Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s almost time here for another snow storm. This time it’ll arrive over so-called “Spring Break.” At the same time, I do get a week off from teaching and meetings and the like. The NBA season is getting more interesting, NASCAR is hitting its stride, and Australia somehow managed to score 300+ runs in an ODI innings in India (with Maxwell at 3 no less!). 

The week I also received the paper copy of my first volume of NDQ as editor. I’m beyond excited about this and am very proud of the collaborative spirit and creativity from everyone who made this possible. You can buy a copy here and you can get a sense for its contents here

IMG 3581

Once you’re done enjoying some NDQ, feel free to browse some quick hits and varia:

B989b9738fb43088b7acec104414aefd7c75a017Margepole (Milo + Bargepole via Deep Dream Generator)




Starting to Write: Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology

Next week, I have to get stuck into down and get a draft of my paper from this year’s IEMA conference at the University of Buffalo.  My paper is titled: “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” and I have to admit that it’s more of a concept or even idea than an argument at this point. 

Right now my paper will start with workflow and fragmentation, and then talk about various models of aggregation and publication, before concluding with something on attribution in digital media. (My sections are a vague hat tip to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.) 

Here’s the first bit of it. 

Over the last two decades, there has been the growing use of the phrase ”digital workflow.” As you might expect, the Google ngram plot looks like the proverbial hockey stick. While workflow has its roots in the language of early 20th century scientific management, the specific application to digital practices appears to have emerged at the turn of the 21st century in the field of publishing. In this context, the use of computer technology in the production of print media required a new way of organizing practice. It is hardly surprising then that as digital tools, technologies, and practices have become more common in the early 21st century archaeology, archaeologists have found themselves preoccupied with issues of digital workflow.

Today, I’d like to think a bit about workflow in the context of digital archaeology with special attention to archaeological publishing. Over the last five years or so, I’ve also started a small press called The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Part of the goal of starting this press was to think about the role of publishing in the larger academic and intellectual process. Our first book was, appropriately, Punk Archaeology (2014) and as much as a test case in DIY (digital) book making, under the watchful eye of the experienced publisher Andrew Reinhard, as it was a kind of anti-manifesto of punk practice in an archaeological context. Since that time, my little press has published over a dozen other books on topics ranging from digital practices in archaeological field work to the historical and cultural significance of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. At present, we have in various stages of production, a 21st century archaeological autobiography, a 3D catalogue of digitally scanned votive objects from Athienou on Cyprus, and the republication with critical updates of a 1958 report on the social conditions in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. Each of these books have a discrete workflow that begins with a field work, library work, and an idea and culminates in book. Historically, we have divided this workflow in various ways, perhaps distinguishing between fieldwork and lab work, data collecting and analysis, research and writing, and, of course, submitting a manuscript and publication. The final division between the manuscript and the published volume tends to be among the most formal with the publishing process neat separated from the writing process by professional standards, credentials, and methods. The professionalization of publishing has led, in part, to its development as a multi-billion dollar industry as well as the its key role as a mediator in the hiring, tenure, and promotion processes on many campuses.

My experiences as an archaeologists, author, and publisher have led me to become interested in the way in which our increasingly digital workflow has come to shape the relationship between the various stages of archaeological knowledge making. I am not the first to think about these things, of course, but I’m hoping that my focus on workflow can show how digital culture and practices can change the structure of academic work for better and, perhaps, for worse.

Reading the Roman Revolution 9: The First March on Rome

Chapter 9 in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution starts with one of the most stirring passages in the book so far. It’s worth quoting in full as it captures a sense of tensions and movement in events. 

“At the beginning of the month of August certain political intrigues went wrong, and hopes of concord or of dissension were frustrated. Brutus and Cassius did not return to Rome and the rival Caesarian leaders were reconciled through the insistence of the soldiery.”

That this occurred in the month of August provides a useful, if coincidental, opportunity for foreshadowing the rise of Octavianus to the rank of Augustus despite the somewhat ambivalent results of his first march on Rome in November: “The coup failed. Antonius was approaching with the Macedonian Legions. The veterans refused to fight. Many deserted and returned to their homes, none the worse for a brief autumnal escapade.”

The moves of Antonius and Octavianus over the later months of 44 led to both sides securing the loyalty of legions and positioning them in northern Italy and Cisapline Gaul. The action was described in a series of short, propulsive, declarative sentences:

“Antonius had failed as a non-party statesman in Roman politics; as a Caesarian leader his primacy was menaced. Senate, plebs and veterans were mobilized against him. His enemies had drawn the sword: naked force must decide.”

