did this for lots of reason, not the least of which is to give a window into how the academic sausage is made, to share some of my current research, and to make some more experiment (or at least “mental” writing) public.

I’m coming very close to sending back my revised book manuscript to my very patient editors and I’m adding final touches, checking citations, and wondering whether I did enough to address the not insignificant concerns of my reviewers.

As part of the final tweaking to my introduction, I add the follow paragraphs to try (a bit plaintively, I might add) to explain why the book has the priorities and limits that it does. You can read more about the book  here and my broader research here

Here’s my the very end of my introduction:

Because this book developed organically from the two case studies that appear in chapter one and chapter eight, it is in some ways limited in how it engages the field, in some ways, and perhaps more expansive than one might expect, in others. For example, the field of forensic anthropology or disaster archaeology largely fell outside the scope of my case studies, even though it often involves research that would fall into the fuzzy chronological limits of “the contemporary world” (Gould 2007). It has also developed its own disciplinary discourse and methods over the last three decades (Powers and Sibun 2013). Archaeology of race, gender, sexuality, and identity, while incredible fertile grounds for archaeological research in recent decades, does not appear in this book under distinct headings, but forms an obvious foundation to many of these chapters. As the archaeology of the contemporary American experience continues to develop as a field, I anticipate that it will contribute in significant ways to the archaeology of contemporary race and gender, but as yet, these important areas remain relatively unexplored. My book also presents an American experience that extends well beyond the boundaries of North America and entangles traditional approaches to American historical archaeology with the flourishing field of archaeological contemporary world in Europe. This is in keeping with the approaches championed by groups such as CHAT with its European and American membership, and my own sense that this is the best way to address pressing planetary situations such as climate change and environmental degradation on a global scale. This has then informed my decision to focus the potentially expansive remit of this book in the area where I have.

Of course, it is entirely possible that my reading of the field is wrong and that my oversights represent blinders imposed by my own sites, research priorities, and political anxieties. In fact, I expect that some readers will find this book to be inadequate or simply too idiosyncratic to be useful or helpful. My hope is that these readers, however, will recognize that for whatever its flaws, this book is only the first word in a rapidly developing field and this makes it quite distinct from many of the more narrowly situated works that have appeared in this series. It is my hope that future books on topics such as the archaeology of contemporary race, a queer archaeology of the modern American experience, and the archaeology of gender in the twenty-first century will fill in gaps, shift priorities, and consolidate the field in new and important ways.

An Afterword for The Archaeology of the Contemporary Experience: A Second Draft

I’m not great at writing conclusions. More than that, I designed my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience without a conclusion. Instead, I planned an afterword that would bring the book “up to the minute” (and you can read that here), but my editors, rightly, noted that the publication process is a long one and that makes producing an up-to-the-minute afterword particularly fraught.

With this critique in mind and recognizing that my book is substantially longer than I originally proposed to the press, I’ve produced a shorter, more general, but also more “conclusive” afterword. I don’t dislike it and I hope you find it unobjectionable, shorter, and somehow still incisive and useful.

Afterword 

Acknowledging our contemporaneity with the planetary changes that constitute the Anthropocene transforms the scale and scope of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In this context, it is tempting to lose site of what constitutes our experiences as “American” in a globalizing and globalized world. It is also challenging to consider how we should imagine the contemporary as a meaningful chronological periods. This book offered one perspective on what an archaeology of the contemporary American experience might look like. It endeavored to employ approaches and priorities manifest at the intersection of American historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past as practiced outside the United States to traces our American experiences within our growing sense of being part of a densely interconnected world. At the same time the book attempted to embrace a sense of the contemporary that recognized it as a challenging and sometimes even contested lens through which to focus archaeological inquiry. The previous chapter have proposed concepts of the contemporary that vary situationally. The concept of the contemporary among Native American communities struggling with the pain of residential school era burials or among African American communities who continue to endure the loss of life and generational wealth in the Tulsa massacre cannot be the same as the contemporary conceived in the ephemeral immediacy of the Burning Man Festival or in the multiple temporalities manifest in the Bakken oil boom.