More complex and strategic passages, such as Antonius’s initial efforts to repudiate Octavianus rhetorically, required more elaborate expression: “Turning to the person and family of the revolutionary, he invoked both the traditional charges of unnatural vice with which the most blameless of Roman politicians, whatever his age or party, must expect to find himself assailed, and the traditional contempt which the Roman noble visited upon the family and extraction of respectable municipal men. Octavianus’ mother came from the small town of Aricia!” 

The first half of the chapter focused on the movement of armies and the political strategies of the two rival heirs to the Caesarian party. The latter half detailed the retinue of Octavianus and introduced us to “C. Maecenas, a diplomat and a statesman, an artist and a voluptuary” and Q. Salvidienus Rufus and M. Vipsanius Agrippa. Despite Agrippa’s later fame: “Of the origin and family of M. Agrippa: “friends or enemies have nothing to say; even when it became safe to inquire or publish, nothing at all could be discovered.”

These character fit well the part of Octavianus which, to Syme: “was purely revolutionary in origin, attracting all the enemies of society: old soldiers who had dissipated gratuities and farms, fraudulent financiers, unscrupulous freedmen, ambitious sons of ruined families from the local gentry of the towns of Italy.”

This all being said, Syme knows that both he and Octavianus have more work to do. Octavian cannot become Augustus without “the open backing of senior statesmen in the Senate : through their auctoritas he might acquire recognition and official standing. Which of the principes were ready to give their sanction?”


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Five Notes on Classics

The past couple of months have been pretty intense for my colleagues in Classics. The field is undergoing a very public debate over its future and its values. The willingness of some of my colleagues (in the broadest sense), to speak out in favor of more inclusive, more expansive, and more critical futures for Classics is profoundly heartening. That they have attracted so much negative attention for their efforts — not simply from the usual brigade of internet trolls or media snarks, but from within their professional organization —  makes me sad. I am amazed by the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Donna Zuckerberg and the Eidolon project (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my good friend Dimitri Nakassis to the list) and so many other folks who have come out to support them and to work along side with them to make Classics different.   

I have very little to add to their work, but it did make me think. So over the last couple of months I’ve been compiling littles notes on Classics. They’re assorted, almost random, largely personal, and invariably contradictory, but maybe they’ll do something to support their larger cause or more likely to demonstrate that people are listening and thinking about what they have to say far beyond the limits of their discipline.

Note One

I am not a Classicist. I wasn’t even a Classics major. I was a Latin major. My Greek in college was mediocre and suffered from my tendency to be distracted by shinny objects ranging from Biblical Hebrew to upper level math classes and the history of the American Civil War. I went to graduate school to study Ancient History, and when I could have hunkered down and really worked seriously on my languages, I lurked around the Classics department, took classes that I liked, and most focused on work in History and Architectural History. When I went on the job market, I didn’t apply to Classics jobs because I was intimidated by the prospect of teaching languages. I’ve never attended the SCS (or, as it was called back in the day, the APA). In short, I’ve never identified as a Classicist and, I’m partly embarrassed to say this, I’ve occasionally chafed at being called a “Classical History.” I mostly study the Post-Classical or Late Roman/Late Antique period and most do archaeology. I’m re-reading Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution these days, and it’s as foreign to me as Tolkein’s world of Larry Potter.

These reasons should be enough to take whatever I offer here cum grano salis, as the kidz say.

Note Two

Over the last decade, I have taught the basic undergraduate historical methods class for the History Department at the University of North Dakota. I affectionately call this class “The Historians Crap” (aka “The Historians Craft”). This past year History merged with American Indian Studies, and to boost enrollments and to balance the teaching load in our newly integrated department, we combined our required methods class with the required methods class in Indian Studies.  As a result, I suddenly have Indian Studies students in that class.

This is great, of course, but their presence in the class and the ongoing debate around Classics has made me realize how much my class focuses on the work of dead, white, dudes. Starting with Herodotus and Thucydides, I think talk about Livy and Tacitus, then Eusebius and Bede, then Valla, Vico, and Voltaire, then Kant, Herder, Hegel, and finally, Ranke, Michellet, Bury, and Beard, before arriving at Focault, a bit of Bhabha, a smattering of Joan Wallach Scott, and a hat tip to Nellie Nelson and John Hope Franklin.

Not only does my class focus narrowly on the development of history as a discipline and then as a profession in an American and Western European context, it is also, despite my efforts, a brutally linear narrative of ideas, works, methods, and individuals which gives the impression not just of change, but of refinement, development, and even – to my horror – evolution. The class appears to culminate in a professionalized present as it shoves our aspiring historians out the door and into the archives, the secondary literature, and the work of writing and thinking seriously about the past. This not only excludes perspectives offered by non-Western, non-linear views of the past, but my insistence of linearity and even progress must be alienating to Native American students who see the emergence of history as a discipline as part of larger colonial narrative that so often worked to suppress their views of their past as well as the values that contribute to the sense of pride, cohesion, and belonging among their communities.

In short, I’m horrified at what my class has become. 

Note Three

Classics has always struck me as a happy anachronism. I try to embrace some of that spirit by making sure that my students know that the “Historians’ Craft”  evokes an older tradition of pre-professional knowledge making that looks beyond the industrial framework the modern university for its practices. Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the idea of craft in archaeology as well and found inspiration in the classic work of Randal McGuire and Michael Shanks as well as the British Marxists historians of the mid-20th century.

In this context, Classics seemed to do even more to celebrate its pre-professional roots. Whatever the linear, almost assembly-line, foundations to teaching the basics of ancient languages (manifest in the ordered sequence of 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year courses), most Classicists whom I know only achieved mastery of Greek and Latin through hours of unstructured personal commitment to reading and understanding these languages. Once you understood the basics, the ordered succession of classes gave way and expertise was personal and hard won. 

More than that, expertise was uneven and deep knowledge of a particular language or body of texts complemented an often expansive familiarity with other texts. I remember vividly the remarkable ability of certain colleagues in graduate school to move from across the entire corpus of ancient texts with relative ease. In this way, the seem to embody both the hedgehog and the fox. As wondrous hybrids, Classicists also drew from archaeology, art history, historical work, plus the staggeringly expansive amount of scholarly rumination in their field from Silver Age grammarians to 19th century Germans.

This hybridity made a mockery of impulse toward specialization in American higher education.  The assembly line of the modern university struggled to pigeon hole Classics as it was neither a true discipline with a limited and defined method nor did it offer the kind of narrow specialization that reinforced particular “threshold concepts” that could be aligned with easily assessable learning goals, course objectives, or educational outcomes. A Classics student – much less faculty – seemed to be able to do a bit of everything and embody a pre-modern kind of generalized knowledge. At its best, it felt like WISDOM and seemed to contradict the prevailing approach to academic knowledge making which focused so intently on EXPERTISE.

Note Four

This is related to Note Three. I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussions of professionalization in Classics and the role of language knowledge in disciplinary definition. There’s the idea that a Classicist should be able to teach languages “at all levels” and a growing realization that language knowledge prior to graduate school in Classics represents a limiting factor in diversifying field. As a result, Classics programs have take steps to manage the uneven distribution of language knowledge among otherwise qualified candidates for graduate study in the field. At the same time, there’s been an effort to question whether the ability to teach Latin and Greek at all levels is evening meaningful or realistic especially for individuals who also specialized in ancient history, archaeology, or other fields that live happily in the big tent of Classics. This seems to get into the messy world of expertise and its place within academic notions of merit and the meritocracy. 

This semester my colleagues in the History Department have had a rather intense conversation related to evaluating faculty output. As you might guess from someone who regularly spends hours writing a blog that very few people read, I tend to favor broad definitions of successful and meritorious faculty work which can range from traditional peer reviewed work to innovative efforts at outreach, public facing history, and other less conventional expressions of historical knowledge. Other colleagues have rightly pointed out that less conventional outputs tend to harder to assess and evaluate and giving “formal credit” to that kind of work effectively combines apples with oranges and devalues the traditional works of peer reviewed scholarship.  

Peer review, to my mind, rewards expertise in a particular area and while it doesn’t penalize general knowledge, many of the basic outlets for peer reviewed work have narrow remits that reward specialization. More general works, of course, do get published, but these are as often distinguished from academic monographs on the basis of genre as in how they’re published, marketed, and reviewed. In history, at least, expertise and specialization tend to remain the basis for promotion and merit.  

On the one hand, this is fair. The goal line is well known and established. Graduate education in history tends to focus on the production of specialized knowledge (whatever other impulses also exist) and clarity of expectations ensures that professional advancement is not contingent on a scholar’s identity, on personal whim, or on any number of poorly defined criteria that, in the past, limited the advancement of women, individuals of color, and other minorities in our fields. Well-defined standards are part of professionalization. These, in turn, structure higher education where a series of well-defined specialists communicate their knowledge to students who received whatever breadth of training is still expected across the curriculum. Job ads for history rarely seek candidates who can teach “American and European History at all levels.”