That said, it remained difficult to ignore the most insistent aspects of the contemporary American experience which loomed over the writing of this book. I completed the first drafts of this manuscript against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. I was checking citations while keeping one eye on the stunning events of January 6th, 2021 and worked on edits as the Russians invaded Ukraine. This afterword come into focus as the US Supreme Court has compromised women’s reproductive freedom and severe drought continues to wrack the American West. These events and our disciplinary response to them continuously provoke and expand my view of the archaeology of the contemporary world and the American experience. Awareness of contemporary crises infuses the discipline with a sense of persistent urgency as these flashpoints often reveal deeper fractures and structures in our society. The urgent and essential work by Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al. 2020) while situated amid BLM protests nevertheless speaks to a century long struggle for racial equality both in the discipline of archaeology and in American society more broadly. Similar sentiments emerged in a recent article in American Antiquity, composed jointly by the editors, which situated the contemporary COVID pandemic in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race (Gamble et al. 2020). 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. Like so many issues confronting contemporary American society, the COVID pandemic requires us to think beyond traditional disciplinary, national, and geographic boundaries (Angelo et al. 2021). The contributors to a special issue of the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response to COVID to 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. Shadreck Chirikure (2020) 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 (2020) 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. As these examples show, the archaeology of the headlines contributes to how we understand and address the slow violence of situations that date to the start of the 20th century, to the beginning of modernity, or even emerge from deep time itself. In this context, the archaeology of the Anthropocene marks yet another example of how the proximate crises of climate change whether manifest in unpredictably violent storms or severe draught nevertheless depends upon ecological, geological, and structural limits expressed at a planetary scale and over deep time.

An archaeology of our contemporary experiences, then, reflect a range of temporal and geographic concepts at play. This book’s first case study emphasized discard, consumer culture, and the digital world which embodied the anxieties, expectations, and dreams of the turn of the 21st century middle class. These experiences were distinctly American in their particular their concern for garbage barges, Hummers, jazz and rock music, and, of course, Atari games, but these encounters, objects, and expression relied upon global networks and produced global consequences. The second case study, explored the role of domestic spaces, institutions, urbanism, protest, and extractive industries in shaping the late 20th and 21st century experience. To understand something as regional, if not parochial, as the short-lived Bakken oil boom, I considered the archaeology of national borders and homeless camps, college campuses and military bases, protest sites and urban landscapes. This suggested to me that the displacements, deployments, occupations and migrations that characterize a range of contemporary experiences often leave ephemeral or obscure traces in the material record, but reflect the often tense negotiations between the modern, national, and institution spaces and the supermodern, global, and transitory spaces. In the end, the archaeology of contemporary America frequently represents effort to place ourselves, our possessions, our trash, our habits, and ultimately our experiences in their local and planetary contexts.

Final Revisions

Anyone who reads this blog even occasionally knows that I have been toiling away on book revisions (and related projects) over the last 12 months. I’ve tried to be systematic and not allowed them to take over my life (or my attention to other things).

The book, as you likely know, is on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and it received rather uneven peer reviews. Of the five reviewers, two were enthusiastic, one was tepid, and two were unimpressed. As a result, I felt like I needed to make some pretty substantial revisions to address the two unimpressed reviewer’s criticism (especially since one of them was one of the series editors!). Mostly, they identified sins of omission and this pushed me expand the scale and depth of my manuscript significantly over the last 12 months. I feel like the book is better (or at very least more substantial) as a result.

Now, I have THREE things left to do with this project over the next 8 weeks.

First, I need to read all the chapter for cohesion and consistency. One of the biggest criticisms about the first draft of the book is that it didn’t always foreground something recognizable as the “American experience.” In other words, I let the trees dominate the forest. Now I need to make sure that the reader can continue to see the forest. 

Second, I need to finish the introduction and write a new conclusion (or afterword). In my original conceptualization of the book, I wanted the final substantive chapter to be a conclusion, but as I worked on the book against the backdrop of the BLM protests, the last days of Trump’s presidency, the COVID pandemic, and so on, I felt like my book would be tone deaf if it didn’t acknowledge and address the situation in contemporary America. The resulting afterword was timely, but it already feels a bit dated and this has motivated me to write something that is less anchored in a particular present and more anchored in a general one (as I hope my book itself manages to accomplish).

Finally, I need to review my citations. I’ve become particularly aware of the significance of citational politics especially in a survey work such as mine. I want to make sure that my revisions have continued to produce a more diverse, more inclusive, and more diachronic assemblage of citations. This means not only making sure that my bibliography is updated, but also analyzing it again to make sure that it reflects both the field as it current exists and the field that we all hope one day to see.

~

I have to admit that these final three tasks are set against a backdrop of growing ambivalence toward this project. Not only do I have personal doubts about whether I was really the right person and up for the task of making these kinds of sweeping generalizations about an emergent field, but also about whether this is something that I SHOULD be doing in the way that I’m doing it. 

To be a bit more clear, I think I’ve produced a viable framework for understanding the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. At the same time, I wonder if a book of this type would be more useful in an open format which would not only allow for it to be disaggregated in various ways (for, say, classroom use), but also for people to take what they find useful from this book and, if necessary, expand it, modify it, or re- or even de-contextualize it.

I know that I’m too deep into this project to walk away now, and going through the process of writing a book on a new subject (to me), in a new field (to me), and for a new publisher (to me) has given me a good place to think about how a book like this should have worked and maybe how my next publishing project SHOULD work.

So even if this isn’t the book that I should have or should be writing, it has helped to understand better what I want to do in the future.  

Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

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?