Part of the charm of Classics is that there appears to be a disjunction between professional expectations of expertise and the tradition in the field of a general knowledge of antiquity. This hybridity is exciting largely because it makes it hard to define what a “good Classicist” looks like (inasmuch as we can define what a good historian looks link on the basis of their professional accomplishments alone because they synchronize better with expectations in hiring and general status within the field). In sum, Classics short-circuits the professional university.

Recent battles over the future of Classics are, whatever else they might be, critiques of whether the meritocracy established within professional higher education will produce a meaningful discipline. Classics seems to ask: what does this meritocracy represent? If the attacks on the professional accomplishments of outspoken members of the discipline, the tendency to question the role of engagement and outreach, and the failure of the SCS, the professional organization of Classical scholars, to support these embattled members are any indication, then I get the feeling that the meritocracy has either failed, been hijacked, or always served to advance entrenched interests rather than the promote a dynamic discipline.

The hybridity, the generalized knowledge, and the resistance of Classics to becoming fully professionalized within the standard of contemporary higher education is its strength, at least to my mind. 

Note Five     

I wonder whether Classics is a mole or a bomb nestled within the bosom of the academy. It not only resists professional expectations of higher education but also critiques them and provides an alternate model. I’ve been thinking about how linear and progressive my Historians’ Craft class has become and how awkwardly and painfully that must appear to students with a background in American Indian Studies. Many Classicists seem to struggle with the same realization that their discipline, whatever it does in the present, has a complicated past filled with privilege both in terms of what it studies and how it approaches knowledge making. Just because craft practices may be better than the professionalized expectations of the assessocracy doesn’t mean that their innocent and, as many in the field realize, have their own methods of exclusion and marginalization. 

Those of us who admire Classics admire the genuinely expansive knowledge individuals in this discipline acquire and cultivate. The field has the ability to speak to the present and to the past without resorting to such simplistic ideas as the universal wisdom of the ancients or anachronistic readings of the past that turn Augustus into another modern dictator. Classicists regularly break down the notions of development, evolution, and progress by showing the recursive variation of seasonal, situational, and positional knowledge. 

Sometimes I think and maybe even hope that Classics is how the university ends. It reveals the meritocracy as just another repressive regime designed to justify Eurocentrism, colonialism, austerity, neoliberalism, and whatever other elitist pabulum that keeps the masses striving. It undermines the humanities and liberal arts as complicit in these regimes of power. It sends history scurrying for the social sciences. 

It’d be fine with this, in some ways, and it would be nice to think that the recent tremors in Classics are the first signs of the great unraveling. I have confidence in the world too. I think that when it all comes apart, the same people who unraveled it will still be there doing their best to make the world good. 

NDQ in Review

The penultimate thing that I do before submitting an issue of North Dakota Quarterly to our publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, is write my editor’s notes. Since I’ve only done this twice, I don’t have a very firm grasp of the genre, and I’m never sure whether I should be lyrical and poetic or matter of fact. As a result, I tend to be awkward, but in some ways this is how I roll.

Here’s my Editor’s notes for NDQ 86.1/2.

Editor’s Note

Projects like North Dakota Quarterly depend on their community to survive. The members of the NDQ community offers us their writing, and they give us their time by reading what we write, edit, and produce. In some case, they even give us material support by subscribing to the journal.

In 2017, we decided to suspend accepting new individual subscriptions to NDQ. We were worried that budget shortfalls would make it difficult to service new individual subscriptions while still maintaining our longstanding institutional subscribers. It was a tough to decide to continue to accept institutional subscription, but we felt that each volume in a library might reach more readers than those in individual hands and, in this age of austerity, that it would be hard to convince libraries to renew a dropped subscription. We also hoped that our individuals subscribers would come back to the Quarterly when we regained our financial footing.

With issue 86.1/2, we once again welcome individual and institutional subscribers. At the same time, we recognize that not all of our readers can afford to subscribe to NDQ or haven’t decided whether to support our remarkable community in a material way. As a result, we’ll do all we can to make the content of NDQ available to everyone on our website. If you like what we do, however, and can afford an NDQ subscription, we ask that you do subscribe to support the community of readers, writers, and editors who make NDQ what it is. At the same time, if you like what you read, we encourage you to submit your creative work. Finally, let us know what you think of the Quarterly, whenever the spirt moves you, by dropping me a line at

Finally, we hope you enjoy this double-issue’s remarkably diverse content which includes five stories and five essays as well as over 50 poems. The final section of the issue is a tribute to the late Bill Gass edited by Crystal Alberts. The range of moods, styles, and themes present in this issue of the Quarterly traces the contours of our community, and I look forward to continuing to do my part to ensure that it thrives.


The final thing that I do before sending an issue of NDQ to our press is to review our content to get a sense for how the volume breaks down.

Volume 85, which is out at the printers looked like this:

UNP measures the length of a volume by character counts. Volume 85 was 430,000 characters. So, by character, NDQ 85 was 52% non-fiction largely owing to the special section on the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. 29% fiction and 18% poetry. By number of contributions, it was an even 12% for non-fiction and fiction and 76% poetry. Men wrote 75% of the content, which is too high, but basically representative of our pool of submissions. This is something that we need to fix.

The first double issue of volume 86, numbers 1/2, will clock in at around 425,000 characters (whatever that means) and include 5 short stories (32% by character count), 6 non-fiction pieces (21%), and 51 poems (20% which is probably inflated a bit since even a short poem counts as a page or 1700 characters), plus a section guest edited by Crystal Alberts on Bill Gass (26%). There are 48 authors (71% by men), and 76 submissions (68% by men).

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s March and its still cold for some reason. In fact, this weekend is supposed to be as cold January here in North Dakotaland. Good thing that I have some grading, some fun work, and a couple of warm dogs to keep me cosy and distracted from whatever is going on outdoors.

To share the distraction, here’s a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:


Publishing Dakota Datebook

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has a pretty exciting collaboration to announce. We’re partnering once again with David Haeselin from UND’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing (WEP) program who worked with The Digital Press to publish Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017) and, for the first time, Prairie Public Radio to produce a book version of their venerable Dakota Datebook radio program.

We chose to announce this today (although keen readers of the Prairie Public’s newsletter probably caught a little notice there), because February 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the death of UND English’s most famous alum, Maxwell Anderson (Sorry, Chuck Klosterman). What’s a bit newer, however, is UND English training editors in the WEP program. Students editors in David Haeselin’s WEP practicum are currently working to assemble an edited collection from the thousands of entries that have appeared on the Prairie Public radio’s Dakota Datebook radio show. 
The daily history segment is now its seventeenth year, so the first step was picking the best 365 entries. Luckily for us, there are sixteen students enrolled in the class, so, first, each student read through a randomly assigned year. The next step was deciding what exactly constituted the “best.” This is where the students’ more traditional analytical and interpretative training came in handy. After a series of freewheeling and impassioned discussions, the students agreed that our book should showcase the lesser-known, if not entirely forgotten, moments in North Dakota history. Lewis, Clark, and Teddy Roosevelt are the OG badasses, sure, but they passed through North Dakota. We wanted to showcase the stories of those who have made the state into what it is today by living here. And we think we accomplished just that. 

We recently finalized the table of contents and are confident that our selections highlight the state’s diversity, variety, and uniqueness. In it, you’ll find all kinds of stories: tough as permafrost homesteaders who lived through the worst winters on the continent without down feather coats or even walls made from something better than dirt blobs, proud women demanding their right to vote, the family who built the first mosque on American soil, and even how Grand Forks was founded because of a keg of beer. 

As the students have worked to select and organize content, we have also worked to produce an appealing page that captures a bit of a traditional “datebook” style with the bold day and month in Futura font. The text itself is set in the more traditional Janson-style font which we decided was appropriate buttoned-down for history. We tucked the page numbers on the outside margin to give us a bit more space on the page for text and to accommodate the varying length of Date Book entries. 

DD Feb28 MaxwellAnderson 

You can download the Maxwell Anderson page here.

Keep your eyes open for more updates. We plan for a  May release, with events across North Dakota. And, in the meantime, be sure to listen to Dakota Datebook on Prairie Public

Reading the Roman Revolution 8: Caesar’s Heir

Chapter 7 in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution left us with a cliff hanger. Antonius was out of Rome settling Caesar’s veterans when Caesar’s heir, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus, arrived in the city. He was the grandson of Caesar’s sister and from a wealthy, but undistinguished family from the town of Velitrae. At the time of Caesar’s death, Octavianus was in Apollonia preparing to participate in the dictator’s Balkan campaigns. He deliberately and cautiously returned to Italy after Caesar’s death and after consulting with various members of Caesar’s party. He was 18.

Syme’s description of Octavianus is reserved, and this created a sense of the ominous. He observed (with more than a hint of irony): “The custom of prefixing or appending to historical narratives an estimate of the character and personality of the principal agent is of doubtful advantage at the best of times it either imparts a specious unity to the action or permits apology or condemnation on moral and emotional grounds. All conventions are baffled and defied by Caesar’s heir.” He goes on to observe that his signet ring was a sphinx. This creature defined the first moves of his public career leaving Syme to rely on truisms to construct Octavianus’s character: “The personality of Octavianus will best be left to emerge from his actions. One thing at least is clear. From the beginning, his sense for realities was unerring, his ambition implacable.”

Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding Caesar’s heir prevented Antonius for taking him seriously. Octavianus, for his part, did what he could to associate himself strongly with Caesar’s memory and status which Antonius rebuffed in an effort to preserve the balance between the Caeareans and Republicans. When a split between the two men appeared immanent, Antonius publicly recognized Octavianus’s status as heir and sought formal reconciliation. Despite this, tension simmered between the expectations of Caesar’s veterans and those of the Senate. Octavianus curried the favor of both. He was know among the legions from his time at Apollonia and among the veterans from his travel up the Italian peninsula prior to his arrival in Rome. He was also a more appealing figure among members of the Senate who were loyal to Caesar’s memory and feared Antonius’s ambition.

Octavianus’s strategy was, however, grounded in a conceptual understanding of how the Roman state worked. For Octavianus, “Legitimate primacy… could only be attained at Rome through many extra-constitutional resources, bribery, intrigue, and even violence; for the short and perilous path that Octavianus intended to tread, such resources would have to be doubled and redoubled.” And “With his years, his name and his ambition, Octavianus had nothing to gain from concord in the State, everything from disorder.”

The final paragraph of the chapter makes the situation clear: “To assert himself against Antonius, the young revolutionary needed an army in the first place, after that, Republican allies and constitutional backing.”



The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Thinking about Publishing at NDQ and The Digital Press

As my post yesterday probably suggested, I’m thinking a good bit about the practice and theory of academic publishing these days. In particular, I’m interested in how digital media shapes workflow, logistics, and the character of both archaeological and more broadly academic knowledge making. My work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly have increasingly become central to this research in ways that I had not anticipated.

So this little update today is both an effort to get my thoughts in order about how publishing and editing really works and to keep people interested in both NDQ and The Digital Press in the loop on what’s been going on with these projects.

1. Proposals. Recently I’ve received a couple of pretty exciting proposals to review and we’ve been able to give some pretty positive feedback to the proposers. There has been some pretty interesting recent conversation about book proposals in the field of ClassicsandClassical Archaeology (co-authored by a pair of Digital Press authors!). This got me thinking about the current way that publishers acquire manuscripts and the role of publishers, editors, and authors. I’ve resisted producing a standard questionnaire for prospective authors and, instead, have asked my individuals proposing to The Digital Press to produce “a 3-5 page document that outlines the book’s content, as well as its length, format, audience, relationship to existing publications. It’s also helpful to present the qualifications of the authors (or contributors) and a prospective timeline.” I’m not sure that this slightly more free-form proposal process necessarily produces better proposals, but I like to think that it introduces the relationship between press and the authors as more familiar and a bit less structured by a set of fixed expectations that dictate the value of a project.    

2. From Proposal to Manuscript. In particular, I’ve thought a good bit about the liminal zone between when a proposal is accepted and a manuscript is delivered. As an author currently navigating that zone with my own book, I can attest to the feeling of being unmoored and adrift, but still in the harbor. There’s an expectation that the book “will happen” but at the same time, the anxieties of producing something that the publisher, reviewers, and community finds valuable.

This is a pretty stressful place and judging by conversations with my colleagues, I recognize that any number of book projects find themselves smashed against the shoals long before the final manuscript can be delivered. I wonder whether the structural division between the publisher and the author have something to do with this ambivalent space. I’ve marveled at the generosity, for example, of my editors at North Dakota Quarterly who often work closely with authors during the revision process for articles and stories and feel extraordinary gratitude toward Paul Mullins and Chris Matthews at Historical Archaeology who shepherded my first effort to write an article on North American archaeology through the revision and publication process. My hope is that my press can be aware of the risks of the post-proposal, pre-manuscript experience and work – somehow – to make it easier to navigate. 

3. Peer Review. One of the most exciting things at present is that The Digital Press has three books currently circulating for peer review: two books and one edited volume. All three works represent significant investment on the parts of two authors and the editor as well as the press. As a result, peer review is less about whether the piece should be accepted or rejects, but rather how we can work to improve the manuscript to make into the strongest book possible for the author and the publisher. The reviews continue to be anonymous (or at least the reviewers are not known to the authors), but the review process becomes a chance to develop, improve, and nuance the manuscript.

4. Workflow. I’m completely invested in a publishing workflow these days, particularly for North Dakota Quarterly. The movement of an accepted manuscript through the pre-production process is neither completely automated or completely person. The accepted manuscript hits my desk, goes out to my copy editor (at least for non-fiction and poetry, our fiction editor handles his own copy editing as part of the revision process). While manuscripts are out at copy editing, I produce publication agreements – by hand – for each contribution. This can take a few hours. When I get the copy edited manuscripts back, I return them with a publication agreement to authors and  for a short (<50 word) bio and the mailing address for their author copy of the Quarterly. With any luck, I get both of those documents, but in about 30% of the cases, I don’t. I have to ask (again and again) for a bio, negotiate challenges associated with signing a digital document, and beg for mailing addresses to send author’s copies.

Because we won’t run a piece without a contract and a bio, I can’t finalize the order of the issue. The entire issue gets sent to our publisher, University of Nebraska Press, with all the finalized author agreements. They do layout and then return the proofs to me to circulate back to my authors for final approval. I compile any edits on the proofs and return it to the publisher. Then the volume goes to print.

The process of publishing involves constantly reinforcing the roles of publisher and author through our separate roles and the different timelines in which our work proceeds. The biggest challenge for me, for example, is managing the rapid progress from final manuscripts to final proofs. The different times of engagement and expectations complicate and humanize the workflow. Authors have delays associated with travel, internet and email access, challenging editing issues, and the need to arrange the content in the issue in a way that makes sense. It goes without saying that a small number of contributions take the most time.

5. Sales and Subscriptions. I’m incredibly fortunately to have a bit of cushion for both The Digital Press and NDQ. It’s not enough to allow me to ignore sales and subscriptions, but it means that they aren’t a daily worry. That being said, I’m excited whenever The Digital Press makes a sale (or two) or ticks over a particular benchmark for the number of downloads. Right now, for example, we’re chasing 500 downloads for Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee, and we’re doing all we can to maintain a steady stream of sales. The goal there is one book per day. 

With NDQ, we simply have to have subscribers. The subscribers will fund production, and with any luck, will eventually generate revenue that will help the Quarterly expand and innovate. We’re coordinating some email blasts, a subscription drive (particularly to ensure that folks who have historically subscribed to the journal renew their subscriptions, and also looking to some other ways to generate revenue

Yesterday, I thought a bit about how the commercialization of digital creative content can become exploitative, but how it is also a strategy toward sustainability in a world with fewer resources for the humanities and more and more competition. Considering new models for publishing that combine new ways to work with authors, contributors, and publishers might be the way toward a more sustainable future.    



Provenience, Sustainability, and Credit in Digital Archaeology

Sarah Bond wrote a thought provoking piece last week on whether the well-known Rome Reborn project (and now commercial concern) exploited the work of its developers. Her piece stands well enough on its own, and I won’t weigh in on the specifics of that case. Go read it now

UPDATE: And please also go and read Prof. Frischer’s thoughtful response to Prof. Bond’s piece here (and see his comments below).

At the same time, her work also – as it so often does – opens the door to a much wider conversation about digital work in archaeology. Since I’m starting to think about a paper that I’ll be giving next month in beautiful Buffalo, New York, that will touch on how digital practices in archaeology and in archaeological publishing will introduce new challenges to conventional approaches to archaeological knowledge making, it seems like a good time to put some words on the screen. Sarah Bond’s piece is a perfect prompt. 

1. Provenience in an Age of Logistics. Some of the challenge that Rome Reborn is facing is an issue of provenience. Where did the models come from that form the basis of the commercialized version of Rome Reborn?

Fortunately, archaeologists are experts on provenience and readily acknowledge that it is a messy concept. On the one hand, the best archaeological evidence comes form a known, permitted, legitimate, scientific excavation, was professionally conserved and curated, is accessible to both researchers and, if possible, to the public, and is published with care and in an approved venue (and if at all possible promptly). Problems at any one of those stages erode the value of the object and can lead archaeologists to exclude these objects from the archaeological discourse or to marginalize the value of the object (and any work that relies on the object for claims to truth). In short, archaeologists are very particular about context whether this be legal, archaeological, ethical, or social. Compromises at any stage of the process through any number of complicated ethical, social, political, and disciplinary decisions and policies can render an object useless to knowledge-making. Frankly, it’s intense.

It is not, however, exclusive to archaeology. Over the last several decades a similar interest in provenience has occurred among every day people. Perhaps our heightened sense of political awareness and social justice has pushed us to think more broadly about our own habits as consumers. There’s a growing interest in farm-to-table restaurants, ethically produced food, ethical practices in manufacturing and even extractive industries. These concerns have given rise to what some have called supply-chain citizenship which looks to ground the 21st century’s interest in globalization and logistics on a more ethical ground. 

Digital objects are particularly challenging in this context. While no one would deny the remarkable commercial value of digital objects – which range from snippets of code, to 3D models, data, or even complex software. There are, of course, a whole series of intellectual property laws and rules that ensure that individuals and companies receive credit (and compensation) for their work. At the same time, we know that digital practices and the fluidity of the digital world encourage sharing and the almost frictionless movement of digital objects from one context to the next. Whatever the improvements in global exchange of physical goods, digital objects circulate with infinitely less friction and at massively faster rates of speed.

More than that, digital objects can more easily be severed from provenience and their social, economic, political or even geographic context. This isn’t meant to excuse exploitation or even theft of digital objects and work, but to suggest that our linked world encourages a kind of fluidity of reuse that challenges notions of ownership, credit, and context.

2. Sustainability. Among the greatest challenges facing digital project in the academy these days is sustainability. There are a whole series of challenges facing large-scale digital projects like Rome Reborn. For example, large grants in the humanities tend to reward innovation and the next great thing at the expense of longstanding project. Universities tend to see grant funded projects as a source of revenue for the institution and the sustainability of more mature projects as a responsibility of the private sector or other sources of income. Commercialization is one possible route where intellectual property, particularly in the sciences, can generate additional revenue – through licensing – to the university, while also moving the cost of continued work to the private sector.

Large scale digital humanities projects tend to have significant ongoing costs related not only to their continued development – especially as platforms change, their preservation, and any planned expansion. Open access projects look to solve these issues through building a community of users who will contribute code, content, and even new functionality and applications to these projects. This kind of collaboration, however, can be unpredictable in terms of timelines, episodic, and irregular, and any discontinuity in the utility of a tool or access to content risks disrupting the community of contributors and making new developments less likely. The fluidity and speed of digital technology, resources, collaborations, and the press for innovation creates a constantly refiguring of priorities and effort in the digital sphere. 

UPDATE: Prof. Frischer offers some insights into how Rome Reborn will balance commercialization and Open Access in his follow up post here.  

3. Credit. The pace of digital innovation, the fluidity of digital objects and work, and the ambiguity of digital provenience makes the traditional functioning of academic credit particularly challenging. The standard [academic] critiques of Wikipedia, for example, embodies these challenges. Students will often say “anyone can edit it!” or “it can change from one day to the next,” or “how do I know it’s accurate?” Of course, academic writing and credit provide checks on the system. The need for persistent credit ensures that publications remain stable, attribution produces authority that reinforces legitimacy and accuracy of knowledge, and all of this allows for our work as academic professionals to result – in indirect ways – in professional and usually economic reward. 

In archaeology, of course, attribution and credit is always messy, but recently there has been greater attention to crediting student volunteers, graduate student analysts, local workers, and even junior partners on projects for their contribution to archaeological knowledge making. Traditionally, a name on or a reference in a notebook connected an individual to archaeological work (although this isn’t to suggest that this was entirely transparent or doing archaeological work ensured that one received professional credit). 

With digital practices, this becomes more complex. While it is easy enough to credit someone for producing a particular record, the very nature of records in a database ensure that they can be disaggregated and recombined. Here credit may go to the original data creator, but also the individual responsible for a query or an analysis. Credit becomes distributed in a system.

As the system becomes more complex, however, the potential to track credit through networks of linked, open data (LOD) diminishes. This is even more the case with machine aggregated datasets where the data, the code, and the use of the aggregated data could all represent different individuals contributing to the over all utility of an assemblage.

To be clear, I’m not blaming technology or even digital practices for the potential exploitation of individuals over the course of any long-term, iterative research project (like Rome Reborn). The digital systems that we’ve adopted and created for archaeology, however, rest on certain technological expectations that do not privilege the rewarding of all parts of the network with equal visibility. As academics trade, in part, on attribution there is an incompatibility. From crowd sourcing to Uber and Amazon’s “mechanical Turk” economies of practice have emerged that aggregate piece work and monetize it while rending the individuals responsible for that work all but anonymous.

The ability to fragment both data and labor into more and more granular parts is key to    most contemporary digital practice. At the same time, we continue to try to push back against the fragmented nature of contemporary practice and life through public critique, calls for the return to craft practices, and supply chain citizenship. These are really challenging questions and Sarah Bond’s article reminds us that they do not have simple answers. Like archaeological provenience, digital practices in the 21st century are more then just the adherence to best practices and require constant critique and the constant reformulation of what we think is right and just. 

It’s hard work and it has to be done at the pace of our digital world. We probably can’t fix logistics and capitalism, but we can at least hope to produce a more aware, more critical, and better discipline of archaeology.